IT WAS BECAUSE OF ANTHONY, a Brooklyn sage in designer sunglasses, that I got hung up on the sport we'll call urban jet skiing. But before we get into that, let me back up a few years and relate a vision.
Around 9 A.M. on a gray spring morning in New York City, I was jogging along the Manhattan bank of the East River. For all its reputation as a mafia burial ground, the East River is actually a tranquil waterway, inhabited by sullen barges and a few fishermen brave enough to eat what they catch. But that morning the silence was shattered by a rattling motor. A jet ski raced upriver out of the gloom. A figure in a life jacket sped past me, heading north, doing—what—40 miles per hour? Fifty? Who's throttling through the grimy heart of New York City? I wondered. Then: Envy. I want to do that.
So I went home and Googled—for about five years, off and on. I found nothing. Nobody seemed to rent jet skis or offer guided tours in the Big Apple. But last summer, while staring out my Manhattan office window at the Hudson River, I thought again of that mysterious figure and gave it another go. This time, a ramshackle Web site for a group called the Jetty Jumpers came up. There was a phone number and a command: "Contact Anthony." I left a message. About an hour later, my phone buzzed, and when I picked up, a man shouted at me in ecstatic Brooklynese: "So you wanna ride the jet ski?!"
Six weeks later, on a bright September morning, my roommate, David, and I headed out to meet Anthony on Coney Island, where he launched his "machine" from a marina next to a sanitation plant. Anthony stood maybe five-six. He seemed to be floating somewhere between his early thirties and late forties and had skin like a rotisserie chicken, inked with an assortment of tattoos. He arranged us on his 2008 Kawasaki Ultra 250X: Anthony driving, me sitting behind him, David behind me.
The next three hours constituted the single most thrilling ride I've ever had in New York—no small boast in the land of the runaway cab. Anthony raced us past the sunbathers on Manhattan Beach. He brought us within yards of the Statue of Liberty's sandals. We saw the city from new and exciting angles: under the Brooklyn Bridge; in the shadow of a hulking cruise ship docked in Red Hook while crews scrubbed the balconies; bobbing next to the buildings of Wall Street.
Back at the Brooklyn waterfront, we topped out at 50 miles per hour—a terrifically uncomfortable speed—until poor David, hanging on to my life jacket like a tin can tied to a wedding-day limousine, begged us to stop. Anthony shrieked with delight.
I understood the feeling. I wanted to drive the jet ski.
HIS FULL NAME is Anthony Stallone—really. He is not the best jet skier in the region. That honor belongs to "Pancake" Pete Scheidt, a freeride professional who lives on the Jersey Shore. But Anthony has an organic, even reverent connection to his pursuit, like fellow New Yorkers David Byrne and Derek Jeter. The morning I met him on Coney Island, as he gestured at the waves coming in from the Atlantic, he looked at me poker-faced and said, "This is my backyard, bro."
A union carpenter born in SoHo, Anthony bought his first jet ski 13 years ago. He'd never ridden one before. "I seen a bunch of riders out there," he told me, "and I said, 'This is something I want to be a part of.' I just know my personality and how it is and that I would just love it."
When he took his jet ski out to a jetty near the Rockaways, in Queens, he found that even tenured New York jet skiers began to gravitate toward him. Anthony christened his growing gang the Jetty Jumpers. It's the only crew of its kind in the five boroughs and now has about 30 members. Most of them have blue-collar jobs and all go by nicknames straight out of The Warriors. Anthony is "Saze." Lena Nicoletti, Anthony's girl Friday and the group's vice president, is "LeeBotz." There's a couple, "China" and "Stomper," who ride stand-up jet skis and call themselves the Fiberglas Mulisha.
Snarling titles aside, the Jetty Jumpers act more like a Rotary Club than a gang. When they're not catching air at the jetty, they're doing volunteer work, like planting buoys for swim races around Governors Island. They also take tourists on three-hour for-hire trips to see the sights from the water. A mission statement on the Jumpers' Web site states that riding with them "may even change your life forever."
