“This is my first time kayaking and I can’t swim. Please don’t let me drown.”
A true beginner, I arrived at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 2 eager to get into a kayak for the first time, but terrified of falling into New York Harbor — not so much because of the infamously dirty waters, but because I wanted to be able to get out alive. To their credit, the trained volunteers with the Park Boathouse didn’t laugh or roll their eyes at my plea, instead projecting an air of calm confidence as they assured me that not only is swimming ability not needed to go kayaking with them, but it didn’t matter anyway since all students — including the five-year-olds — wear life vests that would keep us afloat until help arrived.
That should come as a relief to anyone seeking ways to cool off while interacting with our own marine backyard. Expanded ferry routes and public pools aren’t the only aquatic options in summer — you can also enter the waves via kayak, canoe, or other small watercraft, in many cases for free or low cost.
The Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse is a great place to start, with free family- friendly twenty-minute kayak excursions every Thursday evening and Saturday morning in a protected bay, no reservations necessary, and coin-operated lockers on site. Volunteer lifeguards offer tips on general safety, how to hold the oar, and how to sit. And if you do fall in—as a father and son did during our session — lifeguards surround you in their kayaks to assist your climb back in. (If you’re wondering, water quality has improved to “acceptable levels” per state and federal guidelines, according to the latest River- keeper data, so a splash from the oars or even a dunk won’t be toxic.) This is also the only place in the city where beginners can learn kayak polo — an internationally contested blend of basketball, water polo, and kayaking.
For a less crowded, more community-oriented atmosphere with gorgeous views, Red Hook Boaters operates a small kayak launch out of Louis Valentino Jr. Pier Park throughout the summer on Sundays and Thursdays, and the North Brooklyn Boat Club offers informal canoe tours of Greenpoint’s coastline and Newtown Creek. Both excursions are free, though the nonprofits encourage guests to help with beach cleanup afterward (in Red Hook) or to check out the North Brooklyn boatyard (in Greenpoint). The Sebago Canoe Club in Canarsie, meanwhile, offers a longer excursion that takes in a part of Brooklyn few tourists bother to explore. Beginning on Paerdegat Basin, which connects to Jamaica Bay, these walkup group outings occur every Saturday in summer and are open to anyone sixteen and up. A $10 insurance charge applies and the kayaking can last up to two hours.
Swimming experience is required at most of the Manhattan-based spots, such as the popular NYC Downtown Boathouse, which operates out of Pier 26 in the Tribeca section of Hudson River Park as well as on Governors Island. Weekday kayaking is free for all ages through October, while weeknight classes are open only to adults and include in-boat, onshore, and rescue-and-recovery lessons. The Boathouse’s kayaking trips last for only 20 minutes, but there is no limit to how many times you can visit.
A different view of the Hudson can be found by way of the Inwood Canoe Club’s guided 20-to-25-minute tours under the George Washington Bridge every Sunday morning between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Founded in 1902, the club is the oldest of its kind in Manhattan and also offers opportunities for the public to go birding. strations. For intro-to-sailing classes, the nonprofit Hudson River Community Sailing offers $95 lessons in safety as well as how to control sails, steer, identify parts of the boat, and handle basic navigation; each lesson lasts up to three hours.
In Queens, the Long Island City Community Boathouse operates out of Hallets Cove with free weekly lessons in the basics of kayaking and paddling and with a mission to cultivate an appreciation for environmental stewardship through getting people on the water and by holding other community events, such as water quality testing events.
Once you’ve got some experience under your belt, there are even more opportunities to hit the waves: Central Park, Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, the Bronx River Alliance, Kayak Staten Island, Prospect Park, and Marine Park all offer boat rentals of various kinds. You’ll find that getting out on the water is a surprisingly accessible proposition — you might even start a new summertime tradition.