UPPER WEST SIDE — The idea of stepping into an unsteady kayak for the first time can seem daunting for beginners — especially when it comes to the Hudson River, with its strong currents and boat traffic.
To avoid that, the founders of Manhattan Community Boathouse (MCB), the nonprofit that offers free seasonal kayaking from piers at West 56th and 72nd streets, wanted to give novices a way to ease into the sport.
So they took their program to an indoor pool through a partnership with the Parks Department.
Starting this past November, kids from all over the city have come to the renovated Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center on West 60th Street to practice kayaking in the center's pool.
The free sessions, which are held Saturday afternoons and go through the end of March, have seen an excellent turnout and typically get booked up quickly, said Edward Cen, one of MCB's founding members.
"The kids really love it. They come back week after week," said Cen.
During the 40-minute sessions, up to seven kids ages 6 to 12 don swimsuits and life jackets, ease into 6-foot long kayaks and begin paddling around the pool. They're paired with nearly as many volunteers who guide them in paddling techniques, kayak maneuvering and lead relay games, all under the watchful eye of three Parks Department lifeguards.
"This is definitely low-pressure," said Cen, noting that's why the lessons are popular with parents.
Veronica Vera, who lives in Midtown and brings her 5-year-old grandson Xavier to the program whenever she can, said the program is "safer" because of the lifeguards and the small, contained space.
When MCB's kayaking season kicks off Memorial Day weekend, "they're more comfortable on the Hudson," she said of the kids.
In November, Jacqueline Barragan's 12-year-old daughter stepped into a kayak for the first time at the pool and it's since become a regular activity for her.
Barragan makes sure to leave plenty of time to travel from her apartment in Washington Heights so she can arrive early on Saturdays for the first-come, first-served sign-ups, she said.
"It's something different, something unique," the mother said.
Plus, "[kayaking] is an expensive sport" because of the equipment, she explained, with few opportunities to try it out for free or at a low cost.
Even though the pool program is popular with beginners, The Hudson River kayaking program also welcomes those who have no experience with a kayak, Cen stated. Any child under 18 must be accompanied by an adult, and there are dozens of volunteers during the May through October season to help newbies navigate the water, he said.
Kayakers can also stay close to the docks and take out tandem kayaks so they're not alone, Cen added.
"We've had a 6-month-old" in a kayak, he said of the all-ages sessions.
Last summer, more than 22,000 kayakers took part in MCB's programs.
In such an expensive city, Cen noted, "when [participants] find out we're free, they just get ecstatic."
The Parks Department has deemed the pool program such a success that they've asked MCB to consider an adult version, but Cen is skeptical that adult-sized kayaks would work well in the pool.
He added that the indoor program for kids could expand next year.
"Our goal is to provide diverse and exciting public programs that engage our recreation center members," said Kim Mc Neal, the Parks Department's chief of Manhattan recreation, in a statement.