Exploring Long Island Sound with 2 Geeks @ 3 Knots

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

IMGP6776 cropped smallA 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.

IMGP6852 cropped smallWhat’s a little less typical is getting there by kayak.

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.

IMGP6484 cropped smallBright and early (around 8:15 AM, actually), we launched from Pier 40 . We caught a nice ebb current down the Hudson and arrived at the Battery in short order.

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.

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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.

IMGP6637 cropped smallBut 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.

IMGP6644 cropped smallPast Hell Gate and its power station, the most direct route is between the Brother Islands. They’re called North Brother and South Brother, but I think of them as Big Brother and Little Brother.

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.

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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.

IMGP6654 cropped smallFrom 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.

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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.

IMGP6749 cropped smallAnd 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.

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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.

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We spotted egrets, saw (and heard) an osprey, and for a languorous hour or two could almost forget the idea of civilization.

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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!).

IMGP6884 cropped smallThe 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.

IMGP6997 cropped smallWe paddled back between the islands. We needed to be at Throgs Neck by 4 PM to pick up the ebb current down the East River for home.

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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).

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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.

IMGP7120 cropped smallThe 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 IMGP7144 cropped smallcount). 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”).

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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.

53 responses to “Exploring Long Island Sound with 2 Geeks @ 3 Knots

  1. wow….wonderful moments!!!
    :-)
    v.

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  2. Good times with friends :) . Back when I was a Police Officer with the NYPD I unfortunately had to drop off quite a few Juveniles off at that barge back when it was part of the Spofford juvenile correctional facility . Johna your lucky none of the prisoners took a swan dive onto your kayak lol ,years ago a prisoner scaled that very fence razor wire and all and did the triple Lindy into the water :)

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Stephen–I think I read about that on Wikipedia!

      Personally, if it were me… I’d have done the exact same thing.

      Nothing against the hospitality and courtesy of the NYPD, mind you, but I can only imagine that feeling of being trapped in a cage (never mind what I did that caused me to be there). It’s so beautiful, particularly in the morning, and being cooped up and knowing I couldn’t get out there… heck, I’d do a triple Lindy in a heartbeat, even knowing the consequences!!!

      Thanks for reading, and posting!

      Like

  3. beautiful fotos, as usual. but the ones of hell gate, which i crossed twice at slack, convince me i’ll never try it again, your tip notwithstanding. be safe.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Will! It is so not that bad. Really. As Vlad commented later, this is one of those rare cases where the fotos look worse/scarier than the reality…

      Thanks for reading!

      Like

  4. what a neat trip…lots of fun I’m sure!

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  5. Looks like a nice adventure!

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  6. Vlad,

    We were a little behind you on Sunday. What time did you round the Battery? What time did you go through Hell gate? Hell gate was much calmer at 12:30 when we turned into the Harlem river. It was a magnificent day. A big thank you from Jeanie and me for all the information and advice you shared as we planned our first circ. We are already looking forward to doing it again.

    George

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      George,

      We thought of you guys when we launched! We launched about 8:15, which (if memory serves) had us at the Battery around 9, and Hell Gate around 10, plus or minus. Our best guess was that you were about 2-3 hours behind us (which makes sense as you wanted to be at Hell Gate at slack).

      So glad your circumnav was wonderful! May it not be as long before the next one!!!

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      • Johna,
        Next spring I think. Perhaps with the put in at Liberty Park in N.J. on a day that lets us clear the Battery before things get real busy. Your trip out to Long Island Sound is calling us, too. Then there are…….. Ha! We may bring a different canoe. I am restoring another “old” Kevlar Sawyer.

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    • Also, on the way into the Harlem River you didn’t go through this part of Hell Gate—the pictures show the section between the two Hell Gate bridges, where (at least on the flood) the greatest turbulence occurs…

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  7. Thanks for taking us along on your trip, Johna; sounds like it was a lot of fun!

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Oh, Lynn, it was PERFECT. In fact, I originally called it “A Perfect Paddle” until Vlad pointed out that title had been used before. But it really was: Weather, conditions, friends, surprises, everything!

      Thanks for reading, and posting!

      Like

  8. What interesting geographical names, especially Throgs Neck. It sounds like a wrestling move of a mountain troll. I enjoyed the voyage very much thanks to your wonderful description.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      Throgs are, I think, clams (Vlad will correct me). And I believe the idea is that “Thogs Neck” looks a bit like the neck of a clam… but yes, I’ve grown up listening to all the traffic reports (“and it’s a 40-minute delay across the Throgs Neck…”) wondering, “What is a Throg?”. Now I know!

      Thanks for reading, and posting!

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  9. Whirlpools? YIKES! I’ll take your word on the turn around. Sugar and Spice sounds nice! and forgetting civilization? Sounds like a plan to me! This looks like a trip to peace and serenity. Great shots! Fabulous adventure.

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    • Johna Till Johnson

      They aren’t as scary as they sound, honest! And Sugar and Spice WAS nice. Lovely, in fact. Thanks for reading, viewing, and posting!

      Like

  10. Beautiful pics. I almost think I could manuever a kayak down the Hudson… Almost. ;)

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  11. What a fantastic journey…loved the post.

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  12. Thank you both for taking me along again on one of your wonderful adventures! It’s so fun to know that you pull so much joy & wonder out of life together – doing something you absolutely love.

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  13. It’s a modern odyssey. Did you lash yourselves to the masts of your kayaks—okay, so kayaks don’t have masts, but we’re talking mythology here—so you could hear the sirens singing?

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  14. awesome and great pictures! thanks for a wonderful ride as always!

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  15. That’s a trip I’ve been meaning to take for a while out of Inwood – will have to find a place to stay. I want to hear Vlad’s story sometime – offline :)

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  16. Johna and Vlad…loved the adventure, the photos…and the fact you visited Alex and Jean! Would love to paddle with you all down there sometime. What was the mileage?

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    • The standard one-day equivalent of this trip, abbreviating the Long Island Sound portion of the trip to just around City Island and Hart Island, perhaps with a visit to Pea Island or Execution Rocks Light (all of which we’ve done in the past), is about 52 nautical miles. I think this was about 10 miles longer, say 62 nautical miles—say 70 land miles.

      And yes, would love to have you come down and paddle!!

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  17. I always enjoy reading about your adventures!!!

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  18. Hey, Vlad and Johna! It WAS a perfect paddle—so glad everything worked out. We had a blast!! Can’t wait for the encore.
    Jean & Mr. Visibility :)

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  19. Great trip, and a nice read.

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  20. After all that, I can’t just “like”, can I? Good times :)

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  21. Beautiful pictures! Sounds like it was quite the adventure. :)

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