Navigating the East River
Making the trip on the East River either from Upper New York Bay to Long Island Sound or in the opposite direction, from Long Island Sound to The Battery in New York City, can be an enjoyable experience or it can be one of those things where you wish you were somewhere else... Anywhere Else!
So what’s the problem? In one word "Currents." It can be pretty frustrating watching mom's with their baby strollers walking along FDR Drive pass you by as you battle a foul current.
While currents obviously affect all vessels; low powered, full displacement vessels particularly seem to really get the short end of the stick in these situations. So unless you are in a boat that cruises at relatively high speeds, careful timing of your passage may be well worth your consideration.
The East River - Some Background
The East River, like the Hudson, is not actually a river; the East River is actually a "Tidal Strait" that connects Upper New York Bay with Long Island Sound. The Hudson River below the Federal Lock and Dam at Troy, NY is properly a "Tidal Estuary."
Being a tidal strait, the East River produces strong current flows. Currents often reach 5+ knots in the areas of the river around Roosevelt Island and as much as 5 knots in Hell Gate. The tidal current in the East River floods North & East and Ebbs South & West.
The lower portion of the East River, between The Battery and Hell Gate, runs on a predominately north - south axis while the upper portion, Hell Gate to Throgs Neck, trends east and west. Because of this, there seems to be some disagreement as to how you should refer to your direction of travel when transiting the East River. Some use the terms north or south bound, while others use east or west bound. While I do not want to get caught up in this debate, I use north and south bound since the average axis of the East River is northeast - southwest. Regardless of which of these terms you use or prefer, you will likely be understood by anyone with any knowledge of the area.
The East River is heavily traveled with commercial traffic, primarily tugs with tows, hi-speed ferries, and a few deep draft ships. You will also find plenty of pleasure craft during the warmer months.
The navigation season for the East River is unrestricted.
The East River, from The Battery (the southern tip of Manhattan) in New York City to Throgs Neck, the western entrance to Long Island Sound (LIS), is approximately 13.7 NM. From The Battery to Hell Gate is 6.6 NM and Hell Gate to Throgs Neck being another 7.1 NM. For all practical purposes, this marks Hell Gate as the halfway point of the East River passage.
Aids to Navigation
NOAA Charts #12335, #12339, and #12366 provide complete coverage of the East River from Governors Island to Long Island Sound.
Chart #12335 - Hudson and East Rivers covers the East River from Governors Island to 67th Street.
Chart #12339 - East River covers the East River from Queensboro Bridge to Tallman Island.
Chart #12366 - East River covers the East River from Tallman Island to Long Island Sound.
Buoys and Marks
The East River is well marked along its entire length to Long Island Sound with lighted buoys, ranges, and fixed lights.
The standard lateral buoyage system is used on the East River; "Red Right Returning."
CAUTION: A buoyage system reversal occurs in the vicinity of the Williamsburg Bridge.
For the main channel, the Federal Project Depth calls for 40’ from The Battery to just above the Manhattan Bridge and then 35’ on to Throgs Neck.
Actual main channel depths along the river vary; with a least depth of 24’ or less at a few locations at the channel edges to a maximum depth of 108’ being found mid-channel at the southern approach to Hell Gate.
The East River main shipping channel is spanned by 8 bridges including the famous, or as some may suggest infamous, Brooklyn Bridge. The minimum vertical clearance on these bridges is 123’.
A secondary channel to the east of Roosevelt Island has an additional lift bridge with 40’ vertical clearance in the closed position. This bridge is generally not a problem since the preferred channel is to the west of Roosevelt Island. Keep in mind that the main channel can be closed when the United Nations requests it for security purposes requiring the use of the secondary channel.
Finally there is a bridge from the Borough of Queens to Rikers Island which has little significance to the transiting mariner.
East River Bridges
|*Mile Marker (NM)||Bridge||Charted Vert. Clear.||Schedule||Restrictions||VHF|
|* Mileage is northbound from The Battery.
All distances are in nautical miles.
|1.0||Brooklyn Bridge||127’||Fixed Bridge|
|1.3||Manhattan Bridge||134’||Fixed Bridge|
|2.3||Williamsburg Bridge||133’||Fixed Bridge|
|5.1||Queensboro Bridge (West Channel)||131’||Fixed Bridge||Caution: Overhead Hot Work Through October 2022.|
|5.0||Queensboro Bridge (East Channel)||133’||Fixed Bridge||Caution: Overhead Hot Work Through October 2022.|
|5.6||Roosevelt Isl. Bridge (East Channel)||40’||Shall open on signal if at least two hour advance notice is provided. Dial 311 or 718-545-2092.||99’ Open Clearance|
|7.1||Triborough Bridge||138’||Fixed Bridge|
|7.4||Hell Gate Bridge||134’||Fixed Bridge|
|12.1||Whitestone Bridge||135’||Fixed Bridge|
|13.7||Throgs Neck Bridge||152’||Fixed Bridge||Caution: Temporary work platform beneath bridge will reduce vertical clearance by 3 feet through August 2023.|
This table can be downloaded for your personal and private use. The file is Zipped Adobe (.PDF) format. East River Bridges - Download.
With the exception of the Vessel Traffic Service, (VTS) in the Lower and Upper Bays with their adjacent waters, including the East River and portions of the Hudson River, no communication requirements exist. However, the prudent mariner would be well advised to maintain a listening watch on VHF channels 13 and 16 when in the vicinity of commercial traffic.
Vessel Traffic Service - New York
Mandatory Participation is required by:
- Power-driven vessels of 40 meters or more in length, while navigating.
- Towing vessels of 8 meters or more in length while navigating.
- Vessels certificated to carry 50 or more passengers for hire, when engaged in trade.
Mandatory Monitoring of VTS- NY is required by:
- Power-driven vessels greater than 20 meters in length while navigating.
- Towing vessels of 8 meters or more in length while navigating.
- Every vessel greater than 100 gross tons carrying one or more passengers for hire while navigating.
- Dredges and floating plants.
Regardless whether you are required to participate in, or simply monitor the VTS system, you are required to have on board a current copy of the Vessel Traffic Services New York User’s Manual. A copy of this manual is available for download - VTS New York User’s Manual.
There is no speed limit for the East River except as defined by the COLREGS and common sense. The standard caveats apply to wake responsibility.
And then there is Hell Gate! - Trying not to blow this out of proportion, the Gate can be a challenge for low powered vessels. It also can be daunting for larger vessels with limited maneuverability and a fair current.
Many of the horror stories that you may have heard about Hell Gate are just that... Stories. That being said, the combination of strong tidal currents, occasionally exceeding 5 knots, heavy swirls and boils, a channel dog leg in a narrow section of the river, and heavy commercial traffic will require your utmost attention when transiting this area.
So, here are a few tips to consider when transiting Hell Gate:
- Extra vigilance by the captain and crew.
- Consider allowing any large commercial traffic in the vicinity to pass through before starting your own passage through the Gate.
- If you have any doubts about the soundness of your running gear, the capabilities, or the handling characteristics of your vessel, make your passage through Hell Gate at slack water.