Immersion in questionable waters

-- Last Updated: Aug-04-05 10:42 AM EST --

Whether rolling, practicing rescue, sculling, or capsizing, it seems that kayakers often immerse their heads in rivers and harbors that people would not swim in. Mainly true in more urban settings of course, this certainly occurs on the mid and lower Hudson River (where kayak schools exist), Boston Harbor, LI Sound harbors, etc. Although such waters may contain industrial contaminants, raw sewage, high bacterial levels, parasites, etc. . . I have rarely ever heard stories, news reports, or even posts here, of kayakers becoming ill from such waters.

The underlying reason for my post, new to rolling, is my frequent paddles on the mid and lower Hudson Rivers . . and being immersed in these waters.

Give pause…
Though I have not heard of padders’illness from poluted waters, there was one piece of water used by a paddling center on the lower Hudson that gave me pause.

I think common sense and local knowledge are essential in this matter.

you’re smart
to ask locals. I’m upside down in the Hudson often, but never after a heavy rain because of sewer overflow. I’ve never had an ill effect. Maybe I’ll live a few less years because of the PCBs, but they’ll have been better years. In the meantime, there are lots of people and organizations monitoring the river and working hard to maintain the progress of the last 20 years. The Hudson is now cleaner than it’s been in over 100 years.

As far as the power plant in Peekskill, while I agree it’s a bit scary, I paddle up there also, and go by the assumption that the discharge is well monitored. I hope I’m right. If I was the boss the place would be closed down.


Boston Harbor…
it’s the cleanest it has been in over 3 decades, since when I was a kid – swimming, fishing and eating what we caught.

We spent millions to fix the sewage water system. We still have a ways to go yet when overflowed storm drains spill straight into the harbor.

But I have no qualms about swimming, paddling and fishing in the Harbor. Once again, I am glad that I am only 15 minutes away from such a great resource. :slight_smile:


dirty waters
Some simple precautions will make it a lot safer:

  1. don’t roll or get wet after a heavy rain, since storm overflows are the dirtiest.
  2. this is a great time to use a face mask while practicing your rolls–the mask will keep the water out of your eyes and nose.
  3. and don’t roll if you have any open cuts or wounds.


Not sure if you saw it, but I wrote a published article with accompanying photos, on paddling Boston Harbor recently, for Natural New England magazine. It would be great if you could find a copy! I do recall those giant egg structures on an island, the huge investment in a facility to keep the water clean. I loved paddling that area, launching from Hingham, and wish I lived closer! It’s nice to know that you think the water is safe for immersion . . as i’d love to paddle there again!

Great Question
One of the reasons that I paddle more on Long Island rather than a mile away from my house in Queens (NYC) is that there are public and community bathing beaches nearby and my hope is that the water is truly clean enough for bathing.

I remember speaking to an experienced paddler about the public ramp near my house, and he commented that there are supposedly a bunch of WWII surplus bombs buried in the bay over there (Fort Totten). Add to that the exposed run off pipes that I see during low tide, and the blackish water in the bottom of my boat, and I think that I might paddle there, but not practice there.

It would certainly be nice to know for sure though,


Boston Harbor
I’m practically on Wollaston beach, and that is where I do most of my paddling. I don’t have a roll yet, but, I’ve practiced my rescues out there, and when I get a roll, I won’t hesitate to use it on the harbor. It’s funny, I’m an upstate NY transplant, been here for 10 years. I’ve seen the harbor get cleaner even in that little space, but when I talk with life time natives in Quincy and Boston, most of them think I’m nuts to get wet in that water. I guess you just get used to things being a certain way. I wonder what they think they spent all that money on a sewage treatment plant for?

My Experience
I had terrible sinus problems after rolling classes in a heated indoor pool; a very nice pool in a ritzy health club. I had no problems after rolling in the local reservoir. It ain’t a big river in a populous area, but it ain’t crystal clear either.

There’s dirty, then there’s DIRTY
It’s to some degree a matter of propectives.

There’re several “swim the Hudson” event each year. So one must assume the river is “clean enough” to at least NOT be a health hazard for a few hours of immersion.

But I can’t shake the image of the amount of trash I see on the beach and floating on the water near shore. It’s disgusting! The thought of intentional immersion never even cross my mind. It’s either in a sanitized pool, or some river up north, that I’ll practice my rolls. I just can’t do it there.

