Author Archives: Johna Till Johnson


By Vladimir Brezina

Three of the largest—

Three of the largest

Three of the smallestand three of the smallest—

— but they are all equal “vessels” in the eyes of the law.

“The word ‘vessel’ includes every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” (U. S. Code, and similarly in the Rules of the Road)


A contribution to this week’s Photo Challenge, Trio.

New York City Celebration

By Johna Till Johnson

New York City Celebration

The festival arrives!

People often ask why I live in New York. Yes, it’s crowded. And expensive. And even though the crime rate is way down from the 1980s when I first lived here, it’s still a city—with all the dangers a city brings.

I try to explain, but the truth is, it’s not the cultural richness. Or the wonderful food. Or even the variegated mix of people.

It’s that New York can continue to surprise and amaze me. As it did on a recent overcast autumn day: I’d just finished brunch with a friend and decided on the spur of the moment to walk the three miles home. I made it less than half the way there when I noticed that the density of police officers had picked way up. And then I heard it: Music, and a few green-and-white-clad people dancing in the street.

A few more steps, and I was in the midst of a full-on street festival, with floats, marching bands, music, and dancing. Apparently it was the 55th birthday of Nigeria (who knew?) and celebrants were out in force. (Well, technically, modern Nigeria was founded on October 1, 1960, but close enough…)

I walked the next several blocks with a gigantic grin on my face. The music was infectious, the colors brilliant, and the energy electric. And by the time I got to the end of the festival, my heart was dancing along with the dancers.

We All Love the Yellow Submarine!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

Yellow Submarine Paddle 22

In the town where I was born,
Lived a man who sailed to sea,
And he told us of his life,
In the land of submarines.

So we sailed on to the sun,
Till we found a sea of green,
And we lived beneath the waves,
In our yellow submarine…

The yellow submarine isn’t just an invention of the Beatles—it exists for real. And it had gotten a paint job, courtesy of our friend Erik Baard and his HarborLab crew. So we decided it was high time to paddle out and see the results.

Let me back up… in the waters of Coney Island Creek, just off Gravesend Bay, there rests—amazingly, improbably!—a yellow submarine. We’ve told a fuller story here, but suffice it to say that the story of its existence just underscores the crazy sense of possibility that permeated the 1960s.

But it’s closing in on 50 years since the yellow submarine was launched, and it had become somewhat the worse for wear. So when we heard it had recovered its original cheerful coloring, we had to go see.

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Gentrifying Gowanus?

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Gowanus Canal colors

The lively school of fish flashing by probably should have been a clue.

On our kayak trip several weeks ago, we decided to pay a visit to the Gowanus Canal. I know it seems crazy to paddle on a heavily-polluted Superfund site, but we both have a secret fondness for blasted industrial landscapes. And the canal also features charming, idiosyncratic quirks: festive murals, and a houseboat or two.

Or at least it did, upon our last visit. We hadn’t seen it since just before Superstorm Sandy. Then, the mood had been somber, filled with foreboding and a sense of upcoming loss. We feared what the storm would do to the places we’d come to love, Gowanus among them.

True to our fears, Sandy kept us off the water for months, and in the nearly three years since then, we didn’t make it back to Gowanus to see how it survived. So this trip was very much an exploration: How much had Sandy destroyed? And what was left?

Things had definitely changed, as it turned out—but not exactly in the way we expected.

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Midday at the Morris Canal

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Midday at the Morris Canal 13

As paddling trips go, this one wasn’t much: We left shortly before noon, and returned just after 2 PM—nothing like our typical day-long expeditions.

The weather was perfect: clear, sunny and dry with a light breeze. No wind, waves, or other “conditions” that make for an exciting kayak adventure.

But since it was our first trip together in quite a while, we were happy just to be on the water.

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Cardboard Kayak Race 2015: The Thrill of Victory… And the Delight of Defeat

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Cardboard Kayak Race 50

“We’re going to the cardboard kayak races this weekend, right?” Vlad said, looking at me expectantly. I glanced back dubiously.

We’d missed the 2013 race, the first year that the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance had organized the race as part of its City of Water Day, but we’d thoroughly enjoyed the video. Last year, I’d provided kayak safety support for the race, while Vlad took photos. And we wrote it up on Wind Against Current.

As much fun as the race had been, did we really need to experience it again?

Yes, we did! So last Saturday we headed out to Governors Island, on a sultry summer day that started out reasonably comfortable, but promised heat and stickiness by the afternoon.

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Immortal Beauty

By Johna Till Johnson

Maria Radner

Maria Radner, 1981-Eternity

Among the victims of Germanwings Flight 9525 was Maria Radner, a German opera singer. She was a 33-year old contralto who specialized in Wagner.  I hadn’t heard of her before—no surprise since I’m new to opera, and have yet to warm to Wagner’s music.

But a commentator on one of the news stories posted the video below. Maria Radner sings “Urlicht” (“Primeval Light”) from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection Symphony.

It’s just under five minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite so lovely. Looking into her serene blue-gray eyes and insouciant half smile, and listening to that soaring voice, all I can think of is that although a deranged man was able to take away her life, the beauty she brought into this world is immortal.

The lyrics translate as follows:

I am from God and want to return to God!
The loving God will give me a little of the light,
will illuminate me into the eternal blessed life!

She got that wish.

I only wish that it hadn’t happened quite so soon.