An Aussie at the New York City Downtown Boathouse [58]

By Peter Osman

A year ago I was lucky enough to visit the New York City Downtown Boathouse. The following report has been far too long coming. If it encourages other visitors, a useful link is: http://www.downtownboathouse.org/. My deep appreciation goes to Ralph Diaz, Richard Muller, Tim Gamble, Harry Spitz, David Gordon and all the other good people of the club for their friendship and hospitability to a relative stranger from Oz.

Friday 20th June

There’s a standing wave in the middle of the Hudson River. I can see it from the Jumbo jet. It’s June 2003 and I’ve spent two days getting from Sydney Harbour Australia to New York. Tomorrow I’m going to be paddling in that river!

Saturday

Richard Muller and Tim Gamble are longtime volunteers at the Downtown Boat House and have kindly organised a kayak trip for me, so I leave an excellent, cheap hotel called the Cosmopolitan and walk a few blocks to the Hudson River on the Lower West Side Manhattan. Within a few baseball strikes of the Statue of Liberty is Pier 26. Snaggle toothed piles poke out of the water and next to the pier is a grey breeze block cement building with a sign on the front saying “Downtown Boathouse”. It’s 7am, the air is brisk and I’m way too early so there’s no-one in sight. A set of three notice boards proclaim that the kayaking is free of charge, describe a comprehensive set of trips and lessons and give a short set of rules for safety. There’s no doubting the location.

Then along comes a young man on a bicycle towing a trailer. Well of course this is folding boat territory and that’s exactly what he’s towing. He stops, says “Hi” and starts to unload and assemble a Feathercraft K-Light. I’ve not seen a KLight being put together before and have heard varying reports, but this boat assembles very easily. I’m suitably impressed, then astounded as he pulls apart his full sized folding bike and packs it away in the boat. The wheels go into a plastic disk shaped bag on the stern. I fear for its stability but in the water he looks very comfortable, paddling what looks for all the world like a miniature kayak version of the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek.

Now Harry Spitz, arrives and immediately makes me feel as though I’m a life time member. He’s the trip leader today and unlocks the Boat House. In the street its concrete grey, bleak and cold. As the door opens there’s an explosion of color and warmth. All kinds of kayak line up in row upon row. Gear protrudes from nooks and crannies everywhere. It’s like Dr Who’s Tardis, far bigger inside than out; kayaker heaven and I’m just waiting for the angels to sing! Harry has organized what looks like the very best boat in the house for me, a Kevlar Dagger. It’s a large but surprisingly light craft that just skims through the water.

I can hardly believe it as we paddle around the Statue of Liberty, can’t think of a better way to be seeing it. We stay a reasonable distance from the security marker buoys but nevertheless the local coast guard comes over to check what we are doing. There’s a 150 yard limit on approaching the island. Next we pass through Port Liberte, New Jersey, a village of very fine houses set up in a system of canals, a miniature Venice, and then its time to paddle around the back of the statue and under a bridge and around to a floating boat restaurant where we climb on to a wharf about the same size as at the fish market in Sydney. Unlike Sydney, there are no diners curiously looking on to see if any of us fall in! Lunch and coffee, great! Finally we paddle back across the Hudson passing the Empire State tower and the Woolworths Building in the distance.

The conditions are flat and when asked I suggest the paddle is a grade 1. But appearances are deceptive – the currents can be fierce, as I will discover on Sunday. One of our group, Eric, invites me to join some friends in a circumnavigation of Manhattan Island. I’m told with careful timing the currents can just about carry a kayaker all the way around and the conditions are going to be exactly right at 2 am on Tuesday morning. I have to decline as I’ve got an early appointment on Tuesday. But I will always regret missing the chance.

A wonderful day.

Sunday

The following morning, again I’m at the boat house and this time the trip leader is David Gordon. He is a muscular looking paddler and has found me a red plastic Dagger, somewhat smaller than yesterdays but about the size I’m used to. There’s a bigger turnout today including some newcomers to the sport. I’m feeling privileged as new visitors are usually offered sit on tops, which are safe, albeit slow.

