Monday, September 19, 2016

Sandy Hook

I found myself graced with some extra time off recently, and decided to squeeze in a camping trip that had fallen by the wayside: Sandy Hook, part of Gateway Recreation Area.

I've been here before - "another time, another paddle", so to speak. A couple of years ago my good friends at Wind Against Current brought me out here, paddling from Pier 40 in Manhattan and back in a single day. This time, I'd be driving out and camping for a couple of nights, giving me ample opportunity to paddle here.

For those unaware, Sandy Hook is a long spit pointing north off the coast of New Jersey, nearly directly at the Narrows between Staten Island and Brooklyn, where the Verazzano Bridge sits. It's far south of the "lower harbor" and practically the last bit of land one will see before the Atlantic Ocean. As you can see in some of these photos, it's practically the end of the world.

It's exactly the sort of place I was in the mood for.

Looking East-southeast, large ships approaching and departing.

The fringe of the world.

Manhattan and Brooklyn in the far distance. 

That said, I needed time off so I didn't plan as much as I'd hoped. I was alone, and there are quite a few shipping channels in the area to avoid, as well as moderately strong tidal currents. Instead of venturing far, I took in the details of the waters around the hook. I paddled perhaps a quarter-mile offshore to the ocean side, and two miles north to Romer Shoal Light.

An old Nike Missile bunker.

Housing any military brat would recognize!

I made two trips, on separate days. The ocean side of Sandy Hook ramps up steeply and results in dumpy waves, while the bay side is protected. Additionally, one of the better launch sites is very near the camp sites, about two miles south of the northern end of the spit, at Horseshoe Cove.

In both trips I paddled north past old missile batteries, the military installation which is now used by the National Park Service and US Coast Guard, and a long bit of strand on the northern tip.

As I passed one fishing vessel, I called out to ask his intentions - it wasn't clear where he was motoring to and I didn't want to get in his way. "See those birds," he said, pointing behind me, "that's where!"

Well, of course, I realized. The birds know where the fish are. That made it all the stranger the next day when birds swarmed to my vicinity and I couldn't make out fish below me.

Approaching the end of the spit.

A bit of a bounce.

A marker on the NW corner.

In the distance, the Ambrose Channel.

One little-known fact about Sandy Hook is that there is a major shipping channel that passes east-west right along the tip. I wasn't able to capture a picture nearly as dramatic as one the NPS keeps on hand to illustrate the point, but trust me - there is not much room from the beach to where large ships ply their way from the southern end of Arthur Kill to Raritan Reach and onward to sea.

In fact, the reason for this is that it used to be part of the original approach to New York. In the pre-Revolutionary period vessels would pass Sandy Hook, using Sandy Hook light to guide their way. I can't find easy reference to when the Ambrose Channel took hold but there were lightships marking it from the mid-eighteenth century onwards.

The seaside shore - from the sea.

A marker.

A vessel exiting Arthur Kill.

On the days I was visiting, the current was ebbing to sea in the morning and flooding in the early afternoon. This curtailed my choices a bit: I'd had the idea that I would make an open crossing to Staten Island, or to a lighthouse in between, and while I wanted to see the sea, I didn't want to spend hours out in it.

On the one hand I hoped to see whales, which have been sighted in the area between Breezy Point and Sandy Hook. On the other hand, there's also a great white shark that has been tagged and who has come back several times to visit.

I spent a lot of time trying to remember if that shark came in the early summer or late summer.

An Osprey - of the mechanical kind.

Looking north to Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Ships entering the Ambrose Channel.

I rode the current out around the hook, looking for a spot on the chart called the "False Hook". Based on the current patterns I had looked up, I expected some bouncy waves - and I found them !

I surfed a bit in the waves, attaining against current and avoiding both the fishing boats drifting with the current and the fly fisherman casting from shore. I found a pattern, using a range I took from local landmarks, where I could surf, drift, and buck around.

As the current strengthened I decided to work my way in, rather than drift out to sea. I really had to drive a bit to keep momentum. In short order I found my way crawling through the rip or the outbound current curling around the end of the hook. Then suddenly, I heard a THWAP!

I looked at my deck and went through a quick checklist: carabiner carabiner carabiner, bottle, pump chart camera. Everything was in place. Huh.

After paddler a couple more minutes I noticed a fishing line that was suspiciously close. I traced its path. It wasn't in the water - it was tied to a lure wrapped under my spare paddle!

Now at this point I should tell you that I have never had to cut a fishing line. I avoid them. I watch for fishermen, for their poles, for their lines. I've gone under lines when I've had clearance and couldn't get out farther. I've instructed others in the value of always having a knife for such contingencies, followed by a joke about only using my knife to cut fruit.

Well, here I was, confronted with a genuine entanglement.

I paddled forward and got some slack. That would allow me to grab the line and cut it. But, as I reached for my knife, the current carried me back, and I had to paddle again to retain position.

I kept paddling hard to get that slack back but it wasn't forthcoming. I motioned to the fisherman on shore to ask if he had shears. He didn't seem to understand me. It's at this point I saw that he was also reeling and keeping the line taught.

"No," I motioned and yelled, "Let it slack. I'll meet you on the shore."

He seemed to let the line loose and I was able to grab it and cut it. The lure stayed under my paddles and I was free - free to fight what was about 2 knots of current, with a bit of wind abeam pushing me to a very shallow beach.

I gesticulated to one possible landing point but then scrubbed it because I couldn't line up my approach well. I went past another point - and I am being very generous in defining a "point", as it was just a longer pile of sand separating one part of the beach from another - scattering seagulls as I beached and hopped out.

The fisherman came over. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't realize you were right there."

"No problem," I said. "Now you can tell your friends about the fifteen foot red fish you caught!"

See, the cowgirl is all about being friendly and not creating a fuss where there needn't be one.

"My grandfather was a fisherman," I said. "I know these lures can get expensive."

We talked for a bit more. His name was Paul, he was seventy, and if he was thirty, forty years younger he might try kayaking. He was a little surprised at it being a "sit-inside" boat, and also that I'd been out there. He struggled for the right word - I suspect he was going for "ballsy" but wouldn't say that to a lady. He settled on stamina. He admired my stamina.

Well, I admired it too. I hadn't planned to get out, but since I had I took lunch on the beach while I considered my next destination.

Break for lunch.

The water would be ebbing a bit more but subsiding and then flooding. I wasn't up to fighting current or going especially far. I settled on Romer Shoal Light - a place I've been to before,  albeit from another direction. It was about two miles straight north.

After packing up, I set out. Using first a nearby marker as a waypoint, and then the light itself.

On the way though, I overheard traffic on channel 13: two vessels heading out to Sandy Hook channel and then to sea. I looked west and could make out two vessels on the horizon. I wasn't worried about getting out of the way in time, as they were miles away and I was already near the far side of the channel, but I wanted to make sure then when they were near I wasn't going to drift or get blow to them, or look like I was going to cross paths.

Green Marker 7S.

Towards this end, when I got to my waypoint - "7S" - I held position. I wasn't anywhere near a place anyone would drive a boat to, and if I were, I'd hold out that they weren't likely to hit the marker.

This gave me an opportunity to watch the world around me - and listen too. A USCG Auxiliary crew offered to escort each vessel, one by one, clearing the path in front of them., and signing off as each vessel left the channel for open sea. I listened to a couple of barges work out a passing operation (on the one, they decided). I watched cormorants drying on the marker.

Once the first vessel had gone by, I resumed my voyage. After a few minutes paddling, I saw a sea turtle less than ten feet off my port bow! He was near the surface and I think I surprised him. He dove quickly while I reached for my camera. Sorry, buckaroos, no pictures, but trust me, he was as big as my spraydeck!

Always a (wo)man, always a city, always a lighthouse.

Romer Shoal Light.
On my way back, I spotted something dark and box-shaped deep in the water. It seemed to be moving of its own volition. I'm guessing it was my turtle friend, or a friend of his, or some other critter. Or, it could have just been a box.

Returning from Romer Shoal.

The next day, on my second outing, I had to pack up camp first and then set out. There was a bit more wind and I found very interesting waves near the northwest corner of the hook. Basically, as water flowed north and then east round the hook, the wind from the north kicked up some 3-4 foot waves with short period. I was able to surf a little but mostly, it was a place to practice boat handling in moderately rough conditions - turning, leaning, edging, moving and staying still. I wore myself out prematurely though and set back earlier than expected. But, I got some better photos of the bay side than the day before.

Old Housing, Sandy Hook Light visible.

Old bunkers.

Fort Hancock.

I paddled a bit south to pad out my ride, and saw some large floating things in the water. I think these were from the US Army Corps of Engineers for some rebuilding project or another. Cormorants and a few gulls favored them.

Cormorants I.

Cormorants II.

With that my time was at an end. I'd pack up, load the boat, and drive off, making one more tourist stop at Conference House, a home in Tottenville where Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge met with the British to negotiate and end to the Revolutionary War shortly after the Battle of Long Island, and were at one point in danger of being arrested. They weren't, though negotiations failed, and the men returned and the war continued, but it's an interesting "what if" point in American history.

Sandy Hook's camping facilities are decent and the paddling opportunities are very open-ended. A paddler here must be a true mariner, with an understanding of tides, weather, and navigation, but with all that at hand it's a very interesting paddling environment. I'll go again - perhaps one day as part of a larger adventure.

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