Statue ferry lays off workers as reopening is uncertain

Downtown Express Photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer
New York harbor.

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |  Its glassed-in observation lounge lined with pine boughs decorated with small, white lights, Classic Harbor Line’s yacht, Manhattan, eased out of its berth at Chelsea Piers onto the Hudson River, for the first of its December “Cocoa and Carols” cruises to the Statue of Liberty and back. Outside, the lights of Manhattan and Jersey City glimmered in counterpoint to the lights within the cozy, heated lounge as a jazz trio played riffs on holiday music. But as the boat approached Liberty Island, a dark, pinnacled silhouette glowered on the horizon. Ellis Island was dark — completely dark — as Liberty Island would have been, too, if jury-rigged LED lights had not been directed toward the Statue of Liberty.

Though the Statue survived Superstorm Sandy unscathed, both Ellis and Liberty Islands were severely damaged and will not reopen to the public in 2012. No anticipated opening date has been announced. Statue Cruises, which previously ferried an average of 10,000 people a day to Ellis and Liberty Islands at this time of year, now is reduced to taking around 2,500 people a day on harbor cruises and has had to lay off 130 employees, with more layoffs to come.

Among New York City’s cruise and ferry lines, Statue Cruises was not the only casualty. The offices of Classic Harbor Line were flooded with four feet of water on Oct. 29, courtesy of Superstorm Sandy. “It came above desk level,” said Capt. Sarah Greer. “Our monitors and computers were ruined.” She said they will cost $20,000 to $25,000 to replace.

Circle Line Downtown, which operates New York Water Taxi’s small, yellow boats that zip around the harbor and the stately, 600-passenger Zephyr yacht, had a mixed experience with Sandy. The boats were fine but New York Water Taxi’s home port in Red Hook was demolished. Pier 17 in the South Street Seaport also took a hit and has not reopened. New York Water Taxi has been running its boats from Pier 11 at the foot of Wall St. and night cruises have been cancelled.

On the plus side, New York Water Taxi has been enlisted by New York City to operate a temporary commuter service between Staten Island’s South Shore and Manhattan. The service started on Nov. 26 and has been transporting a few hundred Staten Island commuters a day, with free rides to work aboard the ferries beginning on Wed., Dec. 5. Tickets for the service would normally cost $2 each way.

“Politicians and residents on Staten Island’s South Shore have been lobbying for a permanent, waterborne transportation option from this area for a while,” said Stacey Sherman, a spokesperson for New York Water Taxi. “We’re hoping that this offer will help us gauge actual interest so that we can assess the viability of a long-term service a little better.”

NY Waterway ferries, also a common sight in the harbor, were sidelined on Oct. 29 and Oct. 30 by Sandy, but by Oct. 31, most service had been restored.

Because of debris in the harbor, the U.S. Coast Guard limited the New Jersey ferry operation to daylight hours at first, but by Saturday, Nov. 3, service was back to normal on most routes. The dock at Port Liberté in Jersey City was severely damaged and has not reopened.

Several of the New York City harbor cruise and ferry companies are planning elaborate celebrations for New Year’s Eve. Classic Harbor Line, New York Water Taxi, the Zephyr and Hornblower Cruises will be plying New York Harbor on New Year’s Eve, with music, festive food and drink to accompany the fireworks.