Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hell Gate

"Let's go kayaking on Sunday."

That was all Kayak Dov's email said while I was away camping at Sandy Hook last week.

Sure, I thought. A quick look at the tides showed we could go out to the upper East River, or farther north on the Hudson.

A few days later, he was asking about Hell Gate.

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Hell Gate is an infamous part of New York City's waterways, mentioned in publications and in fiction well before the twentieth century. The local geography has changed, mostly by the hand of man, but it is still, essentially, what it has been since it was first charted by the Europeans: a narrow constriction about one mile long, connecting the upper and lower segments of the East River, and a place where tidal waters move from Long Island Sound to the harbor or New York City.

At peak, the tidal currents there exceed five knots, and it makes a very sharp turn around the corner of Astoria, Queens. Furthermore, Roosevelt Island bisects the East River immediately south of Hell Gate for over two miles; if you miss the turn, you're going to drift quite a ways. It's also a commercial waterway with barges and ships, as well as recreational boating, and on the particular day we went, the East River between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island was closed off for security related to the United Nations.

The entire area is hazardous for all mariners, not just paddlers, and continuing to the modern day. The water moves fast, the channel is narrow, and it requires expert piloting in a very short period of time.

We found pretty easy street parking at Hallets Cove. In the annotated screen capture below, Hallets Cove is the nook in the bottom, with the yellow dot. Our general course was to paddle against weaker current along the eastern side (yellow line); on the return, Kayak Dov ferried out to Mill Rock, went around it, and then up the western side, and then back (orange line). I stay and worked out in the eddy that formed where the lower and upper yellow lines separate.

The Area of Operation.

I've paddled past Hell Gate on various circumnavigations, and through it once on another circumnavigation. Dov's been here rarely but wanted to check it out. This was very much a study session for us both, to learn and experience what's going on here.

First we set out.

Smart choice: helmet!

The RFK Jr (Triborough) and Hell Gate bridges.

The Hell Gate Railroad Bridge.

The Hell Gate RR bridge is somewhat vaunted, and at the time of construction was the longest steel bridge in the world; you can read more about it at Gothamist and Old NY. She has a sister bridge in Sydney, Australia.

We had put in about an hour after the start of the ebb current; the peak would be around two hours later. Hell Gate's currents are like a light switch, rather than a dimmer switch; one chart I have shows the slowest currents in either direction being two knots. All the water from either the harbor or Long Island Sound is trying to move through this narrow constriction. It doesn't have much patience.

We made our way along the Queens side, keeping as close to the shore and in weaker current as much as possible. It wasn't until we'd come around Hallets Point that we really had to make effort against current. After that, there were two or three spots where we'd shelter behind some obstruction in the water before powering through the tidal stream shooting by. After some work we got to the little bay of Ways Reef, which has a large apartment building overlooking it.

Kayak Dov: Ready Player One !

We passed along various people looking at the water from Astoria Park.


And then we were on to the main event: finding the waves in the tidal race !

Surfing and Ferrying.

Avoiding traffic!

Skyline Princess.

We kept our radios on, me on 13 and Dov on 16, except for the brief period when we separated and we kept in touch on 68.

I'm not an authority, nor do I speak for any regulatory body, but I will say that I find channel 13 much more useful than 16 when in the working harbor. This is the channel that working captains will announce their movements and communicate with each other on. In particular, at Hell Gate, with its blind corner and swift currents, hearing a vessel announce that they are "eastbound, through the gate" or "at the brothers, westbound through the gate" gives me enough  of a heads up to get clear of the waterway.

Kayak Dov, racing the tide.

Not long before the peak  current, Dov decided to ferry out to Mill Rock, a small island that more-or-less marks where the current splits south to the East River and north to the Harlem River. While intimidating, it is possible, and the distance is less than three hundred yards - but it's a pretty intense three hundred yards to ferry against.

I've done it once before, when I took a trip with friends that put us behind the ebb when we wanted to go north. Back then, I hadn't had much experience in strong tidal currents - that was before my trips to Maine. It's a good trick to have in your back pocket, once that my friend Vladimir Brezina has written about in good detail as well.

I was finding the local eddies more interesting, so at this point Dov went out to Mill Rock, and then around it and attaining on the western side of the gate, while I read the water and tried to figure out where the eddy proper started and ended.

I was surprised at how far the eddy extended from the shore at Hallets Point. There is a day marker mounted directly on the shore itself, and even about thirty yards out, taking a transit between that marker and the southern end of Mill Rock, I was actually drifting upstream. Eventually I'd reach the end, spot a line of bubbles, cross over them, and shoot downstream . . .until I hit the eddy line again. It was like being on an endless conveyor belt, and I practiced my sea kayak eddy turns and peelouts.

Meanwhile, I kept an eye on Dov as he attained the opposite shore, and on traffic as it came and went.

The biggest concern on the latter front was a large boxy vessel named the Rockaway that hewed very close to the Queens shore, because even the big boats do what we paddlers do, using the currents to their advantage. As she passed I held position, waiting for her to clear my bow so I could get away from the shore before the four-foot wake she was kicking up could push me on some rocks. She was maybe fifty yards out from my position, and I'm pretty sure I made eye contact with the bridge crew as I gave them the Big OK.

Other than that - there were some recreational boats that came through. A DEP vessel, and the Classic Harbor Line Manhattan, who went up through the gate, turned around, and came right back.

The funniest thing was the radio traffic. Because of the UN security zone, everyone had to go east at Roosevelt Island, and over and over I heard recreational boats asking the Roosevelt Bridge to open. At one point, I heard the USCG handing over support of a vessel to the NYPD Harbor Patrol - a vessel that only a few minutes earlier had been pleading for the bridge to open.

Expert skippering is what the gate and its waters require.

Classic Harbor Line.

Patrol boat . . .on patrol. Hallets Point on the far right.

After Dov returned from his sojourn around the gate, we played a bit around the eddy line. Dov'd just come back from an expedition that included some white water runs in sea kayaks. We practiced edging our boats down-current and using bracing turns for support while crossing an eddy line. It's a skill I teach in Inwood at a couple of spots when the Hudson is at peak ebb, but at most it's only half the speed of the gate at peak. On the Hudson it's a neat trick; on the gate, it's a much more noticeable result.

We made our way back down the eddy current, making friends with a couple hanging out on the shore. We noticed that we were actually having to work quite hard to make our way back, even though we were practically out as far as Roosevelt Island. This makes a little more sense looking at a map, but at the time was very surprising !

We made our way out to the northern tip, Blackwell Light, and said hello to a cyclist there. Shortly after, we ferried in the Hallets Cove, and called it a day. As we unpacked Dov explained the currents in terms of math - he'd actually worked out the graph himself once using calculus, and it's basically a vertical curve at the start and end of the cycle. We took turns minding boats while fetching cars, packed up, and drove off. I kept my paddling clothes on - changing on a city street wasn't something I wanted to deal with.

I tend to build confidence incrementally - gathering information, marking it out, and then returning. This trip was very successful for me in that I learned where the "safe" zones are at Hell Gate. If I were teaching or guiding a trip here, I know at least a few areas I could use to corral the group, to stage passage, or to simply practice some skills. It's not a place I would take beginners, other than at low current speed and then only as passers-by. But I might make a trip through the gate, on its own or as part of a larger journey.

Hell Gate is a place to be respected, but not necessarily feared. It's an intriguing place, with contradictory currents and non-trivial river traffic, but not entirely off-limits to paddlers. I will definitely go there again.

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