A Wintry Thanksgiving Weekend Paddle on the Hudson

Ice on Haverstraw Bay

By Johna Till Johnson

The plan had evolved, as plans sometimes do.

Originally it was supposed to be a 4-day camping trip over the Thanksgiving holiday. But the polar vortex and its single-digit temperatures, plus a lack of preparation, put the kibash on that idea.

Instead: A Saturday paddle launching from Croton Point headed to parts north. (Ultimately, that turned out to be the Cortlandt Yacht Club just south of Verplanck, but that’s getting ahead of the story.)

Looking south from George’s Island

Early in the morning, I drove out to the George’s Island State Park boat ramp and took some photos. Then it was south to Croton Point, which has a lovely little launching beach designed specifically for human-powered boats.

Launching from Croton Point

Launch time was 12:15 PM. I meandered up the east side, poking into every nook and cranny. The current was nominally flooding, but flood that far north is fairly weak.

By the George’s Island boat ramp, it was definitely turning to ebb, but I pressed on, curious to see what lay beyond. The chart indicated some sort of marina. And you couldn’t really tell, but it seemed possible to go under a bridge into an inland body of water.

Reeds and red berries

After the long curve of Montrose point, there it was: a complex maze of boats and sea walls, which I later discovered was Cortlandt Yacht Club, Hudson Valley Marine, and Viking Boat Yard. Disappointingly, there was no navigable route to the inland waterway; although there was a low tunnel under the road through which I could glimpse daylight, the sound and sight of roaring water just beyond made me give up any thought of entering it. So I decided instead to have some snacks in preparation for my trip back.

Although many of the boats were put away for winter, there were plenty still in the water. And what a mix! Rusting barges sat cheek-by-jowl with spiffy new yachts. There was a festive yellow boat—whose paint job had seen better days—festooned with tattered flags: The Caribbean Queen. She was far from home, I thought idly as I broke out the food.

To the south, the water shimmered, smooth as glass. The shoreline and tiny island made quivering reflections. All was still.

Autumn reflections…

And then it was time for the return. The current was ebbing fiercely now, so I shot down the middle of the Hudson (keeping a sharp eye out for tug-and-barges, which often travel all the way up to Albany).

I made it back in half the time, nearly overshooting Croton Point, which, like most points, featured a bouncy little tide-rip. Had there been more wind, that part of the paddle would have been positively exciting. But as it was, I rounded the point, then paddled the calm waves gently lapping the beach.

As I landed, I was greeted energetically by two small, fluffy dogs. Their owners (or at least leash-holders) were an elderly couple bundled up against the chill.

The woman, who looked to be in her 90s,  asked if it was possible to walk along the shoreline of Haverstraw Bay.

“No, but you can paddle it,” I said. “Why?”

She wanted to see it, she said. Because of the ghost ships.

Ghost ships?

She explained: As a girl during World War II, she’d lived on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, with a view out over the Hudson. During the blackouts, the US naval fleet would travel up the Hudson to shelter in Haverstraw Bay.

As she spoke, her words formed images in my mind: A darkened Manhattan. Ships gliding by, as silently as possible. Ghost ships, black silhouettes against the darker darkness of night. Headed for someplace unknowable to a small child. Someplace with a strange, foreign name: Haverstraw Bay. The place she wanted to see.

I felt sad to disappoint her with the news that condos and sea walls blocked the walk along the shoreline, but by then she didn’t seem to mind. It seemed that having someone listen to the story was enough.

“Thank you,” she said, as she, the dogs, and the man prepared to leave. It wasn’t quite clear what she was thanking me for: Listening to her, perhaps? Or just a moment of human connection on a cold, overcast day?

But I was the one who was grateful, to her for passing along a memory that would soon expire, but now would live another lifetime. A secondhand memory, but still real.

Croton to Verplanck

Craft: Solstice (Tiderace Explore-S)
Paddle Date: 11-24-18
Paddle Launch Point: Croton Point Park boat launch
Paddle Launch Time: 12:15 PM
Paddle End Point: Croton Point Park boat launch
Paddle End Time: 3:30
Distance Traveled: 7 nautical miles
Time Paddling: 3 hr
Time Stopped: 15 minutes
Average Pace: 2.3 knots
Paddlers: Solo
Conditions: Cloudy, calm, cold (35 to start, 45 at finish, approx.). Very little wind.