It's certainly changed Anthony's. As he explains it, jet skiing is not a hobby; it's an extension of his being. Some years ago, he was hired for a job at a skyscraper in Jersey City, across the Hudson from lower Manhattan. One morning he found himself staring out a 17th-floor window at the sun-drenched harbor, and he concluded right then and there that he "preferred riding instead of working that day." He dropped his tool belt, quit the job, and was skimming across the water an hour later.
Last October, Anthony was trying to interest himself in an NFL game at a Coney Island redoubt called Cha Cha's. Lena happened to ride by on her jet ski, and he sprinted out of the restaurant to wave her to the beach. "Lemme go for a rip!" he screamed. "OK," she said, but then she pointed out that Anthony was wearing jeans and a button-down shirt. So he stripped down to his briefs in full view of gawkers and sped off.
Anthony belies the image of jet skiers as hot-dogging jerks. Though he covets his four-cylinder, 250-horsepower engine, he's a man on a quest for freedom. His passion stoked my own. I might never be a Jetty Jumper, but I had an idea: What if, just once, I ditched the subway to commute to my Manhattan desk job on a jet ski? I'd trade the C train for a rip down the Brooklyn waterfront, a slingshot around downtown, and a triumphant ride up the Hudson.
On a cold day last November, I met Anthony at the Coney Island boardwalk to commune about urban jet skiing. It would be months before it was warm enough to ride again. "Look at the water," he said, gazing wistfully at golden waves out past the boardwalk. "I want to ride right now." There was genuine heartache in his voice.
WHEN A PLANE AND A HELICOPTER collided over the Hudson River a few years ago, the press noted that New York's airspace was largely unregulated, unsafe, and chaotic. They should look at the water. There are wicked-looking Russian container ships; the Staten Island Ferry; countless tugboats and water taxis; the luxury cruise ship Queen Mary 2 ("More than twice as long as the Washington Monument is tall"); the Beast, a "water coaster" speedboat for sightseers, with twin 2,600-horsepower engines and sharp teeth painted on its hull; and Anthony on his tiny Kawasaki. Imagine all these vessels, wedged into a sloshing confluence of rivers that can flow both ways with the tides, and almost nothing in the way of traffic control. That's the whitecap jungle of New York. It's as if someone went to LaGuardia Airport and removed the tower.
According to New York state law, any landlubber can walk into the annual boat show at the Javits Center, buy a 35-foot cabin cruiser, and plop it in the water the next day, unlicensed. But to ride a jet ski—make that a "personal watercraft," or PWC; Jet Ski is a Kawasaki brand name—you must have the proper papers, which are obtainable only after attending an eight-hour lecture and passing a 50-question multiple-choice test.
What I learned from my instructor, a friendly, white-haired Coast Guard master named Kevin Ivany: It's legal to both water-ski and duck-hunt from a jet ski. It's illegal to ride a jet ski faster than five miles per hour within 100 feet of an anchored vessel or anytime after sunset.
Also: Jet skiers die in New York waters with heartbreaking regularity. In 2006, 16-year-old Brooklynite Aristotle Plagianakos and his friend Paul Zaccaria were zooming through Mill Basin, not far from Anthony's home marina, when Plagianakos rammed into his friend's craft. It took divers a month to recover Zaccaria's body. Prosecutors later charged Plagianakos with manslaughter due to reckless endangerment. Though he was acquitted (FREED IN JET SKI HORROR, the New York Daily News blared), he dropped out of high school and swore to never ride again. Last September, a Bronx man named Nelson Aquilar took three teenagers, including his daughter, to ride jet skis off Goose Island. Another accident, another tabloid screamer: BRONX DAD DIES IN JET SKI HORROR.
The Jetty Jumpers embrace the madness of their coliseum. Here's Anthony describing a typically surreal incident on the New York water: "We're out by Kingsborough, a bunch of us, just floating around. We hear this plane: brrrrr. Then—boof!—right into the water. We go over and my friend rips the door off the plane. There's this guy, a Russian guy—he's drunk out of his mind. He's like 'No, I'm OK, I'm OK!' We're like 'You're not OK—you just crashed a plane!'"
