Kayaking for freedom to the Statue of Liberty

“Hmm, Claire did you read the incoming email from Eric, regarding our kayak trip to the Statue of Liberty next week?” I fearfully ask her. We both sit down and read Eric Stiller’s questions concerning our seaworthiness and fitness level, and a slight panic starts to take control over both of us. The proud owner of the Manhattan Kayak Company wants to know in what specific types of kayaks we have practised, for how many hours a day, and what our average speed is. We are about to board the A380, the super jumbo jet Air France flies from Paris to New York City for a new adventure on the Hudson River, but we have to admit that it has been a while since our last paddle practice. Last year, our sunset tour with MKC led to an overwhelming experience in observing the iconic skyline of Manhattan from the river. This year, we decided to spice it up with a challenging trip to the Statue of Liberty. Beyond the stunning views, the epic adventure, the challenging distance, the strong currents, the choppy waves, the heavy river traffic, this trip is a way of raising funds against ALS*. Highly motivated by the adventure and even more by our mission, we have designed an intense fitness program: three weekly runs of 8 kilometres, every-other-day push-ups to reach 100, intensive mountain-biking outings for full body training and outdoor-worthiness, and an uncountable number of abs to strengthen our lower waist. “I am afraid it is not enough…” I whisper, discouraged.

Setting out on a skyline or sunset tour is slightly different than paddling all the way out on the tricky currents of the Hudson River, nicknamed “the river that floats two ways” by the Mohicans who used to live along its lower banks. The Hudson River merges with the East River at the southern tip of Manhattan, and they both flow into the Atlantic Ocean which tides heavily impact the local currents. The tricky flows of the river require studying the Eldridge Tide and Pilot book at MKC in order to precisely plan the time and pace of the outing: this is why Eric is concerned by our paddling velocity. On top of that, the Manhattan Bay is one of the busiest in the world with many ferryboats for commuters, tourist boats, leisure boats, sailboats, jet skis, and a few massive cruise ships all being observed by the omnipresent coast guard patrols ensuring that security perimeters are respected by every single vessel. Not only does one need to be skilled enough to operate the kayak through this maze, but also be fit and driven enough to go all the way, as giving up and exiting the water along the shores is simply not an option.

“Eric, how about we show up at MKC a few days prior, and you decide on our seaworthiness? We trust you completely, know it’s safety first: you tell us what you want us to do on the water, and you give us the go or no go.” After a short blank, Eric’s “fair enough” resonates on the phone, making all of us feel relieved…

A few days later, we are warmly welcomed by Eric, the man who together with Tony Brown set out for one of the most treacherous kayak expeditions in history in an attempt to circumnavigate the 10,000-mile long coastline of Australia in 1992. Today, he runs MKC that he set up, and where fitness-conscious New Yorkers train for longer outings like the one that we are about to do. Clearly excited, Eric has something up his sleeve: “Look over here girls!” he says as he guides us towards one of the many kayaks in his impressively well outfitted facility on the pier off 44th Street. A huge smile appears on his face, “What a beauty, huh? I am sure she will do the job. It is our pride of the company: an Eckhart Long Haul Mark II, handmade in Colorado!” We take a closer look at the two-seater kayak while Eric explains passionately. “The Eckhart Long Haul kayak is the closest to the original Inuit kayaks and consist of the exact same wooden frame as the first folding kayak in the world: the Klepper.” Designed in 1905 by Alfred Heurich, a German architectural student, the folding kayak was marketed successfully by Johannes Klepper, and manufactured in Rosenheim, Germany, the same town where Eric’s dad was born and raised. In Europe, the Klepper became very popular as it could be folded into a big backpack. Proudly, Eric continues: “My father, Dieter Stiller was one of the early pioneer kayak importers and distributors: he moved to New York City to open his own Klepper store on Union Square.”

The Klepper kayaks have been used by Special Forces of different nations to approach silently. In 1956, Lindeman crossed the Atlantic in a Klepper Aerius II, one of the most successful models. Unfortunately, the Klepper production of recreational kayaks stopped recently. “A guy called Eckhart, who has spent many years repairing and maintaining Klepper kayaks, started producing similar kayaks in Colorado. He is using the exact same wooden frame as the Klepper Aerius II, so that the skin and the frame are compatible. How about you girls slide into some wetsuits and try out our Rolls Royce of kayaks, the Eckhart Long Haul!”

After some technical advice, we slowly become one with our beauty of a vessel. During a three-hour training, we master the paddling technique turning our upper bodies while keeping our hips straight, get our strokes synchronized, and learn how to steer by controlling the rudder with our feet. The Eckhart Long Haul feels stable even on the choppy waves and is roomy enough for our gear and camera, allowing us to take some shots without capsizing along this 17 mile stretch. Hopefully! Eric feels confident too: “You impressed me girls, see you on Sunday for the big day!”

The clouds are rolling in, early on Sunday morning, and the air is chilly for early June. After attending a gospel mass and savouring a calorie-loaded pecan pie to give us enough energy in our souls and stomachs to successfully complete the journey, we are making our way to MKC.

“Wetsuit?” “Check.”

“Water-shoes?” “Check.”

“Spray jacket?” “Check.”

“Life jacket?” “Check.”

“Sunscreen?” “Drop it!”

