After three decades of boating and fishing from an inlet where commercial vessel traffic was almost nonexistent, I moved to a new locale adjacent to the main thoroughfares for New York Harbor and Port Newark. I am a lifelong recreational fisherman with a penchant for center console boats who formerly called Point Pleasant, New Jersey, my home port. That area includes a small commercial fishing center that caters to trawlers and clammers, but most of the boats are recreational craft. While the narrow waterway could get congested, it always felt manageable.
That all changed two years ago when I moved my boat about 35 miles north to Gateway Marina near the mouth of the Shrewsbury River in Highlands, New Jersey. Suddenly, I was navigating to fishing spots in and around one of the busiest commercial ports in the world, where tankers and container ships that seem to be as large as the nearby skyscrapers ply the waters. In addition, scores of ferries feed a daily stream of commuters to and from the city, and workboats and barges, some of which literally defy description, present a clear and present danger. Top this off with a concentration of recreational vessels, and I soon realized this was a potentially more dangerous environment than the one I was accustomed to.
That really hit home for me not long after I made the move. I was running to a fishing spot off Atlantic Beach, New York—located somewhere between Sandy Hook and Ambrose ship channels—when an unexpected fog blew in off the ocean. As it approached, I fired up the radar that was part of the new electronics package I had recently installed. In no time, visibility dropped to 20 yards. I quickly realized many of the targets on the radar screen were alien to me. Ship channel buoys sent back reflections as large as a typical boat, and massive targets nearby were ships. One was so close that its foghorn nearly knocked me over, yet I couldn’t see the vessel. It was so disorienting that I brought my boat to a full stop outside the channel. After some calming deep breaths and a re-evaluation of my current situation, a line from The Wizard of Oz popped into my head that made me laugh out loud. I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Recreational boating in a major port makes basic seamanship skills critically important. A failure to understand the Rules of the Road and the capabilities of the various commercial vessels you’ll encounter can get you into trouble in a hurry. In addition, your boat must have a good suite of navigational electronics aboard, including a chartplotter, radar and even AIS. Just as important, though, is the fact that you you must really know how to use the equipment. Since that fog encounter, I’ve made it a point to run my radar on clear days so I can visually confirm the targets I see on the screen. That information will come in handy the next time I’m in another low-visibility situation in a congested waterway.
My friend Capt. Brian Rice of Jersey Devil Charters grew up fishing and boating in the area and has run a variety of recreational-for-hire vessels on these crowded waters. He has good advice for those who have not been exposed to a high volume of commercial traffic.
“Running recreational boats like my 32 Contender presents challenges and can be dangerous,” he says. “Understanding the Rules is really just the beginning, because there is so much more to know when dealing with ships, tugs, barges, high-speed commuter ferries and even naval vessels. The largest ships simply cannot see your boat when it is directly in their paths and closer than 300 to 500 feet. Even if they could, the harbor pilot at the controls could never stop in time to avoid a close-quarters collision. At 10 knots, it takes these commercial craft about a mile to come to a stop, and at slow speeds these ships lose maneuverability. In addition, big ships throw wakes that appear deceivingly flat, but can swamp a small boat if it gets too close.”
Some recreational boat owners like to go inside the harbor, where fishing for summer flounder and striped bass can be fantastic. If you’re one of them, keep a careful and consistent lookout for the orange Staten Island ferry. There are actually five of them (each vessel 300 feet long) and they make a total of 117 trips across the harbor on a typical weekday. Also be aware of the smaller ferries that run from numerous landings and scoot across the Hudson or East River carrying commuters by day and theater-goers and partiers by night. The large ferries don’t stop and can’t deviate much from their course to avoid a recreational boat. Plus, most are deep draft and throw large wakes.
Rice also cautions recreational skippers to watch for the tugs, barges and workboats that traverse the harbor and the Raritan-Sandy Hook Bay complex. When a tug is pushing a 300-foot barge through the narrow Raritan Reach Channel—a very popular fishing area for recreational boats—you have to remain vigilant because there is no way those vessels can avoid you. You avoid them or suffer the consequences, says Rice. These commercial craft have the right of way. While a tug with barge in tow is required to display specific light patterns from its superstructure, the barge itself often carries only a small white light at the bow to illuminate it at night. You never want to get between a tug and a barge.
Inside the lower harbor north of the Verrazano Bridge is an area called Diamond Shoals. It’s a mooring for hundreds of barges that can present an interesting navigational challenge, so be alert. South of the bridge, larger ships often lay up in designated anchoring zones where they swing around as the tide changes direction. Stay mindful of white buoys that mark out restricted areas like the safety zone around the ammo pier or the exclusionary zone around the Statue of Liberty. (Local authorities take a dim view of interlopers.) Also, know that when the sun goes down, the volume of shoreside lights in almost every direction can be incredibly disorienting. Even radar becomes hard to interpret in the harbor at night. I know people who fish those waters after sunset; most have a FLIR unit as an additional safety precaution.
Running a recreational boat in a major port has certainly been a learning experience for me, and yet the rewards have been some great fishing in unlikely places, along with excellent sightseeing. That all comes with unique challenges, though, so be sure to recognize potential hazards in these bustling waterways, and operate your vessel in a safe manner.
This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue.