The Big Apple
30 September 2007 | New York City
Beth - on a bright and sunny day
How can I even begin to put into words how thrilling it is to have sailed to New York City?
After an early morning call to the West 79th Street Boat Basin to request a mooring ball, we took a leisurely cruise from Manhasset Bay past Throg's Neck and into the East River. Because we had planned to arrive at slack tide at Hell Gate, we didn't have the wild ride through there that some sailors have experienced. We were just as happy to take it slower the first time through. I read in the Maptech cruising guide that although the name of this S-bend in the river evokes such anxiety, a Dutch Explorer in whose language "hellegat" means "beautiful pass" gave it that name. He must have had a good experience!
There was not a lot of traffic passing through so we never had to contend with large ships coming round corners and taking up all the space in the channel. We didn't have overly fast currents or large wakes to deal with. We did have time to gaze at the many bridges and buildings and familiar sounding places as we went by. Once again, we had air traffic overhead - coming and going to LaGuardia Airport. We passed by Rikers Island, a major prison centre, and even saw a huge boxy looking vessel tied up to the wharf across from it. It had barbed wire running all along the top and we heard later that it was overflow housing for inmates. We passed Brothers Islands - are there Brothers Islands in every river? (We used to pass the cormorant-populated Brothers Islands in the St. Lawrence on a regular basis. And speaking of names, we've found several sets of Hens and Chickens too!)
I found it reassuring to listen to the radio conversations on Channel 13. This is the commercial channel and our book had recommended that we listen to it as we transited New York harbour. There was constant conversation from bridge to bridge on the big ships, and they were surprisingly relaxed. "Which way are ya headed cap'n? OK, I'll let you go across ahead of me." And lots of "Security, security, security, this is motor vessel...leaving pier...all vessels please stay clear." (Another aside here - there are three levels of distress or safety calls on VHF radio. Mayday is first priority and is used only for imminent danger of loss of life or vessel; PanPan is second priority - concerning safety of ship, other vessel, or person in sight or on board; Security - pronounced securitay - is a third priority safety message concerning navigation or weather, and this is the one we hear most frequently.)
The usual course for sailboats is down the west channel past Roosevelt Island, but it was closed for security reasons. The United Nations building is right along the bank on this side. We had heard Coast Guard announcements on Channel 16 and also heard many boats calling for confirmation of the closure and confirmation that the bridge over the east channel would open on call. We hung a left as we came through Hell Gate, noticing the police boats that patrolled the west channel and prevented boats from entering. It was in this east channel that we found the greatest current. We had to circle for a few minutes until the bridge opened to let four boats go through, and we were glad there wasn't any more traffic there since the current was really grabbing at the boat as it turned.
Just as we reached the end of the channel, we could see the UN building and the Chrysler Building with its ornate tower among the dozens of other skyscrapers lining the skyline. We were truly gawking this way and that as we traveled. We rounded the corner of Manhattan Island, passing by Battery Point and making our way upward into the Hudson River. The current was against us here, but it was not difficult - just slower to travel north to West 79th Street. A big orange Staten Island ferry eased out from its terminal and picked up speed as it headed across the harbour. Several different sightseeing boats crisscrossed back and forth, and barges and boats loaded with all sorts of things lumbered along. We needed both sets of eyes watching forward, sideways and backward as we moved along, and we made it safely up to the marina.
The moorings maintained by the city are just along the edge of the Hudson River, and stretch a good distance up from the little office and the docks. They are exposed to the wake of passing boats and the tidal current, but hey - they are secure moorings in NYC for $30.00 per night! Who cares about a little rocking? We choose a ball, hooked the lines over cleats on the foredeck and sat back to marvel at "Madcap" being moored in New York City! Over the next few days several more Canadian boats arrived. Many of them travel down the Hudson from Lake Ontario, and we are seeing far more red maple leaves flying from sterns.
