Tales from the wheelhouse: Paddle boarders cause NY Harbor hazard

The following letter from reader James Berman, a tugboat operator in New York Harbor, was published in WorkBoat’s March 2017 issue.

I was happy to see Capt. Alan Bernstein’s column “Sharing the waterways” (part one) in the November issue. I am a tugboat operator in New York Harbor and the summer season can be harrowing, moving barges amidst congested pleasure boat traffic.

I wanted to share an especially dangerous situation we have in New York. We deliver bunker barges to the cruise ships that dock at the Manhattan cruise ship piers on the Hudson River. In the summer there is a steady stream of kayak and paddle boarders who paddle close to the piers. When we sail a light barge from alongside the cruise ship, it is necessary to come out aggressively due to the strong currents running perpendicular to the piers. Once we are underway and committed, there is no way to stop without being overcome by the current and potentially being set under the stern of a cruise ship. The deckhand cannot see anything that might be coming past the piers until the bow of the barge is past the stern of the ship and well into the current. I am sure you get the picture.

Before getting underway, I try to find a ferry that’s going by to ask them if they saw any paddlers by the piers. I also sound the horn, but paddlers who are not aware of sound signals are not likely to understand what’s happening.

There have been numerous near misses with paddlers in this scenario and I feel like it is only a matter of time before there is a tragic accident. I wrote a detailed email with my concerns to a company that rents kayaks and paddle boards just a few piers south but received no response. I don’t know if there is a harbor safety committee for New York Harbor. However, I am going to find out.

I always look forward to Capt. Bernstein’s articles that provide insight and address subjects that are not always discussed in a public forum.

James Berman

Batavia, Ohio

Editor’s note: In New York, there is the Harbor Safety, Navigation and Operations Committee of the Port of New York/New Jersey. Contact the New York Shipping Association for more information at 732-452-7800.

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    Where I live and operate vessels the C.G. has addressed the issue of Windsurfers by stating that they are “thrill craft” and are instructed to stay “well clear”of any vessels.
    I would expect that these instruction will apply to paddle boards and kayaks as well.
    Paddle boards, kayaks, and wind surfers are unregistered and undocumented water craft and as such should all fall into the same category.

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    Paddle boarders and the like also seem to be unaware of the dangers of what else is leaking in those waters. As a youngster in New York I was told of the dangers of the “Coney Island Whitefish.”

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    Its a problem here in Seattle. They should take CG safety and boating classes to be certified. They all think that they have the right of way.

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    Sally Stiller on

    I have 20 YEARS of paddling experience on the Hudson River in Manhattan – every day for 10 years – training paddlers to be safe and skilled.

    It is a shared waterway. Still, the tug boats curse me and my fellow paddlers over VHF radio. They call us “Speed Bumps” and swear at us over the radio. One actually PURSUED ME, pulled up to me and started cursing. He said “You shouldn’t be out here”. It was completely open water that day. It’s unreal and unsafe to have certain big boaters act as if they can bully paddlers.

    Certain paddlers are actually intimidated and scared of the tug boats now, because their violent attitude is observed so often. I am taking records of this and will present to the Coast Guard.

    As the water gets cleaner (unless an oil barge spills!), commercial boats will need to learn that paddlers will not disappear from the lower Hudson River.

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