Night Circumnavigation of Manhattan!


Cruising with the current at Midtown.



The gilt waters of Inwood. Zeus was our constant companion.


HarborLAB volunteers and future volunteers enjoyed an amazing night paddle circling the island of Manhattan. HarborLAB volunteers pioneered night circumnavigation public tours through our earlier affiliations, and others have skeptically and then joyfully followed suit. We launched at 5pm Saturday, August 13 and returned 4AM, Sunday, August 14. The outing was free, with guests committing to volunteer for at least one of our children’s programs as payment. If you ask us, though, getting kids onto the water — and learning — is immeasurably fun anyway! If you’d like to help out, email us at anytime!

Our stated goal was to see the Perseid meteor shower, and maybe some bioluminesent comb jellies or dinoflagellates. Scratch on both counts. But we did have a fantabulous natural light show! True to the story of Persues, Zeus announced his presence by casting lightning all along the distantly encircling horizon and descending to us, from the George Washington Bridge’s span lights, in a rain of gold as he did Danaë. The moon too was golden, and our rocking kayak moon dance was to the eclectic mix of music pouring into the river from the shores of four boroughs. Volunteer Scott Wolpow had indeed predicted “a little ol’ convoy Rockin‘ through the night.”

The Perseids are chunks of the Comet Swift-Tuttle careening into our upper atmosphere. More about that in our coming winter “Water in Space” talk. Ancient Greeks saw the friction flares — or shooting stars — as “sons of Perseus,” a heroic demi-god born of beautiful Danaë after Zeus’ visit. We’re happy to report that King Acrisius didn’t cast us adrift in a wooden chest. Instead we paddled with favorable tidal currents for nearly-30 miles on our sit-on-top kayaks. Not to hubristically compete with Zeus, but we even did a bit of our own seeding, stabilizing a little beach in Inwood with native pokeweed seedballs. We made the seedballs with Hunters Point Community Middle School students. The flowers and fruits of this bushy and hardy plant are a very important food source for birds and beneficial insects.

Despite the brutal heat, the crew was in great spirits. Perhaps none was more bubbly than regular volunteer Steven “Chubie” Chu, who embarked on his first circumnavigation with marked enthusiasm. Because the sky was so silent throughout the night, Chubie courteously provided the distant lightning with “Star Wars” laser gun sound effects. Well, before the unfortunate incident when Chubie was run over by cars on the Harlem River.  🙂

We are reaching our to meteorologists about the strangely silent and continuous lightning that lasted through the night. Was it a distant cousin of Catatumbo lightning?

Enjoy the galleries below. Photos by Erik Baard and Steven Chu.

Newtown Creek and East River. Chubie caught a Pokeman while paddling!?!?!

After a safety talk, we set out past the tip of Hunters Point South and up the LIC waterfront with a peaking and diminishing flood current. We crossed to the Roosevelt Island side to skirt the security zone around the Ravenwood power plant (aka “Big Allis”) while also avoiding the buoy marking underwater turbines.

The quietude of the Harlem River.

This stretch is usually the most peaceful. We encountered numerous jetskiers but all were courteous and slowed down when passing us. Motorized personal watercraft must be off the water in NYC at dusk, so a hush eventually descended on the Harlem River. This peace was occasionally injected with new energy by the music of street parties and park barbecues, or even trains and cars passing overhead along low bridges. We rested on the dock of the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse at Swindlers Cove, operated by Row New York in an agreement with New York Restoration Project and NYC Parks.

George Washington Bridge.

This bridge doesn’t receive much love compared to our more famous East River connectors, but every New Yorker should have the experience of passing beneath it at night. An hour or two after sunset we finally cast off the heat of the day by rafting our boats together and taking turns dipping into the Hudson River for refreshing swims. The ebb was still weak and we had a headwind after the bridge, but our lookout and marine radio monitoring showed no large vessel traffic, so we edged toward the red buoy markers to eek out some advantage in the slowly burgeoning current.

Midtown and the Battery. 

Landing at the 79th Street Boat Basin was potentially tricky on a swift current in the dark because of post-Sandy reconstruction and a field of mooring balls, but it went smoothly. After resting we hopped back onto that ebb, which had grown powerful beneath our hulls. The air had stilled. Passing the USS Intrepid on glassy water greatly encouraged the crew. We were ahead of schedule! Now skyline lights replaced music over the inky ripples. Tug and ferry captains kindly relayed our occasional position announcements on the marine radio (the “bridge-to-bridge” open channel 13) as we passed through one of the harbor’s densest traffic knots. We held back for a Staten Island Ferry landing as it neared 2AM. Directly over the Statue of Liberty the moon was as golden as the torch.

And back to the East River again! 

One of the marvelous things about New York Harbor is that the Hudson River ebbs and the East River floods concurrently for more than an hour. Thank Lake Tear of the Clouds and other freshwater sources of the Hudson River for adding muscle to the tidal ebb for that extra hour out. We slipped from one estuary conveyor belt to the other to round The Battery. Heading home to the Newtown Creek and Hunters Point South was nearly effortless, and we landed ahead of schedule.




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