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author of the new nonfiction book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica January 2016 Simon & Schuster lauriegwenshapiro.com

Determined to Hitch a Ride on the Greatest Rig in America

Admiral Byrd's ship on exhibition at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, 1933. (Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago/Getty Images)

Laurie Gwen Shapiro |The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica| Simon & Schuster | January 2018 | 8 minutes (1,915 words)

With his back against the sunset, a seventeen-year-old boy lingered on the docks along the Hudson River. By his calculations, it was a ten-minute swim from where he stood to the ship.

The new high school graduate waited, his soft grey eyes fixed on the City of New York, moored and heavily guarded on the Hoboken piers. The sun went down at six forty-five this day—August 24, 1928—but still he fought back his adrenaline. He wanted true darkness before carrying out his plan. At noon the next day, the ship would leave New York Harbor and sail nine thousand miles to the frozen continent of Antarctica, the last frontier on Earth left to explore. He intended to be aboard.

That summer, baby-faced Billy Gawronski was three inches short of his eventual height of five foot eleven, and his voice still squeaked. “You are a late bloomer,” his doting immigrant mother told him in thickly accented English. Yet the ambitious dreamer, born and raised in the gritty tenement streets of the Lower East Side, was as familiar with Commander Richard Evelyn Byrd’s flagship as any reporter assigned to cover its launch. The Antarctica-bound barquentine was an old-fashioned multi-masted ship that suggested the previous century, with enchanting square sails arranged against an almost impenetrable maze of ropes. The 161-foot wooden vessel spanned half a city block, her 27-foot beam taller than a three-story building. Sail-and steam-powered and weighing 200 tons, with sturdy wooden sides 34 inches thick, she had seen duty as an Arctic icebreaker for Norwegian seal hunters starting in 1885. On one run in icy waters in 1912, her captain had been the last to see the Titanic; just ten miles away, he’d been afraid to help the sinking ship, as he was hunting illegally in territorial waters. Like so many immigrants, the ship once known as Samson found her name changed when she arrived in America in 1928, becoming the City of New York. She was the most romantic of the four boats in Byrd’s cobbled-together flotilla, and the one leaving first—with the greatest fanfare—early the next afternoon.
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