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The Hell Gate

Chapter 7 from "At Sea in the City: New York from the Water's Edge" by William Kornblum

At Sea in the City: New York from the Waters Edge

Resignedly beneath the sky
    the melancholy waters lie.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in air,
While from a proud tower in the town
    death looks gigantically down.
--Edgar Allan Poe, "The City in the Sea"

No es sueño la vida. Alerta! Alerta! Alerta!
Nos caemos de las escaleras para comer la tierra humeda.

--Federico García Lorca, Poet in New York

In a few minutes the welcoming Hallets Cove beach was a dash of sand in the distance. The massive whitewashed cube of peat moss at nearby Socrates Park became a faint landmark. Across the river, on the Manhattan shore, were Harlem's red brick apartments and housing projects, and on 116th and Pleasant Avenue, just at the river's shore, I could easily make out the cavernous shape of the old Ben Franklin High School where I had worked years before. In the distance, Manhattan Island rose gently uphill toward Morningside Heights, Columbia, and City College. In about one hour the tide would turn against us as millions of gallons of Long Island Sound water shouldered its way downriver. But the passage wouldn't take nearly that long. A warm front was coming, no doubt, for the temperature was rising and oppressive humidity had begun to settle in along with the low, dirty flannel clouds that are an August specialty in New York. In the gloom of cloudy weather, moving toward late summer dusk and twilight, the passage was filled with dark memories and forebodings. Hell Gate is a graveyard for ships and sailors and passengers, its islands the refuge of the wayward and unwanted.

Map of Hell Gate in New York

The Dutch called it Helegat, or Bright Passage. At the turn of the twentieth century, once some of its worst obstacles had been removed, an article in Harper's described the passage in bucolic terms:

There are boat-houses at the water's edge, and trim little cat-boats and sloops are moored to private wharves. Straggling little canals lead off into the sedge, which ripples in the wind; and along here, toward five o'clock in the afternoon, is a sight which cannot be seen anywhere in the world. Between the low banks, and towering above them come the steamers which connect at New London, Stonington, Providence, and Fall River with the railway for Boston, their colors streaming, and the passengers promenading to the music of their string bands."

Even today, the passage can be extremely bright after a storm front passes and sunlight plays on the water and glints off the bridges and roadway guardrails. But as Tradition chugged along in the gathering tide, we headed into a squishy low front of heat and humidity. There were no sandy banks or marshes along the shore, and the air smelled faintly of garbage and jet fuel.

We plunged directly into the middle of the river. The wary small-craft captain might think it wise to hug the shore and remain out of the main traffic channels in these swift currents of five knots or more. Captain Prime had taught me that this was not always a good idea when rounding Hallets Point because of the way the currents eddy around the Astoria shore. When you get to Pot Cove on the northern end of Hallets Point in Astoria, the tugs may fool you, I remember him explaining.

Just for the fun of things when we came up with a tug, sometimes running light [with no loaded barges] against the current, we'd come right along the shore because out here when you reach this spot the tide swirls around and runs the other way along the shore and so you hit this spot and all of a sudden you are in fair tide, so you may see some daredevil coming around the corner at Hallets Point.

I wanted to give Tradition plenty of time to get out of the way of oncoming tug traffic. Another friend, Michael Kortchmar, boatbuilder and former captain of the sloop Pioneer out of the South Street Seaport, advised monitoring channel 13 for bridge-to-bridge traffic. "Hail the approaching ship on the radio," Michael advises, "and make sure the helmsperson sees you." I mentally practiced the laconic style of American men who know they have the right stuff and speak on their radios like Chuck Yeager.

Small whirlpools appeared before Tradition's bow, not dangerous but enough to swing her around. I fought the wheel to keep her on course. Tradition's ancient rack-and-pinion steering had a bit too much play in it. She needed to be swung in one direction and then the other, in a series of ever smaller turns of the wheel. The Hell Gate's strong and erratic currents were a challenge. Fortunately, traffic that afternoon in the passage was extremely light. The current rushed us past stone embankments and a precious stretch of parkland along Randalls Island and then closer to the Triborough Bridge and the drab concrete cliffs of the Wards Island mental hospitals, towering many stories over the bridge roadway.

