The city that never sleeps contains expansive waterways that have an awe-inspiring presence and history
Of the roughly 2,000 miles of coastline along the Eastern Seaboard, there is one short stretch like no other: New York City, the East River and New York Harbor.
Not only is New York the most populous city in the country — and one of the top destinations on the planet — it also has one of the best, busiest and most important harbors in the world.
It’s hard to imagine now, looking at the skyline, concrete canyons and sprawling development, but it was primarily the excellent navigable waters that persuaded the Dutch to settle in the forested wilderness on the southern tip of Manhattan Island in 1625.
New York’s shipping industry played a crucial role in the city’s evolution into a megalopolis and our nation’s growth into a global superpower. The port fueled and fed the world. Millions of European immigrants got their first view of America from the deck of a ship coming into New York. There’s a reason the Statue of Liberty stands in the harbor and not on shore.
Although New York’s maritime presence has shrunk in the age of the automobile, it still exists for those who care to look for it. Cruising the Big Apple is a genuinely thrilling way to see the city, and the 23 miles between Long Island Sound and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge is a destination itself.
This scenic route is a heavily traveled link between New England and the Mid-Atlantic for countless pleasure boats and commercial shippers because it offers a protected shortcut to an otherwise long offshore slog around the eastern tip of Long Island.
Having lived in Manhattan and delivered sailboats through the East River, I can say the rules on New York’s streets apply equally on the water. Yes, it’s exciting, but the risks are real if you don’t keep your eyes open and pay constant attention to your surroundings. If you’re planning to bring your boat through the city, you’ll need maritime “street smarts” if you want a trouble-free passage.
East River and Hell Gate
The key to a safe passage through New York is understanding the East River and timing your passage through its notorious junction at Hell Gate. Technically a tidal strait, the East River connects the tidal ebb and flow of Long Island Sound to the east with the conflicting tides of New York Harbor and the Atlantic to the south. These opposing forces meet about halfway on the East River at a rocky, narrow mixing bowl called Hell Gate, where the Harlem River also flows in from the nearby Hudson River, blending yet another force to a confused and churning vortex.
This witch’s brew of currents, eddies, whirlpools and backwashes at Hell Gate tumbles down the east side of Manhattan and is quickly squeezed into a narrow, deep and swift channel between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island. At maximum current, the water flows through here at more than 5 knots — too much for many small boats (sailboats especially) to overcome.
Consequently, standard practice is to time your passage to hit Hell Gate at or soon after slack tide, with a following tide behind you. That way a boat or ship is basically flushed either up the East River (on a flood) under Throgs Neck Bridge into Long Island Sound, or down the river (on an ebb) to the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan and New York Harbor. Timed right, it’s a fast and rollicking ride. The Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book and NOAA’s Tides & Currents website (www.tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov) are essential references.
Unfortunately, commercial ships and pleasure boats share these waters, and the need to catch the tides right at Hell Gate often has them converging at the same turbulent and difficult point in the river at the same time. The East River is a major route for East Coast tug-and-barge traffic, and these beamy, lumbering rigs will take up much — sometimes all — of the narrow and fast-flowing channel at Hell Gate and Roosevelt Island.
What’s more, when running with the tide, tugs with barges ahead, alongside or astern have to move faster than the current to maintain steerage, which means they will quickly overtake slower boats. Given the sharp turns, crosscurrents and constricted channel at Hell Gate, a tug and barge (especially a barge being towed) often has to “crab” its way through in a way that leaves little or no room for anyone else.
“If I’m heading for Hell Gate I do it at bare steerage, the slowest speed I can to maintain control. That’s 7 knots at idle,” says Capt. Bill Brucato, master of the 550-foot (72-foot beam) articulated tug barge Nicole L. Reinauer, which carries formidable momentum because of its size. “You’ll want to get out of the way.” (See Q&A below.)
Passages are declared “eastbound for the Gate” (up to Long Island Sound) or “westbound for the Battery” (down to New York Harbor). The boat running with a following current should be considered the stand-on vessel, which means a vessel going against the current would be prudent to keep clear unless doing so jeopardizes safety.
Although some boaters think they have the right of way riding with the current, all vessels must avoid collision under the Rules of the Road. Common sense — and the right-of-way for ships “constrained by draft”— argues for letting the big boat have the deep water; 20,000 tons of steel and freight coming at you fast is hard to argue with.
Boaters who cut too close are sardonically referred to as “PCVs” — population control volunteers — by tug skippers. This is no joke; collisions with barges can have fatal results. In 1981 a 36-foot cabin boat got between a tug and its barge a few hundred yards astern at night on Long Island Sound. Five people died in the collision.
