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.

-- -- -- -- -- --

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.

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.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


I've had some extra time on my hands this past week, and took advantage to get away and do a bunch of sea kayaking. Each trip deserves its own post, but I'll be unpacking and cleaning and organizing photos etc, so for now here are my top three recent events:

1. Seeing a sea turtle on the way out to Romer Shoal.

2. Paddling in 3 foot (and larger) wind-driven waves by the Tappan Zee bridge.

3. Exploring the eddies, nooks, and crannies of the eastern side of Hell Gate.

Details to come, proms!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Taste of Sea

I'd wanted to paddle and camp this past Labor Day weekend, Sept 3-5 for those of you non-US readers. In fact I wanted to paddle and camp all the major surf holidays, and get groups together to pad out my leadership log, but I missed the last one and then spent most of July and August teaching. So, I arrived at the end of summer not sure what I'd do this weekend.

Fortunately, in addition to Mr Cowgirl, I was able to cajole three members of my local paddling club into coming up to Westport, Massachutesess to do some coastal kayaking. There's a local paddling shop there on the Westport River, great camping at Westport Camping Grounds, and easy access to a variety of coastal features. 

While I will assert that New York City offers a variety of sea kayaking opportunities, certain things are hard to find good examples of, namely surf, and committed shorelines exposed to open sea. For those of you following along at home, take a look at NOAA chart 13228 and you'll see what I mean.

There's some nice tidal eddies about a mile up the river mouth, below the Route 88 bridge. There's exposed coast at Horseneck Beach, with a too-convenient spit of land called Gooseberry Neck that has 1) free parking and 2) a proper ramp and therefore the expectation that mariners will land there. There's Sakonnet point, which we didn't get to, and then farther east there's the beginning of Buzzards Bay. 

On top of that, another club member has family in the area, and in exchange for giving her a ride up (and back) we got to overnight in a proper coastal cottage and put in on a privately owned beach. Bliss, buckaroos. Pure kayaking bliss.

I packed up the buggy and we set out on the road.

Stopping for Dinner on the Highway.

Sunrise Hospitality.

Following the drive up Friday, we cleaned up, met the folks, and laid out our sleeping bags on the air mattress and sofabed provided by our hosts. Only half our group, myself and G, were present, but with out fellow club member and her s.o., we put together a tidy group and set out for an area called "Dumpling Rocks", near Round Hill Point, and then to an area of rocks, and then on to a Christmas Buoy - red and green, marking the intersection of two channels.

Launching from the Beach. G, A, and L.

Paddling Out.

It's Christmas in Heaven!

On the way out, we took the opportunity to try some very light rock-hopping near Dumpling Rock. We were light on helmets, and the environment was new to some, so we played it safe - going around the big rock and taking a deeper channel. There was a more narrow constriction that had some interesting current flow, but most of the group was not ready for that.

One word: Millenials.

The ride back was fairly pleasant. Our big concern for the weekend was tropical storm Hermine (later, "post-tropical" storm Hermine). Traveling up the eastern US seaboard from the Caribbean, Hermine promised storm surge and high winds and rain, but ultimately steered ENE and petered out several hundred miles offshore. We got high winds over the weekend, and nothing more.

At the time however, that was not a certainty. In the afternoon, we met up our other friends at the campsite and checked in, and after setting up camp drove out to Gooseberry Neck, a small spit jutting directly out from Horseneck Beach. There's free parking, easy access to the water, and just like that you're at sea. No rivers, no coves, just the ocean.

As we launched, a larger group of paddlers came in. They were part of a Rhode Island club and had gone out to Elevator Rock, a spot where surf can place a skilled paddler on a rock, and then take them right back down. I've only heard of it recently, and with the impending weather had already ruled it out.

Instead, we paddled out from the east side of the spit and then south, taking a trip around it. We expected the easterly winds to become stronger and produce more challenging water, and the water we had was challenge enough for this group. For some this was their first time in the ocean proper, and just getting acclimated was enough. We practiced some brace strokes and how to manage paddling in the wind, then set off on our journey.

Around the southern tip we spotted some clever rocks to play near. We also discussed some navigation, using nearby buoys to triangulate our location against the southern tip of the spit. In the rocks, we found a long shallow shelf that created some dramatic looking waves, but they were just a long, wide area that lost energy quickly. We practiced paddling in place to hold position.

Coming back along the western side of the spit, the water was calm and the air was more quiet. With the sun setting to our, it was a relaxing end to the day. I landed first, followed by the other two women in our group. The men lingered. Why?

Kayak Cowgirl's trusty steed.

Turns out they were being followed by seals. Seals! Three of them. As they approached only one seal followed them in, and we could spot him from our landing spot.

Men, chased by seals.

Driving out, we passed over the road with sea to our left an to our right. The water to the east was clearly darker and more agitated, while the water to the west was calm and relaxing.

Sunday was predicted to be very windy, initially 20mph but proving just to the mid-teens. We decided to stay sheltered from the sea, up the Westport river about a mile from its mouth. It turns out there is cheap ($5 per car) parking there, with a giant rock in the middle of a narrow river offering a fun place to stay  .  .  .and play

Getting ready to roll out.

Off we went, playing around the rock and then heading downstream to the mouth of the river. The wind proved constant, blowing us downstream, and reminding us we'd have a bit of a battle on the way back.

We passed through an extensive marina before the river widened and we came to Horseneck Point. From there we could make out a giant boulder called "The Knubble" marking the far entrance to the river - and beautiful surf rolling in. The group was taken in. "Surf!". Only, almost no one had done it before, so we landed briefly to go over surfing, and landing in surf, and setting the boundaries.

Everyone had a good time. I caught the fewest waves, but mostly because I was keeping an eye on everyone. The wind was coming abeam and so we kept getting pushed across the river. After a few runs, and with the surf depleted as the tide lowered, we set out back the way we came - and this was the start of the hardest part of the day.

The current had only started to ebb an hour earlier, but was already quite strong. Couple with the wind, we had a long slog back. In hindsight, and to some of us at the time, we actually made expected progress: a little over one nautical mile in thirty-five minutes, fighting about a knot or knot and change of current, with a F4 headwind. Good on my group for making the distance. Once we'd returned, we took a long lunch and rested, before going out for a couple more hours.

We didn't go anywhere for that last bit. Instead, we played in the rock eddy some more, this time with more eddies to work with, as the lowered tide had revealed more rocks to ferry between. We also tried a rescue in the eddy area, and I demonstrated some swimmer recovery methods.

At the end, we packed up and dried off, then walked in to the local establishment for sizable meals and beer followed by dessert.

While I'd hoped to paddle a bit Monday, by then even the sheltered area of the campsite was demonstrating stiff breezes, and the coastal wind prediction was to be 20 mph and more. The group had gotten a taste of the sea, and were plenty well buffed and chuffed from the day before, and one of the drivers had to leave to make it to work in NYC that afternoon, so - we called it a weekend. 

Packed and sorted, I dropped off one boat we had borrowed from our local friends, visited the local paddling shop (Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures, check them out sometime), and then we were off for the four-hour drive back home.

This was a great trip and I hope to do it again sometime, with some more people and certainly more time at sea. With summer nominally over, it's on to the next part of the season. More to come, for sure.