At Sea in the City
WARM, full of puffing sailboats and washing-machine clean: I am having a hard time believing this is New York harbour and I am kayaking.It is early July, and three friends and I are determined to see the Statue of Liberty by sea. Not by ferry, though. We want to paddle there, and we’ve found a pocket-sized outfit, Manhattan Kayak Company, willing to guide us to Liberty Island from Pier 63 on New York’s West Side.
None of us knows a spray skirt from a rudder (only my wife’s brother, Bill, has kayaked before) but we’re happy about our adventure and feel confident as we make the rounds to buy disposable cameras and boxes of energy bars.
Paddling day dawns with an eerie smog that is like nothing I remember from growing up here. The newspaper blames forest fires in Quebec and at the top of the front page there’s a warning from the New York City Department of Health to “refrain from strenuous outdoor activities”. As it turns out, we’ve got more pressing worries. We find out that, due to the ever-present threat of terrorism, there is a 138m exclusion zone around Ellis and Liberty islands. Manhattan Kayak founder Eric Stiller tells me that when kayakers accidentally got too close a few days ago, army Black Hawk helicopters buzzed in out of nowhere and circled the little craft until they paddled off.
HAVE KAYAK, WILL TRAVEL
“They’ll be watching us today,” warns Stiller as we get fitted for life jackets at the pier and check out the Necky Amaruk two-man sea kayaks. I knock on the flank of the baby blue one that Bill and I will be piloting: it is solid plastic.
Stiller and his colleague Ray Fusco roll out an oversized map of New York City’s rivers, bays, inlets and islands. To get to the Statue of Liberty we will have to pull off a 10 nautical-mile round trip while wrestling with two and three-knot currents. “The Indians called it Great Waters Constantly Moving,” Stiller says. “Twice a day the Atlantic shoves saltwater almost 100 miles (161km) up the Hudson.”
What really worries me is Stiller’s passing remark that he used this harbour trip to train for his recent kayak circumnavigation of Australia. Then it’s time to load up the boats.
Pushing off from the dock, our Amaruk moves slowly at first, like a clownishly scaled-down version of the ocean-going ships that used to sail from here. When Bill barks at me from his seat directly behind, I realise our slow progress is because I’m drenching him with river water instead of digging in with my blades as I dip down and backward.
I can see this is not the Hudson I knew as a kid: that swirling mass of yellow bubbles, empty boxes of Cracker Jacks, and bobbing bottles and cans. I don’t see any fish, but, according to Stiller, shad and striped bass started coming back after the Federal Clean Water Act of 1976, and someone he knows is trying to grow oysters by hanging a net off one of the Manhattan piers.
As we bounce around, trying to get used to the chop, I am staring into the haze to see if I can get a look at the Statue of Liberty. “There she is,” shouts Fusco, who is leading the flotilla. When I follow his finger, I can just make out a sculptural smudge in the direction of JerseyCity.
Fusco herds us expertly, like seagoing broncos, and we buck and wobble south past Manhattan’s Chelsea Pier, with its gigantic golf range aimed out over the river, and powerful fireboats such as the John McKean which, we are told, pitched in with plumes of well-aimed water on September 11, 2001. We paddle past abandoned Pier 54 where the Titanic would have docked if it had made it and where you can still make out the sign, Cunard White Star Lines. Five avenues east into Manhattan, I find the turreted brick building where I grew up. Once, when I left the city aboard a ship, my mum waved goodbye by flapping a red-white-and-blue sweater from up there.
Fusco is yelling orders all of a sudden and we turn to see a Circle Line ferry bearing down hard to starboard. We’ve got the right of way, but sometimes boats can’t see kayaks and we paddle furiously towards shore. We get the wake full blast and I shake water off my sunglasses and out of my ears.
We are at the place where we will have to power across the busy Hudson to New Jersey, and I am impressed to find Bill is ready. “Fifteen strips of bacon,” he keeps saying, referring, I guess, to breakfast, and the bacon must be working since we are moving fast. Fusco instructs us to aim for Jersey’s Lackawanna Ferry Terminal, but we can barely see it and we are keenly concerned about other boats. Fighting the current, our kayaks snake between garbage barges, tugboats, sailboats, cigarette boats, another Circle Line ferry and, looming out of the smog, a ghost-pale cruise ship, the Nordic Empress.
Making it to the Jersey side of the river gives us a sense of accomplishment and, since we’re out of the two-lane nautical highway, we take a break. Here in Hoboken and Jersey City the only landmark is the Ferris wheel-sized Colgate-Palmolive clock. Our cameras come out for snapshots of the Manhattan skyline.
Fusco is worried the Hudson’s mighty tides may turn against us if we don’t push on. That would mean not making it to the Statue of Liberty, so we stash our snacks and grab our paddles again, working closer to what I think is Ellis Island with a Victorian-looking brick building and tree-dotted grounds. Then I realise I have been admiring an abandoned train station at the end of a spit of land.
