by Charles Henderson as published in
Soundings, September, 2002 and updated here May, 2005
Think New York
City. Now get ready to think about it again, not as a target for terrorists or
a habitat for billionaires and drug addicts living in violent proximity, but as
one of the world’s foremost boating centers. New York City is becoming a sailing
capital. No longer the nation’s largest commercial port, this archipelago is experiencing
a rebirth of recreational activity all along its extensive shoreline and especially
upon its network of islands and peninsulas, its bays, rivers, harbors, and canals.
CPH with dinghy dock at Boat Basin;
mooring field in background.
a resident of the city for 20 years, making me a relative newcomer, and for most
of that time I was of a mind to travel to distant places to be near the sea.
Our boat, a 34’ Sparkman and Stephens designed Tartan “classic” built in 1976,
was moored for much of its life in Marion, Mass, where the waters of Buzzards
Bay, Cape Cod and the Islands offered delightful sailing and convenient ports
of call. More extended vacations made possible longer passages to the Bay of Fundy
or via the Intercoastal Waterway to the Florida Keys. Until recently I did not
think of the city as offering an outstanding area to explore in a small boat.
But the traffic of I-95 and the possibility of renting a mooring at the 79th
Street Boat Basin within fifteen minutes of our apartment on Manhattan’s Upper
Westside changed everything. Now we don’t even have to set sail to appreciate
the city in a new way. Only minutes after leaving work on a Friday afternoon we
can be on the boat enjoying a spectacular sunset or the sight of windsurfers,
kayakers, and cruising sailors from Canada, France or Australia enjoying their
boats on one of the nearby guest moorings. Renting a mooring here for $1500 a
season or $20 a night is a great way to have a front row seat with a sweeping
view of the Hudson, including the George Washington Bridge, the palisades of New
Jersey, and the towering apartment buildings of Manhattan’s Upper Westside. From
this prime location one can watch with a deep sense of irony as others set out
on the clogged arteries heading for remote locations upstate or to “the island.”
Funny, isn’t it that people refer to Long Island as the island when Manhattan
is itself an island and New York City is one of the world’s most interesting archipelagoes.
In fact, only 1/8th of the city is on the mainland of the United States, and the
city’s inland waterways and ocean beaches give it 578 miles of shoreline -- all
within easy reach of anyone with a small boat.
In the past five years I’ve
explored the cruising grounds located within a half day’s sail from our mooring.
Recently, my wife and I spent a three day weekend scouting these waters in search
of additional places where visiting sailors could moor or anchor for the night.
We took with us the usual charts, cruising guides and a remarkable book that anyone
planning to visit the city by water will want to buy. Namely, William Kornblum’s
At Sea in the City: New York From the Water’s Edge.” (Algonquin, 2002).
Kornblum provides a wealth of historical and cultural background about this region
even as he spins a good yarn about sailing his antique catboat here for many years.
I also interviewed Kornblum about some of the locations we checked out, in some
cases updating his narrative.
On Friday morning we set sail down the Hudson
with a favorable tide, passing the Battery, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty
and, beneath the sweeping span of the Veranzanno Bridge, glided into the waters
of the Lower Bay. Our destination: Staten Island’s Great Kills Harbor. The harbor
is spacious and fully protected, a great place of refuge for sailors passing along
the coast. On its eastern shore, and clearly visible to starboard as you enter,
is a wide expanse of sandy beach, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
This is a 26,000 acre park and nature preserve extending from Sandy Hook, New
Jersey, along the south side of Staten Island to Jamaica Bay and Breezy Point
in the city. Assembled from urban parks, former military sites, and undeveloped
marshland, Gateway was established by an act of Congress in 1972 as one of the
first urban preserves in the National Park System. That legislation may well mark
the beginning of New York Harbor’s rebirth as a recreation area after decades
of decline as a commercial shipping port and dumping ground for garbage and industrial
waste. Steadily the harbor has come back to life in its contemporary incarnation
as a refuge from the stress of the city and a habitat for birds, plants and animals.
We spent the entire three day weekend either within or close to Gateway and merely
scratched its surface.
Dock at Richmond Yacht Club
By all appearances, Great Kills Harbor could easily
be in Maine or Massachusetts rather than New York City. Here you will find numerous
marinas with a limited number of slips available for transients, but plenty of
room to anchor and, we were told, a very large number of moorings available for
renting at $25/night from the Richmond County Yacht Club. More expensive than
the Boat Basin to be sure, but well worth it as this includes launch service and
the club’s shore facilities … showers and, most important, a cozy restaurant.
