Four centuries after explorer Adriaen Block sailed the East River into Long Island Sound, mapping the area and discovering that Manhattan and Long Island are separate islands, Greenport documentarian Thomas Halaczinsky has retraced the journey.
He explored about 70 islands in his travels from New York Harbor to Fishers Island Sound aboard his sailboat, Sojourn, and documented the experience for his new book, “Archipelago New York.”
Born in Germany, Mr. Halaczinsky moved to Manhattan in the early 1990s. An award-winning documentary filmmaker and photographer, he now divides his time between homes in Greenport and Brooklyn. He said he’s always been fascinated by the many islands surrounding Long Island and Manhattan.
“When I came to New York, I realized I was in a city in the water, on an island,” he said. “In Europe, everywhere on the water, it’s considered living space; it’s about where you want to live. In New York that wasn’t the case. I really was fascinated early on from all the different islands around New York. In Tribeca, I lived next to a nautical store that sold the maps, the charts, for all the big boats. One day I popped in there, saw some weird islands on the map, and I said, ‘I wanna know what that is.’ ”
When Mr. Halaczinsky discovered the story of Block’s explorations, it sparked the idea for his own journey.
“He created the first map of this and that was basically my map,” he said. “I followed his journey. I had the idea to follow him, and see what came out of that exploration. To see what followed it.”
In 2012, Mr. Halaczinsky purchased Sojourn, an old 30-foot sloop meant for single-handed sailing, and began his adventure. He made multiple trips up through 2016, mostly alone, but sometimes with others, and ultimately covering 3,000 nautical miles.
“I got fascinated with all these islands that people didn’t know about,” he said. “Like North and South Brother Island in the East River. And the thing is, many of these islands at the time, were literally forgotten, nothing happened there. There were buildings falling apart, nature had taken over.”
In his visits to these mysterious, isolated islands, through the paths he crossed and stories he was told, Mr. Halaczinsky said the most interesting part was learning about the secrets and the history.
“There are dark secrets, everywhere,” he said. “Hart Island, in Long Island Sound, which is New York’s largest potter’s field. It’s like the unknown deaths of New York City. Also the realization that these islands were often used to basically separate people. Even up to today, and back then, in the history of it. Welfare Island, which today is Roosevelt Island, is where mentally ill people were [kept]. Then [there’s] North Brother Island, where other people were quarantined. So the fact that these islands were often used to separate in society is something that I discovered and that was fascinating to me.”
These stories and experiences, along with his photographs, are what Mr. Halaczinsky wanted to share with readers through “Archipelago New York”.
“I want people to take away from the book what amazing places they live in,” he said. “And how full of history this region is. I tell the story of an African prince who was basically sold as a slave to a slaveholder’s family on Fishers Island, who was the first one who ever wrote a written record of his enslavement. Eventually he freed himself by buying freedom after he fled by boat across the Sound to Montauk. I think that people here and everywhere will appreciate and treasure their region even more when they know the history of these places. So that’s a big part of it, and also sharing some of my experience and thoughts on the water. Which you learn a lot about.”
For Mr. Halaczinsky, the nautical exploration and time spent alone on the water became an inner journey as well, and that’s a large part of his book.
“Patience is something you learn, you challenge yourself,” he said. “The hardest part was to really develop the discipline, to keep on it. Keep looking. Sometimes there’s places you can’t go, like Gardiners Island, you can’t get on, or others you can’t go. So, just keeping at it and exploring, looking, meeting new people.”
Mr. Halaczinsky said his travels have forever changed the way he sees the island of Manhattan and its seclusion.
“Certainly going on this journey, first living in the city, then being on a boat and going up the East River, it’s a whole different viewpoint suddenly to see Manhattan as this little island in the water,” he said. “I’ve never seen it like that. It’s an amazing impression that you get because it really is something different. Particularly for me, being European, because New York is a synonym for this huge city — skyline, skyscrapers. Then you go on the water and realize, that’s a little island.”
The journey is not quite finished yet, Mr. Halaczinsky said, as he plans to continue exploring, and has more seafaring stories to tell.
“The most rewarding part is actually to connect with the region, and get to know your maritime backyard,” he said. “Which I didn’t have much of an idea about, either. So connecting with the area, that was the most rewarding.”
Thomas Halaczinsky will give a free illustrated book talk at Southold Free Library on Saturday, July 28, from 11 a.m. to noon. Copies of “Archipelago New York” will be available for purchase and signing.
Photo caption: Thomas Halaczinsky aboard Sojourn. (Erika Peters photo)