Kayak Race Called Off After Pileup in Hudson

October 21, 2008 at 3:04 am Leave a comment

A high-speed kayak race around Manhattan on Sunday morning turned into a marine rescue operation when four of the racers were ejected from their kayaks and swept by winds and strong currents that dashed them and their boats against a rusty barge moored near Battery Park, the police and racers said.

There were no serious injuries in the chain of accidents, which can best be likened to an automobile pileup on a highway. Racers said they lost control of their kayaks as they swerved or slowed to avoid a contestant who was being swept toward the barge. Other racers became so fatigued by the strong currents farther north in the Hudson River that they had to be helped out of the water.

The race, called the Mayor’s Cup New York City Kayak Championships, included more than 140 competitors, many racing sleek, lightweight kayaks known as surf skis. The narrow vessels are designed to travel extremely fast atop flat water. They are popular in areas with warm water, like California and Hawaii.

The water off Manhattan turned out to be more perilous than some of the kayakers had expected.

Sunday’s race looked promising at first, with a field that included racers from 12 countries, according to a race organizer on the Web site Surfski.info. The sunny morning seemed ideal for the race, a 27-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan, and the first group left the starting line, at North Cove Yacht Harbor at Battery Park City, about 10:30 a.m.

The wind picked up speed, however, and worked against the current to create a volatile chop, said Greg Porteus, a retired New York State trooper and the safety officer for the race. The currents in the river overtook several racers immediately after they turned north from the harbor, leaving them struggling to control their boats.

“It was a sequence of seemingly innocuous events that led up to a big event,” said Dr. Tim Burke, 40, a neurosurgeon who had traveled from Annapolis, Md., to compete.

He said the race was “pretty congested, pretty fierce,” and soon his paddle was accidentally knocked from his hand by another competitor. He said he pitched into the water and struggled to remount, a maneuver he had practiced many times, but the current drove him and his kayak toward the barge, which was moored and appeared to be carrying garbage.

“I looked up and it was right there,” Dr. Burke said. He slammed into the side of the barge and struggled for a handhold, finally grabbing a rubber tire tied to the hull, he said.

Another racer, Dr. Thomas R. Walek, 55, a plastic surgeon from Rhode Island, also fell off his surf ski in the pileup.

“I was getting pulled under,” he said. “It felt like you were drowning. I was having a lot of trouble just getting my head above water. Everything was moving so much faster than we appreciated.”

His kayak also slammed into the barge. It was unclear on Sunday how many racers capsized, but four were rescued by divers from the Fire Department, the Police Department and the Coast Guard, a spokesman for the Fire Department said.

Dr. Burke said his kayak was badly damaged, with its rudder broken off and holes punched in its side.

Other racers who had missed the accident were approaching the Harlem River when Mr. Porteus gave the order via loudspeaker and marine radio to stop the race.

“We had several people that were way out front and upset that the race had to be terminated,” Mr. Porteus said. “It was the right thing to do.”

He said that officials on his boat pulled two exhausted racers from their vessels near the George Washington Bridge.

An event organizer at the harbor declined to discuss the accident in detail, saying only that there were no substantial injuries.

The events of the day briefly rattled Dr. Burke, who said he generally enjoyed traveling rapidly through the waves in his surf ski. “It’s a good escape sport,” he said. “Very relaxing.”

By MICHAEL WILSON & COLIN MOYNIHAN
NY Times

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Entry filed under: Get Wet, Manhattan, Public Waterfront. Tags: , , , , .

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