Our hearts go out to those Manhattan Kayak Company paddlers injured or traumatized by the recent ferry strike on the Hudson, and to the captain and New York Waterway employees upon whom this must be weighing heavily. We hope lessons are learned to make our waters even safer.
This incident didn’t involve us, and all we can do is await the report from an official investigation and resulting opportunities to learn. However, because many people we serve have asked about the accident and harbor safety, and because we’ve seen uninformed chatter muddying constructive dialogue, HarborLAB Executive Director Erik Baard accepted WPIX/Channel 11 television reporter Greg Mocker’s interview request. Mr. Mocker has also paddled with HarborLAB in the past. We’re grateful to Mr. Mocker for uniquely advancing the story with a positive, public service educational piece.
Erik also wrote this note addressing questions and assumptions common in the comment sections of articles about the accident:
My background: Founder of the LIC Community Boathouse and HarborLAB, initiator of the NYC Water Trail Association and City of Water Day, and coming from a family that has worked this harbor for a century in roles including tug captains, barge superintendent, marine contractors, and marine biologist. HarborLAB is grateful to NY Waterway as a sponsor and we work with the company to improve safety and communication without glossing over concerns when they arise. We have also received help and offers of help from Manhattan Kayak Company, and many years ago I volunteered with MKC to help the Achilles Foundation.
1) Law of Greater Tonnage. Kayakers, especially a proven outfitter like Manhattan Kayak Company, are quite aware that larger vessels have limited maneuverability and no brakes. One of my own kayak gurus, Rafael “Ralph” Diaz put it this way, “Be seen. Be heard. Assume you’re not seen and not heard.” In other words, have brightly colored boats and life vests and clothing; travel in close-together pods (to be seen and more easily avoided than a scattered field of paddlers); be well-lighted at night (both lights and reflectors); use your radio and whistle or horn; and then after all that, stay the hell out of the way.
That said, it’s not always easy to “stay the hell out of the way.” Since 9/11/2001, stricter and more numerous security zones can force paddlers away from shore into opposing current (we used to be able to ride shoreline or bulkhead eddies against prevailing current) or into larger vessel traffic. When I noted this difficulty, a USCG officer reminded me that the USS Cole was taken down by a dinghy and plastique and he wouldn’t want that to be replicated by a kayak with a cruise ship. “There are no kayaks, only suspicious kayaks,” he said. But the USCG has been among the most ardent defenders of public access to waterways and of safety protocols for larger vessels. Water access is enshrined in the Constitution as a federal guarantee (often despite state objections) under the Commerce clause. The federal government decides which waterways are navigable.
Without recourse to tucking into shore or catching a back eddy, sometimes a kayaking pod simply can’t buck the current to avoid a ferry dock area. The pod might be forced to go forward. Now visualize the possible courses leading to and from a ferry dock as a ginkgo leaf. All probable courses collapse into the single inland stem, but the further you go out the wider those possible courses fan out. There are two choices, based on circumstances: If no ferries are near, one might paddle through the stem to get through the danger zone as quickly as possible, or if ferries are buzzing around, one might go through the fan or leaf, bringing a prolonged, albeit lower-level, danger. But too far out and you’re in barge and other traffic. We simply don’t know enough about the circumstances of this event.
Naturally we cross larger vessel channels (like lanes on a road but marked by buoys instead of painted lines) quickly and with forethought. Crossing larger waterways entails crossing such channels, which are dredged specifically to accommodate larger craft.
2) Water quality in that part of the Hudson River yesterday was likely excellent. Days before it was tested and found to be swimming quality, in terms of bacteria counts, and no rain had fallen to cause combined household and stormwater sewers to overflow. While some inlets are blighted because moving waters don’t flush them out or dilute them (or have specific faults like the one HarborLAB helped reveal at Hallets Cove) open waters are fine unless impacted by combined sewer overflows. Mind you, this refers to the water column’s bacteria count, not the riverbed or industrial contamination (rarely introduced today, and so dilute as to be more of a bioaccumulation issue for fish eaters).
3) We don’t know what communication occurred between the ferry and the paddling pod, apart from Jay Cartagena’s last desperate attempt at a paddle signal. There are several routine modes of communication, or which are expected to be routine: horn blast, radio hail, paddle signal, bullhorn, whistles.
a) Horn blast. This has been the most contentious (legally required for safety but a nuisance to new waterfront residents) but personally I’ve seen much improvement. We have no knowledge at this time if the ferry captain sounded his imminent departure or not. New horn designs set for use soon by at least one local ferry operator are uni-directional (out to the water). Two relevant horn signals in this situation: Routine long blast to signal leaving the ferry dock, five quick blasts to signal a dire emergency (imminent collision). I’m only guessing that the latter was not used, based on the fact that the captain apparently didn’t see the pod of kayaks. This article provides good background on the heated discussion.
