City Sailors

The Big Apple isn’t just for landlubbers, as these crews attest. From our March 2012 issue.

City Sailors

Nadine Slavinski and her son, Nicky, savor landfall in the Big Apple.Courtesy of Nadine Slavinski

"You're taking too many pictures!" Nicky, my 7-year-old son, protested. But it's not every day that you approach Manhattan at sunrise on the deck of your own sailboat. As a child growing up in a suburb of that superlative city, I had always found New York a little overwhelming. Now, behind the wheel of Namani, my 1981 Dufour 35, I found it even more overwhelming—and unexpectedly thrilling to see familiar sights from a new perspective. My husband, Markus Schweitzer, and Nicky were equally impressed by the cityscape sliding past.

New York is a city that has it all: culture and crime, poetry and pollution, glamour and grit. That was nothing new to me, but as a first-time visitor under sail, I was surprised to discover how manageable New York is, despite horror stories of killer currents and full-tilt ferries. Arriving after an overnight passage from Rhode Island's Block Island via Long Island Sound, I gained a new appreciation for the city that never sleeps—and for my well-thumbed copy of the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book. Timing our dawn arrival carefully, we passed through notorious Hell Gate without mishap and used a favorable three-knot current to glide past East River landmarks like the United Nations, the Brooklyn Bridge, and South Street Seaport. Soon we were rounding Battery Park and heading up the Hudson to a mooring at the 79th Street Boat Basin. There, we were just a dinghy ride away from the subway and supermarkets, with million-dollar skyline views day and night.

We'd been tipped off about the Boat Basin by cruising friends Sven Nguyen-Northcott, Sara Lennox, and their sons, Dante and Amory, ages 6 and 4. The family had recently wrapped up a three-year transatlantic cruise aboard Arearea, a 2005 Hallberg-Rassy 40, in their home port of New York. They'd even lived aboard in the city for six months before moving into an apartment for Sven to take up work as a software engineer. Now the family enjoys weekend sailing. "Getting out on the water is like taking a trip. You get removed from the city, and everything calms down," says Sara. "There are a lot of interesting things to see. We'll quiz the kids. What river are we on? What bridge is that?" The Statue of Liberty is a no-brainer for the boys, who enjoy building forts out of settee cushions as much as taking in city sights.

An annual highlight for all is the incredible Fourth of July firework show. “It’s peaceful out on the water,” Sven says, thanks to designated viewing areas in the harbor. Still, he has to keep an eye on the water rather than the sky. “As a captain, you’re more focused on the boats around you, but as a passenger, it’s more oohs and ahhs.”

Our neighbors in the Boat Basin, Valerie and Jeff Du Mars, also list the Fourth of July among their New York favorites. The couple can bicycle from their apartment to their 1970s Hunter 28, Fadade, which translates roughly to "touched by fairies" in Provençal, Valerie's native French dialect. Jeff, a French-speaking American, even transported Fadade's new mainsail to the Boat Basin on his bike! They enjoy city living but also the respite that Fadade provides from the bustling streets. "It's a good way to escape the stressful life of New York without going too far," says Valerie. "When you sail here, you feel the town differently. You go back to the roots of the town, which is a port." The couple sails whichever way the wind blows them, heading up the Hudson River or down through New York Harbor. For farther travels, they charter—and how! Jeff and Valerie recently completed a passage around Cape Horn, crewing aboard a small sailing vessel based in Ushuaia, Argentina. "It was an amazing trip," says Valerie in an understated way. For a local adventure, they plan to explore Long Island Sound aboard Fadade.

We on Namani enjoyed the Boat Basin, but that's not the only place for sailors to stay in New York. Many prefer marinas on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Port Washington was the choice of two English couples who met while crossing the Atlantic with the 2010 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers: Richard and Allison Brunstrom aboard Vulcan Spirit, a 1995 Hallberg-Rassy 53, and Jenny and Robin Martin aboard Maymio, a 1997 Malö 42. Three of the four are taking a break from careers in public service. Richard, a retired police chief, listed the pluses of the New Jersey location: "It's very convenient, with excellent train service into town, yet it's pleasant, and you can go for a walk," he says. Jenny, a nurse, sums it up another way: "It's like going from the sublime to the ridiculous, from solitude to social mayhem!"

The Brunstroms and Martins had all visited New York previously, but still found an arrival from the water special. "Fantastic!" raves Allison. "Just being among it all! You see it from another perspective." Richard agrees: "It's not the same as being on a ferry. You've got your own rigging in the foreground—there's nothing like it." The challenges of city sailing didn't put off these experienced sailors, including Robin of Maymio, who's retired from the United Kingdom's Royal Lifeguard Institution, which is similar to the U.S. Coast Guard. "The tide at Hell Gate was strong, but it was easy," Jenny says. "There's a lot of debris in the water that you need to be cautious about." Off the water, these sailors took in such New York attractions as museums and a performance of the Cirque du Soleil.

While most visitors sample New York in a few days, others stay a full season. Australians Maryvonne and Shane La Peyre of Gem, a 2008 Beneteau Oceanis 50, savored New York and Long Island Sound for a full three months. "Sailing past Lower Manhattan and up the East River—you never get sick of this stuff!" exclaims Maryvonne. "We loved New York so much that we're going back to spend another summer next year."

The couple bought Gem on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten and suffered an early setback when Shane fell in a freak accident. "It cost me two broken legs to change the boat's name!" Shane exclaims. The couple showed their pluck by going ahead with their plans as soon as Shane's recovery permitted. "I propped him up at the helm," jokes Maryvonne, and there's been no holding them back since. Current plans have Gem alternating between the Caribbean and New York until the kitty runs out. Between jaunts into Long Island Sound, the Australians enjoy New Jersey's friendly Newport Marina, just a train ride away from Manhattan. Having viewed New Year's Eve fireworks from a boat in Sydney Harbor, the Melbourne natives were curious if New York's Fourth of July show would match up. "We anchored right off Ellis Island and stayed the night," recalls Maryvonne. Needless to say, they weren't disappointed.

Fireworks, quiet river escapes, and challenges on the water: Who would’ve guessed that one of the largest cities of the world would be such a satisfying place to call on by sail? Visitors and locals agree on the reward: a unique perspective on an unforgettable city.

CW contributor Nadine Slavinksi is the author of Lesson Plans Ahoy.