King Kayak-Canoo - Waterman Extraordinaire
By Rich Sheppard
For a championship-caliber canooist, who has challenged and conquered the roaring rapids of the Delaware River a score-plus number of times in canoo and kayak, and who has canooed on northern New Jersey's official regional river, the Hackensack "Hacky," the opportunity to kayak the mighty Hudson, America's "First River," was not to be missed. And thy kingdom come, thy will be done, it wasn't.
The opportunity arose when I spotted somewhere that there would be free kayaking in the cove off Hoboken's Frank Sinatra Park this passed Saturday, August 5. I emailed the woman running the effort, and she informed me that not only would there be free "cove kayaking" for the masses, but also that they would need volunteers to return the boats to Manhattan's 56th Street boathouse. Hoboken does not have its own boathouse, so these industrious Hoboken kayakers have made arrangements with their cross-river pals to borrow some kayaks and offer free boating in Hoboken. It's a very very worthy program, and kudos to both the Hoboken kayakers and the Manhattan kayakers for this generosity. This is the kind of public-spiritedness that makes your heart sing, especially when it involves an activity you love doing, but don't have the resources or storage space for your own watercraft.
Even though I was assured a spot for the cross-river trip, I arrived early at the Sinatra Park boat ramp and introduced myself to my new kayaking organizing friend Sandy, the gal running the program. I secured her "go" for a cross-river slot, and as they were still putting out kayaks for the general public, I jumped into a one-seater and darted-out into the cove for a little pre-crossing warm-up. Altogether there were about fifteen single- and double-seat kayaks out there, bobbing merrily in the wake-waves and sun. Very colorful and fun. The kayaks are hardshell hollow-plastic models, very stable and safe, and self-draining. There were guys in these boats with little kids, no exaggeration 4-5 year olds, in life-jackets, happily bobbing away. As King Kayak-Canoo, I surveyed this domain with earnest anticipation at making the cross-river trip. I'm the king, I'm going cross-river; Big boy Kayak-Canoo King - yep that's my thing.
Open Water to Frolick In
Sandy explained that she was tired of having to go to NYC to borrow kayaks, and wanted a similar program on the Jersey side. So her organization seeks public support to lobby the city (which she resignedly described as "corrupt") for a Hoboken boat house. There's liability issues naturally (everyone including volunteers had to sign waivers) and the issue of where you put a boathouse on some of the most valuable property in the metropolitan region? Sandy also said that ideally, the boathouse would be situated north of the Sinatra Park, up by the former "Lipton Tea Building" residences, there's more open water to frolick in up that way. You wish people like Sandy well even if you're not a kayaker or King Kayak-Canoo. She has a goal and is trying for it. This Jersey-sider would selfishly love to see her succeed and offered her my humble support.
About 5pm, Sandy shut down the public kayaking and us volunteers launched into the cove and congregated for the cross-river trip. My little experience in the cove was so happy and easy, I didn't sense the cross-river trip would be anything but a lark. I'm not sure of the exact distance, but I think from the Sinatra cove directly across the Hudson to the other shore is about a mile; to go upriver to 56th Street may be 1 ¾ or so. It would be a piece of cake for a Delly/Hacky canoo/kayak salt like me.
I was assigned into a 2-seat kayak with a friendly-enough Englishman and Hoboken resident. He was an old river-kayaking pro. I acceded to his instructions that he would handle steering and be "captain" of the boat. It was all jolly good stuff, bobbing there in the cove awaiting the cross-river launch signal. After some words of caution and insistence on staying together as a flotilla, the paddling began in earnest.
A Streaking Armada of Paddling Kayakers
The plan was to head upriver on the Jersey Side, staying together. That part was easy enough, everybody recognized you did not want to be a single craft, low-to-the-water and barely visible. There were PLENTY of "real boats" and "real BIG barges" out in the river, but our gaggle of colorful kayaks with our colorful paddles flashing was easy enough to spot - "safety-in-numbers." It may not seem so when you are onshore, but when you get into the kayak and out into the river, you realize the scale of the mission, and it is not a little itty-bitty stream of water: it's a major, swirling, and traffic-clogged river you're entering. You are small potatoes indeed on that wide, windy and wavy river. Even compared to the smaller motorcraft, you are smaller still. And thus vulnerable, just as you would be if you were a lone fish instead of having many many school-mates. We kept to our class and were a happy bunch for it. A streaking armada of paddling kayakers in the middle of a big river is a stirring sight to behold and be part of.
