Category Archives: New York City

A Winter Nighttime Paddle on the Hudson

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Johna Till Johnson and Brian Fulton-Howard (see note)

George Washington Bridge from the north

December 3, 2017

It was to be Brian’s first winter paddle. That is, even though it wasn’t quite winter yet, the air and water temperatures told us it was time to don drysuits—something Brian had never done before.

The conditions were perfect: the forecast was for a misty overcast day, with air temperatures in the 50s and water temperatures in the 40s, with virtually no wind.

And thanks to the “supermoon”—a larger-than-usual moon due to the moon’s close orbit to Earth—we’d have king tides, bringing currents of between 2 and 3 knots in the Hudson. That meant an easy paddle in both directions, if we kept with the current. (Currents that strong and stronger are common in the East River, but more typically in the Hudson they range from 1 to 2 knots).

There was just one catch.

To travel with the current in both directions, we had two choices for our launch from Yonkers: A predawn launch heading north to the Tappan Zee bridge, or a midafternoon launch heading south to the George Washington.

Realistically, I couldn’t picture getting up early enough for a pre-dawn launch.

But if we took the latter option, we’d be spending most of the trip in darkness.

Was that really wise?

One of my good friends and coaches, Taino, likes to illustrate kayaking risks with a slot machine metaphor: Each risk may be acceptable individually… but if enough of them line up—disaster.

So what were these risks? Well, it was Brian’s first time paddling in a drysuit. And it was winter paddling (paddling in cold water is always riskier than in warm). And paddling in the dark.

But countering that were the near-perfect conditions (particularly the lack of wind). There was fact that we were two paddlers (two are always better off than one). Also, Brian is a strong paddler, with a level head and good judgment. And we both felt healthy, with no injuries or ailments.

The deciding factor was esthetic: The morning was predicted to be cloudy, with little chance of a beautiful sunrise. But if we opted for the evening paddle, there was at least the chance the clouds would part and we’d get to see the supermoon as it rose.

The evening paddle it was!

Brian arrived at my apartment around 2, and we prepared to pack. Hot, sweet tea: Check. Plenty of chocolate (Brian’s contribution): check. All the usual cold-weather gear: hats, gloves, “space blankets”: check.

Except for one thing…

As Brian pulled on his drysuit (discovering in the process that it fit perfectly), I asked, “So you brought your neoprene booties, right?”

Ahhh… nope!

Brian hadn’t realized drysuits need shoes (or some kind of foot covering) to avoid getting punctured. (Drysuits basically consist of GoreTex, zippers, and gaskets—you need to wear insulating clothing underneath, and put on some kind of foot covering.)

But Brian is nothing if not resourceful. “Got any duct tape?” he asked. I did, along with the cardboard and Sharpie he requested. And in a few minutes, he’d made himself a pair of cardboard-and-duct-tape “sandals”—not super fancy, but enough to protect the soles of his drysuit from damage.

That problem solved, we proceeded to Yonkers, where we managed to launch around 3:30 PM. Manhattan was visible in a haze of pink as the last hour of daylight slowly faded into dusk.

Manhattan in a haze of pink

We paddled south with the current (which was roughly 2 kt at that point). We stopped to have a look at the Riverdale Yacht Club, a beautiful structure on the eastern shore of the Hudson. Brian explained it had formerly been the Riverdale train station on the Metro-North line. (Apparently, there’s even a book about the Riverdale Yacht Club!)

Riverdale Yacht Club

We paddled on, and arrived at the Spuyten Duyvil swing bridge  guarding the Harlem River just around sunset. We’d previously discussed taking a gander down the Harlem, so in we went. The current was with us, and growing stronger as we went forward.

We had our radios on, as a standard precautionary measure. Suddenly there was a crackle as a tugboat—the Kenny G—announced it wanted to bring a barge through the bridge.

We paddled closer to the southern shore of the Harlem, and I radioed back a message to the captain: “Securité, securité, two kayaks in the Harlem river, we know you’re there and we’re staying close to shore until you pass.”

The captain acknowledged, and we continued down the Harlem with an accelerating current.

Sure enough, the tug and barge soon passed, steaming by at 12-15 kt, or maybe even more.

We paddled on for a few more minutes, but decided that the accelerating current was just a bit too risky. So we crossed over to the north side and paddled back to the bridge, helped along by a healthy back-eddy.

