n a warm evening last month, Andy Nalos, a captain with Irving Oil, was at the helm of a 610-foot-long tanker carrying 246,000 barrels of petroleum products toward the Exxon terminal in Everett.
Robert Rutecki, a lawyer with Esdaile Barrett & Esdaile, was at the helm of a 29-foot-long sloop carrying his wife, Ellen, and son, Billy, toward the Boston Harbor Sailing Club.
At sundown their courses would have crossed a few hundred yards off Rowes Wharf had Rutecki, who knows when a point's not worth arguing, not given way to the leviathan.
''Big boat,'' the unfazed Rutecki commented after docking.
I was no big deal. It was, in fact, a routine example of just how much Boston Harbor has changed from the shipping port of yesteryear to the urban arena shared by a panoply of commercial and recreational users today.
From barks to clippers to the great Cunard ships that once steamed in and out of the port, Boston is steeped in a nautical tradition that makes Old Ironsides look snug at home. But in the last 50 years, harbor commerce as measured by the import and export of goods has come to mean less to our prosperity than the dollars left by boaters who come to play in these waters.
There is still a considerable seaborne freight trade - about 1.3 million tons of general cargo moving in and out of the harbor annually, which is not much more than the annual tonnage of the mid-1940s, according to the Boston Shipping Association. But one computerized container ship - the 950-foot-long Sealand Atlantic, for example - can unload and load 700 containers in nine hours. A half-century ago, it might have taken three ships three days to handle a similar capacity.
Some more then and now comparisons: 2,000 longshoremen worked the city docks half a century ago; 300 longshoremen work the wharves now; two dozen members of the Boston Harbor Pilots Association guided 2,400 foreign flag ships annually through the harbor then; 10 pilots annually guide about 1,000 such ships now. Sixty-six percent of the world's merchant marine flew the American flag then; 1.5 percent of the fleet flies the US flag now.
The predominant boat traffic in Boston today is cabin cruisers and sailboats. Consider that the prim New York Yacht Club, which used to hold its nose and look the other way while making its annual passage to Marblehead and points east, stopped by for a harbor visit last summer. It was a first, according to the club's commodore, George M. ''Dooie'' Isdale, Jr.: 190 yachts staying not one night but two.
''And I dare say we'll probably be back,'' Isdale says.
In the mid-1960s, the first Boston Harbor marina for pleasure boats - more a club, really - provided a dozen slips at Lewis Wharf for adventurous sailors willing to challenge the harbor waters and keep current with their tetanus shots, according to Peter Davidoff, co-owner of the Constitution Marina in Charlestown. Today there are 12 marinas along the waterfront of the inner harbor (inside an imaginary line from Logan International Airport to Castle Island). The marinas offer expensive seasonal dockage for 1,222 pleasure boats. More than 100 boats are awaiting an opening at Constitution Marina.
The inner harbor boasts four sailing centers, two yacht clubs, two water taxis that shuttle sailors about, two dozen summer festivals geared in part or whole to the recreational boater, and the Boston Boatworks, which opened in 1995 and is the first builder of pleasure yachts on the harbor since 1911, as near as some of the veteran wharf rats figure it.
William Bunting inadvertently may have put Boston Harbor's metamorphosis into perspective in his 1971 tome ''Portrait of a Port.'' The popular book, which remains in print, celebrates the glory days of the harbor from 1852 to 1914.
Bunting concluded with the following observation: ''One wonders how sensitive Bostonians of the past would react to [the harbor's] present state of degradation.... If people cared enough, the water could be cleaned of pollution, the islands cleared of rubble, the marshes and shorelines restored, the waterfronts redeveloped, and the watery territory...could become a wonderful regional park, an invaluable resource... in our crowded future.''
This is, of course, precisely what has happened in the past decade - somewhat to the surprise of Bunting, who today is a 55-year-old bulldozer driver in Maine.
''Did the harbor recover? I don't think so, because recovery suggests a return to a previous state,'' Bunting said. ''But where the harbor is now is certainly a remarkable place.''
If the character of the port has changed, the character of the Bostonians profiting from it has not, according to William Fowler, director of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
''Bostonians from the start have had little to export, so they have had to do a creative dance of sorts to make the port work.... Think about it: The greatest import has probably been people,'' Fowler said. ''The history of the harbor is a history of people taking risks.''
Not for one moment the other night did Robert Rutecki, sharing a bit of water with the 610-foot Irving Arctic, consider himself at risk.
