Thursday, May 28, 2009

24 Great Ways to Get On the Water in NYC (plus a couple of spots in Jersey) Without Your Own Boat

One last boat-list! Yes, I think Lord Tillerman's deadline is past, but I'd thought of this right at the start & with summer underway, I thought this might be even MORE useful than my fabulously useful (ha ha, ha ha ha) 5 Things A Sea Kayaker Needs to Pass A Vessel Safety Check in New York State and the even more helpful 10 Things I Won't Leave My Urban Dock Without.

I'd say that at the very least, it will be more widely useful - the ways to get on the water that I'm going to list 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).

OK, enough (ka)yaketty-yak. On with Twenty-Four Great 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!

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 3 locations - 2 in the Hudson River Park & 1 in Riverbank State Park.

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

Those are all great places to go get your feet wet (and your okole too). Want to get a little more serious? 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,

7. Manhattan Kayak (where I used to be a partner) or
8. New York Kayak.

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

Where things should move on a little better because I have a lot fewer silly opinions about the rowing groups, just know who's out there, that it seems like a lot of fun & that the Whitehall gigs these groups build & use 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 seriously mean to try this out myself this summer, one of these organizations is about a 15 minute walk from my office & I don't know why it took me so long to figure out that I could join in on their Wednesday night rows really easily. It would totally be learning something new, too, which would be neat.

I'll start with that one:

9. Village Community Boathouse, located at Pier 40, where Houston Street hits the Hudson. This was the group that sent the gigs that were in the Water Dance of Boats, by the way, and all the "backstage" pictures were taken at Pier 40, which is also the home of New York Kayak & one of the Downtown Boathouse branches.

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:

10. Floating the Apple, which was founded by Mike Davis, who passed away last year 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 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 there. I think that they are open for business at Pier 84 but that website has not been updated in a very long time. I'll see if I can get an update.

Hopping back over to Jersey again, there's

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

12. 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 -

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

14. 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).

PASSENGER SCHOONERS (plus a nice motor yacht & a cool old tugboat)

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,

15. 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 $40 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.

For a grittier but still grand experience, how about a genuine antique freight schooner?

16. The schooner Pioneer was built in 1885 & after a long working life, she's now enjoying a genteel retirement as a prized part of the South Street Seaport Museum's collection, taking passengers on sails in New York Harbor. Sailing schedule & prices here. The museum has two other vessels that operate regularly - the Lettie G. Howard, a beautifully restored fishing schooner now used for educational sails for adults (2008 fall schedule, just to show the sort of stuff they do) and then the coolest old tug, the W.O. Decker - that picture seriously does not do justice to that boat!

17. I'll add one last schooner that's been offering public harbor sails out of North Cove in the World Financial Center for a long time - the schooner Shearwater. 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 a genuine classic luxury yacht, circa 1929. I've always wanted to go out just to see what she looked like up close.

BTW, Bowsprite did a fantastic post on the various schooners that you might see out in NY Harbor recently. Worth a look!

3 More Categories (and I'll try to make these ones snappy 'cause it's past my bedtime now).


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. There are 3 that I know about.

19. My favorite doesn't look like it's resumed public operation yet but they used to share dock space with the Adirondack & every now & then, on a hot day, when we didn't have a sail for one reason or another, some of us liked to sneak off & go for a ride on the Chelsea Screamer. You'd get totally soaked. It was awesome. Plus they actually gave a very nice harbor tour as they were drenching you.

20 & 21. The other two also looked like good rowdy noisy fun - they were basically identical boats with different paint jobs, Shark and Beast. They liked to hire redneck-looking skippers 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.

22. 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!

23. 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 #24, 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!


bowsprite said...

an absolutely great way to get on the water is to jump in! you're ON it only for a split second, then you're IN it, which is waaaaay better!

getting out: well...good thing the post is only about getting ON.

bonnie said...

One more extremely post-post posting addition (Spring 2011) - I had somehow left my friends up at the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club out of the list, I think the deal was that I hadn't been able to find their public program info at the time, but somebody up there got in touch with me and gave me the proper link!

I'd made that correction and there had been a few other additional suggestions, but those were all lost when JSKit decided to fold the old Haloscan comment system. Yonkers was the big omission, but if anybody else knows other good free or reasonably-priced spots in NYC & immediate environs, please feel free to share them here! I will be rebuilding a "Ways to Get on the Water In NYC" blogroll soon so I'd love to hear about anyone I've missed.

Unknown said...

It takes a lot of work to put that together. Nice job!
Some of the list I was aware of, but others, not so much