We stopped at the mouth of Harlem, inside the bridge in a protected, mostly still patch of water, to have chocolate and rest. By then it was full dark, but with the lights of Manhattan all around, we could see fairly well. We turned on our deck lights and I donned a headlamp (Brian would do so later on).

When we exited the Harlem, I glanced back over my shoulder, and gasped. “Look, Brian!” I shouted. The clouds had cleared, and the supermoon was rising over the Bronx.

Supermoon rising over the Bronx

I took as many photos as I could, and then we continued south to the George Washington. Rather arbitrarily, we’d chosen the little red lighthouse as our turnaround point.

We arrived at the lighthouse right around 6:30, which was by our calculations right at slack. After several tries, I succeeded in getting a shot of the lighthouse flashing, though I couldn’t convince Brian to get in the picture.

Little Red Lighthouse (and little red kayak)

We paddled back in full darkness, glad of the extra visibility provided by our headlamps. True to prediction, the current increased slowly: 0.8 kt, 1.0 kt, 1.2 kt, 1.8 kt.

A conga line of tug-and-barges heading south on our left took us a bit by surprise, as we’d initially thought they were anchored (though there no danger as we were well out of their way). And the moon, by now high in the sky, was visible for most of the way.

We arrived back in Yonkers just past 8 PM, meaning we’d spent about 4.5 hours on the water. We’d paddled 18 statute miles (15.5 nautical miles) at an average pace of 4 mph, or 3.5 kt. –including the time we’d spent enjoying chocolate. The power of the king tides!

All in all… a very successful first winter paddle for Brian. Here’s to many more!

(Note: Regular readers of this blog may be forgiven for wondering who this mysterious “Brian” is. He was formerly one of Vlad’s grad students, and is now a post-doctoral researcher in his own right. He and I have paddled several times this year, though this is the first time I’ve been able to do a writeup. He, his wife Tyna, and I have become quite good friends.)

See slideshow below for more photos. Click on the arrows to move back or forward!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Trip 16: Hudson River, Manhattan to Ossining

By Vladimir Brezina

Winter waves (same time of year, some years later)

Saturday, 8 April 2000

Launched at Dyckman St. just after 8 a.m. Sunny day, with some haze at first. Current still ebbing, so paddled across the river and north along the Palisades. Warm spring weather; later, air temperature in the 60s, even 70s away from the water.

First day not wearing drysuit, although water temperature (in the high 40s, perhaps around 50 in places) still marginal. First butterfly over the river. Some trees on the Palisades already putting out the first light green leaves, others still bare. Completely windless at first (although small craft advisory) but then wind progressively picking up from the south. By Irvington tail wind of about 15 knots, 1-ft following seas; smaller than otherwise with this wind as current now flooding strongly.

Lunch on the little promontory cut off by the railway just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Then continued through the Tappan Zee. Wind and waves building. By Ossining wind up to 20 knots with higher gusts (and forecast to get stronger still as the promised front came in) following seas 2-2 ½ feet, covered in whitecaps. Very impressive glittering against the sun.

Good practice; some difficulty keeping boat from broaching. Need much more practice with automatic braces. Around 2 p.m., rode up to the Ossining boat ramp on large, steep following waves. As conditions likely to get worse, train back to New York.

Note: To non-kayakers, this may seem like a matter-of-fact trip report. But hidden in those last few sentences—both by Vlad’s laconic delivery and his choice of nautical terms—is some real excitement. “Some difficulty keeping boat from broaching” translates to “I was about to capsize multiple times”. Vlad was using the sailing definition of broaching, which is, “”to slew around on a wave front…so as to present the ship’s side to oncoming large waves [and]… capsize and enter a “death roll”. Not exactly what you want to have happen when you’re alone on 40-degree water in a gathering storm!

And “need much more practice with automatic braces” says, in effect, “My skill level was not up to keeping the boat upright”. “Bracing” is a way that kayakers hold the paddle to prevent capsize in, among other things, high waves; as the kayaker becomes more skilled, he or she gets better at bracing automatically, to keep the boat upright.

The giveaway here is the word “much”—Vlad clearly felt the conditions were at or beyond his skill level. So, in effect, Vlad is saying here that he ran into what was for him at the time (and likely for most paddlers at any time) conditions beyond what he could paddle. He doesn’t say, but it appears from his last sentence that he’d intended to go farther than Ossining, but pulled out due to conditions (a show of good judgment I’m always happy to see).

Finally, spring is the most dangerous time for paddlers; the combination of cold water and temptingly warm air leads to underdressing, which can be fatal in the event of a capsize. And in the Hudson, there’s often snowmelt, which increases the current (though that didn’t apply here, as the current was flooding, or heading upriver).