Well, maybe for just one moment, he conceded. But while there are less dramatic ways to enjoy a local night out with the family, he questioned if there is one more beautiful.
After all, it was not all that long ago that people working the port would have thought it strange indeed to go for an evening sail - for fun, no less.
''Bostonians seemed early to understand that wealth was made not through the production of a commodity, nor even through its simple carriage, but rather through its clever distribution,'' Bunting wrote in ''Portrait of a Port.''
Many an early American family profited by skirting the restrictive British trade laws. As Kenneth Kinkor, a historian with the Whydah Pirate Museum in Provincetown, notes, ''Smuggling was, and is, as New England as a boiled dinnner - and its history is at least as salty.''
A case in point: Captain William Kidd, the notorious pirate, frequently hobnobbed with New York society, owned a home in Boston, and at the time of his arrest had been stealing and hiding booty for such notables as Richard Coote, earl of Bellmont and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The British did not sympathize with Kidd's efforts to have it both ways and in 1701 hanged him twice. The rope broke the first time.
Prior to the Revolution, the tonnage of goods - much of it from the triangular trade of slaves, rum, and sugar - moved through Boston at a rate topped only by London and Bristol, according to Bunting. After the Revolution, the ethical waterline between right and wrong remained muddied: Salem and Boston families made fortunes in the China trade, a vital part of which was smuggling opium from Turkey into China.
''Everyone was doing it because opium was about the only thing the Chinese didn't have,'' said Phyllis Forbes Kerr, who edited a collection of Robert Bennett Forbes's letters from China. Investors in the China trade made up a Who's Who of 19th-century Boston: Cabot, Bacon, Coolidge, Delano, Cushing, Forbes, Weld. Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins, founder of such venerable institutions as the Boston Atheneum, Perkins School for the Blind, and Massachusetts General Hospital, would have also made the cut. He had fingers in the slave and opium trades, Kerr said.
Mariners fared well during Prohibition a century later, particularily the risk-takers who mounted Liberty aircraft engines on their small boats to outrun the Coast Guard.
''Smuggling has undoubtedly been the most lucrative of maritime professions, but it is a business remarkably disinclined over time to keep good shipping records,'' said Fowler.
With urbanization came the concept of a vacation. And then, in the mid-19th century, came yachting, a back-to-nature way for the nation's wealthy to buy big toys and search for the romance pictured in the canvases of the luminous painters of the time.
The period is told with dates: the first America's Cup in 1851; the birth of local yacht clubs - the Boston in 1866, the Eastern in 1870, the Corinthian in 1885, and the Annisquam in 1896, to name just a few - and the inaugural issue of Rudder, the nation's first yachting magazine in 1890.
The yachting movement espoused an etiquette that apparently needed to be spelled out. Consider the following advice offered by an 1895 issue of Rudder to yacht clubs in search of the ideal commodore: ''His flagship should be smartly fitted out, her crew well posted on all the ceremonies of yachting. Colors should be in first-class shape at all times, and the guns should be ever ready to render and return salutes.'' Clearly these were people with time on their hands.
But the real catalysts for recreational boating as we know it today came from technological advances that are taken for granted, according to industry officials.
The first occurred, as legend has it, in 1909 when a Swedish immigrant was rowing his wife across a Wisconsin lake on a hot Sunday afternoon and she asked him for an ice cream cone. He was two miles from shore.
He did not suggest she jump in the lake, but took the high road, responding: ''Gosh, why doesn't somebody invent a motor for these boats.'' For his chivalry, Ole Evinrude would be rewarded well.
The other invention began as a dinghy for PT boats during World War II. One William Dyer, the designer, had a contractor apply an experimental resin-type glue to the wooden hull in 1947. ''We have been watching with great interest the perfection of the experiment,'' he wrote a friend at DuPont that year. ''This boat was left in the water all summer, and we can find no part in the shell showing the slightest deterioration from the weather.'' And so was born the first, or one of the first, fiberglass hulls.
Bill Spence, owner of the Massachusetts Bay Lines, smiled the other day as he heard these stories, and added others about the old days ferrying thousands of passengers weekly between Nantasket Beach and Rowes Wharf. Mass. Bay operates seven of the 34 ferries that currently ply the harbor. He was sitting outside his Rowes Wharf office, the wakes of ferries and shuttles, sailboats and outboards weaving patterns in the water near his feet.
What, he was asked, might the traffic look like a decade from now? He paused, contemplated aloud the expected arrivals of several more cruise ships this year and a new marina slated for Spectacle Island.
''In a good economy,'' Spence said, ''I could see this all doubling.''