By Dan Fannon
In the Highlands, the Hudson River flows through remarkably deep water past towering mountains with names like Dunderberg and Storm King. But in its northern reaches, the river changes character. The course widens and shoals as it passes the Hudson Valley’s verdant farmlands, forming flats, enormous miles-long islands of mud and silt just under the water’s surface.
The charts mark these areas as 3 feet mean low water, but it’s not unusual to find a thick carpet of green reeds and brown soil blanketing most of the river’s surface. Given the strong currents and turbulence from passing barges, being mired in the mud flats can quickly become life-threatening.
One Labor Day weekend, I headed upriver toward Catskill Creek. With a rising tide and a steady 15-knot wind astern, I was making excellent time despite a rigorous 3-foot chop.
[x_pullquote type=”right”]The USPS pledge to render assistance whenever possible is easily recited at meetings, but at this moment, the hard reality of those words set in. [/x_pullquote]A few miles past the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, I noticed the flat hull and upturned keel of a 14-foot sailboat in the middle of the flats. Attempting to right the boat, a young man repeatedly stood on the keel, but every time the mast came out of the water, the main sail filled, pushed the boat over and sent the man into the churning waves. This guy was in serious trouble, and my boat was the only vessel within sight and in a position to offer help.
The USPS pledge to render assistance whenever possible is easily recited at meetings, but at this moment, the hard reality of those words set in. The easy part was alerting the local marine sheriff, readying a safety line tied to a life ring and lowering the swim ladder to get the sailor safely onboard. The hard part was realizing that I might not be able to reach him without endangering myself and my boat.
Miraculously, the GPS chart plotter showed that the sailboat was in a small cul-de-sac of 8-foot-deep water, so I threaded my way from the channel into the flats a few yards from the capsized boat. I was glad the sailor was wearing his life jacket.
“I will throw you a line so that you can come aboard,” I said. But he made it clear he wanted to save his boat as well as himself. I told him that I couldn’t do both.
Melodic has a round bottom, and whenever I left the wheel to ready the lines and life ring, it would broach to the waves and roll back and forth 20 degrees, which meant being in the flats in a 15-knot wind would make a shut-off-the-engine-and-lock-the-propeller rescue extremely difficult. Still, I had to try.
After four difficult turns around the sailor, he would not come aboard. So I told him that I would not leave until he either got on his boat or gave up trying, but I warned him that drowning was a real possibility. After a watchful 10 minutes, the Ulster County Sheriff’s rescue boat came into view. They thanked me for helping and ordered me out of there. I don’t know if that sailor saved his boat or not, but the officers wouldn’t let him go under.
Back on course and out of harm’s way, I was content in having learned a lesson from our USPS pledge to do everything possible to render assistance in danger and yet remain safe—and to know the difference.
Cdr Daniel Fannon, AP, of New York’s Bayside Power Squadron/3 enjoys cruising the Hudson River in Melodic, a 1936 Elco he painstakingly restored.
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