I had set out on a solo trip to Peter Sharp Boathouse, but fell short, turning back due to the weather. Since then, one of my goals has been to make that trip, and after putting it off due to time and tides, I finally made it last Sunday.
Peter Sharp Boathouse is one of the more distinct destinations in NYC waterways. It’s a sizable boathouse, large enough to fit rowing shells, floating on a barge in the East River, approximately at the end of Dyckman, where the Harlem River Drive ends (or starts, depending on your perspective).
There’s also a gorgeous park built around Swindler’s Cove, with a beautiful garden and some naturalistic walkways. By land or by sea, it’s a beautiful destination. Look up Peter Sharp Boathouse and Swindler’s Cove for more information on each.
I was making this trip mostly to take pictures, and to work on my distance paddling. Yet, for a long day of solo paddling, the entire trip turned out to be remarkably social for me.
A Late Start
I got off to a late start. I had worked out that high tide was about 1030, and therefore wanted to be underway by 730. My train was running late, so while I was all packed up and ready to go by 745, the leader for the Downtown Boathouse’s public trip was short on volunteers, so I stayed around to help get them set up.
The public trips at DTBH are probably what they are best known for. Basically they take about 18 people out on the river for three hours, heading north or south based on the currents to a destination, and then come back. It’s a free program; details are on their website.
As you might imagine, setting up the trips takes some time – it takes about an hour from letting people in the door to getting them underway. There’s paperwork, pulling down the boats and kitting them out, running a short evaluation to make sure everyone is capable of making the trip – it adds up. Fortunately, by about 845, some more volunteers had shown up to assist with the trip, and I was able to get underway for my own. I’m grateful to those who took up the reins.
The First Leg
The stretch of water from 56th street to the George Washington Bridge is pretty familiar to me now. I’d almost say routine, but nothing is ever routine on the water. For those of you non-New Yorkers, The GWB is about 175th street, or about 7 miles from 56th street. After that, I would paddle another two miles or so into the Harlem River, and another couple of miles after that. Altogether this would be about a 24-mile round trip.
From 56th street, I paddled up past familiar sights: the pedestrian pier at 66th street (or so); the 79th Street Boat Basin, the mooring field that stretches beyond the boat basin up into the 90s; I could make out Riverside Church in Manhattan, and the landing for Mitsuwa in New Jersey.
As I approached Riverbank State Park, I glided past the new piers built at the end of 125th street, and took an extended water break. I had watched a large DEP vessel pull up alongside Riverbank, and made sure I gave it a wide berth. At that point, moving out further into the river only helped me, because the current is stronger in the middle of the channel, and it was just about an hour short of maximum flood.The DEP Red Hook.
Around this time, the wind started to pick up and become steadier, blowing from the south, directly against the current. As regular readers know, these are the perfect conditions for big waves: two of nature’s more powerful forces running against each other like rams. The shoals south of the GWB were pleasantly choppy; what awaited me north of the bridge were some 3- or 4-foot swells.
Heading straight into them, I wasn’t worried. I was riding up and down hills of water, watching the front of my boat climb above the horizon before falling forward and smacking down – rather loudly at times – into the trough. I pierced incoming waves, water washing over my deck, around my spray skirt. A lot of people perceive the waters north of the GWB to be tranquil compared to the chop of the lower part of the river; it ain’t always so.
I had recently added a little spring-footed Jesus statue to the front of my boat, mostly as a gag, and because the old “Plastic Jesus” song has gotten in my head on some of these longer trips. Watching Jesus stay on tight, fast to my boat as I clashed with these waves, I felt amused. These waves were a lot of fun.
Impressment at Inwood
I was able to steer out of the waves easily simply by heading closer to shore. I did so as I approached the Inwood Canoe Club, another paddling club I am a member of. They have a nice little red clubhouse just below Dyckman on the Hudson side, and were starting up their public program.
Inwood doesn’t have a proper embayment, so what they do is run groups of the public either north or south with the current for about twenty minutes. The shoreline is almost entirely park up there, with the Palisades on the New Jersey side, so it’s very bucolic. While I said I was only passing through, the Commodore talked me into helping corral some of the public, and I took the lead position with a couple of waves (of people – we didn’t take them out in the wind-against-current waves).
By then I was worried about losing time and losing current. I had plenty of current left to go up, but the longer I waited, the less time I would have for lunch before turning around. I wanted time to rest and enjoy the scenery, and to take pictures along the way. I bid adieu to my comrades at Inwood, and set out around Spuyten Duyvil, into the Harlem River.
The Harlem River
Spuyten Duyvil is a storied name in NYC waterways. Variously attributed to either a Dutch phrase, or an English soldier’s pronouncement that he would swim it “in spite of the Devil”, it’s the area where the Harlem and Hudson meet. Currents get weird, swirling as they alternately pour in or out of one river to the other. It’s mostly harmless, but an experienced boater will be prepared to have their vessel turned by the river.