So how should boaters handle commercial traffic when navigating New York waters? Professional mariners have some suggestions:
• Know where you are on the river and where you’ll be. Compiling a voyage plan for your passage before you leave gives you an ETA for Hell Gate — potentially crucial information if a tug with barge is coming through at the same time. For my most recent passage, I had timed to the minute our estimated entry into the East River at the Throgs Neck Bridge and our arrivals at Hell Gate and the Battery. I kept a printout at the helm and recorded each point as we passed. (With the current, it took us 50 minutes from Throgs Neck to Hell Gate, and 30 minutes more from there to the Battery.)
• Have a VHF radio at the helm and listen to it constantly. Communicating with commercial traffic on the river is vital for a safe transit through Hell Gate. Although pilots monitor channel 16 (the hailing frequency), they communicate bridge to bridge on channel 13. Additionally, because this passage is so congested, New York Vessel Traffic Services and the Coast Guard use channel 12 to monitor and direct all commercial traffic between the Throgs Neck Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge. That means the fastest way to assess East River traffic is to listen to channel 12. You should have a VHF at the helm, set to scan channels 12, 13 and 16, but plan to communicate directly on channel 13.
• Broadcast your approach to Hell Gate. If you hear radio traffic indicating a tugboat is headed your way (either ahead or astern), get on channel 13 and let the tug know where you are, where you’re headed and where you expect to be. Keep it short and simple: “Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité, this is the sailboat Rubber Duck westbound for the Battery, currently at Rikers Island, ETA at Hell Gate at 2:20.” This one sentence tells pilots what they need to know.
• If an encounter with a tugboat is likely, ask for and follow the captain’s advice. If a pilot wants you on one side of his ship or the other as you pass, he will tell you. If he thinks a passage is unsafe, he will recommend that you let the rig pass. The two best hiding spots are (westbound) in Pot Cove, immediately east of Hallets Point at Hell Gate, and (eastbound) below Belmont Island (south of Roosevelt Island), where the river is wide.
• Pay attention to the United Nations. The U.N. has a wider-than-normal security zone (175 yards offshore) guarded by armed patrol boats. When world leaders arrive for General Assembly meetings, the Coast Guard shuts down all traffic by the U.N., closing the river. Check the Region 2 Local Notice to Mariners (www.navcen.uscg.gov) for river closures.
New York by water isn’t that different from New York by land: The potential danger is part of what makes it so exciting. My mentor for this passage, Joe Kliment, a Coast Guard-licensed captain and American Sailing Association-certified sailing instructor, recommends it highly — if you know what you’re doing.
“One should not be afraid of making the East River run, but use caution with a proper lookout and be aware of the power of the current,” Kliment says. “The turbulence caused by the fast current can cause your boat to yaw unexpectedly, so keep well away from other vessels.”
He focuses, in particular, on tidal currents in the East River (rather than tidal range) and says sailboats should be making way with enough engine speed to maintain helm control at all times and shouldn’t raise sails, since that reduces control.
What you’ll see on the passage
New York City passes pretty quickly on the water, so it helps to know what you’re looking at as you cruise by. There’s a lot to see.
The Throgs Neck Bridge marks the western end of Long Island Sound and the beginning of the East River. On the north shore is Fort Schuyler, a 19th century fortification that is now home to the State University of New York Maritime College. A portion of the fort is the Maritime Industry Museum.
LaGuardia Airport is four miles downriver on the south shore. This is where US Airways Flight 1549 took off Jan. 15, 2009, and one minute into its flight hit a flock of geese, losing both engines. Its famous “Miracle on the Hudson” water landing occurred just six minutes later.
Rikers Island, immediately west of LaGuardia’s runways, is New York City’s main prison complex — a sprawling penal colony with 10 facilities. The blue-and-white barge tied up on the north shore across from Rikers Island is guest housing with a water view, a floating 800-bed jail used to relieve overcrowding.
The Brothers are just west of Rikers Island and about 5.5 miles in from Throgs Neck. South Brother Island once belonged to Jacob Ruppert, a co-owner of the New York Yankees, and legend has it he would bring Babe Ruth out for batting practice. North Brother Island was once a quarantine base and later was used for military housing. Its most famous resident was the Irish immigrant cook Mary Mallon, who was quarantined there for life against her will. Better known as Typhoid Mary, she was the first person to be identified as a healthy carrier of the disease. She died on the island in 1938. A subsequent resident was World War II veteran Evan Hunter, who wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” while stationed there.
Hell Gate proper begins about two miles past the Brothers, marked by the arched red Hell Gate railroad bridge, followed quickly by the Triborough Bridge. This passage was once far more hazardous than it is today because of Flood Rock and other shallows that caused the wreckage of hundreds of commercial vessels. The Army Corps of Engineers obliterated Flood Rock in 1885 in a spectacular blast that was felt 50 miles away in Princeton, N.J.
