Tugspotting on the Hudson

Barbara Carol Ann Moran Towing Vessel

A special antenna extends off the top of Jeff Anzevino’s roof in Highland, N.Y. Its crafty wire picks up signals from vessels going up and down the Hudson, beaming them to a satellite that feeds them back into various apps. 

Anzevino checks his favorite app, Marine Traffic, before the sun cracks the horizon. Then he calls on a little junior-high math. If a certain vessel is coming from the Bear Mountain Bridge at 10 knots, it’ll reach him in about three hours, plus or minus tide effects. He figures those in, sets an alarm, grabs a camera, and hops on his boat. Sometimes he shoots photos from a distance; other times he might come as close as 50 feet if he can radio a willing captain.

A family along River Road in Esopus watches the USS Slater southbound en route to its drydock repair on Staten Island. 

That’s how people like Anzevino go tugspotting. By afternoon, he’ll be long since at work as Scenic Hudson’s Director of Land Use Advocacy. But on many dawns, Anzevino is an avid boat watcher and photographer. Frigid, pitch-dark mornings don’t stop him — he’ll tugspot from a bridge rather than his boat — and he exhilarates in watching the mighty little vessels punch through ice.

Anzevino takes it to a new level, but he’s not the only one watching boat traffic. If trainspotting covers observing all things rail, tugspotting encompasses everything on the water.

Locally, for instance, a World War II destroyer escort named the USS Slater has made a few trips down from its floating-museum home in Albany to Staten Island for repairs, most recently on July 5, 2020. Thousands of people have lined riverfront parks, bridges, and roads to watch.

USS Slater and escort tugs southbound approaching Poughkeepsie.

Tugspotters like Anzevino are impressed but not surprised by the level of public interest. “The river used to be something we turned our backs on,” he says. “Now we embrace the river as our front door to the world. The people who go down to the river to these parks to see these passing vessels are a testimony to that.” 

The use of the Hudson for river transport of course dates back to the First People of the Hudson, the Lenape (or Munsee) and Mohican tribes, whose canoes went up and down what the Mohicans called the Mahicannituck—the “river that flows both ways.”

Barbara Carol Ann Moran Towing Vessel
Barbara Carol Ann Moran Towing Vessel.

Anzevino’s own interest goes back to his childhood in New Jersey, sailing the Hudson with his family and reading kids’ books about tugs. To this day, he’s still compelled by “the different shapes, sizes, what they’re carrying, where they’ve been, where they’re going. There’s a certain mystery about them,” he says. “They seem small, but if you had X-ray eyes and could look into the tugboat, what’s under the water is all engine. They are mighty and powerful.”

The kind of vessel traffic aided by tugboat ebbs and flows, but Anzevino sees river traffic as an important part of the region’s economy.

“We don’t know what the future holds,” Anzevino says. “But we want a strong economy in New York State, highly skilled manufacturing jobs, and we want things shipped by water rather than by truck. It’s much more economical to ship by water.”

In fact, while not a tugboat, the first zero-emissions cargo sailboat of the modern era, the Apollonia, is starting to transport local goods up and down the Hudson.

River-watchers who want to get deeper into tugspotting can download an app like Marine Traffic, Ship Finder, or VesseLink (password required), which use the Automatic Identification System signal tracking to show what boats are where and when. Detailed background on various tugs can be found at the history-exchange site Tugboat Information. And Anzevino posts his latest photos on the Facebook page Tugspotting on the Hudson.

Carbon-Neutral Shipping on the Hudson

These days the Hudson River can feel like a car barrier — something to cross on a bridge or drive alongside. But originally this curving waterway was the region’s superhighway.

A pilot project is nudging the Hudson Valley to return to river transport — in a carbon-neutral way — with sail freight. The captain behind the project, Sam Merrett, is an avid young sailor who has been carefully restoring a 68,000-pound steel schooner called the Apollonia for the last four years. 

Apollonia sailing alongside Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. (Photo courtesy of Sam Merrett)

The Apollonia was scheduled to begin its first cargo runs from upriver to New York City in summer 2020. Although the launch was pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Merrett teamed up with the Hudson River Maritime Museum in the meantime for the North River Sail. The joint educational sail went up and down the Hudson in June 2020 with the museum’s sun-powered Solaris boat. 

Together, the vessels raised awareness of the river’s transportation history — and future potential. Both are pioneering. The Solaris is the first 100 percent solar-powered tour boat to earn U.S. Coast Guard certification, according to the museum.