Early explorers like Adriaen Block clawed their way through the boiling tide rips and rockbound rapids of the Hell Gate under the power of sail and fear. They kept ship's lifeboats, anchors, and grappling hooks always at the ready. For most of two colonial centuries, commercial river pilots and captains learned to negotiate the passage and gradually the various hazards took on familiar names of respect and gallows humor. The passage was a nautical obstacle course. Raging waters from the Harlem and East Rivers eddied around Pot Rock, Greater and Little Mill Rocks, Hen and Chickens, Frying Pan, Negro Head, Bald Headed Billy, Bread and Cheese, the Hog's Back, Flood Rock Island, and others. Local fishermen in the mid-nineteenth century fished all over the port, and rowing skiff rental places thrived in many spots along the shores. No fishing spot was more popular than the rapids of the Hell Gate, noted for some of the region's very best striped bass fishing. Fishermen dared the edges of the rapids while during the same period about a thousand commercial ships struck the dangerous shoals. A Hell Gate passage was essential to reach the many ports of Westchester, Long Island, and Connecticut, and saved hours on the trip to Boston or New York through the calmer waters of Long Island Sound. But a great deal of commercial shipping preferred to take the slower ocean route into New York Harbor. By the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. Army was obsessed with making the Hell Gate passage less dangerous.

Starting in 1851 and continuing for the next seventy years, the army blasted the submerged ledges and dangerous surface rocks. Those explosions were some of the young nation's earliest and most spectacular earthmoving projects. They would be dwarfed eventually by the earthmoving exploits of railroad and then interstate highway construction, and by the atomic obliteration of Japanese cities and entire Pacific atolls, but at the time they were big events. The largest occurred in 1885 when, before an appreciative crowd of thousands who lined the riverbanks, the formidable nine-acre expanse of Flood Rock was blasted into history by tons of carefully set army explosives. Reports claim the shock of the blast was felt as far away as Princeton, New Jersey, well beyond the Hudson. The New York Times devoted its entire cover page to the event and interpreted it smugly as another triumph of human will over nature.

With the exception of Mill Rock, where kayakers routinely rest and wait for a favorable tide to carry them up the Harlem River, the old obstacles are now entirely purged from the Hell Gate. Even so, as I fought her swinging wheel and struggled to keep her yawing to a minimum, we were reminded why the Hell Gate remains an anxious passage for a small boat like Tradition. The Hell Gate passage itself ends just beyond the Triborough Bridge. Beyond that some nasty tide rips and strong currents guard the Bronx and Queens shores. I relaxed a bit when we got there, for Tradition always has a way of calming the tide rips. She moved swiftly along with the strong current. A red-and-black Moran tug hauling strings of construction barges passed us quickly and at a comfortable distance in the favorable current.

Then everything changed for the worse. I noticed white smoke rising over Tradition's stern. A wave of panic rose in my chest. There was no reassuring sound of water splashing out of the exhaust. Invariably that signaled a water pump problem, most likely a shredded impeller inside the pump. The engine was overheating. In seconds it could have become a lump of scrap steel. I cut the ignition to shut the engine, and we drifted without power at the mercy of the Hell Gate currents.

I barked at Susan to take the wheel while I hurried to raise sail. We had not bothered to do so earlier since the winds were light that afternoon and were always extremely fickle on that walled stretch of the river. I scurried along the deck to remove the sail ties, then jumped back into the cockpit and hauled on both halyards as fast as I could to get the sail aloft. The hauling left me breathless and drenched with sweat. With no wind the sail flapped to no effect. The current carried us clear of the railroad bridge along a most ugly stretch of the Bronx's Morrisania shore, where sludge barges loaded up at one of the city's main sewage treatment plants. On our right, at a distance, we approached the forbidding profile of Rikers Island with its blocks of prisons and razor-wire fences and the innumerable gray buildings of the largest prison-city in the nation.

