By Johna Till Johnson
This story begins like all good stories: “It was a dark and stormy night…”
Well, no. Actually, it was a dark and stormy morning. Except it didn’t start out that way, but we knew it was headed in that direction. And it got there with a vengeance.
Let me take a step back. It was Sunday, July 3, 2011, and we’d been planning a Manhattan circumnavigation for weeks. It would be Vlad S’s first (Vlad S is not to be confused with Vlad B, the co-author of this blog). Although Vlad S is a strong and seasoned paddler, we’d agreed to take it slow and easy, planning for plenty of stops. I had in mind two or three: Hallet’s Cove for sure; the Bette Midler Boathouse; and maybe someplace on the Hudson.
Four of us had signed up. In addition to Vlad S and me, there was Albert, in his trusty Feathercraft, and Ted (who was game despite the ribs he’d cracked surfing in Costa Rica). Vlad and Ted were in their new Tideraces, and I was in my battered-and-touched-up Photon.
The day before, the weather had been perfect. In fact, Vlad B and I had completed a Manhattan circumnavigation as part of our trip to the Bronx River. But the forecast for Sunday was grim: One hundred percent chance of rain, with thunderstorms on and off throughout the day. Rain is fine for paddlers, but thunder is generally bad news.
That morning, I woke up around 5:45 AM, made coffee, and watched the dawn fill the air. “How beautiful,” I thought…
… Until I remembered the old adage: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor take warning.”
I took my time packing, as I was beginning to wonder if the trip was really going to come off. Others were wondering as well: Albert posted an email to the Pier40 mailing list asking if the trip was still a go. My thinking, frankly, was that we could at the very least meet up and discuss it live. Plus, I had a suspicion Vlad S wouldn’t give up easily: He’s Eastern European, and quitting isn’t in that DNA. The trip had already been postponed twice, and I was guessing it would take more than a few raindrops to scare Vlad off.
I got there around 7:45, about half an hour before our planned launch time. The sky was lowering, and as I stepped out of the cab, I saw lightning flash. Seconds later, thunder boomed.
Things were not looking good.
Inside the clubhouse, I was pleasantly surprised to find everyone already there—and Taino lounging in a chair, waiting to tell his clients that class was cancelled that morning. Another bad sign!
As expected, Vlad was willing to wait an hour or so to see how conditions evolved. I was comfortable with that approach, given that our 8:15 launch time was almost absurdly early for a 12:15 Hell Gate slack. I had figured we’d budget some extra time for the trip down the Battery and up the East River, since I didn’t really know folks’ speeds. And if we arrived early, we could take a longer break. By my estimation, we had about a 2-hour buffer built in—if we decided to skip the Hallet’s Cove break, we could leave as late as 10 or 10:15.
But skipping the break meant we’d probably want to stock up on fuel. I’d had a cup of coffee, but could definitely use another. Albert and I volunteered to go to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts and pick up a second breakfast while everyone waited. We stepped outside into a roaring downpour, to the sight-and-soundtrack of a thunderstorm.
By the time we returned, though, the storm was dying off, which we confirmed by checking the radar. Taino gave us all a lecture in trip planning, and collectively we decided, not without trepidation, to go ahead. With Taino’s help, we’d identified several emergency landing spots in case the thunderstorm returned, and we were set.
We launched around 10:15 into grey and choppy waters. Although the wind wasn’t that strong (predicted to be around 10 kt SW), it was wind-against-current for the trip down the Hudson, and boat wakes had churned up some sizable chop (about 2-3 feet). We crept slowly down the Hudson, keeping as close as we dared to the seawall, and threaded our way past the ferries.
Luck was with us when we came to the Staten Island Ferry: It was just docking as we came around the Battery, so there was no real issue going round it, other than keeping an eye out for the Governors Island and East River ferries that like to zip in and out behind it. We weren’t seeing the last of those ferries, alas.
But for now, we were around the Battery, into the East River for Vlad S’s first time ever! We felt the thrum of adrenaline coursing through our bodies as we bobbed up and down in the chop, smelling the fresh air and paddling out into the current. In a moment or two, we were picked up by a solid 4-kt current rushing up the river. Even without much effort, we zipped past the South Street Seaport, heading towards the Brooklyn Bridge.
