Marsh Kayak Trip Goes Seriously Awry

Classic he-said, she-said disagreement raises safety concerns

By Michael Turton

A Manhattan woman claims she experienced a “near-death in Constitution Marsh” while on a kayak excursion out of Cold Spring in late June. Ann Votaw has raised questions about the organizer’s handling of the trip, including actions that may have put other participants in jeopardy. Michael Kelsey, the organizer, tells a very different story.

Votaw signed on for a kayak trip billed as “an after-work paddle” through a New York City-based “Meetup” group to which she belongs. According to her, the trip was led by Kelsey, who operates the AWAY Adventure Guide Service based in Salt Point, N.Y. She had participated in one of Kelsey’s excursions previously, kayaking to Bannerman Island. The June 28 trip included eight or nine paddlers who launched from Foundry Dock in Cold Spring and kayaked up the Hudson River to Little Stony Point then south around Constitution Island and on to Constitution Marsh.

Contacted by The Paper, Kelsey challenged Votaw’s view that he led the trip. “For Meetup groups we organize them – but we don’t lead them,” he said. Kayak rental is part of his AWAY business and Kelsey sometimes provides boats for Meetup group outings. But, he says, once they get to a destination, “Everyone has their own adventure.” He said that the Meetup website makes it clear that participants should do their own research to prepare for outings.

Portaging the Metro-North tracks

Votaw would probably agree she had an adventure – but not the one she had in mind. A surprise awaited her when the group got to Constitution Marsh. According to her, “…(Kelsey) failed to explain that our group … would illegally portage from the Hudson over the Metro-North tracks into Constitution Marsh.” The group began to carry their kayaks across the tracks, two people to a boat, when a northbound Metro-North train came into view. The engineer brought the train to a stop.

“The train was very close – we could see all the passengers looking at us,” Votaw said. Later that day, when she took a train back to New York City, she spoke to a conductor who was aboard the earlier train. Votaw said that he told her that the engineer had reported the incident to MTA police.

Again Kelsey disagreed with Votaw’s version of events. “Ann showed up late (for the Meetup) – after everyone else had left.” He said that during orientation with the group, held before Votaw arrived, he went over safety procedures and the route and indicated there would be a portage over the tracks to get to the marsh. “We’ve done that before. It’s typical to cross over the tracks.” Kelsey also said that three trains passed while the group was doing the portage. When the train stopped, he said a conductor simply asked if everything was all right, then the train proceeded north again.

Kelsey may think portaging the tracks is typical, but Metro-North Railroad thinks it’s a very bad idea. In an email to The Paper, Metro-North spokesman Aaron Donovan confirmed that the incident had taken place. “The Hudson Line is a very busy railroad line, with trains … likely to come along at speed and at a moment’s notice,” Donovan wrote.  “No one should ever walk on active railroad tracks for any reason. Certainly, no one should carry a heavy, bulky object like a kayak across them, or encourage others to do so.” Votaw claims that MTA police arrived on the scene and spoke to Kelsey privately. Kelsey says that never happened – and that when the group arrived back in Cold Spring, MTA police were there but did not speak to him or anyone in the group.

Bridge over troubled waters

But the worst was yet to come for Votaw. After the train incident, the group put into Constitution Marsh near the railroad bridge. The channel under that bridge allows water from the Hudson River to pass in and out of the marsh as the tides ebb and flow. At the time of the excursion, tide was high but receding. When water flows out of the marsh it is squeezed through the narrow bridge channel – creating a current close to the bridge.

Votaw, who is 38 and describes herself as an “advanced beginner,” said that within “about two minutes” she knew she was in trouble once she put her kayak into the the marsh. She said she could feel the current pulling her toward the bridge. “The current was very fast,” and she was having trouble controlling her kayak, possibly due to a rudder problem in her view.

A Metro-North train stopped as it neared kayakers who were portaging across the tracks. (File photo by M. Turton)
A Metro-North train stopped as it neared kayakers who were portaging across the tracks. (File photo by M. Turton)

As she neared the bridge, “I put the paddle lengthwise onto the bridge thinking I could gain control. I was surprised when the kayak, the paddle, and my backpack dropped away from me and moved quickly toward the Hudson side (of the channel) where they sank. The current ripped off my left shoe.” Buoyed by her life vest, she said she held onto the bridge, where the water level was only about “a hand’s length” below the bottom of the bridge. “If I let go, I might have gone feet first toward the metal grid on the other side. Had I stayed with the boat, I might have been pinned,” she said.

Votaw said that Kelsey and two other kayakers came to her and coached her, having her crawl along part of the bridge to a point where they were able to pull her up to the tracks. When she was safely out of the water she said that Kelsey spoke to her saying, “I thought you were dead. I saw you go toward the bridge, and I saw all the scenarios, and none of them were good. I thought we were going home with one less kayaker.”

