The greatest open space in New York City may not be on land, but out on the water: 160 square miles make up the coastal waterways of the New York City Water Trail. Tidal rivers, bays, and ocean beaches stretch across the five boroughs, all connected to the heart of New York City—Manhattan—and the harbor that wraps around it. This is all to say that the city has become a paddling destination, and for good reason. Thanks to legislation such as the Clean Water Act, agencies like the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the efforts of stewardship groups, including the New York City Water Trail Association, the harbor waters are the cleanest they have been in 100 years. The once-dilapidated waterfront left over from past industry continues to morph into new living space and expansive public parks. But even for expert paddlers, the strong tidal currents, waves, and heavy boat traffic of the Hudson and East Rivers are a challenging environment to navigate.
I’ve lived a short ride from the city most of my life and have kayaked the surrounding waters for close to 20 years, yet with how fast the city changes, I discover new opportunities every visit. Whether you’re a Manhattan resident or a well-versed coastal paddler searching for your next endeavor, there is something for everyone on the waters surrounding New York City. Here are a few of the favorites I’ve discovered so far.
Test the Waters Below the Brooklyn Bridge
A protected embayment in Brooklyn Bridge Park provides views of the iconic namesake bridge and lower Manhattan for those who are new to paddling or just looking to jump in a kayak while visiting the city. Kayaking in Brooklyn Bridge Park, a free program that expects to serve nearly 7,500 participants in 2019, is hosted by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse and offered from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends, June through the end of September, and 5:30 to 6:45 p.m on Thursdays, June through August. It’s one of a handful of similar offerings found at community boathouses scattered around the city. Volunteers provide all equipment and an introduction to kayaking basics and float nearby as support boats. Paddlers are allotted a 20-minute session to roam between Pier 1 and Pier 2, sheltered from the currents and boat traffic of the East River beyond. There are no reservations for the free kayaking program, and boats are provided on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s best to arrive early for a session. (Thursday offerings are generally less crowded.)
Take in the Midtown Skyline
Viewing the midtown skyline under nightfall is as New York as it gets. Seeing it from the seat of a kayak on the Hudson River is an experience that Eric Stiller, owner of Manhattan Kayak + SUP, calls “surreal.” Manhattan Kayak + SUP’s dock on Pier 84, at the west end of 44th Street, provides a location that makes its guided one-hour New York After Dark tour ($65) accessible to every skill level. To Stiller, a lifelong Manhattan paddler, this is really just the beginning of what the alluring, albeit challenging, paddling the city has to offer. His mission is to progress kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders to handle anything the harbor can roll their way. The reward? Excursions beyond Pier 84, including trips to the less developed beaches along the New Jersey Palisades to the north and south.
Paddle the Less Traveled Side of the Island
There are more than 30 public park launch sites for human-powered craft operated by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Head to Muscota Marsh, on the northwest edge of Manhattan, where Spuyten Duyvil Creek connects the Hudson to the Harlem River, to experience a waterway that’s more sheltered and sees less commercial boat traffic than the East or Hudson Rivers. NYC Parks access points are open from April to December and require a permit ($15) to utilize. Paddlers with the skill level to explore the city’s tidal waters should visit the New York City Water Trail Association website, where they can find educational resources on harbor safety, tides and currents, and a number of paddling groups with indispensable knowledge of the local waterways.
Circumnavigating the island of Manhattan is the New York City Marathon of paddling. Groups such as the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club and outfitters like Manhattan Kayak + SUP make occasional pilgrimages around the island. You’ll need proven credentials (recent paddling trips of similar conditions and length, as well as the ability to self-rescue in the event of a capsize) to partake. The 30-mile outing around the city can take eight hours or more, and the diverse legs of the journey make for an Odysseus-like quest due to the threat of barges, wind, waves, and tides. No matter where you begin, you’ll travel under 20 bridges (21 if you go east of Roosevelt Island), watch the city as the skyline rises and falls through each district, witness the working harbor interweave with a resurging marine environment, and, at times, realize an ironic sense of solitude that makes for the complete Manhattan paddling experience.