by Thomas Staudter
It was the lull before the unofficial boating season begins on the Hudson River and Tarrytown. Harbormaster Kevin Lustyik, as usual, had safety on his mind—and for good reason. In March, a tugboat crashed into a barge parked near the Tappan Zee Bridge where a new span is under construction, and three crewmembers lost their lives.
From the terra firma of the Washington Irving Boat Club one day in late April, though, Lustyik watched a pair of fishing boats at a distance on the river as the wind, a steady breeze with frequent gusts coming in from the northwest, made the water choppy.
Otherwise, boating traffic on the Hudson north of the Tappan Zee Bridge and the construction area of the new span was quiet—for now.
But by the end of May—the semi-official start of the season is Memorial Day—activity at the boat club will be in full swing, with most of the hundred or so slips occupied with vessels, many making regular passage out on to the river and back into the harbor, especially on weekends.
Oh, those busy weekends. During boating season law enforcement officers and Lustyik, the only harbormaster between the Tappan Zee Bridge and West Point, get little rest as they keep a close eye on the myriad pleasure crafts and fishing boats that populate the river, along with the larger vessels, like barges and tankers transporting cargo, some over 500 feet long, that ply the deeper waters of the Federal Navigation Channel.
“You have to be a smart boater on this river,” said Lustyik. “It’s just too dangerous otherwise. And with the bridge construction going on, there’s tugs and other boats that would not normally be out there. You have to really be careful.”
Luckily, a noticeable downtick in recreational boating over the past few years, due to higher fuel costs, has resulted in fewer incidents regarding reckless boating on the river, Lustyik noted, adding that a July 2013 accident in which a 19-foot powerboat crashed into a construction barge near the bridge, resulting in two fatalities, has made boaters more cautious as well.
Lustyik, who became Tarrytown Harbormaster in 1988, speaks from a lot of experience on the Hudson River. Raised in the Eastview section in the Town of Mount Pleasant, he began boating on the river with friends at the age of 10, and recalled watching the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge from the water. After moving to Tarrytown in 1970 and operating an auto glass business, Lustyik continued to ramp up his boating skills, captaining vessels for people and later receiving a Master’s License from the United States Coast Guard. Today, he is familiar to boaters in this area of the Hudson as he patrols the waters in his 23-foot-long Marine One fishing-style boat.
“Sailboaters usually have an edge on everyone else regarding safety because they’re so dependent on their knowledge of the sport to minimize their risks,” commented Lustyik as a speedboat ferrying workers out to the bridge came into view. “That raw knowledge includes how the elements and problems with the weather affect their boat in a way more than it would, say, a power boat.
They usually know the winds, tides, the phase of the moon, if the current is running heavy. And they also require the physical ability and stamina to operate the boat.”
Nonetheless, inexperienced sailboaters should know that weather out on the river is fickle, with thunderstorms moving in quickly.
“The general rule for sailboaters in inclement weather is if you think it’s time to reef your sails, it probably is,” said Lustyik, referring to the practice of reducing the area of the sails to operate the vessel in higher winds. “You don’t want to be in the middle of the river during a storm, though.”
As for kayakers and operators of paddle crafts, they need sunblock and protection from the elements, as well as a cell phone in case of an emergency.
“Around here, I’d prefer to see kayakers to stay clear of the major transit zones, although technically they’re able to be in them,” said Lustyik. “Those tugboats and barges cannot stop on a dime.
The wakes from those vessels can be a hazard too. Bottom line: it’s a sport that you shouldn’t practice alone unless you’re very experienced. Kayaking is a survival sport, and you have to be ready for anything. Being so low on the river, a kayaker is not readily visible to other boaters, and that puts them at a big disadvantage. Height is everything on the water.”
The big complaint against powerboats is how the wakes they create can wreak havoc on smaller craft, especially sailboats and kayaks. Lustyik, along with several Coast Guard auxiliary members and the Coast Guard itself, keep an eye out for unsafe powerboat and personal watercraft operators who are traveling too fast near the harbors or too close to smaller craft.
For information on regulated navigational areas and safety zones around the new bridge project, boaters are urged to visit online the Community Page at NewNYBridge.com. The Coast Guard even has an app for smart phones with information on boating safety and navigation on the Hudson.
All recreational boaters in New York State are required to operate vessels with a registration, which is issued for three years and handled through the Department of Motor Vehicles. Boater safety courses are not required, but Lustyik pointed out that enough courses are offered locally—through the municipalities along the river, various boat clubs and the Coast Guard—that there is no excuse to not have taken one, or even refresher courses every few years.
National Safe Boating Week begins on May 21, and on Memorial Day many of the boat clubs and marinas along the Hudson will be hosting complimentary boat safety inspections conducted by the Coast Guard and its auxiliary members, said Lustyik.
Required safety equipment aboard vessels in New York includes life jackets for all passengers (children under the age of 12, people being towed on water skis, tubing etc., and everyone operating a personal watercraft (PWC) MUST wear the life jackets at all times), visual distress signals for vessels larger than 16-feet long, fire extinguishers, anchors for mechanically propelled vessels (except PWC), a whistle or a horn, and a bell for larger vessels and navigation lights for larger vessels.
In his function as Harbormaster, Lustyik can request an inspection of a boat out on the water to see if all of the above-mentioned safety equipment is aboard. Coast Guard crews and Westchester County Public Safety officers patrolling the Hudson also make regular onboard inspections on the river.
“People underestimate this river, and they shouldn’t,” Lustyik said. “Boating can be a lot of fun, but people have to abide by the law, wear a life jacket when and where necessary and keep an eye on the weather.”
Walking along the seawall, Lustyik then noticed over in the boat slips at the boat club a man and young boy prepping a small rowboat with an outboard motor for a ride on the river. No life jackets were being worn or even visible on the boat.
“This might be my first warning of the season,” said Lustyik as he looked over at the dock.