Winds of change

The USS Slater passes by the lighthouse (photo by Anna Landewe)

The USS Slater passes by the lighthouse (photo by Anna Landewe)

Early afternoon on April 6, a small crowd gathered on the Lighthouse deck abuzz with anticipation. They were waiting to see an historic warship, the destroyer-escort USS Slater, which served in the United States Navy during World War II. The last of its kind still afloat in America, it now serves as a waterfront museum. The gray-metal vessel was heading downriver from its berth in Albany to dry-dock on Staten Island for hull repairs.

The Lighthouse is an ideal site for ship-spotting on the Hudson. The river narrows, and the navigation channel bends alongside the Lighthouse shoal, providing an up-close view of passing vessels. On this occasion, the chance to see a naval vessel drew a mix of curiosity-seekers, photographers and veterans. While waiting for the approaching ship, one family occupied their time by assembling makeshift sailboats out of bark, sticks and other flotsam. The sails were fashioned from gull feathers picked up from the beach. Deployed along the shoreline, the toy boats were gently lifted by the rising tide. They drifted for a while in the shallows until a puff of wind caught their avian sails, propelling them on an uncharted course. These tiny crafts reenacted in miniature the adventure of seafaring.


Meanwhile, a quick check of the vessel tracking map online showed that the tug Margot, one of the warship’s escorts, was just out of sight around the bend in the river. Utilizing the Automatic Identification System (AIS) of larger ships, an antenna in the Lighthouse tower receives VHF signals transmitting basic information of ship identification, position, course and speed. This information is fed from the antennae to a vessel-tracking service online. Drawing upon this service, a marine tracking map is displayed on the Saugerties Lighthouse website, showing color-coded icons of the larger ships moving up and down the river. The AIS is a handy tool for ship-spotters.

When the USS Slater finally came into view, cameras started clicking. The aging ship was pushed along by the Margot and another tug, the Benjamin Elliot. As it passed by the Lighthouse, people onshore waved and shouted greetings across the water. They were answered by a toot of the tug horn. The steel-clad ship commanded attention, preserved in its original wartime configuration. Its gun turrets poked out from beneath canvas coverings. Naval veterans and volunteers perched on lookouts and manned the deck. This relic of our maritime heritage is being kept from the scrap-heap through the dedication of volunteers and donors, just as the Lighthouse was rescued from demolition years ago.

Ship-spotters rub shoulders with bird-watchers and fisherman at the Lighthouse during this time of year. Warm southerly breezes seem to chase migrating fish and birds up the Hudson. As the water temperature rises, striped bass journey upriver where fisherman eagerly await them with bait and lures. Blueback herring are heading to the Mohawk River to spawn. Shad are also swimming up from the Atlantic, but are off-limits to fisherman. Largemouth bass are dispersing into the main stem of the Hudson after spending winter in the mouth of the Esopus. The endangered shortnose sturgeons relocate farther north to their spawning grounds after overwintering in deep water along this stretch of the river.

The south wind carries other spring arrivals. Tree swallows dance in flight on this buoyant breeze. Songbirds returning from the south fill the air with melody after the long drone of winter. Brightly colored orioles and tanagers appear. Brants, smaller cousin of Canada geese, will soon be passing by the Lighthouse on their way north along the river corridor. Recently, two wayfarers showed up at the Lighthouse: shorebirds wading and feeding at the tideline. Brown-speckled wings. Yellowish legs. Long, slender bill for picking up morsels at the water’s edge. Aptly named, Greater Yellowlegs. Local birder Frank Murphy helped with the identification. The pair made a brief stopover for the morning for a bite to eat before continuing on their way to nesting sites north of New York.

The south wind blows more convincingly in May, earning the moniker “striper wind” for the concurrent striped bass migration. In April, it is still rivaled by the cold north wind, and the Lighthouse is caught in the middle of their contest of strength. Eventually, the north wind relinquishes its winter reign but not without several parting reminders of its harshness. How quickly it turns. A weather front passes through and within minutes the wind shifts. The temperature drops. The anemometer in the Lighthouse tower spins madly, and the wind vane swings around 180 degrees. Wind gusts upwards of 45 mph. These northerly gales of April whip the river into a froth. Waves leap up with white foam crests and break into spray. Sand and sediment are churned up in the shallows, turning the water brown, the color of chocolate milk. Marsh reeds bend. Shoreline trees sway. Deck chairs tip over. Windows rattle. Sand and grit are raised up by gusts. Walking into the wind requires effort. When the north wind catches a spring tide, waves pound the shore. The heavy surf deposits assorted flotsam: driftwood logs, discarded lumber, plant debris, assorted plastic and styrofoam containers, old tires. Anything that floats.

Fortunately, students and teachers from Cahill Elementary keep an Earth Day tradition of walking to the Lighthouse and collecting trash along the trail. Their “spring cleaning” is a tremendous and timely service. A big thank you for the helping hands, who filled five garbage bags, a hefty amount of trash. Our visitors will appreciate having a more pleasant walk to the Lighthouse. Join us for a special walk this weekend: a family-friendly Native Shrub Walk on Saturday, May 3 at 10 a.m. It will be guided by local arborist Vern Rist, who holds a PhD in plant pathology from Cornell University. Home to nearly 100 species of flora, the trail’s unique plant life includes a wide array of shrubbery, both native and exotic. Meet in the parking lot at the entrance to the Lighthouse Trail.  l

Patrick Landewe is the Saugerties Lighthousekeeper. His column runs the first week of the month.