What aspects of urban outrigger canoe paddling are unique to New York City? One that always seems to throw paddlers and steerspeople off is the affect of the city’s seawalls, which line practically every bit of coastline in New York Harbor.
As in most urban areas, the shorelines of New York Harbor have been reshaped, filled in and lined with concrete and stone seawalls. The seawalls, some portions dating to the 1870’s, stabilize the shoreline to allow buildings up to the water’s edge. The World Trade Center and Battery Park City could not be constructed without these substantial seawalls. They also protect the city from the effects of storms and hurricanes.
These seawalls, however, have also changed how the water flows through the area. There is very little natural wave action in New York Harbor. That doesn’t mean, however, that the water is flat. Large wakes are generated by ships, barges and ferries that ply the waters. These wakes can run a few feet in height. While a natural shoreline would typically dissipate the energy from these waves by crashing onto a sandy beach or marshland, the concrete and stone seawalls of New York Harbor reflect these wakes back with the same intensity. These reflected wakes bounce from shore to shore to essentially create a man-made choppy waters. This only intensifies later in the day when the harbor has the greatest amount of water traffic. That is why most of the hulis (capsizes) that happen in the race occur later in the day and typically close to the seawall.
These reflected boat wakes can be unpredictable but, if the steersman is able to anticipate them, they can be used to help propel and surf the canoe to gain an edge over their competitors.
The Challenge Series is written by New York Outrigger Head Coach Keith Tsang. His insights are drawn from over ten years of paddling and steering the New York and New Jersey waterways.