It’s another rainy day, in New York City.
Softly sweet, so silently it falls,
As crosstown traffic crawls.
So begins a song by the band Chicago, one of my favorite ’70 era rock-horn fusion ensembles. The song is exactly what we had: an overcast, dreary day, with patches of fog now and then.
What a perfect day for a circumnavigation of Manhattan !
We had a client flying in on holiday, an experienced sea kayaker from Jersey (the channel island, not the US state immediately across the river). This tiny island, roughly the same circumference as Manhattan, doubles in size at the low point of a spring tide, owing to the dramatic tidal heights. Surf, rock-hopping, and expeditions to various points offshore, Jersey has quite a bit to offer the intrepid sea kayaker, so it was very flattering to have someone with that in their background claim Manhattan as a location on their paddling goal punchlist.
One thing we do have, that Jersey has much less of: boat traffic. More about that later.
Now, this Cowgirl was as prepared as she ever is, perhaps more so owing to the early season, for such a trip, but forgot one key piece of equipment: her camera. Therefore, this post will rely on painting pictures with words. Bear with me.
We’d scheduled the trip for May 1 earlier in the spring, coinciding with JR’s vacation. With various plans in place, this past Sunday was the only day he could paddle. Unfortunately, tides and time wait for no one, and so the timing was not optimal for a daytime trip, and we both had plans for the following Monday. The best I could manage was to leave Pier 40 at about 1100, and be done by 2100, paddling against current a fair portion of the way, and including a significant layover. Our other options were to start at 0500, or to start later in the afternoon and proceed clockwise, and down the East River after dark – something I wasn’t willing to hazard with just two paddlers, at the end of a trip, cold and dark. We settled on the 1100 start and, following some onshore traffic delays, were underway by 1130.
Weather is also not known to bend to the will of man. In this case, I watched rather obsessively through the preceding week and kept fingers crossed that a series of storm systems would move slowly and leave us a fair if cloudy day. Instead, they sped up, and after a rather nice Saturday, Sunday was a navy-gray day of low clouds, higher clouds, and more clouds up above. In the morning and for a while in the evening there was some fog limiting visibility to about five miles, less in the evening. Fortunately the wind prediction was low, and the rainfall for the day was predicted to b half and inch, so it was quite bearable in our drysuits. In many ways, the dank and dreary day brought out more color in the spring foliage, and in the evening gave a surrealist glow to the lights on ships and on land alike.
We moved quickly down the Hudson River to the Battery, floating near Pier A while we assessed the traffic situation – Statute ferries coming in and leaving, a water taxi that had just landed – and while we waited a Coast Guard RIB boat came over, close over for a crewman to talk to us, even after I lifted my radio.
“If visibility drops under a mile, you’ll need to get off the water.”
I looked around. I could still make out the Verrazano Bridge in the distance, about five miles away.
“You have a radio?”
I lifted my radio, again.
The RIB motored off, and we later saw it guarding the Staten Island ferry as it departed Whitehall for St. George.
We paddled around the Battery to the East River, which by this point was beginning to flood to the north. Traffic was remarkably clear, and we started to line up to make the short ferry across the East River.
Suddenly, as is often the case, traffic appeared. A NY Waterway boat was coming down the river for a little dock at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. Further up, we could make a party boat coming in to land, presumably at the South Street Seaport. A water taxi came across the Buttermilk Channel for the dock we were near, and a Zephyr came ‘round Battery. Suddenly we were where everyone wanted to be, and to get where we wanted to go we’d have to avoid them.
We stayed in place and let the larger vessels finish what they were up to, then passed along and across. New York City traffic, I tells ya.
After passing all that traffic and heading north up the East River, traffic was remarkably light, nearly-non-existent. We saw perhaps two or three more water taxis, and only one barge, which passed us to the left and headed up the channel between Manhattan and Roosevelt islands. After a while, JR remarked on how peaceful it was, a quiet bizarrely juxtaposed against the city immediately around us. We were alone, on the water, with eight or nine million people within a few miles reach on land.
We approached Hell Gate, which by this point was about an hour and a half into its flood cycle. While Hell Gate can get upwards of five knots speed, we were on a neap tide and I estimated the speed was still under two knots. We sheltered in an eddy near Blackwell Light, and after a quick check for traffic we ferried over to Mill Rock and then paddled up to Little Hell Gate park, a little marshy nook on the western side of Randalls Island. It’s all the remains of the old passage between Randalls Island and Wards Island, which are now connected by landfill on the eastern side.
