By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
It was the first Saturday in November, and we desperately needed to get out for a long paddle—we’re seriously starting to train for the Everglades Challenge next spring, and we need to start putting in the mileage.
The currents indicated a southerly trip, and Vlad suggested one that had become very familiar over the years: An out-and-back trip to Sandy Hook. I wasn’t enthusiastic. Much as I love the trip—the closest you can get to open water in New York City’s waterways—we’d done the trip quite often recently, and it felt a bit like a treadmill workout: Paddling for the sake of exercise, not adventure.
I counter-proposed a trip around Staten Island, which we haven’t seen much of this year. I particularly missed the beaches along the south shore, and the excitement of traversing the Kill van Kull at night. But Vlad pointed out that the day wasn’t ideal for a Staten Island circumnavigation—given that the southbound current would only start late in the morning, we’d get back at midnight, if we were lucky. And he didn’t want to do an out-and-back down the coastline of Staten Island, because he likes having a destination.
So Sandy Hook it was.
We launched from Pier 40 around 11 AM, happy to be back on the water after a couple of weekends off. The weather was perfect for an uneventful paddle: Partly sunny but cool, with little wind. The one small catch was that the currents were predicted to be weaker than average, which meant our trip would take longer than usual. But that was okay—this was a training run after all.
The sun glittered off the buildings and turned the water into molten metal. We felt pretty good as we paddled down the Hudson, passing the familiar landmarks: The Battery Park City ferry terminal, North Cove, South Cove, the Colgate Clock across the river (which is back, but with no hands), Governor’s Island.
We encountered plenty of shipping traffic—the day was busy, and we saw sailboats, ferries, tugs and barges, tankers, container ships…
We were coming up under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge when Vlad said suddenly, “Maybe we should go along the coast of Staten Island after all.” Why had he changed his mind? He explained: As anticipated, the currents were weaker than usual, and we’d have a long slog down to Sandy Hook and back. It’s also possible he’d noticed my lack of enthusiasm for the trip, though I’d done my best to embrace the idea.
We agreed that we’d take a side trip out to Swinburne Island to check if the seals that winter there each year had arrived yet, then continue along the coast of Staten Island west until we felt like turning around. We hadn’t been to Swinburne Island in ages, so that felt like an adventure—not to mention the prospect of seals! We’d never seen them this early in the season, and we’d always wondered how early they arrived.
Ironically, the current picked up after that, and we had a swift ride over calm waters to Swinburne Island. As we approached the shore, I paddled as quietly as I could, hoping not to scare the seals (if any).
But I’d forgotten about the birds. As we approached the island, a flock of seagulls took off, squawking raucously. Any hope of a silent approach was gone—as, likely, were any seals.
Ever hopeful, I edged my way around the corner of the island, scanning the dark, jagged rocks for any lump that was more rounded and alive.
And then I saw it! A quick undulation followed by a splash. Surely that was a seal diving into the water? I whispered excitedly to Vlad (harder than it sounds over several yards of open water). I could tell he was doubtful. “Well, if it was a seal, it’ll emerge to have a look at us,” he said.
I was beginning to doubt myself. Had that really been a seal? But sure enough, a few minutes later, a head emerged from the water, trailed by a ripple of water. It nosed curiously around, then dove again.
We spent the next forty-five minutes or so watching for seals; in the end we saw two, possibly three. Nothing like the usual dozen or more, but at least we knew how early in the season they arrived. And seal-watching this early in the year was delightful: Normally, we can’t spend too long sitting on the water before we get cold. But on this day we could have waited forever in the 60-degree sunshine—except Staten Island was calling!
So we left Swinburne Island and began to paddle west, parallel to the shoreline of Staten Island, with no fixed destination. Until…
“Why don’t we visit Great Kills Harbor?” Vlad said suddenly. We’d passed this harbor many times on our trips around Staten Island, but never took the time to paddle inside. So there it was: A destination!
Now that we were both satisfied with the plan, we paddled happily on. The south shore of Staten Island can be a bit monotonous: beach, pier, beach, pier, beach… But this autumn afternoon, there were trees in color livening up the view. Besides, we had a harbor to make for!
Even though Great Kills is clearly visible from Swinburne Island, it always takes a surprisingly long time to reach it. But after a couple of hours, we were there. We made our way in through the narrow channel (through quite a heavy traffic of sailboats and powerboats) and circled around the harbor counterclockwise.
