The tide and the wind were both moving downstream. As I left my parents back on the dock, I threaded between red buoys that lead to the main channel. I’d never had to stay in the channel before.
A third of a mile south of Coeymans Marina a green buoy marks the southern terminus of a long dike of rocks, which rise about four feet from the water during low tide, but were submerged during high tide. I worked my way south to this green buoy, then bore to port until I came about and faced upstream, heading north, against the ebbing tide, and into the wind blowing south at 5 mph. Within five minutes I was back even with the dock at Coeymans where my parents stood, now on the other side of the river. In another five minutes I was astride the cranes and barges of the industrial trade zone which has recently been built on the site of the old Powell and Minnock Brick Plant, and where they have been building the new Tapan Zee Bridge and floating it downstream in sections.
Now the boats docked outside of Yanni’s on the western shore blocked my view of Coeymans Landing and my parents, and I focused on motoring north. Across the channel from the trade zone were four five barges moored or just sitting right on the shallow waters outside the channel, though they appeared, at high tide, to be in almost in the middle of the river. After another five minutes I’d passed the trade zone and came abreast of the green conveyer belt of Lafarge Cement Plant dropping gravel into a the bed of a black barge. This conveyer belt runs inland, across 9W, under the Thruway, and through my high school campus into the cliffs behind the high school, which are the southern ridges of the Helderberg Escarpment, of which Thatcher Park is the most famous part. I passed Lafarge and drew the tiller 10 degrees toward me, so that my bow moved to starboard, toward the eastern bank, then straightened out so that I was heading for a spot toward the opposite shore between two pillars of the Castleton highway and Alfred H. Smith railroad bridges. The Castleton bridge brings you across to the Mass Pike, while the Alfred H. Smith is the southernmost freight rail bridge on the Hudson. This bridge creates the Selkirk Hurdle–any freight going to New York City or southern New England has to travel north as far as Selkirk to pass over the Hudson on this bridge. There used to be a railroad bridge next to the FDR/Mid-Hudson Bridge in Pougkeepsie but it burned. After sitting vacant for four decades it opened about five years ago as a pedestrian walking bridge connecting Poughkeepsie and Highland.
It was just past one as I went under the bridges. On the north side of them I started to look around and see what the boat was doing. I looked back at the motor swashing the water in white bubbles. The backs of the canoes cut deep in the water from the force of the motor. The bows of the canoes were out of the water in the front. I worried that water might be splashing or even washing into the canoes at the back. I let go of the motor and jumped to the middle of the boat to look into the hatches at the bottoms of the canoes. There didn’t seem to be too much water coming in. I got back to the stern of the boat and grabbed the motor’s tiller to straighten out again. Now I was passing a little area of river where there are only trees on both shores. This was the spot I’d gotten marooned on The Manhattan Project when a storm hit when Jim Gadani was towing me north, and he’d had to untie me and set me adrift to get back to Coeymans. I saw the beach on the eastern shore where I’d rode out that storm, before moving The Manhattan Project north in the middle of the night. That was back in 2007. That was the first time I’d been on the water, alone, at night, with nothing to eat and no way to call for help. That was two days before somebody stole my boat and set her adrift in the river and I had to call the police so nobody hit her as she floated without lights.
The water was choppy. The wind was blowing south and making waves. When the wind blows in the same direction for hour after hour the water gets a momentum of its own, even when the wind isn’t gusting. The water gets going like a conveyer belt made out of triangular braille waves. Each little wave and trough bounced the boat. I looked behind me to make sure no barges or other boats were coming up behind me in the channel. I played with the throttle and learned how to turn it up or down. When I turned the throttle up, the motor pushed the back of the canoes even lower into the water and the bows even higher out of the water. That’s called “planing.” It used the most gas, and moved me fastest, but it made it hard to steer because the raised-up bows caught the wind, and it made it more likely that I’d swamp the back of the canoes. So I kept the motor around half-power. A motorboat passed me traveling south. A wake radiated out behind it. In a canoe it might take almost a minute for the wake to reach me, and I always had time to steer into the wake so it wouldn’t strike me broadside. But since I was moving upstream quickly, I struck the wake just a second later. I ran over the wake going 4 mph. It sent the boat bouncing up and down and it looked like the cabin would snap off. I hadn’t had time to tie the standing rigging to the tops of the windmill poles to give them extra support. I vowed to slow to the lowest throttle setting whenever I crossed over a boat’s wake, and to hold the cabin’s walls to stabilize them.
As I passed Castleton and it’s marina I saw a No Wake sign. I wondered if I was generating a wake with my motor. I’d never made a wake before, and I’d built eight boats and travelled a cumulative total of almost 1,000 miles on the Hudson and Delaware Rivers and the Champlain Canal. I throttled the motor down so it was almost stalling as I passed the boats. It took about six minutes to pass the marina on the lowest setting going into the wind and against the tide. When I got above the marina docks I opened up the throttle and started planing again. Around 1:45 I passed Henry Hudson Park on the western shore and Campbell Island on the east. The tip of this island I’d named Trombley Point and where the Papscanee Creek meets the Hudson I call Babcock Ellis Bay. My friend Rob and I were caretakers of this island for a short time in 2009, but it was full of all kinds of gun-shooting people and a guy who accused us of scaring eagles away who threatened to have our cars towed and we got terrible poison ivy from head to toe and so we stopped going to the place. Things got worse but you’ll have to read my book to get the juicy details. Anyhow, after I’d passed Henry Hudson, but before I got to Albany, I saw a big boat coming downstream. It turned out to be the Dutch Apple. Some puzzled passengers waved to me from the top deck.
