Tag Archives: Aaron Donovan

Aaron Donovan’s Aquatic Adventure: Part 3

For the past 2 days, “06880” has reported on Aaron and Susan Donovan’s journey by 18-foot kayak/pedal boat/sailboat (called a Hobie Tandem Island), from Westport to New York City. In real life, Aaron — a 1994 Staples High School grad — serves as media liaison for the MTA.

Here is the final part of his story:

Aaron and Susan left the lighthouse by 9 a.m. They wanted to be out of the water by 12:45 p.m. After 5 years of kayaking in New York City waters, Aaron knew the importance of timing his trip around favorable currents.

With the East River in ebb mode — water heading south to the Battery — he knew he’d be in good shape, even without a wind.

Aaron and Susan Donovan's boat.

Aaron and Susan Donovan’s boat. It’s not very big.

The East River officially begins at Throg’s Neck. Once Aaron and Susan rounded it, the wind completely died. They switched to pedal mode.

It got hot. They drank tons of water. The only excitement in the upper East River is an austere prison barge parked off Hunt’s Point, and planes taking off from and landing at La Guardia.

Unlike Westport and Norwalk, which allow camping on islands near shore, the City of New York has no such facilities.

Aaron says there are islands off the South Bronx, and another at about East 96th Street, that could. One of those — North Brother Island — was the quarantine residence of Typhoid Mary, and the spot where the General Slocum beached while on fire in 1904, killing more than 1,000 people.

It would be bad to end up by mistake on nearby Rikers Island, of course. “Suffice it to say, we managed to find a location where we camped unmolested by the NYPD, Coast Guard or anyone else,” Aaron says.

The next morning he and Susan woke early. They caught the ebb tide down the East River, pedaling against a southerly wind.

Aaron and Susan Donovan approaching the 59th Street Bridge (feelin' groovy). The UN is in the distance.

Aaron and Susan Donovan approaching the 59th Street Bridge (feelin’ groovy). The UN is in the distance.

“In a weird way, it was just another day heading downtown like my morning commute,” he says. Except they were now on water, surrounded by tugboats, DEP sludge vessels, and the Navy training ship The Empire State. Gone were the recreational craft they’d seen in Long Island Sound for days.

Their destination was Governors Island. The former Coast Guard base just off the Battery has been repurposed as a delightful, quiet park. They enjoyed the afternoon, rested up for a morning of pedaling, and waited for the tide to shift.

The Battery, as seen from Governors Island.

The Battery, as seen from Governors Island.

Unlike the East River (and most waterways), which ebb and flow for 6 hours each, the Hudson ebbs for 8 and flows for 4. The Hudson would begin flowing at 3:50 p.m., providing a northbound current to complement the northbound wind. It was a perfect combination for the final leg, up to the 79th Street Boat Basin on the West Side.

Aaron’s office colleagues were on alert. They captured an image of the kayakers from the 30th floor of his downtown office.

Aaron and Susan, as seen by Aaron's MTA colleagues on the 30th floor. The Statue of Liberty is much larger.

Aaron and Susan, as seen by Aaron’s MTA colleagues on the 30th floor. The Statue of Liberty is much larger.

The winds were the strongest of the trip — gusty and shifty. So Aaron and Susan reefed the sail, untethered from the dock and headed out.

At 14th Street a gust caught them off guard, freaking them out. Their GPS showed they were roaring along at 9 knots over 30 seconds. They steered into the wind, pulled in what remained of the sail, and proceeded the rest of the way calmly and smoothly under pedal power.

When they pulled into the dock at 79th Street, they were relieved to be “home.” But they faced the daunting task of unloading the boat, and carrying it awkwardly up to a small kayak storage area. It was, Aaron notes, “the hardest part of the trip — physically.”

Too tired, and hauling too much gear to catch the West Side IRT, they tried to hail a cab. When none showed up immediately, Susan resorted to Uber.

The driver first refused to take their suggested route to their apartment near Yankee Stadium, saying taking directions en route could be dangerous. Then he dangerously distracted himself by adjusting his GPS the entire way.

Aaron and Susan compromised. But the driver missed an exit, then another turn. Getting from 79th Street to the Bronx might have been the toughest part of Aaron and Susan’s entire 5-day, 4-night amazing aquatic adventure.

