Joe Potts

Brooklyn to Roosevelt Island

August 27, 2005


Joe and I met at the bank of the East River, and prepared to launch.

I don’t have any pictures of the events that follow because my camera was destroyed. I took this picture with Joe’s camera—and then I put it in a zip-lock bag. I figured there was a possibility we would get wet. But I had no idea that the boat would sink. We set out across the river. The tide was pushing us to the north like I expected but the wind was also very strong. In about a half hour we were parallel with the U.N. building—much further north than I expected to cross. I kept thinking that we should not try and cross the river. I had an urge to stay on the Brooklyn side.

We crossed just under Roosevelt Island and I started heading for a park that I could see on the Manhattan side. There was a seawall there that dropped down about 5 feet into the water. I thought it might be possible to haul ourselves out over the side and then sit there and decide what to do.

There were large boats moving in the river. In fact—where I had decided to land is close to a ferry dock where the high speed ferries and tour boats land on their way back to queens. The wake from the boats is usually quite easy to ride over in a canoe—you sort of roll over it at an angle. But the wakes were coming from perpendicular angles now as they hit the seawall and bounced back. As we came closer to the shore the waves were forming steep triangles that were impossible to ride through. The waves began to lap over into the boat.

At that point I decided that it was too dangerous to try and land in Manhattan. I told Joe that we would try and row to Roosevelt Island instead. It looked like the bank there was sloped and rocky and might be easier to pull the boat out of the water. We started back in the direction of Roosevelt. Now Joe was in the front of the boat facing foreword. He couldn’t see what was happening. The boat was filling with water. We tried to bail a little but it was no use. Now that there was a few inches of water in the bottom of the boat – it became difficult to move and more waves came in.

At some point Joe turned around to me and said “Worst case senario—we flag down a boat—right?’ I was like, “Joe—this is worst case senario. We’re in it.” There were large boats moving on either side of us. Their wakes were impossible to roll out of. Waves were coming over the side of the boat.

“Row like hell, Joe” I said. Lets just try and make it. At some point the boat was simply under water. If you would have looked at us from shore you would have seen two torsos sticking up out of the water rowing like crazy. And suddenly the boat kind of disappeared out from under us and we were swimming. It was August, so the water was warm and salty and smelled like a sewer. But the shock of suddenly swimming with all my clothes on took my breath away—I was in a state of panic. We were still inside the shipping lane and there were boats coming up the river.

We were only about 20 yards from shore, but the tide was pulling us now very quickly to the North into ‘Hellgate’. And we were exhausted from rowing. But at this point I think we were actually laughing. I was trying to get Joe to help me pull the boat to shore. It was upside down now but floating—getting dragged along with us in a tangle of lines and equipment. At some point he convinced me to let the boat go—we were not getting any closer to shore and the tide was pulling us up under the 59th Street Bridge.

We let go of the boat and my heart sank as we swam away from it. I was letting go of months of work and planning—my whole project would be sucked into Hellgate. We swam to Roosevelt Island and pulled ourselves up the embankment. We were still laughing, sorting through our gear.

We started walking north along the river—trying to decide how to get back to Greenpoint. Joe seemed elated by the whole experience. “Just think,” he kept saying, “Shipwrecked and stranded on an island—all within a mile of Times Square!” I kept looking out at the boat floating in the water. It was floating north about as fast a we were walking. I could still see it floating upside down in a tangle of gear.

At some point I ran out ahead of the boat, took off my shoes and life jacket and dove back in the East River to recover the boat. It was easier to swim without the jacket and I was able to drag the whole mess back to shore.










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