It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy, which means that if I don’t have a Pimm’s Cup in hand, then I want to be in or on a body of water. Like many jaded New Yorkers, I spent years avoiding the city’s shorefront for the usual reasons: splashing around in water infested with gonorrhea, industrial waste and bodies wearing cement shoes is, after all, kind of a tough sell. When I moved near the Gowanus Canal a few years ago, though, I was surprised to see a lot of seemingly reasonable people peacefully kayaking and canoeing down a waterway so gross that it arguably killed a whale. Maybe they were on to something.
I had already decided that, at least from a distance, the Seine of South Brooklyn actually has a certain beauty to it, all shiny and sun-dappled as it snakes its way through graffiti-emblazoned warehouses and the strangled, tenacious shrubbery that has taken root along its shore. The Gowanus and its Superfund status aside, herculean efforts to clean up water pollution throughout the city have been underway for years–we’re at a point now where you can float around on a kayak without turning into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
As it turns out, Brooklyn is a great place for small boat enthusiasts, and not just those who can pay for their own gear and storage space. There are about a half-a-dozen boathouses in the area that offer free access to boats, equipment, and the open water, (a few of which I outlined in 13 Things You GOTTA Do This Summer–this is a much more comprehensive list). Several of these organizations run free open-paddling sessions, which are limited to 20 minutes and a relatively small area of water. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse, which is located just south of Pier 1 in DUMBO, is a popular one, offering free walk-up kayaking from 10am-4pm on Saturdays and from 5:30-7:30pm on some Thursday evenings (check the schedule first). We’re told that the lines can be long, but the addition of a floating dock sometime later this summer will shorten the wait time. Even cooler, there are plans afoot to install a pebble beach near Pier 4 for the express purpose of launching kayaks into a protected waterway that will run all the way to Pier 1.
Just a bit further south, the Red Hook Boaters has free kayaking on Thursday nights from 6-8pm and Sunday afternoons from 1-5pm at the end of Coffey Street in Louis Valentino Jr. Pier Park. Canoers who feel up to tackling the oil slick on the Gowanus Canal can check out the Gowanus Dredgers Club on most Wednesdays from 6-8pm and Saturdays from 1-5pm, when it launches self-guided tours from 2nd Street [Ed. Note: We’ve done it and highly recommend this–it’s pretty sweet to get a free canoe to paddle down the canal at your own leisurely pace. Just do your best not to capsize.] Finally, the incredible-looking Greenpoint Boathouse on Newtown Creek is at least two years out from completion, but in the meantime the North Brooklyn Boat Club is operating out of an interim location on Ash and McGuiness, complete with club-owned and donated boats and gear. A $30 annual membership means that you can participate in practice paddling sessions on Wednesday nights and some Saturdays.
I’m hardly an accomplished mariner, but I have enough experience to wonder whether 20 minutes in a tiny cove is enough to satisfy my itch for adventure on the high seas, and a recent session at Red Hook Boaters confirmed my suspicion that the free open-paddles might generally be best suited for young kids and true beginners. Although there is something undeniably cool about kayaking with an open view of the Statute of Liberty, being confined to the length of the pier might get old fast for anyone who has really been bitten by the paddling bug. Luckily, there are a few options in the area that cater to more experienced, dedicated paddlers as well.
For 75 years, the Sebago Canoe Club in Canarsie has provided its member kayakers, rowers, canoers, and sailors with a clubhouse, club vessels and access to the open waters of Jamaica Bay. On Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings in the summer, the club holds free open-paddles for non-member kayakers. For a $10 insurance fee, you get a full two hours on the water, which is definitely enough time to make the trip out there worth it. Incidentally, the membership fees at Sebago are not completely insane, especially if you join in the off-season, so if you really take to life on the water you can pony up about $200 and use the facilities whenever you want. In addition, Sebago members have access to instructional classes and a full calendar of organized trips, not to mention an awesome community of avid boaters.
The L.I.C. Community Boathouse, an outfit located just over the Brooklyn border, offers free walk-up kayaking out of Hallets Cove in Astoria, Queens on selected weekend afternoons, but it also runs an array of longer trips, including sunset and moonlight excursions, which require advance reservation. Last weekend, some friends and I joined the L.I.C.C.B.’s “Here to Hellgate and Back Again” trip, which was a four-hour paddle up the East River around Roosevelt, Ward’s, and Randall’s Islands. Seeing the city from the vantage point of a kayak was pretty special and we had a great day of sun and exercise, even if the tour itself was a little disorganized and overcrowded. If you go on the same trip, be forewarned that you are going to be waiting a lot and often peppered with very specific and often arbitrary instructions from not only the guides, but also a few very officious “volunteers” whose only qualification seems to be that they have been on previous L.I.C.C.B. tours. Also, we were on the water much longer than we thought we would be, so be sure to eat beforehand and bring water and sunscreen, unless you want to rock the unfortunate yoga pant sunburn action I’m now scaring my coworkers with.
Considering that the whole trip was completely free, aside from the voluntary donations we made to the boathouse, it was a great way to spend a spectacular summer morning on the water, not to mention an opportunity to dominate Instagram for a few hours. Our leader, Ted, was a laidback 50-something who spends most of his time in his kayak, which became evident when we got out on the water and he knew every single person we encountered. At one point we met up with a group of his friends, sea kayakers in the middle of a circumnavigation of the island of Manhattan, and I started getting ideas… So, anyone who is interested in joining me for that next year, let’s start training now! Who knew, but Brooklyn has a ton of places to practice.