It was after two now, and I hadn’t yet reached Albany. Meanwhile I had planned to meet a reporter from the Troy Record in Troy at 2:30–ten miles upstream. The Troy Record was the only newspaper that deigned to reply to my emails about the book tour, so it was important to me not blow off the meeting. So I left the tiller, crawled forward to the dash, grabbed the dry box with my cellphone, lighter and wallet, and texted the reporter that I was likely to be late, and that I might not make it to Troy even by four o’clock. She said that getting to Troy was basically the hook by which she’d sold the story to her editor. I said I would try as hard as I could, and I’d text her at 3 p.m. to let her know if I’d past Albany yet.
I looked behind me and saw the Dutch Apple turning around a mile downriver, just north of the Castleton bridges. When I looked north I was rounding a bend by Cooper Kill abreast of the three smokestacks from the power plant you see if you drive south of Albany on 144 in Glenmont, and my first view of our fair city was ahead.
A few moments later I slid past the juncture of the Hudson and the Normanskill Creek. This was the spot where The Manhattan Project was stolen, burned, and set adrift in 2007. On any of my raft trips I always slow here and observe a moment of silence.
The wind agitated me as I entered the Port of Albany. From the Normanskill up to the railroad bridge above the city is about two and a half miles of straight river with no bends. So there was nothing to stop or slow the wind and nothing to slow the momentum of the water which moves like a conveyor belt after its been whipped by the wind for 12 hours. I couldn’t even move to the side of the water to get where the current slows down, because both sides of the Port of Albany are occupied with industry or decayed and rotting piers, all labeled with signs saying “Keep Back 200 Feet” and “Coast Guard Patrolled.” It was 2:30 when I passed the warehouses and salt piles and trash heaps of the Port and I texted the reporter from Troy and said “I don’t know if I’m going to make it up to Troy by 4. If I don’t make it north of Albany by 3 at least, it doesn’t seem likely.” It had taken me about 1.5 hours to go the 8 miles from Henry Hudson Park to Albany, and Troy was at least another 10 miles.
There is basically no way to go from a boat to the City of Albany unless you rent a dock from I don’t even know who, and I’ve gone up and down the river from Albany seven times over eleven years. Albany gets as much tourism from the Hudson as Coeymans Hollow derives from the Alcove Reservoir. The only thing that passes as an attempt by the city planners to connect people with the river is a waterfront park which I refuse to call Jennings Landing, but that’s what it’s called. I call it the Corning Preserve. Anyway, you can get an idea of how much this park and the Hudson River are regarded when you consider that this was a beautiful day, the last day of August, and absolutely no one in the whole city of 80,000+ people was down at the only riverfront park.
To get to this one landing area, you have to park in Downtown Albany, which is dead like a ghost town after 5 p.m., and take a walking bridge over a highway and railroad tracks, until you come to an amphitheater. If there isn’t a city-sponsored concert going on, then there is nothing going on. Unlike most cities and towns with river frontage, you’re not even allowed to tie up to the docks jutting from the shore. A few years ago I got a call from 20 people from Brooklyn who had built a series of paper boats which they were taking from Troy to Manhattan. They wanted my advice about Albany. The leader of the group was exasperated. “Every other town along the way, we’re just pulling off at their dock and resting at the municipal park. Albany is the only city that says we can’t stop there. They said if we want to take our boats out of the water in Albany, we have to buy a $1,000 liability insurance policy!” I told the guy just to take the boats out and rest at Corning Preserve anyway, because nobody ever goes to the park, so the chances are he wasn’t going to get into any trouble. But I told him not to look like he was having too much fun–not to open up a can of beer or play music or dance or laugh too loudly–because then a lot of people would be annoyed, if they heard about it, somehow.
Just a few minutes later I passed The Riverfront Bar and Grill, which I call The Barge, where I was having my first book signing that evening at 7 p.m. This is Albany’s only riverfront restaurant.
After The Barge I passed under a railroad bridge and then passed the boat launch where the crew teams launch their sculling boats, and where the Albany AquaDucks used to begin the river-portion of their tours. Now it was 3:15, and I texted the reporter to say that I didn’t think I’d be in Troy until at least five. She said it would be better to do a follow-up interview after my book tour was over than to rush that Thursday night. I agreed. Up to starboard, on the western shore, I saw a beach and a dock, and steered for that. About 50 feet from shore I killed the motor and let my momentum bring me onto the beach. I slid in and grounded on the sand. I jumped off with the anchor and dropped it halfway up the mud and gravel beach. Then I sat down and looked over my boat at the river. Then I laid back and closed my eyes in the afternoon sun with the end-of-summer breeze blowing. It was 3:40 and I’d made it as far north as I was going to go, used an outboard for the first time, taken the boat 20 miles north–that morning the boat was on a trailer with a flat tire and I’d not had gas or batteries to charge it. I figured a ten minute power nap was in order.
I heard some talking over my shoulder and saw a white man and a black woman sitting in the shade in the grass on the hill behind me. I thought it was odd that they didn’t think I was odd, but just sat there talking quietly. I had three hours before my signing at The Barge just across the river and downstream. I figured I’d take stock of the boat’s condition and by that point hopefully the beach would be vacant so I could nap.
I brought the anchor line back aboard and started pushing the bow toward a dock up the beach. I heard the man up the hill shout to ask if I needed help. I said “No thanks! I’m good. But what town is this?”
“Rensselaer!” he shouted, surprised.
As I dragged the boat through the water I felt a sharp pain in the soft skin of my left index toe. I assumed I stepped on a water chestnut or bulls-head, but when I looked down there was a big yellow bee flopping around in its death throes still affixed to my skin. I kicked at the gravel and water to pry him off. After I’d reached the dock a moment later my toe and the toes to the right and left of it were achy and itchy and starting to swell.
