Moonlight Trip in NY Harbor Turns Disasterous for 5 Kayakers!

It was a beautiful, calm summer night when we put in at the Seaport!
Little did we know what was in store for us!

Saturday - November 16th, Southstreet Seaport. The wind was blustery and building as Andy Burtsell and Lucy Avramenko drove in from Long Island with two Chinooks on their car racks. Bob Huszar arrived with Champlain, his single Klepper and John Petrocelli and Captain Al bounced out of a cab, hauling Al’s double. Everyone was on time. It was the long anticipated night run through the Verrazano.

The plan was to put in at dusk, taking advantage of the strong ebb current, shoot through Buttermilk channel, cross the upper harbor, have dinner at the base of the bridge, and take out around midnight at Coney Island. The equipment was unloaded and Andy and Bob immediately left to run the shuttle, leaving Al, John and Lucy to stand guard in front of the Maritime museum, munching on Chinese noodles and Clam Chowder from the Seaport’s food emporiums while answering tourist’s perplexed inquiries on the nature of those odd little boats. Finally at 5:30 Andy and Bob returned.

So far, everything was right on schedule. The group donned their dry suits, secured their equipment and by 6:15 were sliding the last kayak off the Maritime Pier. The weather was perfect. The view phenomenal. The City seemed to wink a greeting as they pulled away. The lights reflected in the glass-like waters spoke not of a jostling and jolting Manhattan, but a gentle city sculpted of crystal and gold.

Everything was tranquil, until the moment when they paddled out of the sheltered East River to begin the first open crossing of the evening.

'As the group entered the channel between the Battery and Governors Island,
a gusting 25 knot wind was kicking up moderate size waves, which hit their boats dead abeam.'

But everyone’s spirit was high and the incredibly strong ebb quickly shot them across to the relative safety of Buttermilk channel.

"Capt. Al screamed, "Watch out for that barge!"

Again the night grew tranquil as they slipped into a gentle paddling rhythm, watching the brightly illuminated ships passing on the far side of the waterway.

As they exited the southern part of the Buttermilk channel, Bob warned, “This is the greatest open expanse coming up, so this next part will be the worst. But at the rate this current’s moving us, we’ll be at the Narrows in no time. And since the winds out of the west, we’ll be sheltered again."

" ... a giant black mass looming in the moonlight bore down on them at full speed!"

The prediction was accurate. As the bay got wider, the waves got bigger. But that was no problem, everyone seemed to be enjoying the exercise, their confidence growing with each swell they countered. That is until Captain Al screamed, “A barge .... Watch out for the barge!”

No one saw it until it was within 100 feet of them, a giant black mass looming in the moonlight. It was a garbage barge, bearing down on them at full speed. Al, John, Lucy and Andy planted their paddles deep and maneuvered their boats as far left as possible, narrowly avoiding the barge. Bob, however, was too close, and was forced to veer to the right, barely missing the boats bow.

"Geez.. I didn’t even see it,” choked John. “Neither did I,” echoed several voices from the group.

Because kayaks ride so low in the water, the tug pushing the barge looked like a building silhouetted on the distant shore. From a kayaker’s vantage point, the tug’s running lights had been hidden behind the bulk of the barge.

Recuperating from their narrow escape, the group pushed on, but by this point they had drifted into the Bay Ridge Flats, which is a large triangular section of the upper harbor, where the mean depth drops from 36 feet to 8 feet, causing the waves to steepen and break furiously. From here on, it would be one exciting roller coaster ride after another until they reached the Narrows. But after only ten minutes, a large wave hit Lucy from the starboard side. It startled her and she leaned away from it, giving it the leverage it needed, and wham, over she went.

Bob and Andy raced over and sandwiched Lucy and her Chinook between them. Despite the turbulent waters, they managed to empty her craft and slide Lucy back into her cockpit. She was wet and shaken, but her spirits were unbroken and she was prepared to go on. Unfortunately, by this time, the group had been blown closer to the shore. The waves were now hitting the nearby bulkheads and reflecting back at them, occasionally forming clapotis. Not more then ten minutes later a giant wave crashed into the group, scattering them about and again capsizing Lucy.

Andy and Bob raced back to Lucy’s side. John and Al circled, fighting the currents trying to push them south, staying as close as possible to serve as backup.

“Should we go for the Coast Guard?” bellowed Captain Al.

“Yes . . .Gooooooo,” screamed Lucy clinging to her vessel.

"This is it!" He felt certain they were about to capsize.
He tried a brace, but only felt dead air beneath his paddle."

At this point, Captain Al and John actually did the impossible. With super human strength, they turned their craft around and began fighting against the tremendous ebb tide which was now being augmented by a twenty five knot wind. The sting of salt water welled in their eyes as waves crashed over their hull. After about fifteen minutes of full speed ahead, breakneck, frantic paddling, with wave after wave crashing over their bow and heads, John attempted to wipe the salt from his eyes with the arm of his drenched paddling jacket. But just as he regained partial vision, he heard Al yell, “Watch out . . .BOAT . . . BOAT!”

Coming up directly on a collision course with the Klepper’s midsection was a tug.

The tug’s powerful lights blinded John again and as if on automatic pilot he joined in with Al’s frantic attempt to backpaddle the boat. The Klepper responded and in conjunction with the opposing current, wind and waves, it slipped back, rubbing up against the side of the tug and avoiding a direct hit.

At this point, they were so close, John pushed them free of the tug with his hands. As the tug’s stern passed the Klepper’s bow, the Klepper caught a wave which lifted it higher and higher, until it was almost equal in height to the deck of the tug. Looking down at the tug, John yelled, “This is it!” He felt certain they were about to capsize. He tried a brace, but felt only dead air beneath his paddle. And then remarkably, the boat slid down the face of the wave and settled gently back into the water.

