This story is a guest post from Kingston resident and museum member and volunteer Nelsie Aybar-Grau of The Rondout Rower. We’re excited to share Nelsie’s experience!
My Row Around Manhattan, September 11, 2021
By Nelsie Aybar-Grau
This is a story about rowing around Manhattan in a traditional boat, the Whitehall, a boat style believed to have been a progressive development of the London Thames River wherries of the 1700’s. In the early nineteenth century, Whitehall rowboats were the choice of crimps (who would entrap men to work in shipping), boarding house runners (men who persuade sailors to leave a ship for better jobs that never materialize), and of anyone who required reliable and speedy transportation from one part of the harbor to another – pilots, ship’s crews, brokers, ship chandlers, newspaper reporters, insurance agents, doctors, police and many others.
I have been rowing for 12 years, give or take. I row the Rondout Creek and Hudson River from Kingston, New York. I learned to row crew boats (the long, skinny, carbon fiber boats) with the Rondout Rowing Club. I was the president of the club for four years (2014 - 2017). But the longest row I had ever done was around 10-12 miles. The club would do an annual excursion from Kingston to Norrie Point, south of the Esopus Lighthouse and back. There we would meet up with rowers from the Mid-Hudson Rowing Association of Poughkeepsie. It was an unusual row because crew boats are normally meant for racing ---not long expeditions on the Hudson River. We went in 8+ boats (eight rowers, each pulling one oar, and a coxswain) and quads (four rowers, each pulling two oars, one in each hand---known as “sculling”). Of course, weather played a part because you would not generally attempt this Hudson River excursion in bad weather (wind, rain, etc.).
Because the Hudson can be a fickle place to be in a single boat I later bought very stable sculling boats with outriggers so that I would not need to worry about tipping over. I was able to easily row solo from Kingston Rondout to the Esopus Lighthouse and back.
A few years ago the Hudson River Maritime Museum asked me to teach rowing to teens who were participating in the museum’s YouthBoat Project. While learning woodworking they were given the opportunity to row a Whitehall in the Rondout Creek. Most had never been on the water, some did not know how to swim. But within minutes many got the hang of rowing and because, as cox I could compensate for those unable to keep up, we still managed to navigate the creek reasonably well. That is when I realized that the Whitehall is probably the best boat to use to teach anyone how to row. It is perfect for beginners and pros alike.
Researching the origin of the HRMM Whitehall [named the John Magnus] lead me on a circuitous path to the Village Community Boathouse, the VCB. As part of the Hudson River Park Trust the VCB’s mission is to promote, encourage, and expand public access to the Hudson River and to promote natural, cultural and historic aspects of the river. AND in order to fulfill that mission all of the programs are free of charge and are offered on a walk-in basis.
When I found out that the VCB had an annual fundraising event, Row Around Manhattan, or RAM, and that event was to take place in August, I really wanted to participate. Everyone I told this said to me “you must be out of your mind!” Hudson Valley river people tend to remember the many spooky Halloween legends, such as the story of Rambout Van Dam who disappeared rowing near Spuyten Duyvil on the Harlem River which we would have to navigate on this trip. Then, of course, everyone would point out the dangers of Hell Gate in that same area, famous for its choppy waters, giant whirlpools and hidden underwater reefs, where back in the day as many as 1,000 boats ran aground every year. Just looking at the US Army Corps of Engineers diagram of the area would send a shiver down your spine. And the heavy vessel traffic in the area, and on, and on, and on.
I needed to convince someone else to join me on this crazy adventure, but who? Who else but the person who got me into rowing 12 years ago! I called my friend Linda Seekamp and asked if she wanted to join me, fully expecting her to say “no way”! Instead she said “sure”! I was happy as a clam!
The row date would be August 22nd so we spent most of our time texting each other back and forth wondering if we weren’t both making a serious mistake. Most of the arguments revolved around, “we’ve never done this before”, “we usually get pretty tired after a 5 mile row let alone a 30 mile row” and the worse one “we’re too old”. But we both wanted to do this crazy thing so bad that we kept countering with: “what the heck, no one is going to let us die” or “they know our age and experience, if they thought we couldn’t do it, they would say something, right?” So, we registered, made the required donation (this is a fund-raiser, after all), and started planning.
The first thing we came up against was that we were expected to be on the docks at 5:30am. Living in Kingston that meant we would have to get up no later than 3:00 am to drive two hours, park and get to the dock. Not impossible but you wouldn’t want to jump in a boat and row for 10 hours after that.
Yeah, 10 hours was the predicted time it would take to do the circumnavigation. But we would be making two pit stops. This was also unnerving. Only two stops?! We would have to row around 10 miles before each break. Would we have the stamina to do that? Would our bladders explode? We were worried that if conditions were bad it would take longer than expected and that in the end we might be arriving in a thick fog in the deep dark of the night. The Rambout Van Dam vision creeped in again. Not to worry, the New York City lights would guide us….. We knew too many Halloween fog stories that ended in death. Hudson Valley River people don’t tend to trust the River at night.
