October 29, 2008
We had left Florida on June 1st and had hastened up the East Coast to try to distance ourselves from the summer heat and the most frequent targets for hurricanes. Now the challenge is returning to Florida after hurricane season is over (end of November) but without getting too cold or caught up in too many frontal storms. We are learning that the latter may be inevitable. The winds had whistled over us in Oyster Bay on Saturday night (Oct 25th) with 40 knot gusts that created a steady 1 – 2 ft roll of white-capped waves under us, even though the fetch (distance upwind of us to land) was not very far (less than half a mile). The anchor held us very well and after various adjustments to the securing lines, the dinghy bounced around behind us quite happily (happier than me at times…wishing, after our recent dinghy-flipping incident, that we had hauled it up on deck or at least removed the motor.) We didn’t try to venture to shore for the Oyster Bay parade so we do not know if it went ahead as scheduled despite the strong winds. But if it did, at least the rain held off until later in the afternoon.
Sunday, however, dawned sunny and relatively calm allowing us to hoist the dinghy on deck comfortably and easily get a pump-out (of the toilet holding tanks) at the free, do-it-yourself, hand-cranked, pump-out station on a dock floating in the bay’s mooring field (every harbor should have one). With empty tanks and happy hearts we motored out of the bay and west, into the wind, towards the familiar skyline of New York. We anchored in the early afternoon on the northeast side of City Island which is just three miles from the imagination-inspiring, Throg’s Neck Bridge that marks the west end of Long Island Sound and beginning of the East River. It was such a lovely afternoon that we considered relaunching the dinghy and going ashore to explore on our bikes…but instead opted to relax in the sun and enjoy watching the week-end sailors who had been denied their fun the day before.
Passing through New York City on the East River on a week-day is recommended because most of the traffic will be commercial boats who are experienced with the conditions there. For boats such as ours with a low maximum motoring speed (about 7 knots), there is some debate as to the best time to get to Hell Gate, an infamous section of the passage where 7 knot and shifting currents are not unusual. The most conservative approach is to aim to reach the Gate at the slack of high-tide just before the current starts to ebb out into New York Harbor. This requires motoring for an hour against the current to get to Hell Gate at slack water. We had studied the hallowed "Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book" and read numerous online sailing discussions and settled on a plan that should be a bit more exciting, getting us to Hell Gate an hour after stack water when about a 4 knot current would carry us through. Thus, our Monday morning objective was to get to Throg’s Neck two hours after high tide at The Battery (the southernmost tip of Manhattan Island) which that day was at 7:47 am.
A large barge and two local sailboats passed us on our way to the bridge but otherwise we saw remarkably little boat traffic which allowed us to thoroughly enjoy the ride through the city. It was another beautifully sunny day, although hazy at water level, and we swung through Hell Gate at an impressive 10.6 knots (speed over ground) although we were probably only motoring through the water at 6 knots. As we zoomed past we studied: LaGuardia Airport, the partly dismantled Shea Stadium, (but we couldn’t identify the World’s Fair site beyond), Rikers Island (a huge prison complex), Hell Gate (where the Harlem River joins the East River), Roosevelt Island (a narrow island that divides the East River into an east and west channels for about a mile), the high-rises of the Upper East Side, the United Nations Building, the gleaming pinnacle of the Chrysler Building, the familiar Empire State Building, the lower buildings of mid-town and the East Village, the high-rises of the Financial District (including the hyperactive Wall Street – the NY Stock Exchange gained 900 points that day), The Battery, the Statue of Liberty, and around into the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan Island. We passed under about 10 bridges including the Queensboro (59th St) Bridge over Roosevelt Island, and the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. By taking the western channel around Roosevelt Island we avoided the only bridge that we would have needed to have opened for us (at 110-130 ft the rest are easily high enough) which is just as well because it would have been interesting trying to hold against the current to wait for a bridge to open. With the buildings gleaming in the sunshine it was an excellent ride and we were very glad to have been encouraged back in Newport to make this passage. In addition to the constant buzz of small commercial and sight-seeing helicopters around the harbor, as we started up the Hudson River a formation of six miliary helicopters flew low past us.
The trip up the Hudson River was more familiar to us as we had come this way with my brother Mike in May 2007 at the beginning of our trip south to deliver the boat to Florida. This time we passed the grand Surfside 3 Marina where we had spent the night on that trip (listening to golf balls being pinged out towards to the river from the adjacent sports complex and multi-story golf-driving range) and kept going north to the publically managed, West 79th Street Boat Basin where we picked up a mooring for a reasonable $30 per night. Although the marina is packed in the summer, there were several mooring available at this time of year and we recognized at least one of the other half-dozen or so cruisers that appeared to be stopping for just a few nights like us. The moorings are fairly close to each other in three rows running parallel to the Riverside Park on shore on the east side of the river and typically the boats swing around to face up- or down-river depending on whether the tide is flooding or ebbing. There are some waves as ferries or barges pass by but normally boats are held relatively steady by the current.