Apollonia docked at the George Trakas environmental sculpture at Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park in Beacon. (Photo: Jeff Mertz)

The 64-foot Apollonia is the Hudson’s largest zero-carbon freight vessel, running on sail power and a backup diesel engine that Merrett converted to run on vegetable oil. 

Sail, of course, is the age-old method of transporting goods worldwide. Fuel-powered barges and then trucks now do the lion’s share of global shipping. But in the age of climate change, emissions-free sail power is getting a fresh look. 

Modern-day sail freight projects similar to the Apollonia have been happening in Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts over the past few years. More sail-freight ships are now popping up in places like Costa Rica, and the International Windship Association has been tracking technology that helps even container barges run partially on wind power, saving fuel.

Crew members unloading freight from Apollonia at Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park. (Photo: Jeff Mertz)

Merrett took inspiration from all those vessels, as well as from the short-haul river shipping that remains common in Europe and elsewhere. Especially for products that aren’t rushed, he argues, sail freight makes sense. “This is the original alternative fuel,” Merrett says. “It’s not just an idea of the past.” 

When it began carrying goods, the Apollonia’s hold smelled rugged and woodsy, with a sweet tang. Merrett carries a number of traditional New York products like hard cider, IPA, maple syrup, Christmas trees, firewood, and bluestone from upstate into NYC. Its first cargo sail was scheduled to be with Nine Pin Cider.

Why would a producer choose sail freight? Some products (like a nontraditional one, fermenting kimchi) improve with age and waves. In other cases, the producer may value the zero-emissions transport. Many artisanal makers are proud of their organic or fair trade production, after all, but don’t realize carbon-neutral shipping could be possible. The Apollonia even has its own delivery tricycle that can take products from dock to city.

Apollonia docked. (Photo courtesy of Sam Merrett)

Being able to market a product for its carbon-neutral shipping will add marketing value for customers, too, Merrett argues. “The standard shipping world is about delivering the same thing that left,” he says. “We’re saying let’s improve this product along the way. We will provide conscientious producers and consumers with a transportation model that reflects their values.”

The Apollonia and projects like it may seem niche and bespoken, Merrett acknowledges. But as global emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic show, having alternatives is always helpful. And pilots like this may be able work out some of the kinks, enabling more low-emissions vessels to get sailing more quickly if the need is ever upon us.

Tour Historic Hudson River Towns by App

Untermyer Gardens

Launched in June 2020, an app allows users — whether driving in their car or reclining in a backyard hammock — to take a self-guided audio tour of parks, historic sites and other attractions in riverfront communities in Rockland and Westchester counties.

Emeline Park (Photo: Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

Created for Historic Hudson River Towns, a consortium of municipalities along the river, the app spans attractions from Yonkers to Peekskill on the Hudson’s eastern shore and Nyack to Haverstraw on the west. Interestingly, it crosses both the oldest (Bear Mountain) and newest (Gov. Mario M.  Cuomo) bridges in the Hudson Valley.

Fort Montgomery (Photo: Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

Along with fact-filled narration, the app features myriad photographs illustrating the historic, scenic or ecological importance of each location.

Untermyer Gardens (Photo: Chris St. Lawrence)

The 50 stops on the tour include 7 Scenic Hudson parks or riverfronts where we played major roles in transforming contaminated industrial sites into magnificent places to connect with the Hudson’s beauty and wildlife. These include Esplanade Park in Yonkers, Scenic Hudson Park at Irvington, Scenic Hudson Park at Peekskill Landing and Emeline Park in Haverstraw. Scenic Hudson staff members provide the narration at each of these stops.

Peekskill Landing (Photo: Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

Historic Hudson River Towns also has released two guided audio tours — one for bikers, the other for walkers — crossing the river on the Cuomo Bridge’s 3.6-mile pedestrian path, which opened to the public on June 14. It offers interesting facts about the current and previous bridges, the history of the two communities it connects (Nyack and Tarrytown), and a glimpse at the life and legacy of Mario Cuomo. Future plans include walking tours of Irvington, Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow and Nyack. 

Van der Donck Park at Larkin Plaza (Photo: SH Staff)

Funding for the mobile audio tour program was provided by a grant to Historic Hudson River Towns from the New NY Bridge Project’s Community Benefits Program, administered by the New York State Thruway Authority.

Haverstraw-Ossining Ferry (Photo: Tyler Blodgett)

PCB Cleanup Update

Dredging on Hudson River 2012

A June 4, 2020, article in Politico reported that levels of PCB toxins in Hudson River fish have not changed significantly over the last 2 years. This raises even more doubts about the effectiveness of the Superfund cleanup conducted by General Electric to remove these cancer-causing chemicals it dumped in the Hudson River for most of the mid-20th century.