Kelsey denies saying that. “Those are not my words,” he said. He also dismisses Votaw’s claim that rudder problems might have caused her to lose control of her kayak. “No one had a rudder in the water … you didn’t need one.” He also said that when they arrived at the marsh he warned the group to stay away from the bridge due to the strong current. Kelsey said that he helped Votaw into her boat, looked away briefly then, “I turned around and I see her (Votaw) going toward the bridge.” Commenting on her description of using her paddle to try to stop the kayak, “That’s not what I remember,” he said. “I think she capsized before she got to the bridge.”

According to Kelsey, he and another kayaker raced to the bridge with a rescue rope. “I was down there probably quicker than she got to the bridge. I held her – she wasn’t going anywhere,” Kelsey said.

Misconceptions, cuts and hugs

Cold Spring resident Ray Fusco has guided kayak excursions since 1995 and has paddled Constitution Marsh, “too many times to count – probably thousands of times.” He said that at the bridge, “The current can be quick – it’s a pinch point” and that the movement of water there, “…  is dynamic. It changes during the entire tidal cycle – with water going in and water going out.”  Fusco said that kayaks often enter and leave the marsh by going under the bridge, and that there is no “metal grid” on the Hudson river side of the bridge as Votaw described.

Votaw said she suffered a cut on her left foot and left hand but that no first aid was offered. Kelsey said that she didn’t complain of any cuts and that when they got back to Cold Spring, “she hugged me and thanked me.”

After she capsized, Votaw said she would have walked back to Cold Spring, but minus her left shoe and with a cut on that foot, she opted to borrow a kayak and paddled back with the others. The kayaker who lent her the boat walked back to the village. She said that when she got home later that night she found numerous small cuts all over her body.

Kelsey went back the next day and rescued the sunken kayak. The paddle was nowhere to be found, nor was Votaw’s backpack.

No agreeing to disagree

Votaw has posted her version of the story on her website in an article titled, Kayakers take note! [The post, dated July 20, has since been removed.] On another site she posted a “warning” regarding a future Kelsey event.

For his part, Kelsey told The Paper, “It’s unfortunate she capsized, but what I don’t see is her taking any personal responsibility.”

Votaw is a a recreational therapist at the  Washington Heights YM & YWHA and specializes in Vinyasa Yoga, Restorative Yoga, CPR and First Aid instruction, and personal training for older adults.

In addition to operating AWAY Adventure Guide Services, Kelsey is a Dutchess County legislator, practices law and teaches philosophy, religion and law at Marist College. He also writes weekly columns on public policy for two small newspapers.

4 Responses to "Marsh Kayak Trip Goes Seriously Awry"

  1. Ruth Eisenhower   August 5, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    Good heavens. I am a 73-year-old kayaker, almost always alone, and I have capsized going under that bridge and so what? I have portaged my kayak and canoes over the train line. How hard is it to check for oncoming trains? I guess the difference is that, as Mr. Kelsey suggested, I take responsibility for myself. My son led trips for the local outfitter one summer and was pretty startled at the expectations some women had for their trips, and how sure they were in dire physical danger. He told some funny stories, one where he had to give a woman one of his sandals to get her to walk back after she insisted that he get a motor boat out to save her. He calmly pointed out she was in water which wasn’t over her head. Oh my. I am not saying there aren’t some great possibilities of hurting yourself paddling around this part of the river, but I think I am saying you have to try hard to to do serious damage.

  2. Ann Votaw   August 6, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Ruth, thank you for your comment. I agree with you. That bridge wasn’t the problem. There is a bridge further back that is. I’ve provided the link. The bridge I had problems with has a metal grid on it and cannot be paddled through.

  3. Bill Lozano   September 13, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    People should not be paddling on the Hudson River or anyplace else where they don’t have the skills to handle the conditions which might be encountered. At a minimum, all kayakers should know basic paddling skills including safety and rescue. Capsizing is part of kayaking. You need to be willing and able to handle a capsize.

    The Hudson River has some currents. Any bridge will have faster currents. Kayakers should understand to keep away from these places or use them to have fun in faster water. If you don’t understand currents, you don’t belong on the Hudson River.

    You can’t use the Meetup group as an excuse for your lack of knowledge and skills. Meetup groups are not guided trips or instructional programs (unless stated as such). It sounds like this meetup was basically a rental. AWAY brings you a kayak, gets you set up, tells you where to go and sends you out.

    “AWAY Adventure Guide Services is owned and operated by NYS Licensed Guide Michael Kelsey who is trained and certified by NYS in use of canoes and kayaks.”

    NY State does not train or certify guides in canoes or kayaks. They offer a guide license but not for sea kayakers, only whitewater kayakers working on specific rivers. I’ve been licensed and it was a multiple choice test. It doesn’t test your personal kayaking or leadership skills.

    I would not use a guide business that doesn’t have insurance or permits to use launch sites. It shows a level of unprofessionalism.

    There is plenty of “blame” to go around here.

  4. Cathy Sapeta   September 15, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Many people enjoy the sport of paddle for leisure and these websites provide information on how to be safe. Our local Audubon Center has this information on its website available for visitors.

    Also the American Canoe Association has helpful information for experienced and first time paddlers.

    Be safe and have fun!