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Gerry Lopez on the SEA Paddle Around Manhattan

Gerry Lopez  /  Oct 11, 2007  /  11 Min Read  /  Surfing

By Gerry Lopez


Inspired by his good friend Don King – who is making a documentary about his son who has autism – Patagonia ambassador Gerry Lopez recently participated in the Surfers’ Environmental Alliance (SEA) Paddle NYC White Water fundraiser to raise money and awareness for autism. The event consisted of the first-ever 28-mile surf paddle around the island of Manhattan and a benefit auction for which Gerry shaped and donated some surfboards. All proceeds from the event benefited Surfers Healing, Autism Speaks, NJCOSAC and SEA. Here's how the paddle went down in Gerry's own words:

Autism is a dreadful brain development disorder that is diagnosed in many children today. So many that it is believed to be more common than pediatric cancer, AIDS and diabetes combined. Autism is neurobiological, very complex and little understood. It lasts an entire lifetime. There are no boundaries ethnically, racially or socially and boys are affected four times more readily than girls. Children with autism have difficulty communicating, interacting socially and are prone to repetitive behavior and rigid routines.

[Above: Gerry Lopez paddles by the Empire State Building. Photo: John Decker]

Currently there is no effective way to prevent autism, neither are there effective treatments nor any cures. The causes of autism are still unclear; experts feel genetics and/or environment are to blame but are uncertain to what degree. There is some evidence that the mercury preservative used in children’s vaccines may be a cause. Although controversial, it does appear that the incidence of autism is increasing or, it may be, that the diagnostics are improving. Presently more cases are being reported to the point where it is possible that 1 in 150 children have autism.




Some very good friends, Don King and his lovely wife Julie-Ann have a young son, Beau who has autism. It has been through them that our circle of friends has become more aware of this disorder. Don has created a wonderful and informative film on the subject called Beautiful Son. Laird Hamilton has promoted awareness of autism through noteworthy feats of endurance such as bicycling from London to Dover, crossing the English Channel to Calais, France on a stand-up paddleboard then riding into Paris. He also went the distance in Hawaii, riding from South Point on the Big Island, leaving from Opelu Point to cross the Alenuihaha Channel to Hana, Maui. Riding from Hana to Honokowai and paddling across to the east end of Molokai, he then rode to the west end of the island to paddle the Molokai Channel to Sandy Beach, Oahu. Again riding his bike from there to Kaena Point and paddling to Kauai. His superhuman efforts have brought attention to how widespread autism is among our children.

Darrick Doerner and Andrew Mencinsky of the Surfer’s Environmental Alliance (SEA) invited me to join them in their effort to promote awareness of autism. The SEA Paddle NYC Autism Event was a 28-mile paddle around Manhattan Island. At 9am, August 13th, Monday morning, Darrick, Andrew, myself and a host of 30 or so surfers from the East Coast, California, Hawaii and other parts of the world launched ourselves on a variety of surf craft from Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport. With a dock full of historic ships as well as Wall Street and its current problems in the background, we headed down the East River towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Many surfers had responded to the call. Joel Tudor, the best longboarder in surfing was there. Alexander Kaninsky, a former Australian now New Yorker helped organize the event and was eager to get in the water. Ron House of San Clemente, California, one the foremost designers of the contemporary stand-up paddle board was in attendance with his star team rider, Kyle Mochizuki and friend/artist, Drew Brophy.


Photo: John Decker


Photo: Andrew Brusso


The water was rough and turbulent, wakes from the numerous ferries tossed us around and not a person in our group relished a dunking in the dirty water of this busy harbor. Many of us were on stand up paddle boards, but there were also regular paddleboards, a few surfboards and several kayaks. Escort boats included a number of fishing and pleasure craft, jet skis, one official Staten Island Ferry and even a NYC Harbor Police launch. Our somewhat motley gang of surfers attempting the first ever surf paddle circumnavigation of Manhattan were happy and energetic as we passed beneath the famed Brooklyn Bridge. Not far beyond, the Manhattan Bridge, backed up with early morning commuters, was our next landmark. Going around a slight left hand bend, the beautiful Williamsburg Bridge loomed ahead. The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building were visible through the maze of high rises. The going got smoother as the river widened and our group began to string out as the stronger paddlers surged ahead. FDR Drive was to our left and occasional drivers honked as they passed by. The borough of Queens was to our right and the Queensboro Bridge crossing Franklin D. Roosevelt Island downstream. The current was in our favor, the river banks sliding by at a rapid pace creating a very gay mood with our paddling group.

