Hypos in the Upper Bay

A distant glimpse of navigation lights, the remote passing of a liner from an office window, perhaps a Sunday excursion around Manhattan or across the Bay to Staten Island—such is the sum of the average New Yorker’s acquaintance with his port. — Jan Morris, The Great Port

Paddlers called it “The Soup.” From a distance, it didn’t seem to be anything special: just the green expanse where the Hudson and East Rivers come together in the Upper Bay, en route to the Atlantic Ocean. For the experienced kayakers on my trip this was just what open water looks like. But from the cockpit of my little yellow loaner, it looked like a good time for prayer. The Hudson, which a minute before had been manageable, if not exactly glassy, suddenly boiled over with whitecapped waves that surged sideways across the hulls of our boats, smacking taller people in the chest—and me in the face. I wiped the salt water from my eyes in time to see a Staten Island Ferry bearing down on us, orange and inexorable. It was not my first attempt to paddle to Governor’s Island, but I was now fairly certain it was going to be my last.

I first tried kayaking at summer camp, skimming like a Jesus bug over the surface of the water. I liked how paddling made me feel nimble and self-sufficient. After that, I kayaked—alone, preferably—through college and grad school, wherever I could— roughed-up rental boats on weedy rivers and choppy bays, sit-on-tops through mandrake groves and in quiet lagoons. After I moved to Manhattan, New York seemed the obvious next place to put in. I was born in a hospital overlooking the East River, after all—surely the city’s waterways were my birthright? “You’ll need a tetanus shot, and maybe a rabies shot, too,” my father warned. Friends mentioned the Toxic Avenger, looking more worried than impressed by my romantic notions. I started volunteering with the Downtown Boathouse’s free summer kayaking program, and told no one that I was slinging boats and practicing water rescues until the bruises on my arms, legs, and ribs became too Technicolor to escape notice.

It was at the Downtown Boathouse’s old shed on the Tribeca waterfront that I first learned what a real kayaker looks like. They look like New Yorkers. Some of them smoke without ceasing. Some talk without ceasing. Some take their coffee light and sweet. But all place a higher value on street smarts than on style—especially when the street is the Hudson River. It’s hard to be sentimental in a spray skirt, after all. As a fellow volunteer, I tried to imitate their cool, mostly without success—torn Umbros and Tevas do not an old salt make. So I learned to fake it, instead, and displayed the nonchalance of a lifer when a group of novice paddlers hauled in a bag of oranges they’d found floating in the river (“Can we keep them?”) or a bunch of tough-looking teenage boys dissolved into giggles when they saw each other in life jackets for the first time.

As a volunteer, I got first dibs on trips outside the gentle water of the embayment, into the Hudson’s quite literal stream of commerce, where at any minute a “hand-powered vessel” (as the Parks and Recreation Department referred to our kayaks) could be mowed down by a ferry, Circle Line, or a gleaming Chris-Craft—at least, that’s how it seemed to me. My first trip was the Boathouse’s inaugural excursion to Governor’s Island, made a year or so after 9-11. We had only just paddled past the Battery Park bulkhead when we were halted by a Coast Guard response boat, complete with machine guns mounted fore and aft. The young Coasties on board peered down at us from the deck of their orange-bottomed vessel, which resembled, from our vantage below, an enormous and lethal bath toy. We must be some kind of kamikazes, their looks suggested: why else would we venture into busy New York harbor in our frail plastic crafts? The trip leaders offered our bona fides and the express permission we had received to land on Governor’s Island, all to no avail. We were already potential terrorists. “You can’t cross,” the officer in charge shouted into the wind. And then: “HEY! Come back here when I’m talking to you!” We had stopped moving at his command, but the East River current hadn’t, and it swept our boats upstream. Passive resistance by tidal estuary.

This time, however, there was no swaggering Coastie to keep me out of harm’s way. The Soup was my own fault. I had agreed to be part of a small group circumnavigation of the island—just an easy Saturday paddle from Tribeca and back, keeping close to the Jersey shoreline on the way there, and cutting through Buttermilk Channel on our return. But now Taino, our expert leader, was holding his paddle vertically, and waving it over his head like a flag. “This is the best way to signal to a large vessel,” he yelled. I guessed he meant the ferry, but Taino, usually a paragon of cool, had an even more immediate peril in mind—one that had arrived without warning on the periphery of our skyline view. It was the Beast, the Circle Line speedboat that is the bane of every hand- or wind-powered craft in New York waters. The Beast, which has yellow eyes and rows of pointed teeth painted on its prow, pummels down the Hudson River at speeds reaching forty-five miles per hour (by comparison, the Ferry cruises at a stately thirty mph), throwing up a dense wall of spray as it whips its way south toward the Statue of Liberty. The zippy little water taxis give the Beast a wide berth, and even the hard-drinking sailors aboard the floating yacht club near Ellis Island clutch their cups a little more tightly at its approach. It had been secretly exhilarating to tangle with the Coast Guard (they weren’t real New Yorkers anyway, right?), but there was nothing plucky about facing down The Beast.

The group drafted after Taino like so many frantic ducklings, paddling hard at an angle to the waves. We were as close to Liberty Island as their security would allow (here again, we were a potential threat to the homeland). I looked over my shoulder at Manhattan in the distance, bottom-heavy with skyscrapers, indifferent to my panic as the twin menaces approached. How many sailors have drowned in sight of that island? Were there skeleton middens under my boat right now? I pictured the prison ships in Wallabout Bay. The General Slocum. Wasn’t the Titanic bound for New York? I didn’t feel the least bit nimble or self-sufficient anymore. This was no gentle lagoon. This was the gateway to the New World, and we were about to be mowed down in broad daylight. Taino waved the paddle again, and suddenly, miraculously, the ferry made a minute adjustment, passing us by. Following that lead, the Beast, perhaps a bit petulantly, swung off to play chicken with a Circle Line cruiser. The whitecaps subsided. And our little group prepared to make a sharp left turn across the Upper Bay to Governor’s Island. “All right, people, we’re jaywalking here!” Taino hollered back to us as he ventured into the middle of the Upper Bay. I set my eyes on the middle distance, like a real New Yorker, and bid adieu to romance, and to The Soup.

Elizabeth Bradley is a Brooklyn-based historian and editor whose books include Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York, and the forthcoming New York: Cityscope. She received a Ph.D. from New York University and hopes to paddle the Arthur Kill this year.