I tied the boat to the cleats on the municipal dock. I saw the jacket I’d set off with in the morning lying on the deck. One of the sleeves were soaked, so I hung it over the 1″ boards that formed the deck frame to dry. I walked aboard and opened the hatches that led to the port hull. Two inches of water sat still in the hull. This was a result of the splashes made by the waves as I motored from Coeymans. The splashes hit the bottom of the deck and splashed through the space between the deck and the top of the canoe. Two inches for four hours on the water wasn’t bad. I checked the hatch that led into the other canoe and there was about the same amount of water. I removed the clothing and equipment from the canoe that I wanted to dry–like the orange garbage bag of clothes I’d stowed below deck, and some of my electrical equipment. I lifted one of the 60-lb marine batteries onto the deck and hooked up the wires to the bilge pump around the battery’s positive and negative terminals, jammed the clear plastic hose into the pump’s valve, and held it into the bottom of the canoe. The water shot up through the tube and poured over the side of the canoe. I had to stay bent with my head down in the canoe for about ten minutes, conscious of being watched by the people on the shore. Then I crawled over and used the pump on the starboard canoe. The bilge pump can never get the last puddles out of a boat hull, because it is like a vacuum cleaner that pulls water through a grate, and if any air gets in at the same time, it can’t seem to pull the water up. So for the last 1/8″ of water in the canoes I took a towel, dipped it in, held it overboard, then twisted it dry. About five times I did this and then the port canoe was dry. I repeated the process on the starboard canoe, then I hung up the towels so they’d dry in the sun. Then I removed my clothes from the orange plastic bag and hung them around, so they would dry in the afternoon sun. As I did this I heard footsteps coming down the gangplank to the dock.
“You need any help? Came to give you a hand,” I heard.
“Come on, come on, I’m sick, I’m sick, don’t feel good,” I heard, from a woman.
I turned and saw the white man and the black woman who had been sitting in the shade up the hill in the grass behind the beach.
“I’m good, just tidying up,” I said.
“Uhhhh, come on, come on,” the woman said. She made puke noises like she was dry heaving.
“It gets shallow here. There’s tides here,” the man said. “I could give you a push. You better get to the deeper water. You got maybe, ten minutes.”
“I’m alright,” I said. I went about the boat inspecting the supplies that had gotten wet in the bottom, pulling them up and placing them on deck.
“Uhhhh, [dry heave noise, dry heave noise]”–the woman.
“Now you stop it. Stop it now! Go up in the grass I told ya. You gotta get off the water. Go up there now.”–the man. The woman did not go back up the gangplank. She stood sort of hugging the man, looking at the water. The man watched me as I took out my inverter and electric speakers and untangled the cord. “Just a little push, I’m here to help you,” he said. “I know this river. This is the Hudson. I come here all the time.”
“I’m just going to be here a little longer and then I’ll push off,” I said.
I put the inverter on the aft deck next to the marine battery. The inverter translates direct-current (DC or battery power) into alternating current, so you can run appliances that you would plug into a wall. The inverter had a red and a black wire to hook up to the positive and negative battery terminals, respectively. There was a plastic screw to hold the red wire in place on the poles of the inverter. The black plastic screw for holding the negative terminal in place was missing. I looked in the dash and in the bottoms of both canoes, but I couldn’t find it.
“You don’t see a black plastic nut anywhere, do you?” I asked the man. He was staring as his girl friend made puking noises.
“No I don’t see one of those. This is your boat?”
“You built this boat yourself?”
“Yes, out of two canoes.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“New Baltimore, it’s south of Coeymans.”
“You’d have an easier time going the other way. The power of the river goes down, not up.”
“Yes,” I said. “This is as far north as I’m coming.”
I reached into the canoe and twisted the nut off of one of the other batteries. I tried to screw it onto the negative terminal bolt on the battery, it to hold the black cable onto the inverter, but the nut was too large. I held the black cable to the inverter and pressed the power button, and the inverter turned on, but when I let it go, it beeped and turned off. I grabbed a roll of black duct tape from the dash and taped the black cable in place on the inverter. It turned on, then it turned off again.
“That kinda stuff don’t work good for electrical kinda stuff,” the man said.
I needed a steadier connection between the black wire and the inverter. In the dash I found a small L-bracket. I put the eye of the black cable around the negative terminal on the inverter, then I slid the L-bracket on top, then I taped the L-bracket in place. When I turned the inverter on it stayed on. I brought the speakers back to the inverter and plugged them in. I put the headphone jack from the speakers into my cell phone. I opened up the Spotify App and pushed the “shuffle play” button on my “Jazz for Cocktails” playlist. “The Good Life” by Sinatra rang from the speakers.
“Success!” I shouted. “This is the first thing I’ve jerry-rigged since I’ve been out here on the water. Feels good.”
“Frank Sinatra,” the man said. “I like him. I like ‘Singing in the Rain.'”
“Sinatra is good for an afternoon sunset on the water,” I observed.
The woman made puking noises and the man sent her up the dock, but she came back less than a minute later. As I tidied up, she saw the Milkduds and Skittles I’d unpacked to dry.
“Let’s go to Walmart and get some money and get candy!!” she pleaded.
“Later,” the man said. “This boat is like Gilligan’s Island,” the man said to me. “I bet you didn’t think I was old enough to know that.”
“Sure I did. I know it; but I wasn’t alive when it was coming out new.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m 33,” I said.
“Wow, you’re younger than me?” the man exclaimed. The man had no hair and was missing his front teeth.
“I guess so,” I said.
“I thought you were older than me!”
“You saying I look old?” I joked. The woman laughed. The man said nothing for a while. Then he said, “Hey, you think I could have a cigarette?” and I gave him one. He sat Indian-style on the dock, his girl friend hanging on him while continuing to stand.
For about 20 minutes I organized the supplies and put them into the hatches out of the way. I brought out two chairs like you might bring to a sports game if you’re sitting on bleachers–they had no legs but a fold-up backrest and armrests with cupholders. I’d filled a grocery bag with trash.
“Is there a garbage can around here?” I asked.
“Up the beach,” the man said.
