Kayaking in New York City
If you've been to the New York City waterfront, you might have seen an unusual sight: Down in the water, gliding among the ferries and the barges and the giant cruise ships, you will often see someone in a kayak.
New York, with its magnificent views and changing currents is actually an ideal place to paddle. And for the intrepid traveler who is not afraid of the water (which is cleaner than most people think) there is a great opportunity for adventure.
The waters around NYC are relatively unique; because of the Long Island Sound, there are two high tides and two low tides a day. This means that the water in the Hudson and East Rivers changes direction four times a day, which creates interesting opportunities for planning trips in which you launch and land in the same spot.
One question very commonly asked by out-of-towners is "Can I rent a kayak?". The answer is, pretty decisively, no. Kayaking around the city, particularly around Manhattan, is very technical and requires a good amount of skill and knowledge. The currents in the Hudson and East Rivers, for example, tend to be quite strong. If you don't have a tide chart, you might not know when they'll change direction. There are finger piers to get pinned against, submerged pilings to get caught in, and precious few places where you could actually land. With the assistance of a knowledgeable guide, it's no problem. By yourself, you might end up on the evening news.
Luckily, there is no shortage of qualified guides. In Manhattan alone, there are two excellent kayak companies: New York Kayak Company and Manhattan Kayak Company. If you already have some kayaking experience, either company should be able to take you on a tour to match your skill level. Don't be surprised if tour guides want to test your capabilities before taking you out. Bobbing in the path of a speeding ferry is the wrong time to find out your skills aren't what you thought they were. And there are plenty of trips with incredible views that are well-suited even for a relative novice.
New York Kayak Co. also has a very full outfitting shop with surprisingly competitive prices.
What about if you want to get into the water, but don't have the skills? While both kayak companies do offer intro classes, that may not be how you want to spend your vacation. A fun alternative, is the free kayaking hosted by Downtown Boathouse ("DTBH" to those in the know.)
As a completely volunteer-run organization, DTBH gives people the chance to kayak all around New York free of charge. Just show up, sign a waiver and DTBH will set you up with a kayak, a paddle, and a life jacket, all completely free. Seriously – no catch. And if you're worried about looking like a tourist, don't worry, the free kayaking is also popular with locals.
If you're concerned about potential danger for novice DTBH participants: there is a difference between their program and kayaking on your own. The free DTBH kayaks are sit-on-tops; you're not sealed in like an expedition kayak. And you can only paddle around inside of a designated area where volunteers can keep an eye on you, for a 20 minute interval. Still, it's a great way to get a new perspective on the city, and it's almost guaranteed that none of your friends have done it before.
Free kayaking is only available in summer, but if you don't own the cold-weather gear, you probably wouldn't want to do it in winter anyway.
So what if you're a more serious paddler? What if you've done some real sea kayaking, feel most at home in seven foot swells, and roll your kayak just to make sure your hair isn't sticking up? Again, reach out to the local outfitters. If you've got some chops, you know you can demonstrate them pretty easily, and then you'll be qualified to go on a more advanced trip. At that point, the guide would be more just for company, but it's also helpful to go with someone who knows the shipping channels, as well as the Staten Island Ferry schedule.
Experienced kayakers interested in New York City often have questions about rapids: Is there any whitewater in the Hudson? What class are the rapids? The only white water on the Hudson is the wake coming off of water taxis; Norwegian Cruise ships go in those waters.
A circumnavigation of Manhattan is always a favorite trip. The views are amazing, there are some interesting conditions along the way, and if you time it right, you can have current pushing you almost the entire way.
Manhattan to Coney Island is a fun trip, though the life guards tend to forbid landings on the beach during the summer months. Or, if you want to avoid the bay, you can just push north up the Hudson as far as you care to go. Start an hour before high tide to take advantage of as much current as you can, because once it gets to low tide, you can have really strong currents against you.
Before you go, make sure to familiarize yourself with the security zones in the water. Paddle too close to The Intrepid or the Statue of Liberty, and you could get a very close up view of an NYPD patrol boat.
At the end of a day of paddling, locals will often head out for a bite to eat, and maybe a pint of something you shouldn't drink while paddling. The Ear Inn is a favorite for people who paddle out of Pier 40, while the Frying Pan is the haunt of folks who launch and land from Pier 66. Both are regular landmarks in their own rights, and are worth the trip even if you never leave terra firma.
Just because New York doesn't have palm trees, don't forget that it is indeed a city of islands. There are adventures for nautical-minded travelers of every skill level.