The Kayak Chronicles ©

by Darren Caffery



in the Arthur Kill at Staten Island, NY

Friday 13, 2008


A 'graveyard' for ships is an official dumping site for obsolete watercraft.  The 'graveyard' is the location where the vessels, or their remains, have been deliberately abandoned with the approval of all relevant authorities. Although the phrase 'graveyard of ships' has also been used to romanticize a particularly dangerous area of the sea where many vessels have met their demise, this is not the meaning that is referred to here.  Previously, when a ship had reached the end of it's operational life, it would be brought out here to the highly industrialized Arthur Kill, sunk in shallow water of the Rossville Boatyard and left to rust away. The Rossville Boatyard in Staten Island, New York is a veritable graveyard of decommissioned, scrapped, and abandoned ships of various sizes, ages, and states of decay.

This paddle was a fascinating visual exploration in urban decay. The fascination here is in the weathered dilapidation of rusty metal and rotting wood, transformed by salt water into intriguing and somewhat eerie maritime sculptures, each protruding from a watery grave. Each vessel in the graveyard is constantly exposed and yielding to the forces of nature. In a strange visual irony, this graveyard is one that is best visited during the day.  When natural sunlight is cast upon each ruin, the corrosion and decay of each vessel vibrantly comes alive, almost forcing you to ponder its life history, prior to its demise.  Each vessel reveals bits and pieces of  its history and clues about its previous operations.  Although the details and histories of these vessels have drifted away, along with their working crews and captains, their ruins continue to tell a story as they lay silent and still, deteriorating in the mud with the continuous ebb and flow of the tides and exposure to the rest of the elements of nature.  I wouldn't call the Graveyard of Ships a paddler's paradise, but it is certainly a photographer's paradise!

After years of heavy industrial pollution, the Arthur Kill waterway and its coastline are now being cleaned-up and revived.  With more recent protection of the waters of the Arthur Kill and the redevelopment of open space along the bordering NY and NJ shorelines for recreation, conservation and preservation, the Graveyard of Ships is slowly disappearing.  The Graveyard and its ruins may soon become ghosts of the past.

On this Friday the 13th, our crew of 8 paddlers from the Jersey Shore Sea Kayak Association (JSSKA) consisted of myself, Mary F & Steve, Lee M, Martin K, Jimmy G, Dana R. and the trip organizer, Bob M.  We left our superstitions behind, but brought with us, our usual sense of adventure and enthusiasm for urban exploring.

We all arrived to the launch site at the Captain Carlson Park in Woodbridge, NJ between 8:50 and 9:10 am.  We were ready to launch into the Arthur Kill slightly before our intended time of 9:30.  The weather was perfect!  It was sunny and warm with temperatures already in the 80s and there was a slight breeze with almost no humidity.  Just before launching we got a reminder that the Arthur Kill is a highly industrialized waterway, as a giant barge glided quietly, but very swiftly past the dock.
One by one, we launched into the Arthur Kill.  As we waited for all the paddlers to get on the water, we floated in our kayaks.  We could see the Outerbridge Crossing in the distance upriver and a number of oil refineries on both sides of the waterway.
At about 9:20 am, after the last paddler got on the water, we had a short safety briefing from our trip organizer about some important safety concerns and other hazards that may be encountered on this paddling trip.  We needed to be very vigilant to stay out of the way of large tankers, barges, tugboats and recreational powerboaters.  Some of the industrial vessels are extremely large, move very rapidly and would not be able to see a kayaker in their path.  It was important that we stay out of the main shipping channel during our explorations of the area.  In addition, there are a number of oil refineries along the shoreline of the Arthur Kill and as a result of Post 911 US Homeland Security policies, a number of security zones have been established which restrict vessels from operating within a certain distance from these facilities or docked tankers. After our safety briefing at about 9:30 am, we made a quick quarter-mile crossing of the shipping channel to the Staten Island side of the waterway.
After only 2 miles of paddling along the coastline, we reached the watery Graveyard of Ships at Rossville, which houses the remainder of the maritime ruins. As we approached the site of the ships, we could also see the huge mountainous landfill in the distance, just beyond the graveyard.  As we got closer to the ruins of the ships, Bob M reported that many well remembered vessels seem to have been removed since his last visit there in 2007.  While we were paddling through the area, we observed a small crane that was in the process of breaking up even more of the rusted and corroding boats.  Despite some of the ship remains being removed, the area looked like it was still going to provide plenty of interesting photographs. We quickly scattered throughout the area, and each paddler seemed to go off to exploring their own portion of the watery labyrinth of the graveyard.  Although the sun was shining bright, there were some dark nooks within some of the remains of the ships that we were able to paddle into.  It was a bit spooky, and even in daylight, some of the ruins looked haunted.  The water in the Arthur Kill was also relatively calm, which added an eerie sense of stillness and quiet to these dilapidated nautical skeletons.  Occasionally out in the channel, a tug would pass by, a few minutes later sending a few unexpected swells into the shallows and through the remains of the rotting vessels. This would occasionally break the silence and the movement and the sound of small waves rolling into the rotting hulls added a sense of life to the otherwise lifeless remains. There were some wood ships, steamboats,  and a couple of ferries.  There was metal everywhere with jagged metal rusted edges all around. Some were submerged and some partially exposed. We needed to be very vigilant of these dangers as we were paddling.  These potential hazards added a sense of dangerous excitement to this urban paddling exploration.



