Kayaking is a favorite sport on City Island. In fact, it is a wonderful way to get on the waterways of NYC, but it's only one of a whole lot of available options - there's something to suit just about any taste and budget.
These are things that I've done or given serious consideration of doing at one time or another;
Being a squarely middle-aged person, none of these require either a huge amount of money some are free, some easily affordable, some I'd consider a bit of a splurge but worth the funds spent, or any particular physical prowess although a basic level of fitness & coordination will make some of the more active options Kayaking, Rowing, Canoeing, Passenger Schooners, Speed-boats extremely enjoyable.
KAYAKING is for fitness & sanity and it is cheaper than a gym membership & therapy!
Much more common in NYC are free walk-up programs where people can try out a stable sit-on-top for 20 minutes or so in a sheltered area between piers or in a cove. It makes for a fun part of a nice day in one of the city's waterfront parks, but keep in mind that on not-so-nice days, the lines will be shorter and the volunteers will have more time to talk story and give pointers & might be less concerned about holding you to the official tryout time. Some of these places have boats big enough for parents to take out small children & a lot of city kids get their first taste of boating this way. Many of them also offer longer trips for people who've developed some basic skills.
The granddaddy of all of these programs is Manhattan's Downtown Boathouse - not sure exactly when that group was founded but they'd been around for a while. They've got pictures on their website dating back to 1995. The original Downtown Boathouse was actually downtown, not far north from Battery Park City; that building, is long gone now but the DTBH carries on just fine at 4 locations - 2 in the Hudson River Park, 1 in Riverbank State Park, and 1 out at Governor's Island.
Over the last decade, a number of similar programs - most founded by DTBH "alums" - have sprung up in other boroughs (and I'm including Hoboken too 'cause it's just not right to leave them out). In no particular order, here are the most established.
The Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club is a more traditional club in the Sebago vein, and an old favorite of mine although a new addition for 2011 - I'd left them out of the 2009 version because I couldn't find their public program at the time, but one of my friends up there pointed me to the link, so I'm very happy to add them in properly now!
The Brooklyn Bridge Park Kayaking and Community Rowing program was a fledgling effort in 2009, handled by a number of the other groups listed here, but is now a fully established regular summer activity. The kayaking is run by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse, while the rowing continues to be handled by the Village Community Boathouse (1st link in the next section).
New on the list - a warm (if soggy) welcome to the Greenpoint-based North Brooklyn Boat Club!
Paddling is good exercise, but most of the programs listed so far are fairly sedate. If you are athletic & enjoy team sports, you might get a much bigger kick out of Kayak Polo! Pier 66-based New York
Kayak Polo offers introductory sessions about once a month, no experience necessary
Those are all great places to go get your feet wet. Want to get a little more serious? With the exception of New York Kayak Polo (where you'd just join up and start playing if you enjoyed your intro), all of those places welcome & train volunteers, so that's one way to do it (and I will mention that some of the more stalwart volunteers at these groups are very, very good paddlers); if, like a lot of people in the city, you're busy enough that your leisure time is a scarce & precious resource, you might well find it worth the money it takes to patronize the local outfitters,
New York Kayak.
Of course there are other places slightly further afield that I love & would recommend in a heartbeat but I am trying to keep this in the actual NYC area - so instead I will move on to
Most of the local community rowing groups row the Whitehall gigs which are traditional to our harbor - no-one knows whether the gigs were named after the street, but the fact that there is a Whitehall Street in Manhattan is not believed to be a coincidence! Fun for all ages, and with all boats captained by experienced local coxswains, these sturdy 6-oared craft strike me as possibly the best way for kids who are old enough to start getting serious about boating to start learning the skills a person needs to enjoy NYC's waterways safely - they can even help build boats if they're so inclined! Pretty cool. I'll start with the one I know the best:
The Village Community Boathouse, located at Pier 40, where Houston Street hits the Hudson. As mentioned before, this group also offers rowing in the Brooklyn Bridge Park.
As was the case with a lot of the free kayaking programs in NYC, a lot of the groups that build & row the Whitehalls were inspired by and/or spun off from one original, which was:
Floating the Apple, which was founded by Mike Davis, who passed away in 2008 but left quite a legacy. One of the earliest thoughts I had of ways to get on the water around here was seeing one of their boats being built as I walked past the old green McGraw Hill Building in midtown. That particular spark of an idea failed to take hold, but it was definitely something that got me thinking about getting out on the river in some sort of small craft.
