I love offshore sailing and adore exploring remote wilderness coastlines up close by sailboat, but every now and then I get a kick out of urban sailing. That is, exploring the architecture developments, maritime activity, and man-made shoreline of cities.
In this vein I occasionally explore and spend the night in my adopted Nova Scotia province’s Halifax Harbor, one of the world’s largest natural harbors. While big, the port doesn’t generate a lot of big ship traffic on a relative basis, and, given that the only real navigational hazards are other boats, cruising its waters is a breeze. Sailing down the wide, six-mile long entranceway into the harbor is quite beautiful, and then, once in the port area between the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth, there is plenty of water to sail in while taking in the views of both cities.
Plenty of water and few big boats. During my seven different sails there I have only had to dodge one freighter, but also once received a loud warning blast from the Queen Mary 2 when I sailed too close to her while she was docked in port for a visit.
On all of these sails, we generally enjoy a good sail-about, and then head down to the end of the harbor’s northwest arm where one can peacefully lie at anchor serenaded by the dull roar of the city, and the traffic going round Halifax’s notorious city entrance bottleneck known as “the rotary.”
It’s not the call of a loon, or the quiet whispering of the breeze through the trees, but I enjoy this urban sailing adventure for its complete difference from the usual explore wild remote area cruising.
Thus, when asked if I would like to help deliver a boat from Halifax to Annapolis via Hell Gate and New York City I jumped at the opportunity. After all, I’d been to NYC dozens of times, but never plied its famous waterways by boat. Oh, and offshore on a sailboat for a week and a bit—Hello, I’m always into that.
That is, as long as the boat has a decent radar, due to the advance warning it gives regarding potential hazards at sea. I’m not so worried about what we might hit, as I am about a ship with poor watch-keeping that might hit us. And this worry comes from personal experience, having been saved once by the radar warning me of a large commercial fishing boat heading right for us at high speed. No doubt that the entire crew was down below cleaning fish, as the ship never veered from their course nor acknowledged our presence in any way despite our radio calls, light signals and horn blasts. Given the conditions that night, had I not spotted the ping on the radar we would have been rammed and sunk.
Our sailboat delivery for this trip was a Pacific (yeah, we’re in the Atlantic—go figure) Seacraft 44, a great offshore sailboat that’s not known for speed, but can certainly handle the seas. And yes, she sported a good radar system that I was pleased to see picked up most every potential hazard during our journey.
Mind you, the radar didn’t pick up the extreme chop we found at Hell Gate, but we powered through under engine power without any difficulties worth noting. Also, and by no means the fault of radar, its signals proved worthless in the East River and New York Harbor beyond because there were just way too many pings.
But really, what was I thinking? With so many big ships plying those waters our eyes better served us in avoiding all the hazards, moving or otherwise.
Once past Sandy Hook, I marveled at what we’d done—urban sailing to the max! East River, Hell Gate, Riker’s Island, Roosevelt Island, Brooklyn Bridge, Battery Park, Governor’s Island, Hudson River, Statue of Liberty…all in one morning? I mean, you can hardly take in the sights between Harlem and financial district in a full day, let alone a morning!
And…it was so quiet. Sure, the hum of that big city surrounded us, but down there just gliding down the East River the tumult seemed to roll high over us, and was only noticeable again when entering the Hudson. In fact, the acoustics along the East River were so quiet that we could sometimes hear what people were saying on the East River Walkway. In essence, seeing New York City while traveling down the East River into the Hudson was about the most surreal urban experience I have ever had the pleasure to partake in.
And now I long to do it again in my own boat. The problem might be, though, where am I going to spend the night? Where will I enjoy the urban overnight on my moored or anchored sailboat? There is, to the best of my knowledge, no calm, ship-free, “Northwest Arm” in which to hide and enjoy from relative afar the ambiance and noise from the city.
I’m going to do it some day, so perhaps when that day comes I’ll just have to keep moving and enjoy the equal, and perhaps better, satisfaction of being offshore. And besides, the lights and urban hum from that city will undoubtedly follow us far out to sea.
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