As we continued to explore the maze of dilapidated ships, we noticed a police boat nearby in the channel outside the graveyard. It slowed as it approached the graveyard area and then stopped outside the zone marked by the large yellow cans indicating the obstruction zone. They drifted there for about 15 minutes and we assumed the authorities on board had us under surveillance. Bob M finally paddled out to greet them.  He reported that the authorities on board were Union County Police and that they were in a Homeland Security designated vessel. He also reported that the two officers on board asked the usual questions.  They appeared to be more concerned with our safety than anything else, and they reminded us to be aware of the barges and the security zones near the oil refineries.  They also told us we should monitor channel 13 on the VHF radio, as that was the bridge to bridge channel for commercial shipping vessels.  After Bob assured the officers that we were aware of and understood the safety issues, he thanked them for their guidance and they were on their way.  After more than an hour of exploring and poking around the maze of dilapidated barges and ships, some of us decided to continue farther up the river while a few others decided to stay in the shipyard a bit longer. Those that continued farther up the river paddled along the fenced off shoreline of the Fresh Kills Landfill.
The Fresh Kills Landfill is situated on the western shore of Staten Island, was the nation's largest landfill and contains more than fifty years of household debris. The name "Fresh Kills" refers to its location along the banks of the Fresh Kills estuary in western Staten Island. Under local pressure and with support of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the landfill site was closed on March 22, 2001. However, after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the landfill was temporarily reopened in order to receive and process much of the debris from the destruction. Some of the debris was later removed and taken into various locations, including museums and steel mills and the Fresh Kills Landfill is now planned to be the site of a large city park. The Fresh Kills Park Project is focused on transforming the former landfill into a new public park over the next 30 years. At 2,200 acres - almost three times the size of Central Park - New York’s Fresh Kills Park will be one of the most ambitious public works projects in the world, combining state of the art ecological restoration techniques with extraordinary settings for recreation, public art, and facilities for many sports and programs that are unusual in the city. The three-phased development of the park, will also include a September 11th memorial. The tops of the landfill mounds themselves offer spectacular vistas of the expansive site, as well as views of downtown Manhattan. The construction of the actual park is expected to start after the completion of environmental and land use reviews. The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was published for public review on May 16, 2008.
While we were paddling along the landfill, we saw what looked like a very nice park on the opposite side of the channel.  The park had a fishing pier, pavilion, floating dock and boat ramp and it looked like an area I would have to scout and explore some more on the way back. After paddling about a mile farther, we passed the fenced shoreline of the landfill, crossing Great Fresh Kill Creek. We were able to land on a beach of a small parcel of land called Island of Meadows. It was on the sandy, muddy and marshy shoreline of this island that we had our lunch. Urban Paddling at it's finest! I thought about how ridiculous it was, as we ate our lunch on an urban beach, right next to the world's largest landfill. Believe it or not, the landfill wasn't that bad to look at. It was virtually a very large grassy mound. Gone was the sight of exposed trash, the lines of garbage trucks traveling up to dump, and the large flocks of hovering seagulls. Best of all, the horrible stench was also gone! We joked around about how in a few years, people would be eating their lunch in the same area but sitting on the patio of some upscale outdoor cafe facing the new Fresh Kills Park. Welcome to the Great Northeast! After eating lunch, some of us combed the shoreline a bit. I saw a dead blueclaw crab and also found a boot partially buried in the mud of the shoreline. Luckily, it didn't have a foot in it.

At about 12:15, Jimmy, Lee and me departed the Island of Meadows and crossed the channel to scout the park while the others paddled back to the shipyard to catch up with the remaining paddlers in the group. We landed on a concrete ramp at the Carteret Waterfront Park and got out to explore the amenities. In addition to the ramp, floating dock, pavilion and fishing pier which were all observed from the water, a short hike up on land revealed restroom facilities, a picnic area with concrete benches, table and checkerboard tables, a children's playground, a "boulder climb" area and a small miniature golf course. It was a beautiful day, and there were many people in the park enjoying the waterfront from the pier. Interestingly, the view from the pier, across the Arthur Kill waterway was of the gigantic grassy mound that is the Fresh Kills Landfill. Another reminder that we were in a highly industrialized area was a sign warning people not to eat any crabs caught from within the waterway.
When we were finished scouting the park, we launched back into the river, paddled back across the channel and made our way back to the graveyard of ships to catch up with the others.  When we arrived back at the shipyard, the sun cast a light from a different angle onto the ruins, so we meandered in and out of some more wrecks to take some more pictures.
The winds began to pick up a bit more, creating a little more chop for the return to the takeout. On two occasions, a large wake rolled over the deck of my cockpit, splashing cold water into my lap which kept me awake and alert. 
On the return paddle, we paddled into a large berthing area of an abandoned factory.  We took some pictures of another dilapidated old ferry.  In addition, we also observed .... and heard, a large osprey in a nest atop a very tall tower.  After taking some more pictures, we began our paddle back to the takeout with a bit more resistance from the wind, and a little more chop.  It was a fun ride all the way back but a bit more work. We arrived safely to the Woodbridge Municipal Dock at about 2:40 pm and after paddling 9.3 miles.  After paddle food and refreshments were enjoyed, right down the street at a hospitable little tavern called Moby Dick's.

It was another great day in the Tao of Paddling.


Ecology of the Arthur Kill Arthur Kill Greenway
Fresh Kills Landfill Harbor Herons Wildlife Refuge
Fresh Kills Park Project Homeland Security Small Vessel Security Strategy
Captain Carlson Park @ Woodbridge Municipal Boat Ramp Carteret Waterfront Park &  Boat Ramp


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