It was a particularly frigid spring in New York City in 2001, and spending five days sleeping outside was often a cold, blustery, wet affair. Each night for a week, after a day of sail school, we would dock up, lay the oars across the hull, then place our sleeping pads and bags atop that. I turned 28 on that trip (I have a scar on the knuckle of my thumb from my birthday dinner, a cheese-grating incident which may or may not have added some extra protein to the group’s burritos, but don’t tell anyone).
I was working as an instructor for New York City Outward Bound Center, a remarkable program which is still benefiting the city’s youth in enormous ways today. But on this trip, we were just a crew (actually, a “watch”) of newbies trying to learn port from starboard, and how to navigate the tricky currents of New York’s waters.
The next morning, we got our chance, surving the tide-swirling perils of Hell’s Gate. The wind was down, so we had the oars out, pulling our way between Queens and Randall’s Island.
We finally raised the sail and eased down the East River, watching in amazement as the Manhattan skyline appeared and passed as I had never seen it before–from the surface of its waters. Event though the wind bit, we moved slowly. The sky was white and the sky was white and the sky was white. It was bitter, cheek-knifing cold all day; the water was gray, but you could still see the choppy reflections of the tallest buildings.
We passed under each bridge until the World Trade Center came into view, our beacon in southern Manhattan which we planned on rounding later that day to begin an (eventually aborted) circumnavigation of Staten Island. The towers dominated our horizon for the rest of the week, as we tacked and bounded through the harbor to all five Burroughs.