How I got my latest NYT story

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The poor kids! It poured rain all day….but they went out anyway!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

So, I have no kids and I don’t live in Brooklyn and I’ve never attended school in New York nor visited a middle school here.

Yet I found this terrific story for The New York Times about an after-school program for students who, in their classroom, build a wooden boat by hand from scratch — then set sail on an inlet of the East River, with huge boats passing and the skyscrapers of Manhattan as a backdrop.

How?

Jeopardy.

I watch the game show often and, a year or so ago, a contestant said he volunteered with Brooklyn Boatworks, a non-profit program founded by two naval architects.

As a lifelong sailor, I was immediately intrigued — when you think of Brooklyn, you don’t necessarily think first of boats or sailing.

So I did some digging and contacted the program’s executive director and asked her enough questions to pitch the idea, which was accepted. I do this a lot with my potential stories, pre-reporting them enough to create a compelling pitch — that means persuading people to talk to me even though I don’t yet have a definite assignment.

I knew I had to watch a team of students working on the boat so I visited MS (Middle School) 88 on February 14 for two hours and again for two more hours on April 18, the length of each week’s building session. I observed, listened, eavesdropped and took far more notes than I would ever be able to use — I was only allowed a maximum of 1,500 words for the story.

How would I be able to encapsulate this amazing adventure?

I took photos with my phone for later reference and interviewed several students and their two teachers. The students were friendly and easy to talk to. It was great to watch their teamwork and self-confidence easily handling tools as they built a boat together, my favorite being two young Muslim girls in hijab working with cordless drills.

 

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The boats are seven foot, six inches — those buoyancy bags help keep them afloat!

 

Few of the students had ever even been on a sailboat before and, likely, none as tiny as the Optimist, aka Opti. It all seemed like some sort of dream. Would it ever really be a boat? Was it possible? Would it sink?!

 

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Students wrapped in plastic tried to stay dry while cheering on their team-mates. That’s the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. The orange thing in the photo is a PFD, a personal flotation device every sailor needs to wear in case of capsize.

 

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Program director Marjorie Schulman was the soul of patience for the many, many emails and calls I needed to report the story. This was June 10, the day of “graduation” when every student who participated got a certificate and public recognition of their months of hard work.

 

Launch day was June 10 — a day of non-stop rain!

The event was held at Pier 2 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with speeches beforehand and a few special guests. I met the freelance photographer there for the Times and introduced her to some of the people I needed her to focus on; typical of my freelance work, I had never met her before yet we would have to work well together quickly and under uncomfortable conditions.

That’s journalism!

 

Here’s the story, and an excerpt:

Dana Garcia, a sixth-grader, said she really enjoyed building the boat. “I sawed many pieces of it and we got to use epoxy, which my parents thought was pretty cool,” she said. “Sawing is actually pretty hard. You have to practice a lot. You have to be safety conscious and patient. We wear gloves so we don’t get cut and safety glasses so no sawdust gets into our eyes.”

Students also had the opportunity to use math and science in the workshop. “When it came to our measurements, we were always trying to get everything right and we had a lesson in the science of sailing, how to use the wind,” Dana said.

Dana, it seems, has caught the building bug. “I’d like to do a sculpture or another boat or a treehouse,” she said.

Other students felt empowered from the experience, too.

“I love learning new stuff,” Karla Miranda, a seventh-grader, said. “Before I was just doing basic girl things —- I’d watch TV, go outside, do homework. I got more comfortable using tools and how to control them,” she continued. “I didn’t know I could do all this.”

 

 

Fleet Week (and a celebrity guest)!

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s an annual event that began in 1935 in San Diego — when active servicemen/women aboard Coast Guard, Navy and Marine vessels dock in a city and let us see what their life, and ship, is like. It’s also a reminder that Manhattan is an island, and a working harbor, its western edge lined with piers, (usually hosting gigantic cruise ships.)

Here’s a link to the 418-foot ship pictured above, of the U.S. Coast Guard.

And, if you’re in, near or visiting New York for the next week, here’s the website with all the details; it ends May 30.

It’s so cool each spring to see all the sailors fanning out across Manhattan in their pristine uniforms, some enjoying it for the first time, others on a repeated visit.

But I’d never gone aboard one of the vessels, some of them 600-foot-long warships that have patrolled the world’s most dangerous regions.

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This year — a huge thrill for me — I was invited by the Canadian consulate aboard a Canadian ship, the 181-foot HMCS Glace Bay, built in Halifax, for an event to celebrate Canada’s 150th. anniversary.

It was a brutal day of torrential rain, wind and cold, and we stood under a leaky (!) canopy on the gray metal deck. There was lovely finger food and Canadian cider, which helped.

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What an impressive crowd!

As you walked up the steep gangplank to board, a crew of white-uniformed officers stood to greet us and, when senior officers arrived, each was piped aboard with a three-tone whistle to alert us all to their presence.

There were generals, their chests ablaze with military honors. There was an FBI cyber-crime expert and the head of intelligence for the NYPD. I chatted with three Navy veterans, one a gunner, and with the aide to a Marine general and to a Canadian MP.

I’d never had the chance to speak to active servicemen; we traded notes on what it’s like to train at Quantico, (as I did some shooting there while researching my first book) and what it’s like to fend off pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

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It was deeply humbling to meet all these people whose job it is, whose vocation it is, to serve and protect us. Most of them had been in the service long enough to retire with full pension (after 20 years) but loved it so much they continue in their work.

That was a refreshing thing to hear, in an economy that’s so perilous for so many.

While Americans are more accustomed to seeing their military, and veterans in everyday life, it’s much less visible in Canada, so this really was a rare treat for me.

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Not to mention, to my surprise, a celebrity guest who came out, even on his birthday — actor and comedian Mike Myers. He lives here in New York, and moved to the States a year before I did, in 1988, from the same city of origin, Toronto. He showed me photos of his three daughters on his phone and it felt like chatting with an old friend.

That’s actually pretty Canadian.

Maybe because we come from a huge country with a small population (35.8 million) or our national innate reflex to remain modest, low-key and approachable. If he’d been cold or starchy, that would have been more of a shock than his genuine kindness to everyone he met that day.

We spoke for a while; his mom had served in the RCAF, in a role that was a family secret for decades.

I’m usually not a big celebrity geek, but he was so warm and down to earth, just another fellow Canadian proud to come out and celebrate with the rest of us.

What a fun day!

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