Saturday, November 18, 2006

Hudson River Park Paddling - Back when I Began.

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Pier 26, the way it was.

It seems that owing to the haste with which I've slapped up the last few posts about the status of the Rustbucket, and now the boathouse originally slated for Pier 26, the paddling in the Hudson River Park situation is getting a little unclear for anyone who reads this blog but isn't a local with a prior understanding of the overall picture of paddling in the Hudson River Park - where it's been, where it was supposed to go (good places) and where it seems to be going now (groan, please pass the Advil).

I've been wanting to clear that up & get down something of a wrapup of what's going on.

I'm going to start with the background, starting from my first year of paddling the Hudson.

The evolution of the paddling & storage situation has been going on for a while, mostly through small organizations, "mom & pop" type companies or grassroots campaigns. For all people look at commercial lesson, kayak & gear prices & think the manufacturers & retailers must be raking it in, there just isn't a lot of money in kayaking - especially in places like New York City, where kayaking really is a seasonal business. Doesn't matter how the place is structured - nobody's getting rich, and there's a good bit of shoestring involved. But shoestring or no, people want to get out on the river, and market forces being what they are, a healthy range of paddling has sprung up in the Hudson River, without the Trust having to do anything

When I started paddling back in the spring of 1998 (I'd had a trifecta of a winter where I got dumped by a boyfriend of 2 years, laid off from a job I really liked, and was living with a roomate whose paranoid delusions were beginning to affect her interactions with our neighbor, and I needed a change!), there were 2 ways to paddle in the future Hudson River Park (the Hudson River Park act was enacted in September of that year).

If you had some money, wanted to paddle decked kayaks, get some good instruction, go on some tours, you could go to Manhattan Kayak Company. At the time, MKC was owned & operated by Eric Stiller; as any paddler who's read his book, Keep Australia On Your Left, knows, his dad, Dieter, was the operator of a Klepper shop which was a Union Square fixture until the Klepper company came under new management, who decided that an NYC flagship shop was too much of an expense to be worth it. Eric had gone to work for his dad straight out of college, doing marketing, and the closing of the shop left him somewhat at loose ends. As he used to tell it, he had pretty much decided to move to California (where some of his new -agier eccentricities might actually have worked pretty well) - the only thing that was going to stop him was if somehow magically some mega-sports complex invited him to come open a kayak company. Lo & behold, a friend of his ended up involved with Chelsea Piers, and that's exactly what happened. First year, they gave him a broom closet to store a couple of his dad's old Kleppers; by the time I started paddling a couple of years later, he'd been given an actual room near the Surfside III Marina. MKC had a small fleet of kayaks for their programs, and also offered storage for private kayaks. If I remember correctly, the room held 40 or 50 kayaks. Launching was through the good graces of Barbara, the Surfside III manager; kayaks were carried down to the docks there, and when there were SeaRay events, the kayaks would be put on carts & wheeled to another dock a couple of piers north (as I understand, that was one of the factors behind H20utfitter's failure to make a go of it when Chelsea Piers offered them the paddling concession after Eric's ouster - but that's skipping ahead).

I was feeling pretty flush - I would've rather kept the job I liked, but the severance package was very generous, and I got a new job fast, so I had the money to go the MKC route.

I did supplement my paid paddling with some free paddling. A friend of mine from Irish music was also interested in paddling, but not so interested in spending money for classes. She found out about the Downtown Boathouse, where you could paddle for free. We duly appeared at Pier 26 one Sunday morning at 8 A.M., won seats (a double) on the morning Statue of Liberty trip. A white-haired gentleman by the name of Charlie supervised the trip, which featured a break at Liberty Marina for breakfast on the way back (blueberry pancakes, delicious in the way things eaten around salt water always are).

The DTBH's thing was, and still is, providing free kayaking. Free for the walk-ups that is - it actually happens because the efforts of their volunteers, and I've never quite been able to write off volunteer hours as not having monetary value. At any rate, private kayak storage was available there; the rate was something like $200 a year - lots cheaper than MKC, on the surface - but that was reserved for dedicated volunteers, people who worked 50-70 hours a year. At Pier 26, they had a big old barn of a boathouse - basically an old warehouse that stood on the pier that Jim Wetheroff, the founder, had undertaken to refurbish, eventually with the help of more & more volunteers. It was all pretty basic - racks, a few lockers, a couple of porta-potties, a hose, and a dock, that's all a boathouse really needs to have. The free kayaking was all on sit-on-top kayaks, and you could do either 20-minute sessions in their embayment (great for parents with kids, parent & junior in a double was a very frequent sight), or you could get there, as Y. and I did, at 8 am and hope that your name got drawn in the lottery to go out on the river for a couple of hours. Still works the same way today, btw, although not at Pier 26 - the public programs are seasonal, but when people ask me where they can try kayaking, I always tell them about the DTBH.

Between MKC & the DTBH, a really wide range of paddlers was being served. I think it would be safe to say that in New York City, in general, average people with money tend not to have time, and average people with time tend not to have money. The people with time could go volunteer at the DTBH, get access to boats & eventually storage that way; the people with money could go the MKC route. I fell somewhere in the middle & did both to satisfy the standard first-year paddler's insatiable appetite for water time.

So those were the 2 kayaking-related organizations with facilities with water access in the soon-to-be Hudson River Park. New York Kayak existed at the time, but more as a pure retail shop. No classes, no tours, no storage. In 1998, Randy's shop was in the Starett-Lehigh Building, a huge old warehouse building between 11th & 12th Avenues in Chelsea. Back then the building was still very much the industrial space it had been built as originally; within a couple of years the place had been utterly transformed into a dot-com palace, home to Martha Stewart Media and so on (interesting story in itself, you can read about it on, but this was before any of that. Randy had no water access, but he had a nice semi-symbiotic relationship with the DTBH, he'd donate gear, and they let him use their dock when he had somebody who wanted to try out a boat - and almost all the paddlers bought stuff from him, his shop was small but he had all the basics, pogies to paddles to shiny new kayaks.

It was a good balance - something for everyone - but then, suddenly, there was a spate of media attention, and kayaking was the New York City Sport du Jour.

(to be continued)

(or at least I would like to, whether it actually does continue depends upon workload...this sort of post actually requires both time & energy!)

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