Before calling for the launch to take us ashore for dinner, we enjoyed an eruption
of thunder and lightening more dramatic than any 4th of July fireworks display
as a cold front swept through the region. This was a one hour sound and light
spectacular better than anything on Broadway. As soon as the weather permitted,
we contacted the yacht club on VHF channel 9 and were soon on shore. It wasn’t
necessary to check out the handful of restaurants within walking distance of the
club house, as the best place to eat for visiting sailors is, without question,
the restaurant right there at the RCYC. We sat at the bar and enjoyed two mixed
drinks for $5.00. The service is friendly, the surroundings comfortable, and when
you combine cost and food quality in the calculation, this is a four star dining
opportunity, not to be missed. Manager Paul Caminity knows how to run a restaurant,
and this includes hiring a young staff with real culinary skill eager to impress.
We’re planning to return to Great Kills Harbor for another meal here pronto! (The
restaurant remains open on weekends through September.)
In the morning we
motored in our inflatable to Nichols Marina on the east shore of the harbor bordering
the Recreation Area. The management here does not cater to the cruising sailor
and it’s a long walk to town. We were told, without much enthusiasm, by the individual
holding down a chair in the marina office that some slips “might” be available
for visiting sailboats at $1.50/ft for the night. There, is however, at the head
of the harbor, a public boat launching site where you can pull up in a dinghy
and explore the Recreation Area with its beachfront, views and nature sanctuary.
We took a four mile run on a beautiful trail with alternating views of the Lower
Bay and the harbor. The beach is protected by life guards and there is an excellent
landing field for radio controlled air planes. After our run, we motored back
to the Yacht Club to explore Hylan Boulevard, the main commercial strip running
through Staten Island, an easy walk from the club. Had we spend another night
in Great Kills harbor we might well have eaten dinner at a nearby Russian restaurant
on Hylan Boulevard.
We did not get a good impression of the dining opportunities
closer to the club. One longtime Staten Island resident we happened to talk with
suggested that restaurant reviews in the Staten Island Advance are meted out according
to the amount spent on ads in that newspaper. Alas, we did not have the time,
nor the inclination to test this theory. We did, however, wander into Island Trains,
a hobby shop featuring Lionel and other brands. These folks have been in the business
for more than twenty years, have a wonderful website, and will ship anywhere.
Already our morning included not only boats, but planes and trains. “Boys and
their toys,” remarked my wife, somewhat less impressed by the morning’s discoveries
than I was. Before taking off for our next destination, we returned to the yacht
club for a relaxed conversation with Paul who is a goldmine of information about
Staten Island and Great Kills Harbor.
We spent the remainder of the morning
and early afternoon crossing Lower Bay on a light northerly. Old Orchard Shoal,
West Bank, Ambrose Channel with all of its shipping traffic, East Bank and the
approach to Jamaica Bay framed by Coney Island to the north and Breezy Point to
the south. All clear sailing in good weather; I do not enjoy traversing these
waters in fog or storm. Without radar, the commercial shipping and high speed
ferries, fun to watch when you can see what’s coming at you, become a real threat.
As you cross Ambrose Channel in Lower Bay you are perfectly positioned to enjoy
the wide sweep of New York City skyline. Not the close up shot most often featured
in picture postcards, but the wide angle view that includes Staten Island, the
Narrows, Coney Island and the long line of barrier islands stretching off into
the distance to the north and east. From this perspective, lower Manhattan is
still impressive, but it does not dominate. In fact, you get a more accurate picture
of New York as a string of islands interconnected by tidal waterways, bays, rivers
and, of course, the ocean.
To the south were locations we had previously
visited and where sailors exploring the region will find inviting anchorages.
Sandy Hook’s Horseshoe Cove is one of these, with Fort Hancock, Sandy Hook Lighthouse,
Holly Forest, and North Beach all within an easy walk. If you are looking for
the added protection of a mooring field and shore facilities, try the well protected
Atlantic Highlands Harbor. Moorings are $35/night from the Atlantic Highlands
Yacht Club, including use of the clubhouse facilities located up a long flight
of stairs on the second floor of the Shore Casino. There is no restaurant at the
yacht club, but from here you can easily walk to the village and First Avenue
which includes opportunity for shopping, a marine supply store, and a variety
of restaurants. Moreover, from Atlantic Highlands or Horseshoe Cove you can easily
spend a day or two exploring the Navesink River which you can navigate, even in
a sailboat, as far as Red Bank, New Jersey, about five miles up river.
planned to spend the night in Dead Horse Bay at anchor within what appears on
the chart of be a secluded cove on the western shore of Barren Island, but first
we wanted to explore Jamaica Bay. To do this one needs to pass beneath the Marine
Parkway Bridge with a vertical clearance of 55 feet when closed, as it usually
is on weekends. Given that our mast is only 45 feet tall, the passage under the
bridge proved uneventful. Still, as you approach such a bridge, from the helm
of a small sailboat, even a much taller bridge seems perilously close, and you
pray that the stats on the chart are correct. A sailboat mast colliding with a
bridge of concrete or steel while being pushed forward by a swift current does
not make a pretty picture.
