Big Apple Boating – Online Surveys
After three decades of boating and fishing from a cove where commercial vessel traffic was almost non-existent, I moved to a new location adjacent to the main arteries of New York Harbor and Port Newark. I’m a longtime recreational fisherman with a penchant for center console boats that used to be called Point Pleasant, New Jersey, my home port. This area has a small commercial fishing center that caters to trawlers and clams, but most of the boats are pleasure craft. Although the narrow waterway can get crowded, it always seemed manageable.
That all changed two years ago when I moved my boat about 35 miles north of Gateway Marina near the mouth of the Shrewsbury River in the Highlands, New Jersey. Suddenly I was sailing to fishing grounds in and around one of the world’s busiest commercial ports, where tankers and container ships that appear to be as big as neighboring skyscrapers ply the waters. In addition, dozens of ferries feed a daily flow of commuters to and from the city, and workboats and barges, some of which literally defy description, present a clear and present danger. Top it off with a concentration of pleasure craft, and I quickly realized that this was a potentially more dangerous environment than I was used to.
It really touched me shortly after taking the plunge. I was running to a fishing spot off Atlantic Beach, New York, located somewhere between the Sandy Hook and Ambrose channels, when an unexpected fog blew off the ocean. As he approached, I turned on the radar which was part of the new electronics package I had recently installed. In no time, the visibility dropped to 20 meters. I quickly realized that most of the targets on the radar screen were foreign to me. The ship’s channel buoys reflected reflections as large as a typical boat, and massive targets nearby were ships. One of them was so close that its foghorn almost knocked me over, but I couldn’t see the ship. It was so disorienting that I immobilized my boat outside the channel. After a few deep, calming breaths and reassessing my current situation, a phrase from The Wizard of Oz came to mind and made me laugh out loud. I was definitely no longer in Kansas.
Boating in a large harbor makes basic seamanship skills extremely important. If you don’t understand the rules of the road and the capabilities of the various commercial vessels you come across, you might get into trouble quickly. Additionally, your boat should have a good suite of navigation electronics on board, including chartplotter, radar, and even AIS. Equally important, however, is the fact that you really need to know how to use the equipment. Since this encounter in the fog, I have made it my duty to operate my radar on a clear day so that I can visually confirm the targets I see on the screen. This information will come in handy the next time I am in another low visibility situation in a congested waterway.
My friend Captain Brian Rice of Jersey Devil Charters grew up fishing and boating in the area and has operated a variety of pleasure craft on these congested waters. It has great tips for those who haven’t been exposed to a high volume of business traffic.
“Operating pleasure craft like my 32 Contender presents challenges and can be dangerous,” he says. “Understanding the rules is really just the start, because there is so much more to know when it comes to ships, tugs, barges, high speed commuter ferries and even warships. Larger vessels simply cannot see your boat when it is directly in their path and within 300 to 500 feet. Even if they could, the port pilot at the controls could never stop in time to avoid a close collision. At 10 knots, it takes about a mile for these commercial vessels to stop, and at low speeds these vessels lose maneuverability. Additionally, large vessels project wakes that appear deceptively flat, but can overwhelm a small boat if it gets too close.
Some pleasure boat owners like to go inside the harbor, where winter flounder and striped bass fishing can be fantastic. If you are one of them, keep a close and constant watch on the Staten Island Orange Ferry. There are actually five of them (each ship 300 feet long) and they make a total of 117 trips through the port on a typical weekday. Also be aware of the small ferries that depart from numerous landings and cross the Hudson or East River, carrying commuters by day and theatergoers and revelers by night. Large ferries do not stop and cannot deviate too far from their route to avoid a pleasure boat. In addition, most of them are deep draft and launch large wakes.
Rice also cautions pleasure craft captains to watch out for tugs, barges and work boats passing through the harbor and the Raritan-Sandy Hook Bay complex. When a tug pushes a 300-foot barge through the narrow channel of Raritan Reach, a very popular fishing area for pleasure craft, you must remain vigilant as there is no way these boats can avoid you. You either avoid them or suffer the consequences, says Rice. These commercial vessels have the right of way. While a tug with a barge in tow must display specific light patterns from its superstructure, the barge itself often only carries a small white light up front to illuminate it at night. You never want to get between a tug and a barge.
Inside the Lower Harbor north of the Verrazano Bridge is an area called Diamond Shoals. It is a mooring for hundreds of barges which can present an interesting sailing challenge, so be vigilant. South of the bridge, larger ships often rest in designated anchor areas where they sway when the tide changes direction. Keep in mind the white buoys that mark off restricted areas like the safe zone around the ammunition pier or the exclusion zone around the Statue of Liberty. (Local authorities take a dim view of intruders.) Also, be aware that when the sun goes down, the volume of shore lights in almost any direction can be incredibly disorienting. Even the radar becomes difficult to interpret in the port at night. I know people who fish in these waters after sunset; most have a FLIR unit as an added safety measure.
Riding a pleasure boat in a large harbor has certainly been a learning experience for me, and yet the rewards have been great fishing in unlikely places, as well as great sightseeing. However, all of this comes with unique challenges, so make sure you recognize the potential dangers of these busy waterways and operate your boat in a safe manner.
This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue.