Thursday, September 25, 2014

Safe Passage

My cab driver looked down the street incredulously, then stole a glance n the rear-view a me.

"You're going to work?"


"Where you going?"

We were approaching the end of Dyckman Street, basically 200th street in Manhattan, dead-ending at a large restaurant with a small marina. Overhead ran the Henry Hudson highway; behind us, the street had petered out into one-man automotive detailing and the edge of Inwood Hill Park.

It was four in the morning.



"Paddling. In a boat, a small boat."

A quizzical grimace.

"On the water, I'll be in a boat on the water."

"Won't it be cold?" I think he was worried about me. Why was this woman asking to be dropped off at the end of the local "alcohol alley" in the dead of night?

Heck, I was worried about me. Despite a newly paved path and lighting, the two hundred yards from Dyckman to the boathouse can be sketchy at night. I was laden with gear; I held out my key and eyed every shadow until I was safely locked in the boathouse property. I was worried less about nautical hazards than terrestrial ones.

I was invited to escort an expedition paddler in to the city. Doctor Deb Walters was paddling her boat from Maine to Guatemala to raise awareness for the Safe Passage program. A mutual friend had planned to join her and escort her in, but he fell ill, so it was on me to represent NYC expedition paddlers.

The plan was for her to paddle in from City Island, across the upper East River, and then to Pier 40. Originally they'd go through Hell Gate and then down the lower East River, rounding Battery and paddling against a knot and a half of current to Pier 40, but I put forward the idea of paddling through the Bronx Kill instead, and then up the Harlem and down the Hudson. Besides, that way she'd get to see the Inwood Canoe Club, and we picked up some other paddlers with us for the second stage.

By the nature of the tides, that meant I needed to be on the water by 0445. I made it - rousting a fellow club member who was cot-napping in the boathouse to meeting someone very early in the morning - leaving in the dark, on my own, for points south and east.

The Argonaut at Night - Blurry as its Paddler.

The trip down the Harlem was uneventful. There was nearly no wind, and while it was cool, my new fleece-lined paddling top and the workout of paddling warmed me up quickly. The water was glass-smooth. Even in the dark,  could make out the reflection of a lost basketball floating on the water, lit only by the ambient glow of the city.

One of the lifting bridges of the Harlem.

As I went along, I approached an odd hour: I could look left and see sunlight, or right and see nighttime. I came to the entrance of the Bronx Kill, and paddled through, stopping on the far end to rearrange kit and sip some coffee while I watched the sun formally rise.

Starting across the upper East River, coffee in hand.

Break over, I paddled out, between the Brothers (North Brother Island, and South Brother Island). I wasn't in a hurry. The tide was against me a bit and Dr. Deb was paddling in. I stopped and listened to shipping traffic while sheltering from the current in a small eddy behind a marker.

Marker at South Brother Island.

One barge was coming in, and another was going out. A small sailing vessel, Plover, about a 30 footer, went through the Brothers and on towards the Gate. They all talked to each other - including the incoming barge who overtook Plover and asked her to kindly sail aside as they passed through Hell Gate.

Once things settled down, I paddled around North Brother, then over towards Hunts Point, where I watched a DEP boat depart to the east before I paddled out towards the shallow bay that leads to the mouth of the Bronx River. It was around then I made out a shimmering in the distance, later two sticks, then two paddlers. The radio crackled.

"This is kayak Safe Passage, Safe Passage. Is that you Kayak Cowgirl?"

"Affirmative, coming to you Safe Passage."

We paddled towards each other, meeting up about halfway between Randalls Island and the Bronx-Whitestone bridge. I met Rick, her fellow-paddler who had put in at New Rochelle to paddle with her to NYC and take out at Inwood.

After water and a brief rest, we turned back the way I had come, staying towards the Bronx side of the East River, rounding the Brothers and heading back to the Bronx Kill.

Returning; Hell Gate Bride, Freedom Tower in background.

We went back up the Harlem river, with me playing tour guide. I even pointed out the Harlem River Lighthouse. You'll have to visit yourself to see it. Eventually we passed the three sisters of High, Washington, and Hamilton, and then passed Peter Sharp, rounding under the Broadway Bridge to the henry Hudson and Spuyten Duyvil.

The Henry Hudson, Spuyten Duyvil, Palisades beyond.

A mile later, we stopped at the Inwood Canoe Club, where she took an extended break and a photo. Inwood's not far from some decent bathrooms, food, and a nice view of the Palisades. For me this would be more or less the halfway point of the day.

Rick F, Dr. Deb, Cowgirl at Inwood Canoe Club.

For the route to Pier 40, we were joined by fellow Inwood club member AA, and a visitor, LB (Tahe Marine, amazing roller, something like 15 hand rolls in a row while we took a break later). In short order we set out into the ebbing current, making quick time to the GWB, Riverbank State Park, Harlem, and the upper west side. After that, we had ferry traffic to contend with - nothing terrible but a lot of listening on the radio and sprinting forward as needed.

We found ourselves ahead of schedule - which was bad for a dramatic entrance. The media had been alerted to an estimated arrival time, and we were early! So, for the last half mile or so, we more or less just drifted in, until we resumed paddling to make a proper entrance.

