If It’s Summer, It’s Time for a Sandy Hook Paddle!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

Across the Lower Bay

Yesterday was a perfect summer’s day.

Well, if your definition of  “perfect” includes placid weather, blue skies, and hot sunshine.  Mine does—if I’m on the water and can cool off with a roll or two. Vlad is not so happy in the heat—and prefers more exciting “conditions”. As you’ll see, we both got our preferences…

We decided to go for a long trip—“long” being anything more than 30 nautical miles—not something we’ve done much of lately. The currents dictated it would be to Sandy Hook and back, returning after dark—again, a pleasant change of pace.

And the conditions were calm—a light breeze from the south, which would be in our faces on the way down, cooling us down, then helping us along on the return.

Well, not “helping”, exactly. As you’ll hear…

Here are the highlights. (Click on  any photo to start a slideshow.)

We were almost home. But then, it got exciting!

That cloud was a thundercloud, as it turned out.

As the light faded, we stopped to put on our navigation lights. But what was that over to the west?

“Vlad, did you see that?” I asked.

“What?” he replied.

I gestured with my paddle to the bank of clouds towering over New Jersey.

“That! It looked like lightning.”

Actually, it didn’t—at least not like any lightning I’d ever seen. It looked more like fireworks. A spectacular fork of fire sliced through the sky. The whole bank of clouds lit up briefly, shadowing the Jersey City skyline. But strangely… no thunder.

It happened again. And again. Every few seconds, in fact.

The wind began to blow strongly,  from the west, driving waves ahead of it.

The sky was darkening, the clouds opaque (except when lit up with the strange, soundless lightning). I could smell the air:  hot, dry, and scorched.

It felt like a thunderstorm: Clouds, and wind, and lightning. But no sound (except for the steadily-increasing roar of the wind). And no rain.

By this time we were just ready to cross from Governors Island to the Battery, and then up the Hudson and home. (Sorry, no photos. It was dark. And we had to concentrate!)

The wind-driven waves were complicating things. Under normal circumstances, the crossing can be a bit choppy. In the dark, with the wind-driven waves, and wakes from the summer ferry traffic… it was downright surreal.

Within a few yards of leaving Governors Island, we plunged into a tide rip. I’m not sure how fast we were going (too dark to read the GPS), but we splashed up and down, this way and that, as the waves collided and tossed us around. It was the first of several—we counted three or four before we stopped counting.

Fortunately the Staten Island Ferry had just left, so we didn’t have to worry about staying out of its way. And most of the large commercial vessels were already anchored.

But there was still plenty of traffic, despite the storm. In the gathering gloom we made out another boat, one of the summer cruise boats, and made sure to give it a wide berth.

But what was that following behind it? Another cruise boat—and the captain didn’t appear to see us at all! (The radio, by this time, had gone eerily silent—to the point where I wondered whether it had stopped working—and in any event, I was too busy paddling to grab it and announce ourselves.)

We stopped, and the boat passed a few yards in front of us, and we were roundly cheered by the partygoers. Normally I respond with a wave and a smile, but this time I was too busy maintaining balance (and forward momentum).

We made it across without further incident—other than the western sky pulsing with soundless light every few seconds, and a couple more intense tide rips that tossed us around.

Then, just as we were ready to breathe a sigh of relief, another tide rip grabbed us, pushing us so sharply into the sea wall that I was once again fighting to stay upright. I wanted to turn the boat out into the river, but edging, sweeping, and ruddering strokes didn’t seem to have any effect.

What to do? Paddle fast—get momentum, and use that to get control of the boat.

Which I did, and finally pulled out into the current—away from the chop and reflected waves and wakes at the seawall.

We rode the current the rest of the way home against the eerie backdrop of the silent lightning, listening to the wind roar and the clouds mass up against the northern sky.

That was fun!” Vlad exclaimed with satisfaction, as we pulled into Pier 40.

Yeah, it was actually. A spectacular ending to a perfect summer’s paddle!

55 responses to “If It’s Summer, It’s Time for a Sandy Hook Paddle!

  1. Love the story and the pics are fantastic!!!!!! Thanks soooo much for sharing!!!


  2. Wow, that’s some ride. We did a short trip yesterday and got caught in some wacky currents, too, but nothing like your experience. That old devil moon, pushing and pulling all that water around.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Yeah, it was a new moon–good thinking on that one!

      But still–where on EARTH did those tiderips come from? We’ve made that crossing dozens of times (hundreds, in Vlad’s case) and never quite seen that lineup of chop–certainly not on a relatively calm day.

      Oh well, that’s why it’s such a wonderful sport—utterly unpredictable!


    • With a flood current and a southwest wind, there’s always a tide rip off the southwest tip of Governors Island and another off the southwest corner of the Battery, where the flood current rebounds from it. And often there is one in the middle of the crossing. These were there on Sunday. But in addition there were others, narrow bands separated by smooth water. Could have been initiated by boat wakes. There were many party boats milling around, and as a rule most of the rough water in the harbor in the summer is churned up by boat wakes—it’s not there in winter :-)


  3. What a finale! Wow, that seemed like a really close call with the cruise boat! You both surely felt 100 percent alive when you finished that excursion!