About 15 minutes into the paddle one of the group, who is recovering from a party the night before, turns back with David’s assistance. David must have been getting a huge workout paddling back and forth in the current. There is a fair spread of ability and boat performance in the group and I paddle with a pleasant woman who is very keen to take up kayaking and who wants to get some experience before making her first boat purchase. She is capable and determined and maintains a respectable pace despite the fact she is in a broad beamed sit on top.

The water is covered with a soft mist and has the same deceptively flat quality as yesterday. We cross the Hudson and potter between the wharves then turn for home. From time to time it’s necessary to stop and avoid ferries and we are being carried somewhat down stream, so we make an effort to ferry glide back. By the time the last of us return we are sufficiently far down stream that it’s necessary for David, me and the young woman to take the SOT in a tandem tow against a three knot current. Haven’t worked so hard in all my life! It took about 15 minutes to paddle past a tourist boat and into the wharf adjacent to the boat house, then through the snaggle toothed posts to Pier 26. I didn’t presume to grade that paddle! Two lessons here were: the value of the tandem tow David set up, I much preferred it to the parallel tow I’m accustomed to; and the value on this occasion of shorter tow ropes. The 15 metre towline, which is mandatory for our sea kayak club, would have been unwise on the Hudson because of the risk of taking it through the path of an oncoming boat, or entanglement in posts.

Later that day I had a chance to meet Ralph Diaz who describes the history of the area and shows me where JFK junior used to live. He was a keen kayaker though I’m told he didn’t always wear a PFD. Ralph also talked a little about the Twin Towers. The site was a couple of streets away from my hotel but I couldn’t bring myself to go there through fear of the disrespect implied in visiting as a tourist. I had read Ralph’s descriptions of the twin towers viewed from the Hudson as he kayaked and am grateful that he encouraged me to eventually visit. It is a reconstruction site but there were both subtle and obvious signs of the restrained dignity with which New York is treating this area. Enough said.

Lunch with Ralph, Nancy and Nina is filled with talk of kayak assisted swimming races around Manhattan, battles with fierce currents and issues of helping swimmers to land when landing facilities are unavailable. I am hugely impressed but strive to hold my own with a tale of the Navy divers in Sydney who tour the swimmers racing ‘route’ to scare away sharks prior to a race. There are no sharks in the Hudson but there is some hope that one day they may return. In the afternoon Ralph shows me a Chinese folding boat he is trying out called Atlatl. It has a most ingenious pulley system for inserting the frame into the skin. And of course I get my first edition of the Complete Folding Kayaker autographed. Thanks Ralph.

Monday

Can’t keep away from the place so turn up again on Monday evening and what a maelstrom of activity: There’s water polo, paddlers learning to roll and people paddling for the first time ever, at least some of them are, one of them isn’t paddling at all. He is reclining in the back seat of a double and smoking a cigarette while encouraging his partner, who is paddling furiously “you’re doing just fine honey”.

I join in one of the rolling classes with some trepidation, I’ve seen what can come floating down the Hudson, but can’t come all this way and not roll. So I do so with determination and finesse and relief. Then on to take photo’s of the water polo teams. I’m waiting for them to get the ball in the air but they all stop to smile at the camera!!! Eventually the game resumes and I have my chance.

The organization is unobtrusive, filled with a spirit of camaraderie and enormously impressive. Visitors seem to go on the water with just a little introduction, but a clear set of safety guidelines. Those that come back have the opportunity to learn a variety of skills including rolling and rescues during the summer evenings. I’m told that 7000 people came through the boat house in 2002 (As I write, the web site tells me that in 2003 there were 13,400 different people, for approximately 27,000 trips on the Hudson). This is an extraordinary achievement by any standards. I asked if this was regarded as compromising the market for the local commercial operators but the club opinion was that it increased the customer base and certainly the commercial operator down the road had no qualms in introducing me to the club.

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