The Captain and a Secret Beach

When your best friend texts, “Do you want an adventure? Right now,” your answer should always be yes.

So at 5:52 on Friday, July 24th, I put my pants on for the first time that day.

“How soon can you be here?” He asked. “Stall,” I said. “I’m on my way.”

“Here,” was Brooklyn Bridge Park. By 6:23 I was running down the north side of Pier 5 and could see him. Halfway down the pier The Mentalist stood, facing Manhattan. I still had no idea what we were doing. It could have been an elaborate joke. It wasn’t. When I reached him he said, “follow me,” climbed the fence and jumped off the pier.

A four person inflatable boat caught him. Probably a Zodiac or other similar craft. It was sturdier than the average inflatable. This was a cousin to the kind of boat navy seals use to infiltrate a beach in the dark. It had a watertight trunk in the center for storage that the man captaining the boat encouraged us to land on.

Why do New Yorkers love guest lists and hidden speakeasy bars? Spend enough time here and you are bound to hear someone say “Too many people know about it now.” In a city with over 8 million people we all want something unique, something new we can believe is our own, if if just for a little while. We crave the uncommon. Mass produced experiences are safe, but risk is really what we are after. Think about it; there is a gambling addiction hotline. Next time something terrifies you a little, it might just be a good sign.

I looked to each side. Not seeing any pursuit, I jumped into the boat. How did this guy captaining the boat, who must have been near my own age, own a boat? Did he own it? Why did we need to climb a fence and jump off a pier for this adventure? Who the hell were we trusting with our lives on the water? I had a lot of questions.

The Captain, as I will call him, had been waiting for us. The first thing he said was, “give me your phones and that notebook,” and we did. He buried them in the large black trunk in the center of the boat and said, “You won’t be needing those.” With a strong and fluid sweep of his hand the boat swung North and picked up speed. Only The Captain seemed to know where our adventure was heading.

New York City’s waterways are neglected. Most of them are not even swimmable due to contamination from rainwater runoff and raw sewage. I grew up near Lake Sammamish and Lake Washington in Washington State. In the summer everyone was on the water as often as possible. If you didn’t have a boat you made friends with someone who did. But on a Friday evening in July my friend and I and our captain saw only five other boats on the East River. The privacy was magical. I felt like someone had let me in on a huge secret. Less than 200 yards to either side of us hundreds of thousands of people were oblivious to our joy ride.

The boat was light and fast. I hunched in the bow holding onto the ropes as we rode the waves like a mechanical bull in a cowboy bar. The air smelled different. It didn’t feel dusty out there, and there wasn’t even hint of sun baked garbage.

“Where are we going?” my friend asked. Now I knew he didn’t know either. “Somewhere I’ve never been,” The Captain replied. His answers were often elusive. He was friendly and joked easily, but guarded his secrets, real or imaginary, in every moment. When I pressed him about how much the boat ran him, I only got, “Well…It has a few modifications.” He was resolute so as we passed the new luxury towers of Long Island City I turned to enjoy the scenery and listen to the The Mentalist and The Captain talk.

The Captain met my friend when they threw an exclusive party in an abandoned ship off Staten Island for a small group willing to pay artists what they deserve for a night that will never happen again. The wrap party for the crew of that event was raided by the NYPD with too many squad cars to count and at least “two helicopters.”

The Captain is one of the founders of Sextantworks — formerly Wanderlust — and goes by Nathan Austin. One of their recent projects was a true secret in the heart of Manhattan, The Night Heron Speakeasy in 2013. It ran for seven weeks illegally in an abandoned water tower high above the streets of Chelsea. Only after it closed did the press catch wind of it, leading to write ups in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Animal, and The New York Times.

Check out some of their press in the New York Times, or The Daily Beast. With great risk comes great reward, right? So the saying goes.

For The Captain, Sextantworks is about more than just fun. He cares deeply about public spaces. Sextantworks is all about reclaiming places that have been forgotten and overlooked. Even an empty 19th century storm drain can be a magical place with the right people and enough instruments, so when a public space is ruined The Captain takes it personally.

We passed the “awful” FDR Four Freedoms Park on the southern end of Roosevelt Island. I still didn’t know who The Captain was, but I was already beginning to appreciate his sense of the past, present, and future of New York. Four Freedoms Park opened to the public in 2012 and while it was hailed as “a new spiritual heart,” for NYC by the Times, others were less pleased. The Captain was among the less pleased.

The view from FDR Park is obstructed by large concrete walls on the East and West sides, so that what could be an unequal 360 degree view of NYC is a 140 degree view South. The Captain remembered the days when the southern tip of Roosevelt Island was a wild landscape. Organizers of art projects occasionally set up shop in the scrub grass and pebbled dirt. People could come and do as they pleased. It was a popular fishing spot too, but now fishing will get you kicked out, maybe even arrested. Security guards are always patrolling for people taking too many freedoms. “Even drinks are banned” The Captain said with a note of incredulity. When I asked why, he laughed and said “They are afraid it will damage the stone. It’s only made of granite.”