The sitting back didn't last long because we were so eager to go exploring. I had never been to New York before so my list was long. Jim is always an avid explorer and he was ready to revisit some familiar places and discover some new ones too. I won't go into great detail about all the places we went but let me try to give you an idea of our pace by making a little list of what we saw and did in the 72 hours we were here: Times Square by day and by night, two Broadway plays, dinner and performance in a jazz club, bicycling and walking in Central Park, walking through Washington Square - where we also sat down to enjoy an outdoor jazz performance, Union Square, Greenwich Village, Soho, Little Italy and Chinatown, the financial district - including a visit to the New York Stock Exchange, Ground Zero and Trinity Church, a trip to the top of the Empire State Building, strolls through "our" upper west side neighbourhood, window gazing along Madison and 5th Avenues, trips on the subway (the Metro), a street fair near Lafayette St. We walked miles and miles and miles. We ate deli, Mexican, Greek, Italian and Columbian food. We watched people and dogs and sat on benches to rest our weary bones. And we also had time to chat with other boaters and do laundry and visit Zabars for essential food items like olives and cheese and bread. I think we slept a few hours too!
We headed immediately for Times Square where lights flashed and billboards beckoned and thousands of people crowded along the sidewalks - probably the most abrupt change we could have made from the simple boat life we had been experiencing. Once we had tickets to the Broadway play Curtains in our hands, we stopped into a coffee shop to gather our wits together. I was totally gobsmacked (a marvelous word I learned from an English friend) by the intensity and size of the place. There were thousands of people speaking hundreds of languages bustling up and down sidewalks and across streets. (Pedestrians don't wait for walk lights here - but must always be prepared for speeding cars or thread their way through horn-blaring gridlocked cars that will move forward at any minute - I figure we each got a couple of pushes out of danger from our guardian angels!)
It was a delight to sit in a beautiful old Broadway theatre to see Curtains - starring David Hyde Pierce (Miles on TV's Frasier). It was a fabulous performance - lively music, good plot, beautiful sets, impeccable comedic timing.
The time we spent in Washington and Union Squares was a delight too. Washington Square is part of the Greenwich Village and New York University scene, and it felt like a community front porch - where everyone gathered and with space for lots of different activities. There was a boisterous group of boys playing pick-up soccer, men playing chess, women pushing strollers, people reading and chatting and sunning themselves on the dozens of benches lining the paths. A fountain sprayed refreshing water, and two fenced doggie parks invited visitors with signs saying "No people without dogs and no dogs without people". Inside were benches where owners socialized while their off-leash dogs did the same. We relaxed with others in a shady corner where a jazz quartet was playing and were surprised to see the trumpeter do a couple of numbers with two trumpets at once!
In Union Square, a rapper was performing to the enthusiasm of a great crowd of supporters. The mood there was catchy too, and we remarked to each other that there seemed to be a place for everyone in this city. The multicoloured hair and clothing and bodies, the piercings and tattoos and dreadlocks, the baggy pants and chains mingled in with the appearances we are more used to and it seemed like we were all part of one big crowd.
Over on Madison Avenue, we followed the exquisitely coiffed and garbed folks along the sidewalks and enjoyed some window-shopping. On Mulberry Street we marveled at the thousands of people sitting at pasta-laden tables at three o'clock in the afternoon, while green and white and orangy-red street decorations hung overhead. On Broadway (or was it 4th?) near Lafayette, we roamed through the street full of tables and booths displaying all sorts of goods and foods for sale. We enjoyed the calling out of the hawkers and the hustle and bustle of families, and the good-natured bantering and teasing we overheard.
In Central Park, we rented bikes from one of the many persuasive entrepreneurs and had an energetic ride around the perimeter. This is a huge park and will need another visit to see more of the interior. A friendly woman gave me a map and a passerby stopped to help me fix the brake on my bike, which leads me to another observation. My image of New Yorkers had always been one of rather rude, no-time-for-you people, and I was so wrong! With only rare exceptions, we were impressed by the good humour of the people we met. As I was mailing off a Hershey's of Times Square chocolate bar to a chocoholic friend (hope it didn't melt, Donna!) the woman at the post office counter informed me that I should have brought two - one to share with her! At 10 o'clock at night at the Empire State Building, the guides still laughed and joked as they moved the last of thousands of people through the gates and elevators. Servers in restaurants took time to chat with us, and the orange-vested information folks were always helpful.
Two final items of interest were the general cleanliness of the city, and the number of young families and women with babies. In every neighbourhood, there were signs of population growth. In every neighbourhood, there were signs of pride and care. In every neighbourhood we felt safe and welcome. While we saw only a fraction of the big city of New York, we were impressed. We'll be back!