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Close call endangers, cancels kayak race

Competitors pile up while battling rough conditions during New York City paddling championship

A well-intentioned extreme kayak race on the Hudson River ended up being a rescue operation when four kayakers were ejected from their vessels because of strong currents and eager competitors.

The third Mayor’s Cup New York City Kayak Championships, held Oct. 19, was cancelled when a group of elite kayakers began piling up on each other as winds up to 30 knots were creating strong currents that pushed them together. Though no serious injuries were reported, several had their surf skis (lightweight racing kayaks) swept against a barge near the start line at North Cove Marina in Battery Park.

“They got all bunched up and couldn’t paddle anymore,” says Michael Fortenbaugh, commodore of the Manhattan Sailing Club. “They ended up being locked together and couldn’t paddle away from danger.”

The race, featuring more than 140 contestants from 12 countries, started at 10:30 a.m. in waves, with the beginners starting out first and then building up to the more experienced contestants. The race was a 27-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan that began and ended at North Cove Marina. The participants had to finish the race in six hours, and were required to wear a PDF and carry a whistle or horn. Though the weather forecast for that day called for strong currents, it didn’t seem too severe to cancel the race.

“The pileup began almost immediately after the start,” says Fortenbaugh. “The slow guys went out first and it was split up really well according to ability. They just didn’t take into account the aggressiveness of the elite paddlers.”

This is the third edition of the race, which is touted as being a challenge to kayakers. Tricky courses such as the Battery, where the Hudson, East River and Buttermilk Channel converge and can create a 3- to 5-foot chop, show this race is not for the faint of heart.

“I’m sure they will do this race again; this is an extreme sport event,” says Fortenbaugh. “There were a lot of people in the wrong spot and the experience broke a few boats, but I’m sure they’ll be back out there next year.”

Fortenbaugh says everyone was fine when the officials brought back the four kayakers to the marina. The New York Police and Fire departments, as well as the Coast Guard, assisted in the rescues.

“This is New York Harbor; we have great lifesaving facilities everywhere since the water is so unpredictable,” says Fortenbaugh. “There was one guy stuck on his kayak near the barge holding onto it and Lt. Paul Church from the Coast Guard really saved the day. He jumped onto the seawall with a life ring and threw it to the kayaker. The other end [of the ring] was attached to a marine police boat.”

The race was called off soon after the pileup when contestants began noticing major damage to their kayaks. Though several were disappointed the race was over, Fortenbaugh agrees it was the right move to make.

“It gets tough out there,” says Fortenbaugh. “But they’ll be back.”

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This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.