New York City, NY – June 12, 2013
The water’s calm, quiet. I leave camp early as the sun rises. I want to steal miles from the wind, but it’s waiting for me, blowing in my face as soon as I hit open water.
I slip close to Sandy Hook and work the shallows just outside the breaking waves. The water feels like cement. I barely move. I wonder if the current is against me or if it’s just the wind.
Paddle anyway, I tell myself.
Waves crash on the deck as I reach the point. The water smells rotten and used. I press forward. I feel like I’m moving because the water flows past the hull, but the land tells the truth. It moves back in inches.
Ferries race between New Jersey and New York. They seem to fly, gliding over the waves faster than any ship I’ve seen. I hang off the point watching them, trying to understand their patterns, the routes, where I need to cross channels, where they will run me over. It feels a bit like a video game where I only have one life. Everything is hard to place in the open bay. I wish there were more buoys to mark the channels, to hide next to, to pick my way across with. The ferries move so fast and I can barely hold my ground against the current and wind.
No mistakes, I think. I get no mistakes. Adrenaline rushes through me as I glide up waves eight feet tall. They’re sharp and choppy, stacked high, close to breaking. They aren’t big rollers from the sea. They’re all blown from the north wind across ten miles of bay. I feel ill. I tell myself the waves will shrink and they will, I know they will, but when, how far out in that bay before I find the shadow of the far shore? How slow will I be crossing those channels? How will any boat see me in all the chaos.
A ferry passes, heading for New York, and I go, fighting up huge faces and crashing over the top. The hull pops like a hollow drum when it slams down. I disappear in the troughs. Water surges over the deck, bursts against my chest. I throw my paddle forward. Wind presses against the upper blade with each stroke. I rise and fall again and again. Every inch is precious.
A buoy a hundred yards off shore lets me rest under its protection. No ship will hit it and if I stay close, no ship will hit me. The bell inside clangs back and forth, ringing like a madman pulling ropes in a steeple. I float next to it, bracing and pulling the boat over waves, paddling in place, watching a ferry fly past. I mark its route and go.
Waves rush over me. Peaking and crashing. Chaotic and choppy. My eyes flick from them to the horizon and back again and again. I watch for ferries and the foam of breaking waves. I paddle like mad, cast out in the open, pressing through the no man’s land between buoys on will and adrenaline and muscle built over thousands of miles, glad that I never get tired anymore.
Foam churned up by the ferry’s props washes under me. I stare at the streak of white disappearing into the distance like I’m staring down a long road. They’re coming for you, I think. They’re coming. I look and see nothing but waves and a giant freighter on the horizon, slow and disappearing in the distance. I feel like a rabbit in a forest of wolves, my heart popping in my chest, and paddle hard, pushing for the next buoy, pushing because I know the ferry will be back.
The lower bay comes in inches, always inches, this whole day is inches. I kill the waves with each one, draining their height away in the shadow of Staten Island. It takes five hours.
The Verrazano Bridge looms over me, tall enough for the biggest ships to slip under. Manhattan rises in the distance. I watch eddies swirl behind the bridge’s pylons and know the tide has joined the wind and turned against me.
But I can paddle forever, I think. It’s the sun I worry about. I have to reach the city by dark.
I look for a seam in the current along the shore, find nothing, push across the channel to Brooklyn, crash over waves, and slip a few feet off the seawall. The current slacks a bit in the rocks, but the wind still drags me back and waves lift me up and down. I claw at the water and inch forward. Walkers and joggers stop and look. People point and take pictures. A little girl waves with her sister. I can barely lift my hand off the paddle to wave back. Stopping means slipping sideways and slamming into the rocks, but the current and wind are too strong anywhere but tight against the shore and I don’t need to stop.
I stare at the people and imagine flipping, drowning twenty feet from a crowd. Hours pass. I slide under a pier and into the old industrial area of Brooklyn, holding tight against its rusted docks.
Dozens of boats crisscross New York Harbor. Tugs, ferries, freighters, sailboats, and cruisers. The Statue of Liberty stands above them holding her torch in the sky. Manhattan rises tall, fighting upward, new World Trade Center above it all with a crane perched on its back. The spire is up and the last pieces are almost in place.
Manhattan feels so close, but the current and wind keep pushing and pushing and I barely move. I feel the day in my arms, ten hours of paddling straight into the wind. Ten hours of adrenaline and fear. I haven’t felt tired in months. Not really. Not like this. My muscles feel hollow.
I pass Red Hook and fight over to Governor’s Island, a piece of land hanging in the East River across from the tip of Manhattan. Brooklyn Bridge stands like a postcard above the water. Buildings rise all around and Manhattan gleams with glass and steel. I know if I can make it there, this will all be over, that I can slip up to the wall along the shore, that there will be no more channels to cross, no more ferries flying around me, that I’ll be safe.
I stare at Manhattan. It’s so close. I’ve never wanted three-thousand feet more in my life. Just a quick burst on a calm day. Nothing I’d think about. But that three-thousand feet is different.
The wind, the tide, the Hudson’s current all rage through the gap. Water taxis and ferries to Port Liberte, Staten Island, Liberty Harbor, Paulus Hook, Hoboken, and Port Imperial fly in and out. Tour boats motor across the tip loaded with cameras and tourists. Everything pours through that last three-thousand feet like water in funnel.
And its rush hour.
I hold steady and choke down my fear. I check the ferries crisscrossing the harbor, look out at a buoy half way between me and Manhattan and wait for a lull in traffic. Ferries fly past. A tour boat slips around from the East River. People hang on the rails with cameras pointed in every direction. One of the giant, orange Staten Island ferries groans out of the terminal and heads away. For a moment, everything looks clear.
Go, I say. Go now. I throw myself into the paddle.
The paddle and the water fight to a standstill and I don’t move for a moment. Waves slice over the deck. Spray shoots in the air. Then the hull inches forward, inches away from Governor’s Island, inches into the heart of New York’s harbor, inches into that three-thousand feet between me and Manhattan.
For a moment, everything moves away from me. Every boat fades in the distance, the water clears and I feel alone in a city of eight million people.
I dig the paddle down and spin my head looking for boats, watching for movement as they disappear in the waves and blend into the backdrop of the city. I barely see the water, I don’t even look, I leave it to instinct, throw my balance on autopilot. All I think about are the boats, checking each one, projecting them out in my head, trying to catch them far enough away that I’ll have time to escape, to do something.
Faster, faster, faster, I scream at myself. I pour strength into each stroke. The boat feels anchored in the current, slicing through the waves, but not moving, just hanging in the mouth of the funnel as I throw everything I have against it.
I squeeze the paddle and claw at the water, desperate, mad, raging against the current, the wind, the tide, the growing orange blur of a Staten Island ferry. Raging, raging, and fighting forward.
Inches. I move inches and the ferry grows.
I swear at my arms, at my stomach and back, I swear and order them to move faster, to work harder, but eleven hours have reduced them to adrenaline-stained pulp. I don’t hurt. It don’t scream in pain. I just have nothing left.
My mind numbs out and I fight for that buoy, for that sanctuary halfway to Manhattan. I’m wild and frightened. My heart wants to burst. The world shrinks to the Staten Island ferry and that hunk of floating metal until I slip next to it and slump down over the boat, barely able to hold the paddle.
I hang there, safe in the buoy’s tiny halo as the giant ferry rumbles past. I see it struggling in the current. Its engines roar and kick up foam. It leaves the water swirling and punched with wake. I want to rest, I need to rest, but I think of how long it will take to turn the ferry into the terminal, how long it will block off the East River, how long it will guard my right flank.
I look at Manhattan, I look at the end, and I want it to be over one way or another. I lift the paddle on hollow arms, take a breath, and go.
The ferry slows and turns toward the dock. I’m so close, I think. I’m so close. The paddle flies in mu hands. Give me just a minute, I beg, just a minute more.
The engines rumble and foam bursts out. Movement catches my eye in every direction. Boats appear out of nothing, moving, racing in a hundred directions at once. The ferry pulls toward the dock. The East River opens behind it. Manhattan is right in front of me, so close.
Damn the current, I think. Damn the wind. Damn the tide.
I see a boat charging in my direction. I stare at it coming right to me. Paddle, I yell. Paddle or you will die.
But my arms wilt. My back and stomach collapse. I have no strength left. Nothing. Nothing left go give. I’m going to die. I’m going to die a hundred yards from Manhattan.
The boat turns. It runs past me and stops. A blue light flashes above the bridge and I read “NYPD” in white letters along the hull. I stare at it for a moment, dizzy, exhausted, not believing, then I know I’m safe. I know no one will touch me for the last hundred yards. I know I made it.
Welcome to New York.