I push off from Tubby Hook’s sandy beach into the Hudson River. My orange Dagger kayak rocks alongside my friend Cathy’s white Necky in the black ripples here, at the northern tip of Manhattan. Although it’s still cool at 8:30 in the morning, I’m prepared for a long, hot August day.
I can see New Jersey’s low Palisades across the Hudson. What I can’t see, however, is what I fear most: the current. I know that right in front of me the Hudson’s tidal waters are rushing back to the Atlantic Ocean at 1.5 knots or more.
The kayakers in front of me paddle south, hugging Manhattan’s rocky shore, and my own group paddles farther into the river, allowing the boats still on shore to launch. The plan is for all 60 of us to regroup a quarter of a mile south, near the Inwood Canoe Club.
As I paddle out of the dock’s shade into the early morning sun and turn south, the George Washington Bridge fills the sky. I fish my cell phone out of my dry bag and snap a photo, basking in the thrill of the ebbing river escorting me toward the glistening, double-decked suspension bridge.
A yell jolts my attention to shore. It looks as if three kayakers have flipped near Inwood’s floating dock. The guides from my pod of paddlers sprint toward them, as the current pulls me past the scene. I dig my paddle starboard, turning my kayak into the cove, and look back. Three rescued paddlers already sit on the dock, their boats tied off. I can’t believe it: Fellow members of the Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club (YPRC), they’re some of the most experienced paddlers I know. One has a bandage on his forehead.
I’m only 15 minutes into my first circumnavigation of Manhattan.
I’d wanted to do this trip for years, ever since I had first heard about it from a sales rep who called on me in the early 1990s. He was a former Green Beret, he told me and my colleagues, recounting stories of parachuting behind enemy lines and driving on frozen river beds. Whether it was all true or not, when he told us he had timed one particular business trip to New York City to coincide with circumnavigating Manhattan by kayak, it fit.
Erik Baard—the founder and executive director of HarborLAB, a New York nonprofit that provides paddling programs for ecological and social good—concurs that circumnavigations used to be for elite paddlers only.
“One of the greatest things is that, over the years, the machismo has been drained out,” Baard says. “Twenty years ago, the guys who did the circs were legendary.”
I was a 53-year-old warm weather paddler. While YPRC has held its circ annually since 2003 and I’d known about it for years, I’d shied away from signing up. The event was typically scheduled in July, and I was scared I wouldn’t have built up my endurance so early in the paddling season. But this year’s August date worked.
Phil Giller, one of the circ’s organizers, has led more than half a dozen group paddles around the island of Manhattan. Most years, he says, no one capsizes, and registration now includes screening for skill level and rescue training. “We consult with the Coast Guard, New York Police Department’s Harbor Unit, and various paddling organizations in New York and around the country to get the qualified guides, safety boat escorts, and jet ski support needed to run a safe event,” Giller says.
YPRC also orchestrates a counterclockwise itinerary that takes advantage of the currents, a complicated feat in New York’s estuary system. In most places around the world, tidal currents flood until high tide then ebb until low tide. Not so in New York Harbor. Depending on location, the average tidal current lag, or the gap between high or low water and the beginning of the flood or ebb current, can be as much as two hours and 45 minutes.
Moreover, around Hell Gate, where the Harlem and East rivers meet, the currents are affected by two bodies of water, the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound, which operate on slightly different schedules. The result can be confounding: Currents simultaneously can flood northbound up the Harlem River, while a few yards below Hell Gate, they’re ebbing south in the East River. But to the naked eye, the stretch of water appears to be one and the same.
It’s a lot more complicated than a paddle in the park.
“Paddle out! Stay together!” I’m so close to Giller, one of my pod’s guides, that I can hear him without my radio—so I turn it off. Our next stop is Pier 40, where we’ll meet up with the other half of our circ cohort, who launched from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.
