My advice is, always think twice before you sail your boat through anyplace named “Hellgate.” Especially if it’s a big, well-traveled waterway in a big, populous urban area. They probably had a reason to name it “Hellgate,” as in, “next stop hell!”
There’s a Hellgate in New York City. Most people don’t realize it, but New York is a city built almost entirely on islands, lots and lots of islands. There are twenty or thirty islands in New York. Brooklyn and Queens constitute the Western tip of Long Island, Manhattan is an island, and then there’s Staten Island, of course, even though most people have never heard of it. Only The Bronx is actually attached to anything more substantial than the ocean’s floor. Long Island is about one hundred miles long, hence the name, and where it meets Manhattan and The Bronx you’ll find Hellgate. The Triboro Bridge crosses it, as does the eponymous Hellgate Railroad Bridge. From the East: the Long Island Sound (which connects with the Atlantic Ocean); from the North: the Harlem River (which connects at the other end to the Hudson River); from the South: the misnamed “East River,” actually some kind of an estuary (which connects at the other end with the harbor of New York and the Atlantic Ocean). Where these powerful forces of aquatic nature come together there is a swirling, titanic mess of tidal energy that is a truly frightening thing to behold. “Hellgate.”
I grew up in Queens, in a place called College Point, which is indeed a point of land jutting into the, the what? the East River? The Long Island Sound? Anyway, it was about where those two things came together. If you know New York, it’s just East of La Guardia Airport. The town has lots of little boat yards, “yacht clubs,” where the working-class population keeps small pleasure craft, mostly very small. Many of the other boys had small speedboats, mostly very inexpensive, kind of old, and more or less unseaworthy. Some only wished they had boats, being motivated on occasion to "borrow" other people’s boats for joy-rides.
I was a cautious lad myself, so I was content to listen to other people’s stories of carefree days spent bailing out water from the bottom of the boats with old coffee cans, drinking beer, and coming home with girlfriends who had unexplainable full body sunburns. Some of the stories were about Hellgate. Boats being mysteriously sucked down in the water until only a few inches of freeboard where showing. Most people avoided it, unless they had a more substantial boat, or if they happened to be on a ship.
(What’s the difference between a ship and a boat? You can put a boat on a ship, but you can’t put a ship on a boat.)
Last week I heard a tragic story about someone who exhibited a cavalier attitude about sailing off into Hellgate in a craft that was not up to the challenge. I know the man, we had been boys together, he had always been fearless, he had been, in fact, one of the toughest boys in town. Lack of impulse control, perhaps, lots of fights, lots of drinking. On this occasion, as a man, with a little boy in tow, his nephew, he set out from a party at one of the so-called yacht clubs to take a ride in a small boat. Being fearless, and wanting sincerely to show his nephew a good time, he steered the boat for Hellgate, or Manhattan, which is beyond Hellgate, figuratively and literally. Well, the result was as bad as it could be. No life-jackets, I suppose, and the small boat started spinning in the whirlpools and finally it capsized, and the boy drowned.
I knew the boy’s father too. He could be a tough kid if he needed to be, it was an important skill in College Point, but he was much better known as a nice guy and a fine guitar player, a feature in local bands for many years. As boys, I was mostly afraid of the daredevil uncle but I really liked the boy’s dad. This boating accident happened many years ago, but I just heard about it last week. I’m still choking on the horror of it.
So, people, listen up! I you find out about a place named Hellgate, stay away! Don’t listen to me, but consider for a moment that it may have been named Hellgate for a very good reason.