I suspect Vlad subsequently realized he had been underdressed for the conditions; in any event, by the time we paddled together, he would not have gone out without a drysuit on a warm day in spring, as made clear in this story. Needless to say, his automatic bracing—and other paddling techniques–had also improved considerably by then!

Trip 15: Hudson River, Manhattan-Piermont-Ellis Island

By Vladimir Brezina

The (old) Tappan Zee bridge

Saturday, 1 April 2000

Launched at Dyckman St. around 6:30 a.m. Half-hour after sunrise; sun lighting up Palisades. Sunny all day, with some high clouds. Air and water warming up now, but both still cold enough for drysuit. Paddled north with flood current, crossing over to west side of the river, past Alpine, Italian Gardens, up to Piermont Pier.

Turned around with the current and paddled back south along the Palisades. Wind now picking up from the south. Lunch, around 11:30 a.m., just south of Englewood. Then continued south along the New Jersey shore. South wind 10-15 knots, whitecaps in main channel.

Opposite the last few miles of Manhattan, great view, but many delays for ferries.  At least four or five ferry landing points; NY Waterways ferries and Ellis Island/Liberty boats very active, though still few other boats. Ellis Island around 2 p.m. Still significant wind from the south.

Met two kayakers from the Boathouse, going to the Statue. Current, at least around the back of Ellis Island, already turning against me, so went with the wind back along the New Jersey Shore to the level of the Holland Tunnel ventilator. Then crossed over to the Manhattan side. Waves in the main channel fun: already longer, 2-3 ft, some breaking.

Whole scene in this section of the river always exhilarating, full of energy: great views of the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan and opening south into the harbor; waves and wind; boats of all kinds criss-crossing the river.

Took out at the public dock on Pier 24. Paddling time around 8 hours; 36 nm.

(Note: Once again, this is an unusual route, one that most Manhattan-area kayakers would not have thought of paddling. Usually on the Hudson one either goes North (towards the Tappan Zee, now Mario Cuomo) or South (toward the Statue of Liberty). Doing both on the same trip is distinctively “Vlad”. 

Also, once again he is making excellent time. Covering 36 nm in 8 hours is an average of 4.5 knots, or 5.2 miles per hour—significantly more than a typical paddler. A good bit of this is his conscious decision to paddle with the current, which can be up to 2 knots in the Hudson.)

Trip 14: Combined Circumnavigation of Manhattan and City Island

By Vladimir Brezina

The iconic Manhattan view

Saturday, 25 March, 2000

(Note: The prosaic title does not do this trip justice! City Island is a small island in Long Island Sound; just getting there and back from Manhattan is considered an achievement by most New York-area paddlers. A Manhattan circumnavigation is a little more common—most of us have done quite a few—but still a non-trivial paddle.

But combining them both…? I wonder, from this vantage point of almost 20 years, what inspired Vlad to take this trip, after the previous runs up and down the Hudson. If I were able to go back in time and ask him, how would he have answered?) 

Combined Manhattan and City Island circumnavigation

Launched at Dyckman St. around 6:45 a.m. Low tide: wading through horrible mud, careful launch between pilings under pier. Sunshine already lighting up Palisades, but sun dimmed periodically by thin clouds. Quite warm: later, high around 60° F.

Paddled south with ebb current, against slight head wind from the southwest. Under George Washington Bridge, past 79th St. Boat Basin, Chelsea Piers; Downtown Boathouse in about 1 1/2 hours. (Note: This is very fast). Very few boats. Round the Battery; tourists already waiting for Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island boats; in a few minutes saw three of them emerging from their dock in East River.

Up the East River; waves from two of the tourist boats and a tug bounced around and built to about 3 ft. in the triable between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Under the Williamsburg Bridge; hazy sunshine. Now going with the wind and strong current. Out of the muddy Hudson, water now very clear. Just south of the United Nations narrowly avoided seaplane taking off, and later, almost at Roosevelt Island, landing. (Note: That seaplane will appear later in our writeups; nearly two decades on, I still encounter it regularly on the East River!)

Air traffic in the East River

Took the east channel past Roosevelt Island. Current dramatically speeding up. Through Hell Gate: water quite flat (no boat wakes) but heavy swirls. Still with the current and wind, past Rikers Island, under the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge and the Throgs Neck Bridge. Reached Throgs Neck at around 11:15 a.m.: 4 1/2 hours for about 25 (?) nm. (Note: That’s a blistering pace, 5.6 knots, or 6.4 miles per hour!)