As you approach Hell Gate, the land off to starboard bears testimony to New York’s history of using East River islands as isolation wards for society’s unwanted and unwashed. Randall’s Island, the first you pass, once was a potter’s field for burying the poor and had an “idiot asylum,” an inebriate asylum and a rest home for Civil War veterans. New York’s legendary “master builder” Robert Moses helped transform the island into a park during the 1950s. Randall’s Island now hosts the city’s largest sports complex.
Wards Island marks the north shore of Hell Gate and still bears a legacy of those earlier days: the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center, New York State’s maximum-security prison for the criminally insane, which is visible from the river. If Hannibal Lecter were real, this is the kind of place from which he’d have to escape.
Mill Rock marks the western edge of Hell Gate, with the Harlem River entering just to the north. The channel turns south here, squeezing between Manhattan and long, skinny Roosevelt Island.
If you look quickly, you can see a comfortable yellow home overlooking Hell Gate from a charming little park on the nearest point of Manhattan. This is Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the mayor of New York. City rules strictly prohibit non-family members or unofficial visitors from staying overnight, which can complicate the social life of a single mayor. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a divorced billionaire, lives in a townhouse on the upper east side of Manhattan. His predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, moved out of Gracie Mansion during a highly publicized divorce from his second wife.
At this point you are racing past Manhattan, alongside heavy traffic on the East Side (FDR) Drive just a few dozen yards to the right. As you pass under the Queensboro Bridge the currents are likely to hit their fastest as the boat cuts through standing waves and gets pushed by powerful eddies and swirls. Some of the city’s most recognizable landmarks — the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building — come into view through the urban jungle. The United Nations building marks the southern end of the Roosevelt Island chute.
As the river widens below Roosevelt Island, the industrial waterfront of Brooklyn appears to port, the buildings lower and grittier than the towering, gleaming offices on Manhattan to starboard. This part of the Brooklyn waterfront, south to the Brooklyn Bridge, has been a popular place for criminals to dispose of stolen vehicles (among other things). Although the New York Police Department’s scuba team has fished out a lot of cars in cleanup campaigns, many others remain on the bottom.
Almost every inch of the shoreline here is either a bulkhead or dock, and it’s worth noting that the city’s slowly improving water quality has brought some interesting problems. Wooden pilings are a favorite meal for teredos, or shipworms, a bivalve mollusk that can grow to 20 inches and bores into timber. Wood-and-concrete pilings are the food of choice for gribbles, tiny creatures that can digest cement. In New York, even the creepy-crawlies are tough.
Continuing south, the East River takes one last big turn at Corlears Hook, just beyond the Williamsburg Bridge and across from the old Brooklyn Navy Yard (now an industrial park). Here, one of the most spectacular views of New York City opens up. Looking out into the harbor, you see the Statue of Liberty on the horizon framed beneath the graceful lines of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges.
Just below the Brooklyn Bridge is the South Street Seaport maritime historic district, a couple of square-riggers tied to its docks, with the skyscrapers of Manhattan’s financial district towering in the background. Helicopters buzz the waterfront from the Wall Street Heliport at Pier 6, and Staten Island ferries come and go at the Battery terminal (a good area for small boats to avoid). It’s a pulsing, thrilling, beautiful vista.
Out in the harbor
The East River ends and New York Harbor begins at the southern tip of Manhattan. This presents another set of challenges: crowds of other boats and ships heading in all directions, some moving very fast. Between the bewildering number of PWC, high-speed tourist boats, sailboats, the Staten Island ferries, fast-ferry catamarans and container and cruise ships, you’ll have lots of company once you enter the Hudson River and the harbor. This is one place where knowing the Rules of the Road and who has the right of way is very important.
With so much commercial shipping through New York, the Coast Guard runs a program here called Operation Clear Channel, which attempts to educate boaters about the hazards of navigating in the channels used by commercial ships in New York Harbor. When ships are under way, you are likely to hear a “clear the channel” order over channel 16 to all boats. Compliance is easy. You go outside the red and green channel buoys and let the ship pass.
On our last passage, we cleared the shallows north of Governors Island (known as Diamond Reef), and across from Ellis Island we quickly turned due south. This took us through the commercial ship anchorage area, avoiding the main channel and most of the chaotic traffic.
Despite the warm day and generally light wind, we dogged down all ports and hatches because of the big wakes that occasionally washed over the deck from passing traffic.
An hour later, the city now a mere bump on the horizon behind us, we quietly passed under the towering Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the end (or the beginning) of New York Harbor.
Stephen Blakely is a writer based in Washington, D.C., who sails a 26-foot Island Packet on Chesapeake Bay.
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This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.