Circumnavigating Manhattan by kayak

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One island, 49 kilometres, 10 hours: This epic tour of New York City’s most populous borough is a marathon of sights and sounds — and dangers

My wife Jean and I have kayaked on Ontario’s Georgian Bay for years, often sleeping on rocks on weekend trips. The farthest we’d paddled was 30 kilometres in a single day.

Then a friend told us anyone could rent a kayak from Manhattan Kayak in New York City and paddle around the world’s most famous island — all 49 kilometres of it. The trip isn’t for the average Big Apple bucket-lister. You need to prove you are adept in a kayak and confident in choppy waters. You also need a guide. As the company’s website ominously notes: “The Atlantic Ocean floods into and ebbs out from the Hudson River several times daily. The water will literally sweep away any untrained kayakers in NYC.” We were in.

Our guide Jay Cartagena wasn’t there to point out the sites. Rather, he performed two other functions: getting us through the boat traffic at the southern tip of Manhattan — which matches the traffic on its streets — and steering us through the currents and tides.

The aircraft carrier USS Intrepid dwarfs kayakers at Pier 86 on West 44th Street in Manhattan. (Photo: Bob Ramsay)

We were naive to both dangers. At first, we only had to worry about the waves as we disembarked from Pier 86 on West 44th Street. We were dwarfed by the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid in the adjacent slip as we headed south on the Hudson with One World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty far ahead and New Jersey on our right. By the time we got to Battery Park, the waves from the daily armada of boats — ferries, barges, sailboats and even 3,000-passenger cruise ships — came from every direction. Not capsizing our tiny double-kayak (could they even see us?) took huge effort.

Indeed, it took two hours to make it around the southern tip of Manhattan and back to the Brooklyn Bridge. I’d never concentrated so hard in my life. We even got blown off course by helicopters landing on the East River Pier. But as we headed up the East River, a current shot us forward. It was like magic. I looked over to the shore and saw that we were going faster than a kid on his bike. Woohoo!

Manhattan skyline from kayak

The kayak view of the Manhattan skyline. (Photo: Bob Ramsay)

Still heading north as the current slowed, we stopped for a quick bite (and nature break) on Randall’s Island, not far from the famous Rikers Island and LaGuardia Airport. Back in the kayak, a quick turn west onto the Harlem River took us through grimy industrial land. The Harlem then turned sharply north where, protected from the wind and with hardly any boat traffic, we paddled leisurely under a dozen bridges until we took another left and headed back to the Hudson River.

We docked for 15 minutes at Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx to wait for the current to turn our way before we shot down the Hudson at 271st Street, headed back to 44th. We finished the final leg as the sun set. And as we paddled under the George Washington Bridge at 178th Street, we were virtually alone, guided in by moonlight, with barely another boat to be seen.

Heaven.

Nightfalls around Manhattan and the George Washington Bridge. (Photo: Bob Ramsay)

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