Meet Captain David Berson, East End Maritime Festival grand marshal

Captain David Berson will serve as Grand Marshal of the East End Maritime Festival parade. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Captain David Berson will serve as Grand Marshal of the East End Maritime Festival. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

It would be romantic, but ultimately inaccurate, to say Captain David Berson was drawn to sailing as part of some existential quest for meaning. The truth is that a life on the water is a future his father, a New York City chemist, often fantasized about but wasn’t able to realize.

“He always had dreams of going out to sea, but living through the Depression and taking care of his parents, he never had a chance to,” said Capt. Berson, grand marshal of this weekend’s East End Maritime Festival in Greenport. “But he instilled his pipe dream in me.”

Of course, it’s readily apparent to anyone who has encountered the pipe-smoking 67-year-old during the past two decades in the village that his father did more than just inspire him. Capt. Berson, who conducts daily tours of Greenport Harbor on his solar-powered boat, Glory, and offers free educational programs to local children, is in fact living out his father’s dream.

The grandchild of Polish and Lithuanian Jews who fled Europe in the early 20th century to escape religious persecution, Capt. Berson grew up in the Bronx, where he lived in public housing with his parents, George and Sophie, and older brother, Jeffrey. It was in this urban post-World War II environment, where young David watched hardworking men like his father volunteer as Boy Scout leaders in their free time, that he decided he would also one day give back to the children of his community.

“A lot of what I do now is an extension of what I saw as a child,” said Capt. Berson, who teaches children’s liberal arts and science classes on Saturdays at Greenport’s Little Red Schoolhouse. “Someone’s grandfather would take all of us kids on bike rides through the Bronx River Parkway. Another would take us camping to Orchard Beach. They were just serving the kids.”

After graduating from high school, Capt. Berson enrolled at The New School in Manhattan, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism and the 19th-century American novel. He later studied creative writing at Columbia University.

“In those days, no one was thinking about how to get a job,” he said. “You just learned for the sake of learning.”

Capt. Berson’s intellectual pursuits didn’t prevent him from finding employment. In 1973, he founded Hammeron Contracting, working in Hell’s Kitchen for five dollars an hour.

“I had a fleet of shopping carts and a bunch of guys working with me,” he said. “We would go up and down Ninth Avenue doing plaster work, plumbing and sheet rocking.”

In 1976, a friend asked him to come along on a boat trip from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas.

“That trip basically transformed my life,” he said. “I had never really been on a boat. In the housing project, nobody had boats — trust me,” he said with a wry chuckle.

Capt. Berson holds a photo of his father. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Capt. Berson holds a photo of his father. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Upon his return, an energized Capt. Berson began volunteering at New York Sailing School. Soon after, he was hired to take a transatlantic voyage on a 70-foot sailboat, The Nightingale.

“That was” … He paused. “I knew nothing. I knew nothing. But I was very interested in learning.”

Unfortunately, as the vessel’s first mate barked orders, forcing him to perform menial jobs as they sailed toward southern Spain, Capt. Berson reached the conclusion that life on the water was nothing like the great novelists of his youth had promised.

“The truth is, I went looking for Jack London and Joseph Conrad,” he said. “Instead, what I found were a bunch of guys who didn’t fit the romantic picture I had in my head.”

The trip did contain one bright spot that would forever alter the course of Capt. Berson’s career. He befriended the sailboat’s celestial navigator, who was using the ancient practice of observing the sun, moon and stars to guide their way.

You could say something clicked in the captain’s head when he heard the words “celestial navigation.” He reflected on “8 Bells,” an 1887 Winslow Homer oil painting he’d seen in a museum as a child. He used to examine the painting closely, trying to figure out what the sailors in it were doing as they gazed toward the open sea, odd-looking contraptions in hand.

After that trip, Capt. Berson said, he “endeavored to unravel the mystery.” He quit the contracting business and earned his Merchant Marine license in 1984. After that, he began studying celestial navigation in earnest and was hired as a relief captain on the schooner Harvey Gamage, sailing around Maine and the Caribbean before docking by chance in Greenport in 1986. He was instantly enchanted by his surroundings.

“I looked around the village and thought, ‘Wow. What is this?’ ” he recalled. “I vowed to myself that one day I was going to leave my fifth-floor walk-up on 36th Street and 10th Avenue and move here.”

That day came in 1994. Two years later, the publisher of Ocean Navigator magazine hired Capt. Berson to teach celestial navigation aboard his schooner Ocean Star. He also began penning a regular column for the publication.

After moving to Greenport, he befriended Andrew Rowsom of Preston’s . The men eventually purchased Glory, a 1990 replica of a boat built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They started Greenport Electric Launch Company and began offering harbor tours in 1999.

Their first year in business was disheartening.

“I was very depressed because I couldn’t quite get traction,” Capt. Berson said. “How were we going to get people down to the dock?”

Eventually, tourists did begin to notice Capt. Berson and his narrow wooden boat with the jaunty striper canopy. Seven years later, the business finally began to make money.

But Capt. Berson hadn’t forgotten about his desire to give back to the children of his community. Around 2005, he collaborated with good friend Bob Jester — who at the time was a Riverhead High School science teacher — on a kids’ marine biology program. The men began taking Greenport fourth- and fifth-graders out on the water on weekends, teaching them about Peconic Bay and its inhabitants. Two years later, Mr. Jester’s high school students added solar panels to Glory, taking it completely off the grid.

“[Capt. Berson] has great ethics and principles and is totally devoted to children and education,” said Lynn Summers, secretary and volunteer educational director at the East End Seaport Museum in Greenport. “Education is very hardwired in him.”

In 2010, Capt. Berson and his partner, Meg Bennett, established the 501(c)(3) charity Glory Going Green to accept the tax-deductible donations for the free programs.

“That legitimized us,” he said. “I could start going to people and say, ‘Listen, this is a good thing. We’re not making money from it, but the program is very valuable for children.’ ”

One of those children is Joe McInnis of Greenport, a 14-year-old who has attended Capt. Berson’s weekend classes at the Little Red Schoolhouse since 2012.

Although he has ostensibly aged out of the program, Joe — who said his first impression was that Capt. Berson was “a really great guy, even though he was a seaman” —  continues to find value in the classes.

“I’ve learned a lot more about the bay than I’ve ever learned in school,” said Joe, adding that classes have also involved writing poetry and, more recently, painting ukuleles.

Joe’s father, Bob, said Capt. Berson nurtures and encourages his students, who he recruits by making a presentation at Greenport Schools.

“It’s just amazing that he has the enthusiasm for this and is willing to do all this,” Mr. McInnis said. “He just loves helping kids.”

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when Capt. Berson learned he would be honored as grand marshal of the East End Maritime Festival. The man is clearly beloved in Greenport.

“He’s like a renaissance person,” Ms. Summers said.

But the captain isn’t letting the honor go to his head. A self-confessed contrarian, he thinks of himself as a reflection of “everybody that’s doing good work out here.”

“It’s not about David Berson,” he insisted. “It’s about the children. It’s about the people at the maritime museum. It’s about the volunteers.”

Still, Capt. Berson knows that his father, who died in 1993, would have been proud to watch him become the man he is today.

“I’m so sorry that he didn’t live long enough to see me grow into this second growth out here in Greenport,” he said. “He would have gotten a real charge out of it.”