Brooklyn Boro

On the front lines: Gowanus Dredgers welcome USNS Comfort to New York

"I don’t know if words can even describe it."

March 31, 2020 Scott Enman

While most of the city’s attention was focused on the USNS Comfort entering New York on Monday, far below in the murky waters of the harbor was a pair of intrepid Brooklynites in a canoe — just feet from the massive vessel.

Brad Vogel and Gary Francis of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, an organization known for its routine patrols of the Gowanus Canal, were there to welcome the emergency navy hospital ship.

“I’m still buzzing. I don’t know if words can even describe it,” said Francis just a day after the experience. “It was a great day for being in a canoe in the harbor. Just to see that vessel come up through, all the tugs, the welcoming fleet, the fireboats, the helicopters flying overhead, it was just a huge awe-inspiring moment and hope for humanity.”

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Related: Navy’s ‘floating hospital’ USNS Comfort arrives in New York Harbor

The duo had watched the weather all morning and tracked the tides before making the decision to greet the boat. Francis was in the stern and Vogel in the bow beating a drum and waving an American flag.

The USNS Comfort passes the Statue of Liberty. Photo: Ricky Rhodes, @rickyrhodes

Francis compared the experience to the time his father recounted tanks coming through his small English village during World War II.

“This is something like that,” he said. “This is something I can imagine telling my kids.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo requested that President Trump send the ship, which weighs roughly 70,000 tons and stands 10 stories high, to New York to help relieve the city’s overburdened hospitals.


Related: A new take on social distancing: canoeing the Gowanus Canal

The boat features 1,000 beds and will treat patients who do not have coronavirus as the city’s standard hospitals treat those with the disease. As of Monday morning, 914 people had died from COVID-19.

The Comfort, docked at Pier 90 in Manhattan, was last deployed in New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The USNS Comfort, with Brad Vogel and Gary Francis of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club visible in the right foreground. Photo: Ricky Rhodes, @rickyrhodes

For Ricky Rhodes, a photographer who captured the canoe just beneath the ship, he had mixed feelings about what he saw on Monday.

“It was surreal to see the symbol of an invisible global pandemic coming to fruition at my local park in Red Hook, Valentino Park,” Rhodes said. “It was also unsettling to see all of the people packed onto the pier not practicing social distancing in a location that is becoming the worldwide epicenter of COVID-19.”

Asked if he was at all worried for his safety being near such a large ship in such a busy harbor, Francis answered calmly.

“This is not something I would suggest doing for just anybody, but I have a lot of hours under my belt, sailing up and down the coast,” he said, adding: “Some people would feel that it’s very dangerous, but I feel safer in the harbor in a canoe or on a stand up paddle board then I do riding a bike in the street.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.


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