The effective gateway to the Harlem is a rotating railroad bridge. Amtrak runs over this line, but the bridge will pivot to open up channels for boats to pass through. Sitting as low to the water as we do, kayakers tend to not be concerned whether the bridge is open or not, although at high tide, it might be a tight fit for some to pass under the bridge in its channel-closed position.
On this trip, this wasn’t a worry. In fact, not only was the bridge open, but I got to watch it open.
As I passed through, I saw familiar sights. To the right was Inwood Hill Park; above me was the high blue arch of the Henry Hudson Highway. On the left, high cliff walls over the Bronx, and eventually, the giant Columbia C painted on the cliffs, directly across from Baker Field, Columbia’s athletic complex next to the park and Indian Road.
I passed a lagoon that I know becomes a mud flat at low tide. I paddled under the Broadway Bridge, past two Metro North Stations, and around the bend until I was next to an MTA rail yard.
What strikes me about this area is that it’s both industrial and bucolic at the same time. Gorgeous greenery adorns the river, climbing up the sides of bridges, stopping just short of gravel fields lining the rails, or empty lots where factories used to stand. From the river, I can see residential buildings facing away from the river; their frontages presumably to the streets opposite me. Now, given the short distance across the river, the views facing the water might now be spectacular, but I think that with a little cleanup, the Harlem could be a pleasant view, replacing empty lots with parkland, makeshift fishing holes with piers and overlooks. It could become one of the nicest parts of the city, making the South Bronx and eastern Washington Heights desirable neighborhoods.
A fishin’ hole.
Who thought these stairs were a good idea?
This is where I stopped short last time.
As I came around the bend, I passed the University Heights Bridge (207th street) and my destination came into view. On my left, I could see some tall apartment buildings; on my right, Peter Sharp Boathouse. Between them, further down, the Washington Bridge and the Alexander Hamilton Bridge.
Here’s some trivia about these two bridges: the Washington Bridge (181st street) does not connect to the George Washington Bridge, which runs just a few blocks south and connects to the Bronx as the Alexander Hamilton Bridge. This causes no end of confusion to people who refer to these routes by their proper names, rather than their highway names. The Washington Bridge is not the George Washington Bridge, despite their proximity and the similarity of their names.
Landing for Lunch
I landed at Swindler’s Cove, in a little nook of a dirt-and-pebble beach right across from the boathouse proper. I had imagined landing at the boathouse, but there is really nothing there other than a low dock to exit from. The boathouse is usually closed (in the two times I’ve been there), and a large gated fence prevents accessing the rest of Manhattan. Land at Swindler’s Cove, and you get bathrooms, trash cans, even access to the street if you walk far enough.
Fair Warning? Better not touch the water.
I’ve heard rumors this was anything but what it is today.
Peter Sharp Boathouse.
Lunch is something I’ll detail in a later post, but basically, I had civilian MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). In anticipation of camping, I reverted to my army brat heritage and found some “emergency rations” along the lines of what the military uses to feed its soldiers in the field. It’s mostly protein and carbs – perfect for a full day of sustained physical activity.
I had the “Spaghetti with Italian-style meat sauce” package, which was basically Chef-Boi-R-Dee with sides of crackers, peanut butter, raisins, and a cookie. A flameless heating unit made the entree more palatable. I have to say, after four hours in my boat, it was a pretty good meal, washed down with lemonade and some tea I’d brought along in a thermos. It included a bag of peanut M&Ms that I saved for later.
While I was eating, I saw three men in kayaks land at Peter Sharp. They were about 30 yards away from me. I called out to them and waved; they waved back but otherwise seemed un-interested. To be fair, what would three men paddling thirty miles around one of the most densely-populated islands in the world make of some siren woman calling out to them from the shore?
I invited them over, and even pointed out that the restrooms – which they clearly sought, trying to find entry into the boathouse – were on the mainland, such as it is. But, they were happy to lunch on the dock and leave me be, so I chatted with a family who had bicycled over to the park, and a man who watched my boat while I used the facilities myself.
On their way out, one of the men paddled over and said hello. His name was Ted, and his companions were Vlad and Igor. This is “other Vlad”, as in, not the Vlad of Vlad-and-Johna fame. I was still digesting, so I told them I would try to catch up with them on the way out. I left about fifteen minutes later, retracing my steps, and not catching up with them until we were practically at Dyckman on the Hudson River.
It’s worth pointing out that at this point in my “solo” paddle, I had volunteered about an hour and a half with two different clubs, waved at people on the shore, talked to total strangers in the park, and hollered at some fellow kayakers on their way paddling around the island. You’re never totally alone on the water unless you really want to be.
Coming back, I took a few more pictures, including one of a shoe floating in the middle of the river, sole down, like some invisible person was standing on one foot. I figure if you’re looking for waterproof footwear, you could do work than to go with this brand.
I spotted some boys jumping into the water from the Bronx-side cliffs. I’ve never seen the movie The Basketball Diaries, but apparently this activity was part of the movie. The NYT wrote up a piece about this a couple of years ago – apparently as the boys get older, and braver (and arguably, more foolish) they progress to greater heights from which to plunge. I only got the photo – I did not want to stop for video, because I wanted to catch up to the trio I’d spotted back at Peter Sharp.
