Wednesday, May 18, 2011

25 Ways To Get On The Water In NYC (And Environs) Without Owning Your Own Boat - 2011 Edition

Well, for all the drizzle and gray we've been having, Memorial Day (aka The Start Of Boating Season For Some People Although Mine Never Ends Unless There's Too Much Ice) is actually coming up. What with that, and with a very nice request from Amy at NewYorkOlogy for a list like this giving me a little extra impetus, I've decided that it's high time to update what was probably one of the more useful posts I've ever done here - 24 Ways To Get On The Water In NYC (And Environs) Without Owning Your Own Boat. This was originally done back in 2009, in response to a Proper Course Group Writing Project, "Lists". Most of that was still valid, but links had changed, new programs had started, a couple of old favorites are gone or in trouble, so here you are -

The kayaking that is my favorite sport is a wonderful way to get on the water in NYC, but it's just one of a whole lot of options out there - there's really something to suit just about any taste and budget. The ones I'm listing here are all things that I have done or given serious consideration to doing at one time or another; me being a very squarely middle-class, middle-aged person, none of these require either a huge amount of money (some are free, some easily affordable, some I'd consider a bit of a splurge but worth the money) or any particular physical prowess (although a basic level of fitness & coordination will make some of the more active options more enjoyable).

Own a boat already? Please see "A Note To Boaters" at the end of the post!

OK, enough (ka)yaketty-yak. On with Twenty-Five Ways to Get Out On The Water in New York City Without Owning Your Own Boat. Since it came out kinda long, I've divided by type (Kayaking, Rowing, Canoeing, Passenger Schooners, Speedboats, and a few other miscellaneous craft) to make it easier to follow.

I'll start with my favorite, of course -

I'll be the first to admit that kayaking the way I kayak does eat up a good bit of money over the years. For me, though, it works out - I do it for fitness & for my own sanity, among other things, and it's a heckuvalot cheaper than a gym membership & therapy! :D

But the way I do kayaking is the way people who've long since fallen in love with a sport or activity do it. For people who just want to try it out, the city is now positively rife with opportunities to do so for free (or very low cost), no experience necessary, just basic comfort with being in the water. Here are some of my favorites, starting with my own club of course!

I'll give a very brief description of the programs but for full info, check the websites I'm linking to.

1. Sebago Canoe Club, Canarsie, Brooklyn. $10.00 insurance fee. Our Open Paddle program (2 to 3 hour paddles in Jamaica Bay) kicked off tonight, Wednesday May 27th, and continues on Wednesday nights & Saturday mornings throughout the summer. We're a little harder to get to than some places, but many of the paddles feature guest speakers & our club may be the only one around where a complete novice is going to be given a true sea kayak & be taken out on a guided tour for a couple of hours. If you've made the trip, you deserve the time!

OH - PS, Sebago is having our annual open house this coming Saturday, the 21st! Full details at the link above, and it looks like we may have a break from the rain by then. This is always a fun day, it's free, all are welcome, you can try all sorts of boats (canoes, kayaks & sailboats) & the grillmasters will be working all day.

Much more common in NYC are free walk-up programs where people can try out a stable sit-on-top for 20 minutes or so in a sheltered area between piers or in a cove. It makes for a fun part of a nice day in one of the city's waterfront parks, but keep in mind that on not-so-nice days, the lines will be shorter and the volunteers will have more time to talk story and give pointers & might be less concerned about holding you to the official tryout time. Some of these places have boats big enough for parents to take out small children & a lot of city kids get their first taste of boating this way. Many of them also offer longer trips for people who've developed some basic skills.

The grandaddy of all of these programs is

2: Manhattan's Downtown Boathouse - not sure exactly when that group was founded but they'd been around for a while when I started kayaking in 1999 - they've got pictures on their website dating back to 1995. The original Downtown Boathouse was actually downtown, not far north from Battery Park City; that building, an old piershed, is long gone now but the DTBH carries on just fine at 4 locations - 2 in the Hudson River Park, 1 in Riverbank State Park, and 1 out at Governor's Island.

Over the last decade, a number of similar programs - most founded by DTBH "alums" - have sprung up in other boroughs (and I'm including Hoboken too 'cause it's just not right to leave them out). In no particular order, here are the most established ones (notice to local paddlers - if I'm leaving anybody out it's an oversight, I'm not shooting for comprehensive here but feel free to add links in the comments):

3. Kayak Staten Island
4. Hoboken Cove Boathouse
5. Long Island City Boathouse
6. The Red Hook Boaters

New for 2011:
7. The Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club is a more traditional club in the Sebago vein, and an old favorite of mine although a new addition for 2011 - I'd left them out of the 2009 version because I couldn't find their public program at the time, but one of my friends up there pointed me to the link, so I'm very happy to add them in properly now!
8. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Kayaking and Community Rowing program was a fledgling effort in 2009, handled by a number of the other groups listed here, but is now a fully established regular summer activity. The kayaking is run by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse, while the rowing continues to be handled by the Village Community Boathouse (1st link in the next section).
9. Absolute newest on the list - a warm (if soggy) welcome to the Greenpoint-based North Brooklyn Boat Club!
10. Paddling is good exercise, but most of the programs listed so far are fairly sedate. If you are athletic & enjoy team sports, you might get a much bigger kick out of Kayak Polo! Pier 66-based New York Kayak Polo offers introductory sessions about once a month, no experience necessary

Those are all great places to go get your feet wet (and your okole too). Want to get a little more serious? With the exception of New York Kayak Polo (where you'd just join up and start playing if you enjoyed your intro), all of those places welcome & train volunteers, so that's one way to do it (and I will mention that some of the more stalwart volunteers at these groups are very, very good paddlers); if, like a lot of people in the city, you're busy enough that your leisure time is a scarce & precious resource, you might well find it worth the money it takes to patronize the local outfitters,

11. Manhattan Kayak (where I used to be a partner) or
12. New York Kayak.

Of course there are other places slightly further afield that I love & would recommend in a heartbeat but I am trying to keep this in the actual NYC area - so instead I will move on to

Most of the local community rowing groups row the Whitehall gigs which are traditional to our harbor - no-one knows whether the gigs were named after the street, or vice-versa, but the fact that there is a Whitehall Street in Manhattan is not believed to be a coincidence! Fun for all ages, and with all boats captained by experienced local coxswains, these sturdy 6-oared craft strike me as possibly the best way for kids who are old enough to start getting serious about boating to start learning the skills a person needs to enjoy NYC's waterways safely - they can even help build boats if they're so inclined! Pretty cool. I'll start with the one I know the best:

13. The Village Community Boathouse, located at Pier 40, where Houston Street hits the Hudson. As mentioned before, this group also offers rowing in the Brooklyn Bridge Park.

As was the case with a lot of the free kayaking programs in NYC, a lot of the groups that build & row the Whitehalls were inspired by and/or spun off from one original, which was:

14. Floating the Apple, which was founded by Mike Davis, who passed away in 2008 but left quite a legacy. One of the earliest thoughts I had of ways to get on the water around here was seeing one of their boats being built as I walked past the old green McGraw Hill Building in midtown. That particular spark of an idea failed to take hold, but it was definitely something that got me thinking about getting out on the river in some sort of small craft.

Hopping back over to Jersey again, there's

15. Weehawken based WeeRow, and up in the Bronx we've got

16. Rocking the Boat.


Canoes don't quite seem to be the craft of choice around here but there are a couple of places where canoeing is offered regularly, both pretty unique -

17. the Gowanus Dredgers will take you on a canoe trip on the Gowanus Canal.

18. The Bronx River Alliance will show you the wonders of the Bronx River (and I'm not joking, folks, the Alliance has been working their Bronx buns off cleaning up that river and I tell you with a straight face, it is beautiful).

And a 2011 addition:

19. New York Outrigger: The traditional Hawaiian 6-person outrigger canoes that NYO paddles out of the Pier 66 Boathouse in Chelsea are an eye-catching sight on the Hudson River. Outrigger racing is a highly competitive sport, and the club is not as geared towards getting large segments of the paddle-curious public on the water as some of the other programs I've listed, but they do have regular sessions for novices who are interested in giving the sport a try.

PASSENGER SCHOONERS (plus a nice motor yacht)

Afraid this is where things stop being free - but this is where you stop having to do the work to move the boat - the wind & a well-trained captain & crew see to that - and start getting to stay dry. It's a much more leisurely experience!

I'm going to start with a plug for my old employer,

20. Classic Harbor Lines, now operating the schooners Adirondack & Imagine out of Chelsea Piers. The schooners are designed as sightseeing boats, but in the spirit of the old pilot schooners who would race to meet vessels approaching the harbor (whoever got there first got the job). They're very fast & a lot of fun to sail, and the captains and crews love to show what the boats can do. I LOVED working on the Adirondack. Sails start at $45 for a 2-hour afternoon sail to the Statue of Liberty & go up from there. The least expensive sails include complimentary beer & soda, evening sails add better beers, wine, and champagne. Going up from there...whoa, sake and sushi? That's new since I left! Classic Harbor also offers Manhattan circumnavigations & other more far-flung trips aboard the 1920's-inspired motor yacht Manhattan.

21. Manhattan By Sail is now offering sails on 2 schooners. Shearwater's been operating out of North Cove for years; not as fast as the Adirondack (there was one mischievous Adirondack skipper who used to like to sail a circle around the Shearwater, because he could) but this is a lovely boat, a genuine classic luxury yacht, circa 1929. I've always wanted to go out just to see what she looked like up close. The more recent addition to the fleet, Clipper City, operated in Baltimore for 20 years before the company who was running her there went bankrupt (or at least I think that was the story). MBS bought her, did a full refit to bring her back up to Coast Guard standards for commercial vessels & she's now sailing out of the South Street Seaport (although not a member of the South Street Seaport Museum fleet, next on the list).

For a grittier but still grand experience, how about a genuine antique freight schooner? Unfortunately, there is one 2011 revision that makes me very sad to have to make. The futures of the schooner Pioneer and the other boats in the South Street Seaport Museum fleet are currently unknown as the museum is in severe economic distress at the time of this revision. A grassroots effort to save the boats is underway and the organizers have started up the Save Our Seaport blog where developments are being posted.

Want to see a fantastic post on the various schooners that you might see out in NY Harbor? Click here!

Rather learn to sail the boat yourself? I'm not quite counting these as part of the list because that will take a bigger commitment of time & money than the other options I've listed here, but check out Hudson River Community Sailing at Pier 66 in Chelsea, or the Offshore Sailing School locations at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan and Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City.

3 More Categories

Right, you wouldn't think a kayaker would approve but these guys can actually be a really fun way to see the harbor. Great for people with kids who might like a little more excitement than the normal sedate Circle Line cruise. You might even get wet.!

22. The Shark and the Beast. These are actually identical speedboats with different paint jobs - back when I was working on the Adirondack, we always found their antics at the Statue very entertaining and although I've never gone, I suspect they are a lot of fun! They'd usually be driven by tough-looking skippers (frequently with mullets), and the two speedboats would always meet at the Statue, strong words (although rated PG)would be hurled across the water & then they'd drag-race up the Hudson. We on the Adirondack liked to pretend we thought we were gonna race too, we'd be adding our own challenges, and they'd yell at us to give them our beer, and it was all just good silly salty fun.

23. BTW, both of those speedboats are operated by Circle Line. You could call it the ultimate tourist cliche, maybe, but I think you could also call it a classic.


Each in a class by themselves!

24. Having just put the ultimate tourist cliche on the list, perhaps I can redeem myself with this one - the Working Harbor Committee's Hidden Harbor Tours. I simply cannot explain how frustrated I am with myself that I have never gone on one of these, they just sound great. Maybe this year.

And for the grand finale - It's Free. It's Big. It's Orange. It's #25, the Staten Island Ferry! How could I leave that out?


You might not think of it but it's got some points - aside from being free & sailing A LOT, seriously, you can jump on board on a whim, you can go out on it to see what the harbor looks like when the weather's too bad for anything smaller, and it's got the best views of downtown NYC that money can't buy!

