By Johna Till Johnson
(Sorry, no photos this time! For one thing, I didn’t have a camera. And for another, it was, ahem, dark. So I’ve used a few of Vlad’s photos from previous circumnavigations.)
She rose up ahead of us, brilliantly lit in all her resplendent orange glory: the Staten Island Ferry, blazing against the dark night sky.
It was around 3:30 AM, and she was docked at Whitehall, at the southern tip of Manhattan.
Regular readers of this blog know that I’m deeply wary of the Staten Island Ferry. (“Deeply wary” sounds way better than “scared silly”, which is closer to the truth—of all the ferries, this one is the largest and seems to move the fastest, and I worry irrationally that one day I’ll be caught in its churning engines.)
This night was no exception: There were ten of us, and the brisk ebb current was pushing us relentlessly into the ferry’s path.
The question was (with apologies to the Clash): “Should I stay or should I go?” Should we bank on the ferry’s remaining docked for the five minutes it would take us to glide past, or should we hold up and wait, back-paddling against the current, while she departed?
I thought briefly of calling on the radio. As always, my trusty marine radio was clipped to a pocket of my PFD, tuned to Channel 13, the commercial shipping channel. But I didn’t want to be fiddling with it if the group’s leader decided we should make a fast break.
As it turned out, we didn’t have to decide. A loud voice cut suddenly through the silence, coming in on my radio: “This is the Staten Island Ferry calling. Any of you kayakers out there have a radio on?” I grabbed the radio and replied. The ferry captain advised that he was about to depart, and asked us to hold up for a minute or two. I agreed that we would, and yelled out instructions to the group.
And then we sat and watched as the ferry majestically pulled out, safety instructions blaring over the intercom. Once she was past, we paddled swiftly by.
That had never happened before, in all my years of paddling around New York! Never in my experience has the captain of a commercial vessel spontaneously contacted a kayaker via radio (though they occasionally comment about us when they think we can’t hear).
But it was somehow fitting, a reminder that even the most familiar experiences can harbor novelty.
It was one of the last nights of summer, with an almost-full moon, and the currents were perfect for an overnight circumnavigation. We were a cross-section of kayakers: Some were whitewater paddlers, others expedition paddlers (one fellow had just completed a thousand-mile-plus trip including a traverse of the Eerie Canal). There was also a healthy contingent of Pier 40 regulars.
Many of us had been around Manhattan before, but for a few folks, this was a first. And for two of the trip’s leaders, Julie and John, this was something of an exercise in leadership training, under the watchful eye of our coach, Warren. (They performed flawlessly, I should note!)
We left that evening around 7:30 PM, just after the sun had set, and had an uneventful paddle up the Hudson in the darkening evening. We stopped at 125th Street for a snack and a break, and paused briefly again to admire the George Washington Bridge, blazing white and blue against the black night sky. Then it was up and around, under the Spuyten Duyvil railway bridge, and into the long, peaceful Harlem River.
We traveled relatively slowly, as is common in a larger group; you move at the pace of the slowest paddler. Overhead, the moon blazed silver-white in a dark, almost cloudless sky, illuminating us perfectly. Although we kept our lights on for most of the trip, as required by Coast Guard regulations, we did turn them off for a short period well out of the way of commercial traffic, just to test how well we could see one another—quite well, as we discovered.
We stopped for a longer break and rest at the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse, also known as the Bette Middler boathouse (since she was the driving force behind creating the boathouse, the first community boathouse on the Harlem River in 100 years).
By the time we started again, we were running behind schedule. Slack at Hell Gate had been at around midnight, and the ebb current was already pushing its way up the Harlem River—against us.
We kept paddling, past the brilliantly lit buildings, late weekend partiers, and a few stalwart fishermen, until the Wards Island Footbridge hove into view. And beyond it, the East River swirled and roiled, the growing ebb current building up into impressive whirlpools.
We plunged into the swirling water. The whitewater folks were in their element: They yelled with glee as the water grabbed and spun them around.
For some of the rest of us, the spinning water was more of a challenge. But we all made it safely—including a brief stop at Mill Rock, where those that needed to took a quick bio-break among the rocks and reeds.
After the break, we plunged back into the East River. Roosevelt Island zipped by us at a record pace, and soon the Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn bridges rose ahead of us.
We stopped for a last time at the beach just north of Pier 17, the South Street Seaport, where one paddler wisely called it quits, having come to the end of his rope. He caught a ride back to Pier 40, and the rest of us went on to encounter the Staten Island Ferry.
After we passed the ferry, we put our backs into paddling against the current, heading north up the Hudson River. Although the current was against us, the wind was with us, and it wasn’t long before we arrived back at Pier 40 at about 4:15 AM.
It had been a long circumnavigation, almost nine hours. We were variously exhausted, exhilarated, or both, and most of us hung around the clubhouse for a time just to rehash the trip.
By the time I hailed a cab home, the first hints of dawn were tinging the night sky. It was a perfect celebration of the end of summer.