Please note that the article evidences that Manhattan Kayak Company and a ferry service cooperated on safety research exactly at the spot of the accident. This was a terrible accident but not one born of cluelessness within the harbor culture.
b) Radio hails: All traffic, from kayaks to supertankers, communicate on VHF Channel 13, especially in a busy harbor like ours. This “bridge-to-bridge” channel is used to announce movements, course destinations, or coordinate courtesies where space is limited. Safety notifications on this channel are preceded by a hail of “Sécurité, sécurité” or a curt Americanized “Security, security.” Because kayaks are more vulnerable, many of us announce crossings (both open water and busy berth areas) in this way by default.
Most kayakers have small, waterproof marine radios that are effective in line-of-sight. Because kayaks move slowly, that’s adequate, as opposed to large and swift vessels that might be rounding a bend. Very often larger vessel captains relay kayakers’ radio announcements over their more powerful radios, for which we are grateful. Some will also announce the presence of kayakers as “speed bumps” or “kamikazes.” While the humor is sardonic, the message still gets across to keep an eye out and slow down.
In the past, when larger vessel captains weren’t used to hearing from kayakers on the radio they reacted as if their radio space was a bit invaded, but in recent years I’ve found the response to be the opposite: they are grateful to have uncertainty diminished through limited, purposeful kayaker announcements. We also often specifically ask them how we might best stay out of their way on our course heading. For whatever frictions have occurred, we broadly agree that we want safety on the water and the tone is generally more civil than website comment sections.
c) Paddle signal. Kayakers have a variety of paddle signals we use within our own discipline, but the only common external signal is a metronome-like waving of the paddle to raise our profile (to be seen perhaps 8′-10′ above the water rather than under 3’ when we suspect that a captain hasn’t registered our presence. This is used only in anticipation of a safety concern (even simply hitting novice paddlers with heavy wake), and not just in the case of an imminent collision.
d) Bull horn. Most often used by larger vessel captains after a safety concern has abated or been avoided through course change, to communicate displeasure.
e) Whistle: Mostly for safety within a pod. For example, to get all heads to turn if one must signal a sudden course change or stop to avoid danger. Ineffective in my estimation for hailing larger vessels. Even the more ear-rattling horns now available (compressed air or breath) aren’t really a match for the white noise of NY Harbor. It’s amazing how one can have normal speaking level conversations on the harbor in wee hours when there’s almost no traffic, but have to yell over the same distances to compete with the aggregate noise of all of the boats (from jetskis to cruise liners), spillover urban cacophony, crashing wakes, etc. in the height of a summer afternoon.
4) Visibility and Radar. Last year, in late September and late in the afternoon, a larger vessel captain hailed me on the radio to thank me for announcing HarborLAB’s pod course on Channel 13. “If I didn’t hear from you first, I wouldn’t have seen you in the sun glare,” he said. He wasn’t admonishing at all, just reinforcing the idea that we should be hyper-vigilant because we were hard to see in that light. Indeed, any experienced kayaker will tell you that we are more visible (with lights) at night than near sunset. Our most worrisome time.
Reports are that sun glare (polarizing at that angle) was a factor in the Hudson River collision. If so, we don’t know if that was blinding the captain in the wheelhouse or the legally required stern spotter (a crew member looking from the back of the ferry as it pulls out). If there was a stern spotter on duty, even if the pod of kayakers changed positions the captain would have known of their presence generally. We don’t know if he was but didn’t expect them to be where they were (current might have carried them, or they might have paddled to another position) or if he didn’t know they were there at all.
For a couple of years I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that much as modern cars have rear object detection, ferries should have a camera and software to detect small boaters. This is a relatively easy distinction to make: liquid, solid. Radar is inadequate because kayakers are so low to the water, I believe it was Sandy Hook Pilots President Captain Andrew McGovern (an elite tugboat association) who described the radar image of kayakers as appearing and disappearing like a flock of birds landing and flying from the water. We explored different methods (radar reflective materials in hulls and even hats — so close to literally a tin foil hat — but the only solution was wholly impractical: a radar reflector held aloft by helium balloons. Try tying that to your kayak.
Phew! I hope this helps. I’m just glad no one was killed, and I have great respect for both safety-conscious paddling organizations and tour companies (like Manhattan Kayak Co), and for the professionalism of the larger vessel captains of our harbor. Investigators will ask hard questions, and we should demand hard questions. Operators will have to evidence lessons learned, and we might even see new practices or enforcement efforts instituted. None of that detracts from the fact that we can share these waters wholly, safely, at all hours and seasons, for all vessels. The key will be reasoned discourse and good will, and I hope snarkier commenters on websites will give us the breathing space we need for that.