The harbor abuts Great Kills Park, one of NYC’s little-known wonders. (If you have the opportunity, it’s well worth exploring.) Vlad joked it should be called “Port-A-Potty Park” because of the ubiquity of the eponymous amenities. I, however, was delighted to find them.
After circling the harbor—noting the beached, decaying sailboats and other unhealed damage of Hurricane Sandy—we picnicked on the beach at the harbor’s entrance. We ate a leisurely late lunch while enjoying a spectacular light show that the sun, clouds, and sea put on for us.
Then we set off on the return trip.
We paddled under clouds spectacularly colored by the setting sun, and rounded the corner into the Verrazano Narrows just as darkness was setting in.
We were anticipating an uneventiful trip the rest of the way home…
… except for one thing: A cruise ship had been announcing over the radio its passage down the Hudson. We couldn’t see it yet, but we knew it was coming. And, to the south of us, a container ship had just announced its entry into Ambrose Channel, northbound.
So we faced a decision: Should we cross the Narrows to the Brooklyn side, hopefully before either ship arrived, or work our way up the Staten Island side?
The Brooklyn side is usually safer; you can take refuge in the Bay Ridge anchorage, and if you keep an eye out for tugs and barges, you can usually avoid most major traffic. On the Staten Island side, in contrast, there’s the Staten Island Ferry terminal at St. George, followed by the Kill van Kull, a busy channel frequented by container ships, tankers, barges, and other commercial vessels. And it was a dark, cloudy night—with no moon.
So we figured we’d cross over to the Brooklyn side, and we set off, paddling hard. But almost as soon as we started across, we caught sight of the cruise ship steaming towards us in all her majesty.
We probably could have made it across safely, but there was the unknown container ship somewhere out in the dark evening, also heading towards us. So much for that plan! We returned to the Staten Island side and made our way north.
All went reasonably well until just before the Staten Island Ferry terminal, when a tug and barge passed uncomfortably close to the pierheads, forcing us to duck into an embayment until it had passed.
We emerged from the embayment and headed up to the ferry terminal, where a newly-arrived ferry was docked, engines running. Should we wait for the ferry to depart? Yes, we decided.
We waited… and waited.. and waited. There didn’t seem to be anyone on the boat, though it was lit, and the engine was still running. Finally I called over the radio:
“Staten Island Ferry at St. George, this is two kayakers. Can you let us know when you’re planning to pull out?”
Long pause, then: “Who’s calling the Staten Island Ferry at St. George?”
He replied: “We’re not pulling out, we’re securing for the night.”
“Thanks much! That’s what we wanted to know!”
“Thank you, and have a good night!” (Navigators are infallibly courteous.)
So we paddled across the Staten Island Ferry terminal.
Next up: Crossing the Kill van Kull.
Crossing the “kay-vee” (as the captains call it) is always exciting, even in broad daylight. It’s a busy channel, with sharp turns at both ends that can hide what’s heading towards you. At night, with a confusing kaleidoscope of lights punctuating the darkness, it’s hard enough to orient yourself, let alone see distinguish which are city lights and which the lights of approaching ships. The only saving grace is that the Kill van Kull is narrow—just a few minutes of hard paddling will get you across. (But you really don’t want to capsize there!)
This night was no exception. We peered into the darkness up the Kill and saw nothing, except for flashing buoys and stationary lights on land. In the other direction? Nothing.
We took off, paddling strongly, and congratulated each other on having nearly made it through the tricky part.
But we spoke too soon. Suddenly, Vlad said, “Wait. That’s a ship.” A constellation of dim lights had suddenly rearranged itself into the form of a container ship, whose red and green running lights had until then been hidden from our view by the bulky containers. And it was heading straight for us.
What to do?
“Paddle hard,” Vlad said.
And we did, making it across the Kill in a burst of manic energy, then watching over our shoulders as the huge ship slipped by behind us.
Well, I had said I’d missed the excitement of crossing the Kill van Kull at night!
After that, things calmed down. We paddled on home, coming up to the Statue of Liberty, then on past Ellis Island, finally crossing the Hudson just south of Pier 40.
All in all, a wonderful paddle. And it just goes to show: Sometimes the best destinations are the ones you didn’t know you were looking for!
- Length: about 35 nautical miles
- Average paddling speed: about 3.6 knots (this includes the time we spent watching the seals)
- Total time out: about 10 hours
Here are all the photos from the trip—at least until it got dark… (click on any photo to start a slideshow):
The individual photos are here.