Morning at the Tappan Zee (seen from the north)

Note: I haven’t been able to find anything about the ghost ships of Haverstraw Bay during World War II. If you do, please let me know. I don’t doubt the old lady’s recollection; it was far too vivid for that. But it’s strange that there seems to be no historical record…

18 responses to “A Wintry Thanksgiving Weekend Paddle on the Hudson

  1. Nice paddling adventure! I remember driving up 9W with my parents and seeing what my mom called “the mothball fleet.” To me, as a child, they were not spectacular, but they’d definitely be something I would be interested in seeing as an adult. Certainly by kayak.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m impressed you got out that day; I stayed in and cleaned house. After this past weekend I think I’m properly calibrated for winter!

    BTW have you read Manhattan Beach? Great book, set in the period your storyteller referenced.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Johna Till Johnson

      I haven’t, sounds good!

      And yes, I too feel as though cold-weather paddling has properly started! Looking forward to seeing how the Cetus performs on the CT River :-) Because that Gemini is just the PERFECT craft for cruising NY waterways, even if it’s a tad slow. Or maybe that’s just the paddler ;-)

      Like

  3. I wonder if your friend was thinking of the Liberty/Victory Ships mothballing that originally at end of WWII were moored at Tarrytown and then later moved up to Jones Point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      No, she was very clear about them being present during active duty, not mothballed, and in Haverstraw Bay, not Tarrytown or Jones Point.

      Peter Riley sent me a photo that seems to align with her recollection, but a later era. Now if I can only get him to post it here…

      Like

      • Johna Till Johnson

        Ok, Louis, I totally sit corrected! See Davis’s post right below yours. You were right, I was wrong.

        Funny that she remembered Haverstraw Bay…

        Like

  4. Yes, lots of photos of the “Ghost Fleet”, known officially as the Hudson River Reserve Fleet. Here are a few links. There are many more:

    http://navy.memorieshop.com/Reserve-Fleets/Hudson-river/index.html

    https://crotonhistory.org/2016/05/21/the-ghost-fleet-1946-1947/

    https://tugster.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/189-ghost-ships/

    http://navalmarinearchive.com/research/hudson_ghost_fleet.html

    It is actually quite sad that many allied ships, though mostly freighters and tankers, were sunk off the East coast, including within sight of the beaches at Coney Island and the Jersey Shore, during World War II. This is largely credited to the incompetence of senior Naval officers including Admiral King, who did not insist upon a blackout of buildings on shore until well into the war or insist on a convoy system within US waters. Both led to what the Kriegsmarine referred to as “The Happy Time” during which millions of tons of shipping (dozens of vessels) were sunk by individual U-boats along the US East and Gulf coasts—all the way to Texas! Without blacking out the coast, the city lights perfectly silhouetted the ships for the U-boat captains, making them much easier targets. Only the German Type IX boats had the fuel range to make it into the Gulf but they proved deadly there. My favorite dive where I grew up in panhandle Florida was dangerous but amazing. She was a massive tanker built in Scotland called the Empire Mica that had been sunk by one of the Type IX’s, U-167, on June 29, 1942. She was on her maiden voyage picking up a load of high-octane aviation fuel loaded in Houston.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Davis, what AREN’T you capable of!?!? It was such a pleasant surprise encountering you at Pier 84 on Saturday–hope you guys had a great party, sorry I missed it! And thank you for taking such careful care of the Shuna.

      King was usually smarter than that, it was Halsey who was so damn disaster prone.

      But I’m glad my memories of the Germans trouncing us weren’t entirely incorrect. I explained to my German houseguest that the Germans really kicked our butts for quite a while during World War II, including sinking boats right offshore of NYC.

      She had an interesting reaction; they’ve been so well trained in remembering the Holocaust and the horrors that the Germans also perpetrated that she couldn’t bring herself to acknowledge a single positive thing about their role in the war–not even my backhanded compliment.

      And I never knew the Germans made it into the Gulf. Learning lots.

      Thank you again!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      I wish I could “love” this comment Philip! Another great link. Thank you!!

      Like

      • There is a suspense/action movie from the ’50s that takes place on one of the boats of the mothball fleet, but I dont remember it’s name unfortunately. Maybe one of your nimble minded readers can help with this?
        Side note: I always wondered, what with the heavy UBoat activities around the Delaware Bay how the Historic Lilac managed to survive the war.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful little story of a memorable day!

    Liked by 1 person

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