The prediction was that the first tranche of the trip from Pier 40 (in the West Village area of New York) to Hallet’s Cove Beach in Astoria, Queens would take no more than two hours! Ten miles in two hours?! Is that really possible? I usually row solo, so maybe four rowers could be much faster. Ok, I studied the tides and currents and concluded that the currents would help us during the entire circumnavigation. But it’s not just tides and currents that determine speed on a waterway. The wind must be in your favor as well. So many scenarios would wind through our minds at night. Nothing in our previous rowing experience could compare to this. We just had to trust our hosts experience and knowledge. And the Whitehalls.
I looked for a cheap hotel in lower Manhattan. Ha! There is no such thing. But then I noticed The Jane. A mere 15 minute walk from Pier 40 and only $109 a night. What’s the catch? None actually. Built in 1908 as a hotel for sailors with cabin-like rooms, it is noted “to house guests with more dash than cash”. The rock bottom rooms were the size of a large walk-in closet with bunk beds and no bathrooms---you have a shared bathroom down the hall. OK, for one night we agreed we could do this. We booked a room and will never forget the moment we opened the door and broke out laughing at how small it was! The sheets were crisp, the pillows fluffy, and an air conditioner drowned out the city noise. Perfect for the night before rowing around Manhattan!
Then Tropical Storm Henri interfered with our plans. At the last moment VCB canceled and rescheduled for September 11th! Yikes! Now everyone we knew said that was even worse! “It will be too dangerous, it’s the 20th anniversary of 9/11!” or “The traffic will be horrendous!” After little thought our response again was “what the heck!” Let’s do this! We really believed, “it’s now or never”. And we were not going to let anything stop us. We felt there was no turning back. Hopefully there would not be another storm following Henri. We certainly didn’t want the row to be any harder than it already seemed in our minds. The nail biting and sleepless nights continued.
A few days before the event VCB sent an email to change the 5:30 am departure to a 9:00am departure because of some logistics about 9/11, or something like that. We were elated that we would have more time to sleep but again concerned to be rowing after nightfall. Then the immediate day before they changed the departure again. This time to 8:00 am, citing a need to be past the downtown heliport early. Was President Biden going to be flown into that heliport? Would our journey be canceled for security reasons? Many years ago when I worked in a building near that heliport I recall when President Clinton would come into the city, he would be flown to that heliport and the harbor would be abuzz in police boats. More nail biting!
They asked that we arrive at 7:00 am so that we could help in lowering the boats from the boathouse into the water. We would be a flotilla of 32 people in six Whitehalls and each Whitehall had to be rolled to the edge of the dock and lowered into the water with the club’s davit. But, when we arrived they had already lowered four boats in the water. Everyone was super excited to get started on this journey as soon as possible.
It was a bright and sunny day, just as it was 20 years ago on 9/11.
Marcel Dejean, Board Member-at-Large and VCB trip leader, assembled the coxswains and reminded them to meet at Pier A, by Battery Park, so that we could cross to the Brooklyn side together.
He also pointed out the details of the VCB itinerary map we were all given.
After getting our marching orders we all piled into our assigned boats (Linda and I were assigned to the Pete Seeger) and in minutes we were on our way down to lower Manhattan.
Soon we were in sight of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in the distance. This allowed me to snap a few pictures and send a GPS signal to friends and family so that they knew where we were along the way. This google map shows why it was critical to get to the other side and make our way up the East River as soon as possible. Notice the number of ferries traveling in that area.
Once in the East River I noticed the current moving very fast northward towards Hallet’s Cove, in Astoria Queens, our first pitstop. Rowing at the bow I noticed that oars were not in sync most of the time. It was hard to row as fast as the current was pushing us. The current could have been moving well above 5 knots! I was glad we were not rowing against this current. Visually there was so much to take in! How to keep your mind focused on rowing when everything around you was new. It was such a beautiful day. I kept wishing I could have taken more pictures but I also wanted to row all of the way around the island, if possible. When asked if I wanted a break I always declined.
I noticed that the other two young gentlemen in our boat (Vivek and Francis) were wearing gloves to row. Usually newbies do that. After rowing for 12 years I have so many calluses that I don’t even think about how a 30-mile trip might affect my hands. So I asked how long they had been rowing, expecting to hear 3, 4 or 5 years. But they had only rowed 3 to 5 times! Now I understood why we were not in sync most of the time. Then again, Linda and I were new to gig rowing as well (rowing in traditional boats like the Whitehall). I hoped that their youth and strength would make each of their good strokes equal to 2 or 3 of ours. Truth be told, we were all newbies!
Around 10:00 am we were pulling into Hallet’s Cove.
We were told to make sure our boats were up as far as possible on the beach as the tide was still rising and we could lose a boat with the waves rolling in and out. We were told we could only park on the extreme north or extreme south ends of the beach. Since, of course, we were the last to arrive we pulled into the south beach section which was quite ample. I took the bow line and tied it to a big tree there. We would have a long wait until our departure at around 12:30 pm. That would be the most favorable time for us to get through Hell Gate. There is a café just across the street called Château le Woof where we could get coffee and use the restroom. Also Costco Food Court and Takeout was just a little further south and several people went there because they had memberships. How convenient! We had no idea! Our coxswain went there and returned with a tray of sandwiches which he shared with us.
