Circumnavigation of Staten Island, September 30-October 1, 2006

Back to Main

Frank, Soline, Sally, and i left Pier 40 in the Kelvin Bowens at 8:45 on Saturday, about an hour after low water. We carried a sailing rig, a tent, a flask of coffee and a 15-pound watermelon. it was calm, crisp and clear--a perfect fall day. I called the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service to let them know we were coming, they asked us to monitor channel 13, and that was the extent of our interaction with the authorities.

It took us about an hour to get to the entrance of the Kill van Kull, where the flood had already begun. We zipped along the south side of the channel there, noting possible landing sites on the Staten Island shore: a dock at Snug Harbor and a number of good beaches. We reached the Bayonne Bridge in a little less than two hours and a few minutes later threaded our way between rows of pilings to land on the east side of Shooters Island. The interior of the island seems mostly inpenetrable, at least at this time of year--lots of poison ivy--but the beachcombing was good. There are better landing sites than the one we chose: sandy beaches on the south side channel facing Staten Island, and a perfect man-made cove on the north side.

At about 12:30, we started down the Arthur Kill--in retrospect about two hours too early. A pretty good southeast breeze had sprung up, and without the tide under us it was tough going. We counted the strokes it took to get past a big ship loading at Howland Hook, the Staten Island container port: 120, ugh! At the Goethals Bridge a little surveillance camera mounted on a tower swiveled to track us. We stopped for lunch at a landing on the north side of Pralls Island, but the sky had covered over so we held off on chopping up the watermelon. Poking around across a little bridge behind the beach, we found dozens of unpotted but never planted birch saplings lying in the woods--maybe a native reforestation project that never got completed?

Nearing the south end of Pralls after lunch, we got hit by a drenching rain squall. The wind stayed southeast and firm, and it was a bit of a grind getting past the old landfill at Fresh Kills. At any rate we had plenty of time to ponder the huge fences and elaborate floating barriers there--why spend so much to keep people out? Just south was the Ships' Graveyard, situated nicely (for us) in a bend that offered welcome protection from the wind. At 4:45 we reached the Outerbridge Crossing and by five we were tied up at Tottenville Marina.

Our plan, such as it was, was to dash up to Main Street and find some food, then shove off before it got too dark and camp somewhere on the beach near the southern tip of the island, then hope not to get either wet (big rains were forecast) or rousted (camping isn't legal anywhere on Staten Island). Instead, an amiable retired guy with a cocktail in his hand intercepted us on the dock. His name was Ray, his 35-foot powerboat (the 'Last Dollar') was in a slip nearby, and after another few drinks he offered to let us use it as a 'campsite.' There really wasn't any good reason to say no, so after dinner at a nearby pizza joint we crashed--Frank and I up on the flying bridge, the women in the main salon, and Ray, our host, down in v-berth in the bow.

The next morning it was raining hard and a stiff breeze was blowing out of the east, not the most propitious conditions for rowing northeast along the outside of Staten Island. But Ray emerged from his grotto to say that the wind would be coming southwest, so at 8:20 we launched. Despite the rain it was a very pleasant row down to Ward Point, the southern tip of Staten Island, which we reached in half an hour. The beach there is nice and wild and the woods behind them seem deep--plenty of good commando camping opportunities for next time. Once around the point, with the wind on our stern now, we threw up the sail. Conditions were perfect--ten to 15 out of the southwest, a nice following sea. For the next two hours we sped along the eastern shore of Staten Island, flicking past Lemon Creek and Great Kills and occasionally even getting old Kelvin up on a little plane. Huge dark clouds massed to the north over the Verazzano and one last band of rain crossed over us, but to the southwest the horizon started to brighten, and by the time we reached Swinburne Island the sun was back out again.

We circled Swinburne--no seals present--and then a little before noon landed on Hoffman Island, cross-tying between two pilings and climbing up the seawall from a little gravel beach. it was a full-on autumn garden up there, hordes of monarch butterflies flitting around feasting on goldenrod, morning glories blooming and pokeweed berries ripening and milkweed seedpods bursting, everything sweet smelling. And then that amazing view, Manhattan framed by the Verazzano. We had lunch and laid out our wet gear to dry, and walked around the seawall ducking off on little trails into the woods here and there. There's a beautiful locust grove on the east end of the island, its effect marred a bit by lots of pink surveyor's tape--maybe to mark trees with nests in them?

With the flood now underway we left Hoffman, sailing at first and then rowing as we approached the Narrows and the wind came around on our nose. All along the way we were accompanied by monarchs who apparently mistook us for an island. We had a long curving pull up the west side of the channel, passing three big oil tankers on anchor and then popping across the Staten Island Ferry lane to Robins Reef, where we set the sail again. Coasting home on a fair tide, the towers of lower manhattan rising up to starboard--what could be finer? We made pier 40 at ten minutes to four, our watermelon intact.

--Rob Buchanan

One note on the islands we landed on: like many of the small islands in the harbor, they're administered by the New York City Parks Department and technically considered a 'restricted zone' due to the presence of nesting herons and other birds. I love these places and want to be able to go to them, and also feel that by using human (or wind) power to get there we pretty much self-limit in terms of numbers. (Also, by this time of year nesting activity is finished). But I'm also aware that pictures and write-ups like these may encourage other people to go at other times, and not all of them may tread lightly. What should boaters do? Get involved with habitat and beach restoration projects and get to know and find common cause with the parks people and naturalists who run them--but also, I think, continue to push for 'respectful access.' Islands make great nesting grounds, but they're also fantastic recreational resources and a big key to understanding the harbor as the great commons that it is. Once people get that in their heads, i believe everything else--including more bird habitat--will follow.
Click to see slide show
Back to Main