Somewhere not far ahead near the confluence of the Harlem and East Rivers was the infamous Hell Gate. Our guides had warned of this notorious obstacle which at the wrong moment of the tidal push would be all but impassable on our surf craft. At its worse, Hell Gate had floundered or capsized a multitude of ships over the years. Our hope was to cross this strait at the extreme slack tide where the currents would be at their lowest ebb. The Triborough Bridge and the Hell Gate Bridge connect Manhattan to Queens and the Bronx and pass over Ward’s Island and Randall Island. We were told to keep to the extreme left as the two rivers split so to enter the Harlem branch. I was more than a little worried about the Hell Gate after all the stories. But the bridges we passed under were many, the names a blur … the Willis Avenue Bridge, the Third Avenue Bridge, the Park Avenue Bridge … all connecting Manhattan with the Bronx. Finally I asked another paddler when we would be passing the Hell Gate and he answered that we had gone through it 30 minutes ago. I thought back and could remember only flat water. Our timing must have been impeccable for this is what the plan had been … when the ideal tide situation was researched to select the best and most favorable moment to negotiate the worrisome obstacle.

The Harlem River was a narrow waterway but without much boat traffic. Occasionally the head of the group would stop and gather to wait for the back runners to catch up. The escort boats cruised through the field offering cold drinks and candy bars while photographers snapped pictures. The pace was steady but not difficult to maintain, allowing for plenty of conversation amongst the paddlers. It was my first time at long distance on a stand up board. The paddle blade has much more area than two hands so the effort to maintain the speed of the racing paddleboards was minimal.

The bridges continued to appear ahead and were quickly passed under. The Madison Avenue Bridge and the 145 Street Bridge went by overhead. Next was the Macombs Dam Bridge and someone pointed out Yankee Stadium. The Bronx covered a lot of ground to our right, Ft. Apache the police station went by as well as some plywood and cardboard shanties built right on the river’s edge … cheap accommodation on high end river front real estate. The High Bridge, the Alexander Hamilton Bridge and the Washington Bridge passed quickly by. More bridges appeared ahead, the University Heights Bridge and the Broadway Bridge. Then it was the Henry Hudson Bridge and finally the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge where we all stopped again to rest a moment before we entered the Hudson River for our final leg. The bottom of this bridge was low enough that I was forced to duck under and I wondered about our escort boats. But the middle span swung open and the whole of our entourage passed into the Hudson. At this point we were about halfway through our course.


Photo: James Allen Walker


Photo: Andrew Brusso 


Photo: Andrew Brusso


The Hudson River was wide and fast flowing, the banks green and well forested on both the New York and New Jersey sides in sharp contrast to the cement, brick and steel along the Harlem River. Up ahead the big George Washington Bridge connected Manhattan with Fort Lee, New Jersey. The current pulled us along at a rush. Far ahead in the distance someone pointed out a tall building on the Jersey shore. Opposite that, across the river on Manhattan, our journey would end. I had a goal in sight. We must have traveled almost 20 miles to this point and I was amazed that it had gone by so quickly and without undue effort. My hands were sore although without blisters, my shoulders feeling a little ache but otherwise I was fine.

To tell the truth, it had been pretty easy so far. Standing up was much better than lying down or kneeling on a surfboard. I had had leisurely conversations with fellow paddlers the entire way, drank ice cold water brought to me by the escort boats and enjoyed a view of New York City I’m sure few residents have had of their sprawling city. Up ahead sailboats were moored, straining hard on their anchor lines as we bore down on them in the strong rush of current. The tree lined shore gave way to boathouses, piers and buildings. We were moving quickly but our destination was still far ahead. As I became wearier I thought about an old tactic I had used many times in paddleboard races in the past. Like the cyclists in the Tour de France, drafting the rider ahead reduces effort. I locked onto the tailblock of a steady looking racing paddleboard. My nose slightly bumped his tail and the paddler looked backward over his shoulder.

