How to Paddle Through Hell Gate Against the Current

By Vladimir Brezina

The Manhattan circumnavigation is a classic New York City kayak trip. Hundreds of paddlers do it every year. For a 30-mile trip, it’s surprisingly easy, largely because the strong tidal currents that swirl around Manhattan do much of the work.

To use the currents instead of fighting them, though, it’s important to time the trip right. The key is the correct timing of the passage through Hell Gate. When going around Manhattan counterclockwise (the more usual direction), you want to reach Hell Gate at, or before, the turn of the current from flood to ebb, so as to ride the flood current up the East River, and then the ebb current up the Harlem River.

But what if, for whatever reason, you are late, and find yourself facing a growing ebb current while still  in the East River short of Hell Gate? The contrary current slows you down, building more strongly all the while… And the ebb current in the East River can build up to 5 knots or more—faster than most paddlers can paddle.

It might seem that the whole trip might have to be aborted…

Not quite. It turns out there’s a way to paddle through Hell Gate against the current, and even use the contrary current to advantage.

Here’s how we do it.

If there’s a chance that the ebb will begin before we reach Hell Gate, we paddle up the Queens-side (East) channel, rather than the Manhattan-side (West) channel, past Roosevelt Island. In the Queens-side channel, the currents are slightly weaker, and, more importantly, there’s much more opportunity to hide from the contrary ebb current.

We hug the Queens shoreline as closely as possible. From Roosevelt Island Bridge (“1″ on the map above) northward, the shoreline consists of stretches of crumbling seawall and various natural and man-made outcroppings, a series of miniature points that project just far enough into the river to largely block the force of the ebb current, even though just a few feet from shore it may already be roaring past. Of course, so close to shore we must maneuver to avoid submerged rocks, rusty nails sticking out of old pilings, overturned shopping carts, fishermen and their lines…

As we reach the southern end of Hallet’s Cove (“2″), we find ourselves accelerating forward. This is because the ebb current creates a helpful back-eddy, which conveniently strengthens as the ebb current itself strengthens, that carries us rapidly across the cove to the southern seawall of Hallet’s Point (“3″).

Again, we skirt the edge of the seawall, accelerated forward by another back-eddy, until we reach Hallet’s Point itself (“4″).

Here we find ourselves in calm water just feet away from the main current stream, by this time often rushing past at several knots. Directly across the stream is Mill Rock, our immediate destination. We scan in both directions for boat traffic and plunge in. The stream begins to carry us south but we ferry across, angling into the current, sometimes even surfing sideways on the standing waves that it generates, to arrive at Mill Rock in no time at all (“5″).

We then rebound with the current from Mill Rock and pass under Wards Island Bridge (“6″) into the Harlem River, where the current settles down in our direction and we can relax…

Once upon a time, I used to worry about missing the current in Hell Gate. Now I actually look forward to it!

21 responses to “How to Paddle Through Hell Gate Against the Current

  1. Still, IMHO, it is better to get to Hell Gate before the current turns.

    • Well, after a hundred circumnavigations, a little bit of challenge is welcome ;-)

      But seriously, we do tend to cut the timing in Hell Gate very close, because we want to continue from the East River straight into the Harlem River without stopping, while maintaining the optimal current—which means arriving at Hell Gate more or less precisely at slack. Then any little delay can lead to this scenario. A little headwind. And of course, when planning for a larger group, you should start with your average paddling speed, then subtract half a knot for each additional paddler. We sometimes forget that…

      So yes, this little dodge has come in very useful on occasion!

  2. I don’t kayak (or even sail) but i do collect facts about NYC My F-I-L (RIP) was a engineer in Coast Guard–and he once mentioned–the currents in Hell Gate can run 30 knots! (in the center of the current)–and many a large ship has found themselves caught–and going no where!

    NIce tutorial.

    • Thanks, Helen!

      But 30 knots, no. Five knots is about the typical maximum, and that at peak strength, during spring tides, in the middle of the channel.

      Here is a list, from NOAA, of the 50 locations in North America with the fastest tidal currents:

      Hell Gate (in bold) does make the list! But it’s comparatively wimpy. Here’s what Norway’s Saltstraumen Maelstrom, one of the world’s fastest tidal currents, in this video said to run at 22 knots, looks like:

      That would make some interesting kayaking! But if Hell Gate were like this (never mind 30 knots), given the tortuosity of the channel it would prohibit all barge traffic, and most other traffic, except at very limited times around slack. As it is, barges, which can’t move very fast safely, can have a hard time going through Hell Gate even if it is running at only a few knots.

    • I’ve seen mid 5′s. Never anything in excess. Still — 5.6 is intense!

      • Yes, although 5 knots is a “typical” maximum, you can definitely get more. I certainly remember once or twice moving along at 11 knots, according to my GPS, and since I don’t paddle faster than about 4 knots… you do the math!

  3. I love seeing New York from your perspectives – a totally different world!

    • Thanks, Lynn!

      New York Harbor, certainly, is a different world. Although it’s intertwined with the land parts of the city, it’s like figure and ground in an image. Most people who think of the land as the figure don’t really realize that the harbor, the ground, is there. But conversely, once on the water you don’t care about the land all that much (except of course you don’t want to hit it accidentally!). That’s why nautical charts like the following one of Hell Gate, which shows about the same area as the Google map in the main post, show elaborate detail of the water, but only a cursory sketch of the surrounding land…

      No wonder Tugster calls the harbor “the sixth boro”!

  4. When not doing a circumnavigation it’s also good to be there at max ebb during a spring tide. Love the standing waves!

  5. Bigger ones yes, but smaller warm up ones near the Mayor’s house as the ebb builds.

  6. Great discussion, images, maps. Terrific to know that Hells Gate has the 34th strongest tidal current in N. America! I am only an infrequent kayaker but I do enjoy keeping an eye on the Hudson, visible from the roof of my building and my bike ride to/from work. Good to be aware of all the currents around us.

    • Thanks, Ben! Yes, the Hudson’s currents are pretty significant too… it’s hard to do much kayaking around New York Harbor without figuring out how to use, or at least come to terms with, its currents!

  7. Hi. We are new to kayaking in NYC. Thank you for all the info!

    Doi Nomazi

  8. I wish I had your courage and skil!

    • Well, skill comes with lots of repetition. We try to go for a fairly long paddle in New York Harbor once a week. Over the years the mileage builds up, and a lot of it consists of the same trip—such as the Manhattan circumnavigation—over and over again…

  9. How did I miss this post? While I have no intentions of ever needing the info here, I absolutely love reading your navigational calculations, based on experience. You two are amazing, but you make it all sound so … reasonable.

    • It is all reasonable! Intelligent reasoning gets you far even in these kinds of situations that at first might seem to call merely for brute force. Of course, intelligent reasoning can also screw up miserably, and that’s where the experience comes in :-)

  10. Pingback: A Magical Maiden Voyage | Wind Against Current

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