Once we were safely under the bridge and into
the bay, we began to take in our surroundings. We powered around the eastern shore
of Barren Island and into Island Channel. To the east we could clearly see Ruffle
Bar and, to the north, Canarsie Pol, islands or hummocks in the middle of the
bay that are set aside as a nature preserve. Here we discovered what to me would
be a wonderful place to drop anchor for the night. At the entrance to Mill Basin
which forms the northern shore of Barren Island there is an area just inside can
“9” where the city seems to fade away almost entirely. In whatever direction
you are looking you can see sandy beaches, lined with sea grass and trees. Here
one can imagine what the Bay might have looked like long before civilization nearly
destroyed it. But the ecosystem here is clearly on the mend. We did not anchor,
but as we drifted in the gentle afternoon breeze there appeared on the sandy shore
of Bergen Beach on the opposite side of the Mill Basin channel, first one and
then a second horse and rider. These lovely animals walked along the beach and
into the water as if tempted to swim directly into the bay. There is something
magical about a horse and rider by the sea. We did not have the time, but from
this point one could easily spend a day or more exploring the waters of Jamaica
Bay. In one of the better parts of his book, William Kornblum describes spending
three days here aboard his catboat, Tradition. He paints a vivid picture of the
abundant wildlife found in the hidden recesses of the bay. “There were waterfowl
and other animals in every direction. I saw cormorants, terns, peeps, mallards,
ruddies. Up another shadowy bend stood two snowy egrets, with their outrageous
yellow boots and platinum punk haircuts.”
Indeed there is something magical
about the quiet backwaters of Jamaica Bay, and something quite miraculous about
Barren Island where we were to spend the night. This is the site of Floyd Bennett
Field, which was the city’s first municipal airport. Soon eclipsed by La Guardia,
it was turned over to the Navy in 1942 and became the busiest military airfield
in the U.S. during World War II. Like Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island or Fort
Tilden on the Rockaway Peninsula, these were once military installations important
to the defense of the city and the nation. Now they are wonderful places for tourists.
Fort Tilden can be reached by bus from Barren Island. This was an active military
installation from World War I through the Vietnam War. Among the activities located
in these former military installations there are art exhibits, sporting events,
biking, bird-watching, hiking, music and theater performances, nature study, and
picnicking. “And they shall beat there swords into plowshares and their spears
into pruning hooks,” wrote the prophet Isaiah. Here, in the midst of New York
City, on the anniversary of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, one will find the prophet’s
vision of peace actually realized.
Gateway Marina, Dead Horse Bay aerial view with
Floyd Bennett Field in foreground
For the evening
we sailed from Jamaica back out beneath Marine Parkway Bridge to what we thought
would be a secluded anchorage in Dead Horse Bay. On the chart it appears there
is a small marina on the north side of the bay and a larger open area with plenty
of swing room for an entire fleet of sailboats. Not so. Gateway Marina has just
completed a two million dollar expansion that includes a floating breakwater and
scores of spanking new piers and slips. The marina now dominates the little bay
tilting the balance toward those boaters who prefer to be tethered to shore with
electric power, fresh water, hot showers and a convenience store. We succumbed
to the comfort of civilization and pulled into one of the slips nearest to the
breakwater with an unobstructed view of the Lower Bay.
Before dinner we
enjoyed a stroll through the community gardens at Floyd Bennett Field, and chatted
with members of the Deep Creek Yacht Club who were enjoying a wine and cheese
party on the marina pier. (Local sailors may want to consider joining Deep Creek
Yacht Club. Annual membership fee: $25!) Also socializing at the marina were members
of the Polish Sailing Club who make this a frequent destination on their weekend
After firing up the grill, we enjoyed dinner in the relative privacy
of our cockpit, with a spectacular, front row seat for the sunset. Some low hanging
clouds had blown in from the south and as the sun approached the horizon, the
sky was a mixture of red, gold, grey and white with blue sky and the sun peeking
through. With a change in the wind the aircraft approach pattern into Kennedy
was altered and now the jumbo jets began descending through the clouds like a
procession of angels from heaven. As the clouds and the darkness thickened the
landing lights added a touch of mystical illumination to the cloud cover. On the
horizon to the west, the bay was framed with what looked, at this distance, like
a medieval castle. Later we learned this is the very up to date campus of Kingsborough Community College. It frames the bay to the north, while
to the south, there were the twinkling
of lights from a few houses on Breezy Point at the end of the Rockaway barrier
island separating the bay from the sea.
In the morning, we arose to the
silence of dawn … flight patterns having been adjusted once more to direct air
traffic over a different part of the city. We set sail in a fifteen knot southerly
for our mooring at the Boat Basin under genoa and mainsail at hull speed of 6.7
knots. Rounding Coney Island, the view of the Manhattan skyline gradually emerged
from the haze and soon we headed for home, wing on wing, with a favorable current
behind us. But for the duration of the weekend it seemed we had traveled to distant
worlds without ever leaving the waters of New York City.
Other related and recommended
sites you might want to visit:
you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call: 917-439-2305
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.