It had begun last summer when Darrick Doerner asked me to join him in an event he was promoting. He and Andrew Mencinsky of the Surfer’s Environmental Alliance had organized a paddle around Manhattan to draw awareness to the growing impact autism has on our children. We had enjoyed a wonderful sightseeing tour riding SUP boards on the rivers surrounding the wealthiest and most densely populated county in the US. By coordinating our course and timetable with the tides, the 28 mile paddle had been a long but not difficult run. Of course, the only big variable in the equation had been the prevailing winds and last year they had been favorably light. It would be a very different story this time around.
The field for the 2nd NYC SEA paddle had more than doubled, 80 paddlers were signed up and eager to start. The majority were still paddling on SUP boards which gave a decided advantage in regards to avoiding, as much as possible, the dirty harbor water. Darrick and Andrew had invited the world famous surfboard shaper, Dick Brewer, to the event and he had built SUP boards for Darrick and me to ride. He must not have received the memo about how these boards were going to be used because, on first sight, I knew we were not going to be happy. The boards were designed, I’m sure, with wave riding in mind, not long distance paddling and I thought there would come a time somewhere along that 28 miles where we would pay for that difference. Jericho Poppler had an Uli 15’ inflatable board that I thought was an excellent and ideal choice since this was not a race. Standing for the entire 6 hours last year had been painful on everyone’s feet. Perched comfortably on the deck of her Jim Weir designed Uli, Jericho would probably not suffer the cramping issues I knew would plague the others. Keith Malloy’s usual top shelf conditioning was enhanced by a strenuous training regime he was using to get in shape for the prestigious Catalina Classic paddleboard race the following Sunday, less than a week away. When I asked him why he would come to New York to do this event in the middle of his training program, his answer was typical laidback Keith. “I just thought it would be fun and didn’t think stand up paddling would hurt anything for the Catalina race.” Keith was paddling a beautiful Jimmy Lewis 12’-6” distance paddleboard that I was extremely envious of given the 10’-6” Brewer I had. There were many of the same guys as last year but most of them had brought some friends. Grog’s Greg Masenko was all smiles and with a lot more experience and training on SUP boards then last time. New Jersey Sandy Hook locals and founding members of the Clay Pit Creek Paddle Club Jimmy Formato, Steve Winchester and Michael Jordan had also trained hard and were ready. Montauk to Maui surfer Frank Forbes had talked his lovely sister into participating. Darien Boyle had exchanged her lay down paddleboard for a SUP and enlisted all her brothers to paddle again. Surfer Environmentalism Champion Mark Massara came to take part as well. There was a rumor of Tom Curren showing up but he still hadn’t arrived when we boarded the boats to take us out into the East River upstream of the Brooklyn Bridge for the start.
The reason we begin where we do near the South Pier is to avoid the ferry traffic which is incessant and probably quite dangerous given a slow moving paddler and a jet-propelled ferryboat. Although why we can’t just launch off the dock must be some kind of fire or police regulation because that would certainly be a lot easier than loading all the boards and bodies on boats to drop them mid harbor. The off loading seemed to take forever and the water was exceptionally choppy. The current wasn’t waiting and even without paddling we drifted quickly under the Brooklyn Bridge. Finally everyone was in the water and there was a signal to begin. This wasn’t a race and it was a grand opportunity to see New York City from an interesting perspective while talking story with fellow paddlers. With Brooklyn on our right and the lower East side on our left, we passed under the Manhattan Bridge and further on, theWilliamsburg Bridge. A couple of seaplanes landed on the far side and taxied by the group. The surface conditions smoothed out and the current moved us along at a good clip. Before long we were alongside Midtown Manhattan with Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side just beyond. Where the East River branched off as we turned left towards the Harlem River, a fellow paddler pointed out the infamous Hell Gate where sailing ships had floundered and sunk in times past. The previous year, I had been very concerned about this landmark, hearing that it might become a formidable obstacle to overcome in our paddle. So concentrated on avoiding it, I had paddled right by completely oblivious. A call came to the lead escort boat to hold the field at the entrance to the Harlem River and we all stopped paddling. As I looked back, I was amazed at how large was our group of paddlers. They were strung out over a long ways and it took some time before the entire field tightened up. Once again we took off heading through the Harlem district with the Bronx on our right. Someone pointed out Yankee Stadium and stated that it would be the last time I would see it. The famous venue was scheduled to be torn down very soon to make way for a new stadium. The sun was shining and the day nicely warm. Sweat trickled down as I kept a steady paddle rhythm. I had worn my Rainbow Sandals in hopes that it might ease the pressure of standing for a long time but already my feet were beginning to cramp. I knew I was well ahead of last years time for this distance and other than my feet, I had no aches or pains.
We passed out of Harlem and approached the end of the first half of the course. When I came around the corner and spotted the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge under which we would pass into the Hudson River, I thought about how easy and smooth the paddle had been up till here. At this point, we would rest and gather together the entire group before going on. It was hot enough and strenuously taxing where I was ingesting bottles of drinking water but it only came back out as sweat. I downed several more bottles while we rested, knowing the last leg would be one straight shot with no stops along the way. Finally after several group photos, Andrew announced that from here on, our only stop would be at the end when we finished at the North Cove Marina.
