Hell Gate, just the sound of it brought many a man to their knees in fear. Only a small stretch of the East River between New York Harbor and Long Island Sound, for centuries it conjured up images of a treacherous journey through whirlpools large enough to swallow ships and with wild rapids churning up giant standing waves and hidden rocks ready to rip the bottoms out of ships.
Originally named by the Dutch when New York was Nieuw-Amsterdam, Hell Gate or Hellegat was first navigated in 1614 by the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block. Since that time hundreds of ships have sunk in the narrow channel. Some historians believe that “one in 50 ships trying to run the gauntlet of Hell Gate was either damaged or sunk” with up to 1,000 ships running aground annually in Hell Gate prior to the 1850’s.
One of the most famous to have ended up at the bottom of Hell Gate was the British Revolutionary War frigate H.M.S. Hussar in 1780. Laden with millions of dollars (at the time) in gold and silver and over 150 men, she struck a rock and quickly sank.
During the late 19th century the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to blow up the rocks and reefs which plagued the treacherous tidal straight. At one point, the Corps used so much explosives that the blast was felt as far away as Princeton, NJ.
Today, the short stretch of river is much more benign than days of yore, but it can still be a challenge to navigate for the unprepared. Currents can run up to six knots at times and tugs with barges under tow can suddenly appear around the sharp bends of the channel. Adding to that, is the possibility of steep five foot waves near the 59th Street Bridge due to upwelling caused by the subway tunnels running under the river.
Timed correctly though, a passage through the East River and Hell Gate is an enjoyable journey between Long Island Sound and New York Harbor, with stunning views of the UN and much of midtown Manhattan. Depending on the direction of approach, there are different easy steps to follow to make your journey as enjoyable as possible.
FROM NY HARBOR TO LONG ISLAND SOUND
Any trip northbound begins in either one of two ways: 1. check for when Northeast flood begins at Hell Gate or; 2. low water at the Battery.
Hell Gate – slack water flood
- If using Hell Gate current information, use Eldridge (a book all sailors should have onboard) for when “NORTHEAST Flood Starts”. Otherwise look on the Internet for when slack – flood starts.
- Enter the East River at the southern tip of Manhattan when Northeast flood at Hell Gate begins.
- The distance from the southern tip of Manhattan (the Battery) to Hell Gate is approximately 7 nautical miles so you can calculate your time to Hell Gate depending on your boat speed.
The Battery – low water
- Again, using Eldridge, look for LOW at the Battery.
- Enter the East River at the southern tip of Manhattan 2 hours after low at the Battery.
FROM LONG ISLAND SOUND TO NY HARBOR
Any trip southbound begins in either one of two ways: 1. check for when Southwest ebb begins at Hell Gate or; 2. high water at the Battery.
Hell Gate – slack water ebb
- If using Hell Gate current information, use Eldridge (a book all sailors should have onboard) for when “SOUTHWEST Ebb Starts”. Otherwise look on the Internet for when slack – ebb starts.
- Enter the East River at the Throgs Neck Bridge when Southwest ebb at Hell Gate begins.
- The distance from the Throgs Neck Bridge to Hell Gate is also approximately 7 nautical miles so you can calculate your time to Hell Gate depending on your boat speed.
The Battery – high water
- Again, using Eldridge, look for HIGH at the Battery.
- Enter the East River at the Throgs Neck 2 hours after high at the Battery.
The times mentioned above are the earliest recommended times to enter from either direction in order to have a fair current throughout the transit. In reality, you could leave up to several hours later, but be aware that the later Hell Gate is traversed after slack, the rougher the water could be (standing waves, swirling eddies) and the more time you will need to maneuver if you suddenly find a tug and barge bearing down on you from around a blind bend in the river.
As a rule, you should not transit the East River between Riker’s Island and the Southern tip of Roosevelt Island only under sail as there could be considerable commercial traffic (barges, ferries, DEP freighters) and having maneuverability around the many blind bends is critical.
It is also important to monitor VHF channel 13 for sécurité broadcasts from various commercial traffic. This can give you a heads up as to who may be entering Hell Gate and from what direction. Also, a handheld VHF is important. I have seen too many sailboaters attempt to run between the helm and down below to use or monitor the VHF while the current is taking them into dangerous waters. That is not safe boating!
Finally, as with any passage planning, check the Coast Guard’s Local Notice to Mariners. Because of the UN being along the East River, the western side of Roosevelt Island could be closed due to security restrictions. This could leave only the eastern side open for travel and there is a lift bridge on that side with only 40 feet of clearance when down. With the currents running as fast as 6 knots on that side, many sail boats have been caught unprepared and some have even been dismasted on that bridge