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    Thursday, February 29, 2024

    NL harbor shakes the rust off

    Construction work continues at State Pier in New London Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    For a stipend of $600 a year from a grateful state, New London Harbormaster Dave Crocker has more to watch over than ever before.

    Crocker bounces his pickup over rough roadways that are dead ends for a truck but open out on the shores where the tides lap the Thames riverfront. On an hourlong tour he has a plethora of state, city and private commercial development to show, from the foot of Riverside Park to Fort Trumbull.

    Whatever the river’s name may be when the current legislative session ends, it will still be undergoing its most transformative period since at least World War II. That’s in addition to the immense upswing in submarine design and construction on both riversides and the enhancement of shorefront facilities at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

    The highest profile belongs to State Pier as it is remade into an assembly and shipping platform for the new wind power industry. Upriver is the $18.5 million Mohawk Northeast marine terminal and metal fabrication facility. Sited along the railbeds north of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, it has access for ships that fit under the Amtrak bridge.

    Kiewit Infrastructure Co., the construction manager for State Pier, is leasing the 15-acre former Thames River Apartments parcel from the city as a storage site for building materials. Deliveries of wind turbine components are due to start this month.

    Waste management removal improvements, tug repair, refurbishment of the public boat launch under the Gold Star and work on the bridge itself are all underway with federal, state and/or private funding. Compared to larger ports such as Providence and Bridgeport, the footprint may be compact but the industrial infrastructure is designed for interconnected commerce and intermodal freight up to 21st-century standards.

    Marine and rail operations in the vicinity are about to become hugely more visible from either shore as barges begin bringing in deliveries from a German offshore vessel that the harbormaster says is twice as high as the top of the Amtrak bridge. Once launched, the 472-foot Charybdis, constructed by Dominion Energy for wind power components delivery, will be in and out from the pier. Twelve wind turbines are due to be assembled by September.

    All of that is besides the submarine design and construction going on at Electric Boat from both sides of the river; U.S. Navy and Coast Guard operations; interstate ferries; and the commercial tugs that move everything along. The Navy ceased operating its own tugboats in the river some years ago, relying instead on the locally-based professional operators.

    The cumulative effect is an industrial harbor that has shaken the rust off. It is poised to revive its place among Northeastern ports.

    The harbormaster’s job is to keep abreast of anything waterfront, which includes the National Coast Guard Museum going up between Cross Sound Ferry and City Pier; the mayor’s wish for yacht moorings at Waterfront Park; shorefront construction at Fort Trumbull; and the Thames Yacht Club mooring field. At the Fort Trumbull peninsula the city is planning a $40 million community center with help from state funds and has given a developer the go-ahead to plan more than 600 apartments.

    Crocker, who was appointed harbormaster by former Gov. John Rowland, has been reappointed by every governor since. His family is the longtime operator of Crocker’s Boatyard in Shaw’s Cove. His knowledge of the Thames waterfront goes deep. He is also the harbormaster for the Niantic River, which is more typical of most Connecticut harbors -- heavily used by recreational boaters and commercial fishing boats, and periodically in need of dredging to keep the channels open.

    My tour of the gritty side of the waterfront, with thanks to Dave Crocker, gave me a theory to explain a puzzle I have long wondered about: for a place where residents helped build submarines or went to sea on them, and submariners and Coast Guard officers learned their jobs, there were a lot of other residents whose lives could have been lived no differently in Meriden or Manchester. Other than identifying as the legacy Whaling City, much of the populace seemed to feel little connection to the river and the Sound bordering the city on two fronts. They had Ocean Beach, but some native New Londoners had never learned to swim, never been on a boat, never gone crabbing.

    Now I think maybe they were missing something more recent than 19th-century whaling to connect them to their city’s maritime DNA. Maybe the new visibility of maritime-based economic investment will get people excited about jobs and opportunities they can’t get inland.

    You just have to see it to believe it.

    Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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