Meanwhile, Captain Al, ever vigilant to turn a near calamity into a free ride, started screaming,
“Wave the strobe! Wave the Strobe! They’re getting away.”

John held the strobe high over his head while meeting one tumultuous wave after another. In symphonic unison, Both men clamored, “HELP! HELP!”

The tug - the NEW HAVEN - beamed its heavy duty searchlights on their bobbing vessel as it headed toward them.

“Do you need help?" called a crewmate!

“Not us,” howled Captain Al, “One of our party fell overboard and we can’t keep her upright. Send for the Coast Guard.”

The crew of the NEW HAVEN (a Hess Oil tug) manned the decks and pulled Captain Al, John and the Klepper aboard. Once the Klepper was lashed upon the deck, Al, John, and the Tug-Captain radioed the Coast Guard. A very shaken Tug Captain sighed with relief, “I’m glad you guys are all right. I was afraid I was going to hit you.”

Meanwhile, as the NEW HAVEN’s powerful spotlights scanned the storm tossed harbor for the remaining kayakers, Bob and Andy had again righted Lucy in her boat, although she had climbed up on it backwards and had her feet dangling out of the cockpit toward her stern. They managed to pump about 40% of the water out before another wave crashed over them, filling it again. But that was the least of their problems.

"The heavy winds and waves had pushed them dangerously close to shore
and they found themselves on the verge of being pulverized against a bulkhead."

The Coast Guard officer said, "This is the worst I've seen the harbor in ten years!"

Wave after wave hit them, each hurling them closer. They stayed rafted together to stabilize Lucy, but each new swell threatened to pull her from them. Both men had one hand locked on her cockpit, while with their free hand they awkwardly and frantically tried to paddle clear of the bulk head. As each new whitecap pitched them toward an impending crash, both men began screaming fearfully at the other to paddle harder. The next wave would be it, and as it struck, lifting them and launching them sideways, they slipped around the bulkhead with less then 2 feet to spare.

As the three kayakers cleared the wall, the waves pushed them into an inlet between two piers. Bob agreed to stabilize Lucy as Andy scouted the shoreline for a possible take out. As Andy departed, Bob happened to look out toward the harbor and suddenly yelled at Lucy to “HANG ON, NOW!”

"A second later a 10 foot rogue wave came barrelling down the inlet and covered the two.
Five seconds later another one hit."

“Where the $#@$ did that come from?” exclaimed Bob as he cleared the water out of his eyes, the boat bobbing frantically.

Meanwhile, Andy had been exploring the seawall for a possible exit spot, but found most of it to be too high and covered with slime. Still, there was one place that looked remotely promising, so they rafted together in an attempt to drift Lucy near it. But between the incoming winds, the slimy wall, and Lucy’s water filled and unstable craft, there was no way to stop the boat long enough for Lucy to try the wall, and in another second they blew past the one low spot. So Andy exchanged places with Bob as Lucy’s boat stabilizer and Bob proceeded to probe the slimy sea wall in hopes of a handhold.

“I found a hole,” Bob suddenly and enthusiastically yipped.

The hole was just a tiny slit, barley deep enough for Bob to get a finger in. But, hey, you know what they say about gypsies. Bob scaled the slippery, slime coated wall while Lucy and Andy stabilized the Klepper. Andy then helped Lucy transfer into Bob’s boat and immediately afterward threw Bob a line attached to the 1/2 submerged Chinook.

As Bob was dragging the Chinook along the Sea Wall looking for a place he could haul the boat up, the Coast Guard landed. However, they were faring none better then our trio, and it took them almost ten minutes until they could secure their vessel against the thrashing of the waves. Meanwhile, Bob climbed along the dark seawall, meeting their craft with a flashlight.

“Hi,” Bob said, not knowing what else to say and immediately feeling stupid for such a lame ass salutation.

Is everyone all right?” a cry reciprocated from the ship.

“Yea! We’re fine, but I think we might need a ride.” said Bob, though he latter confessed that he was embarrassed to admit it.

After the Coast Guard vessel finally secured their craft against the decaying piers, the three kayaks were loaded on board and the commanding officer asked Bob where he’d like to go? Bob replied, “Can you take us to Coney Island?”

“Are you crazy? I’m not going there," replied the commanding officer.
"This is the worst I’ve seen the harbor in ten years.”

Bob said at that moment he almost volunteer to drive, but thinking better of it, asked instead: “How about the South Street Seaport?”

To which the captain most graciously agreed. And so Bob, Andy, and Lucy were brought back to the very dock they started from.

Meanwhile, aboard the NEW HAVEN, Captain Al and John had just gotten word that the other members of their party were safe. So the NEW HAVEN headed toward the Gowanus Canal to transfer our other two kayakers to a Coast Guard Vessel, which would also return them to the Seaport.

On the way, Captain Al invited the Coast Guard crew to join him for dinner. But they just looked at him like he was crazy.

One crew member asked the Captain how he was going to get his boat back?

“Easy,” John butted in, “We’ll just fold them up, pack them in their bags and hop the subway.”

The crew looked at one another, then at the 17 foot Klepper lashed to their deck and broke into howls of laughter.

When John and the Captain got back to the South Street Seaport they found Bob, Andy and Lucy enthusiastically planning a return bout. “We’ve done this night paddle before,” Bob vowed, "and nextime we’ll do it again.”

“Right.” John enjoined, “But can we discuss this over Indian Food, I’m starving.”

“Yea,” rumbled Captain Al.

So saying, the group began to strip from their PFDs and dry suits in anticipation of a hot meal.

'A Salty Dog Index'

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