It was a straight shot downriver from the arch of the Hell Gate railroad bridge to North and South Brother Islands. We needed to get out of the main channel and into shallower water, where we could either anchor or tie up somewhere. I remembered the ruins of a pier and a ferry dock on the Bronx side of the abandoned North Brother Island. Perhaps we could find a puff of wind to help steer us with the favorable current into a safe haven for repairs.

The current died just as we were passing the Sunken Meadows section of Randalls Island. The marshy Bronx Kill and the industrial Stony Point section of the Bronx's Port Morris were almost dead abeam. But I was no longer watching the sights. The water became smooth and dark, still. Slack tide. Quickly Tradition lost her forward way, and with no wind we sat in the river going nowhere. I raised the engine box and saw immediately that we had broken the belt that turns the water pump. There could also have been a problem inside the pump, for all I could tell. We had little more than half an hour of slack tide before the current would begin taking us back downriver, to who-knew-what precarious landing. I knew I needed more than that to do the repairs. There was no wind. Here and there through the low clouds a hazy August sun beat down on Tradition's wooden decks. We were hot, sweaty, and nervous. I hated the idea of trying to anchor in unprotected water, but it might be necessary if the tide turned against us.

After a while a few puffs of wind did reach Tradition's hanging sail and pushed us some yards closer to North Brother Island. I began to have some hope. The wind died, and the boat meandered closer to the Bronx shore and a phalanx of smelly sludge barges. We had a full view of the razor-wire shores of Rikers Island over on the other side of the river. Things went on this way for a while. Errant puffs of wind moved us closer to North Brother Island and then died. We wondered if we could anchor or tie up on the island before the ebbing current began moving us backward. With twenty minutes before the tide shifted, Susan began lobbying for a radio call to the commercial towing service for help getting to our destination just four or five miles downriver, at the mouth of the Long Island Sound. But I wanted none of that ignominy and expense. We ought to be able to extricate ourselves from this jam, I pleaded. So we waited.

Finally, a few sustained puffs of wind sent Tradition heading easily along the western shore of North Brother Island. We found the jagged bulkheads of the defunct ferry docks, rounded into the wind, and eased against a set of wooden pilings near the dock's edge. With some dispute and confusion we managed to secure the boat. Now the dogs awoke and clamored to go ashore. Susan gave them water and settled them down again. She then went with them below, in a silent snit, to stay out of the sun. I collected my wits and tools and hunched over the engine box. Fortunately I had a spare belt and a spare pump impeller.

Repairs that day came rather easily. I remember dropping only one or two screws into the bilge water. It took me forty minutes to complete the job and have the engine running well again, although it continued to cough a bit through its fouled carburetor, as it had before the breakdown. By then, though, the current had set against us. I watched in frustration as the flowing water pulled Tradition's dock lines taut, in a downtown direction. The engine would not be powerful enough to make headway against the opposing current. Susan was fast asleep in the cooler dark of the cabin. The dogs alongside her were sleeping blissfully as Tradition rose and fell on the river's gentle swells. It was by then almost five in the afternoon, and the tide would not turn again until about 9:30 p.m. Night was not a problem. We could easily pick our way in the dark, following the large, flashing buoys that mark the proper channels past Flushing Bay and toward the Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridges. No one was waiting for us to come home and we had no plans of our own, except that it had hardly been our intention to stay out into the middle of the night. Waves of heat shimmered along the industrial Bronx shore. Gulls shrieked crossly at us before disappearing behind the desolate ruins of North Brother Island's abandoned isolation hospital, former home of Mary Mallon, a.k.a. Typhoid Mary, and the dying ground of mothers and children from the General Slocum.

Copyright © 2002 by William Kornblum. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books.

This is excerpted from the book "At Sea in the City: New York from the Water's Edge." Click here for purchasing information from Amazon.

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