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Destination-New York City

With one of the world’s most famous skylines as a backdrop, cruising New York Harbor is something every boater should experience

With one of the world’s most famous skylines as a backdrop, cruising New York Harbor is something every boater should experience

Dick DeBartolo guided his outboard-powered center console along the lower Hudson River and stared at the Manhattan skyline. The traffic on the West Side Highway had ground to a halt, but out here on the river everything was moving smoothly. A smile crossed his face.

 “There’s no better place to be on the water than in New York Harbor,” says Dick DeBartolo, who has lived in Manhattan for more than 40 years and keeps a 24-foot Pro-Line and a 22-foot Faralon at the 79th Street Boat Basin on the city’s Upper West Side.


 “Everyone wants to see the Statue of Liberty from the water at sundown. Everyone wants to see the New York skyline from the water at night. I absolutely love it here.”

One of the largest and most heavily trafficked ports in the country, New York Harbor remains an exciting destination for recreational boaters.

Professional photographer Jody Dole says everyone should visit the Big Apple by boat. “When it’s dead calm on the water late at night and the city is all lit up, it just doesn’t get any better,” says Dole, 50, a former New Yorker who now lives in Chester, Conn. When he lived in Manhattan, Dole kept a 28-foot Sea Ray Sunsport named Abbe Jane at Chelsea Piers. “My family and I rarely ventured too far from the harbor,” he says. “We didn’t have to. There’s so much already going on right there.”

One thing cruisers should keep in mind is that New York is a very active port. “It’s a commercial harbor busy with ships, tugs and barges, ferry boats and sightseeing craft,” says Capt. John Doswell, 63, executive director of Manhattan’s Working Harbor Committee, a volunteer group that raises awareness of the history of the harbor, its vitality today and its future. “Recreational boaters need to exercise caution and shouldn’t be afraid to talk to commercial traffic when in doubt on VHF channel 13. They will generally appreciate it.”

Whether planning a day trip or an extended stay with sightseeing, shopping and dining, arriving in New York City on your own boat provides an experience others can only get by purchasing a ticket for a sightseeing cruise.

New York Harbor, also called Upper New York Bay, is fed by the Hudson River and Gowanus Canal. It is connected to Lower New York Bay by the Narrows, to Newark Bay by the Kill Van Kull and to Long Island Sound by the East River, which is actually a tidal strait. Entering New York Harbor’s Upper Bay provides spectacular views of lower Manhattan, Governors and Ellis islands, and the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island.

A little history

While searching for a westerly passage to China in 1609, Dutch navigator Henry Hudson sailed into what is now New York Harbor and discovered an island stretching 13 miles in length and 2 miles at its widest point. Less than two decades later fellow Dutchmen followed in his footsteps and began to inhabit the island, later known as Manhattan.

Those early settlers established a military fort at the island’s southeastern tip and set up a trading outpost there. From that point on, passenger and freight vessels maintained a link between Manhattan and Europe, plying the waters of New York Harbor at the confluence of the Hudson and East rivers, and dotting the island’s numerous piers. Millions of immigrants came to the New World by way of boats arriving in the harbor.

As New York continued to grow into one of the world’s most influential cities, the importance of the harbor and its surrounding rivers grew as well. Although cargo ships today go to newer terminals in New Jersey, Brooklyn and Staten Island, New York Harbor remains one of the nation’s busiest ports.

Things to do

“It’s almost mind-boggling how much there is to do in New York Harbor and in the city,” says DeBartolo, who is a boating magazine writer and editor. “When I’m entertaining visitors on one of my boats, the first thing I do is take them into the harbor to see the Statue of Liberty. You can’t get too close to the island because of the security zone, but you can get close enough where your passengers can really get a kick out of it.”

The Statue of Liberty was designed and built by French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who completed the work in 1884. Bartholdi reportedly thought New York Harbor was the perfect place for his copper statue because it was “where people get their first view of the New World.” Since then Lady Liberty has stood as a sign of welcome to immigrants and as a universal symbol of freedom.

The Immigration Museum on nearby Ellis Island chronicles the island’s role in the history of immigration to the United States. From 1892 to 1954, more than 12 million immigrants are said to have entered this country through the immigration station on the island. Access to Ellis and Liberty islands is by ferry only. For more information, contact the ferry service at (212) 269-5755 or visit .