Past Throgs Neck lost favorable current, in fact now some contrary current. Good view of Stepping Stones lighthouse. Crossed Eastchester Bay over to City Island and around the east side. Water beautifully clear, blue and green. Some intermittent sun, but increasing clouds. Strong contrary current flowing south between islands. Lunch on small island with tall transmitter just off City Island. Two huge white swans looking at me suspiciously. Beach littered with oyster shells. Inviting view east among the islands, past the Execution Rocks lighthouse, out on to the open Long Island Sound.

After lunch, round the northern tip of City Island, under bridge connecting it to mainland, and south through Eastchester Bay. Now paddling with some tail current, but opposed by head wind, now building up to 10-15 knots. Whitecaps everywhere in main channel. Slow going. Back to Throgs Neck again at about 2 p. m. Turning toward manhattan, beam to the wind. Severe weathercocking: boat not balanced. Crossed over to the south shore and landed to take on water ballast (not much, but perhaps some, effect). Starting to rain; misty views of Manhattan. Back under Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, past LaGuardia and Rikers Island. Still slow going, partly against, and still weathercockng into, the wind. Speeding up with favorable current toward Hell Gate. Sun coming out again. Through Hell Gate easily around 4 p.m.

Orange sun setting into Palisades

Through Harlem River, sun low in the sky, wind dying down, water smooth. Rapid smooth progress with good tail current. Emerged into Hudson again just as the orange sun was disappearing behind Palisades. Hudson hazy and calm. Back at Dyckman St. just after 6 p.m.

Paddling time around 11 hours; about 50 nm.

(Vlad’s humorous, gentle sensibility emerges so clearly from this entry: The “huge” swans look at him “suspiciously”; the “inviting view” looking out across Long Island Sound; and the “orange sun disappearing behind the Palisades”.

Perhaps I’ve answered my own question: Vlad was forever in search of new beauty to delight his eye and heart.)

Trip 13: Peekskill to Manhattan Redux

By Vladimir Brezina

Bright sky beyond bare branches..

Saturday, 18 March 2000

7:43 a.m. Metro-North train to Peekskill. Sunny all day, no clouds at all (got sunburned), but chilly. Temperatures in the 30s, possibly just making it into the 40s. Some snow on the ground around Peekskill; puddles and shallow water spilling over into the parking lot frozen overnight.

Launched by 10:00 a.m. Paddled south against the current into Haverstraw Bay, then along eastern shore and across to Croton Point. 10-kt tail wind and 1-ft following seas (whitecaps in main channel), both increasing significantly alongside Croton Point and south into the Tappan Zee. Some icing on the boat from freezing spray.
Croton Point around noon. Followed eastern shore of Tappan Zee; wind and waves gradually diminishing. Lunch on north-facing beach at Philipse Manor, vey cold standing wet in the wind. Now good ebb current (close to spring tides today). South of the Tappan Zee wind completely calm; water mirror-smooth though still some residual ripples. Still very few boats (saw only three or four boats all day, mostly commercial, tugs and barges) but planes and helicopters flying over the river seemingly every couple of minutes.

Spent some time photographing around Yonkers. Wind then picked up from the south; head wind but not too strong. Reached Dyckman St. around 4:30 p.m. Paddling time around 6 hours; about 28 nm.

(Note: Vlad’s pale Eastern European skin was prone to sunburn, and he suffered badly from it—he would even get feverish at night.

Beyond that, the Vlad I met is emerging clearly from the page: casual familiarity with the tides (spring and neap), currents, and wind speeds. And completing a 28 nm trip in 6 hours is a characteristically blistering pace: 4.6 knots, or 5.4 miles per hour, some of it against the current!

Finally, it gratifies me that he found Yonkers, where I now keep one of my boats, pleasing enough to photograph. I’ve fallen a little bit in love with the place myself.)

 


Trip 12: Hudson River, Peekskill to Manhattan

By Vladimir Brezina

Winter sunshine on the Hudson

Sunday, 5 March 2000

7:34 a.m. Metro-North train to Peekskill. Spring-like day, mix of sun and clouds. Cold front crossing in the morning and early afternoon; mostly cloudy, then gradual clearing, and mostly sunny toward the end of the trip. Very windy all day; small-craft advisory. Launched around 9:45 a.m. Few ice floes still in Peekskill Harbor and in coves south of Peekskill, and some snow further south along the shoreline of Haverstraw Bay, but, part from the bare trees, these the only signs remaining of real winter. Water still cold (according to the Web in the mid- to upper- 30s), but no longer stinging on contact.