Conservation groups, including Scenic Hudson, say this lack of improvement fortifies their argument that the cleanup will not meet the goal mandated by the U.S. Superfund Law—to be “protective of human health and the environment”—without conducting more dredging at PCB “hotspots” just downriver from Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, where the pollution originated. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the cleanup, insists it’s still too early to gauge the success of the 6 years of dredging GE conducted between 2009 and 2015. Compelling GE to resume dredging will be nearly impossible unless New York State prevails in its ongoing lawsuit against the EPA. The suit contends the agency issued GE a “certificate of completion” for the project despite scientific evidence that it had failed to reach health benchmarks.

No Cleanup Yet in Lower Hudson

While a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson remains polluted, making it one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites, data indicate that fish in the 140 miles of the river below the Troy Dam have not experienced even the modest (but below-expectation) drop in contamination levels experienced upriver—hence the article’s title, “Tale of 2 rivers.”

“EPA is dragging their feet. They know they have the authority to order a remedial investigation,” said Scenic Hudson’s Althea Mullarkey in an interview. “They’re just choosing not to.”

Fishing at Long Dock Park, Beacon, NY
Fishing at Long Dock Park, Beacon, NY (Photo: John Halpern)

For the last 3 years, the EPA has insisted it’s working on a plan to remove this pollution, which reaches all the way to New York Harbor. While the EPA keeps “dragging their feet,” as Scenic Hudson Public Policy and Special Projects Analyst Althea Mullarkey is quoted in the article, families who subsist on tainted fish despite health warnings and communities whose waterfront redevelopment plans have been stalled by the contamination continue to wait. So do members of low-income and minority communities along the lower Hudson who fought hard for a PCB cleanup and have received no benefits to date.

Second Superfund Phase Also Moving Slowly

Since 1998, evaluating another aspect of GE’s cleanup commitment—the amount of money the company will be required to pay to restore damaged habitats and offset lost recreational opportunities—has been ongoing. Trustees overseeing this Natural Resource Damages Assessment include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. While the trustees have released information about some of the damages they’re investigating, they have issued no deadline for completing their assessment. As Ms. Mullarkey says in the article, “glaciers are speedier.”

Scenic Hudson has been leading the campaign for a comprehensive PCB cleanup for more than 40 years. A consultant hired by the organization to complete a damages assessment is expected to release its report next year.

Dredging on Hudson River 2012 (Photo: Peretz Partensky on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0))

Bass Notes

Striped Bass caught by Lauren Hepplewhite

Spring is striper season on the Hudson River — a time of joy for fishing enthusiasts and biologists alike.

From early April through the end of May (and, if anglers’ luck holds, into early June), striped bass will continue their annual spawning run, turning the Hudson into a fishing frenzy. What makes catching one so special?

One, their size: Stripers can weigh upwards of 75 pounds (the largest ever caught in the Hudson tipped the scale at 60 lbs.). And two, their feistiness: Stripers put up one hell of a fight when hooked. To take on this challenge, author and Riverkeeper founder Robert Boyle once said, “There are anglers who will sacrifice their jobs, their marriage and even their sacred honor.”

Migrating Up River to Spawning Grounds

For scientists, the homecoming of striped bass in the Hudson provides excitement enough. Named for the 7-8 dark horizontal lines running the length of their silvery sides, stripers are anadromous — they live in saltwater (in their case, the Atlantic Ocean) but migrate to freshwater to breed. They don’t commence their upriver journey until they gauge that the Hudson’s water temperature is just right—58-60 degrees. Their annual spawning destination remains the same throughout their reproductive life. To locate it, they rely on a superior sense of smell (keener than a dog’s).

Upon arrival at their traditional spawning spot, a female will release up to 3 million eggs for males to fertilize. Both their jobs complete, they soon head back to the Atlantic. The eggs drift with the current and hatch (if lucky) within 2-4 days. Juvenile stripers will mature in the Hudson for as long as 2 years before following their parents to the ocean, where they are the mainstay of a substantial sport-fishing industry spanning from New England to Florida.

Trouble From Toxins and Overfishing

The interaction between Hudson Valley residents and striped bass has taken many turns since Native Americans caught and ate them. In the 17th century, the fish were so plentiful that colonists used them as fertilizer, until overfishing caused such a decline in this important food source that lawmakers banned the practice. As late as the 1930s, some 300 commercial fisheries along the Hudson netted striped bass (along with shad and sturgeon). The industry came crashing to a halt in 1976, when New York State banned it because of PCB pollution.

