STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — With the fog thick as pea soup, the harbor kicks up a cacophony with toots, honks and bellows. From the sounds around Staten Island to the weather experience itself, there is much to appreciate when a cold, clammy blanket of moisture rolls into town.
Sixth-generation Staten Islander James Hannah of Tottenville says that fog has marked autumns in the borough for his 80 or so years. He observes, “On foggy days and nights we can hear ships at anchor sounding their fog horns every minute. Our bridges have fog horns perched atop them, automatically alerting vessels in motion to the hazard of their structures.”
Indeed, according to the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s site (Charts.noaa.gov/OnLineViewer/12327.shtml), foghorns are stationed at the St. George and Whitehall ferry terminals, at the Gowanus Canal entrance and on the Brooklyn side of the Verrazzano Bridge.
On the North Shore, one can also hear train toots from New Jersey rail lines. At 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. sharp, plus a few other points in between, whistles come from Caddell Dry Dock in West Brighton at shift changes and lunch breaks.
To fathom the riot in the misty quiet, it’s important to understand the science behind fog.
Says Andrew Kozak, Spectrum News 1 Meteorologist and former Great Kills resident, “Fog simply put, forms when the difference between the air temperature and the dew point reaches about 4 to 5 degrees. At this point, under light or calm winds and a damp ground, water vapor condenses into very small droplets that get suspended in-air.”
He explains, “Essentially, it’s a cloud that forms near or at the surface. This reduces visibility — sometimes at or near 0 miles, which becomes dangerous on streets, highways, and bridges for motorists.”
Can fog amplify the sounds of the harbor?
Says Kozak, “The truth is, fog can actually soften or muffle the sounds of the harbor, and even sounds of street traffic and cars.”
He elaborates, “Those tiny droplets that get suspended in air that make up fog? Sound, which by definition is a compression wave, will passes through the air, and through those particles. Those particles essentially ‘soak up’ the vibrations that sounds make as they pass through the air. This will actually reduce the level of noises created by almost anything that sits underneath fog.”
Kozak says, “If you want to hear the loudest, least fractured sounds of the harbor, traffic, nature or your neighbors (haha) wait for a clear, sunny day!”
From Hannah’s years of research and observations, there are exceptions to the muffled sound rule. He says, “Fog horns are baritones and bases rather than tenors and altos so they can be heard better.”
Borough musicians pondered the sound of the iconic Staten Island Ferry hoot.
Attorney, former acting district attorney and musician Dan Master likens the sound to the lowest saxophone, the Subcontrabass.
“They are really loud and low and odd-sounding, pitched to E-flat,” he says.
Singer and guitarist Karlus Trapp says it sounds like a Baritone Saxophone playing a low “B” in the harbor. He strummed his guitar by sounding out a deep “mmmmm” along with the music. His son, Germaine, likened the ferry sound to a “B below middle C” on the piano and played the note, long and low, on the cello.
Pianist and composer Richard Wazz of Westerleigh remembers the familiar E-flat sound on The Boat as a kid, as a college student commuting to Hunter. The alarm clock on the morning boat, says Wazz, “Always E-flat. E-flat on the boat to put me to sleep.”
A Department of Transportation spokesperson said, “Each vessel has its own whistle. Sound signals are most often used in reduced visibility, operating in astern propulsion, and in various other situations as listed by the US Coast Guard rules of the road for marine traffic.”
Hannah reminds of the American poet Carl Sandberg who appreciated the peaceful quiet of fog and famously penned, “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.”
Hannah also thinks of the potential cozy cooking aspects of fog.
He says, “It’s that time of the year when we begin thinking of rich stews with chunks of tender meat and root vegetables shouldering each other for room in steaming pots of thick broth. Add dumplings and perhaps a hearty peasant bread and serve to the sound of the fog horns. They pair well.”
RECIPE: PEA SOUP
(Makes 4 to 6 servings)
1 tablespoon butter 1 1/2 pounds kielbasa or smoky sausage, diced
1 to 2 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
2 cups onion, chopped
1/2 cup carrots, diced
1/4 cup celery, diced
Few pinches salt and pepper
1 bay leaf
1 pound bag dry split peas, rinsed and picked over
6 cups chicken stock
Over medium-high heat, add butter to a large pot. When melted, saute diced meat cubes until browned, about 5 minutes.
Add garlic, onion, carrot, celery, salt and pepper. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add peas, stock and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and simmer on medium for about 45 minutes, uncovered and stirring occasionally. Puree if looking for a smooth soup. Remove bay leaf and serve with crusty bread.
— James Hannah, Tottenville