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!