NEW YORK -- Even on the only cloudy day last week, the waters in and around New York City
teemed with boats of every description.
A speedboat towed a soaring parachutist past the Statue of Liberty while several sea kayaks bobbed near the World Trade Center. The Chelsea Screamer, a 50-foot orange ocean-racing power boat for hire, spewed a rooster tail of foam as it roared past an antique schooner setting sail on a lunch-time cruise near Battery Park.
And as tugboats pushed two hulking black barges up the Hudson, ferries large and small wove their way between New Jersey and Manhattan, carrying thousands of commuters.
Despite the growing tangle of cargo craft, pleasure boats and commuter vessels in the busiest harbor on the East Coast, Coast Guard and New York City police officials say the waters here have remained remarkably safe.
But this year, there are signs of trouble on the water, with some people who frequent the harbor and the Hudson saying the area is getting too popular, too fast. The rise in boating activity, they say, may be close to outstripping the resources of federal and local marine-safety officials, whose budgets are flat or shrinking.
"Until now, the waterways have been like an empty street," said Tom Fox, the owner of New York Water Taxi, which has commissioned several new ferries that are to begin service around lower Manhattan next year.
"Now it's filled with the equivalent of bicycles, Rollerbladers, trucks, cars, buses. As it gets busier and busier, that's going to present a real challenge to public safety."
After five years with no more than one boating fatality in a single year, so far this year three people have died in New York City waters, according to the Police Department Harbor Unit.
The deaths include a Bronx man who fell out of his inflatable runabout near Pelham Park last Tuesday and died when the boat's propeller struck his head.
On July 26, two jet skis collided in Orchard Beach, and one of the drivers died two weeks later. Jet skis are now considered the most serious problem on the water, accounting for nearly 30 percent of accidents across the state even though they are only 10 percent of the total fleet of pleasure craft, said Capt. John Cassidy, the commander of New York City's 150-member Harbor Unit.
The third death occurred when a biologist drowned near the George Washington Bridge while hauling nets in a small boat at night as part of a research project.
Further afield, accidents on private and commercial craft are also making headlines. Two weeks ago, near the Tappan Zee Bridge, a water taxi that lacked a valid Coast Guard certificate capsized on its way from Nyack to Tarrytown while carrying eight more people than its legal limit. One elderly passenger died, four others were hospitalized and half a dozen children were pulled from the water by frantic parents fighting for their own lives.
Coast Guard officials say their spot checks and inspections have helped keep such incidents rare. But in response to the budget cuts, the agency has been encouraging passengers on water taxis and ferries to pitch in by scrutinizing the boats they board -- checking for certificates, licensed captains, the proper number of passengers and well-labeled life jacket bins, among other things -- and calling the authorities if something appears awry.
In New York City, spot checks of ferries and pleasure boats by the Coast Guard are backed up by patrols and inspections by the police harbor patrols.
Cassidy said that three years ago his unit began compiling profiles of every ferry, water taxi, dinner-cruise boat and other commercial vessel in city waters to aid in spotting safety violations.
But the Coast Guard and police inspection units are operating with budgets
that have not increased for
A General Accounting Office report last year on the Coast Guard concluded that budget cuts earmarked by the Office of Management and Budget would require significant reductions in services, probably including unpopular measures like closing some rescue stations.
"Since fiscal year 1992, the Coast Guard has assumed increased responsibilities while shrinking its work force by nearly 10 percent and operating with a budget that has risen about 1 percent a year in actual dollars," the report said.
And the number of commercial craft continues to rise. Before 1986, small commercial water taxis and ferries in New York Harbor for commuters were unknown, said Alan Olmsted, the director of the City Transportation Department's office of private ferry operations.
But since then the number of passengers carried by ferry and taxi fleets has grown quickly -- with average weekday ridership in the summer rising from around 4,000 passengers a day in 1988 to nearly 30,000 today, Olmsted said.
The commercial ferries, numbering in the dozens, are relatively easy to monitor, officials say. Far more challenging is the thickening small-boat traffic. Only boats with motors are registered by the state, and private pleasure craft undergo no regular inspections.
Responding to the rise in jet ski collisions, the police have adopted new patrol tactics. Jet skis, which are concentrated mainly in places like Jamaica Bay, Orchard Beach and City Island, are now being tracked by a seven-member task force using their own jet skis and unmarked speedboats, Cassidy said. A new state law enacted this summer will require that jet ski operators take classes. But other small craft, like kayaks and canoes, are virtually unregulated.
Several sea kayaking businesses have opened along the West Side in recent years and are quickly growing. The kayak concession at the Chelsea Piers Sports Center "is booming," said Fred Greco, the center's athletic coordinator. "We started our mailing list at 250 in January and have 600 names right now."
The kayaks, which ride low in the water and often cross shipping channels to visit the Statue of Liberty, are a growing concern to tug boat operators and pilots who shepherd barges and freighters around the harbor.
With more and more kayaks, sailboats, rowing skiffs and other pleasure craft appearing along Manhattan's West Side piers, representatives of the shipping industry are calling for a kind of zoning for harbor waters, placing busy shipping channels off-limits to pleasure craft.
The zoning proposal has been a hot topic at meetings of the Harbor Safety, Navigation and Operations Committee, a group representing harbor businesses and marine-safety agencies that is trying to work out a long-term plan for avoiding accidents.
Committee chairman Andrew McGovern, a veteran harbor pilot, said that something must be done or an increase in accidents is inevitable. "The Coast Guard says the waterways are open to all," McGovern said. "That may be true, but there has to be some logic. You're not allowed to take a bicycle on a railroad track, or a horse on a highway."
A recent close call just a few miles north of the George Washington Bridge illustrates the potential for disaster. Andrew Hudak, 60, a carpenter from Yonkers, paddled out that night to enjoy the rising full moon from his 15-foot white canoe.
He had been canoeing on the river for more than 11 years, never missing a month in that time, he said.
As he headed east across the river at 10 p.m., following the glimmering trail of moonlight, he heard an approaching roar.
He could see a speedboat coming, and the craft seemed to veer to the right to avoid him, he said. But then it veered left. "The next thing I know is an explosion," he said. "I'm underwater trying to figure out if I'm alive."
The boat circled back, picked up Hudak and the two pieces of his neatly sliced canoe, and headed to shore to get an ambulance and the police. Hudak escaped with just a bruised ankle. No charges were filed against him or the operator of the speedboat.
"It was my fault," Hudak said. But he added that the river was now so crowded with loud, fast craft that it is becoming more difficult to avoid accidents.
He said he planned to continue paddling on the Hudson, borrowing a friend's canoe. But, he added, "I don't think I'll be doing the moon shot for awhile."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company