by Chris Gragtmans

“Hey!  Where’s your light?!”  The NYPD patrol boat’s megaphone blares out, and a number of armed officers stare at me through the darkness.  I had no idea what this unlit boat was.  I take my headlamp out of my SeaWolf PFD, turn it on, and hold it out.  “Well don’t show it to us, put it on!”  My authority-averse fire ignites for a second, but then I realize how bad of an idea it would be to argue.  I silently put the light on my head and wave at the officers.  

This is the most intense open water kayaking that I have ever done.  The plan seemed simple enough- circumnavigate Manhattan Island on water.  30 miles total distance, up the Harlem River, down the Hudson River, and back up the East River, assisted the entire way by powerful tides.  Oh, and this was going to happen through the night!  As someone who has paddled class V for over 10 years, I thought this would be a leisurely sightseeing adventure… but it’s turned out to be far from that.  

Our starting point in Queen’s.

After making the hectic ½ mile ferry across six knot tidal currents at Hellgate, we make it to the Harlem River.  While the tide is now with us, there is another intense hazard that I have never dealt with- tourist jetboats.  These massive 60 foot machines offer little warning, and fly past at 35+ miles per hour.  They cannot make out our kayaks and dinky headlamps in the darkness, so it is up to us to stay out of the way. 

“Boat!!”  Our group of seven charges to the east side of the channel as another one flies past.  We soon come upon the source of our stresses- the Electric Zoo music festival.  After a few more scares, we are past the boat terminal, and the Harlem River pulls us into a much quieter night.   

Kenny Unser is the mastermind behind this trip, affectionately referred to as “a lap.”  He has all of the tides dialed, and has been trying to get me to join for quite a while.  With some friends from the Southeast signing on and perfect scheduling just before two extreme races in upstate New York, this dream trip quickly became a reality.  

It is 11:45 pm on the Friday of Labor Day weekend.  Our quiet existence here on the water seems in stark contrast to the chaos surrounding it.  My mind bends as it comprehends what we are doing.  Using human and natural power, we are traveling around one of the most densely populated pieces of land on the planet.  We are surrounded by millions of lives, some wealthy beyond our wildest imagination, and many others impoverished and not knowing where their next meal is coming from.  All of these lives are being lived around us as we float past in silent observance.

New York is spectacularly beautiful from this perspective.  It is so far from a scene typically observed from my boat.  Usually I am flanked by remote river gorges and deep forests… here, those gorge walls are massive jumbotron advertisements and skyscrapers.  As we float down the very fast current, Kenny and Jesse fill us in on “the bets.”  Whether it is jumping off the cliffs from the movie, “The Basketball Diaries,” paddling through the scariest pitch black sewers, or venturing inland to visit a bar in the Bronx, there are many ways to heighten the experience.  I wasn’t man enough to try the majority of them, but just talking about them made me feel like a kid again- telling scary stories around the campfire.   

We take a pit stop at a gated dock and boathouse in the heart of Harlem.  The sounds of the city are so close to us.  The uniqueness of the situation really sinks in, and seven good buddies sit, stare at the city, and joke around.  I can’t say that I have ever combined carb gu’s with PBRs before, but that’s how we’re doing things tonight.  It is 1:30 AM and we are in it for the long haul.

The Harlem is a large river, but it turns out to be a trickle compared to the Hudson.  As we hit that massive waterway, we turn left, and the bright outline of George Washington Bridge appears to be a hundred miles away.  It seems like so long ago when we passed over that bridge, but it was earlier this morning.  The rhythm of our paddle strokes and splashes of the bow cause each of us to enter our own private worlds, and the powerful current sweeps us towards the ocean.  The Upper Westside sleeps as we float silently past.  

After about an hour of paddling, the George Washington Bridge passes over us.  Shortly thereafter, we stop again, stash our boats at a marina, and head into town for some food.  It is 4:00 am, and rather than seeing more of the Friday night party crowd, we start to see people from “the other side.”  It’s a strange feeling- we are on a vivid and otherworldly all-night adventure through the concrete jungle, and the guy sitting next to us in the diner has his daily newspaper and cup of coffee.  We all chow down on some delicious New York pizza, and head back to our boats.  

The George Washington Bridge from downstream.

As soon as we hit the water this time, we realize that the world is coming alive again.  The river brightens with the impending dawn, and we race downstream to catch the tide that we have slipped slightly behind on.  We are now passing the main event of New York City- Times Square, Central Park, and the Empire State Building are all within view at some point.  The sky glows orange behind the city and the entire scene is surreal.  Watching a sunrise is always a special thing, but this one tops all of the ones that I have ever experienced.  The sun peeks up between skyscrapers, and each of us paddle in silence.  

The dawn of a new day can only be truly appreciated after living through the night. 

As we watch joggers, businesspeople, and others mill around on shore, a series of cruise ships pass behind us.  Without hesitation or communication, all of us get ourselves in position for what we know is coming… big, badass waves.  The first of the series hits, and my Tempest 170 dances to life.  Water sheets off the hull right around my shins, and it feels like I am going mach 10!  I alternate high speed paddling with ruddering, and smile as I remember what it was like the first time I surfed a river wave in my kayak.  

Our 16+ foot kayaks allow us to surf the waves for over a mile!  I come off of the last wave exhausted and elated from the onslaught of stimuli over the past 9 hours.  We have one more major obstacle to overcome… the Battery.  A scary amount of ferries and water taxis go in and out of here, so our group tries to clear this area as quickly as possible.  It’s obvious that the night has worn us out, and some are worse off than others.  In the end, the worst that happened was a few honks from an exiting boat, and we were back on the East River, and back in a powerful tide.  

With drooping eyelids, we ride the East River into the rising sun.  Brooklyn Bridge passes over our heads, and I yell a phrase from “The Newsies,” one of my favorite childhood movies: “That’s Spot Collins territory!” 

As if to cap our experience, we watch as a Hollywood movie is filmed right in front of us.  Two actors playing police officers jump out of an idling helicopter, into a black SUV, and powerslide around the landing pad and out of view behind some buildings.  Only in New York, New York.

We hit the beach that we started from at 9:15 AM, just over 11 hours after we started.  It has been an unforgettable trip, and something that I hope to repeat.  Even when I think I’ve experienced it all, I am once again in awe of my kayak’s ability to connect me with new people and new places.

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