Four Freedoms Park is a public space in name only anymore. In practice it is more like a sculpture with a strict no-touching policy. For a man like our captain, who may or may not have commandeered the boat we were riding in, FDR Four Freedoms Park is another example of a place that has had its magic paved over.

Many things and places that are visible from the rivers are nearly invisible from anywhere else. Just north of the park is a beautiful ruin, currently under restoration, known as the Renwick Smallpox Hospital. It will be open to the public eventually, but as with most projects in a big city like New York there have been delays. “Some people think it’s haunted,” The Captain said as we passed the Neo-Gothic mansion.

As we neared the Triborough Bridge my friend asked with excitement, “Are we going to North Brother Island?” But we kept left past Mill Rock and on toward the Harlem River. Again The Captain said, “Somewhere I’ve never been.” I wanted to hear all his stories. He was a man who had found his calling and pursued it, damn the consequences.

Mill Rock is the marker for the “Hell Gate, a historically treacherous passage for ships.” The Captain said. My friend glanced anxiously over the air-fat rubber stern of the boat. It has a much more interesting history than most rocks that includes the construction of a mill for which it was named, a military fortification during the War of 1812, and more recently “the most powerful explosion in New York City’s history,” our captain informed us. He was an artist and historian. Over 300,000 lb. of explosives were used to destroy the adjoining Flood Rock in 1885 making the Hell Gate slightly safer. It may have been overkill considering, according to reports, the blast was felt as far away as Princeton, New Jersey. People have taken to saying it was the largest planned detonation in history prior to WWI, though it isn’t quite true.

Here and there along the shores of the East river, and increasingly as we entered the Harlem River, people in little alcoves or hidden grassy areas were enjoying the river’s edge. A group of girls sitting on forgotten dock pilings declined The Captain’s invitation for an adventure. It made me think about who would accept such an offer from a stranger in a boat.

On our left the Old Hill Park Water Tower stood above the trees. Down on the water a cement wall shored up most of the Harlem side. Numerous drains opened at water level. There was one section of the wall in an old stone masonry style that appeared untouched from 1872 when the water tower was built. This large horseshoe tunnel several feet above the water line that could easily fit two people sitting across from each other vanished into darkness under the hill.

When I suggested we explore the tunnel, The Captain seemed distracted and mumbled something just audible above the buzzing motor, “It would be a nice spot for a midnight jazz club.” I agreed, but we didn’t stop. “We’ll come back,” he said and, after a quick loop to peer down the tunnel, pointed the boat North again. Although I did not realize it at the time, a magician would call that misdirection.

Along the Harlem River wasted piers, cement factories and other hints of an industrial past spilled into the river as we drifted North. Drain pipes and culverts hung above the water. They were dry, but on a rainy day filth from the streets and sewers pours into the river. Its disgusting. The City is wasting a priceless resource.

Waterfront is prime real estate, but north of The Harlem River Towers it is mostly abandoned. A few commercial and industrial ventures still linger using up their resources the way people drive old cars until they die. Mostly there are shrubs and trees. New York was a forest once. Perhaps it will be again. The Captain likes the places that are in-between. The weeds along the North Harlem River had reminded me that even steel and concrete are temporary.

An hour north of NYU, we rounded the bend near Spuyten Duyvil, which most New Yorkers would be hard pressed to find on a map, and saw a monstrous blue-white C painted on rock. Locals call these cliffs overlooking the water C Rock. I remembered watching a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg recklessly leap from the top in the film “The Basketball Diaries.” Recognized spots for jumping into the river start at 30 feet and run all the way up to the peak up above the Columbia University rowing team’s painted C at over 80 feet. Ask any teenager who comes to C Rock in the summer time what their goal is and you will hear them say “B-Ball,” the name of honor bestowed on the top rock. No one was jumping from when we passed.

“Ready for the Hudson?” The Captain said with a toothy grin. But only one of us made it that far.

If you have not seen the Hudson River from the southwestern corner of Spuyten Duyvil, it is worth the trip. The view from that spot is one of the most breathtakingly unspoiled views in New York City. We did not get to stand there either though. The sun was setting over those Triassic basalt walls known as The Palisades when The Captain found the place he was looking for. We jumped from the boat across the three feet of water separating us from the beach, but once onshore The Captain smiled that grin again, tossed us our phones and my notebook, and began slowly pulling away.

We watched the boat that had carried us the length of Manhattan turn swiftly again under the confident touch of its operator and speed off north up the Hudson River. I turned to my friend who couldn’t accept our abandonment on the beach and with just enough of that sarcasm native to New Yorkers said, “This is what happens when you’re friends with a sociopath.”

You see, at the top of Inwood Park there is a beach you will not find. There is a trail that will take you there, but it is not marked. The beach is hardly 70 feet wide and hidden by the Inwood Forest and outcrops of Manhattan Island. That is where The Captain left us. There was no explanation. He failed to say goodbye, where to go, what to do, or if there was anything to expect. My friend kept saying, “there must be something more.” And maybe there has been, because the feeling I get when an adventure ends never took hold. It still hasn’t, and I think that was The Captain’s point.