We launched the dinghy and went ashore for the afternoon to stretch our legs and enjoy the beautiful day and autumn colors as we wandered around the Upper West Side and through Central Park. Later in the evening we returned to shore to have dinner with friends, Curtis and Alastair, who have a wonderful residence in a classic, turn-of-the-century New York building just three blocks away from our mooring. We shared an excellent meal and swapped New York, Florida, and sailing stories well into the evening. It gave us a chance to ask lots of useful questions about things to do during our stay and made us feel much more involved with life in the city. Pleasantly wined, fed, and cheered, we returned to the boat and had finished securing the dinghy just as the forecast rain started to fall.
During Saturday’s storm in Oyster Bay there had been some discussion that the weather would again deteriorate on Tuesday but as the day had approached the forecasts kept increasing the severity and duration of the storm as a pair of low pressure systems converged over us and winds were sucked in from a high pressure system to the northwest. We were prepared for Tuesday to be wet and windy and had planned indoor activities (such as a tour of the UN) accordingly. Instead, we did not leave the boat before Wednesday afternoon, having been rudely tossed out of bed by a violent sideways rolling of the boat early on Tuesday morning. The winds had picked up a bit earlier than predicted and a 30 knot north wind with 40 knot gusts was howling straight down the Hudson River at us. The problem was that the tide was flooding upstream at the same time and the conflict of the opposing wind and current was making 4 to 6 foot waves that were rolling by us in very quick succession. The scene on the mooring field was chaos. Boats were being blown and pushed by the water in all directions so that much of the time the waves were broadside (hence the violent rolling which dumped many cabin items on the floor). Like us, other cruisers were scurrying out on deck, some to find their dinghy cast adrift (luckily it floated on its own into the marina), others to fear that their mooring was not holding them in place and they were dragging towards the marina or out into the channel. Other than being tossed by the waves, our biggest problem was being blown ahead of our mooring and alarmingly close to the wildly swinging, unmanned, boat ahead of us. While three other cruisers decided to abandon their moorings and either tie up at the marina (there were only a couple of deep-enough slips left) or try to pick up a mooring in a less crowded area, we started the engine and put our boat slowly in reverse, gently pulling against the mooring and away from our wild neighbor. This position put our stern pointing into waves which is not streamlined like the bow, but our boat actually handles stern waves quite well. Slightly more alarmingly it meant that the dinghy was regularly surfing towards us, threatening to be launched onto the stern deck but never quite getting there. To make sure that the dinghy lines did not drift down into the propellor when slack, I sat on the stern deck and held them for a while until it started to rain at which time we devised a better system using bungee cords to hold the lines out of the water.
Eventually the wind dropped a bit and the tide turned so that the waves calmed down and we could turn the motor off. Instead of taking watches sitting in the cockpit as we had done for a few hours, we both stayed in the cabin and set the kitchen timer to remind one of us to look outside and check that all was well every 15 minutes. As it turned out, the dawn madness was the worst it got because of the particular wind and current conditions but the forecast was for the strongest winds to occur mid-evening. Thus, although we were less anxious than we had been when things had felt rather out-of-control during the morning, the day was not exactly relaxing as the second blast was anticipated. The news was full of stories of flooding from the more-than 2-inch downpours and the exceptionally high tides, power outages from wind damage, and snow blanketing the inland areas of New York and New Jersey. The NOAA weather reports described the "unseasonably cool air temperatures" and movement of an "anomalously cold airmass" creating these unusually early snow falls and strong winds…just our luck!
However, for us plenty of wind means lots of power generation so we watched a DVD and some TV as the winds whistled around us, and Randall learned about the joys of the hot-water-bottle (never needed during his central California childhood) as temperatures dropped close to freezing with the north winds. Luckily, the winds backed to the west during the day so that even with the stronger gusts on Tuesday night there was no repeat of the alarming waves because the fetch was short across the river and it did not oppose the currents. Randall slept in the salon for most of the night fully dressed so that he could check outside whenever anything sounded or felt unusual. With a lot of debris, including some large logs, floating by in the river it was not unusual to hear things bumping along the hull. By Wednesday morning, although cold and still gusting to 20 knots, we felt much more confident about the boat and dinghy’s safety and were willing to plan a short venture to shore between tide changes in the afternoon. We enjoy visiting New York City and we like reasonably priced places to stay…but we will happily skip the news-worthy storm conditions next time.