“Do me a favor and stay here with the boat for a minute while I throw this out?”
“I’ll carry it up for ya!” the guy said. “Got any returnables?”
“I got one,” I tossed him an empty Coors Light can.
“Thanks! Hey, I’ll bring that garbage up, no problem. But I got one favor to ask. My girl, she ain’t never been on a boat before. Permission for her to board, Captain?”
I said she could. She was very afraid and squealed as the man held the boat and tried to help her over. When she’d gotten onto the boat she laughed nervously.
“I’ll give you a tour,” I said. “That’s the bow of the boat, and back here is the stern. There’s the dash, there, watch your head. Under here are the hatches to go to the bottom of the cabin.” She didn’t say anything, but clutched one of the 1″ cabin frame sticks.
“See, it ain’t so bad, I told ya,” the man said. “Permission to board, Captain?” I told the man he could come onboard, too. So then they were both standing on board.
“You guys want a beer?”
“Yeah!” they both shouted. For a second I wondered if I was somehow immoral. I wouldn’t feel bad giving a beer to any stranger that wanted to sit on my boat and talk to me, but these two people seemed like they might have special needs. But then I thought, what the hell, it’s a Coors Light, and maybe they would enjoy having a beer on the boat more than anybody else would. So we all sat and had a beer and listened to jazz music and talked for a while. They bummed two more cigarettes off of me. The man gave me his number and said his name was Buck and he was from Rensselaer. He asked me about every bracket and rope and little part of the boat. So I got an interview after all, even if these strangers wouldn’t publish what I said in a newspaper. After we finished our beers I was eager to get across the river to a vacant little inlet to steal a nap before I went to The Barge. Buck offered to push me off from the dock after I readied the electric motor. (I only had to go across the river and down about 1/4 mile, with the wind and tide helping me, so I figured I’d just use the motor to steer.) Buck pushed me off and I turned the motor to reverse and plowed myself right back onto the beach. He pushed me off and I turned the motor on and the same thing happened.
“Now, Captain, I said I’d push you off once. This is gettin’ too much,” Buck said. I realized I’d put the cables from the trolling motor on the wrong terminals, and that made the motor turn the propeller in the opposite direction, so that when I hit reverse, it moved me forward. I switched them to the correct position–red to positive, black to negative–and then when Buck pushed me off and I turned the motor on reverse it pulled me out into the river, and the wind and tide started me downstream. A regular stranger would have stood on the beach and watched me for a little while, but Buck and his girl hurried up the beach with the four empty Coors cans, I assume to get to Walmart to get some candy.
I turned around and switched the motor to the forward position to propel myself across the river. Two teenaged crew teams, one male one female, were practicing their sport on the glassy slack water. The young people sat in six long sculling boats, followed by an aluminum bass boat with three coaches, the one at the back barking commands through a megaphone. The electric motor moved me across the channel so I disrupted their nautical meanderings with neither noise nor wake.
Once back on the Albany side of the river I turned off the motor and drifted. I had an hour to go 1/4 mile south. I could see the old railroad bridge and The Barge beyond it.
It was nearing sunset; the shores were shadowy, though the middle of the river, the railroad bridge, and the buildings rising above the tree line to the south reflected yellow and salmon sunlight. I call this the Melancholy Time of Day or the Nostalgic Time of Day. I opened my cooler and used some ice to mix up an Old Fashioned in a rocks glass I’d carefully wrapped in a towel in my backpack.
Before I’d taken a single sip I drifted astride the plastic docks by the rain location for Alive at Five, next to the ramps that the Albany Aquaducks used to launch, and there was a boy about ten years old standing alone looking out at the river. When he saw my boat approaching he waved. I slid my Old Fashioned out of sight and motored over to the dock in front of him. When I tossed a line along the dock cleat he ran over and greeted me.
“Wow did you build this boat?” he asked.
“Yeah. It’s made out of two canoes and wood, and those propellers up there are actually windmills, so if the wind blows it will start to move those propellers, and they have a kind of motor inside, but instead of using power themselves, they take power from the wind and turn it into electricity, and that gets stored in batteries under the deck, and the motor at the back of the boat is hooked up to those batteries. So it’s like maybe you’ve heard of a ‘hybrid car?’ Those are cars that run on both gas and electricity. This is a hybrid boat!”
By now I was standing on the dock while he had his hands on the 1″ cabin frame boards and was leaning way over the deck.
“Can I get on it?”
“You’ll have to ask your mom,” I said. A woman with brown hair was walking toward us from further down the dock where some people were getting ready to greet the crew team when they returned, and a man was launching a jet ski.
“Can I go on, Mom?” the kid shouted.
“Sure!” the mother smiled at me. “But don’t touch anything.”
The kid leapt aboard and I showed him the center hatch and the hatches that led under the deck down inside the canoes, where it was dark, where there were batteries and ropes and the electrical inverter and tester and wires.
“Can I go for a ride?” he asked.
“If it’s okay with your mom,” I said. The mother said sure. She seemed like a cool mom.
“Okay we’ll go for a spin in a big circle around that little island of weeds and come back,” I said. The kid nodded and sat Indian style in the middle of the deck. I motored us away from the dock and back upstream, close to the shore, around a strange hula-hoop-sized circle of weeds fifty feet out from shore.
“What is that?” the kid asked.
“I donno,” I said. It looks like a little island. Imagine that was somebody’s garden, and they had to take a boat out here to work on it?”
“That’d be a lot of work! What are those metal things?” There were some kind of metal poles sticking out of the circle of weeds.
“I donno,” I said.
“Can we take the pipes?”
“I think we better leave them where they are. They look pretty dirty. Plus, what if we pulled the pipes out and they’re holding the island in place and it goes floating down the river?”
