A V.I.P. Sneaks Into Town by Water

A V.I.P. Sneaks Into Town by Water

Most big celebrities show up in Manhattan in the back of a black S.U.V. Still, New York remains a harbor town. In 2019, Greta Thunberg’s emissions-free yacht cleared customs near Coney Island before she disembarked to speak at the U.N. Last month, a visiting V.I.P. motored toward Ellis Island aboard a three-hundred-metre diesel-powered container ship loaded with thousands of toilet-bowl plungers, all-season automobile tires, pints of European blood plasma, and Heineken tallboys.

It was approaching 3 A.M., and the water was calm. Nearly low tide. A slight southwesterly wind. The sky was a cloudless purple, and the visiting celebrity reclined quietly in a twenty-foot shipping container, one of a stack of six, stowed amidships. Several spectators snapped iPhone photos as her vessel passed under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. “America’s opening up, my friend!” Ed Aldridge, a gray-haired executive at the French logistics giant CMA CGM, which owns the ship, said excitedly, as he waited to board. “Our little sister is coming!”

He was referring to Little Lady Liberty (a.k.a. Little Sister, Replica No. 1, The Second Statue of Liberty), who was making her American début. A hundred and thirty-six years ago, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s original Statue of Liberty arrived in New York aboard a French naval vessel—in three hundred and fifty pieces housed in two hundred and fourteen crates (plus an instruction manual). Her Mini-Me—a nine-foot, one-sixteenth-scale bronze casting—would make land via an ultra-super-post Panamax crane.

The bronze bigwig, who was created in 2011, had just spent a decade on display in Paris. In mid-June, she was hoisted into a custom wood-and-plexiglass travel case, then lashed and loaded inside a painted blue container (label: “STATUE OF LIBERTY; exceptional cargo”). “It was expensive,” Aldridge said. “We had to make sure we did it right.”

Aldridge wore an American-flag necktie, leather loafers, and a twelve-thousand-dollar Rolex. From a dock in Staten Island, he climbed aboard a sixty-three-foot pilot boat, to give Little Lady Liberty an official welcome. At 4:58 A.M., he stepped from the pilot boat onto a rickety metal gangway bolted to the container ship.

“There’s nothing better than this!” he said. “Up we go!” A public-relations woman coming aboard wearing a life jacket screamed, “Safety! ” (A few months ago, a sea-pilot captain fell while boarding a tanker nearby, and later died.)

On deck, Captain Volodymyr Hladky, of Ukraine, who looked and smelled as if he would appreciate some clean hotel linens, welcomed his guest to the CMA CGM Nerval. “It’s a big history moment,” he said, smiling. He wore scruffy stubble, blue latex gloves, a gold-trimmed baseball cap bearing the word “captain,” and a stainless-steel Casio watch. “We create history!”

Hladky’s crew (seven engineers, four officers, three able seamen, two ordinary seamen, a deck cadet, a fitter, an electrician, a motorman, a messman, and a cook) had spent seven days crossing the ocean. Originally, Hladky said, a different ship was slated to pick up the visiting celebrity, in Le Havre, but then “they call me, and say, ‘Turn around!’ and I say, ‘Yes, O.K.!’ ” The Nerval was almost halfway to America when it did an about-face to fetch Little Lady Liberty from France.

“It’s July—don’t you think it’s time you threw out last year’s dead Santa?”
Cartoon by Zachary Kanin

Around 6 A.M., an F.D.N.Y. fireboat anchored near Liberty Island celebrated the bronze V.I.P.’s arrival with a water-cannon show. “The colors of the French flag!” Hladky said, pointing at gushes of water lit blue, white, and red. The chief mate, who was from St. Petersburg, said, “Russia, also!” Aldridge barked an order at a young sailor to unfurl a large American flag along the ship’s bridge. The sailor muttered under his breath.

“Freedom! Liberty! Diplomacy! Friendship!” Aldridge yelped. Then someone held up a phone; Stanislas de Laboulaye, the great-great-grandson of Édouard de Laboulaye, who’d conceived of the idea for the original statue, in 1865, was on the line. “Our little sister has had a wonderful rest across the Atlantic,” Aldrige hollered at the phone. “She’s got a big smile on her face right now!”

“Fine, fine,” de Laboulaye said. “Send my regards to the statue.”

Down in the engine room, eight bleary sailors celebrated their own arrival in New York with black coffee and unfiltered cigarettes. Some had been aboard the Nerval for almost four months. The chief mate explained that none of the crew would be allowed to disembark with Little Lady Liberty, who was headed to Ellis Island for an Independence Day celebration before being packed back into her special case and trucked down to the French Ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., where she would live for the next decade. “The situation is a leetle bit difficult,” he said. “Although we have the vaccination, we have no opportunity go out. ” He added, “But the view of Manhattan is amazing. ”

In the ship’s galley, the eighteen-year-old messman was peeling twenty pounds of potatoes as helicopters circled overhead. On deck, Aldridge said, “She’s waking up. She’s getting ready to celebrate!”

Around nine, the ship docked. A small brass band played the National Anthem, and the French Ambassador, Philippe Étienne, gave a short speech—“Long live the friendship between our two countries!”—while several police officers wielding M4 carbine assault rifles sweated in the sun. Hladky watched as a two-hundred-and-ninety-foot crane lifted the visiting celebrity’s shipping container onto a waiting truck chassis.

“It’s finished. We delivered safely. I feel this one in my soul,” he said, tears welling. “At 1 P.M., we are sailing again.” ?


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