Thursday, April 28, 2016

Execution Rocks

Last weekend I fulfilled a goal I've had for more than a couple years now: paddling to Execution Rocks.

Execution Rocks is a lighthouse, presently unmanned, in the western end of Long Island Sound; it marks marks a set of reefs midway between New Rochelle and Sands Point in Long Island. Supposedly, American colonial rebels were shackled to the rocks at low tide by the British, to commend their spirit to the sky at high tide for crimes of treason. I'm not entirely clear on whether this is true, but it makes for a good story as to how the rocks obtained their name.

The best part of the trip for me was that I got to paddle with a bunch of friends. The current Mister Cowgirl, and Kayak Dov, and my good friends the Two Geeks. All but the first of us last paddled together nearly a year ago, on our trip to the Norwalk Islands. It was good to be reunited ! 

-- -- -- 
The Two Geeks are fortunate enough to live in the area; the rest of us cartopped to Larchmont, and found Horseshoe Harbor much as we'd left it fifty weeks ago: mostly empty, with a great view of the sound. The air temp was predicted to be high (in the seventies, and sunny), but the water was still very cold, under fifty. 

This is the paddler's dilemma in this season. Three of us opted for drysuits, one a wetsuit and paddling jacket, and one with nary more than a rash guard.

In relatively short order we unpacked, parked cars, and got kitted out. In short order, we were out - and how! Once assembled on the water we fairly bolted out to the Rocks.

Jean in her Tiderace.

Mister Cowgirl and Alex.

Approaching the Rocks.

The trip out was mostly uneventful. The day was pretty, it was 2.35 miles, and as a group of mutual friends, we caught up socially (and some made new friends). Given our various interests, this was more of a "Five Geeks" trip.

In the distance we could make out the regular shipping channel, as barge after barge made its way out from New York City. As we approached, we caught a little motor wake on one of the reefs, and surfed the final couple hundred yards in.

Alex approaching the Rocks.

The Rocks.

The Light.

We'd had such an easy time, and were feeling good, so the Two Geeks suggested an additional destination where we could hop out and nosh. We paddled on to Sands Point, just another couple of miles, down along the eastern edge to where we could see . . .a castle looming over the beach !

Paddling to the channel.


A barge.

I have to admit to being something of a boatspotter, and it was fun to watch the barges. But Mister Cowgirl, being a keen sailor as well as a paddler, spotted a vessel embarking out on the water. Turns out the skipper had built her himself, using these plans. Some more photos here.

We paddled past the point and along the beach. With little wind, the water was flat, right up to the beach. A little cold for wading though.

Children Splashing.

We disembarked, collected our valuables, and hiked up the hill to the "castle": an old financial baron estate (Gould, Morgan, etc) overlooking the bay.

The Garden.

We walked about and found restrooms, then a spot for lunch. As nice as it was, off the water we were overdressed, and opened our drysuits to vent.

The Home.

The Bay and Sound.

The "Castle".

It was posh alright. The servants' quarters were larger than any house I've ever lived in - including a multi-family home cut into apartments.

There was a bee colony kept in place. Do not disturb!

Bees !

In short order, we wound our way back down the hill and lined into our kayaks. I should mention that on this trip the Cowgirl paddled her old Argonaut and found it wasn't as bad as she might have remembered. Sure, the high volume boat is a bit much for her lithe frame, but it responded well, more importantly, actually fit a new Reed spraydeck that doesn't want to wrap itself around the Gemini.

Back at Horseshoe Cove.

Once back, we fetched cars and loaded up. Kayak Dov drove on home (a teacher, and it was a school night) while the rest of us retired to a diner, some still wearing drysuits, and enjoyed a fine dinner and wine, before driving to our respective homes.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

S.I. Saw the Light(houses)

Last weekend I made it out to the lower harbor again, joined by my good friend MM and some mates she invited along from her New Jersy club. All were experienced sea paddlers. Weather was very gentle, with low winds and only partly cloudy. It was a bit chilly, but warmed quickly.

