Small Boat, Big City: Kayaking New York Harbor


Fusco is worried that the Hudson’s mighty tides may turn against us if we don’t push on. That would mean not making it to the Statue, so we stash our snacks and grab paddles again. We reach Ellis Island, but I’m distracted by blobs of sunscreen that are melting off my forehead and blurring my eyes. And here are the “Restricted Area” buoys we were promised, keeping us back, with an insignia that reminds me of the 1960s Civil Defense signs that used to point out bomb shelters in Cold War New York.

We are coming close now. I am eager, and my strokes are getting splashier and even less efficient as my forearms tire. I can hear Bill grunting, paddling harder to make up for this, and then, out of the blue, all of our kayaks pull up short.

There is the pointed crown, suddenly clear of smog. And Liberty’s torch reaching and stretching higher than I had ever remembered.

We are low, and the sea-green statue is glowing with sun, staring down and beyond our knot of boats, clutching its tablet, thinking quiet copper thoughts.

And we say nothing.

This is not the Liberty we all knew from ferries and from spiraling up the staircase inside. It is as if we’d discovered her ourselves, finding an artistic shape in some wild and remarkable place. In the middle of a field. Or sticking out of a large tract of sand.

There are companies that offer guided kayaking around New York.
Kayaking around the Statue of Liberty lets visitors get a unique view. Photo by Flickr/Charles Smith

It is time for congratulations. We try to arrange the kayaks to allow everyone to shake hands. I chug down a Ginger Ale I’ve been saving in my spray skirt, and one of the guides, Theresa, yanks out her bilge pump and fires off a couple of festive rounds. For a second, with these salvos of water, it feels like a holiday.

The flame of Liberty’s torch is gold leaf, and as we paddle around to the south and then the west side of the island, it is a bright and perfect focus of our arc. At one point Bill and I are in-between buoys and forget about the restricted zone until Fusco yells. We have not gone far into it, but Fusco is frantically pointing at the Coast Guard cutter Bainbridge Island which is anchored nearby.

We hear Fusco’s command “Paddle back–hard!” and as we struggle and tug our blades, we can just make out white-uniformed officers and a mounted machine gun on the cutter deck. A U.S. Park Police boat comes screaming out of the haze on our port side, and for a second we are sure it’s coming for us.

But Adam and John are pointing back at Liberty Island and something near the shore. It’s a motorboat that’s whizzed way past the buoys and gone all the way in there. The Park Police take only seconds to get to it, and as we paddle away, we keep turning back to see what the cops will do. “Yep, they’re being arrested,” reports Fusco, who has sharp eyes. “And now they’re towing the boat.”

Bill and I feel lucky not to be a part of this, and we are paddling harder and harder, churning north, leaving the statue and the buoys behind. A breeze kicks up to escort us up past Ellis and along the Jersey coast, and like a wand, it changes the Hudson into fat and lazy swells.

No one is talking much, because the water is making us work. And because the skyline is clear now, catching the first red edge of evening and spreading it out from sharp piers to ships along the shore. Finally, as we move across the Hudson, it tints our tiny kayaks in alien colors not yet named by man.

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