By Jana Seitz
Pullquote: Rockaway Beach is perfect for an autumn adventure, after the first cool snap but before the cicada chorus dies away
When I left New York City with my family on the <Queen Mary 2> in August of 2010, eastbound on a transatlantic crossing, I had my first true understanding of how connected to the sea the city is, a port town in every sense of the word. Police and fireboats hailed our exit, fishing vessels honked, and sailors saluted as our ship — the size of a fallen Empire State Building — snaked its way out. The pathway is hazardous: through the Verrazano Narrows and under the bridge of the same name connecting Staten Island and Brooklyn, then the Ambrose Channel between the Rockaway Peninsula on the New York side, and Sandy Hook on the New Jersey side. Any ship longer than 100 feet and flying a foreign flag or carrying cargo must hire a harbor pilot to bring the ship in and out through these channels connecting the sea, harbor, and pier of port, where the docking pilots take over. It’s big water scary stuff out there, and not to be taken lightly.
Fast forward to when I left New York City without my family on a jet ski last September to explore the same waterway from a different point of view, I had my first true understanding of just how big a yahoo I am. Talk about being an olive in the martini of the world, both shaken and stirred. What hubris to think I could navigate the same channels the Sandy Hook pilots have navigated since 1694, and must study for years before they even begin an apprenticeship. And how dangerous! Zooming past tankers and ships, ferries and sailboats, huge current and waves, around the Statue of Liberty and past Coney Island. Anyone with any sense loathes jet skis, even I, as they pose such hazards to boaters. But darn, it was fun. So fun that I did it again last weekend with friends, with adjustments made for getting a history lesson on the New York harbor rather than dodging ferries under the Brooklyn Bridge.
You get peeks of sea everywhere you go around here, and it makes me want to get in there and connect the dots: take a john boat through the Bronx, kayak to La Guardia, walk in waders under the Hutch in the Pelham Park estuary. From a God’s eye point of view, we’ve built our empire on flotsam and jetsam, on thousands of floating hummocks connected by estuaries. Jamaica Bay, the armpit of Queens and Brooklyn (the water you see from JFK) is a prime example. Yes it’s probably where John Gotti dumped the body, but it’s also a 25,000-acre estuary, with a 9,155-acre portion (Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge) preserved and protected under the Gateway National Recreation Area. The refuge has two man-made freshwater lakes, making it an important stop for thousands of birds on their annual pilgrimage along the Atlantic Flyway. It’s also a sanctuary for birds of another feather, immigrants who practice their religion at its shores, as is evidenced by the brochure: “After rituals, please take all ceremonial items, such as flowers, fruits, candles, bamboo flags, murthi (idols), and saris with you…a coconut can take up to 20 years to biodegrade.”
Gateway encompasses 27,000 scattered acres of urban parkland preserved since 1972 in the New York Harbor area and owned/managed by the National Park Service. Two-thirds of the spit of land protecting Jamaica Bay from the open Atlantic is owned by Gateway, flanking Breezy Point at the most western tip with a mile of dunes and sand, and to the east with Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis Park, both of which have seen finer days. Fort Tilden has been guarding New York City from any sea-faring enemies since World War I, and Jacob Riis Park was built in 1912 as a public beach.
Further east lie Rockaway and Far Rockaway, which are lined by a lovely strip of beach and boardwalk. Rockaway Beach is perfect for an autumn adventure, after the first cool snap but before the cicada chorus dies away. I’d never try it in the height of the summer or on weekends, due to the crowds and tough parking, but on a weekday in September with a bike, blanket, and book is heavenly.
While the Rockaways are welcoming, Breezy Point, not so much. Who knew a town could be a co-op? A 1.9 square mile (500-acre) co-op in fact, with about 5,000 members and one tough cookie at the guardhouse making darn sure you understand this. Non-residents can get in by dining at Kennedy’s or the Bay House (stop at guardhouse and get a pass and a parking token), but don’t try walking off your meal after lunch. It’s in and out, folks. Suffice it to say I asked for forgiveness rather than permission, making me a wanted woman in Breezy.
Map of Gateway National Recreation Area
Exploring Breezy Point on jet skis
View of the Manhattan skyline from the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
The open sea off Breezy
Navigating the Verrazano Narrows