Our goal was to paddle to at least one lighthouse, and possibly a second one. West Bank Light sits about four miles off Staten Island, two miles south of Swinburne Island, which is where I went to see seals earlier this month. Another two miles further is Romer Shoal Light, which is actually closer to Sandy Hook than to Staten Island. Both mark very shallow waters, warning big ships to stay away and serving as markers for smaller vessels.

As it happens, one of our party has a son who knows the owner of Romer Shoal Light, and through such short degrees of separation we were able to get permission to land there. You know, just in case.

In short order, we rendezvoused at the north end of Roosevelt Boardwalk, portaged and kitted our boats, and set out for our destinations.

Setting out past Hoffman Island.

The Verrazano behind us, Manhattan in the distance.

The water was a bit chilly when we left, but as we paddled we got warmer, and the water seemed nothing against our skin.

We pulled past Swinburne, watched a couple of container ships drive through the Ambrose Channel, and took stock of the lower harbor.

We were definitely on open water.

West Bank Light.

The lower harbor is one of the few places in NYC where a New York paddler gets a sense of the open ocean. The rivers around Manhattan are a tidal estuary, to be sure, but there are plenty of landmarks and the shore is never more than half a mile away. Even in the upper harbor, trafficked as it is, there's still a sense of being in relatively sheltered water. It's just a large bowl, bounded by Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Staten Island.

The lower harbor is still sheltered but immensely broad. The exit to the sea is between Sandy Hook and Breezy Point in the Rockaways - five miles as the crow flies.

Beyond that is the open sea.

Closer to the Light(house).

Far Out.

Looking up.

We marveled at West Bank Light. Unmanned, it's still an impressive presence. There is something appealing about lighthouses, in their remoteness and resilience, something that inspires admiration in all mariners.

This part of the journey had only taken an hour, and we were all feeling nice and warmed up. The flat conditions - Sea State 1, technically but barely - invited us to journey on.

Onward to Romer Shoal.

Take a Break.

Make Adjustments.

Romer Shoal Light has a curious history. Originally the lighthouse was ashore and used for testing new methods of lighting. One of its keepers disappeared at sea when he set out for shore, leaving his assistant in charge until his body was found. At various points the light was operated by the US Navy, the Coast Guard, and eventually automated.

Now it's owned by a Staten Island businessman.

Romer Light, Worse for Wear.

At this point we'd been paddling for about an hour and a half and had at least two hours paddling to get back, not to mention breaking for lunch. One of our number floated the idea of landing, and I took that as a nudge to work on my "manage a group landing on rocks skills", notably, have the person in a plastic boat land first.

That would be me.

I scoped out various places to land. The tide surged about one to two feet in a cycle, not breaking in our protected cove, but adding some vertical challenge. It was also near low tide so we had slimy, slippery rocks, and none that really offered a flat surface.

I found a spot, popped my skirt, then pulled myself out quickly before grabbing my boat and, with a little finesse, lifting it up on the rocks.

I then helped MM, and brought her boat up, and with two ashore we were able to help the rest out quickly.

Shore Landing. Not shipwrecked!

Shore Party - for Lunch!

We took our lunch and watched a dredging tug come in from sea. We'd spotted hear earlier, a vessel with four distinctive stacks on the corners, to make her a platform in shallow-enough water. Done with her work, she was heading in. From our vantage, we could take in the sea, Coney Island, Staten Island, and Sandy Hook with equal east.

Interlopers on the way back.

We launched in reverse order of exit and paddled back towards Staten Island. The tide was slack and therefore not in our favor as had been the case on the way out, so the trip took a little longer.

On the way back we saw a different sort of voyageur.

Another way to view the seas.

I should mention too that we saw seals, but not as many as before because we were not near their winter home. They showed up late - L and R missed them, but MM and I spotted them and lagged behind trying to spot more - so long in fact that eventually L and R stopped and waited for us, took pictures of us, and only later noticed the seal in frame! The photos have been posted on the New York Kayak Company Facebook page.