Susan and Aaron Donovan. Don't try their adventure at home.

Susan and Aaron Donovan. Don’t try their adventure at home.

Aaron Donovan’s Aquatic Adventure: Part 2

Yesterday, “06880” reported on the 1st day and night of Aaron and Susan Donovan’s journey by 18-foot kayak/pedal boat/sailboat, from Westport to New York City. In real life, Aaron — a 1994 Staples High School grad — serves as media liaison for the MTA.

Here is Part 2 of his story:

Aaron and Susan were in luck. On day 2 — and for the next 2 days– the prevailing westerly wind shifted out of the east. There was no need to lengthen the trip by tacking. Winds were a perfect 10-15 knots.

Off Darien, they encountered a sailing school. Aaron remembered his own summers at Pequot Yacht Club. It was “one of the greatest, most fun and educational things I did as a kid.”

They had 3 islands to choose from off Greenwich. They threaded the boat between Island Beach and Great Captain Island, landing briefly on Calf Island. It’s a publicly accessible bird sanctuary, but overnight permits are available only in advance, after submitting a “wildlife studies curriculum,” along with proof of knowledge of how to perform CPR (!).

Aaron and Susan had not done that. They considered pitching their tent on the boat — after all, that is not camping on the island.

But they pushed on, and pedaled through breakwaters and up the Byram River. They landed at the dock behind Bartaco in Port Chester.

Pitching a tent behind Bartaco in Port Chester.

Pitching a tent behind Bartaco in Port Chester.

The staff was very helpful. Aaron and Susan’s 2 main concerns were food, and recharging their phones, computers and homemade GPS.

Aaron learned that his boat was actually parked in the last slip owned by Ebb Tide Marina. He offered a damp $50 bill, and they had a spot for the night.

Aaron and Susan wandered around downtown Port Chester and its waterfront park, had an excellent dinner, then pitched their tent on the boat.

Sleeping behind a bar was surprisingly quiet. Until 2 a.m., that is, when a crew of loud, laughing people returned to a power boat docked next door. A woman fell into the water. Her friends fished her out, and they left. “Thankfully, they did not hit us,” Aaron says.

Day 3 was the smoothest yet. Aaron and Susan evaded some treacherous rocks off Manursing Island, then made a beeline for Execution Rocks Lighthouse.

Surprisingly, they saw the towers of the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges before spotting the lighthouse.

Execution Rocks Lighthouse, as seen from Aaron and Susan Donovan's boat.

Execution Rocks Lighthouse, as seen from Aaron and Susan Donovan’s boat.

When they got there, hosts Craig Morrison and Linell Lukesh — representatives of a nonprofit that bought the island and lighthouse for $1 — were sitting in lounge chairs in their yard (actually, a grassless, concrete and rocky slope).

Docking was tough. Except for a metal ladder going straight to the sea floor, the entire island is surrounded by riprap — large granite boulders that serve as a breakwater to prevent erosion.

Craig pointed to a newly installed open mooring. It took a bit of maneuvering and hard work, but finally they landed.

The lighthouse was the highlight of Aaron’s trip. From the top, they could see Port Jefferson, Stamford, New Rochelle and Manhattan. There were 2 regattas underway, and plenty of fishermen in shallow-draft motorboats.

The Manhattan skyline, as seen from the top of the lighthouse.

The Manhattan skyline, as seen from the top of the lighthouse.

Craig and Linell barbecued, then Aaron and Susan retired to their room.

The lighthouse has 2 guest rooms, each with 2 cots. The charge is $300 per room — tax-deductible, as a donation to the lighthouse preservation fund. But they’re open on Saturday nights only.

If you want to get there without kayaking/pedaling/sailing from Westport, take the Port Washington Water Taxi. It’s a 15-minute ride to the island.

(Tomorrow: Days 4-5)

Susan and Aaron Donovan, standing at the top of Execution Rocks Lighthouse.

Susan and Aaron Donovan, standing at the top of Execution Rocks Lighthouse.

Aaron Donovan’s Aquatic Adventure

As media liaison for the MTA, Aaron Donovan is intimately familiar with New York’s trains, subways, buses, tunnels and bridges.