Normally, I paddled through a winding stream that spirals to the middle of the park, landing at a dirt bank that leads up to a bridge where we can egress to the rest of Randalls Island. At this point in the tidal cycle though, the water was so low it was impassable, and we landed instead on a pocket beach near the entrance of the waterway.
Two cats scampered by on the seawall, one violently chasing the other. They disappeared behind a large rock, and we her some hissing. We joked that perhaps they had escaped from the nearby psychiatric hospital, which we could see along with the high fence around it. One of the cats’ heads popped up from behind the rock and gave us a quizzical look, as if the chase had been interrupted by the realization that, “that’s not usually there”, us strangely-garbed people with our long, narrow boats.
At this point in the tidal cycle, the Harlem was flooding south at nearly two knots. We decided to wait it out rather than paddle against it, and spent nearly two hours at Randalls. In that time, the water level rose and we moved our boats twice. We finally left when we were running out of land, and also to get moving and generate some body heat. The cold and dreary weather had started to chill us, so paddling against a knot and a half was more inviting.
Heading up the Harlem was uneventful. While I saw one vessel leaving it while we were are Randalls, we passed no moving vessels on it: no Circle Line boats, no NYPD boats, no pleasure boats, kayaks, no rowing shells. We had the entire river to ourselves.
After paddling against current to Peter Sharp Boathouse, we stopped for a short break, staying in our boats. By now we were in near-pure parkland, the industrial storage of the Bronx and the Harlem River Drive in Manhattan giving way to a rocky railroad path and High Bridge Park. We continued on, and I pointed out the cuts where Harlem used to not flow, as well as Marble Hill, the neighborhood in the Bronx that is technically, politically, part of Manhattan to this day. In short order, we were past the Columbia “C”, under the Henry Hudson Bridge, and then out onto the Hudson, across from the majestic Palisades cliffs.
The entire area was shrouded in fog. We could see the cliffs, and in the distance the George Washington Bridge nearly two miles away. But there was no wind, and just two lit barges on the river. We were on the watery moors of Inwood, as I like to style it.
By the time we got to the bridge, a wide plain of fog was before us, and we were about an hour for sunset, so we fixed lights to our vessels and watched traffic ahead. Mostly, barges were tied up or tying up. By the time we were to the mooring yard north of the 79th Street Boat Basin, it was hard to tell if it was nighttime or just extremely overcast sundown. On the radio I heard a captain complain about something – I’m not sure what, having missed part of the conversation – and shortly after saw a tug hurriedly tying up and turning to face the current.
By Pier 96, it was dark, but fortunately the fog had subsided; I could make out first responder lights on the road atop the cliffs in New Jersey. Building in Manhattan took on a surrealist glow though, their lights refracted through the moisture into big glowing balls of light. We could make out water taxis hurriedly making the ferry crossing. My radio, still on, came to life with renewed chatter.
The Classic Harbor Line Manhattan was heading north. Various barges were rounding Battery, and some were heading to sea. Circle Line Queens was moving from Pier 76 to Pier 84.
Wait, what? We were just north of the Intrepid, which is essentially Pier 84.
We stayed in place. I radioed the captain that we would hold while he came in. Right about the time I was starting to lose patience, I saw her lights, little green and white and red dots, emerge from the darkness, and she started to turn.
“Circle Line, Circle Line, this is Kayak Two. Captain, we’re going to swing wide around you and pass astern.”
“OK. Thanks,” was the response.
We did so, and then waited for a water taxi to pull in, and then entered the final leg of our journey. Our only other traffic was the Manhattan, announcing her return to Chelsea Piers right as we were about to pass. I radioed that we’d hold but the captain politely said, “no, go ahead.” So we sprinted forward as she turned to and pulled in right behind us.
By this point I realized JR had been operating not just with ordinary paddle fatigue, but also jet lag. Having just left the UK the day before, for him the hour must have felt more like two or three in the morning. I commended him for being as alert and capable as he was. At 26.4 miles on the GPS and eight hours of paddling time, we’d put in a lot of time and more-than-typical effort on this circumnavigation – under wet and gray conditions, no less.
We pulled in to Pier 40 around 21300, pulled off the water and rinsed boats and kit. We rinsed our drysuits by leaving them on and walking in to the shower. After packing everything up, we made our farewells, and that was that.
Another circumnavigation completed. It won’t be the last for this season, but it will certainly take place as one of the more interesting ones.