Once back, we un-kitted and put our boats back on cars, then drove to a German bierhaus and had smoked meats, potatoes, and beer. It was grand.

Always a lovely day at sea to make new friends and enjoy new views. I hope to make it out here more frequently once the weather is warm.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Tubby Hook Paddle Compay

Dear friends,

I'm very happy to announce the formation of the Tubby Hook Paddle Company. Named for a local point of land that I often paddle near, "Tubby Hook", as I call it, will be the name under which I offer commercial instruction and guiding in the sea kayaking discipline.

You can see more about Tubby Hook at the website:, and also on Facebook (look for The Tubby Hook Paddle Company, or just Tubby Hook provides small-class, bring-your-own-boat instruction and guiding for beginners and improvers in sea kayaking.

What's this mean for Kayak Cowgirl? Well, I'll continue to blog and post and twitterize and what-have-you about my adventures on waters near and far. Tubby Hook is meant to be something that can grow beyond the simple of adventures of a cowgirl in her trusty kayuse.

Kayak Cowgirl's always been about having fun in, on, and around the water. As I've moved into more commercial territory with lessons and guiding, Tubby Hook's the company that offers lessons and guiding in New York City and elsewhere.

I do expect to continue working at New York Kayak Company, and with friends at Brooklyn Kayak Guides and Prime Paddlesports, as well as club events at the Inwood Canoe Club. I also hope to continue my own development as a paddler, instructor, and guide at symposiums up and down the east coast. Ya'll should see me calendar for the summer and fall. One way or another, it'll all pan out.

There are some exciting events I would like to point out. A circumnavigation of Manhattan on June 12. A two-day ACA L2 coastal kayaking course June 18-19; assessment to come at a later date. I'll be attending the Hudson Valley Paddling Symposium weekend of July 24, followed by a strokes improvement course in moving water July 30. There will be some others, but those are the main ones.

I appreciate the support I've received from my audience (of mostly friends and family) and instructors, and hope to see many of you on the water in the coming months.


Julie K. McCoy
The Kayak Cowgirl

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

NY Seals

"Turecamo, Turecamo . . .hey captain, mind if I cut in front of you? We're just anchoring in Gravesend Bay. Or, you want me to wait, let you pass?"

We were in the lower harbor, directly across from Gravesend. One barge captain was talking to another, presumably outbound to inbound. The first captain wanted to know if he had time to pass in front of the incoming vessel and drop anchor. The captains worked it out - it turns out the other was heading in to the Bay Ridge anchorage, so they just altered courses to get closer to the eastern side of the channel.

Last weekend I accomplished a goal I've had for a few years now - to get out to Swinburne Island and see the seals there in winter. I do feel like I cheated a bit because I cartopped out there instead of paddling from Manhattan.

Except, wait a minute, hold on a tic - I have been out here before. Only this time, we spent more time on site, definitely saw some seals, and there was no hypoglycemia. Hurray!

I cartopped out from Inwood, along with friends from the Inwood Canoe Club in a separate car. The three of us drove down the West Side Highway, through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, down the BQE, and then across the big bridge at the narrows, and in short order we were at the north end of the boardwalk at the beach.

We were fortunate in the conditions for the day. Despite being the last weekend of February, the water was 40 F, air about the same, and winds were manageable at 8-10 knots from onshore. We were launching at about slack tide, and would have just a little current against us on the way back.

Our aim was Hoffman and Swinburne Islands. These are two manmade islands just off the coast of Staten Island, about a mile (two for Swinburne) south of the Verrazano Bridge and about a mile offshore, and west of the Ambrose Channel. These islands have their own fascinating history, better documented by others elsewhere, but basically were used as quarantine and military facilities until being abandoned.

Hoffman Island.

Unlike several other such islands in NYC though, they're managed by Gateway Recreation Area, a National Park that encompasses Sandy Hook, Bennet Field, and Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. In fact, I'd gotten a good tip on where to launch from Ranger John D, whom I met last Fall at Bennet Field's welcome center when we went camping there.