The first 10 minutes, I had no problem either paddling or staying seated with my legs extended in front of me, torso erect and massive arms paddling forth. But once we were out among the constant waves and boat wakes, I began to falter in my position. I was already wet, and it was hard to stay firmly seated on the backless front kayak seat. I kept sliding rearwards, only to have the Anglo-Saxon Admiral tell me he couldn't paddle with me landing in his lap. Then the area where my legs meet my hips began to cramp a little being in that awkward position and not having any abdominal muscles to offer support for my bulky belly. I had no choice but to sit like Buddha in the front of the kayak (they are wide enough for you to sit in this curious-for-a-kayak position). I don't normally sit like Buddha on dry land (though I have the belly for it) but this arrangement worked. It may seem odd to sit that way in a kayak, and I'm sure it looked odd, but it worked and I could paddle this way. I was hoping that the pros among us were not observing me sitting thus like a paunchy hood-ornament. After all, a Kayak-Canoo King does not sit like Buddha in that thing. (or does he?).
A Clouseau-Like Faux-Pas
Because Earl Englishman was such a fit & furious paddler ("you go Cappy!" was my silent refrain during some trying portions of the trip), the momentum of the boat, combined now as we entered mid-river, with the significant waves and headwind, I literally felt as if I was in a washing machine. I was bouncing and swaying and trying to keep my legs comfortable, plus paddle so I didn't look like a mere larking passenger. Yes I admit at one point, I almost abandoned paddle and clung furiously with both hands to the sides of the boat, an infantile action that might be interpreted as sheer terror. I wanted to pull my considerable weight, even though Mr. Limey was driving us through the oncoming 3-4 waves like he was a living outboard motor ("Goooo Cappy!"). I was taking a serious beating, and you can't easily position yourself when you're being tossed and splashed soaking wet. So that I didn't look like a rank amateur and require someone to retrieve it, I clutched my paddle at all costs. At one point Cappy told me my paddle was upside-down, a deeply embarrassing, Clouseau-like faux-pas. I was admittedly in over my head a little, seeking the final shore. At one point, a single kayaker drew the attention of the pros and they promptly put this person under tow, which while I wouldn't disdain this boater, must have been a tad humiliating. That was a fate I would not countenance. Though at some points, the trip was bit more than I bargained for, this was NO KAYAKING LARK FOR YOU, DICKIE-BOY. My crown was hanging by a thread, rexus idioto. It seemed like more work than fun although I was cackling like a fool as I'm wont to do in dopey situations. I surely approached onset situational madness there on the river, tumbling like soggy laundry in God's wash-o-matic.
I think Sir Limejuice was having a kick out of my tossing and sliding. All of the experienced kayakers naturally wanted to ride the waves and wakes (it is neato), I wasn't quite adept. When you canoo/kayak in the Delly, the rapids are never longer than a few minutes. These waves were constant and churning to heights that would thrill any whitewater runner. At least there are no rocks as there are on the Delly. But the kayaks are very stable, and once I realized I wasn't in hardly any danger of tipping the craft and looking again like a rank amateur, and that Lord Limey wasn't hollering at me for sloshing around in the boat like I was drunk*, I settled down nicely like the conquering King Kayak-Canoo I am. Frankly, Sinatra, I was kicking tail once I adjusted to the scope of the trip. It was turning into the fun, even if there was plenty of burn in that churn.
Long Paddle the King
At midriver, we all gathered again and waited for some ferries and pleasure boats to blaze in front of us (more swells, wakes, and washer cycles), and then the kayak pros told us to point diagonally upriver at the appropriate dock (three piers north of the mighty Intrepid). A brief rest before we dug for the home stretch, me pumping the two-head paddle furiously, probably a little more furiously than I needed to in order to make a "good showing" that I was a worthy paddler who should be invited for another trip. Especially after my roly-poly act when things were a little hairy for King Kayak-Canoo. Cappy was driving us forward smartly, and at one point I even called out, "hey ya limey bastard, this ain't a race!" I'm not sure he took it in the joshing spirit intended, though he may have gotten the point. Finally, my legs pounding a little and my arms and shoulders fatigued, we hove-to on the 56th Street boathouse floating dock. The King has landed, long paddle the King!!
I knew from being in the scrunched Buddha-position during the cross-river trip that when I uncoiled my legs, they would be screaming with agony. I exaggerate, but they were quite rubbery and I was a wobbling joe sealegs when I rolled out (that's a nice image) of the kayak like an exhausted sausage. Having finished the trip, I wasn't much concerned with appearances, of the necessity of making a sprightly, salty leap from boat to land. Instead, thudding on the dock and twitching like a beached sea mammal was fine by me. After a minute of landmass intimacy, I felt totally vigorous and alive; those waves were now my friends. It was a little more work than I bargained for, but I realized immediately that I wanted out there again as soon as possible, obviously after I had about a week of R&R to assuage my delicate, flabby physique.