A Quiet Springtime Manhattan Circumnavigation

By Vladimir Brezina

Sunday, March 25, 2012

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25 responses to “A Quiet Springtime Manhattan Circumnavigation

  1. Wonderful photos and perspective!


  2. I loved the slideshow. I’ve taken many of the same shots, but not from the same point of view. The only time I can take photos from the viewpoint of being in a boat in the bay is when I’m on the Staten Island Ferry.


    • The Circle Line follows much the same track—a Circle Line boat passes us once or twice on each circumnavigation—so you can get the same shots, although not quite from that you-are-in-the-water perspective!


  3. what are your thoughts about the louis kahn granite box at the southern tip of roosevelt island? to me it’s the opposite of everything modern waterfront design ought to be. how did we let that happen?


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hi Rob,

      I’ll let Vlad weigh in with his thoughts, but my perspective is a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand, I really kind of liked the wild-and-desolate look that part had for so many years… it was (to me) a forgotten remnant of Old New York. So I was sorry to see ANY kind of enhancement… but “modern waterfront design” would have been equally bad, from that perspective. Which isn’t entirely rational, I realize.

      On the other hand, given that SOMETHING was going to go there, the idea of a monument to Roosevelt on, er, Roosevelt Island doesn’t seem so bad. While I’m not in love with the stark granite modernism (which looks quite dated), the trees are very lovely, and I found the bust of FDR inspirational (and peculiarly moving that he was looking northward on “his” island).

      Vlad tells me that the design is actually ALSO a relic of “old New York”, since the designer was someone from the 40s. But I’ll let him speak for himself.

      All in all… I guess I’m disappointed that they (whoever “they” are) found one of my secret wild spots and desecrated it. But I would have felt the same if they’d put anything at all in there, no matter how sensitively designed.


    • This was actually the first time we’ve stopped to take a look at it. For those who don’t know, it’s the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial that now occupies the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, designed by Louis Kahn in the 1970s but, because of New York City’s fiscal crisis then, not built… until now.

      The memorial isn’t quite finished, but all the major elements are in place and even tidied up after construction:

      Clearly, the memorial makes no provision for water access—as opposed to water views, which it offers aplenty all around—and actually blocks it off more firmly than before. It also makes the whole southern tip of Roosevelt Island into a very formal space, supplanting the previous wild-and-desolate (some would say merely run-down-and-dilapidated) feel that Johna liked and pushing aside the more interactive uses that were proposed for that space.

      As a monument, though, it might actually work. It’s true that today such a monument would probably be designed very differently. But Kahn’s design does have a surprisingly simple—for such a large, formal structure—and timeless quality about it, combining trees, light-colored stone, water all around, and views of the Manhattan skyline. Once the trees grow out a bit, we’ll have to visit it on land, as intended. But it could turn out to be a very effective, even moving, memorial.


  4. Love the slideshow as a way to convey the sense of journey. And the photos ranging from the “big picture” to the intimate detail are wonderful. Thanks for sharing this!


    • Thanks, Lynn!

      I realized that I had many photos, each of which was kind of boring in itself, but that together could make a nice slideshow…

      Unfortunately WordPress doesn’t allow much flexibility with slideshows—no captions, no resizing, and the slideshow has to include all the photos attached to the post…


  5. Thanks!

    How long did the trip take?


    • We usually plan for about 6 hours: 2 hours to get from our launch site on Pier 40 (at Houston Street on the West Side of Manhattan) to Hell Gate (so the critical timing calculation is to leave 2 hours before the current in Hell Gate turns from flood to ebb), then 2 hours through the Harlem River, and finally 2 hours down the Hudson back to Pier 40.

      That’s the basic template, but depending on conditions the trip can be shorter or longer. With spring-tide current and a tail wind, I’ve done it in under 5 hours. On the other hand, this last Sunday, we took more like 7 hours—we had a head wind in the East River, and we weren’t feeling particularly energetic…

      These times include no stops. We usually don’t stop, except sometimes we raft up for tea in the lee of our favorite barge on Randall’s Island. This one:


  6. I love the views of the city from the water, different take on NYC. Thanks!


  7. A lovely trip.
    I, of course. am particularly drawn to your shot downriver from the GW. It is my favorite view of Manhattan..and one of these days, I am going to be up on the walkway or down by Little Red when you two go by. (One of my new goals in life is to catch you on the river…)


    • We come down the Hudson pretty much every other weekend, either Saturday or Sunday, late in the day. (Every other weekend because the currents dictate a northbound trip from Manhattan one weekend, a southbound trip the next…)

      So we’ll see each other one of these days!


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  9. Great slideshow and perspective!


  10. Thanks for the trip, MJ


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  12. Can you please explain this comment in more detail? “…so the critical timing calculation is to leave 2 hours before the current in Hell Gate turns from flood to ebb.” With my ignorance on the subject, I could interpret this many ways.

    Do you mean “at *least* 2 hours before” (so that you’re going up Harlem river carried by the flood current), or do you mean “exactly 2 hours before” (so that you hit Hell Gate when the waters are neutral as they transition from flood to ebb)?

    Or are you saying there’s a risk that an ebb current at Hell Gate could carry someone into Long Island Sound against their will?

    Thanks so much! I’ve learned a lot already by seeing three of the posts you two have put up about circumventing the island. Great stuff!!


    • Hi, Dmitri,

      Thanks for asking! You might have seen our posts here and here that bear on your question, but basically the answer is, “all of the above”.

      Most importantly, you want to get out of the East River, i.e. pass through the Hell Gate junction into the Harlem River, before the current in the East River starts ebbing, because paddling against the strong ebb current in the East River is not fun. So that dictates leaving Pier 40 (at our usual paddling speed and going round Manhattan counterclockwise) at least 2 hours before the start of the ebb in Hell Gate.

      But much more than 2 hours before is not optimal either, because that means arriving in Hell Gate too early and trying to paddle up the Harlem River while the current is still coming down it. (An obvious solution to this is to wait in Hell Gate for the current to turn, but we prefer to time things optimally so that we don’t have to wait.) So this consideration suggest that precisely 2 hours, arriving in Hell Gate just at slack—not too long before it and certainly not after it—-is more or less optimal.

      Being carried through Hell Gate into the Upper East River leading to Long Island Sound by the (flood, not ebb) current is not really an issue for a kayaker, who can always make progress, even if slow, against the current. But it could be an issue for a round-Manhattan swimmer, who, once being carried in the wrong direction, might find it hard to correct his/her course.


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