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Destination-NYC-Hell Gate

Navigating tricky Hell Gate

Navigating tricky Hell Gate

Boaters planning to transit the East River from Long Island Sound into New York Harbor should be mindful of an S-shaped passage at the confluence of the Harlem River known as Hell Gate.

“Hell Gate is a particularly tricky bend,” says Capt. Robert R. O’Brien Jr., commander of Coast Guard Sector New York. “The East River isn’t really a river but a tidal strait that connects Upper New York Bay with Long Island Sound. This means that both of these large bodies of water provide tidal influence to this narrow, nearly 90-degree bend.”

Tim Johnson, an assistant professor at Boston’s Wentworth Institute of Technology, teaches coastal navigation at the Boston Harbor Sailing Club and has been studying the currents around Manhattan since the early 1980s. He agrees that Hell Gate can be an obstacle for boaters if they don’t navigate it wisely. “The water there is turbulent and doesn’t flow in a laminar fashion but twists and winds through the channel,” says Johnson, who is 60. “This is caused by underwater obstructions that deflect current toward the surface.

“When southbound through the Gate, the current picks up significantly when you are opposite ‘Big Alice,’ Con Edison’s power generating plant on Astoria,” he continues. “The current runs fast and twisted right up to the first bend, where it hits a rock wall with such force that it creates a visible partition between water being pinned and held in place by a sheer wall of hydraulic forces as the current turns to the right.”

Approaching the second bend (the Harlem River is to starboard), Johnson says the water can appear calm but is actually an eddy. Currents generally run in excess of 4 knots, often closer to 5 knots, and don’t slow down until after Belmont Island, south of Roosevelt Island, he says.

Boats can lose steerage in the turbulent water and can be turned as much as 30 degrees, Johnson says. “It’s a temporary condition but causes great excitement and concern in the wheelhouse,” he notes.

Navigating Hell Gate today clearly isn’t as difficult as it was more than 200 years ago. At one time, about 1,000 ships a year would either run aground or sink in the rocky passage, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1780 the HMS Hussar struck Pot Rock and sank. Carrying soldiers, slaves, rations and a fortune in confiscated gold and silver, the British frigate was too weighed down to maneuver.

In 1850 a French engineer blasted away Pot Rock with explosives, along with Ways Reef and Shelldrake Rock. Hallet’s Point Reef was blasted in 1876 after laborers spent years digging tunnels to weaken the reef. A similar method was used on Flood Rock in 1885. Some 50,000 people gathered on the banks of the East River to watch the detonation, which is said to have lifted a mass of rock and water 150 feet in the air.

The best time to navigate Hell Gate is during slack tide, and Johnson recommends listening for commercial traffic on the VHF. “Because the visibility around the corners of Hell Gate is limited you don’t want to be surprised by a tug pushing a barge,” he says. “The tugs like to push their barges against the current, so at the start of ebb for the first hour you might see more tugs than usual. The current’s extra drag gives them better control over their barges,” he says. “In the Roosevelt Channel section alongside Manhattan, the tugs and coastal vessels will pass port to port, leaving little room for anyone else.” To avoid commercial vessels, Johnson recommends taking the eastern channel, which he says is far quieter.

“One time I went through Hell Gate in a 12-foot aluminum skiff with a 6-hp outboard,” he recalls. “The water was so rough that the person seated on the center bench was bounced off the seat onto the floorboards, where she stayed for the rest of the trip gripping the side of the boat. I had a ball.”