We got back to the dock and the kid asked to go out again but I said I had to get moving on. The mother asked about my boat and said her daughter was on the crew team, which was coming back to the dock now. When I untied from the dock, I started drifting south slowly. An old man strolled along the dock asking me questions, until there was no dock left. I retrieved my Old Fashioned and enjoyed a sip as I drifted beneath the railroad bridge toward The Barge.
I was in easy sight of the people eating at The Barge once I’d passed under the railroad bridge. I took my time drifting past them, so they’d get a chance to read DALLASTROMBLEY.COM Coming of Age on the Hudson written across my bow. I was still listening to Sinatra and sipping my Old Fashioned, so I wasn’t in a hurry. This was the nicest time I’d had on the boat since I put her in the water. I actually drifted a little past The Barge but Katie texted me that she’d gotten there already so I used the motor to head into The Barge’s dock and tie up. Katie came down the stairs from the restaurant with a couple of bags, followed by a family with two little girls who wanted to look at the boat, while a couple of guys stood at the railing on the top deck of the restaurant and yelled down some good luck greetings having just googled DallasTrombley.com.
This was the first time that Katie had seen the boat since I’d put the motor and signs and the canvass walls on it. She checked out the gas motor and I showed her how it raised and lowered. She looked at the motor with a mixture of respect and fear. Loud machinery like chop saws and outboards connected to gas tanks make her nervous. I remember the first time she watched me on a woodworking project. Two years ago she wanted to make a half-barrel into a wishing well for her friend’s bachelorette party. She had the half-barrel and I designed a roof with a dowel to lower a hanging pale. The gifts would go inside. Anyhow, my tools were at my friend CJ’s garage at the time, because I’d just lost my apartment in a fire. We drove to the garage at dusk and I cracked open a Coors Light and held a cigarette in the other as I held a board in place with my foot in the near-dark. When the saw screeched, Katie looked faint. Back in the present, I showed Katie the hatches and we stored those supplies she didn’t mind getting wet. Then we strolled up the steps to The Barge and ordered some steamed clams and a gourmet salad and drinks while we waited for people to arrive at seven.
The Barge was nice. It is permanently moored to the land, it appears. Of course the interior is an open concept, with the bar located in the middle, rows of high-top tables surrounding it, and then a dining-room dance floor and stage at would have been the bow or stern of the barge. There was a warm cross breeze. Our friends Nick and Louisa showed up first, followed by my friend Bridgette and her cousin, and Rob and Roxanne, who have been involved in boat trips down the Hudson for 12 and 9 years, respectively, (Rob took part on the first trip of the U.S.S. Crablegs in 2006 and participated in every other raft trip, most of the time as the only other participant). While we were looking at the boat, Marty, a friend from my first period of employment at the Assembly, came and chatted for a while, and my former colleague Lekeya, who I knew from working at the Assembly the second time, brought her son, Nick. My boss from 14-10 years ago, who was a kind of mentor for me in my early twenties, Nora, also came, and we ended up drinking Old Fashioneds until the restaurant was closing up. It was a grand evening because I sold five books (my quota for each day was five), Bridgette game me a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, and I just always love seeing people from different parts of my life, meeting one another.
We descended to the dock in the dark. The tide was creeping north again, while we were headed south. Luckily, the wind was blowing downriver, in the direction we wanted to travel. I wanted to use the electric rather than the gas motor now, because it is almost silent and I looked forward to Katie experiencing the river at night, especially south of Albany, where the light pollution wears off and the stars shine through. We bade goodbye to Nick and Louisa and Bridget and Nora and Rob and Roxanne. I was at the top of the wave.
Katie and I had a nice time piloting the boat under the Dunn Memorial Bridge and looking at the industry on the west shore of the Port of Albany. It grew chilly, however. In previous years, Rob and I made trips in canoes or open boats two or three months earlier in the year. The temperature was in the seventies at night. Now it was 56 degrees and the windchill cooled us. We dropped the canvass at the back of the boat to catch and break the wind. The canvass turned concave as it caught the breeze. My back started to knot-up from sitting at the back of the boat facing Katie while twisting my left arm around to steer the trolling motor. After two hours (about 11:25) we passed the Normanskill and left Albany.
Now that we’d been on the water for two hours, the novelty started to wear off. I’d been awake for 18 hours, having put the boat in at Coeymans and travelled to above Albany earlier that day. And I was disappointed not to be able to share the full night-river experience with Katie. In other years, barges passed, and it was eerie how they appeared silently in the night, moved by almost unheard, seen only where they blocked ambient light along the top of the tree line, silent and invisible though they weigh hundreds of tons and cover the area of a football field. But no barges passed on this evening, so I didn’t share this experience. Also, I’d wanted Katie to see the stars. When you look south from the middle of the Hudson over Schodack and Castleton, Bethlehem or Selkirk, (you can’t tell where one jurisdiction ends) you see the sky nearly as the natives of 400 years ago. Transecting the black dome, the Milky Way spills a spectre of stars and you start to think how the sun is a star like all those other stars and there are lightyears of space between each of them, and the disc of the Milky Way is like Saturn’s rings but instead of dust is starstuff, and it takes 500,000 years for the light from the stars in the middle of the galaxy to reach our eyes, and another half of the galaxy stretches on the other side, and we’re just one galaxy out of 100-billion galaxies, and the earth is a lot smaller than any of those stars and you’re a lot smaller than the earth, and you feel afraid at first, because of your smallness, and then you think about it some more and you start to feel liberated by the fact that you exist and there is all this space out there. But the sky was overcast, so we couldn’t ponder the stars. We could only motor on, at 2 mph, on top of liquid blackness, with blackness to either side, under a dome of blackness. We grew tired and the temperature fell.