Visitors also can tour historic Governors Island, home to two military outposts — Fort Jay and Castle Williams — that were built between 1796 and 1811 and served as early fortifications to protect Manhattan from naval attack. This year the island is open to the public until Sept. 2. (It opened June 3.) Guided tours are offered Tuesday through Thursday, with self-guided tours on Fridays and Saturdays. A free 10-minute ferry to Governors Island leaves from the Battery Park Maritime Building at 10 South St., adjacent to the Staten Island Ferry terminal.

Activities on the water in New York include the New York City Poker Run up the Hudson in June, the July Fourth Macy’s Fireworks Spectacular and the Statue of Liberty Marathon Sailing Race in July. The marathon is a catamaran race that starts at the Sandy Hook Bay Catamaran Club ( ) in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., heads to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, wraps around the Statue of Liberty and finishes back at the club.

Mainland Manhattan — the city that never sleeps — boasts a multitude of activities and attractions. In the Battery, on Manhattan’s southern tip, are several monuments and statues, including the Coast Guard Memorial and the American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial. Just behind North Cove Marina, located on the Hudson River in Battery Park City, is Ground Zero, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center stood.

Manhattan also is home to many museums, including the South Street Seaport Museum ( ); Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler ( ), located at the State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx; and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum ( ) on the Hudson. Of course, there are the seemingly endless opportunities for shopping, dining and entertainment.

“I like to emphasize the unusual, and the working waterfront,” says the Working Harbor Committee’s Doswell, who owns a 51-foot Hudson Force ketch named Laissez Faire. “Just off the tip of Manhattan is a large active container port [in Red Hook, Brooklyn], and there’s the former Brooklyn Navy Yard on the East River. There are also some interesting backwaters, creeks and basins, some of which will be developed with new maritime uses, including marinas, in the not-so-distant future.

“Many boaters treat New York Harbor as a place to get through as fast as possible,” Doswell adds. “They’re missing a real adventure.”

What to know before you go

It goes without saying that New York Harbor can be a tricky place to navigate. “Like the city, the harbor never sleeps,” says Capt. Robert R. O’Brien Jr., commander of Coast Guard Sector New York and captain of the Port of New York/New Jersey. “There is always activity with vessels ranging from kayaks to container ships nearly 1,000 feet long, and it comes at you from all directions. A mariner needs to be constantly alert to the traffic around them.”

O’Brien says that, although New York Harbor covers a vast area, its waters aren’t uniformly deep. “Boaters should study their charts to make sure they know not only where there is enough water for them to go but also where there is enough water for the larger ships,” he says. “The entrance channel to the harbor, called Ambrose Channel, is deep enough for some of the largest ships, but outside of the channel it shoals up very quickly. If a boater doesn’t need 45 feet of water I would ask that they leave that for the large container ships and tankers.” NOAA charts 12327, 12334 and 12335 cover New York Harbor and the Hudson and East rivers.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Coast Guard has increased the number of harbor patrols it directs. “We conduct patrols on the water and in the air with both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft,” says O’Brien. “We also conduct vessel boardings. All of our boarding teams are armed, just as you would expect a police officer doing a traffic stop to be armed. However, unlike a traffic stop a Coast Guard boarding does not mean that the boarding officer has witnessed a violation. The Coast Guard is charged with ensuring that all vessels meet minimum safety requirements. We do that through under way vessel examinations.”

O’Brien says there is an extensive list of security zones in New York Harbor that visiting cruisers need to be aware of. To read the Coast Guard’s security zone advisory notice, he recommends logging on to Click on the “Port Directory” button, select New York from the drop-down menu, then click on the “Security Zones” link.

Another obstacle for recreational boaters in and around New York Harbor are the large and frequent wakes, says Ed Bacon, who has lived aboard his 54-foot Downeast ketch, Prelude, at the 79th Street Boat Basin for 36 years. “As a member of the Safe Wakes Coalition … I know there have been injuries and millions of dollars of damage caused by wakes,” says Bacon, who is 66. “Boaters should avoid the Battery area from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Holland Tunnel during rush hours.”

He cautions that groups of buildings in Jersey City, the World Financial Center and the East River below the Brooklyn Bridge can cause wind shadows, shifts and wind speed fluctuations that can be problematic for sailors. “A sailor should know the lag time between the current and the tide, or he may find himself sailing backwards,” says Bacon.

Doswell warns of floating logs in the East River and says that because of strong currents, boaters should only travel the East River to Long Island Sound through Hell Gate during slack tide.

“No warning is meant to scare a visiting boater away,” Doswell says. “Any number of recreational boaters enjoy the harbor every day, and more and more are coming. They are meant to promote good seamanship, which should be practiced in any harbor.”