Feeling good and loose, I ducked under the bridge and paddled out into the strong flow of the Hudson River. Immediately I was hit in the face by a stiff headwind. We had encountered no wind at all along the East and Harlem Rivers. I had expected some wind for the local forecast had called for an afternoon westerly breeze. The west wind would not have been too bothersome as it would be on our stern beam, crossways but slightly at our backs. What I felt was a straight southerly and directly into our faces. It was about the worst a wind direction could be since stand up paddling offers a lot of wind resistance. The few lay down paddlers were probably laughing right now as their prone position offered no impediment. There seemed to be a slick spot right along the shore and I angled in to try for some advantage. It was very shallow in close to the bank with occasional rocks that needed to be avoided. The wind was still strong but at least here, the water surface was smoother. I looked ahead and far in the distance could see the skyscrapers on the Jersey shore that were just opposite of where we would finish. It seemed a long ways off.
I watched the lay down paddlers and Keith Malloy stroke out ahead, the wind not appearing to be much problem to them. I knew Keith had to be working as hard as I was but he pulled away in a hurry. Other SUP paddlers went by and I knew it would be folly to try to pace them. Most were on longer boards like the Jimmy Lewis distance paddler, my Brewer board was barely planing and pushing water badly. I could see how far we had to go and how slowly we were moving. I had every intention of finishing this paddle and on my feet too. Other paddlers calculated the wind resistance of standing upright and dropped to their knees, bellies and butts to continue. I was absolutely determined that I would staystanding. It was a very grueling effort and I struggled to stay focused. The current was flowing in our favor but with the wind blowing in the opposite direction, forward progress was agonizingly slow. Along the East and Harlem rivers, the bridges had come up and gone by in a hurry. I could see the George Washington Bridge ahead, only a fifth of the way along this side of Manhattan. It did not seem to be getting much closer. I had one thing going for me, a brand new H2O Audio unit loaded with “my” music to help ease away the hours. I tried to stay in the groove to Jimi Hendrix, Janis, Steely Dan, Paul Butterfield, War, Jack Johnson, Stevie-Ray, Gabby Pahinui, anyone. I saw a paddler go by sitting on his board and his pace was steadily quicker than mine. He nodded a greeting and I acknowledged him but my vision was blurry and my breathing ragged. As he pulled away, the music blasting through the waterproof headphones, a thought flickered through my mind that the guy looked a little like Tommy Curren. If it was, I guess I would see him at the finish and we could laugh about it. I saw the escort boats going by, each time towing paddlers towards the finish which I knew was still miles ahead. The field was strung out a long ways, perhaps several miles. I glanced back and could see no one behind me. Determined to finish and pacing myself to complete this task, I resigned myself to coming in last if that was what it took. Far ahead I could just make out some wharves and knew this must me near the Upper West Side. Last year, on a much more leisurely paddle, it had been pointed out that it was near halfway on this last leg.
It was painful, my feet ached, my shoulders were burning and my hands stung. I turned up the volume on the music hoping to distract myself but even when a favorite tune came up, the number seemed to flash by in a heartbeat. Forward motion was excruciatingly slow. Finally I saw some paddlers ahead of me whom I seemed to be gaining on. This gave me some inspiration in spite of the numbing fatigue. When I went by, seeing who they were, I couldn’t remember them passing me. But my mind was in a fog and I never realized that they had been towed by the boats to get ahead. Later that night, Captain Chick told me how they had passed me by a dozen times bringing people from behind to tighten up the field of paddlers which had begun to stretch impossibly long. The tide window was not something to be trifled with. Once the tide turned, the current would stop working in our favor. Chick said I didn’t look goodeach time they passed by. I only remembered them going by a couple of times asking if I wanted any water Darrick suddenly appeared next to me. Where he had come from, I couldn’t say but it was reassuring to have my friend nearby. A veteran of more heavy water situations than any dozen big wave surfers put together, his perpetually calm demeanor was a welcome thing. I wanted to curse or complain or whine about the headwind but he just looked at me and smiled. The next thing I knew we were both laughing out loud at our predicament. I told him I wasn’t going to my knees no matter what and he said we would just gut it out together. We stayed in draft of one another or side by side for the next few miles as we passed by Midtown. The docks and piers along Chelsea and the Village went by slowly but I knew we were in the home stretch. I could see the Statue of Liberty in the distance even though my vision was wavering.
As we approached the Battery Park district, a slew of ferries arrived and docked to discharge their passengers. It was kind of dicey as they zoomed in at high speed. Right as we went around the stern of one ferry, another one ahead jetted out in reverse. Had a paddler been behind him, it would have been all over for the guy on the paddleboard. We still had several ferries to pass behind and I was trying to be as careful as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I swung out wide to gain some sea room but one ferry blasted his jet as I passed his stern. It blew me right off my board and into the harbor water that I had studiously tried to avoid throughout the entire paddle. I quickly scrambled back aboard with only my Palaka shorts, bottom of my Capilene shirt and my dignity dampened. I had hoped to make it the entire distance without falling in the water but that wasn’t going to be.
Finally I could see where the guys ahead were turning into the North Cove Marina. We were truly near the finish. I was very happy as DD and I climbed onto the dock and gave each other a high five. Again we had survived. The only thing I will think about in terms of next year is a longer SUP board. Other than that, I’m just going to lick my wounds and think about anything else. It took almost two hours longer than the last time we did it and 8 hours is a long haul. Its funny how things that are painful, exhausting and endless while doing them always seem better at the end. Thanks guys for another great paddle adventure.
Story is by Gerry Lopez. Photos by Andrew Brusso.