Category Archives: New York City

Tugboat Races, Take Three

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Johna Till Johnson

Tugboat Races 2014

Photogenic tug

The day wasn’t looking good.

This was the third year we’d planned to go to the Great North River Tugboat Race & Competition, but the day didn’t start well. It dawned dark and gloomy, with the threat of rain—the kind of day on which, despite your best intentions, you struggle to get out of bed.

Worse, Vlad, who’d been under the weather for a few days, couldn’t go.

So even though we’d already purchased tickets, I wasn’t enthusiastic about attending the race.  I had so many chores to do… not to mention work… and steaming coffee and a comfortable couch beckoned.

At the last minute, though, I threw my maritime radio and camera into a backpack, poured some coffee into a thermos, and set off downtown.

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Travel Theme: Orange, Take Two

By Vladimir Brezina

Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge this week is Orange.

As we travel around New York Harbor in our kayaks, we see quite a bit of orange. Orange is, of course, the premier color for high visibility, and many warning signs, buoys, floating booms, parts of barges and ships, are bright orange.

But there is just one large boat in the harbor—actually, a whole fleet of them—that, from bow to stern, top to bottom, is entirely orange: the Staten Island Ferry.

White seems to be the most common color for ferries everywhere, and most other ferries in New York Harbor are white. Originally, the Staten Island Ferries were white, too. But in 1926 the color was changed, indeed to make the ferries more visible in fog and snow, to reddish-maroon, and then later to the present “municipal orange.” Today, the orange Staten Island Ferries are iconic—almost as iconic as the Statue of Liberty.

Staten Island Ferry 1
Staten Island Ferry 2

After a couple of close encounters, Johna is especially wary of the Staten Island Ferry. It’s hard to avoid it. We have to cross its path, sometimes twice, on almost every trip through the harbor. It moves fast and it always seems to be where we don’t want it to be.

And so, we are always scanning the water for that big orange boat.

Sometimes, we come upon it docked, with passengers still getting on, so we know we have at least a few minutes to sneak past and get safely out of its way before it departs.

Staten Island Ferry 3
Staten Island Ferry 4

Sometimes it’s too late—we have to wait. But it gives us a chance to admire the beast close up.

Staten Island Ferry 5
Staten Island Ferry 6
Staten Island Ferry 7

And sometimes, we have to rub our eyes and look again. A Staten Island Ferry coming down the East River? “A planet might as well leave its orbit.”

Staten Island Ferry 8
Staten Island Ferry 9

Fortunately, Johna has not developed a fear of other kinds of oranges

A Late-Summer Staten Island Circumnavigation

By Vladimir Brezina

Staten Island circumnavigation 83

High on our list of paddling priorities for this summer has been the Staten Island circumnavigation.

It’s a trip that has everything—the busy New York Harbor and the open water of the Lower Bay, islands and lighthouses, surf on sandy beaches, grassy creeks and salt marshes, wildlife, heavy industry, decayed piers, shipwrecks, huge container ports, container ships, barges, and tugs of all shapes and sizes, imposing bridges, and finally the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline glowing in the sunset or, after it, sparkling with a myriad lights…

And all this in just twelve hours of paddling!

We used to do a Staten Island circumnavigation often, but suddenly we realized we hadn’t done one for two years—since Hurricane Sandy, in fact. We wondered how Sandy might have changed the familiar landmarks…

And the long days of summer were drawing to an end.

So on Saturday we went. Here are some photos.

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A Picture-Perfect Ederle Swim

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Ederle Swim 2014 39

Maybe the magic was in the pasta.

This year, Vlad and I signed up to provide kayak support for the Ederle Swim, a 17.5-mile open-water swim from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Vlad has done it several times, but this was my first time accompanying swimmers to Sandy Hook (though we’ve paddled there many times).

We’d each been assigned a swimmer, and the day before the swim, the organizers, NYC Swim, sent us the swimmers’ email addresses. So I reached out to “my” swimmer, Andrea Varalli, mentioned that I’d done the paddle many times, and offered what advice I could, including the detailed blogs Vlad has posted on Wind Against Current about his previous Ederle Swims (here, here, here, and here).

Next thing I knew, Vlad and I agreed to meet Andrea and his support team for dinner at a “real Italian restaurant” (as Andrea called it), Piacere. (Pleasure, in Italian.) We had guessed (correctly as it turned out) that Andrea was “real Italian”—not merely of Italian descent. So the “real Italian” restaurant was sure to be a treat!