Anthony can live with the occasional plane falling out of the sky, the refrigerator bobbing in the water, even the armed interlopers, like the Russian sailor who once pointed a rifle at him from the deck of a ship. What bugs him are the guardians of the New York waterfront, the NYPD and Coast Guard, who are all too eager to "board" a jet ski. Translation: The cops ask you to produce a boating certificate and a host of lawfully required gear (flag, whistle, fire extinguisher, etc.). Fail to produce any one of these things and, says Anthony, "you have to go to court and sit there with all these degenerates."
He sat with the degenerates a few years ago and is determined that it never happen again. Now, when a group of Jetty Jumpers spots a Coast Guard cutter, they blast off in the other direction. Says Lena, "It looks like someone swatted a beehive."
COMMUTING BY JET SKI in New York is completely impractical, not least because it requires docking facilities on both ends of the ride. In Brooklyn, this is exceedingly expensive (about $1,000 a year, plus winter storage), and in Manhattan, where marinas cater to wealthy yachties who find the loud crafts annoying and low-class, it's next to impossible. "Why do they hate us?" Anthony asked plaintively when I brought this up.
Thus, the plan—"the show," Anthony called it—was for me to meet him and Lena at their marina and drive Lena's 2009 Yamaha FZR, while Anthony and Lena piled onto Anthony's ski. I'd convinced the manager of a pier near my office (Chelsea, West Side) to let us pull up just long enough for me to hop off and Lena to reclaim her machine. Several weeks beforehand, Lena let me drive her ski for a few minutes on a flat inlet near their marina, so I at least knew how to accelerate (check), idle (sort of), and turn (not really at all).
New York had been sweltering all summer. So, naturally, on the morning of our commute, it was raining. I'd stashed an extra set of work clothes at the office the previous day and was wearing swim trunks, an appropriately frayed T-shirt, and sneakers without socks.
The sky was dark but the water was calm as we exited the marina at a cruising speed of 35 miles per hour, with Anthony and Lena about 100 feet ahead of me. I immediately experienced one of the secret pleasures of driving such a tiny craft: the intimacy with the contours of the water surface—its potholes. Moreover, piloting a jet ski in a big city is also a humbling exercise in scale, especially when it comes to other vessels. Next to any of the big ships, you're a gnat—and yet the temptation to buzz the behemoths is overwhelming. About halfway through our trip to Manhattan, just before reaching the bridge that connects Brooklyn and Staten Island, we came upon a towering red container ship that had parked in the marine channel. It had a chimney that belched black smoke: a vision of Victorian New York.
The Jetty Jumpers had told me that, on the water, the noise of the city ceased but for the throbbing of your engine. This was true. New York's constant, jittery motion also stopped. Off Brooklyn, most of the big boats weren't moving; they were parked, waiting for tides or official clearance to offload cargo, arranged like plastic pieces in the board game Battleship. Like these boats, New Yorkers are always waiting for a ride: for a subway, a cab, a train. Out here on a jet ski, you can go where you want, when you want, as fast as you want. As Anthony puts it, "everything is just open. Everything is just free. It's just you and ocean. Life is perfect."
A few minutes later I came into sight of it, more imposing than any container ship: Manhattan. It wasn't the bright, boastful skyline you see in the movies; it was a haunted city shrouded in fog, a Charles Addams cartoon. The water suddenly roared to life. Helicopters buzzed overhead. The topographical dents in the water I'd seen in Brooklyn became troughs, and I took in mouthfuls of seawater. There was real commuter traffic, too: water taxis, the Staten Island Ferry, NY Waterway boats making their dutiful trek from New Jersey. I killed the engine just short of the Financial District so that, like an investment banker, I could call my office and tell them I was close. But after about 30 seconds, Anthony said, "We gotta get going." A water taxi was closing in on us.
We made a sharp right into the Hudson River. A few of my co-workers, who'd gathered at a window, reported the rest of my ride as follows: I drove in more or less a straight line; I waved at other boats like a moron; I took forever to inch into the pier, so as not to cause a wake and upset the yacht owners; I appeared in the office in swim trunks.
My jet-ski commute had taken an hour—about 15 minutes longer than the subway. After Anthony and Lena headed back to Brooklyn and the glory of the stunt began to fade, I felt a bit like Anthony staring longingly out the window the afternoon he found himself stranded on the 17th floor in Jersey City.
That night, I'd return to the subway. But for one morning, the harbor was my backyard, bro.