We do reach Ellis Island, but I’m distracted by blobs of sunscreen that are melting off my forehead and blurring my eyes. And here are the restricted area buoys we were promised, keeping us back, with an insignia that reminds me of the 1960s civil defence signs that used to point out bomb shelters in Cold War New York.
We are coming close. I am eager and my strokes are getting splashier and even less efficient as my forearms tire. I can hear Bill grunting, paddling harder to make up for this, and then, out of the blue, our kayaks pull upshort.
There is the pointed crown, suddenly clear of smog, and Liberty’s torch reaching and stretching higher than I could remember. The sea-green statue is glowing in the sun, staring down and beyond our knot of boats, clutching its tablet, thinking quiet copper thoughts.
We say nothing. This is not the Liberty we know from ferries and from spiralling up the staircase inside. It is as if we’ve discovered her ourselves, finding an artistic shape in some wild and remarkable place.
It is time for congratulations. We try to arrange the kayaks to allow everyone to shake hands. I chug a ginger ale I’ve been saving in my spray skirt, and one of the guides, Theresa, yanks out her bilge pump and fires off a couple of festive rounds. For a second, with these salvos of water, it feels like a holiday.
The flame of Liberty’s torch is gold leaf and as we paddle around to the south, then the west side of the island, it is a bright and perfect focus of our arc. At one point Bill and I are between buoys and forget about the restricted zone until Fusco yells. We have not gone far into it, but Fusco is frantically pointing at the coast guard cutter Bainbridge Island, which is anchored nearby.
We hear Fusco’s command to paddle back hard and, as we struggle and tug our blades, we can just make out white-uniformed officers and a mounted machinegun on the cutter deck. A US Park Police boat comes screaming out of the haze on our port side and for a second we are sure it’s coming for us.
But the target is a motorboat that has whizzed way past the buoys and gone all the way in. The US Park Police take only seconds to get to it and as we paddle away we keep turning back to see what the cops will do. “Yep, they’re being arrested,” reports Fusco, who has sharp eyes. “Now they’re towing the boat.”
Bill and I paddle harder and harder, churning north, leaving the statue and the buoys behind. A breeze kicks up to escort us up past Ellis and along the Jersey coast and, like a wand, it changes the Hudson into fat and lazy swells. The skyline is clear now, catching the first red edge of evening and spreading it out from sharp piers to ships along the shore. Finally, as we move across the Hudson, it tints our tiny kayaks in alien colours.
We have made it to Liberty, in the teeth of barges and cruise ships, despite coast guard cutters and police boats and forest fire air. And as I search for a certain turreted building five avenues deep within the city, I am aware of one thing: that if mum were still alive, she would be watching from her terrace, scanning the river to pick out our plastic flecks of blue and orange and green. She would be watching us float slowly home along the coast of Manhattan and slip into our pier.
Getting there: Manhattan Kayak Company operates out of a boathouse at Manhattan’s Pier66 at 26th Street and 12th Avenue, along the Hudson. There is parking (that you must pay for) in a lot near the pier, or go by taxi, subway or bus. Instruction and rentals are available year-round but there is more to choose from in spring, autumn and (especially) summer. www.manhattankayak.com.
New York Kayak Company operates from Pier 40 farther downtown on the West Side. Although it primarily sells kayaks, basic tours are offered. More: www.nykayak.com.
Also on the menu: Manhattan Kayak Company runs adventures such as the so-called Sushi Paddle across the Hudson to Edgewater, New Jersey, where kayakers dock and fuel up with maki rolls at a waterfront Japanese restaurant.
There’s also a gruelling all-day Manhattan Circumnavigation which, as the name suggests, lets kayakers do battle not only with Hudson River and harbour currents but with those in the East and Harlem rivers. Other tours include paddles to the George Washington Bridge, Governors Island, Coney Island and the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Dressing up: In summer or early autumn, most New York-area paddlers are warm enough wearing shorts, T-shirt and rubber-soled or running shoes, but prepare to get sprayed and, quite possibly, soaked through. A windbreaker is a good idea if it’s breezy or in case of rain. If you’re kayaking in spring or late autumn, add layers and, in winter, thicker layering: wetsuit, wool or fleece hat, neoprene socks and gloves, and wetsuit booties.
In all seasons, it’s best to avoid cotton since it doesn’t provide much warmth when wet. Kayak firms rent wetsuit and paddling top for $US10 ($13.70) an outing.
Stow away: Take dry clothes to change into after your paddle; for the trip, you’ll need a bottle of water, sunscreen and a snack. There’s a handy little pouch in the top of most sea-kayaking spray skirts to zip these items in, along with, say, a waterproof disposable camera or small, inexpensive pair of binoculars. One well-prepared kayaker I know always carries a compass and a paddler’s version of a pedometer, which lets him know exactly how far he’s gone.
Peter Mandel is an author of children’s books, including Boats on the River and My Ocean Liner. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.