A Note To Boaters: if you DO own your own boat, you might still find this useful in looking for ways to get less-boaty friends & relatives on the water, but for yourself, may I recommend a visit to nycwatertrail.web? There's a link to the Parks Department's interactive map of kayak launches, a downloadable tide wheel that, if used correctly, can help you sort out the area's tricky tides, and more. NYC's "6th Borough" is home to a busy commercial port, so if you're considering paying a visit to our area for the first time, please consider contacting one of the local boating groups to gather the information you'll need to have a safe and fun experience, or at the very least (and possibly in conjunction with looking for local knowledge) pay a visit to (it's aimed more at larger recreational vessels than paddlecraft, in fact we are mostly portrayed as the obstacles that we can be should we happen to fall asleep at the wheel out there, but Capt. Bacon has put together an excellent collection of traffic patterns & discussions of how to deal with extremely large traffic in the "Boat Handling" sections & that's relevant to everyone). NYC is a wonderful place to paddle, but there's a lot to be aware of!


Adriftatsea said...

Hey, where are the sailing venues??? Are there no places you can rent a sailboat? That's not possible.

You also forgot one other way to get on the water... be friends with the crazy penguin-hat wearing kayak lady. :-D

bonnie said...

It's hard to rent boat of any sort in NY harbor - the traffic & currents make for major liability issues. When I was at MKC, every year we tried to figure out a way that we could let people rent kayaks, and every year we chickened out with grisly visions of some perfectly competent kayaker from a quieter place misjudging the speed of a tug-and-barge unit dancing in our heads.

Offshore Sailing School (which I do mention) would be the only place that I would think of as even possibly renting sailboats - don't know that they do, though.

bonnie said...

Oh, I forgot - there ARE 2 places where you can rent outboard skiffs - Smitty's Fishing Station(no website, call 718-945-2642) in Broad Channel, and Jack's Bait and Tackle in City Island,

There is also a place where you can rent sit-atop kayaks in Broad Channel - that's a nice, sheltered part of the bay and I think a day out poking around in the marshes on a sit-atop would be lovely, but I couldn't find any info online - I just know they're there from trips I've done out to that area (which I love).

Paul, Dammit! said...

I'm tempted to bring mine from home while we're tied up in my company's boat yard on the Gowanus, but every time one of our tugs backs out, there's always a heart-in-throat moment that an energetic kayaker will try to scoot by before a poky tug and barge block the channel for a bit.

bonnie said...

I used to keep my boats up in Chelsea, and I have got to say that the regular crossings of busy commercial channels are the thing I have missed the least since moving out to Canarsie. I miss dodging barges like I miss the migraines I used to get once every few months. J-bay is MUCH more relaxing (especially since the economy has noticeably cut down on the recreational traffic).

bonnie said...

ps - GREAT blog, Paul, dammit! I'm at work so I just looked at the first couple of posts, but they cracked me up. The one about your wife possibly giving you whisky because it smells better than fuel was funny - rang some bells for me, I like the smell of diesel fuel 'cause it always reminds me of my dad coming home from sea, but I have gpt this idea that the fuel you're talking about makes diesel smell like roses...

Carol Anne said...

As my brother used to say when he lived in San Diego: Having a boat is good. Having a FRIEND who has a boat is even better.

Pandabonium said...

Then there's the option of getting on the wrong side of the wrong people and being thrown in with cement overshoes. Of course, technically, that's "in" the water, not "on" it.

moonstruck said...

Build a raft of flotsam and jetsam by the Worlds Fair Marina by Flushing Bay. Drift across the bay. Land at the end of the runway of LGA. Get a ride home in a police car.. Get major beating from Mom.. Great Adventure. circa 1955

Dennis G

Rob K said...

Hey, Bonnie--Happy Mutual Birthday!!

DaveO said...

I have passed this valuable bit of info on to a close relative, that you have met, now living in Forest Hills.

bonnie said...

Thanks, Rob! Dave, hope he enjoys!

PureBoats said...

Wow! This was a great post. I guess I've owned a boat so long, it didn't even dawn on me that there are probably tons of people out there who are on the water in a boat they don't own! :)