New York City is an extraordinary place to paddle. The Hudson waterfront on the west side of Manhattan boasts unparalleled views of the Statue of Liberty and the world’s most famous skyline, but like any busy urban waterway, paddling there is not without its challenges.
Ferries criss cross the river day and night, and all manner of craft ply the waterfront, from barges and cruise liners to pleasure boats under power and sail. Add rebounding boat wakes and powerful tidal currents to that mix, and it’s remarkable that kayakers in New York have been involved in only one serious collision with a commercial vessel in recent years. But it was a memorable one.
During an August rush hour in 2016, the NY Waterways ferry Jersey City collided with a group of 10 paddlers, knocking several from their kayaks and injuring three people, including veteran Manhattan Kayak Company (MKC) guide Jay Cartagena and an 18-year-old man who suffered deep lacerations to his left arm.
The accident occurred just before 6 p.m. near the West Midtown Ferry Terminal at Pier 79, with video of the ensuing rescue aired on local news channels. In a news conference that evening, the commander of the New York Police Department’s Harbor Unit announced that the young man’s arm had been “partially severed.” That detail led all the news coverage, and though the injuries were not as severe as initially described, the accident illustrated the hazards of paddling in busy commercial waterways.
A Coast Guard investigation focused on two primary causes: a lack of communication between the kayak and ferry companies, and sun glare that prevented the ferry captain from seeing the group of eight kayaks in his path. Due to the intense glare, the ferry captain relied on his radar to make sure there was no traffic in his path. Kayaks, of course, do not appear on radar.
Rather than slowing or posting a lookout, however, the captain accelerated into the glare. Within a minute of leaving the dock he was making 22 knots and heading straight for the kayakers. The guide, Cartagena, shouted and waved his paddle. It was no use. At that time of day, in those conditions, he and the other kayakers were all but invisible to the ferry operator.
Cartagena watched in disbelief as the ferry collided with a double kayak carrying two experienced paddlers, including the man whose left arm was badly lacerated. Then the ferry struck him as well. “I think part of the reason why I got hit was because I couldn't get myself out of the way because I was just so much in shock about what just had happened,” Cartagena later told investigators with the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board. He suffered a dislocated shoulder, broken rib and punctured lung, as well as lacerations on his hand and neck. His first thought was getting back into his boat to assist the others. Cartagena and MKC owner Eric Stiller did not reply to requests for comment, and NYC ferries declined to comment on the incident, which was the subject of a lawsuit.
The clients were using sit-on-top kayaks—five singles and two doubles—but Cartagena was paddling a 14-foot sit-inside. The impact blew off the rear hatch cover and left the boat completely swamped. Then, as he tried to pull himself aboard, Cartagena realized his shoulder was dislocated. Floating in the Hudson, the ACA-certified guide did his best to make a head count and organize the paddlers as the ferry rendered assistance.
Deckhands lowered a rope ladder over the side, while the ferry captain contacted the Coast Guard and 911. Another employee simultaneously contacted the NYPD Harbor Patrol by cell phone. The emergency response was swift and well coordinated. A news helicopter filmed the scene.
The most seriously injured kayaker, the young man with the lacerated arm, was reportedly slipping in and out of consciousness. Another kayaker used his shirt to fashion a makeshift tourniquet. The boaters helped the young man onto a kayak, and he was transferred to the NYPD patrol boat and rushed to the hospital.
Cartagena told investigators he never thought such an accident would happen, especially since he felt the kayak company and ferry operators had established a good working relationship. At the time of the accident, MKC had been based for three years at Pier 84, just five blocks north of the ferry terminal. Cartagena estimated that he had led at least 200 kayak and standup paddleboarding tours from the location, at least half of which crossed in front of the Midtown Ferry Terminal.
Yet in all that time working in close proximity, the two companies had never organized a formal line of communication. (MKC and NY Waterways did work together to produce a safety video in 2011.) Moreover, while every ferry captain knows that kayaks are common in the area, MKC’s kayak tours don’t operate on a regular route or schedule. Due to the Hudson’s powerful tidal currents, every outing has to be timed with the tides, and even the choice of whether to go north or south from the boathouse at Pier 84 can be a game-time decision.
As a result, there was no formal mechanism in place to alert ferry operators that kayaks were in the area. Cartagena didn’t announce on VHF Channel 13 that his group of kayaks was crossing in front of the ferry terminal. In fact, he didn’t have a radio or air horn with him at the time of the accident. That, combined with the blinding glare and the ferry captain’s failure to post a lookout and proceed at a prudent speed for the conditions, was a recipe for disaster.
The aftermath of the 2016 ferry incident brought plenty of finger-pointing and a lawsuit that was settled out of court. It also prompted some soul-searching within the vibrant New York City kayaking community. The paddling scene in New York is centered around a dozen nonprofit clubs like the Downtown Boathouse on the Lower West Side and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse in Brooklyn. After the accident, all the clubs and commercial outfitters including MKC came together to review best practices for paddling New York’s wild and wonderful waterways.