Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
A group of racers paddles out of North Cove in the Mayor’s Cup, which had staggered starts.
Racing kayakers go through Hell Gate and high water
By Kaija Helmetag
On Oct. 8 at North Cove Marina in Lower Manhattan, elite kayakers began the first of what they hope will be the water sport equivalent of the New York City Marathon.
“This is a world-class event in a world-class city,” said Ray Rusco, who helped organize the event. “We’d like this to be as big as the New York City Marathon.”
The 42 paddlers were competing in the first annual Mayor’s Cup, a 26.7-mile race circumventing Manhattan in single and double kayaks and Hawaiian-style outrigger paddleboats. The race, part of Water Fest, was organized by the New York City Sports Commission and the environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper to raise awareness about Hudson River water quality and to promote outdoor water recreation in New York City.
“There really is no race like this in North America,” said Alex Matthiessen, president of Riverkeeper. “It allows New Yorkers to come together to celebrate New York’s water. The whole idea is to have kayaking accessible to people in New York City.”
Racers in the Mayor’s Cup included two-time Olympic kayak gold medalist Greg Barton, who won the elite open-class division and set a new world record by finishing the marathon-length race in 3 hours, 21 minutes and 28 seconds. Veteran paddler Joe Glickman finished second in 3 hours, 27 minutes and 41 seconds, while Andrew Folpe and Mark Webber took third place, paddling a Mako Millennium Double Surfski in 3 hours, 35 minutes and 42 seconds.
“It’s going to be a tough record to break,” said competitor Eric Stiller, 47, who owns Manhattan Kayak Company and finished the race in just over 4 hours.
The competition was planned to capitalize on the river’s tides and natural currents, and it’s no mistake that organizers chose last Sunday to take advantage of the strong tidal pulls associated with perigee, the day when the moon is closest to the earth and creates strong tides and currents, giving the paddlers a natural advantage.
Even so, racers faced choppy water conditions, unpredictable waves and strong currents as they paddled their way north up the Hudson, around the upper tip of Manhattan and through the treacherous waters of Hell Gate, where the Harlem River, Long Island Sound and East River converge to create powerful currents and waves that bucked and tossed the long, narrow boats. Past Hell Gate, the racers continued south down the East River, fighting against the southbound current of the Hudson to the calm water of the marina and the finish line.
“Conditions were wild,” said Cary Bond, 41, who grew up in Manhattan and has been kayaking for six years. Choppy waves and river currents added to the challenging nature of the long-distance racecourse, he said.
“You’re mentally focused for so long. There’s a lot of technique in kayaking, so that’s why it takes focus,” he said. “I’m tired.”
“It was intense,” said Bryon Dorr, 27, who traveled from Baltimore to compete. Dorr’s boat flipped at Hell Gate but he was able to right himself before falling out of his boat. His near disaster at the head of the East River shook his nerves, nonetheless.
“I had a lot of water in my boat after that,” he said. “I was by myself there were no other racers or rescue boats. There’s no option to get out of your boat. There were just cement walls.”
Event organizers considered the mental and physical challenges of the race seriously. Only experienced paddlers were allowed to compete, and rescue boats monitored the paddlers as they circled Manhattan.
Out on the water, views of the Statue of Liberty, Midtown Manhattan and New York’s iconic bridges were striking. Event organizers hope to capitalize on the uniqueness of the racecourse for future Mayor’s Cup races and to dispel the perception that the waterways of New York are too polluted for recreational activities.
“[People] are so awestruck by getting in a kayak and seeing the sights of New York,” Stiller said. “You’ll get a guide from Alaska, who takes people to the Hubbard Glacier and sees eagles every day who says [of the Hudson River], ‘This is the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen!’… This is in fact a very vibrant, vital body of water that’s on its way home to being good, really good.”