We started to shiver after 1:30 a.m., as we approached Henry Hudson Park. I suggested to Katie that we forget about getting to Coeymans, where we had dock-space waiting for us, and tie up at Henry Hudson and sleep under the gazebo. We could see the lights of the Castleton Bridge clearly, and Katie knew that that bridge is visible from Coeymans, so she said she’d prefer just to keep going and sleep at my parent’s house. As we motored astride Henry Hudson, it was 2 a.m. and we’d been on the water for six hours, having left The Barge around 9. I told Katie it would take at least two more hours to reach Coeymans at our current speed. She said she was game, so we kept going.
I hadn’t used any of the 4 deep-cycle batteries on the way north that afternoon, so when we left The Barge I’d had a full bank of reserve power. Unfortunately, the windmills weren’t working, so that bank of power was all I had; when they ran out, Katie and I would have to row or drag the boat or try to start the gas motor for the second time, not really knowing how it worked, in the dark. The windmills didn’t work because I hadn’t been able to install the sacrificial overvoltage capacitor, which is a device which burns itself out if the wind gusts, instead of destroying the battery bank and motor. Basically, each deep-cycle battery provides about 1.5 hours of propulsion before they need recharging, depending on the speed at which you run the motor. I’d pushed the batteries so far, using each one for 2 hours, since we left The Barge. I’d hooked up a new battery when we passed the Normanskill at midnight, and I hooked up a new one halfway between the Normanskill and Henry Hudson. Just past Henry Hudson I hooked up the last reserve battery.
As we floated under the Castleton Bridges, the trip was growing irksome. By now I’d been sitting for six hours with my back twisted to steer the motor. The temperature had fallen to 45 degrees. First we’d sat next to each other with the canvass behind us to break the wind and my zero-degree sleeping bag spread over our laps. Now we untied one of the canvass drop-cloths that formed the side of the cabin and used it as a second blanket. Still we shivered with our arms around one another. We snacked on cheese and crackers and Skittles but these failed to fortify us.
Nowadays Coeymans has a tanker which is semi-permanently moored at the Carver industrial facility, with half a dozen cranes and spotlights lighting it up like a small city. We saw the lights on this tanker eight miles upstream. We knew our berth at the Coeymans Marina was less than half a mile south of the tanker. You can imagine how numbingly frustrating it was to see the lights of this barge as we froze and our stomachs grumbled and we tried to keep our eyes open–yet it took four hours to reach the tanker. Think about it: in the time it took us between spotting and passing the tanker, we could have watched Saving Private Ryan (2h 49m), an episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine (43m), an episode of Darkwing Duck (22m) and a clip from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight sequentially.
We finally passed the tanker at 4:30 a.m. and saw blue lights on the western shore downstream which I knew were party lights at the Coeymans Marina. We were in the middle of the channel in order to avoid the tanker. Downstream I could just descry a white buoy which I knew was a warning for a submerged rock bank which stretches a mile down the middle of the river to protect Coeymans from the wake of passing boats. I steered us toward the western shore above the buoy and then…crunch! We fell forward and came to a dead stop. I shined a flashlight into the water and saw that we were grounded on the line of boulders I just described. We’d missed another unlit buoy a little north which marked the beginning of the boulder dike.
So now it was 4:45 a.m. and we could see our destination 200 feet away, but we were paralyzed. I bent one of my 7-foot aluminum oars trying to push us off the rocks an inch below the surface. It was no use. Our momentum had propelled us right overtop of the rock pile which was nearly as wide as the length of our boat. Nearly exhausted now, I made a fleeting suggestion that we just sleep on the boat and deal with getting off the rocks later. Katie, also exhausted, asked me to try anything I could think of to get us off. In retrospect it was good that she pushed me, because at this point we’d gone through the entire flood tide and the water was ebbing, and if I didn’t do something in the next few minutes, while the boat was still somewhat buoyant, then the boat would have been transfixed on the dike for the next 12 hours, until high tide floated us off, and in addition to the inconvenience of not being able to get to shore during that time, my boat (which blared “DallasTrombley.com” across the bow) would have been marooned for the entire morning and half the afternoon, so I’d have advertised myself as an idiot. I remember a few years back, the Ravena News Herald ran a story and a picture about a sailboat that got stuck on that shoal. At low tide the rocks rise out of the water five-feet high. It would have been very embarrassing. After sending the News Herald and other papers a press release about my boat-book-tour, I wouldn’t blame them for putting such a picture on their front page.
So I took off my shoes and stripped down to my boxer briefs.
“You’re going in the water?” Katie exclaimed.
“I don’t see any other choice!”
“You’re going to freeze!”
I jumped off the boat onto the submerged rocks, thigh deep.
“It’s actually warm. I guess that’s one benefit to doing a boat trip in 45 degree weather. The water actually warms you up a little.”
I was able to lift the bow off the highest rocks and slide it a little back toward the channel. The bottom of the canoes left yellow paint on the points of the boulders. After I’d pointed the bow toward the channel I waded to the stern and lifted the boat, scratching.
“Can you walk to the front of the boat and put your weight there?”
With Katie at the front I lifted the back a slid her, scraping, down the rocks. I kicked off the rocks as I jumped aboard and turned the motor back on. I pointed us back downstream and donned my pants, shivering again.
Now the dock we were supposed to land at was directly to starboard, but we couldn’t get to it without motoring south one mile to the end of the rock shoal, and then motoring north a mile back to the berth on the western side of the river. By now the crepuscular birds were chirping in the trees ashore. We rounded the shoal at the south and turned north toward Coeymans Marina again. Now we fought the tide as well as the wind that had been helping us, and our progress noticeably slowed. Rather than 2 mph, it took us almost half an hour to travel 1/4 mile north.
We approached the municipal dock in Coeymans, which is a stone’s throw from two docks which extend south for 100-feet from Coeymans Marina. Tied to both docks were yachts and sailboats. Between the yachts was a space twenty-feet wide, through which we would have to motor to get to our berth. The wind was making white caps on the water. The whitecaps reflected in the lights from the streetlights in the Coeymans parking lot.