Paddled in moderate tail wind (10-15 knots) and following seas (1-2 ft), but against the flood current, south to entrance of Haverstraw Bay, then crossed to west shore and followed it south.

Sequence of points provided shelter from the wind, then wind and waves increased with fetch before the next point. Periods of increased gusty wind raised numerous whitecaps in the main channel through the middle of Haverstraw Bay. Water leaden grey except turning light brown in the brief intervals of sunshine. South to the Tappan Zee. Current now starting to ebb. Wind increased from the west, to 20 knots or so, just north of the Tappan Zee bridge. (Using wind meter, found that real wind speeds about 5 knots less than would have estimated. Quite strong wind was only about 15 knots.)

Confused 2-ft breaking waves. Boat trim incorrect, so very strong and hard-to-control tendency to turn directly into wind. (Note: Kayakers call this “weathercocking”. As Vlad notes, in some cases it can result from loading (“trimming”) the boat improperly; in other cases it’s an inherent quality of the craft.)

Must ballast stern in tail winds and following seas. Although open framework, Tappan Zee Bridge provided significant shelter for some distance past it, but the same conditions again just north of Piermont Pier. Lunch at Italian Gardens.

Hard to pee unobserved; people everywhere along the Palisades path, and no leaves to shield my mango suit. (Note: We kayakers are forever asked, “But how do you manage to pee?” The answer: With difficulty, it’s an art!)

Wind now apparently coming from the northeast, so crossed river back to the eastern shore. Clouds now starting to break. Making very fast progress with fast ebb current (probably speeded by runoff) and tail wind. Wind-with-current conditions really smooth out the water; waves only 6 inches, but breaking. (Against the current, this wind would have produced waves of 3 ft or more.) By Yonkers wind increased again to 15-20 knots for the rest of the trip, breaking waves building to 1-2 ft. Landed at Dyckman Street around 4:30 p.m.

(Note: This is Vlad coming into his own. Notice the attention he pays to wind and current conditions, plus obvious preparation beforehand (looking up the weather and water temp). What’s most significant—though also very subtle—is the way he compares the objective situation (“..according to the Web site, mid- to upper- 30s”) with his subjective experience of it (“…no longer stinging on contact.”). He does this several times in this piece. The net effect over years of experience will be his ability to gauge the situation at a glance, with almost supernatural accuracy. In future years he will be able to estimate the wind and water conditions and forecast the weather without appearing to consult any instrumentation–the Vlad I knew.)

Trip 11: Hudson River, Manhattan

By Vladimir Brezina

George Washington Bridge on a winter day

Sunday, 27 February 2000

Launched at Dyckman Street around 10 a.m. First paddle since ice gone. Relatively mild winter day, but foggy, despite forecast, essentially all day. Brighter spots through the clouds now and then, but rather grey, and so a little cold, most of the time.

Paddled south under George Washington Bridge and along the Manhattan shoreline, with ebb current. Slight head wind (10 knots) and so some whitecaps. Later wind calmed down; in the afternoon completely calm.

Reached Downtown Boathouse around 11:30 a.m. Turned round and returned, dodging between the piers, against the current. Just south of Chelsea Piers sopke with paddler from there, Rufus, with all-new red Khatsalano and full high-tech equipment. Gave him my phone number: may go out with him and his group of Feathercrafters in future.

Lunch on the water in empty marina immediately adjacent to driving range at Chelsea Piers. Then continued north along Manhattan shoreline to 79th Street. now should have been strong flood current, but still slight ebb. Some weak flood current only much later, at peak of astronomical cycle, and in retrospect ebb current in the morning was much stronger than it should have been: presumably runoff and ice melting up the river.

From 79th Street crossed river and went up along New Jersey side. Under George Washington Bridge and back across to Dyckman Street. Started packing up the boat around 4 p.m.; now, of course, sun finally coming out, weakly.

(Note: Here we see more of the essential Vlad. First his characterization of a 10-kt wind as “slight”; most paddlers consider that substantial! Second is his joy in connecting with kindred spirits, along with his teasing characterization of the “high-tech equipment”. And finally, there’s his thoughtful analysis of the current; indeed in springtime (which was rapidly approaching) the runoff often cancels the flood entirely in the Hudson.)