Bikers, strollers and rollerbladers on the Hudson River Waterfront Greenway wave at our multicolored flotilla as we pass. The news spreads from one boat to the next: The kayakers flipped because they had been too close to the dock, and the current pushed them under the low platform. Apprehension tightens my back muscles but is quickly quelled by the sparkling expanse of the Hudson.
I see New York—my lifelong home—like an adventur-
ous tourist, paddling past the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier, gleaming cruise ships, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building. It feels like a party, chatting with friends and paddling into conversations with people I don’t know, everyone basking in the buzz of the scenery and the effortless ride.
Approximately 160 kayakers pull into the sheltered waters south of the former marine terminal, where Soho meets the Hudson. I tie up on one of the floating docks and walk up the stairs to use the River Project’s bathroom. Regrouping at Pier 40 is more than a comfort break, however. It’s also a time to convey the plan for the most difficult part of the trip: crossing the Battery. The southernmost tip of Manhattan and its surrounding waters were named for the armories housed there in the city’s early years. These days, its parks, schools, apartments, and views make it a major draw for tourists and locals.
“We will cross the Battery together right after the Staten Island Ferry pulls out,” Giller says. “Head toward Brooklyn. Watch out for Statue Cruises, speed boats, water taxis, the Circle Line, even hydroplanes.”
An image begins to form in my mind. The landmasses surrounding the New York Harbor—Manhattan, Staten Island, and Brooklyn—create a cocktail shaker, with the boat traffic and tidal action as the bartender, mixing the Hudson River, the East River, and the Atlantic Ocean. Our kayaks will be the ice cubes, banging around.
With the heady scenery of the Financial District to my left and the Statue of Liberty on my right, I line up next to my friend Cathy, but the rough waters make it impossible to stay together. I’m nervous. I want to take a selfie with Lady Liberty but don’t dare take my hands off my paddle. Suddenly marine radios all around me broadcast Giller’s command: “Go!”
All 160 kayaks round the bend and paddle into the rolling waves. We begin as a group but quickly scatter. A Statue Cruise boat approaches me from my starboard. I brace my legs against the inside of my kayak and quicken my pace. When the big boat turns toward land, I continue toward Brooklyn. I return each volley, lob, and smash of water with sweeps, draws, and shifting body weight, thankful my frequent paddles in the Hudson have afforded me a measure of experience in rough water. A sleek Epic surf ski flips in front of me. I helplessly watch another paddler get the man back into his kayak.
We regroup on the Brooklyn side of the East River. The historic ships of South Street Seaport are directly across the water and, behind them, the towers of Manhattan’s Financial District, punctuated by the new, 104-floor One World Trade Center. Even as we pause, the East River starts flooding. While we paddle away from shore, I can feel the strong flow pushing me north. I’ve been handed from one conveyor belt to another.
“Stay away from the bridge supports,” I hear over the radios around me. The waters are churning at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge’s giant stone towers, and hundreds of cars rattle overhead. Next is the Manhattan Bridge then the Williamsburg Bridge. Soon the United Nations is on my left. Between paying attention to the scenery and the river, the trip is going fast.
Just before 2 p.m., we arrive at Hallet’s Cove, in Long Island City, Queens, just south of Hell Gate. While hanging out here for two hours as we wait for the Harlem River to begin ebbing north was part of our master plan, the pause doubles as an urban adventure. Volunteers help hoist boats from the narrow beach onto Socrates Sculpture Park, just around the corner. Dozens of kayaks of all colors nestle against each other like seeds in an exotic fruit. We paddlers graze through the greenmarket. Some walk to the nearby Noguchi Museum. I buy an amazing cappuccino.
Back in the water, we cross in line formation to the Manhattan side of the East River, keeping as close to a 90-degree angle as we can manage. At a fork where the East River continues right, toward the Long Island Sound, we paddle to the left, into the Harlem River. The water is calm and narrow. Fishermen wave from piers. “Save your best stories for the Harlem River,” a paddling friend later advised me. He was right. After the earlier excitement, this stretch is almost boring.