“Honestly, Katie, I don’t really feel comfortable taking the boat between those yachts,” I confided. “The motor is almost dead, the wind is blowing hard–if it blows us into one of those yachts, one little ding and I owe thousands of dollars. What if we just tie up here at the municipal dock, and I’ll come back down here at 7:30 a.m. and bring the boat down to Jake’s island before anybody even sees it tied up here?”
Katie thought that was a fabulous suggestion. We tied to the dock and grabbed any supplies that might blow away or be easily stolen. We climbed onto the dock, crossed the parking lot, and walked across the soccer field with our sandled feet and ankles getting wet with morning dew, to my Uncle Paul’s house on Main Street, where I’d left my car 20 hours before. It was now 5:30 and we’d been on the water 8 hours. I’d been awake for 24 hours. I’d spent 10 of those hours sitting on the boat with my back twisted to steer the motor.
We drove to my parent’s house two miles away, in New Baltimore, washed in their basement bathroom so as not to wake them, crawled into their guest room, and passed out immediately.
It seemed like I’d closed my eyes for 20 seconds when my cellphone alarm went off at 7:30. I’ve had enough boats vandalized, ticketed, and wrecked from weather to know not to leave it tied up on a public dock after sunrise. So I forced myself from bed, drove to Jake’s island, borrowed his kayak, and started kayaking the mile north to Coeymans Marina. The wind was really, really, blowing south now. It had been blowing south the entire day before, so the water was moving in a sheet southward, but the wind was stronger now, and steady rather than gusting. The leaves on the trees ashore showed their blanched undersides, devoid of chlorophyl, which normally weren’t exposed to sunlight. Up ahead the flags on the boats shot southward as erect squares.
I kayaked north of the boat and let the wind blow me back onto the municipal dock. The boat was tied just as I’d left her 2 hours earlier. I lifted the kayak aboard, untied the boat from the dock cleats, and pushed her into the river.
Immediately I moved south as quickly as the motor propelled me the evening before. I hooked up the electric motor just to steer, keeping the bow pointed toward the dock with Jake’s sailboat at Barren Island a mile downstream.
Jake’s sailboat is tied to the north side of his dock. So I approached just to the west, the turned the motor on full-blast to hit his dock on the south side. This is normally an easy maneuver. When I was inches from Jake’s dock I reached out and grabbed one of the dock cleats. Normally it is easy to pull the boat beneath me and hold it to the dock as I’d toss a line around the cleat. But the wind blew the boat south, so that I became outstretched holding the cleat with the boat blowing back behind me. A moment before I’d have lost my footing, I let go of the cleat and ran to the back of the boat. I turned the motor on full power, but it made no difference. I continued drifting south in the wind and the tide toward the rocks on Barren Island.
Less than two minutes later the boat was grounded on the rocks at the bottom of Jake’s island. Obviously I couldn’t use the motor to get back to the dock, because either the battery was dead or the wind and tide were too strong. I think it was the latter, because I jumped off the boat up to my waist in the water, and whereas normally I could push the boat around by hand, on this day the wind kept slamming it into the rocks. When I paused to think, the wind blew the back of the boat around so that the boat hit the rocks broadside. I pushed the stern back out into the water and the momentum carried her stern around onto the rocks, so now the bow faced toward the river, and I worried about the propellor on the gas motor striking the rocks and breaking.
By wading up to my chest in front of the boat, I was able to pull the bow around an outcropping of rocks. On the other side of the rocks was a bay with a shore of sand. I let go of the boat and watched it be blown into Colewell Cove, onto the mud beach. I waded over to the boat and assessed the situation. The wind was blowing south directly into the beach, at at least 15 mph. There was no way that the boat would float out into the river even as the tide rose. I carried the anchor up the beach just in case the wind changed, and dropped it on the other side of a log. Then I took the kayak off the boat and kayaked back around the outcropping of rocks, carried the kayak up the steep steps at the landing at Jake’s island, got in my car and drove back to my parent’s house. I crawled back into bed with Katie at 9:30 a.m. and fell immediately back to sleep.
At 11 a.m. my alarm sounded again. Katie turned, then shook me urgently.
“Hey! Weren’t you going to move the boat?”
“I did that 2 hours ago,” I said. I hit the snooze button.
“Oh my god, I didn’t even hear you get up I was so tired. So it’s moved already?”
“Yeah. I was gone 7:30 to 9:30.”
“Let’s sleep for 15 more minutes, then check on the boat on the way back up to Albany.”
We rose from the bed fifteen minutes later the way zombies wake from the grave: unsteady and with groaning noises. We made two coffees and grabbed two cans of strawberry seltzer from Mom’s fridge. When we stepped into the driveway Katie asked why my pants and shoes were laying on the blacktop.
“Because I had to jump into the water when I moved the boat.” I pulled the insoles from my sneakers and wrung the water out. They were clammy and cold on my bare feet. It was still only about 55 degrees.
In the car Katie said she’d forgot to pack her contact lenses and glasses.
“I’m basically blind,” she lamented. “I shouldn’t have taken my contacts out last night without making sure I had ones for today. I thought I packed my glasses. I hope I didn’t lose them.”
“Well, we’ll be home in 45 minutes and then we can jump in bed and sleep for a couple hours,” I said. “We’ll just stop at the island so I can make sure everything’s alright with the boat, and then it’s only a half hour back to Albany.”
“Sounds good. I’m just going to shut my eyes for a minute, to remember what it feels like.”
At Jake’s, I took down the chain that blocks the road through the woods, then parked at the tip of the island. From there I saw Jake’s dock and sailboat rocking in the southern wind.
“I’m just going to run to the top of the hill and look out over the beach and check on the boat. I can’t see it from here.”
“Okay, babe. Do you mind if I wait here? I can’t see anything anyway.”
“Sure babe, I’ll be right back.”
