Paddling Around the Statue of Liberty

Oct. 2, 2018

By Amy Sessler Powell

Sweeping vistas of iconic American symbols, fears of getting hit by giant ferries, too many emotions to process at one time — these are some images from my paddle around the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor on Sept. 15.

Paddling around Liberty and Ellis Islands on a 12-foot, 6-inch stand-up paddle board was one of the craziest and most challenging things I have done to date. I began competitive paddle boarding three years ago. This particular 6.5-mile race, the amateur division of the Association of Paddlesurf Professionals (APP) World Tour, was different than the others. I was nervous. I trained in wind, rough ocean swells and busy lakes. I put myself in well-traveled waters to get used to boat traffic. I circum-navigated small islands. I conditioned my body, strengthened my legs, arms and core, but the minute I surveyed the scene in the Hudson, I had doubts. Even though it's over and I did it, I am still not sure how one gets ready for the Hudson.

Why was I drawn to this race? It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a way to paddle around our most American symbols at a time when they seem most threatened. It was a way for me to honor the journey of fitness and sport that I started rather late in life, at my half-century mark, by striving for a major goal, timed exactly during the week commemorating the 17th anniversary of 9/11 and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time to consider the past, present and future. It was a journey that spoke to many sides of me — a second-generation Jewish woman who grew up in this region. That's how I found myself in the Hudson that day.

Race Day

As the airhorn goes off and we leave the North Cove Marina, Battery Park, at the base of the Freedom Tower to cross to the New Jersey side, people start falling in. I fall in, once, twice, three times. Can I do this? We are all confused by waves, currents and boat wakes that make no sense. But, there is camaraderie more than competition in this one. Everyone is encouraging each other, and there she is — Lady Liberty, beckoning us all just as she beckoned generations with the famous words of Emma Lazarus:

"Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

The first leg of the race crosses through a safety checkpoint created in the water on the New Jersey side. Then, we turn left around the back of Ellis Island, facing the back of the Statue of Liberty. The water is still rough with strong currents and waves, but for a few minutes there is no traffic as the large ferries are banned in this one spot. I feel so small in the water as I face these giant icons. I wonder what it feels like to be an immigrant entering New York Harbor. What did it feel like for my grandparents in 1937, Jews fleeing a Germany that threatened their life? They had once been comfortable there, but had to make terribly difficult decisions because they were Jewish. Their early life here was not easy, but they did it. I am the beneficiary of their choices as I stand here, paddling. What is my responsibility to this legacy? What do these symbols mean today? Have they lost their meaning?

I try to dwell in these thoughts for a moment, but I don't really have the luxury. Often paddling is serene, long stretches of water with gorgeous scenery. Today, it's completely different — a full emotional overload of sights, smells, thoughts and survival. The Liberty Island Ferry is in front of me and holds for a moment while a few of us pass. The people cheer the tiny racers in the water and it makes me happy, energized, which is good because the Staten Island Ferry is to my left throwing a giant wake my way. As I round Liberty Island, now looking at her side, the waters are getting crazier again and the traffic is beyond anything I ever experienced. There are boats from the Coast Guard, NYFD, NYPD, The Circle Line, freighters that seem as large as the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to my right. Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Sea is docked in Bayonne and I hope it stays right there until this race is over. We were warned to respect the perimeter set up by Homeland Security or risk being shot. I think that was a joke, but I'm not planning to find out.

The race has thinned and I'm not sure where I stand anymore and I don't really care. This one is about so much more. Finishing seems like an accomplishment. I need to take time for the vista. I am not likely to get a second chance at this amazing perspective. Yet, the race continues to challenge me and is in fact getting more difficult as we round Liberty Island, now staring once again at Ellis Island, but from the front. I'm more than halfway and I take in my last close-ups of the Statue of Liberty. Once I pass it, I don't dare look back for fear of losing my balance.

As I pass through the safety gate on the New Jersey side for the second time and and turn for the New York side, the Freedom Tower looms in the distance, sunlight bouncing off its beveled sides. It's both a beautiful sight and a terrible reminder of what happened 17 years ago this week. I am flagged down by the safety patrol and ordered to sit and wait for The Queen of Hearts to pass. I'm disappointed as affects my momentum and yet grateful for a chance to sit for a second, gulp some water and electrolytes, and enjoy the view.

As I am cleared to continue, I cross back to the New York side and round the final turn along the promenade. Now, the crowd cheers for me, but the freighter to my left sends a huge wake that hits the wall and rocks me on both sides. An NYPD boat zooms into the marina to drop people off, creating wakes in front as well. I fall again, right in the home stretch and I am determined not to complete this race on my knees. I'm exhausted physically and emotionally in this final push, but I'm going to hit my goal of finishing in under two hours. This water is challenging me to the end, but the finish line is visible. I turn into the marina, Freedom Tower up above, family and friends on the dock. I don't want to come in crying so I choke back tears. It's a confusing moment with so much to unpack. I don't even know where to begin. I'm offered a freshwater hose for my board, but instead spray myself with the cold water. I have no idea what bacteria lurks in the Hudson.

It takes the trip home to Massachusetts and the better part of the next week to sort it out, but I am not finished. It will take some time. I sit in synagogue on Yom Kippur and consider the idea of creating challenges and of being my best self in the coming year. I think about the challenges in our country, our world and my role. These thoughts take me back to the Hudson and the crashing of emotions I experienced. I'm not sure of all the takeaways, but I am sure of one. Things can be learned and practiced on all levels. Goals that seem outrageous can be achieved, but require concentration and hard work. There are no easy ways forward.

Amy PowellAmy Sessler Powell is the assistant director of HBI. She thanks her supportive family, friends, as well as trainers and communities at B&S Fitness and SUP East Coast Style.