Ranger John was right: those seals are hard to photograph!

A glimpse.

We paddled out, about forty minutes, over some mild waves. The wind was a bit stiffer than predicted but not unmanageable. We took in the view. Even if we didn't see seals, we saw the lower harbor, including Coney Island in the distance, a lighthouse, and Manhattan far to the north.

Eventually, I got some better shots. I had to take a pretty big risk for these. I'd put my camera in its waterproof housing at the beach, and I think they moisture captured fogged up the lens internally. At a certain point, I took my plucky little Powershot out and held it with three fingers, cupping my other hand under it, and stowing it in the Gore-Tex sleeve of my drysuit in transit. It was hair-raising, but it got better shots than if the foggy-witch of the sea had had her way.

The seals.

When we arrived, they scattered, but would show up behind each other. "There's one right behind you," we said repeatedly. In one view I counted five, and then two or three to my right. We floated along, pushed only by the wind and minimal current, and they took us in. One of them, larger than the rest, seemed to keep closer, ready to do something if we got suspicious.

We waited and watched.

The Narrows and Manhattan in background.

One our way back, a couple of them followed us. We were a good two miles out at least, and they followed us till we were just north of Hoffman Island - nearly a mile north of where we'd seen them of Swinburne. Satisfied that we weren't predators, they seemed genuinely curious about these 17-foot long creatures that swam only on the surface, with flippers in their midsection.

The seals look back.

Well, it was a bonnie day.

Sun glistening.

Of course when we landed, obligatory group photos ensued. Watch the container ship.

And maybe ignore the beachcomber !

This was a fun trip, one I hope to do again. Even in summer, sans seals, it is a fun location, with low, choppy waves, views of endless sea, and just enough nearby navigation markers to put fun exercises nearby.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Updated Charts

A couple of years ago, when I took an assessment, part of it included some basic navigation. The other candidate was asked to locate where we were on a chart, and then to identify a buoy.

He pointed at one, and the assessor shook his head. Later on though, we had a bit of fun trying to find that buoy. It wasn't on any of our charts!

The buoy is off the northwest corner of Governors Island in New York Harbor. Here is a picture from my paper chart:

The Paper.

A year or so ago I bought an app for my iPhone (iNavx, also available for OS X). This downloads maps from NOAA, and so can be more up to date.


There it is: Green #1.

So, the next most obvious question is, what is it doing there? It's green, so marking the right side of the channel to see - but that doesn't make sense if you've coming down the Hudson to see, because the buoy would be to your left.

My theory is, it's to keep traffic from the East River (to the right and up on the images above) farther out from the Statue Cruises at Battery, and also wide if they're coming around Battery - that area can be something of a blind corner.

I actually contacted the Coast Guard, and got the following response - more or less confirming my theory, with a little more detail. Apparently this is a newly marked path that replaces Deep Water Range - if I read my old chart correctly, that dashed line from a flashing light on one of the Brooklyn piers to Green 35, east of Ellis Island.

"Good Afternoon [Kayak Cowgirl]  Deep Water Channel LB 1 (Light List Number 27350) is the first of three buoys (1, 2 and 3) that replaced the Deep Water Range that brought deep draft vessel into and out of the East river past Dimond Reef, north of Governors Island. LB 1 ensures that outbound vessels from the East River are past and clear of Governors Island before turning south. And it does help deep draft heading into the Hudson R avoid the 30 foot curve off the Battery."

If you look closely on that old chart, in my snapshot above, you can see what they mean about the "30 foot curve off the battery". There's a faint line kinda looping south and then east to include a 29' depth mark. The old chart marked a pretty generic path through the area. The newly-placed buoy basically marks the end of that bar - if you're a deep-draft vessel, you'd definitely prefer to keep to the left of it on the way out.

So, mystery solved. Charts, and the markers and channels they document, can change over time. Be sure to check for updated information before heading out to sea!