Before long, though, I begin to feel like a homing pigeon, paddling past sights common for any MetroNorth Hudson Line commuter: Columbia University’s athletic fields, the Marble Hill train station. I’m within conversation distance from other paddlers, but we’ve all fallen silent on this last leg of our trip. I can see the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge, a railroad swing bridge marking the boundary between the Harlem and the Hudson, and paddle toward it on autopilot.
Rounding the northern bend is like a visual expression of changing keys in a song—or maybe reaching a crescendo. After the snug, intimate experience of the Harlem River, the grand expense of the Hudson opens before me, bracketed by the Palisades Cliffs on the opposite side. Startled seagulls flap from the rocky shore into the big blue sky. For one moment, my vista is entirely of the natural world. I’m seeing a view that would have been familiar to the Canarsie Indians.
Another few strokes and I return to my own era. Here, again, is the George Washington Bridge, sparkling in midair. I’ve done it! I’ve circumnavigated Manhattan: 28 nautical miles in 10 hours.
Little boys from the neighborhood watch Cathy and me pull back onto Tubby Hook, get out of our boats, and stretch. A woman slips into one of the other kayaks sitting on the beach while her friend takes her picture. I think I recognize the look in their eyes: It’s an awakening. That river out there—the one we usually see from our cars and trains—you can paddle it.
Many New York City kayak clubs and environmental education organizations offer guided circumnavigations. The following opportunities are also open to the public:
Jerry Blackstone Manhattan Kayak Circumnavigation. The annual excursion I describe in this story, now entering its 16th year, is hosted by the Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club. The 2019 event is set for Saturday, July 20. Applications open April 1; registration is $90 to $95 and includes a one-day $5 insurance fee. For more information, visit yprc.org or e-mail email@example.com.
Brooklyn Kayak Guides. This company offers private circumnavigations for small groups using sit-on-top kayaks. Eight-hour trips run $125 per person. Visit brooklynkayakguides.com.
Manhattan Kayak Company. This organization offers a progression of lessons and trips, culminating in a Manhattan circumnavigation. Classes run $77 per person; a circ is $202. Visit manhattankayak.com.
The tips below provide only an outline for planning a circumnavigation of Manhattan. Never overestimate your own skills; always be humble in the face of New York Harbor.
Learn from experience. Circumnavigate Manhattan with an organized group before attempting a self-guided trip—and then, do not attempt this trip alone. Go with several other experienced paddlers.
Keep a safe distance from larger vessels and pier bulkheads. New York Harbor is a busy commercial port. Kayakers can see large commercial vessels, but the pilothouse of a loaded container ship, barge, ferry, or even a recreational power boat can’t necessarily see self-paddled vessels or accommodate paddlers’ trajectories.
Determine two key crossings first. Plan your trip across Hell Gate at slack current. You will also need the Staten Island Ferry schedule to know when to cross the Battery. At any given time, there is only a 12-minute window.
Make a detailed itinerary. After deciding where your trip will start, next determine where you’ll pause, and how long you’ll pause for, in order to make your target crossings. Plan contingency stops. Get your NYC Parks kayak launch permit so you can land wherever you need to. File your float plan with the Coast Guard so they know where and when you intend to paddle.
Be realistic about your skills. Have plenty of experience on open ocean conditions. Be assessed by a certified instructor. Make sure you know how to self-rescue.
Have the right equipment. Use only sea kayaks designed for harbor-type waters. Wear a PFD and carry a tow rope, a spare paddle, and a paddle float—and know how to use them. Bring a cell phone and carry identification. Use a marine VHF radio. Monitor channels 13 and 16 to make contact with a commercial vessel or just listen to get a better sense of what’s happening in the waterways. Set up another channel (68, 69) where you can communicate with your group.
Check the weather via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the week before, the day before, and the morning of your paddle. Worry about fronts and squalls and high winds. Heavy rains before a trip can also affect the currents.
Author’s note: Thanks to Eric Baard and Johna Till Johnson for help in understanding the dynamics of the Hudson/East and Harlem river system.