“I hope you don’t mind a caboose?” I replied to his questioning glance.

It didn’t appear that he did so I held my position. Caught up in his wake, I coasted along. My effort output was down by 25% by staying on his tail. In effect, he was pulling me along although I added nothing to his own efforts. It took some concentration to keep position but physically I was cruising. Darrick was ahead but not maintaining as steady a pace. As we went past, he looked over and I heard him exclaim,

“I see what you’re doing.”


Darrick_ D_2
Photo: John Decker


Darrick, one of the world’s finest big wave experts was a big impetus behind the event, the rallying point for these surfers. SEA is a non-profit organization working to preserve beaches, waves, access to both, a clean ocean and the cultural and environmental integrity of surfing. Darrick and Andrew, the executive director of SEA brainstormed the paddle around Manhattan idea. No one had ever done this kind of thing before especially not on surfboards. In our initial correspondence, Andrew had informed me that there is a swim around Manhattan and the swimmers generally get hepatitis shots beforehand. I replied that I hoped I wasn’t going to fall in … if I could help it. We all agreed that stand up paddling was the best way to do this marathon event. Darrick had given a short speech before we started, expressing that this was not a race. The idea was to get everyone to finish so anytime if it appeared someone might need a hand, stop and help out. I think Darrick was getting as tired as I was on this final leg. As I went by closely following the guy in front, Darrick called out to the group around him,

“Come on guys, GL has the right idea.”

Like parade ground soldiers, everyone formed up and we soon had a long train running. The thing about stand up paddling is that it’s not possible to go in a straight line, when the paddle is stroking on one side the board goes slightly the other way. The lay down paddler ahead of me was doing a pretty good job of staying straight with his double overhand stroke but I was weaving from side to side behind him. The same for the guys behind me except the further back the wider the swing. It was like a long snake and the tail was wandering all over the place. But it was fun and the laughter lightened the fatigue.

Soon the high rise buildings came back into view except now we were directly on the opposite side of the southern end of Manhattan from where we began this paddle. The big building on the New Jersey shore I was using for my reference got closer and closer. Several boats from the North Cove Marina where we were to finish sailed out, full of people, to watch us come in. We were strung out in a long line … 28 miles is a long haul. Finally we were there. I paddled into the marina and pulled alongside an empty boat slip. I had been standing up in the same position for about 5 and ¾ hours, gratefully I slumped down on the dock. Darrick and I pulled our boards out of the water and had exactly the same thing in mind. Find a hose and take a long, cool, fresh water shower. We had gone the distance. People waiting at the North Cove greeted and congratulated us. The other paddlers began arriving. It had been a great event without any mishaps and the best part was that it was over; the 28 long miles were behind us. Smiles were everywhere, sure we were tired, stiff, a little sore but we were stoked … we had made it.


Photo: Andrew Brusso 


Photo: John Decker


After a while of sitting around, someone mentioned that the World Financial Center was right behind us. So in our wet surf trunks we walked over to take a look. There across the street was Ground Zero, the site of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center that had come crashing down on that fateful September 11th day only 6 years ago. It was a sobering reminder of the reality of the world we live in. But it also stirred up some of the conversations from the paddle, several regarding the fact that the waves had been exceptionally good that September 11 morning. A number of surfers who would have been at work in Towers had instead taken the morning off to go surfing. If one is hopeful, in any darkness there always seems to be some light. I hope our paddle will make a few people interested enough to contribute more attention towards autism.

Keep paddling.


Check out a video from the event over on YouTube, and consider making a donation to Autism Speaks while you're there. Beautiful Son will premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival on October 19 at 6:00pm. It will also be coming to public television in April 2008. Check in March for broadcast dates/times on your local PBS station. Special thanks to Andrew Mencinsky and Darrick Doerner for their help with this post. If a trip to the North Shore is in your future, and you're an intermediate or advanced surfer looking to go big, check out Darrick's surf school: DD-SEA.

[Photos courtesy of SEA Paddle NYC.]

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