MANHATTAN — Although New York City is surrounded by water, finding place to actually get out on it is not easy.
But, as the city’s water quality has improved over the past decade and the Bloomberg administration pushes to transform formerly industrial pockets of waterfront to parkland, boat access to the city's rivers is improving.
A handful of boathouses dot the city, offering opportunities to row or canoe — oftentimes free of charge — and to inspire New Yorkers to learn about and care for nature.
“Getting people on the water is not just about recreation — it is about connecting our own lives to this historically active, and often mistreated, estuary that surrounds us,” said Will Elkins, a volunteer for the city’s newest group, the North Brooklyn Boat Club, which will be leading canoe trips in August even though its boathouse has yet to be built.
“We hope to encourage and inspire communal ownership for the local waterways and waterfront — in terms of water quality and ecological restoration as well as a citizen's right to the water itself," he added.
At East 96th Street, the juncture along the East River straddling the Upper East Side and East Harlem, the volunteers with East River C.R.E.W. see their Tuesday evening community rows as a way to connect the two neighborhoods.
“There’s a social and ecological mission,” said Tori Gilbert, who helped spearhead the group, which built its first 26-foot wooden Whitehall gig (like the kind George Washington used when evacuating troops during the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn) in 1999 at Saint David's School, where she's an educator.
“It gives people from two different communities the chance to work together as a team and you get to see the city from a different perspective. The more awareness you have of the water, the more likely you’ll be a steward of it.”
The East River group, like several other boathouses in the city that offer rowing, got a boost from Floating the Apple, a nonprofit launched in 1994, and worked with high school students to build rowing gigs that were then distributed to other organizations. Gilbert said her organization's second boat is on loan from FTA.
Another FTA spinoff can be found at the Hunts Point Riverside Park in The Bronx. The nonprofit Rocking the Boat started a Saturday community rowing program after fielding requests to get out on the water from parkgoers who had spotted their boats, explained Adam Green, who launched the group in 1996.
The organization — which focuses on youth empowerment by teaching young people how to build boats, how to row and about restoring the eco-habitat of the waterways — seized on the chance to have their Environmental Apprentices in their job skills program lead the rows, giving them the chance to share their knowledge of basic boat handling and environmental science.
A recent Saturday saw 125 people climbing in the boats. Over the course of a summer, roughly 1,500 people get out onto the water, Green said.
"We recruit kids through the program and we meet parents," Green said. "It’s brought a whole new fun dimension to the park."
Here are some of the places where you can hop into a rowboat or canoe.
Rocking the Boat: Every Saturday from May through September, between noon and 5 p.m., this group offers free rowing in their handmade wooden rowboats on the Bronx River at Hunts Point Riverside Park. The 20 minute rows are open to all ages and skill levels and are guided by the group’s young Environmental Apprentices from its job skills program, who share their knowledge of the river’s rich ecology and explain how they’re working to make the water healthier.
The Bronx River Alliance: This decade-old group, which works to protect and improve the Bronx River corridor and greenway, offers several paddles through the summer, including a five-hour “peddle and paddle: green infrastructure tour,” which meets at Concrete Plant Park at noon on Sept. 8. The tour includes a 10-mile bike ride to visit the watershed’s rain gardens and other greening projects, followed by a three-mile canoe trip. There’s also a free community paddle on Oct. 20 at Concrete Plant Park, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Harlem River Community Rowing: For those who've always dreamed of rowing sliding-seat style skulls — like competitive college students — a group of master rowers started up this boathouse in 2006 and offer rowing classes on the Harlem River at Roberto Clemente State Park, Bronx. This isn't geared toward athletes, but rowers must be competent swimmers, be able to carry at least 30 pounds overhead and be able to do deep-knee bends. Classes are on weekend mornings, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and weeknight evenings from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. It costs $200 per person (with 15 percent discounts for students and 25 percent discounts for residents of Bronx Community Boards 4 to 7).
Basic Canoeing with the Urban Park Rangers: If you’ve never learned how to stroke and feather, a good place to start is with the Parks Department’s Urban Park Rangers basic canoe events. Learn the fundamentals on Aug. 5 at Van Cortlandt Park (Van Cortlandt South and Major Deegan Expressway) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Free, for all skill levels, including children ages 8 and up.)
East River C.R.E.W.: Volunteers lead community rows in its two 25-foot Whitehall gigs on Tuesdays, from May 8 through Sept. 18, starting about 5 p.m at East 96th Street and the East River Esplanade. The group provides life jackets and guidance for all levels. The group also plans to start up a Saturday rowing season, from Sept. 22 through Oct. 20.