So I left Katie in the car and walked to the top of the knoll overlooking the beach cove. When I got to the top of the hill I looked down through the trees and saw the boat in the water.
My spirits sank at the sight.
The boat was sitting in three-feet of water, ten-feet from the shore, stuck on the beach. The port side of the boat was submerged and waves were washing over it. The port canoe must have been completely full of water. As the tide continued to rise it would submerge the other canoe, the batteries, and wreck the outboard motor.
At that moment, the boat was salvageable. But in an hour she’d be ruined. I needed to get her batteries off, and to do whatever I could to make sure the starboard pontoon didn’t take on water, so that the tide wouldn’t bring the water up over the outboard motor. I jogged back to the boat and told Katie about the problem. There was no way she could help. I ran back to the knoll and looked for a way to get to the beach, because by now the water had covered the outcropping of rocks at the bottom of the island where I normally brought the boat to shore. I tried to scale down the cliffs on the east side of the island overlooking the beach, but the cliffs are sheer. I could walk along the top of them and down a ridge maybe ten-feet, and then they fell off thirty-feet directly into the water. I went back to the car.
“I’m so sorry. I’m going to have to put Jake’s kayak into the water and kayak over to the boat. Then I’m going to have to take everything off the boat that can be damaged from the water, and carry it up the beach past the high tide mark: the four batteries, the trolling motor, our supplies. Then I’m going to have to try to move the boat up the beach so the high tide doesn’t wash over the starboard canoe. Ugh. Do you want to drive back to Albany and I’ll deal with this?”
“Well, I would, but I can’t drive. I’d go up to the hill to see what you’re talking about, but I won’t be able to see it. I’m literally blind without my glasses. I’ll just wait here.”
So I carried the kayak down the cement steps and paddled over to the boat. The waves by now were washing over the middle of the boat, over the hatches, almost into the starboard canoe. I lifted the lid of one of the hatches in the port canoe and saw it was totally swamped.
I deduced what had happened. I’d left the boat with the bow facing toward the beach, so that it would float up the beach as the tide rose. But the night before, as each battery died, we removed the dead battery and wired up the new one. The gas motor was in the middle of the boat, so the electric motor was mounted on the port side. Therefore each of the batteries I’d used, I’d stacked on the port side of the boat. Each discarded battery I’d placed on the port side of the boat. Though it made little difference as far as we could discern with our eyes aboard the boat, the four 60-pound batteries stacked on the port side must have made the port side sink lower in the water than the starboard side, even just an inch. As the boat crept up the beach, the wind blew it until it touched the sand. The port side touched the sand, because it sank lower in the water, while the starboard remained free. The wind then twisted the floating, starboard side, further up the beach, pivoting on the heavier port side, which was touching bottom. Then each whitecap splashed into the broadside of the port canoe. Each drop of water made that side heavier, anchoring it to the bottom, until it was completely submerged. Then as the tide rose, it rose over the canoe and over the middle of the deck, and soon it would start to flood the starboard canoe.
I carried each of the four 60-pound batteries out of the water to a log that marked the high point of the tide, and put them on the other side. I carried the trolling motor, my plastic tote full of books, the cooler, the lifejackets, the oars, the voltmeter, the inverter, the electric speakers, the bag of clothes. It took about ten trips wading through the water up the beach as the tide kept rising. When I’d removed everything that could be damaged from the water, I bent down and grabbed the deck atop the submerged canoe. I figured if I could lift it just a little, then it would float on the starboard buoyant canoe, and I could float it up to the place where the water was lapping the beach. But it was too heavy. I lifted and moved the boat an inch or two, then rested, then tried again. On my third attempt I felt a pop in my back and a feeling like lightening shoot up my spine. I could hardly stoop at all after that. Bending my knees seemed to put my left hand and left leg asleep. So if the water was going to rise, I hoped it wouldn’t rise as high as the outboard, the motor housing of which was now only two-feet above the waves. I looked at the line on the rocks and vegetation which marked the high water mark, and it seemed like it was a little lower than the motor. But if a barge or speedboat passed at high tide and sent a wave higher than the high water mark, it still might wash over the outboard and ruin it. To make sure that the boat wouldn’t somehow work its way back into the channel when the tide receded, I brought the anchor inland and tied two lines to submerged limbs on the beach. That was really all I could do, because I couldn’t even walk along the rocks back to the landing on the other side of the cliffs. I got into the kayak and paddled back. I carried the kayak up the hill and stowed it. Now it was 12:30. I knocked on the window and woke Katie.
“My only choice is to leave the boat here and hope it doesn’t get ruined, and come back at low tide and use the bilge pump to empty the canoes, so that it floats again, hopefully, and hopefully the motor isn’t ruined.”
“When can you do that? I mean, when is low tide?”
“Tonight low tide is at 7 p.m., right in the middle of when I’m supposed to be doing my book signing at Yanni’s. Then the next low tide will be at 1 a.m. but it’ll be too dark to do anything.”
“Jeeze. Can you come back the next day?”
“No, because I have my book signings at 1 at the Stewart House in Athens, and then 4-8 at Crossroads Brewery, and low tide is going to be, again, at 7 that night. I don’t want to cancel events that were the main point of the book tour. So I’ll leave the boat here until Sunday, and pump it out that afternoon.”
The problem was that I was supposed to have been at least as far as Kingston by Sunday afternoon, in order to make it to Poughkeepsie for an event on Wednesday. If, in the best case scenario, I pumped out the boat and got it floating by Sunday, I’d have to travel constantly to make it to Poughkeepsie on time. And I wouldn’t be able to charge any of my batteries, because I wouldn’t get to them until Sunday, and they take 8 hours to charge apiece. And if the water washed over the outboard, it would ruin that, too, leaving me with no propulsion whatsoever.
“Honestly,” I said to Katie, “it looks like the boat part of my book tour is over.”
This was the bottom of the wave, again.