We heard all the rumors. We had heard that there were hoards of wild, evil, out of control youths all lined up waiting for some poor, unsuspecting recreational boater to have made a wrong turn at Hell Gate. They stood in battle lines on the overpasses armed with bowling balls, rock, couches, and household appliances waiting to pounce and shower those dead-weight bombs onto the decks below. (Seriously, we heard they heaved couches and appliances.) The Harlem River was their wild frontier, and boaters were trespassers subject to the full gamut of punishment that the inhabitants could muster.
We also heard that navigating the river itself was “tortuous”. (That's in the Active Captain description.) The Harlem River was a convoluted mess, with a seemingly infinite number of commercial boats that wound up and down and side to side, and that they were a direct threat to the lives of anyone who thought of traversing the river in a recreational vessel. And the river itself, with its bridges and turns, was nothing short of a hellish horror. Oh, and the stench from the pollution and trash would make you ill on the spot.
Stay away! There be monsters there!
Eh, hold on a moment. That's not what we found.
The main reason to go up or down the Harlem River would be to avoid the East River and having to go around the southern tip of Manhattan to get to the Hudson River from Long Island Sound. And that's what we did. After three weeks in the sound, it was time for us to get back on our main course and get on up to the Erie Canal to finally reach the end of our 2018 cruising season.
Now, after our rough and tumble transit of the East River past Roosevelt Island when we came up, I wasn't altogether excited about heading back down it, then contend with all the heavy traffic around The Battery to get northbound on the Hudson. Nope, not at all. Fortunately, boating friends of our in Mystic, CT suggested the shortcut up the Harlem River. We hadn't considered it. But, after checking the charts, and taking all the hysterical tirades into consideration, we decided it was the right choice for us. (By the way, all those negative tirades? Funny that they're all 2nd or 3rd hand accounts, never first-hand. “I knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who had a half-size replica of the Statue of Liberty dropped on them.”)
Technically, from R-14 at Hell Gate to just past the Spuyten Dyvil Bridge, it's 8.0 statute miles on the Harlem River. From and to the same points, the route around Manhattan on the East River is 21.5 sm. That's 13.5 sm saved right there. (You can do the math of how much time that would save you based on your speed.) There is a current, but it wasn't terrible at all when we went through. I would suggest hitting it at or near slack current anyway – no need to tempt fate. They do tell you to run at idle speed. We ran it at about 6.5 smph. If you're a sailboater, unless you have dropped your mast, go on down the East River. The swing, lift, and bascule bridges all have big signs on them that say you have to give the powers-that-be four hours notice of needing a bridge opened. In other words, they don't want to open them for nobody. Sorry, sailors. Otherwise, the lowest vertical bridge clearance is 24 feet. I didn't see anything about the water's depth to be alarmed about at all – all double-digit in the teens or deeper.
What about boat traffic? We ran the river from about 1100 hours to 1300 hours on a Monday. We saw only one working boat on the water – only one, and that was a small tug pinning a barge against the shore at a construction site. And except for a couple of kids on a PWC further up the river, that was all the boat traffic there was. Period. Not a skiff, not a fishing boat, not a water taxi … nothin'.
The complexion of the river is that it is more industrial at the southern end. No doubt about that. But we were surprised at how clean it was. I swear, there was very little debris on the water. I expected some kind of sludgey, oilish sheen on the surface, but there wasn't. I wouldn't go swimming in it, but it wasn't noxious. It didn't smell. It's not a scenic, beautiful, marine wonderland, but really, it wasn't all that bad. Though I must admit, we had cool weather; I wonder what it would be like on a hot calm day. (For you loopers out there, the Calumet River and Chicago Sanitary Canal are muuuuuch worse. Hell, portions of the St. Johns River in Florida make my eyes water.)
And what about the hoards of heathens waiting to pounce on us? I swear on my mother's grave, we saw a total of three pedestrians on one bridge. And, again, except for the two youths on the PWC, that was all we saw – three. And they were walking across the bridge (behind a tall chain-link barrier) going about their business, living their lives.
Maybe we were lucky. Maybe all the work boats were broken. Maybe all the savages were taking a coffee break. Or maybe the hype of how dangerous and “tortuous” the Harlem River is is just that, hype. You have to decide for yourself. As for us, we found it to be fascinating. It was a unique opportunity to see things from a different perspective. Water is everywhere, including the inner cities of America. Taking the Harlem River as a useful shortcut is a way to see that side of it.