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Marine railway revived on Long Island

Jan 1, 2003

As straight as rows of Midwestern corn, more than 200 new creosote-soaked pilings disappear into the water, creating the backbone for the refurbished Greenport Yacht and Shipbuilding marine railway, located on the North Fork of Long Island, N.Y.

The 4 1/2-acre yard at the end of Carpenter Street already has one operational railway, but owner Steve Clarke, citing increased demand from his commercial customers, has decided the time was right to rebuild a second marine railway that was originally taken out of operation in 1973.

Greenport Yacht and Shipbuilding is the latest in a series of shipyards that have occupied the site during the past 150 years. Marine railways have always been part of those shipyards. Clarke knows of one old photograph of this same railway, originally laid down in 1910, showing a ship being hauled out of the water, pulled by a single horse.

The restored railway, which extends 550 feet from the massive gear system on land, will have a capacity of 500 tons. What this actually means is that vessels with keel lengths of 120 feet, weighing no more than 2 1/2 tons per foot, can be hauled. The railway, when first constructed, had a 1,100-ton capacity, but as the equipment aged that capacity was reduced to 500 tons. Powering the rebuilt railway will be a 75-hp electric motor with double chain of 1 3/4 inches.

Although it is an almost total rebuild, the job is being considered a major repair. The original cast-iron gears will be used, but the gears have to be dismantled as the foundation on which they are resting has deteriorated. Clarke says that when they are reassembled there will only be a one-sixteenth-inch tolerance for error.

According to Clarke, the job of restoring the railway is broken down into three parts. The first, the most time consuming and difficult, is rebuilding the track, which includes new piles for the track to lie on. The piles than have to be cut and capped so they can support the eight-foot lengths of track.

The next part of the job is to build the cradle of wood and steel that the ships will be supported on as they are hauled out. The cradle will move along at 19 feet per minute, mounted on small cast-iron rollers.

The third part of the job is rebuilding the foundation under the gears. Clarke has to dismantle the gearing and then pour a foundation of concrete. This will be followed up by the bedding of heavy wood timbers on which the gears actually rest.

A few years back, when Clarke began entertaining the idea of rebuilding the railway, an application was made to the state for federal monies, but the DOT turned down the application. The estimated $600,000 expense will be borne by Clarke, who has owned the yard since 1973.

As well as his existing customers, which include ferries and fishing boats, Clarke is also entertaining the idea of enticing more large wooden sailing ships to Greenport to be hauled. Owners of large wood sailing ships prefer railways as a means of hauling their vessels as marine railways give better all-around support to a wooden vessel. This is because the loads are supported along the boat's keel. A ship taken out of the water by a sling lift is basically hanging in the air supported by a number of slings, concentrating the ship's weight in those places. This can cause unequal stress in a wooden hull, and, if done improperly, can even create structural problems.

Unlike a sling, a marine railway has a flatbed cradle mounted on rollers that travel along the tracks. The cradle is sent down into the water below the ship and the ship is maneuvered onto the cradle, blocked below the waterline, and then drawn out of the water. This way the keel is supported along the whole length of the ship, thus preventing any hull distortion that might take place if the same boat were lifted by a travel lift.There are many operating marine railways along the East Coast, but there are only four other large-capacity railways in the northeast, two in Maine and another two in Massachusetts.

If Clarke can stick to his schedule, he expects to have the restored railway completed, and operational, within a year.