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Views of Gaspee Waterfire — From the Water

Providence, RI — Over the weekend of June 13, I volunteered for Wood Boat Crew at Saturday night’s Waterfire held in honor of Gaspee Days and its 50th anniversary this year.

CommentaryFor anyone wondering, I didn’t pull any strings; there’s an easy-to-do sign up through to secure a place on one of the Greek-themed boats [Apollo, Daedalus, Nike, that kind of thing]. Here’s the volunteer page for the July 18, 2015 Waterfire.

After getting to the Irish Famine Memorial [Dyer Avenue, Providence] at 6:45, I learned that I had more than an hour to wait until actually getting on the boat. I used the time to shoot a few photos [like the one with the gondola in the gallery above] and generally get into the mindset for the display, including being christened with smoke from an old man they call Grey Wolf.

A few things to know about Wood Boat Crew:

  • You must wear all black. Black long-sleeve t-shirt and black jeans are the standard garb. The idea is that you’re essentially invisible once the sun goes down.
  • Take the lighting seriously. The boat crews reminded us that for the initial lighting of the braziers, we all stand in silence, typically with hands behind the back , as the boat makes its first round.
  • The boat is really stable. We’re talking a small barge, basically, 20-footers with a wide stance in the water, and they start three-quarters loaded with firewood. The tide was high in the Providence basin, too, so the boats stayed level in the water the whole time.
  • It’s about focus, pt. 1: With the large crowd Saturday night [Providence was also hosting its International Art Festival], stopping to look at the people there, catching the random eye and directing it to the display, brought home Barnaby Evans’s goal [which he explained to all of us before the lighting] of bringing people together.
  • It’s about focus, pt. 2: You’re working with fire and feeding it with large chunks of used-to-be trees. While on a boat. There’s not a lot of time for strategy or discussion. Each crew member adds two logs to the blaze, and you all have to take turns quickly to get your pile set up — my boat had five volunteers and the First Mate working on the fires, meaning 12 fresh logs every pass. On one stretch, we had 12 braziers to work with about a 45-second stop at each, so moving efficiently was key.

Being on Wood Boat Crew is also a backstage job, in essence, so you also get to see some of the behind-the-scenes action — and you get views of things that you just can’t get from the shoreline.

As part of Saturday night’s event, a crew of Colonial reenactors led by Nathaniel Greene boarded ship and rowed around Waterplace Basin lighting fires while fife and drum corps on each shore blared welcome. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better seat than on the water, sitting amidst the circle of fires in the basin.

Also among the guest lighters were Jason Case and Amy [Diaz] Case, the winners of Amazing Race 23 in 2013. Barnaby Evans welcomed them by referring to Amy as “Diaz,” though the couple are now married. “Just this afternoon,” joked Jason.

Lest anyone worry about the time commitment — the boats stay on the water until 11:45 p.m. — the captains make a stop around 9:30 or 10 for nature calls and bring snacks and water aboard.

One of the members of my crew was Joe Loven of Warwick, who said he’d signed up as a volunteer because he’s relocating soon and wanted “to do some of those typically Rhode Island things” before he moves.

As we emptied the boat, refilled it with wood, and emptied it again, Joe and I talked about having the chance to work on the boat crew — both of us believing it would have been much more difficult — and inviting our wives along for a potential return trip.

“I’d definitely do it again,” he told me.

I have to agree. Crewing a wood boat for Watefire is one of those once-in-a-lifetime things that you can — and should — do more than once.

Joe Hutnak -
Author: Joe Hutnak - [email protected]

Co-Founder and Editor-at-Large of Warwick Post. For Warwick Post-related inquiries or communications, email [email protected]

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