Update: On further review with a fellow chart enthusiast, we noticed that the old path - the dashed line indicating a range - was based on a straight line between flashing read markers at the northernmost Brooklyn-side piers and Green 35 near Ellis Island. And, the new channel is almost exactly that - draw a straight line through the new Green 1 and Green 3 buoys and the new Red buoy near Dimond Reed, and it's an exact match to the old range.

However, those markers are not on the new chart - are they gone, perhaps as part of the refurbishment of that waterfront?

So little had changed for vessels heading to and and from the East River and the sea, other than how they are marked, but my original hypothesis is supported - vessels making that corner 'round the Batter will want to know where the edge of that 30' bank is.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Original Spuyten Duyvil

A curious map turned up recently on the internet - a map that shows the original flow of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, aka the northern portion of New York City's Harlem River.

Since this is right in the Cowgirl's backyard, I thought I'd share this and try to explain what's different, as well as expound on some of the more picayune aspects of New York City history.

First, the old map. Along the left edge runs the Hudson River, and along the right edge, the Harlem (it even says, "Harlem River". The squiggly shaded bit connecting them is the original flow of the creek. Light portions below it are Manhattan, above are the Bronx.

The "Scene of the Disaster" is an artifact of the image, and beyond the scope of our needs. The image comes from an article on a rail disaster there in the late nineteenth century.

The Map.

What was done, a bit over a hundred years ago, is actually pretty simple. Follow the river with your eyes from the Hudson to the Harlem.

See that peninsula jutting down from the Bronx? That was cleaved right about at the three-way intersection, forming two tidal mudflats where the river used to be, and the cliff where the famous Columbia "C" is painted.

See how on the next, larger peninsula jutting north of Manhattan, there are two narrow inlets on either side? Well, they cut through there to connect them, and then filled in the part of the creek the flowed up north of there. This is the area known as Marble Hill, in "The Bronx" but technically part of Manhattan.

You can sort of make out Marble Hill from the following Google Earth snapshot:

Marble Hill today.

On the north side of the river, left of the bridge, that neighborhood that's sort of bounded in a circle? That's Marble Hill. Technically it's part of Manhattan and residents there serve Jury Duty in Manhattan (seriously: the judge will say "residents of Manhattan and [zip code of Marble Hill]").

And that's that. The goal was to create a shipping canal so that vessels could go from the Hudson to Long Island Sound without the trouble of heading around the Battery.

And that, as they say, is that. It's a good bet that the Cowgirl and friends could have taken the old route down to Hell Gate and back, and it might have been more interesting. All the same, we're happy for the modern route. After all, how else would we get to practice dodging Circle Line and Classic Harbor Line vessels?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Pelham Islands

A couple of weeks ago I was joined by a couple of friends for a nice paddle in one of the farther reaches of New York City: the Pelham Islands.

What the heck are the Pelham Islands?

These are a set of rocky, irregularly shaped dots of land stretching from City Island in the Bronx towards New Rochelle, NY. These lie past the Throgs Neck bridge, open to Long Island Sound. There's tons of history here. They're all worth reading up on. I'm only going to offer some highlights here.

I was joined by AA (in the green Delphin) and MM (in the yellow Avocet). AA and I keep our boats in the same clubhouse, so we met there and cartopped up to Pelham Bay Park, where we launched near the northwest corner of the parking lot into sheltered water. The weather was predicted to be a slight breeze and a gloomy, overcast day. It started out nice and got to be less so.

We saw swans - big, huge, beautiful swans.

And came out around Hog Island, right around where these floating houses were.

None of us had paddled here before, so this was a good orienteering exercise. After we came out into full view of the Sound, we headed up and around Davids Island. For the first couple of centuries of non-Native American use, the island was a getaway for mainlanders, but during the Civil War became a military hospital, later made into a defensive fort; as late as the 1960s it was home to Nike defense missiles, much like Sandy Hook. Somewhere there is a themed paddling excursion from Davids Island to Sandy Hook, methinks.

