By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
A couple of weekends ago, we set out to visit our friends and fellow kayakers Alex and Jean, who are also fellow bloggers at 2 Geeks @ 3 Knots (check out their lovely blog!). They live in New Rochelle, just outside New York City, and just off Long Island Sound.
Heading out to the Sound on a summer weekend is pretty typical for New Yorkers.
But hey—we’d been there quite a few times before and knew the route pretty well. And this time we’d have the luxury of spending the night with our friends—so we’d have the chance to explore more than we usually can on an out-and-back trip. We’d been eagerly anticipating this trip for several weeks.
Miracle of miracles, the ferries were all behaving for once—even my nemesis, the Staten Island Ferry, was safely departed. So we made it around the Battery without having to wait, or worry about getting pushed into a ferry’s path by the current. The weather was perfect: low seventies, dry, with a nice breeze. And the flood up the East River was already well underway.
We paddled up the East River and through Hell Gate, continuing to make great time. To get out into Long Island Sound in the shortest possible time, you have to go through Hell Gate when the current is strong, which can be exciting. To date, the fastest I’ve clocked is 10 knots, though Vlad says he’s made it up to 12 knots.
But a fast current isn’t the only hazard. The water right under the Hell Gate Bridge is dotted with whirlpools, which can be disconcerting if you haven’t traversed them before. The secret: Paddle hard to maintain momentum and stability, and don’t worry about getting spun around. The whirlpool will spin you back again soon enough.
They’re inviting, but don’t try to land there. The authorities don’t like it. (Vlad has a story about that…)
For good reason. To your right as you paddle just past the Brother Islands is the infamous Rikers Island (which, we always note as we paddle past, has unusually attractive beaches that just cry out to be landed on). And to the left, across the East River from Rikers Island, is what appears to be a big blue and white building. If you paddle closer, you see a kind of wire cage at the top, with human figures moving around in it.
It’s festooned with something that shimmers in the morning sun like strands of glitter. Kind of festive.
Only it’s not festive. It’s razor wire. The blue and white “building” is actually the Rikers Island Barge (technically the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center). The human figures moving around are inmates playing basketball.
They are focused on the game; they never seem to look out to the water and freedom.
But it still seemed sad to me, on this gentle late-summer morning, that I was outside enjoying the wind and the waves, free to go wherever I pleased, while they were trapped inside the cage.
From the barge, the East River leads past LaGuardia Airport (at one-minute intervals, planes were coming in to land over our heads as we paddled past), under the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, past the SUNY Maritime College, to Throgs Neck, where we were meeting our friends.
The strong current continued, and we made it to Throgs Neck earlier than anticipated, just after 11 AM. While we waited for our friends to join us I did a few skills drills while Vlad paddled around taking photographs.
Our friends soon arrived, with three other fellow paddlers. Since some of the group had never been out to Throgs Neck before, we paddled back under the Throgs Neck Bridge and took photos of the Empire State, the training ship docked at the SUNY Maritime College. (Interesting side note: The Empire State is actually the sixth training ship to bear this name.)
Then it was off to lunch on City Island. We’d eaten there before, but always at the “dock-and-dine” restaurants on the island’s north side, memorable more for the view (and easy access by kayak) than the quality of the cuisine. Our friends assured us this time would be different.
And it surely was! We landed on a little beach next to the Touring Kayak Club and went a couple of blocks inland, to the Sugar and Spice bake shop and restaurant. The food was excellent—I heartily recommend the huevos rancheros. And the staff didn’t seem at all fazed by our dripping kayak gear.
They weren’t the only friendly folks on City Island. When we arrived back at the beach, we were greeted by a couple giving out sample energy bars. At their urging, we each took a couple, which turned out to be wise.
We launched and paddled on up the Sound, through the archipelago of little rocky islands—Pea, Columbia, Huckleberry—where some of the party peeled off to head home, leaving the 2 Geeks with us.
Since we were assured of a place to sleep that night, we could meander leisurely along the coastline, admiring the big houses, pushed along by a companionable breeze. We paddled across Larchmont Harbor, past the breakwater off Satan’s Toe, and finally into Milton Harbor and a glorious salt marsh that our friends knew about.
We spotted egrets, saw (and heard) an osprey, and for a languorous hour or two could almost forget the idea of civilization.
All too soon, it was time for the paddle homeward. The breeze had turned into a brisk 10-knot headwind, and it took us longer than expected to make it to the club where our friends are members, Larchmont’s Horseshoe Harbor Yacht Club. We pulled up to the dock just as the sun was setting (somehow, that always seems to be the case!).
The club is uniquely kayak-friendly: The dock included a feature I’d never seen before, which I promptly dubbed the “kayaker extractor”: Two boards extending out, just the right distance apart for a kayaker to grab and steady herself while disembarking. After a long day on the water, it was much appreciated!
After stowing the boats and changing into dry clothes, dinner! Alex and Jean had brought beer and grilled steak and vegetables (thanks again!!), and other club members offered pesto and mozzarella–gratefully accepted, since it had been a long day and we were hungry!
We ate overlooking the Sound, with the gentle sounds and smells of a late-summer evening. Then it was off to our friends’ apartment and a long nights’ sleep.
The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast (almost lunch, actually), we were back on the water by early afternoon. The weather had changed. Instead of dry and almost chilly, it was warm and rainy.
At Throgs Neck we said our farewells and paddled off back toward the city, just visible in the afternoon haze. We passed again under the Throgs Neck and Bronx-Whitestone Bridges and then by the prison barge (no basketball players, and the razor wire was invisible in the dusk).
Then a fast, but uneventful trip through Hell Gate, and a right turn up the Harlem River. We’d decided to complete the Manhattan circumnavigation and return home via the Harlem and Hudson Rivers, rather than retracing our route down the East River.
The paddle up the Harlem was peaceful and leisurely, as it almost always is. We passed under the 15 bridges uneventfully (at least I think there are 15—I’ve never been able to get a perfectly accurate count). And just as the light was fading, we rounded the bend at Spuyten Duyvil and paddled into the pink-and-blue dusk of the Hudson River.
We were still ten miles from home, so we were delighted to eat the energy bars given to us by the gracious folks at City Island. Then we paddled down towards the George Washington Bridge.
Full dark fell, and we turned on our lights. Paddling at night is fun, particularly in the summer: It’s cooler, and you feel like you’re going faster (a phenomenon Vlad describes, and dissects, in “I Paddle Faster at Night”).
One of the pleasures of paddling down the Hudson is that there aren’t as many ferries to deal with. And this time we were in luck yet again: We arrived at the Midtown ferry terminals just after all three ferries that had been docked there departed, so we could pass by without stopping.
We ended up where we’d started, at Pier 40, right around 9 PM. And as we paddled into the embayment, we turned towards each other and said, almost in unison, “Now that was a perfect paddle!”
Here are more photos from the trip (click on any photo to start slideshow).
And even more photos are here.