Finding the Nature of New York, on the Water"And you see the water reflecting whatever it is: sunlight, moonlight, the lights of the city, the lights of the harbor. It's surreal. It's magical. It's like you're a million miles away from the city, and you're five seconds off the seawall."
Tom Berton lived his entire life deep within New York's canyons of skyscrapers. They can cause tunnel vision, of a sort. Earth, water and sky are replaced by metal and stone. Your view is limited to whatever stands immediately before you: a shop window, a neon sign, a pile of trash. And although Berton learned like every other school kid the true geography of the city — that Manhattan is an island — he never experienced its natural beauty until his early 20s.
It was while walking one day around Battery Park at Manhattan's southern tip that Berton happened upon an older man struggling with a duffel bag containing a sail. In exchange for Berton's help, the man offered Berton a ride on his 70-foot yawl, the Petrel, to tour the city's extensive waterways. It was a ride that changed his life.
"My first experience on the water got me doing what I'm doing," says Berton, owner of Manhattan by Sail, which operates three traditional sailboats in and around New York Harbor. All these years later, the experience is still no less than poetry in motion.
"The engine is off and the sails are up, and the sails seem stationary, and the water is moving by, and the city is moving by, and the Statue of Liberty is moving by, and the bridges," says Berton. "And you see the water reflecting whatever it is: sunlight, moonlight, the lights of the city, the lights of the harbor. It's surreal. It's magical. It's like you're a million miles away from the city, and you're five seconds off the seawall."
When the Petrel's owner, Nick van Nes, decided to end his tours in 2000, "It was not an acceptable circumstance," says Berton, a self-described serial entrepreneur who has developed businesses and consulted in real estate, stocks, retail and international trade. He and some Petrel regulars went in on an 82-foot schooner called the Shearwater.
"We just jumped up, slipped a new boat under everybody and continued along," he says. "It wasn't really meant to be much of a business. If it didn't lose money — if it survived and paid for itself — then that was going to be great."
Then 9/11 happened. Not only was the boat severely damaged from raining debris, but Berton also found himself rethinking his life and his business pursuits. He bought out his partners and decided to run Manhattan by Sail independently.
"It was about five years before things improved," he says. Then, in 2006, he purchased a six-passenger sloop, the C-Pony. And in 2008, he added a 158-foot topsail schooner, the Clipper City, to his fleet. In all, he estimates he's introduced more than 130,000 passengers to the sparkling waters, blue skies and picturesque coast that are as quintessentially New York as the subways and landmarks inland.
The water quality around the city has improved so greatly in recent years that New York Harbor's recreational use is booming. Berton is among those making recommendations for a new blueprint that encompasses more than 500 miles of shoreline around New York's five boroughs. As people take greater advantage of the water and all the opportunities it provides, he's hoping to use his business for education, teaching young people about the natural environment around New York and also about sailing.
"For me," he says, "going slow is so much better than going fast."
Check out Tom's New York.