Since then, populations of striped bass in the river have seesawed, from a low of 5 million in 1982 to a high of 56 million in 2006. Responding to the conclusion of a 2018 study by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center that striped bass populations along the Atlantic Seaboard have “declined below the threshold for a sustainable level,” the state this year instituted stricter fishing regulations. Anglers may keep 1 striper/day ranging in length between 18-28 inches. They must return all fish outside that limit.

The Fish that Helped Found Scenic Hudson

Striped bass proved an essential partner in Scenic Hudson’s founding campaign to stop a hydroelectric plant from defacing Storm King Mountain, which sits next to one of the river’s prime striper spawning grounds. Scientific analyses showed that the facility would kill striper eggs and larvae by the millions. This dire news drew fishing organizations throughout the Northeast to the campaign; in essence, it wound up sounding the project’s death knell. Scenic Hudson has repaid the favor by conserving more striped bass spawning and nursery grounds at Haverstraw Bay, Esopus Meadows and Stockport Flats.

Keeping the Hudson Open

Perhaps more than ever before, the current health crisis has demonstrated the power of nature to provide solace and a respite from stress, while also highlighting the urgency to stop plans that would limit public enjoyment of the region’s natural treasures. Permanently safeguarding long-cherished connections to the Hudson River and securing new places for people to walk, fish, launch boats and hunt along its shore are the goals of the new Hudson River Access Plan commissioned by Scenic Hudson.

Our new Hudson River Access Plan can be downloaded using the links below.

The plan provides perhaps the most comprehensive evaluation ever—and the first undertaken in more than 30 years—of existing public access along the river’s rail corridor between Poughkeepsie and Rensselaer. It also suggests locations for new shoreline access and recommends ways to improve crossing the rail lines safely.

By ensuring safe rail travel and continued, safe river access, the Hudson River Access Plan offers a “win-win” alternative to Amtrak’s proposal to erect new impasse fencing and locked gates at locations between Rhinecliff (Dutchess County), Stuyvesant (Columbia County) and beyond. In an unprecedented move, last year the leaders of 12 Hudson Valley municipalities that could be impacted by Amtrak’s proposal joined Scenic Hudson in signing a letter to the state Department of State urging it to object to the plan to construct eight-foot-tall fencing.

In total, the Hudson River Access Plan documents 64 current and potential future sites for waterfront recreation between Poughkeepsie and Rensselaer. In addition to identifying each location, the plan denotes its size, ownership, amenities and current crossing characteristics, and also suggests potential or desired crossing improvements.

The plan also outlines 11 recommendations, to be completed over the next five years, which would increase public access to the river and enhance rail safety along the corridor. They include amending state laws to require preparation of a comprehensive public access plan, expanding education programs to improve safety along the rail corridor and developing a pilot program to demonstrate technologies that enhanced safer rail crossings.

See this news release for additional details.

River Skating

Ice Skating on the Hudson River (Photo courtesy of Hudson River Maritime Museum)

Back in the winters when the Hudson River regularly froze over, ice skating on it was a major craze — especially in Newburgh, where the Donaghue family won national and international medals for their speed and endurance. But no feat could beat this one undertaken (and recounted) by patriarch Timothy Donaghue, Sr.:

Timothy Donaghue, Sr.
Timothy Donaghue, Sr.

“The fastest long-distance skating I ever did was in 1872, when Aaron Wilson and myself skated to Poughkeepsie and returned to Newburgh (30 miles) in two hours. We then, with Charles F. June, started at 11 a.m. for Albany, and arrived there at 5 p.m. We lost 15 minutes crossing the ferry track which was open at Poughkeepsie; and at Rhinebeck the ferry was also running, and we had to walk about half a mile. Then we got our dinner, which took us 45 minutes.   

“That left 5 hours running from Newburgh to Albany. The distance to Albany is 84 miles by the Hudson River Railroad. As we had to cross the river from one side to another a number of times, looking for good ice, I think it made the distance more. The ice was not good, but we had a strong wind.”

Wind or not, here’s one record unlikely to be broken.

The Starry Poughkeepsie Regatta (and the Real-Life Boys in the Boat)

It’s common to see rowers on the Hudson River these days. At least a dozen local high schools, as well as Marist and Vassar Colleges, have competitive crew teams that practice in the picturesque stretch of the river from Newburgh to Poughkeepsie. In addition, community rowing programs for adults and juniors have been growing rapidly since the Hudson River Rowing Association opened their doors in 1998. 