As I came around Spuyten Duyvil, sure enough my boat was spun about 60 degrees to the left. I wasn’t pitching or rolling, but I did have to adjust my paddling to get the boat pointed where I wanted – in spite of the Devil, I suppose.
I spotted Ted & Company, who had paused to drift with the current, and I caught up with them. Turns out we know a few people in common – VS from my trips to Staten Island and Alpine, Vlad-and-Johna, and Erik, who runs Manhattan Kayak Company. The NYC paddling world is large enough that you can’t know everyone, but you’re probably only one or two degrees of separation from any fellow paddler.
I was a little torn. On the one hand, it would have been nice to paddle back down with other people, but on the other hand, I’d told my Inwood mates that I’d stop by on the way back to say hello – they were having a cookout and I figured it would be a nice place to relax. I decided on the latter, bid farewell to the circumnav guys, and paddled in to Inwood.
At Inwood, things were even more chill than I expected. A handful of people were preparing food; a couple of guys were looking at the dock, figuring out how to fix a specific problem where part of the boards are sagging. I caught up with the fleet captain, and we talked about me moving my boat up there one day. There’s space for it, and Inwood would be a great place to stage my boat for trips further north, or north of Queens, possibly as far as Long Island Sound. Heck, even this trip would have been very different if I had’t been based out of 56th street. However, there are some access issues whose resolution is uncertain at this point, so that’s a decision I’m putting off for a while. In any case, it’s good to know I can stage my boat in a couple of places, depending on where I intend to go.
I stayed a bit longer than I intended to. I had been waiting to hear back from a friend on some plans we had in the afternoon, but after exchanging some texts, I was no longer in a hurry. While I’d put down an expected return time of 1500, that was no longer realistic given my late start and earlier impressment. I made the rounds, saying hello to folks, drinking some water, offering some tea. At about 1445 I set out again, paddling south, in much smoother conditions.
Let me make really clear just how different the conditions between the GWB and Inwood were on this trip.
Here is the water as I was heading up:
Here is the water as I was heading back:
Now, I was almost knocked out of the saddle when the wake of a passing Circle Line boat caught me at a weird angle, but I weathered it and managed to keep going – under the bridge, across the shoals, past Riverbank, with a different, smaller DEP boat tied up at its side.
An Amiable Companion
As I passed the launch platform at 125th street, I spotted a reader Feathercraft collapsible kayak paddling out. I said hello and met Harvey, a native New Yorker whose wife charitably allows him to dry out his boat in the living room, later folding it up for storage.
We kept each other company for most of the rest of the way down; his wife was meeting him at 72nd street, a similar launch where the DTBH operates another program. He isn’t with a particular club, but has been paddling for a while, and has taken some classes – he seemed pretty well prepared, and familiar with different landings. We had good current, and it took only half and hour to get to 72nd.
Once there, I decided to paddle in and say hi to some friends. I started my kayaking career at 72nd. It’s a hard location to work, but very rewarding as most of the public are families and casual people out for a stroll on the promenade. I helped corral a couple of wayward boats, and then set off, around the pedestrian pier, for the boathouse at 56th street.
The Last Leg
The stretch from 72nd to 56th is a short one, but I remember when it seemed like the whole world. However brief, it involves going into the open river, away from any sense of safety, into currents, into unpredictability. Along the way is a garbage loading pier, where tugboats sometimes arrive to take out the garbage. It’s an active waterway with all kinds of traffic. Like I said earlier, nothing on the river is ever routine.
That said, I was home in no time. While the sky was cloudy all day, by now the sun was powerful enough to finally be heating up the air. There was little wind, making for a smooth ride back into the embayment. As I pulled in, I watched the public program in action – a dozen colorful little plastic boats, bobbing in the embayment, people enjoying the water and taking in the novelty of seeing the city from a different point of view.
I landed and said hello to my friends. I pulled out the Argonuat and laid it out for washing. My mind was still bobbing on the waves, and I thought about what a full day this had been – from setting out, to crashing the waves, to guiding the public in Inwood, then around to Peter Sharp, lunch, meeting total strangers, stopping to chat, and then heading back. It was a remarkably full day, and I am glad I got to go.
Living in New York City, or any city really, it’s easy to get caught in the day-to-day, to settle into a routine, and I’d been feeling that quite a bit in the dog days of summer, too hot or tired to go out much. I set out on this trip to “get away from it all”, yet oddly, I didn’t really leave the island, and I spent more time with people than I typically do in a given day at work. Thinking back to it now, it seems like a long vacation, though I was only gone a few hours, and that is what makes kayaking – especially sea kayaking – so appealing to me.
Every moment brings a change in the weather; a passing ship pushes out waves. Other people are out in their boats; are they friendly, or indifferent? No matter where you go, even familiar locations can become novel again.
As the summer comes to an end, I can see a limited number of big trips in the near future. I hope to do more, but this one turned out better and more interesting than I’d imagined. We’ll see what other trails I get to ride, but certainly, this trip will be one of my better ones for some time to come.