Wednesday, June 06, 2012

25+ Ways to Get On The Water In NYC Without Having Your Own Boat

Wait...what...Memorial Day was when??? A week and a half ago, you say? Eeek, I'm late for my annual update of "25 Ways to Get On The Water Without Owning Your Own Boat"! Amy at NewYorkOlogy had once again asked me if I was going to update this, and I said yes, absolutely, and then proceeded to not do it. So yeah, it's now PAST 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". Last year's edit was a little depressing because I had to take off a couple of old favorites - this year I'm a lot more gleeful because this year, the edits are ADDITIONS. I'm going to put them right up at the top here! Oh, and don't worry, I get a lot less wordy after I finish with the new ones.

OK, enough preamble - let's start things off with the best - I'm absolutely tickled to restore the schooner Pioneer, right here at the top of the list!

Built in 1885 as a no-nonsense freight schooner, she spent her long working life hauling cargo on the Delaware River, and upon retirement was lucky enough to be acquired for the fleet at the South Street Seaport museum, where she embarked upon a genteel second act carrying passengers out for summer sailing, staffed by a licensed captain and an eager crew of volunteers. The experience was a little more basic than the posher yacht-like experience offered by the other schooners I'll mention later in the list (no champagne, no cushioned seats, no uniformed crew), but it was always great to see this handsome old vessel out there in the harbor. Luck seemed to run out for her and the rest of the South Street Seaport Museum Fleet last year, when the mismanaged, fiscally depleted museum closed her doors in March, but early this year the Museum of the City of New York rode to at least an interim rescue, and by this Spring, the Pioneer had been spotted on her first shakedown sail of the season. I guess all went well, because she's open for business! Welcome back - SO nice to see you again!
From A Schooner, Two Kayaks and a Yellow Submarine: The Boats Of Labor Day Weekend 2010

My other addition is actually a new and different kind of kayaking option than I've ever been able to list before, and kind of a nice one. NYC's "Sixth Boro" is mostly a very tough environment for paddlers, and up until now, the options that I've listed have always been either free programs where you get to go out for a set amount of time (ranging from a couple of hours at my club, Sebago, where we take you out to see a bit of the bay, to twenty minutes between piers at a number of more centrally-located not-for-profit groups, great for folks who really just want to try this strange thing out, also very popular with parents who just want to give their children a bit of a taste of boating) or formally guided tours and lessons, either way under close supervision. Mostly even a good kayaker who wasn't familiar with the area would be wise to be cautious & do some research about the tides, traffic, and other local hazards before launching around here. However, there are some nice quiet marshy areas out in the far end of Jamaica Bay, near the wildlife refuge, where a person with a little common sense could take a stable sit-on-top kayak out on a pleasant summer day without someone watching over them, and Broad Channel's Sunset Marina is taking advantage of that unique situation and is now renting. I don't know much about them, just saw a "Kayak Rentals" sign during a trip to Broad Channel a year or so ago and got curious (thank you so much to my friend Rockaway Viv for helping me out with their website!) - if you've got any questions about skill level required, age limits for kids, or anything else, give them a call or an email, I expect they'll be happy to help.


That's it for my additions - back to the oldies and goodies! And as always - if I've missed a good place, let me know in the comments! I may just have left 'em out because they're outside of my self-imposed geographical limits (hence continuing omission of a couple of friends who run fine shops up in the Highlands and other slightly more distant locales), but it's quite possible that I just don't know about 'em!


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 various options 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) is now underway, 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 4 locations - 2 in the Hudson River Park, 1 in Riverbank State Park, and 1 out at Governor's Island note - as of this posting I have not heard confirmation of the Gov's I program happening in 2012 - the logistics there are trickier than the other locations and may just not be underway yet; I will update when and if I hear anything new.

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
7. The Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club ( a leeetle teeny bit outside of NYC proper but just BARELY and a really great bunch, I've got a bunch of friends up there, so here they are).
8. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Kayaking and Community Rowing program is a joint effort in a particularly spectacular location. 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. New to the list as of last year, 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. Another 2012 note - the link still works but the site doesn't appear to have been updated since October 2010. I'll see if I can find anything out - will update if I learn anything interesting.

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).

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! And, NEW FOR 2012 - Schooner America 2.0, modeled after the 1851 yacht America, winner of the original America's Cup (no catfights back then, baby!). Classic Harbor also offers Manhattan circumnavigations & other more far-flung trips aboard the 1920's-inspired motor yacht Manhattan - whichever one you pick, you'll have a wonderful time.

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).

Next year the Schooner Pioneer will come back here, but this year, she's up at the top in celebration of her return, of course! 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!


Joe said...

Fantastic, I now know where to go the next time it hit the Big Tomale.

bonnie said...

Whoof, finally done an hour later. I swear the Circle Line changes their links once a year at least.

Shoot, I totally forgot stand-up paddling! Hasn't taken off with the not-for-profits yet, but Manhattan Kayak and New York Kayak both do stand-up.

Unknown said...

You always do such a good job with this

bonnie said...

Thanks! I always feel like I've actually accomplished something useful when I get this posted, even if I'm late.

Credit where it's due, of course -this is totally the Proper Course Group Writing Assignment that keeps on giving! :D

Steve Crompton said...

The trip round the Statue of Liberty is worth doing, its definitely not worth doing in the coldest March since records began and dressed only in a shirt and jeans. Then its a bad idea, a very very bad idea.

bonnie said...

Brrrr! Is that by any chance the voice of experience speaking? :D

Lois Alter Mark said...

Wow, what a fantastic resource! I'm going to have to check out some of these when I'm back in New York!

bonnie said...

Thanks! I do need to update this again (I haven't been as good about it since Amy shut down NewYorkOlogy, sadly because of trolling) but I think most of the links are still good, it's more about adding things at this point.