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The City's Crowded Waterways

by Peter Fleischer, Jul 01, 2000
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Giant oil tankers, passenger ferries, freight ships laden with Toyotas all navigate the narrow channels of New York's harbor. So, increasingly, do sail boats, jet skiers and kayaks.

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The waters are not always calm between the traditional commercial and the new recreational users. "You can not see them until it is almost too late", says one tugboat veteran of the kayaks and jet-skies. "They seem to steer right toward us", said one kayaker of the ferries.

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"Everyone has a right to use the waterways," says Chip Lopez. "Kayakers have just as much right as tug boats."

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Lopez is a lieutenant in the United States Coast Guard. He is leading the effort to make sure the recreational and commercial users avoid knocking hulls or knocking heads.

Lieutenant Lopez works closely with the Coast Guard's Vessel Tracking Service, a mostly modern facility tucked into the Fort Wadsworth complex on Staten Island. Computer screens show harbor images to trained Coast Guard officers. Cameras located at critical harbor crunch points send back live pictures. The CG has the resources to watch the big ships and the danger spots. Small vessels and most of the harbor's small waterways are "off the radar screen."

Adam Brown, president of the not-for-profit Working Waterfront Association, works to balance a rising tide of usage with the traditional ways and routines. "Pleasure craft are the smallest, least maritime educated and fastest moving users", he notes. Mr. Brown has entered the fray between kayakers and ferryboats, jet skiers and container ships, maritime tradition and recreational freedom.

Brown observes that "this is the smoke before the fire". Commercial traffic is up. Pleasure use is rapidly emerging. "We need to educate and we need to plan". Brown supports efforts to educate users by promulgating nighttime lighting schemes for small boats and creating color-coded harbor maps showing the shipping channels. A test program to identify conflict points has been proposed.

While safety is the primary mission of the responsible authorities, enforcement is also necessary. The Coast Guard, the New York State Marine Police and the New York City Police Department Harbor Units share jurisdiction. None of the entities has adequate resources resulting, in gaps in enforcement. The mix of federal, state, and city waterfront regulations lead to overlap and confusion. The harbor itself is vast. New users are untrained in maritime practice.

On a recent afternoon, million gallons of oil headed through the Arthur Kill even as a dozen kayakers paddled on a free boat trip to the Statue of Liberty. On this trip, their routes did not cross.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.




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