When you think of paddling destinations, New York City is probably not even on the radar. Not many think of Manhattan as an island or consider an outdoorsy lifestyle in the city. The city and nature are as separate as they can be here, as far apart as I’ve seen anywhere else. Which makes it even a more special place to get your paddling on. The waterways surrounding all five boroughs are shared waterways and yours to explore via kayak, rowboat, canoe or SUP. Your city doesn’t end at water’s edge, for me, that’s where it begins.
As a paddling instructor in this dystopian land, one of my major challenges is to bring New Yorkers to the fringes of the city and expand the limits a bit. First, there’s the misconception about the Hudson River that most New Yorkers have. I tell them that I swim in the Hudson all the time, we all do, and we have no extra toes, in fact, none of us has ever got sick from it, in all 20 years that the company has been providing lessons and trips. But everyone is still a little skeptical about the idea of going for a leisurely paddle on these waters. Until they get out there.
The expression on their faces when we paddle out to the middle of the river and turn around and watch the city from out there, can only be described as pure joy. Out here it’s silent, even the city looks tranquil. It’s spacious, the Hudson is a enormous body of water and you are free from tall building walls, and the urban shade.
More than meets the eye
It might not be the most watersport friendly city but there’s more going on than you might think. There are five boathouses on the Hudson side of Manhattan, and a bunch of operations at marinas or city parks in Brooklyn and Queens: There’s Harbor Lab, Long Island City Community Boathouse, North Brooklyn Boat Club, Brooklyn Kayak Guides and Red Hook Boaters. If you’re a rower, there is Harlem River Community Rowing and Row New York. They are mostly volunteer based and operate greatly in a not for profit manner, and provide the community with free lessons and guided trips, as well as environmental education and research. Except the rowing boathouses, these have been mostly kayak oriented, but are now expanding into paddleboarding as well. Of the five boathouses in Manhattan, four are community boathouses, Inwood Canoe Club, north of GW Bridge, Manhattan Community Boathouse, New York Outrigger and Downtown Community Boathouse. They serve a very large amount of folks with their free kayaking program and get thousands of folks safely on the water each summer in the area just between the piers. The company I where I teach and guide is Manhattan Kayak Company, which has been my paddling home for these last 12 years. Our fleet, as the name indicates, is largely composed by kayaks, but in the last eight years, our program in SUP has matched our kayak curriculum, which also includes surfski. We offer private storage and memberships as well as lessons and guided trips all over New York City. Yes, we go around Manhattan once a month!
Islands in the Stream
But Manhattan is just one of the three islands that compose New York City. There’s Staten Island, that has a long east coast that faces the west side of Long Island. Just over 10 miles across the Hudson’s estuary, you’ll find the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens that are on Long Island and both have beaches. Rockaway is the westernmost barrier island, followed by Long Beach, is New York’s Atlantic coastal beach and surfing destination. Jamaica Bay on the north side of the island has provided kayakers with miles and miles of wild marsh and salt water to explore. In fact, Sebago Canoe Club, a kayaking and surfski center, is located in the Long Island side of the bay. Standup paddling has gained prominence in the beach sports scene on the Rockaway side thanks to spots like ATeam Paddleboarding and Rockaway Paddle Club.
Hooked on the Hudson
For those who get hooked on the river, climbing the learning curve requires a higher level of commitment than being a beginner paddler on a lake or any non-commercial, tidal, urban estuary. There are traffic patterns to learn, currents to understand and day long destinations to explore. There’s Lake Intrepid, the area right outside our boathouse that is very protected from currents, wake and wind. This is where you work on your technique and rescue skills. But the outside river is what’s most exciting, going up to the George Washington Bridge, seeing the harbor for the first time, visiting the Statue of Liberty. All these places are accessible by foot, yellow cab or subway, but being on the other side of the sea wall, literally in it, it’s something that once you experience, you can’t stop going after.
You find yourself in a place not too many people can get to, you went farther, beyond the boundaries. Almost like you belong there, and there belongs to you. Is that sentiment of ownership that I hope will grow into loving the place and therefor lead to taking care of it. The New York city waterways have come a really long way. They’re in better shape than ever in the industrial and modern age, but it can get better. As we all become better paddlers, my hope is that the waterways will only get healthier and more beautiful