Its waterways — not so much.

Aaron Donovan

Aaron Donovan

But the 1994 Staples grad’s parents needed their garage space back. They no longer had room for the 18-foot hybrid vessel — part kayak, part pedal boat, part sailboat — that Aaron and his wife Susan bought from the Boat Locker, and had been storing there.

Aaron knew that New York City’s Parks Department has a small kayak storage area on West 79th Street. But he knew better than most that trailering the vessel on I-95 and into the city was no easy task.

So Aaron and Susan decided to sail. They spent the winter finding locations where they could stay during the 5-day, 4-night August adventure.

Aaron researched sunrises and sunsets, high and low tides, and ebb and flow currents. He could not, however, predict the wind.

After multiple stops at EMS, REI and Stop & Shop, the couple was ready. Launch date was Wednesday, August 6.

Susan Donovan in the 18-foot craft. Smaller than it sounds, no?

Susan Donovan in the 18-foot craft. Smaller than it sounds, no?

The house where Aaron grew up abuts the tidal estuary of Sasco Creek. He’d seen a few kayakers and canoeists on it, but it was certainly an underutilized resource.

Aaron and Susan planned to wait till shortly after high tide, when the current headed into the Sound. But — trips never go according to plan — they left a bit behind schedule, at 2:30 p.m. The current was against them, the water level low.

They walked the boat over sand, mud and gravel in waist-deep water. It was an inauspicious start.

Aaron and Susan Donovan leave Beachside, rounding Frost Point.

Aaron and Susan Donovan leave Beachside, rounding Frost Point.

They could not set up the mast until they’d cleared the bridge that carries Beachside Avenue into Pequot Avenue over Sasco Creek at Southport Beach. In tall sea grass they let out the sails, shoved off into waist-high waves of the incoming tide, unfurled the sails, and were off into a headwind.

Tacking a few times, they cleared Frost Point and Sherwood Point, en route to their 1st campsite in the Norwalk Islands. The winds shifted, the waves diminished and they arrived at 6 p.m. They beached the boat in tall sea grases, and hoped it would still be afloat — not way up a hill — at low tide.

For $35, Norwalk allows overnight camping on 2 of its dozen beautiful, sparsely or uninhabited island a couple of miles offshore. Aaron and Susan chose Shea Island — not Westport’s Cockenoe ($20) — because Shea offers rudimentary restrooms.

Aaron — whose words I am using throughout this report — calls the camping experience “amazing. So close to civilization, you can see the beautiful waterfront estates, shore lights and beaches, and hear occasional train horns and powerboat engines.

“But mostly you feel utterly surrounded by nature. As night falls, as the wind diminishes and the last rays of the sun taper off in pink and orange hues toward the west, you hear the calls of seagulls, and waves gently lapping on the rocky shorelines. It is like a hidden Eden, just 2 miles offshore.”

The view from Shea Island.

The view from Shea Island.

From their campsite atop a bluff, they had great views of the Sound. Long Island seemed close. Manhattan’s towers beckoned in the distance.

They were alone on the isle — though there are 16 campsites — except for a deer and 2 babies, who wandered over from Sheffield Island on a sandbar at low tide. Spooked, they (the deer) left.

After Susan made breakfast (eggs and beans), they loaded up their non-beached boat, and were off again.

(Next: Days 2-3)

Aaron and Susan Donovan's route, from Green's Farms to New York.

Aaron and Susan Donovan’s route, from Green’s Farms to New York.

(For an interactive view of the map above, click here.)

Tooting MTA’s Horn

On March 1, Westporters living near the railroad tracks — and even not so near — started hearing train horns. Loud horns. And lots of them.

Several readers did the natural thing: They asked “06880” what’s up. I contacted my go-to-guy — MTA spokesman and 1994 Staples graduate Aaron Donovan — who reported that it’s part of a Connecticut Department of Transportation project to replace all New Haven Line overhead wires, first installed in 1907.

For the safety of personnel who are on or near the tracks, trains must sound their horns when approaching work zones. Work will continue through September 2017.

Well, at least we knew…

The other day though, an alert — and very frustrated — “06880” reader emailed me. Though no work was being done near Hillspoint Road, equipment had been left near the tracks. For quite a while, engineers had been honking for no reason.

