By Johna Till Johnson
Maybe this isn’t such a great idea.
I’m sitting on the dock at Pier 84 on a sunny—but cold—Sunday afternoon in early spring.
I’m wearing a drysuit, and my feet are in the seat of my kayak, which is bobbing up and down with the wake-driven waves.
The dock is around18 inches above the waterline, and I’ve just remembered that I’ve never been able to get into my boat from the dock unaided before.
It’s a tricky launch. The boat has a habit of getting caught under the dock’s overhang and slammed into it by the waves (there’s a nasty crack on the hull that I think resulted from such a crunch). Between the height and the waves, there’s a good risk of unbalancing and landing in the water. Every other time there’s been someone around to steady the boat for me—and I’ve needed it.
A further thought occurs to me: I’ve never actually paddled solo in winter weather before.
I’ve done an 8-day solo kayak camping trip in Florida’s 10,000 islands. I’ve solo-circumnavigated Manhattan. But it’s always been in warm water.
Right now, despite the wetsuit and several layers of insulation, I have maybe an hour or two of survival after capsizing in the 40-degree water.
More importantly, my hands, which are uncovered, will go numb after about four minutes—which makes getting back into the boat a challenge unless I manage a flawless roll.
And climbing back up onto the dock could be a nonstarter if I happen to fall in while getting into the boat.
Yeah. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.
But at the back of my mind the knowledge gnaws at me: If I don’t launch now, I will probably give up on solo winter launches from this pier. It’s too easy to find excuses for what you’re afraid of.
And that’s not something I’m willing to give up on. Not just yet.
So I’m sitting with my feet in the boat, feeling it bob up and down, waiting for my heart rate to drop and my hands to stop sweating. I have time. All the time in the world. I just need to relax and think things through.
After a bit, I realize: Why do I never have trouble getting out of the boat onto the dock?
Instantaneously, the answer comes: Because I keep my weight low and throw my body belly-down on the dock. I look ridiculous and ungainly, like seal flopping up onto land, but it works.
And if it works for getting out… it should work for getting in!
I roll the idea around in my head.
Yeah. Yeah. I can do this!
So I flip over onto my stomach and slide my feet into the cockpit, keeping as balanced as possible, with my weight on my hands on the dock. When I feel my center of gravity move out over the water, I slide into the boat, as neatly as a knife going into its sheath. The boat barely wobbles.
Elation. I did it!
I push off from the dock and begin tucking my storm cag over the coaming.
Just then, my radio crackles to life, announcing the Norwegian Breakaway, the cruise ship that usually launches from Pier 88 on Sunday afternoons.
At Pier 84, right next to the Intrepid, I’m going to be in a prime location to watch it go by. I paddle slowly forward in the embayment, and take several pictures as the Breakaway slowly appears, colorful and majestic, flanked by a NYPD vessel. To complete the photo opportunity, a NY Waterways taxi arrives on the scene.
An auspicious sendoff, I decide, and paddle out into the Hudson.
Earlier, I’d encountered a group of hardy kayakers and paddleboarders, who warned there was tug-and-barge activity just north of me on the Manhattan side. So I decide to cross over to the New Jersey side and paddle north.
My notional destination is Mitsuwa, the Japanese grocery store located a few miles up on the Jersey shore. It has a convenient beach and is known to be paddler-friendly, with spacious restrooms and a plethora of tasty groceries and restaurant options.
But I’m not sure I’ll make it that far, and I’m not sure I’ll even bother to get out if I do. The goal today is simply to launch, paddle for a bit, and get back onto the pier in one piece. If I accomplish that, I’ll have proven to myself that I’m able to solo paddle in winter.
I’m traveling with the current, but the flood is never strong in the spring—the snowmelt from upstate overpowers it. There’s also a strong and steady northern wind—about 15 knots, I calculate. Enough to create a little wind-against-current chop, and to slow down my progress.
I slowly wend my way up the New Jersey shore, mourning a bit for the wreck of the Binghamton, which left this world just after Vlad did. It’s strange how attached you can get to an inanimate object with which you have no direct connection. And it’s hard to escape the sense of loss as I think of the many things that now live on only in my memory…
But it’s a new spring day, and the sunlight sparkles cheerfully on the waves. The forsythia’s out, I realize, and stop to snap a photo of a bush in bloom, appearing to lead a parade of bicycles. Across the river, the buildings are awash with light.
After a couple of hours of paddling, I arrive at Mitsuwa. Bobbing just off the little beach, I think to myself that there’s no reason to disembark. I’m not particularly hungry, and getting in and out of the boat just seems a bother.
But curiosity nibbles at my mind. It’s been years since I stopped here.
The last time might have been with Vlad, who refused to get out (the beach can be muddy). We had a small spat, and I left him floating in the river while I went inside for a pit stop and supplies. When I returned, we ate sushi and drank sake in the boats while the current carried us downstream. I remember how we laughed, the argument forgotten.
That was years ago, four or five at least. Was it still the same? And… I have a vague memory of tempura. My stomach rumbles. I’m decided. I paddle the boat up on the beach, threading gingerly between the pilings. I pull off my spray skirt, tuck it into the cockpit, and climb over the fence into the parking lot.
Inside, the supermarket is as clean and spacious as I remember, filled with (mostly) Japanese shoppers. But something’s different… I finally realize a row of food stalls has replaced what used to be the restroom area (temporary bathrooms are port-o-potties out front while construction finishes).
And one of the food stalls features… tempura! I place my order and wait patiently in line, making faces with the baby and his young parents in front of me. Finally it arrives, hot and fragrant.
I take my order outside where there are low stone tables and chairs. From here I can see the beach where my boat rests, and look at the steak house that sits out over the water. It’s not paddler-friendly, I’ve been told: Too upscale to tolerate muddy boots and smelly drysuits.
The food is delicious. As I eat, I notice the buds are out on the trees. The steakhouse has flowers in its flowerbeds. Spring is really going to arrive!
Lunch (or rather “linner”, as Vlad called that late-afternoon meal that’s neither lunch nor dinner) complete, I pack up and launch. As anticipated, the current has turned, and I’m traveling with the wind and current. I cross over to the Manhattan side and watch the shoreline ripple by. It takes me less than half the time to return that it did paddling out—about 45 minutes, compared with two hours on the trip up.
Just as I get close to Pier 84, I remember the tugs and barges the other paddlers warned me about. I assume they’ve called off work by now—it’s late on a Sunday afternoon. But what’s that ahead?
Sure enough, two turquoise tugs appear, each maneuvering a barge. They look like the Megan Ann and one of her sisters (see some footage of the Megan Ann in action here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkBjlRkwMP8)
One steams north upriver, but the other appears to be turning. Towards me? Yikes!
Fortunately it’s not—it’s heading into the embayment just in front of me.
I pull up, and wait for the tug to pull her barge out of the way.
I peek out cautiously. The tug-and-barge seem to be anchored. So I cross the embayment and continue on towards home.
I turn into Pier 84 just under the bow of the anchored Intrepid (which never fails to thrill me—how many paddlers come home to a famous air craft carrier?). I pull up to the dock.
There’s no one in sight as I start to clamber out of the kayak. I’ve got this—getting out of the boat is easy, right?
Not so fast. I lose my balance and nearly capsize. The boat rights itself, but it’s carrying water—several inches at least, making it less stable. Slowly, cautiously, I pull myself forward onto my stomach on the dock. My heart pounds. Close call.
I’m up… but can I get the boat up, full of water as it is, without breaking it?
I pump some water out, then give up. There’s just too much. I grab the bow, and give it a pull. The boat slides up on the dock, in one piece. I flip it over and watch as it drains.
I’ve done it. Launched and landed, and made it up the river and back. In winter conditions.
I will do this again, I realize.
I stand up and look out over the water… just in time to capture a photo of the setting sun.
This turned out to be a great idea!