As we came round Davids, we headed out a bit to round Huckleberry Island, a much smaller island that is owned by a boating club. There's an old saw that Captain Kidd buried treasure there. In less fanciful circles, it's regarded as a major bird sanctuary.

We tried a little rock-hopping, but there wasn't much tidal current to play with.

Plenty of mussels - and a clear distinction of which parts the birds had a hard time getting at !

Far in the distance, we could make out Manhattan. If you zoom and squint, you can make out the Empire State Building.

The club that owns the island also has a gazebo on it. Pity they're not into letting random paddlers camp there.

Onwards we went. Our next sight was Columbia Island. Formerly home to a broadcast tower, complete with living and workspace for a husband-and-wife broadcast team, the tower's since been knocked down and replaced with solar panels by the present owner. It's a pity. Towers are cool. Why wouldn't you put panels up on the tower? It's a rhetorical question, science friends.

It took us a while to figure out this long, lonely island was Pea Island.

After these was the island with perhaps the most ominous backstory: Hart Island.

Hart Island has been variously employed as a prison, a workhouse, and currently as NYC's potter's field. The work is done by prisoners from Rikers Island. Otherwise, access is limited to the family of those who are buried there and by special appointment. In the past few years, there's been considerable movement on multiple fronts to open the island up, both to family and friends who may have a loved one there, as well as to the public as a park and important part of New York City's past.

Thing was, not everyone in my group knew its history as we paddled past. The weather was gloomy. We saw white stones laid out in a cross pattern on a hillock. The chimney of the old power plant (or crematorium) stood out in the middle.

"This place is creepy," said MM, after we'd paddled nearly half a mile in silence.

At the southern tip of the island was a marker, "Marker 46", which we'd identified earlier on the chart in our pre-float briefing.

We took a little rest, and noted that the current was still flowing northwards considerably - a flood tide from the city.

We were about halfway through our plan. Little did we know how weird things would get - weirder than paddling past a graveyard of unclaimed dead.

As we paddled north up the channel between City Island and Hart Island, we spotted some figures walking on a large pile of rocks, which turned out to be Rat Island. Rat Island is the only privately owned island in New York City, purchased a few years ago by someone, apparently a Swiss man.

On Rat Island was a news crew from Switzerland shooting some sort of interview of the man. We talked with his friends while they wrapped up. They were impressed we we out paddling, and invited us to land on the beach in front of their house, just across the water. It wasn't clear which house was theirs, but we aimed in the general direction.

As we approached, we saw flickers of water splashing, and little heads . . .and big orange floats. There was some kind of SCUBA class going here, in 54F water.

We landed at the beach and walked up to talk to the guys on shore running the SCUBA class. There was Mike, and "Uncle Vinnie", and a couple of other guys. Mike was a former NYPD diver who, after the tragedy of 9/11, had moved out of New York City for a more peaceful life . . .in Newtown, CT. These kids were in the Boy Scout troop there, and he'd talked to an old diving buddy with a shop in the Bronx and put together the class.

They had a pit fire going on the beach, and a hot water kettle for hot chocolate. They shared their hospitality and it was most welcome. We weren't cold but we weren't warm either. A couple of hours in cool, gloomy air had taken its toll.

After eating a small lunch and warming up at the fire, we said our farewells and headed back. MM took a couple of rolls using her Greenland paddle, partly to practice rolling in a drysuit. Onwards we went.

The tide was much lower now and I checked out a couple of passages that were closed now.

We saw those swans - and a bunch of juveniles. They perked up at our approach, slightly territorial. Darn Rock-Roll music! Bunch of punks.

I blame the parents. Kidding!

At the end of the day, once we'd packed up and got into dry clothes, the puffy gray sky suddenly lit up, like a light switch. As far as we could tell, the sun had finally dropped below the cloud layer, and now instead of being blocked it was reflected all over the city. A fierce orange glow overtook us. 

I have to say, this cowgirl is of an age when glowing orange clouds were the stuff of atomic nightmares, but all the same, it sure was pretty, and a great way to end the day.