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Fray

By Vladimir Brezina

This week’s Photo Challenge is Fray.

Rival tugboats enter the fray in NYC’s Great North River Tugboat Race & Competition.

They engage in single combat…

Meagan Ann vs. Buchanan 1
Gage Paul Thornton vs. Vulcan III

… as well as a general melee

Four against one: the Millers surround Gage Paul Thornton!
A Miller melee

More photos from the 2012 and 2013 Races are here and here. And the 2014 Race is coming up in just one week, on Sunday, August 31st. We’ll be there!

Harbor Water Wheels, Decorative and Practical

By Vladimir Brezina

As we paddle along the Hudson River Long Timepast the piers on Manhattan’s West Side, we pass there, on Pier 66, a large water wheel. Sometimes it is slowly turning as its blades dip into the tidal current that is streaming past. It is a work of art.

Long Time

It is in fact Long Time, by Paul Ramirez Jonas. The concept is simple: The wheel is connected to an odometer that counts the wheel’s rotations. But the piece has large ambitions. The artist is quoted as saying he wanted to create a piece to represent human existence. “It was created with the improbable goal of marking the duration of our lives, species, civilizations and even the planet… [but] its more immediate intent is to place human existence within a geologic time frame… The wheel will rotate indefinitely until it breaks down, or the river changes course, or the seas rise, or other unpredictable circumstances stop it.”

And those unpredictable circumstances have already occurred. After only 67,293 rotations since the wheel was installed in 2007, in 2011 the floodwaters of Hurricane  Sandy stopped the odometer. Repairs are not high on the priority list.

However, the wheel itself “is pretty darn sturdy. It was actually happy during Sandy, because it likes the deeper water. You should’ve seen it spinning.”

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The Long Time wheel had to be made sturdy enough to resist, among other things, the impact of trash floating in the water. So why not go a step further, and use the rotation of the wheel to pick up the trash?

Last weekend, we visited Baltimore, Maryland. And, walking around the Inner Harbor, we spied from a distance a familiar shape—a water wheel. At first we thought that, like Long Time, it was an artwork of some kind. But when we came closer, we realized that it was something more practical.

Baltimore water wheel 1
Baltimore water wheel 2

This water wheel is a trash collector.

It’s mounted on a floating platform moored at the point where Jones Falls, a river that drains quite a large watershed to the north of the city—and brings down a corresponding amount of floating trash—empties out into the Inner Harbor. The river current drives the water wheel. (There is also solar power for days when the river current is too weak.) The wheel in turn drives a series of rakes and a conveyor belt. The rakes rake the trash, already concentrated by floating booms, up onto the conveyor belt, which deposits the trash into a floating dumpster. Simple!

And yes, it is also a work of art.

More detailed photos of the trash collector are here, and here is a video of it in operation:

The trash collector can collect up to 50,000 lbs of trash per day. By all accounts, although it hasn’t been operating long yet, it’s already made a very promising contribution toward solving Baltimore Harbor’s trash problem. It’s been much more effective, at any rate, than the old way of picking up the floating trash with nets from small boats. “After a rainstorm, we could get a lot of trash in Baltimore Harbor. Sometimes the trash was so bad it looked like you could walk across the harbor on nothing but trash.” Last weekend, as we walked around it, the harbor looked remarkably clean.

Much cleaner, in fact, that some parts of New York Harbor. And we can think of a number of rivers draining into New York Harbor where such a trash collector could be ideally positioned.

Google Maps: Skim Boom in the Bronx RiverTake the Bronx River, for instance. It already has a floating boom to hold back the huge amount of trash that floats down the river—trash that must be periodically removed. A water wheel would do the job effortlessly.

Skim boom in the Bronx River

So, let’s hope there are more water wheels, not merely decorative but also practical, in New York’s future!

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More details about Baltimore’s water wheel can be found here:

City Sunset Silhouettes

By Vladimir Brezina

In the middle of the city, you don’t see the horizon. Well before sunset, the sun dips behind a dark palisade of silhouettes

Central Park sunset 1
Central Park sunset 2
Central Park sunset 3

To see the sun touch the horizon, you must climb very high

Manhattan vista at sunset

or, down below, wait for a very special day

Manhattanhenge 500(Manhattanhenge 2014)

Or, of course, watch from your kayak on the river!

Hudson River sunset 1
Hudson River sunset 2

A response to this week’s Photo Challenge, Silhouette, and Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge, Horizons.