Dr. Deb approaching Pier 40.

Once we arrived, there were about thirty minutes of interviews - mostly Dr. Deb, but also AA, who is bilingual. Most of the media were Spanish media, and so he translated and told his version of events en Espanol.

After that, we unpacked. AA was going to paddle out to Staten Island with her after the weekend, and her boat was laden with expedition supplies and gear. Once we unloaded and stored everything, her boat went in the fleet room at New York Kayak Company (where I teach and guide), and after a quick lunch LB and I paddled north again, splitting up just after the GWB to return to our respective put-ins.

It was a remarkable paddle, both in itself and as part of her larger journey. All in I put the miles at 38, maybe 39 charted, and even with current assist that's a lot. Factor in the early morning start and I was beat by the time we got back. I had dinner, went to work the next da, and headed out to the next adventure - but that is a tale for another post.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Walk Around the Block

I was ready to cancel it the night before. I drafted one email, then another, then another.

Let's go. We shouldn't go, sorry to say. Let's meet in the morning and decide.

The weather had been off and on all week. Saturday was meant to be beautiful all day but turned spooky in the afternoon, while some other friends were on a circumnavigation. Sunday was meant to be terrible, but the morning was nice enough that at the shop we took four clients out to the Stature of Liberty and back. Leading into Monday, there was a keyhole of good weather that moved forward, then back, then not.

Thunderstorms. Chance of rain, High humidity, hugh dew point, high temperatures. I crash-coursed synoptic weather reading just to get a glimmer of hope.

The morning of, the skies looked to be clearing. The predicted weather improved. We met at the boathouse and agreed it was on: a Labor Day circumnavigation.

Paddling Past Midtown.

There were four of us: IL, BP, ST, and myself. BP and ST are strong paddlers but new to sea kayaking, and had not circumnavigated before. To me, these are always more fun with people who have not done it already.

Approaching Lower Manhattan.

We sped down pretty quickly, leaving Inwood at about an hour to an a hour and a half after low tide at Battery. We made the distance in about two hours, with minimal water breaks along the way.

Jersey City in the Distance.

One skillset I bring to the Inwood crowd is familiarity with the traffic at midtown and below. Near Inwood, there are no ferries to speak of, and only the occasional barge or ship, and sometimes a Circle Line or similar vessel. Midtown and below, there are plenty of water taxis, ferries, and recreational boats, not to mention tugs and ships, especially in the harbor itself.

The bigger the vessel the easier it is to avoid a problem. Just stay out of their way. They won't change their course much.

Miss Liberty Departs Battery.

As we came around Battery, we went a little wide so that it wasn't a blind corner. This kept us away from the seawalls as well. We were remarkably blessed with little traffic, and a nearly windless day of smooth water. We waited for a couple of water taxis to pass, and then asked Miss Liberty when she was leaving.

"Now," she said. We waited by Pier A while she took off for Liberty Island.

Governors Island.

On a different trip, we might have ventured around Governors Island, but not today.

Paddling Past the Tourists at Battery.

Rounding Battery, we passed the Statue Cruises, but little else, until we saw the Staten Island ferry. People were still disembarking, so we radioed that we were passing astern. We made a ferry crossing to Brooklyn and got out at Pier 5 to take a pee break, enjoy the sights, have a snack, and talk to some folks we know. Pretty soon though, we got on our way.

Eastward . . .er Northward Ho!

I'd expected our most interesting water to be at Battery. Instead, as we passed under the Manhattan Bridge, a passing water taxi kicked up a bunch of wake that got reflected off a seawall, and suddenly we were in the chop! It was beautiful, shaking us about, up and down, as we paddled forward past Wallabout Bay and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Lower Manhattan from the East.

Miss Piggy!

As we passed the Navy Yard, this Army Corps of Engineers ship came out. A friend of mine says she is called the Miss Piggy and lays docking barges for the NY Waterway taxis.

Whatever You Do, Don't Look Back.

We went onwards. It's a shame that the East River is the shortest leg of the tour. It's kind of interesting, and not a part of the waters around Manhattan I get to paddle in often.

Paddling Along Queens.

The East River gets short shrift sometimes compared to the Hudson. It's not as wide, it doesn't go as far, and the industrial history of Queens and Brooklyn mean that for a long time, it was a dirty, fast-moving mess. Now, it still is, but less so, and pockets of revitalization dot the shores opposite Manhattan and the FDR Drive.

Lower East Side.

Queens, Plissken-style.

You Take the Good, You Take the Bad.

Eventually, the United Nations building looms, marking 42nd street, and the start of Roosevelt Island - a narrow two mile needle of land in the middle of the river. The western channel is faster, but we wanted to stop in Astoria before proceeding further.

Skerrey Times at the United Nations.

What's That? Empire State Building? Let's Have a Cookie.

Around here the humidity really started to get to me. It was 86 F with a dew point in the low 70s. I drank more water, wet my hat, and managed as best I could, but it was going to get worse after lunch.

World Trade Center.

Weather Rolling In.

Gantry Plaza.