Vivek and Francis brought pastry treats. We never expected to be treated so well! Of course, we had to try everything, and I must confess I was disappointed the next day when I discovered I had gained 4 pounds. Drat! I was hoping I would have dropped as much. Oh well!
We enjoyed long conversations about where we were on 9/11 twenty years ago until it was time to resume our row. At around 12:30 pm we piled into our boats and began rowing towards the Harlem River and the choppy waters of Hell Gate. As soon as we got there the ride became a roller coaster. The coxswain yelled “row, row hard” and we obliged. It did not last very long and soon we were cruising on the northbound current again. Then a mob of guys in sea-doos showed up and whipped around us like flies! They seemed to want to impress us with their noisy motors and speed antics. We just plodded along quietly in our steady Whitehalls and paid no mind. Michael Anton, our cox, constantly distracted us with the counting of the bridges we went under. Did you know there are 21 bridges that cross into Manhattan?! The majority of them are over the Harlem River.
The current moved us along steadily on the Harlem. Then north and west towards the Hudson again. We passed an endless array of industrial lots on either side of the river. Soon we came upon the famous “C” that is painted on the east side of the river. The Columbia University crew boathouse is in this area. Too bad there were no crew boats on the water this Sunday.
Marcel had reminded us to take down our flags (every one of our boats had flags mounted on the bow) when we got to the Spuyten Duyvil because going under the bridge we could lose a flag. But when we arrived, thankfully, the bridge was open and we could easily row from the Harlem into the Hudson.
Once on the Hudson again the water became very choppy. We realized that from here on in the ride would be difficult because most of the time there is a very vigorous wind blowing north on the Hudson. Though the current was in our favor, the wind was decidedly not so obliging. We were about a half hour away from our next pitstop, the Dyckman Street Marina. Of course, the others arrived there first and we could see that they were having trouble. The beach is tiny and squeezing six Whitehalls into that space was looking dicey. The waves were pounding us and navigation of the boulders that surrounded the beach made us very nervous. Keeping the boats from crashing into each other was also a problem. But somehow Marcel and Andrew got all the boats up on the beach. One of the boats had to be tied to the marina docks in front of the beach.
After a brief visit to the nearby restrooms we began to pile into our boat. We would be first since we are slowest boat. It was after 4:00pm and we were expected to row south for three more hours and cover approximately 11 miles. Fortunately the west side of Manhattan is the most interesting side of the island. There are many parks and people and historic sites, etc.
Even though we had left Dyckman Marina first and had a reasonable head start we were easily overtaken by all the other boats before getting to the George Washington Bridge.
The crew in the Safety Boat wanted to pull us for a while but our coxswain resisted. The waves were truly ferocious but the Whitehall never made us feel like we were in any danger. It was just a hard three-hour long slog against the constant battery of waves that the coxswain could not overcome. I had wanted to row the entire 30 miles but our coxswain persuaded me to take a break. I was glad to be able to take a few pictures and enjoy the scenery as we struggled to keep the boat on track.
There are many parks and people and historic sites, etc. on the west coast of Manhattan. The first being the George Washington Bridge and the Little Red Lighthouse which warned boats about the treacherous rocks in the area known as Jeffrey’s Hook until the bridge was built. You can see the little lighthouse under the bridge in the previous picture.
We continued rowing as hard as we could for an hour or so then reluctantly welcomed a little help. We tossed a line to the Safety Launch and let them pull us. I was very nervous being pulled but anxious to keep up with the others. Since I learned to row with skinny crew boats I knew that the main way you prevented yourself from falling over into the water was by having your oars out perpendicular to the hull. It is the only way to keep balance in those rowing boats. So I did not want to pull up our oars and let another boat drag us through those treacherous waves. Thankfully we were only pulled for a mile or so and I was really glad to go back to pulling the oars through the water even though I was tired and looking forward to getting back to the boathouse.
Once in the embayment south of the Pier 40 docks we waited while each of the boats were slowly hoisted up to the boathouse with the club’s davit. We had made it in ten hours after all. The sun had set. It was getting dark but the city lights provided enough light to see what was happening around us. Finally we were hoisted up and began washing and wiping down the boats before pushing them into the boathouse for their next journey on the Hudson.
As we wiped down the boats we stared at the light shining up to heaven in memory of all those who perished on 9/11. May we never forget this day 20 years ago nor hence.
Much to our surprise (Linda and I) the club volunteers had prepared a banquet for the crew in the boathouse! And I thought we would have to find some place to get a quick bite before making our two-hour plus drive home. The food was excellent and we could not have been happier. This truly was a row worth the effort. So glad to be a part of this fundraiser. The amount of work that went into this event was more than anyone could expect. We can’t thank the Village Community Boathouse board and volunteers enough for creating this splendid event.
THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
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