Engineers were honking at this -- with no workers in sight.

Engineers were honking at this — with no workers in sight.

The reader had called the police, fire department and Metro-North. But the horns kept blaring.

I told her to contact Aaron.

He gave her a number to call — with step-by-step instructions for navigating the dreaded phone tree. Aaron assured her she’d wind up in the right hands.

She did. The Hillspoint resident reports today that the weekend was quiet.

And though work resumed today, things are much better than they were. And she says, “for the first time, they were very helpful.”

Count your blessings. And count the days — just 810! — until September 2017.

Big Toot

The other day, an alert (and noise-sensitive) “06880” reader asked:

Do you have any idea how long the trains are going to blasting their horns through Westport? It started before we went away March 1st. I’m sure they must be getting a lot of complaints.

Though I live a couple of miles from the tracks, I’ve actually heard the horns myself. Well, maybe they’re car horns from drivers trying to navigate the increasingly chaotic Playhouse Square parking lot. Whatever.

I sounded out (ho ho) Aaron Donovan. He’s an MTA spokesman, and — because “06880” is “where Westport meets the world” — a 1994 Staples graduate.

He reported back:

This is a result of the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s long-term project to replace all the New Haven Line overhead wires, which were first installed in 1907. These original wires use antiquated “fixed termination” technology, which unfortunately allows the wires to sag ever so slightly during periods of high heat (it isn’t visible to the naked eye) or contract during periods of extreme cold, causing operations problems for trains. The DOT is updating the wires, more formally known as catenary, with a state-of-the-art “constant tension” system that will better accommodate the extreme temperature that can impact our region.

catenary lines

The good news is that this is the very last leg of the project. The DOT recently completed the section between Southport and Bridgeport, and are now turning attention to the section between Norwalk and Southport. In the current phase of the project, DOT’s contractors are out on the tracks digging holes to sink foundations for the gantries from which the new wire system will be suspended. For the safety of all personnel who are on or near the tracks, trains are required to sound their horns when approaching work zones.

The project is scheduled to be completed in September 2017.

Thanks, Aaron! That’s a lot more information than those signs that say “Good Service”!

(To learn even more about the DOT project, click here and here.) 

Last Call For The Bar Car

For decades, it’s been an enduring image of suburbia.

The business executive lingers over a 3-martini lunch. Later, he (it’s always a man) boards the train to Connecticut, heading straight to the bar car. In Westport he steps off the platform and rolls into Mario’s.

You can still order 3 martinis at lunch (unless you have a job). Mario’s will be here forever (we hope).

But — as of Friday — the bar car is gone. It’s joined the coal car and steam engine in that great switchyard in the sky.

Bar cars in 1968 (left) and 2010. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Bar cars in 1968 (left) and 2010. (Photos courtesy of the New York Times)

Metro-North‘s bar car — part of the commuting experience since the 1930s — fell victim to (of course) progress. Their design was incompatible with the railroad’s new M-8 cars, which have gone into service at the same time Metro-North has done 2 things previously believed impossible: take longer, and be less reliable.

Yesterday’s New York Times assured readers (and riders) that drinks will still be available at Grand Central, via carts near the tracks.

“It’s a rebranding,” said MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan. He’s a Staples grad (Class of 1994), so he may or may not have 1st-hand knowledge of the bar car.

But tens of thousands of Westport commuters do. Click “Comments” to share your memories. Due to the what-happens-in-the-bar-car-stays-in-the-bar-car nature of this topic, we’ll allow anonymous comments just this once.

Aaron Donovan’s Passage Of “Times”

I’m  not sure what’s stranger about this story: That the New York Times managed to misnumber its issues from 1898 to 1999 — or that the story, originally mea culpa-ed by the Times, has just been revisited in The Atlantic.

But there it is. And at the center of the story is Aaron Donovan.

Aaron Donovan

Aaron Donovan

The 1994 Staples grad — whose current day job is media liaison for the MTA — was working then as a Times news assistant. For some reason he was interested in the accuracy of the paper’s issuing-number system. (Top left of Page 1, if you still read the dead-tree version.)

According to The Atlantic, Aaron learned that in the 1st 500 weeks since its founding on September 18, 1851, the Times published no Sunday issue.

Then, for 2,296 weeks from April 1861 to April 1905, the Sunday issue was treated as an extension of the Saturday paper, bearing its number. In the early days, the paper skipped publication on a few holidays.

No issues were published for 88 days during a strike in 1978. (During five earlier labor disputes, unpublished issues were assigned numbers, sometimes because catch-up editions were later produced for the archives.)

Finally, by scanning books of historic front pages and reels of microfilm, Mr. Donovan zeroed in on the date of the 500-issue gap.

It was February 6-7, 1898. A worker looked at the previous day’s number — 14,499 — and turned the next issue into 15,000. Not 14,500.

For over a century, no one noticed.

The missing numbers, in 1898.

The missing numbers, in 1898.

On the 1st day of 2000, the Times corrected the error. It noted that when it congratulated itself for its 50,000th issue on March 14, 1995, the gun was jumped by a year and a half. The actual 50,000th was July 26, 1996.

“There is something that appeals to me about the way the issue number marks the passage of time across decades and centuries,” Aaron said at the time. “It has been steadily climbing for longer than anyone who has ever glanced at it has been alive.”

The Atlantic has finally retold the tale.

Now “06880” has too.

Aaron On The MTA

Just a day or two after Aaron Donovan began a new assignment for New York’s MTA — media liaison in charge of Metro North and the Long Island Railroad — bridge pilings on the Harlem River caught fire.  Every media outlet in the city needed Aaron’s ear.

Last winter, a series of snowstorms snarled rail traffic in and out of New York.  Once again Aaron was the man dispensing information, handling press queries, making sure commuters got the news they needed as soon as he could.

Last Monday, Aaron — a 1994 Staples grad who honed his writing chops on Inklings, the school paper — returned from vacation.

Just in time to learn that Hurricane Irene might hit New York City.

Aaron Donovan

As the week went on, the possibility became a probability.  And as Mayor Bloomberg and MTA officials weighed the idea of shutting down the transportation system, Aaron and his colleagues were inundated with a hurricane of work.

Long before the first raindrop fell.

A normal workday for Aaron involves fielding phone calls from reporters on anything related to MTA’s rail lines and headquarters; drafting press releases, writing speeches, organizing press conferences — and managing MTA’s social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

It’s a dream job for Aaron — a Georgetown and Columbia (masters in urban planning) grad who previously wrote for the New York Times — and though he’s been working like a runaway locomotive since last week, he’s glad he and the MTA are making a difference.

Aaron’s first major task was communicating MTA’s shutdown plans, so people could arrange travel well in advance.  Otherwise, he noted, “everyone would wait, and be on the last train.”

He spent Sunday in MTA headquarters at 45th and Madison — connected to Grand Central through an underground walkway.

As soon as the winds and rain subsided, he had a bigger job:  answering questions about service restoration.

“We depend on real-time information from people in the field and on the tracks,” he says.  The press office was a whirlwind of activity.  He and 3 colleagues handle railroad-related questions; 4 others cover subways and buses.  But in the post-Irene maelstrom, Aaron says, it was all hands on deck.  Everyone pitched in, answering any question about anything.

For the 1st time, MTA made heavy use of photo sharing via social media.  The aim was to show the nature and extent of the damage that MTA crews faced.

Television and radio stations, newspapers and blogs — all needed regular updates.  And morning TV shows want it as early as 4 a.m.  “We can’t start gathering information for them then,” Aaron says.  “We have to be fully briefed already when they call.”

One of the reporters Aaron talks to most is Channel 7’s Jamie Roth.  She’s a ’95 Staples grad — and a friend of Aaron’s since high school.

Speaking of Westport, Aaron says, “I grew up in Green’s Farms — with a view of the Metro North tracks.  I was always interested in the trains going by, and of course in journalism.”

His current job melds 2 of Aaron’s passions:  transportation policy, and public communications.

He enjoys being able to serve the public, and thrives on the energy an event like this past creates.

Still, it’s nice that a hurricane — or a series of snowstorms, or bridge fire — doesn’t come down the track every day.

From MTA's Flickr stream: Grand Central Terminal is eerily empty, on a Saturday afternoon.