But many people don’t realize that Poughkeepsie was once the “Rowing Capital of the World,” inspiring a story that’s just hitting the big-time again with the opening of the major new movie The Boys in the Boat on Dec. 25, 2023.

Rowing in the famous Poughkeepsie Regatta. (Photo: Archives and Special Collections at Marist College)

In 1895 Poughkeepsie hosted the first Intercollegiate Rowing Regatta. Only three schools competed: Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania. But the annual event, which was soon dubbed the Poughkeepsie Regatta, continued until 1949 and grew in size and stature, attracting the best college teams from around the country. 

These races also drew tens of thousands of spectators annually. The luckiest traveled alongside the rowers. They sat on grandstands attached to flatcars chugging down the rail line on the Hudson’s western shore. The crews raced downstream from today’s Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park to Poughkeepsie’s Mid-Hudson Bridge (passing under the railroad bridge that is now the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park).

The who’s who of the Hudson Valley — including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Astors, and the Vanderbilts — turned out to watch the races. Hundreds of boats and yachts, and occasionally even Navy destroyers, sailed to Poughkeepsie to watch the event. World War II interrupted the Regatta, but afterwards it returned, bigger than ever — prompting massive celebrations, parties, and even the crowning of the Poughkeepsie Regatta Queen.

Lucky spectators followed the rowing action on a moving “Observation Train” that ran along the west side of the river. (Photo: Archives and Special Collections at Marist College)

In the early years, elite Eastern schools dominated the Regatta. But in 1912, Western schools started getting in on the action. After winning at Poughkeepsie, the University of California crews of 1928, 1932, and 1948 all went straight to the Olympics.

But no team received as much attention as the nine scrappy men from the University of Washington who swept the Poughkeepsie Regatta in 1936. The story was gripping: They overcame a world of adversity to upset the Ivy League establishment, earning them a team boathouse on Poughkeepsie’s “Regatta Row,” as well as their own dining hall.

As working-class products of a public school, the team represented such a big win over the elite private-school set that their story resonated nationally. And since their story captured the public imagination, part of their legacy has been expanding the appeal of the sport to the more diverse crews that row today, including many women.

The sport’s appeal has expanded to the more diverse crews that row today, including many women. (Photo: Jason Torres / Hudson River Rowing Association)

Prior to winning their race here the “boys” also rowed upstream to Franklin Roosevelt’s house, hoping to visit with the president. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in (although his son, himself a competitive rower, reportedly invited them in for a happy evening of chatting about the sport).

Later that year, they had better luck at the Olympics in Berlin, narrowly beating out Italy and Germany to snag the gold medal. Their rags-to-riches story was chronicled in the 2014 bestseller The Boys in the Boat, which has just been made into a movie directed by George Clooney and starring Callum Turner.

In September 2021, the Hudson River Rowing Association and the Mid-Hudson Rowing Association hosted a historic, 5,000-meter race along the course used from 1895 to 1949 by the Intercollegiate Rowing Association. It marked the first time in more than a decade that boats competed for the fastest time on the route. The race was so popular that it has now become an annual event.

Rowing in the modern-day Poughkeepsie Regatta. (Photo: Jason Torres / Hudson River Rowing Association)
Olivia Abel is a staff copywriter at Scenic Hudson. A former editor-in-chief of Hudson Valley Magazine, she also teaches journalism and communications at Marist College. An avid hiker and biker (and new pickleball junkie), she never tires of searching for the Hudson Valley’s best cup of coffee.
Reed Sparling is a retired staff writer and historian at Scenic Hudson. He is the former editor of Hudson Valley Magazine, and continues to co-edit the Hudson River Valley Review, a scholarly journal published by the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College.
Footage of competitors and spectators at the 1934 Poughkeepsie Regatta. (Video: British Pathé)

Cruising History

hudson river day line steamer

For a little over a century — from 1863 to 1971, in fact—a cruise on the Hudson River Day Line was a must-do Hudson Valley experience. The side-wheel steamships that plied between Manhattan and Albany offered passengers live music, a couple of restaurants and even a barber shop along with magnificent views. No wonder the boats were called “floating palaces.”

hudson river day line steamer
Painting of Hudson River Day Line Steamer by Alexander Hamilton

For many, the Day Line provided transportation to vacations in the Catskills, or a daytrip to amusements at Bear Mountain or Kingston Point. At its high point in 1925, the line’s seven ships carried two million passengers.

The boats are long gone — travel by car and airplane did them in. The Alexander Hamilton, the last of the Hudson River Day Line fleet, ended its 40-year run on the Hudson in 1971. Today it rests in a watery grave off New Jersey.