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It was a bright Sunday afternoon when Michael Glass paddled out of the 79th Street Boat Basin on the Hudson River for a solo kayak trip to the Downtown Boathouse on Pier 26 in Tribeca. Such outings, once an exotic treat for daredevils, have become routine pleasures as local waterways get cleaner. But the menace he encountered went way beyond outdated fears about infection.
“I was opposite the Intrepid, heading south, and I saw two jet skis heading north toward me. They seemed to be coming perilously close. I raised my paddle to signal to them that I was there, in case they didn’t see me,” Glass recalls. He might as well have raised a red flag to a bull.
“They proceeded to come at my boat one at a time. The first came at me at about 35 miles per hour and then spun away, maybe 10 or 12 feet from the boat,” he says. “Then the second one came, and he kept coming. He looked like he was going to hit. I dove off and actually heard a clunk, like the jet ski was grazing the boat.”
After he got back into his kayak, he paddled over to a sailboat and immediately called the police. Both the police and Coast Guard were there “literally in minutes,” Glass says, but his attackers were long gone.
That was September 2000. Little did Glass know that he’d witnessed the birth of a new extreme sport—kayak hunting. But when he was attacked again last month in Inwood, battling rogue jet skiers became a cause. Glass, founder of the fledgling New York Kayak Club, has become the point person with the city cops on harbor patrol who’ve been left to stem the menace, since New York State shut down its special unit this summer, leaving one boat with two officers on patrol, and only on weekends.
“There have never been more than one or two such incidents, if that, until this year,” says Ralph Diaz, a paddler who chairs the Human-Powered Boating Group. But this summer alone, he has counted over a dozen documented attacks, most against kayakers, but some against dinghies in mooring fields.
Glass thinks those numbers, culled largely from members of an e-mail listserv for New York City kayakers, are hugely conservative. “There have been probably over 100 incidents easily, because most people don’t necessarily post these things,” he argues. “It’s really just a matter of time before someone is seriously hurt or worse.”
Diaz says the goal of these attacks seems to be to spray the kayaker, and perhaps to flip the boat. It’s a variation on the game of chicken, only with the instigator on a motorcycle and the victim on a bicycle.
Fans of jet skis aren’t the most receptive audience for concerns. Greg Smith, proprietor of www.jetski.com, dismisses the reports. “Never heard of any such attacks anywhere. Sounds very bogus, probably disinformation from some eco group,” he wrote in an e-mail, apparently unaware that a reader of his own page posted a note worrying that maniacal jet skiers might get the vehicles banned.
David Jenkins, president of the American Canoe Association, points to manufacturers like Polaris, which markets its personal watercraft with the slogan “Thumb your throttle at the world!” slogan. “They’re trying to sell that culture and that attitude,” says Jenkins, who wants high-speed play restricted to zones kayakers can avoid. New York State law already restricts recreational vessels to 5 miles per hour within 100 feet of shore.
Some kayakers try to read a social context into the attacks. Anecdotal evidence suggests that kayakers tend to be older, whiter, and more likely than jet skiers to live in, or launch from, pricey Manhattan neighborhoods. But the real issue seems to be a fetish for speed. Adam Brown, chair of the Harbor Community Liaison and Oversight Committee, called in state police when jet skiers marred the opening celebration of a kayak launch at Valentino Pier in Red Hook. He says the yahoos turned out to be white, middle-aged, off-duty New York City cops.
“A jet skier hundreds of yards off and revving his engines isn’t going to be thinking about your race,” Diaz observes.
But they might think you’re gay. The most popular kayak docks in Manhattan are on the Hudson River in gay-friendly neighborhoods like Chelsea, Greenwich Village, and Tribeca. Rick, a caterer who for years worked near the Hudson in the Village, says the sharks were circling long before kayaks arrived. “They’d pull up to places where people were sunbathing and sitting, reading, along the river,” he says, adding slyly, “and maybe doing a few other things.” The jet skiers “were doing doughnuts and the whole bit, spraying people up on the pier. They’d yell the usual anti-homosexual remarks: ‘Hey faggot, you want it?’ or ‘Why don’t you suck me off?’ And then they’d just race away,” he recalls. Not that they never experimented. “Sometimes they’d wind up letting people get on and go for rides.”
A jet skier was drifting on a recent Sunday with a dead engine in the Spider, a nexus of currents from the Hudson River, East River, Buttermilk Channel, and the Upper Bay of New York Harbor. Interviewed by kayak as he tried to restart the machine, he made quick sense of police speculation that many of the marauders put in at the Hazard Boat Ramp on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. “It figures,” he said. “Fucking New Jersey fags.”
And then there’s the pastime of harbor tag, says Brown. “They come up alongside large vessels, and besides trying to jump wakes, they try to touch the sides of large ships. They get points for the bravest or most insane attempt.”
NY Waterway confirmed that two jet skiers raced up behind one of its ferries docked at West 38th Street in July, and each thumped its stern. The reckless behavior spawns rumors of egregious jet ski violations: A jet ski zoomed right between the hulls of a ferry catamaran; jet skis were surfing the bow wake of the Queen Elizabeth II.
But those fish tales didn’t pan out, and indeed, the rising menace to kayakers comes at a time when other complaints against jet skis are down, reports Coast Guard law enforcement liaison Lieutenant Alma Certa. And most jet skiers aren’t out to terrorize. Diaz remembers one who helped bring a kayaker to shore quickly when she was having chest pains, and one helped this reporter find a friend who’d wandered off in the marshes as sunset neared.
A spokesman for New York State Parks says that unlike last year, none of the 16 boating fatalities it has tabulated have involved the 40,000 jet skis registered in the state. But while these craft make up less than 10 percent of registered boats in New York, they account for 30 percent of all accidents. New York and New Jersey forbid riding jet skis at night and are ramping up training requirements.
That’s the correct response to the problem, says a spokesman for Kawasaki Motors, maker of Jet Skis. The company even donates vehicles to police units specializing in personal watercraft patrols.
The city’s harbor patrol has a jet ski unit, but it’s spread thin, and the Coast Guard has undergone successive rounds of budget cuts. The gutting of law enforcement is a key factor in the recent explosion of incidents, Brown says.
Glass and Diaz both praised the responsiveness of the municipal harbor patrol, which invited the two for a ride along after Glass contacted officials. “They really are making an attempt, but they are hampered by not enough resources and not enough funding,” Glass observes.
Meanwhile, kayakers are certainly in no position to defend themselves against the attacks. They fantasize on listservs about mounting sidewinder missiles and other heavy weapons to their bows. One National Rifle Association member from Brooklyn encouraged participants to bear arms in their kayaks. Even macho outrigger canoe athletes are made to feel like 90-pound weaklings, says Roger Meyer, president of New York Outrigger. “It’s a bit terrifying because you’re on the verge of getting a deathly collision, and it’s such a helpless feeling. You’re in a boat with six athletic, strong young guys and there’s nothing you can do about it.”