By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson
In the town where I was born,
Lived a man who sailed to sea,
And he told us of his life,
In the land of submarines.
So we sailed on to the sun,
Till we found a sea of green,
And we lived beneath the waves,
In our yellow submarine…
The yellow submarine isn’t just an invention of the Beatles—it exists for real. And it had gotten a paint job, courtesy of our friend Erik Baard and his HarborLab crew. So we decided it was high time to paddle out and see the results.
Let me back up… in the waters of Coney Island Creek, just off Gravesend Bay, there rests—amazingly, improbably!—a yellow submarine. We’ve told a fuller story here, but suffice it to say that the story of its existence just underscores the crazy sense of possibility that permeated the 1960s.
But it’s closing in on 50 years since the yellow submarine was launched, and it had become somewhat the worse for wear. So when we heard it had recovered its original cheerful coloring, we had to go see.
It was a beautiful day for a paddle—not too hot, with plenty of cloud cover and just enough chop to keep things interesting. We left Pier 40 around noon, and paddled uneventfully down to the Battery. We were in luck: The Staten Island Ferry had just left, giving us a good 15 minutes to cross over to Governors Island.
Vlad has been experimenting with a GoPro HERO, and here’s a short clip from the crossing, with ferries in front of us and helicopters overhead…
As always, I kept my radio tuned to Channel 13, the pilots’ channel. It’s a good way to get early warning, of both ferries and larger ships that we want to avoid. Normally the conversation on Channel 13 is strictly professional, with each party addressing the other as “Cap’n”, and always remembering to say thank you. Occasionally things can get slightly more personal, as we detailed in this post.
But whether it was that coming night’s supermoon coinciding with a lunar eclipse, or for some other reason, we were privy to an uncharacteristically unprofessional—and hilarious—exchange during this crossing:
Unidentified ship, to the yacht Jamaica Bay: “Why are you running me off the road?”
Jamaica Bay (in carefully calm tones): “I’m not. I’m maintaining course and speed.”
Maybe the captain was channeling his inner werewolf, because at that point, the unidentified ship began emitting a bizarre set of grunts and growls. Even without words, the hostility was evident.
Finally, the unidentified ship found the words: “Fuck you, you prick!”
No response from the Jamaica Bay, for which its captain is to be commended. A few minutes went by, then this exchange:
Another ship: “Calling Jamaica Bay. Want to pass me on one whistle or two?” (Asking whether to pass on starboard or port side).
Jamaica Bay: “Let’s go for two.”
Other ship: “Sounds good. Two it is!”
Other ship: “Don’t run me off the road, okay?”
(long pause, couple of beats)
Jamaica Bay (drily): “Wouldn’t dream of it, Cap’n!”
Needless to say, I laughed out loud!
We continued on uneventfully, and arrived at Coney Island Creek in the early afternoon. The sandy beach and the rocky shore on the other side of the creek were lined with fishermen, but fishermen with a twist: many of them were fishing not with rods but with nets, casting them out into the shallow water off the beach, then drawing them in. (We read later that Coney Island Creek is one of the most polluted waterways in New York City, up there with the Gowanus Canal, our favorite Superfund site.)
The yellow submarine had indeed recaptured what must have been its original bright-yellow splendor—at least above the high-water mark. Below that, the rotting, barnacle-encrusted metal made interesting shapes and designs…
After we’d satisfied our curiosity about the yellow submarine, we turned for home, heading slowly up along the shoreline of Gravesend Bay. Since the current in the main channel was only just starting to flood, we had time to kill. We paddled into the next little inlet north of Coney Island Creek. Down at the very end, I could see something that looked for all the world like a giant leaf sticking sideways out of the water. I squinted, and looked again. Was it the remains of a dock? Some kind of unusual buoy?
None of the above, it turned out. It was the hull of a wrecked sailboat. Behind it lay some flat rocks and concrete slabs festooned with graffiti. And from the land above, we heard the mosquito-like whines of engines of some sort, plus the occasional cheering of a crowd. Obviously people were racing something—but we never found out what. (On our last visit to Coney Island Creek it had been model airplanes.)
Then it was time to head back out again. Just as we re-entered Gravesend Bay, I heard on the radio that one of the large cruise ships, the Carnival Splendor, was heading out to sea.
That wasn’t unusual—cruise ships normally depart on Sunday afternoons. But what was unusual today was the response: a second cruise ship, the Norwegian Breakaway, radioed that it too was seabound. And then another cruise ship, the Queen Mary 2, which we’d seen docked in Brooklyn at the beginning of today’s paddle, said it was also heading out.
A parade of cruise ships! This would be a sight.
I paddled as hard as I could towards the channel, to get the best vantage point. And sure enough, all three soon appeared under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, one after another. We watched and took photos until the last of them, the lovely Queen Mary 2, was well past.
That wasn’t the end of our adventures on this trip. After we passed under the bridge and were northbound once more, Vlad said suddenly, “Hey, there’s a kayak!” I looked over, and sure enough, there was a paddler in a yellow-and-white boat, wearing a teal jacket. But what was that splashing in the water nearby?
“It’s a swimmer!” Vlad said. Sure enough, it was our friend Margrethe Hørlick-Romanovsky and a swimmer, Alan Jay Morrison. Alan had set off from Brooklyn Bridge earlier that day, made it to Coney Island, and was on his way back. Margrethe was doing swim support.
Alan was in fine fettle, waving as we approached—not bad for someone who’d just swum 19 miles and had 5 to go. They’d stopped for refreshments. To check on his mental acuity (since the first thing sign of hypothermia is typically mental confusion), Margrethe asked him what 8+5 was. His response? “Thirteen—but you should really know these things!”
His sense of humor was clearly intact. We offered him some cheese sticks, and he replied, “Thanks, but I’ve given up cheese… I picked a bad week to give up cheese!” (Reference to the movie “Airplane”, in case you missed it!)
Since dusk was falling, we helped Margrethe turn on her lights, and turned on our own, before continuing our paddle north.
Sunset was magical as always, but the best treat of all was the last: The supermoon rising majestically over the Brooklyn skyline. Later in the evening it would turn blood-red as it experienced a rare full eclipse, but for now it hung over us, brilliant and beautiful, smiling its benediction.
The last lines of the Beatles’ song drifted through my head as we paddled happily into home port:
And our friends are all aboard,
Many more of them live next door,
And the band begins to play…
We all live in a yellow submarine,
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine…
As we live a life of ease (life of ease)
Every one of us has all we need…
More photos from the trip (click on any photo to start slideshow):
Even more photos are here.