I’ve paddled quite a bit in San Francisco Bay. Despite the population boom, the density is still nowhere near that of the New York area. And it shows in public land, and more importantly, on public water.

As for industrial waste and hazardous chemicals. That IS monitored by the various authorities. One can only hope they actually do their job.

Infection hazards
I know of two people who were hospitalized for bad infections after swimming in what I would have thought was reasonably clean water ( The West River in Vt and the Contoocook in NH)

In both cases they got scratched up while swimming and the wounds got infected.

These days I’d go to the Doc any time an infection didn’t clear up PDQ.


E-Coli and Hepatitus other Viruses
Here in California surfers often get sick from playing in questionable waters. I’ve gotten very bad GI and Sinus infections in the winter after run-off events. Get immunized against the major bugs. Some minor viruses have killed and cripled young surfers. There are viruses that target the heart that are particularly dangerous. However the greater concern is long term repeated exposure to chemical pollutants in industrial areas. It takes years for exposure to show an effect which is usually cancer, so minimize your exposure in such areas. I’m a medicinal chemist and worry about what tiny amounts of synthetic compounds will do to your body, and I would be very hesitant to spend a lot of time in the water in bays in heavily industrialized areas. San Diego Bay and Mission Bay are fairly clean but they have large amounts of chemical polluntants, especially San Diego bay that has huge amounts of chemical waste from the Navy that has been persistant for many, many years.

Sinus infection…
after practicing wet exits in a small local lake.

I really do need to get a face mask…

The Charles… boating vs swimming level
A somewhat amusing footnote to this discussion…

For my first kayaking lesson and first time in a real sea kayak, I was on the Charles River with a professional instructor on a private lesson (I had missed all the scheduled clases that year). The first thing he had me do was a wet exit and assisted re-entry!

I have also practiced rolling in the Charles. But I don’t anymore, and that outfit doesn’t normally do wet training there, all for good reason. The Charles often attains the “boating” level of cleanliness, but rarely the “swimming” level. But I don’t believe I’ve ever gotten sick from it.

OTOH, I rolled in Hingham Harbor early this season. When I came up I noticed some really foul stuff floating on the surface and stopped immediately. But a few days later I came down with severe intestinal cramps that took weeks to get entirely rid of. All tests for parasites wers negative, but the doctors say that doesn’t mean much.


Squeamishness helps
I won’t submerge my head in any water that is not at least a little translucent. All water gets stirred up and turbid after high wind and/or rainstorms, but places that are routinely opaque I refuse to do immersion in, and I don’t like paddling in them either.

Now, that’s just visible particles and/or algae, which could be harmless. “Bugs” that make us sick are not likely to be visible. But in my experience, opaque water and fould smells go together. Foul smells I take as a sign of something to avoid.

Also, I wear nose clips and ear plugs and usually close my eyes during rolling practice. And keep my mouth closed. One of my water bottles has a flip-top over the drinking spout (REI sells these).

It’s not what you see…
… It’s what you don’t see.

Floating garbage is nasty, but pretty harmless. Water color/clarity also means little. Clear clean smelling water can harbor some nasty microbes.

Hingham Harbor

– Last Updated: Aug-04-05 1:28 PM EST –

Is just full of cabin cruisers and sailing yachts. I often wondered how closely they watch to make certain no one flushes out their tanks in the harbor. It's ilegal I'm sure, but with the flotilla thats always bobbing of Worlds End drinking in the hot sun, it wouldn't be unthinkable that one or two stinkers does something really stupid. (Not busting on power boater here, just that there's a lot of them, and it only takes one.)

I've heard that at the present rate of improvement, the Charles might be swim-able in a few years. Sure hope so, it would be nice if all that digging up the streets for new storm sewers paid off.

We should practise our rolls and wet
exits in “clean” water, then when paddling in and around cities minimize our body contact with the water.

Storm Water Run Off
Surfers are warned to stay out of the ocean after heavy rains because it washes pollutants into the water.

You would be amazed how many beaches are polluted by human waste from faulty treatment plants near urban areas.

Tsunami Chuck got an sinus infection rolling in Natomas Lake in Sacramento.

San Francisco Bay has high levels of Benzine, which is very toxic stuff…

faulty camp septics
Even wild-like lakes in the mountains are turning out to have pollution issues, due to shoreline camps that have aging septic systems with failing leechfields. While it might be gross to think of the raw sewage that is in the lake, it is really the associated bacteria and viruses to be wary of.