The downside of urban renewal is that some things go away. This PepsiCo sign, for example, is scheduled for demolition. It's a great landmark from the Manhattan side. Apparently it's an eyesore for the new development behind it in Queens.

Pepsi Cola Hits the Spot. Just a Nickel, Not a Lot.

At last we pulled in to Hallets Cove - a broad nook under the corner of Hell Gate in Astoria. There are several ways to run this trip, and this stop is a common one because of the problem everyone faces: the Harlem and East Rivers run in opposite directions, and after riding the flood up the East River, your choices are: cross and paddle against the Harlem, or wait until the Harlem starts to change directions and then cross. Most people do the latter.

The Barn at Hallets Cove.

What we paddled: a Valley Skerrey, a Valley Argonaut, a WS Tempest 170, and a Necky Chatham 16.

Photo 1.

Apparently I am the only one who brings a camera on these trips!

Photo 2.

We waited about an hour and a half, having lunch, using the loo and getting coffee at a local diner, resting, talking. We were feeling good though, and the weather was very calm, so we thought, "why not go through Hell Gate?"

Turning to Hell Gate. Pedestrian Bridge to Randalls in Distance.

None of us had ever been. Hell Gate generally refers to the waters we would pass through, but Hell Gate proper is a narrow straight running north to the east of our position. It's a constriction, and as water passes through it based on the tides, it cane get very fast, up to five knots. It is also very uneven, meaning there are boils and vortices on a good day; on a bad day it may as well be the waters off Tierra del Fuego.

A Passing Barge.

On we went, under the RFK Jr (nee' Triborough) bridge and then the Hell Gate Bridge. I was a little odd to realize that just a couple of weeks earlier I'd been on a train crossing via the latter.

Into the Gate!

Hell Gate last just about a mile. With the current and conditions, it was, frankly, more like Heck Gate. There were some boils and vortices and weird eddies, but nothing terrible. After Hell Gate Bridge, we looked ahead and behind us, and once traffic was clear, crossed to Randalls Island to veer into the mouth of the Bronx Kill.

After Hell Gate, We Bronx Kill.

On through the kill we went.

Coming About.

And then on out, to the familiar waters of the Harlem., where we paddled at slack to Macombs Dam Bridge.

Counting Bridges.

The tide eventually turned in our favor near High Bridge.

High, Washington, and Hamilton.

A Short Break.

After a short break, we let Circle Line and Harbor Classic Line (not pictured) vessels pass us.

Circle Line.

Under the Broadway Bridge and into the more scenic part of the Harlem. This stretch was more properly Spuyten Duyvil Creek, until it was blown up, expanded, and made proper for 19th century shipping.

Under Broadway.

Past the Marble Hill station, in a neighborhood that is still technically part of Manhattan even though it is not an island and not part of the island.

The End In Sight.

Eventually we came back out to the Hudson, almost where we started, at the opposite end of the day.


Unlike a certain well-known mass circumnav, we did not have a landing party. However we were met by a man in a mask.

Club member LL, wearing a mask he found floating in the river. Now how'd that get in there?

Welcome, Travelers!

All in all it was another great trip. It was only my fourth circumnav, and just the second time I planned and organized one myself. It was a strong group, and two hadn't done this before. I love seeing new eyes on a familiar route.

After discussion with the group, I tried a couple of things that I had not done before. First, we landed at the still-new Brooklyn Bridge Park, on a small beach near Pier 5 that I only learned about recently. Second, we went through Hell Gate. Now that I know the tides a bit better, I might consider variations on that plan, such as taking a detour out into the Upper East River.

A Day of Everything and Nothing

I needed a day off. On the one hand I love planning grand paddling adventures, and a friend had organized a circumnavigation. However I have one of my own planned later this week, and I wanted a day of no commitments. Saturday was that day.

In the morning I went out with some friends on a trip organized for our club. We didn't go terribly far - about three miles each way - but when one paddler expressed interest in a canoe, I volunteered to go with. We paddled a Penobscot 17 there and back, switching from back to front at the halfway point.

That's right, the Kayak Cowgirl paddled a canoe. I had to learn canoe for my 2 Star, and practice it a bit downtown. A lot of kayak strokes come from canoe. It's like the Middle English of paddlesports.

After that journey, most paddlers left, but a couple wanted to practice rescues to qualify for special privileges in the club. I stayed and shepherded that a bit. The candidate passed, and then she and her beau left.

My friend and I got lunch, and snacks for the circumnavigators who would be coming through later. When we got back, the sun was shiny so we ate lunch in the shade - but by the time we finished our sandwiches, the sky was cloudy with no sun in sight.

Some visitors came by with kids, and after I finished some minor gear tweaking I got in my boat and did some tricks.

After that, my friend - canoeboy - got in a kayak and we practiced edging and leaning, and turning on edge. Then he spotted me on some rescues. Still gotta work on on my right-setup roll, but my re-entry and roll works. I can't wait to try it in a drysuit.

To polish it off I did some scramble rescues, as we tried things we've seen other people attempt and fail at, and some things that should fail but, bizarrely, work. Thoroughly soaked, I landed, got nto dry clothes, and cleaned up before going home.

I love nothing days. They have the most variety.