Kayakers ready for new season in Tribeca

By Christine Leahy

When New Yorkers daydream about escaping to the sun, water, and open air, most are probably not thinking about the Hudson River. But thanks to the Downtown Boathouse, which opens for the season on May 15, there are a growing number of ways to enjoy a paddle and a splash within city limits.

Since the Boathouse got started in 1995, on Pier 26 in Tribeca, more and more people have been participating in the “walk-up kayaking” program, where you can show up, get a life preserver, a paddle and a kayak, and glide right into the water — for free.

Volunteer Michael Ingbar says that there’s one conversation he has all the time when he’s at the Boathouse: “How much does it cost to rent a kayak?” a passerby will ask. “It’s free,” he answers. “No really, can you rent kayaks here?” The back and forth

continues until the incredulous passerby is convinced that it’s not too good to be true — the mission of the Downtown Boathouse is simply to give the public access to the Hudson River. They do not charge a penny and are run entirely by volunteers like Mr. Ingbar.

Photo by Elisabeth Roberts

Downtown Boathouse volunteer Michael Ingbar

According to Jim Wetteroth, president of the organization, there are more than 200 names on the volunteer list, and while not all of them are active participants, newcomers will often simply appear and pitch in. When the Boathouse was just starting out, says Wetteroth, the core group of volunteers consisted of a lot of artists and contractors, or contractors who were also artists, many of whom lived nearby. Now, he says, people are also coming from farther away. There is a particularly strong Brooklyn contingent as well as a growing group from New Jersey who are dedicated to the organization. And as word has spread about the Boathouse over the years, it has landed on various magazine and hotel “things to do” lists, attracting more tourists.

In addition to the Pier 26 location, on the Hudson near N. Moore St., the Boathouse also operates from Pier 64 in Chelsea, at 24th St., which Wetteroth said will be moving this season a short distance to pier 66A, the old railroad float bridge. The organization will also be opening a third location on the Upper West Side, with a target starting date of June 1, although because of a chilly spring, that date may have to be moved back.

Walk-up kayaking will be available from these locations on weekends and holidays, and on some weekday evenings (for times and up-to-date information, call the daily status line at 646-613-0740). As walk-ups arrive, volunteers make sure they know how to swim, have them sign a release form, give them tips about using the boat if they are new, and then let them have about twenty minutes to paddle around the embayment in front of the Boathouse.

Participants are encouraged to wear a bathing suit, or clothes that can get wet, because the self-bailing, sit-on-top style kayaks tend to let the water in. While New Yorkers and tourists alike might be wary of contact with the Hudson, Ingbar assures paddlers that the river water is just as clean as the waves at any of the local beaches. On a hot day, the splashes can be quite refreshing, and Ingbar said some kayakers even capsize on purpose.

Out on the water, paddlers enjoy a unique vantage point; the spacious, breezy feeling of being in the river is heightened by a spectacular view of the crowded Manhattan skyline. On the one hand, “you’re so close to the water, you almost feel like a duck,” says Ingbar. But on the other hand, he continues, “it’s another way of observing the city that you normally wouldn’t be able to do.”

Though walk-up kayakers can’t travel beyond the enclosed embayments outside the boathouses, early risers can take three-hour guided trips from Pier 26, on weekend and holiday mornings, from June 14th through September 14th.

Participants must first build up strength and get familiar with the boats by attending several walk-up sessions, and because the trips are popular, people must show up at the boathouse before 8am to put their name on a list which will then be entered into a lottery. In the peak of the season, there is a 50 percent chance of getting into a trip.

The destination depends upon the tide and weather, but expeditions generally go out into the Hudson River and lower harbor, traveling at least 4 or 5 miles. And on some weekday evenings, according to Ingbar, informal groups of volunteers and others at Pier 26 often make trips to New Jersey and back, which takes about an hour.

Last winter the Boathouse began a kayak rolling class, in which participants, using a traditional cockpit-based kayak, learn how to flip back over after a capsize without getting out. During the cold months, classes took place in a pool on Roosevelt Island, but they will be held at Pier 26 starting June 16. This year the Boathouse will also continue its kayak polo program, to be held at Pier 26 starting June 3 (and in the Roosevelt Island pool before then), as well as its seven week youth sailing program, and Wednesday evening sessions at Pier 26, that cover introductory kayak skills.


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