2 kayakers injured as high winds disrupt race


By Jefferson Siegel

The third annual Mayor’s Cup NYC Kayak Championships got off to a promising start Sunday morning as the first of seven flights of kayaks launched from the North Cove Marina at 10:30 a.m. The event, a 27-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan Island featured more than 100 of the world’s best paddlers. Over an hour into the race, as the last group of paddlers left North Cove, rough waters and high winds swamped several of the contenders, injuring two and forcing organizers to cancel the race.

Conditions were favorable mid-morning with sunny skies and temperatures in the 40s. Headwinds were blowing into the racers at 15 m.p.h., which meant a tailwind for the last half of the competition. As the first groups of kayakers set off north up the Hudson, the winds and water chop increased.

At 11:30 a.m., the next to last group, the “Fast Touring” kayakers left the Cove and paddled into increasing winds and choppier waters. The final group, the “Elite Open Surfski Division” of 39 kayaks, was scheduled to launch at noon. However, the elites had already congregated near the inner mouth of the Cove at 11:45 a.m, many taking up positions past the official starting point. Using a bullhorn, a race official gave a one minute warning but, sensing the impatience of the group and the questionable water conditions, he followed seconds later with a countdown from 10 to one.

“The folks who know the water well use the wind and waves to their advantage,” explained race director Ray Fusco. He added that the top paddlers welcomed the choppy conditions. “It’s the water, it’s a dynamic environment.”

The elite paddlers swarmed out of the Cove’s mouth, making a sharp right turn to the north. As the did, they passed a temporary barge moored by the Cove that was holding construction materials for the new ferry terminal. As a crowd of paddlers met the higher winds and choppier waters of the open river, many in the group suddenly found themselves being swept towards the barge.

In a veritable “perfect storm” of bad circumstances, as the mass hit the rough open waters, several came close to colliding and one lost an oar as three kayakers were unable to clear the barge. Despite their best efforts to avoid the barge, they were tossed against it. With the top of the barge jutting out above them, they suffered what one race official called an “undercut,” as the waves threw them over and over against the underside of the metal barge.

The three were thrown from their kayaks. One of them, Kurt Kuehnel, managed to climb onto the barge and found a rope, which he tossed over the side to the remaining two. However, the pair under the barge’s overhang were being slammed against the barge and either didn’t see the rope or couldn’t let go of their kayaks for fear of further injury.

A group of race officials and onlookers watching from the Cove’s south bulkhead gasped as they lost sight of one man while the second threw his arms around his overturned kayak as the waves continued to throw them mercilessly against the barge.

As people called for help, the sounds of sirens quickly filled the air as emergency vehicles approached from several directions. Several ambulances raced down North End Ave. to the edge of the World Financial Center. At least three more ambulances and several police cars filled River Terrace as officers and paramedics ran across the grass of Rockefeller Park towards the water.

A Coast Guard launch that had been stationed just outside the Cove’s entrance rushed in. An N.Y.P.D. boat also sped out of the cove and approached the swamped boaters.

After several tense minutes, the pair were pulled onto the N.Y.P.D. launch, their kayaks still in the river and still being thrown against the barge. The kayakers, Dr. Tim Burke and Dr. Thomas Walek, were pulled into the police boat. Of the three, Kuehnel suffered bumps and bruises and Walek a cut finger. E.M.T.’s responding to the scene treated them on site.

Within minutes a fourth kayaker had swamped out in the river near Chambers St. E.M.T.’s rushed to the esplanade with a gurney as a police helicopter appeared, swooping low overhead. A police boat bounced in the rough waters as it approached the kayaker and pulled him aboard. The boat circled around once and retrieved the kayak.

Other racers from the early departures were not faring well either. A dozen had to leave the race prematurely after succumbing to exhaustion or dehydration. The injuries at the Cove forced organizers to make the decision to end the race.

“We had a conversation with N.Y.P.D. Harbor and the Coast Guard,” Fusco told Downtown Express on Monday, “we talked about the scope of the race and the unbearable conditions and we decided, for the safety of the overall event, it was best to cancel it.”

The early starters were approaching the George Washington Bridge, near the convergence of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, when chase and safety boats announced news of the cancellation through loudspeakers.

Disappointed paddlers made for shore, although a live blogging of the event shows some expressed dissatisfaction with having to wait on land for pick-up. After a time, some returned to the water to paddle to the finish line.

“Ultimately for the overall safety of the event, it was better to cancel the race,” Fusco said, promising that, “We’ll be back bigger and better next year.”