Over my shoulder I caught sight of a ferry running upriver right behind us. It zagged out towards the middle of the river, safely out of our way.
But I’d forgotten about the wake. I had just enough time to see a 4-5 foot whitecap bearing down on me. Then I was upside down staring up through foamy green water. Calmly, methodically, I set up my extended-paddle roll. Then I suddenly thought: “What if I bomb it and run out of air?”
Exit calmness and method, enter panic.
I felt my throat close up and my lungs tighten. Before I knew it, I’d popped the sprayskirt and wet-exited.
The first thing I saw when I emerged was Ted looking somewhat surprised, his bangs a wet sheet on his forehead. I had just enough time to wonder, “How did Ted’s hair get wet?” Then Vlad paddled up and we conducted, under Ted’s direction, a two-person rescue—not perfect, but smooth and relatively quick.
Fortunately, although the current was still carrying us forward, we were at a safe distance from the Brooklyn Bridge, and there were no other boats. Just a few minutes after the capsize, we were once again in our boats heading upriver.
I found out then that Ted had pulled off a combat roll, and Vlad had successfully executed a “combat brace”—not to mention his smooth rescue of me. Only Albert, in his stable Feathercraft, had no trouble. Good job, guys!
We made it to the end of the East River uneventfully, taking the Manhattan side of Roosevelt Island. After an unscheduled but most welcome pit stop on Mill Rock, we were in the Harlem River by 12:15.
For the next hour or so, we paddled with a slowly-building current up the Harlem. Vlad marveled at the sights, and we all appreciated the lack of urgency: From here on out, we could go at whatever pace we chose, so long as we made it to Pier 40 by about 8 PM.
We stopped for a picnic lunch at the Bette Midler Boathouse (the official name, as I found out while writing this post, is the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse, but everyone calls it the Bette Midler). We shared tasty snacks and wrapped up with tea and Snickers bars. Ted even managed to work in a brief nap.
Refreshed and refueled, we relaunched. The day had turned out much nicer than predicted; although overcast, it was the perfect temperature, neither too warm nor too cold, and not too windy.
We rounded the sweeping bends at the north end of the Harlem River, until at last the Spuyten Duyvil bridges hove into sight. Vlad craned his neck to see the little Spuyten Duyvil beach, where he’d landed several times previously from the opposite direction, coming up the Hudson. This was the end of never-seen-before territory for him—he’d made it all the way around Manhattan.
The strong current continued down the Hudson, and we paddled lazily, listening to the crackles of conversation by ferry and commercial pilots on VHF radio channel 13. The familiar landmarks drifted by: the George Washington Bridge, the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, the 79th Street Boat Basin, the first of the Midtown piers.
As we approached the cruise ship terminal just north of the Intrepid, Albert and I were pretty close to the Manhattan side, with Ted and Vlad in the middle of the river, riding the current. Vlad shouted something, and Albert and I headed towards him to find out what he wanted. He said that he was getting an uncomfortable feeling about the cruise ships, and gestured to one, just ahead of us. Sure enough, there was smoke coming from the smokestack. At some point it would be leaving—but when?
“That’s ok, we’ll hear it on the radio,” I reassured him. The words were barely out of my mouth when we heard the three blasts announcing that a ship was launching, and the ship—Holland-America’s ms Veendam—began pulling out into the Hudson.
No sweat, we thought. We stopped paddling, ready to wait out the launch.
But we’d forgotten the strength of the current: Within a few seconds, we realized we’d need to make a pretty significant effort to keep from being swept into the path of the ship. Ted and I realized it about the same time; Ted started making for an embayment between the piers on the Manhattan side, and I followed. We were making good time, but Vlad and Albert were lagging behind. At one point, they didn’t seem to be paddling at all.
We both shouted at them to join us in the embayment, and Vlad began to paddle strongly, Albert following right on his heels. Within a few minutes we were all four safe in the embayment, where we watched the ship slide slowly out into the river.
That was more than enough excitement for the day. We took the rest of the trip at a measured pace, keeping an eye out for water taxis, ferries, and errant cruise ships. And we finished the paddle in the Ear, where we reviewed the experience over some frothy libations.
Lessons learned: Keep a close eye on ferries and cruise ships. Don’t rely on your equipment alone. And a solid combat roll is a paddler’s best friend.