Chief Engineer for Governors Island Ferry Commutes From Detroit Area

Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2014
THE PHOTOS on Jay Downen’s cellphone have an unusual commonality: The subjects are all shot from the perspective of a boat.

It is a fitting distinction for someone who has spent more than three decades working on the water—and who currently commutes halfway across the country to help ensure that one vessel, in particular, is shipshape for its 30 daily New York Harbor crossings.

“I took a pay cut to come out here,” said Mr. Downen, 53 years old, who serves as chief engineer of the 178-foot, 516-ton Lt. Samuel S. Coursen—also known as the Governors Island Ferry. “It’s something different.”

Governors Island, a former military outpost and U.S. national park that serves as a seasonal arts venue with a spectacular lower Manhattan view, draws a diverse summer crowd. In particular, said Mr. Downen, the variety of people ferrying to the island’s events—from a Jazz Age Lawn Party to the hip-hop extravaganza Rock the Bells—offers an interesting passenger mix.

During the off season, which began in late September, the Coursen still traverses the quarter-mile of New York Harbor—an eight-minute run—but only for New York Parks Department employees, contractors, students and instructors from the New York Harbor School and various dignitaries.

Mr. Downen, an employee of HMS Global Maritime Inc., the company that operates the Governors Island ferry, drives 10 hours from his home near Detroit to New York City every two weeks. In his red Ford F150, loaded with $400 worth of groceries he drives straight from the Holland Tunnel down the West Side Highway and onto the ferry.

Below the passenger and car decks, the noise in the vessel’s engine room—Mr. Downen’s stamping grounds—is oppressive, which is why he is seldom seen without noise-canceling earmuffs. The two massive yellow engines are his primary responsibility.

“I monitor everything: maintain all the machinery, rebuilds, dry docks, whatever needs to be done,” he says over the din.

His office, a narrow air-conditioned space off the engine room, is crammed with dials and gauges. With a pot of coffee and a large jar of Dum-Dums lollipops, he watches over the boat’s vital systems: propulsion, generators, hydraulics, not to mention the structural integrity and seaworthiness of the vessel.

Steve Caputo, general manager for HMS Ferries, a division of HMS Maritime, said he recruited the Michigan engineer, in part, because of his three-plus decades in the maritime towing industry, where people are “the most creative and most resourceful.”

Plus, he added, “Jay’s just an excellent engineer.”

Together with his shipmates, Mr. Downen works two weeks on, two weeks off, in rotation with another crew. After 14 12- to 14-hour days, he heads back to Southgate, Mich., to be with his wife Dawn, whom he calls “Mama.”

While on duty, the crews live on Governors Island, its sole inhabitants, in dwellings built for the military and Coast Guard officers who ran the island until 1996. Mr. Downen lives in a blockhouse where Ulysses S. Grant is once said to have stayed, in accommodations many Manhattanites would covet—with DirecTV, 16-foot ceilings and a private bathroom (a privilege of rank).

“I’m a master of crock pot cooking,” says Mr. Downen, who shares his groceries with Spencer Crow, 20, his oiler. Their favorites: chicken and pot roast.

After dinner the chief engineer has time for laundry, a phone call to Mama, and a shower. He says, “By 10 o’clock it’s past my bedtime.”

For her part, Ms. Downen says it is hard having her husband home and then gone again. He has missed the last two Christmases and Thanksgivings, but will be home for them this year.

“Out there on the water, anything can happen,” she said.

In two years since he began the job, Mr. Downen hasn’t taken time to explore the glittering city that, from the island, can sometimes seems close enough to reach out and touch.

But, he said, “One of these days I’m going to take a long weekend when Mama is here and I’m going to check it out.”

Most of the time, though, he said, “I can’t get off the boat”—since the Coursen can’t sail without a chief engineer. When it docks on Governors Island for the night the crew stays with it.

A member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, a seafaring union, the Wisconsin-born Mr. Downen has worked on boats since he was 17 years old.

Island life isn’t so different from the lighthouses he lived in as a child, he said, when his father was in the U.S. Coast Guard.

And the seagoing life continues to be a family affair.

Mr. Downen’s only son, also named Jay, is working his way up into a career in maritime engineering. “We’re old school,” said Mr. Downen, who said he never attended college after starting on a boat right out of high school.

“We come up through the hawse pipe,” a fitting where an anchor chain enters a boat, and an access point for stowaways. In educational terms, it is the opposite of a maritime academy, he said.

His wife said she had other ideas: She wanted their son to be an accountant. He tried the 9 to 5 life, she said, but she eventually realized it wasn’t going to eclipse the siren call of the sea. “It’s in the blood.”