Weehawken based WeeRow, and here in the Bronx we've got
Rocking the Boat.
Canoes don't quite seem to be the craft of choice around here but there are a couple of places where canoeing is offered regularly, both pretty unique -
the Gowanus Dredgers will take you on a canoe trip on the Gowanus Canal.
The Bronx River Alliance will show you the wonders of the Bronx River (and I'm not joking, folks, the Alliance has been working their Bronx buns off cleaning up that river and I tell you with a straight face, it is beautiful).
And a 2011 addition:
New York Outrigger: The traditional Hawaiian 6-person outrigger canoes that NYO paddles out of the Pier 66 Boathouse in Chelsea are an eye-catching sight on the Hudson River. Outrigger racing is a highly competitive sport, and the club is not as geared towards getting large segments of the paddle-curious public on the water as some of the other programs I've listed, but they do have regular sessions for novices who are interested in giving the sport a try.
Afraid this is where things stop being free - but this is where you stop having to do the work to move the boat - the wind & a well-trained captain & crew see to that - and start getting to stay dry. It's a much more leisurely experience!
I'm going to start with a plug for my old employer,
Classic Harbor Lines, now operating the schooners Adirondack & Imagine out of Chelsea Piers. The schooners are designed as sightseeing boats, but in the spirit of the old pilot schooners who would race to meet vessels approaching the harbor (whoever got there first got the job). They're very fast & a lot of fun to sail, and the captains and crews love to show what the boats can do. I LOVED working on the Adirondack. Sails start at $45 for a 2-hour afternoon sail to the Statue of Liberty & go up from there. The least expensive sails include complimentary beer & soda, evening sails add better beers, wine, and champagne. Going up from there...whoa, sake and sushi? That's new since I left! Classic Harbor also offers Manhattan circumnavigations & other more far-flung trips aboard the 1920's-inspired motor yacht Manhattan.
Manhattan By Sail is now offering sails on 2 schooners. Shearwater's been operating out of North Cove for years; not as fast as the Adirondack (there was one mischievous Adirondack skipper who used to like to sail a circle around the Shearwater, because he could) but this is a lovely boat, a genuine classic luxury yacht, circa 1929. I've always wanted to go out just to see what she looked like up close. The more recent addition to the fleet, Clipper City, operated in Baltimore for 20 years before the company who was running her there went bankrupt (or at least I think that was the story). MBS bought her, did a full refit to bring her back up to Coast Guard standards for commercial vessels & she's now sailing out of the South Street Seaport (although not a member of the South Street Seaport Museum fleet, next on the list).
Unfortunately, there is one 2011 revision that makes me very sad to have to make. The futures of the schooner Pioneer and the other boats in the South Street Seaport Museum fleet are currently unknown as the museum is in severe economic distress at the time of this revision. A grassroots effort to save the boats is underway and the organizers have started up the Save Our Seaport blog where developments are being posted.
Rather learn to sail the boat yourself? I'm not quite counting these as part of the list because that will take a bigger commitment of time & money than the other options I've listed here, but check out Hudson River Community Sailing at Pier 66 in Chelsea, or the Offshore Sailing School locations at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan and Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City.
Great for people with kids who might like a little more excitement than the normal sedate Circle Line cruise.
The Shark and the Beast. These are actually identical speedboats with different paint jobs - back when I was working on the Adirondack, we always found their antics at the Statue very entertaining and although I've never gone, I suspect they are a lot of fun! They'd usually be driven by tough-looking skippers (frequently with mullets), and the two speedboats would always meet at the Statue, strong words (although rated PG)would be hurled across the water & then they'd drag-race up the Hudson. We on the Adirondack liked to pretend we thought we were gonna race too, we'd be adding our own challenges, and they'd yell at us to give them our beer, and it was all just good silly salty fun.
BTW, both of those speedboats are operated by Circle Line. You could call it the ultimate tourist cliche, maybe, but I think you could also call it a classic.
Having just put the ultimate tourist cliche on the list, perhaps I can redeem myself with this one - the Working Harbor Committee's Hidden Harbor Tours. I simply cannot explain how frustrated I am with myself that I have never gone on one of these, they just sound great. Maybe this year.
Jack's Bait and Tackle in City Island, http://www.jacksbaitandtackle.com
It's Free. It's Big. It's Orange. It's the Staten Island Ferry! How could I leave that out?