“Gloves?” “Check”

“Duct-tape?” “Check. Let’s see if this is going to work against blisters…”

“Sunglasses?” “Check.”

“iPhones in zip-locks?” “Check.”

“Water, food and snacks?” “Four bagels, dried fruits, two bananas, a protein drink, three litres of water.”

“Pump?” “Check.”

“Spare paddle?” “Check.”

“Camera, lens in dry-bag?” “Check.”

“Key of our locker?” “Check.”

“Towel?” “Check.”

“Confidence?” “Let’s nail it down!”

A slight drizzle darkens the deep blue skin of our vessel as we slowly slide her onto the surface of the Hudson River. We set out under the supervision of Margaret and Eric himself who joins us on a stand up paddle-board, with 4 new friends in single sea kayaks and the brave Noriko also on a SUP. The first challenge is to cross the roughly two-kilometre-wide river with its boat traffic. When there is a window, our guide yells firmly, and we instantly start paddling powerful synchronized strokes. Our vessel starts to pick up speed, clearly in her element, and we continue paddling for a few good kilometres before it is safe enough to rest a bit and drink a few sips.

We continue, leaving the Chelsea Piers sports complex, guessing the track of the High Line, reaching the exhaust towers of the Holland tunnel a while after leaving the ones from the Lincoln tunnel behind, and I imagine how cars, buses, trucks and yellow cabs drive underneath the waters we are paddling on.

After passing One World, and at almost the longitude of Battery Park, we take our last break on rather quiet waters. By the Colgate Clock, the Statue looks slightly bigger and waves get choppier and disorganized. Margaret explains: “We are about to enter the Manhattan Bay, and it is here that the ocean meets the currents of the rivers. Waves go into all directions so keep paddling to not drift off!”

Following her instructions to the letter, we eventually reach our goal. I gasp upwards as I feel tiny by the grandeur of Lady Liberty who rises almost 100 metres above us. Inaugurated in 1886, this is what the hundreds of thousands of immigrant first saw entering the New York harbour after a long Atlantic crossing: the symbol of freedom. A gift from the French, it was designed by Bartholdi and built with the assistance of great engineers such as Viollet-Le-Duc, famous for redesigning the medieval city of Carcassonne and the innovative Gustave Eiffel, obviously famous for his Parisian tower.

As Claire carefully takes her camera out, it takes me everything I have to keep the boat stable into the right direction without drifting off as strong waves from all sides challenge me and the wind is picking up.

We defy our muscles a bit more to reach the quiet bay of Liberty State Park from where we can observe the statue overlooking the skyline, the one that she has seen changing so dramatically over the years with the building of the Manhattan Bridge, the rising of the skyscrapers, the collapse of the Twin Towers, and the erecting of the freedom tower.

Gobbling down our bagels, we rush to sit back into our Eckhart kayak as the tide is changing and it is time to make our way back in order to benefit from the incoming high tide that will push us up the Hudson River. Missing out on this critical window can turn a leisure kayak adventure into a life-threatening situation as it would be impossible to paddle against current.

Passing the Statue of Liberty from her left this time, I whisper a soft goodbye and focus back on the synchronised paddling that we will have to do for another 13 kilometres. We pass by the barracks of Ellis Island where all immigrants had to go through upon arrival in New York City. “Hold your paddles!” Margaret shouts: a massive monster of a cruise ship, the Norwegian Breakaway, is moving into our direction. The 325metre-long and 61-metre-high floating city of 5600 people tops off some of the buildings. Most of the 4000 guests are on deck, admiring the Big Apple. Surprisingly, the titanic vessel leaves less nasty waves in its wake than the many speedboats.

Thanks to the currents, paddling up the Hudson River goes smoother than expected, and our spirits get upper and upper as the Intrepid aircraft carrier gets bigger and bigger. We eventually pull out by Pier 84, along the massive USS Intrepid turned into an air and space museum with the Concorde at its foot and the US jet fighters on its main deck. We clumsily climb out of our kayak onto the pontoon, and look at each other and high-five: mission accomplished!

We both get emotional. At a personal level, this epic adventure goes way beyond the sporty challenge and off-the-beaten path discovery of New York City: this mission allowed me to keep raising funds to eradicate the ALS disease. After years of fighting against it, my beloved mother, our biggest fan and greatest example in life, Petra van Alphen, passed away in October 2016 at the way too young age of 55 due to this lethal disease that had imprisoned her into her own body, paralyzing muscle after muscle. Reaching the Statue of Liberty using the muscles we are free to use when ALS patients cannot anymore is for us a symbolic way of hoping that one day they will be unchained from that disease, and free in their movements again, and a pragmatic way of acting against ALS.

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau

* In memoriam of Petra van Alphen to whom we dedicate this article.


We both would like to thank all the people who have supported us in our many fights against ALS over the years. We would like to thank specifically Eric Stiller at the Manhattan Kayak Company who made this outing possible thanks to his professional staff and Rolls Royce of kayaks he trusted us with. Thank you Eric and the staff at MKC.

Thank you all.

And above all, thank you Mum.

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This article was published in the Beyond Boundaries e-magazine by Xtreme Adventure:

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5 thoughts on “Kayaking for freedom to the Statue of Liberty

  1. Oh yeah, saw that last June when on the Staten island ferry. Looks fun for sure and a little risky too out there with all the cruising boats… We are sure you will keep up the fight!

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