A ride around Manhattan via stand-up paddleboard with Clif Bar and SEA Paddle NYC in support of environmental and autism organizations.
The day began with an emergency alert of flash flood warnings blasting through iPhones—not exactly the notification you want to get before a challenging 25-mile paddle around Manhattan. People traveled from all over the East Coast to watch and be a part of the 2018 SEA Paddle. Anxious competitors stood in silence, nibbling on Clif Bars while the sky turned dark gray and the currents picked up in the East River. Over 200 people gathered under the Brooklyn Bridge while rain incessantly poured down and lightning shot through the clouds. Would the race go on?!
Anxious competitors stood in silence and nibbled on Clif Bars while the sky turned dark gray.
Created in 2007, SEA Paddle NYC’s 25-mile paddle around Manhattan is one of the premier SUP and prone paddle events in the world. It has raised more than $3.2 million by drawing hundreds of participants to support a number of key non-profit autism and environmental organizations. Paddlers begin their journey under the Brooklyn Bridge, head north up the East River and into the Harlem River, then down the Hudson River where they finish at Chelsea Piers Marina.
This was my first time at the Paddle, and I spent the day chilling with the Clif Bar Team. Clif Bar got involved in the Paddle in 2016 as a part of their growing initiative to support stand-up paddle events that promote, preserve and protect the environment. Since then, Clif Bar has been a major partner for SEA Paddle NYC. This year, the Clif Bar Team consisted of nine women and 10 men who raised over $11,800 for SEA. They also teamed up with Plastic Tides (an organization that combines stand-up paddle expeditions, education and outreach to change the world’s mindset on plastic and the environment) to make the Paddle a plastic-free event by banning single-use plastics for the day.
What impressed me most about SEA Paddle was the sense of community felt among the competitors and their families, despite being a vigorous competition with a cash prize involved. Everyone was there to support the paddlers as much as possible—preparing boards, checking tide reports and passing out snacks. As a newcomer to the event, everyone was incredibly friendly and excited to share why they were competing and what causes were most important to them.
Finally, the sky began to clear and the water’s surface turned smooth as glass—SEA Paddle announced that the race would go on! I hopped on board the Clif Bar boat and watched 27 elite competitors line up under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. The fearless paddlers crept through strong currents up the East River, past Midtown and into Hells Gate—a narrow tidal strait located in the East River between Queens and Ward’s Island. Throughout history, Hells Gate has been notorious for whirlpools, shipwrecks and urban legends. Paddlers told me it feels like you’re in a hamster wheel when you go through this area. You paddle as hard as you can, but you barely move.
Throughout history, Hells Gate has been notorious for whirlpools, shipwrecks and urban legends. Paddlers told me it feels like you’re in a hamster wheel when you go through this area.
As expected, the East River was murky green and filled with plastic. I even saw a bloated dead rat float past our boat, which was absolutely horrifying! Along with the trash, competitors had to constantly dodge boat and seaplane traffic in the water, making the race even more difficult. Enormous water taxis and cruise ships flew by from all different directions, completely ignoring the race. I was in awe by the paddlers passion for the sport and drive to bring awareness to non-profit autism and environmental organizations.
After Hell’s Gate, the water got significantly flatter and paddlers were able to glide up the Harlem River, all the way up to the Hudson. We passed lots of things I’ve never seen in Manhattan before, including the Ward Island Wastewater Treatment Plant (which smelled exactly how you would think a wastewater treatment plant would smell), an MTA subway train car storage facility on East 207th Street, the Little Red Lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge and the new buildings under construction in Hudson Yards.
On the final stretch between the George Washington Bridge and Chelsea Piers Marina, paddlers energetically raced for the finish line. The vast width of the Hudson with the skyline of Manhattan was an absolutely breathtaking view. At this point in the race, the competitors were far apart with Fielding Pagel, John Batson and Seychelle Webster leading in the front. Fielding Pagel cruised past the Chelsea Piers Marina at 3:59:15 to claim 1st place.
Crowds roared at Chelsea Piers to greet paddlers ending their grueling journey. I had a second to catch up with Seychelle Webster, the 1st place Women’s SUP winner, who said she felt very exhausted but great for coming in 1st! After the race, paddlers, families and friends gathered for a special post-paddle party and award ceremony.
Shoutout to Clif for letting me chill with the team for the day and witness their journey first-hand—it was a truly remarkable experience. The 25-mile course is arguably one of the hardest in the SUP racing scene due to the conditions, currents, boat traffic and more. But, with the Manhattan skyline as the backdrop and moments like paddling through Hell’s Gate or under the George Washington Bridge, it is a journey that competitors never forget.