    • Johna Till Johnson

      You called it, Z! Very much so.
      Actually, when Vlad said, “Well THAT was fun,”–honestly, “fun” wasn’t my first thought! But then I thought about it, and “100 percent alive” captures it exactly. The natural pyrotechnics were just.. amazing.

      Thanks (as always) for posting!


  4. This was epic, you two. Wow, congrats on your successful landing.


  5. What a story! Great pictures from the sunny parts. :)


  6. George Fatula

    Very nice! Thanks!



  7. Y’all amaze me, and these pix are fantastic!


  8. Every time I read these it makes me really, REALLY want to do this…but, at the same time, it also seriously freaks me out!
    Thanks for sharing!


  9. Well done Mariners . Johna How did the Xplore-S perform on this trip especially in the clapotis and tide rips ? I was on the JFK ferry yesterday on My way home to SI with My Bike ( 2:30 pm boat ) . What time did yas cross the Battery heading out ? Saturday I did a little solo paddle , start/finish from Great Kills harbor to Mattawan creek in Keyport in My new Tiderace Xcite . The boat is out of site and loves the rough water : )


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Uh… wait a sec… did I read that right?? “My new Tiderace XCite”???



      We crossed the Battery around 12:30-1 PM, so would have missed you.

      The Xplore is its usual self in the clapotis/tide rips… which is to say, has a mind of its own, but obeys predictably when you tell it convincingly what to do you. I suspect the Xcite is a lot more nimble….


  10. Having just ridden the SIF recently, I appreciate your perspective.


  11. Wow. How frightening. Glad you’re okay!


  12. Excellent captured, amazing photos and writing… :-)


  13. Awesome story, and I had to pause and remember that if you wrote this post then you must have got back ok. The cloud photo is epic


  14. Great photos. Do you have have a waterproof camera?


  15. Michael Kalin

    Exciting trip report — big buoys, big boats, big weather. Great shots of a Bouchard tug, Evening Star I think, a new one on me. Bouchards use to be common our way (Albany), now seldom seen despite the increased barge traffic. I miss them.

    Today we head to our favorite osprey nest — beacon 129 — seeking much less excitement. One will be in a canoe. Hoping to get on & off before the storms resume.


    • Lots of Bouchard tugs in the harbor. Unfortunately I didn’t pay a lot of attention to which one this was as we swept past on the ebb current…

      Thanks, Michael—have fun on your canoe trip! :-)


      • Michael Kalin

        Vlad, enough of the tug’s starboard nameplate is visible in the closeup to deduce the rest. It’s a fine shot and the next is even better. A composition on the run or a super grab? Either way a wonderful shot, adroitly capturing your wing over your starboard hull above the barge’s deck, marvelous color coordination.

        A serene paddle on quiet water today as hoped. One osprey complaisant (after a fashion, not overjoyed to see us), the other flew away with a fish. Julie & I were in kayaks. Our friend had a canoe.


        • That second tug photo was taken by Johna :-), then severely cropped by me. And that illustrates the basic composition method. You do have to be alert to spot an attractive constellation of shapes and colors when it offers itself. But then it’s a matter of taking as many pictures as possible before the constellation falls apart again as the kayak moves on, and then selecting and cropping the best ones back home… Sometimes I do paddle into a particular position to try to get that special composition (usually with Johna providing the foreground interest :-), but it doesn’t always work out…


        • Johna Till Johnson

          Whoa! I just got a compliment on my photography!

          How cool! Thanks, I’m blushing…


  16. George Fatula

    Sounds like the behavioral performance of the periphery were right on! Ain’t it amazing! Ha!



  17. What an exciting paddle and trip. Thanks for letting me tag along looking at your adventure through photography.


  18. Sounds a bit hair raising, but glad you had fun. Love the photos!


  19. Intrepid kayaking and brilliant pix to boot.


  20. George Fatula

    Did you receive any radio transmissions that were directed to you?


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Not this time, though it happens. Or more precisely, the captains say snarky things to each other. I remember one tug captain saying to another, in a voice dripping with sarcasm: “Couple of kayakers about about cross the channel… GENIUSES!!”

      I picked up the radio and said, “Captain, this is the kayakers. We’re waiting until you pass.” (or words to that effect). I recall he was considerably more polite after that! :-)


  21. You do have some adventures! Was that a cactus?


  22. What an intrepid pair you make. That’s one seriously busy seaway you had to negotiate as well as conquer the sea’s unexpected thrust, what with those rip tides. Take my hat off to the two of you! Guessing your kayaks have rudders and bilge pumps?


  23. Reblogged this on Sykose and commented:
    We would love a paddle!


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