Around Manhattan in a Topo
"You know what? It would really suck to swim here!!!", Ken shouts to me. With the roaring of the waves at the south tip of Manhattan I can hardly hear his voice. We have been sitting in our Topolino kayaks for seven hours now and our fingers are like ice-cubes.
It had all started with a crackpot idea born on a sunny gravelbank of the Isar River in southern Bavaria. Around Manhattan in a kayak? In the summertime it is a long seakayak trip for experienced paddlers. According to the US magazine "Kayak Touring", the circumnavigation of Manhattan is among the best 41 trips in North America. But with a Topo and in the winter? That’s a novelty. With the gigantic size of this city of superlatives, one is hardly aware that Manhattan is an island, surrounded by the Hudson, East and Harlem Rivers. And what better way is there to experience an island than from the water? Jan Kellner from "Eskimo Kayaks" is enthusiastic about the idea and provides me not only with the equipment, but also with the telephone number of Ken Hill, a member of the Eskimo Pro-Team USA. Ken also likes the idea and says that he knows a whole group of Topo-paddlers who would participate. On New Year’s Day we want to take advantage of the convenient tides.It’s New Year’s Eve. For hours I have been trying to reach Ken, to confirm the exact time and place for tomorrow’s trip. Shortly before midnight I finally have him on the line. In the background I can hear people bawling. There is a party going on. Ken tells me that he is having a few beers. "Everything okay with tomorrow? 6:30 Am under the Manhattan Bridge?", I ask a little doubtfully. "Everything’s okay, I’m gonna be there." "What about the other paddlers?" "They chickened out. They say that only lunatics would try to paddle around Manhattan in this cold." "And what about you?" "I am a lunatic..."
New Year, 6:00 Am. I am driving along Canal Street through the dark China Town with the Topo on the roof. Will Ken be there? As I drive over the Manhattan Bridge I can see the East River twinkling in the light of the full moon. I shiver at the sight.
Under the bridge there is a dark van with a Topo on top. Ken is already there. His face reveals that there had been more than a few beers. In the biting cold we slip into our drysuits. Because we will only have eight hours of daylight, we have to start while it is still dark.
By the first light of dawn we are already floating past the impressive skyline. It is bitter cold but calm and it looks like it is going to be a sunny day. After a few paddle strokes we can already see the UN-building on the lefthand side ahead of us. "This is going to be a piece of cake.", I say to Ken. "Yo!", his answer comes back.
When we pass the Hell Gate after about 2 hours and turn left into the Harlem River, there is a light breeze coming up. We have a short breakfast break on a deserted mudbank in the ill-famed South Bronx but the cold urges us back into our kayaks after a few minutes. An hour later the wind is growing stronger and stronger. When we finally reach the Hudson and turn south, things are getting serious. Behind our backs we can see a blizzard drawing near like a black wall. "This is gonna get us on our ass", Ken says prosaically. We decide to paddle on. After all, it can be more dangerous to walk through certain areas of Manhattan.
During the following hours the storm has a tight grip on us. Breakers and crosswaves tear at our nutshells with every paddlestroke. The cold creeps into our rubber gloves. Later on the evening news we would learn that the windchill temperature was –4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 Celcius). The ferry traffic on the Hudson had to be shut down because of the bad weather. Nevertheless, we enjoy the views of the two big Downtown business districts. From the shore we can hear some passers-by cheering: "That‘s the spirit!" While passing the "Battery" at the south tip of Manhattan, Ken is almost capsized by a mean wave. Neither of us wants to imagine swimming under these conditions.
When we reach the East River after more than seven hours, the weather is getting calmer. Ahead of us we can see the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. It is now that we realize: we made it! Ken shouts some hollers that could easily pass for Bavarian yodels. While pulling our boats ashore we have only four things in mind (in order of merit): toilet, drink, eat, sleep. After settling the first of the four we share a bottle of Heineken in the warm car, watching the sunset over the East River. We both agree that this was the best New Year’s Day we have ever experienced.