Village Community Boathouse: This group takes out its Whitehall gigs from Pier 40 on the Hudson River (near Houston Street) for free community rows on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:30 p.m. Depending on the skill level of the rowers, the boats might tool around in the cover for a bit, or if the tides are right, might cross the Hudson to Hoboken or take a little jaunt in the river.
Floating the Apple: This group, based at the Hudson River Park's Pier 84 Boathouse, near West 44th Street, offers free rowing regularly or by appointment. Check Floating the Apple's Twitter feed for the most updated schedule.
NY Outrigger: Outrigger canoe paddling, which has its roots in Polynesian culture, attracts everyone from triathletes to recreational paddlers, according to this group that's based out of Hudson River Park's Pier 66 at West 26th Street. New York Outrigger offers free Saturday novice sessions most weekends from late spring to early fall, where action seekers and exercise enthusiasts can first learn the mechanics of the stroke, the calls and commands and safety protocols on the ground, followed by a half hour to hour-long on the water.
Row New York: For adults who want to learn competitive racing shell skills, Row New York offers classes on the Harlem River at Upper Manhattan's Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse (near Dyckman Street at 10th Avenue). An intensive intro weekend costs $100 and a "learn-to-row long session" (which requires the intro weekend as a prerequisite) costs $320. The fees cover the course and support the organization's free programs for underserved youth.
Basic Canoeing with the Urban Park Rangers: On Aug. 12 at Central Park’s Harlem Meer, just near the Lasker Pool at the northern tip of the park, or on Aug. 25 at Inwood Hill Park’s Nature Center, the Urban Parks Rangers host free events from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for all skill levels, including children age 8 and above.
The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club: The Gowanus Canal may be a superfund site, but there’s still life teeming in the 1.5-mile-long industrial waterway. The Dredgers offer free self-guided canoe trips, departing from Second Street near Bond Street, on most Wednesdays at 6 p.m. and Saturdays at 1 p.m.
North Brooklyn Boat Club: It’s still a couple of years before this group’s boathouse is built along Newtown Creek at the northern end of Greenpoint’s Manhattan Avenue, but the North Brooklyn Boat Club is already busy getting people out on the water in its first season. There will be two public canoe trips in August: to Buswhick Inlet on Aug. 4, from 5:30 to 9 p.m., where paddlers can enjoy a brown bag (or Ziploc) dinner and the sunset. Another trip is scheduled for the Newtown Creek on Aug. 11 from 4:30 to 8 p.m.
Both leave from the Broadway Stages Boatyard, at Ash Street and McGuiness Boulevard and have a $5 insurance fee. The organization is also spending the summer training volunteers and potential trip leaders.
Sebago Canoe Club: This Canarsie-based organization founded in 1933 — making it one of the oldest canoe clubs in the Northeast — organizes day trips in its canoes, which hold six or more people, for members only. The group, which leaves from Paerdegat Basin Park, even has fly fishing lessons in the canoes. Membership for an adult joining after Aug. 1 costs $187.50; for a family it's $235.
Basic Canoeing with the Urban Park Rangers: Learn how to canoe at the Fresh Creek Nature Preserve in Canarsie, a 77-acre preserve area surrounding Fresh Creek Basin, an area bounded by East 108th Street, Louisiana Avenue, Shore Parkway and Flatlands Avenue. The Urban Park Rangers will also be offering basic canoeing instruction on Aug. 12 at the Audubon Center at the Prospect Park Boathouse. These events, both from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. are free and for all skill levels, including children age 8 and above.
Long Island City Boathouse: This organization, in partnership with the Socrates Sculpture Park, offers free walk-up paddling in the protected waters of Hallets Cove, a small beach at Vernon Boulevard at 31 st Avenue, on selected weekends. The group has canoes available (in addition to kayaks) and the sessions are suitable to beginners of all ages (though kids under 18 must be accompanied by an adult). The boathouse also offers canoe trips that go deeper into Newtown Creek and organized one down the Bronx River.
Basic Canoeing with the Urban Park Rangers: Go for an introductory paddling adventure on the gentle waters of protected lakes on Aug. 5 at Clove Lakes Park (Martling Avenue and Brooks Pond Place) or on Aug. 18 at Willowbrook Park. These events, both from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., are free and for all skill levels, including children age 8 and above.