On a Tribeca Pier, Coast Guard Veteran Reunites with His Ship After 60 Years

Thomas Cannuli, whose family surprised him with a visit to his old ship last month during Fleet Week, gets his first look at Lilac after nearly six decades. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 20, 2017

Slowly but steadily, Thomas Cannuli, 79, made the steep climb to the deck of Lilac, the former lighthouse and buoy tender docked at Tribecas Pier 25. Step by deliberate step, he ascended the same ladder he had climbed up and down countless times as a Coast Guard seaman, some 60 years ago. Now Cannuli’s son-in-law was close behind. “Keep leaning forward,” said Stephen Byrne, cautioning him about an overhead piece of steel.

“O.K., you’re clear now.”

“I used to fly up those steps,” Cannuli muttered with a smile as he returned to the daylight of the deck.

Indeed he did. As a small-town kid from New Jersey, fresh out of high school, Cannuli was chipping paint, scrubbing the deck, keeping watch and doing the many other duties of a Coast Guard recruit on the 174-foot-long Lilac, now a nautical museum.

During Fleet Week last month he was reuniting with the old vessel, stepping into the cramped spaces where he had lived most of his four years, from 1955 to 1959, as the member of a crew that supplied lighthouses and maintained buoys along the lower Delaware River and Delaware Bay.

More than nostalgia, Cannuli’s memories would add to the bank of knowledge about Lilac, the country’s only surviving steam-powered lighthouse tender.

Since founding the Lilac Preservation Project in 2003, Mary Habstritt, its director and president, has managed to connect with 18 veterans, many of whom discovered the boat through the Internet. (Cannuli’s visit was a surprise for him, orchestrated by Byrne and Cannuli’s daughter, Monica.)

“Most of the veterans are sure the ship is already gone and they’re getting nostalgic,” Habstritt said. “For the heck of it, they’re Googling and, ‘Oh my God, there’s some crazy people trying to save my ship. It’s still there. What’s it doing in New York?’”

Some of those veterans, she said, have provided information that helped with the restoration while others returned important “souvenirs” of the vessel, like its wheel, and the builders plate, a collector’s piece installed by the shipyard that constructed the boat. Still others, like Cannuli, have filled in missing details about life on the Lilac, the kind of information that Habstritt said the public wants to hear about the most.

“People connect with the human side of the ship,” she said. “It’s not just about steam and steel, it’s about people.”

Now as Cannuli, who lives in Beverly, NJ, stood at the ship’s wheel and remembered his captain, “a tough man,” or walked the deck that he’d swabbed and painted, the decades dissolved and the memories quickly returned.

“Yep, I chipped this deck so many times,” he said

“I slept on top of that wood thing there. That’s where my bunk was” Cannuli said, pointing to what now is a bench in the ship’s workshop.

Cannuli peered into the engine room where the ship’s boom was powered. “I used to wash my clothes and hang them on the rail there,” he said. “There were no dryers. No such thing as a dryer.”

“I can’t believe I lived here,” he said. “With all the clothes you got. Where do you put all that stuff?”

“See this, Steve?” he called out to his son-in-law, now pointing to a narrow ledge along the hull. “This is what I stood to paint [the boat’s] numbers.”

Cannuli, who became a barber after the Coast Guard and ran his own shop for 50 years, recalled an especially harsh winter when Lilac couldn’t get close to an ice-moored buoy that had to be hoisted aboard. “Captain said, ‘Jump over, jump on the ice, take the line and hook it to the buoy. And then jump back on the ship.’ And it wasn’t solid ice. it was all packed up.”

“I think about that now,” he added, his tone one of disbelief. “I’d never do that again!”