Small Boat, Big City: Kayaking New York Harbor

Kayaking in New York might seem odd, but it is surprisingly clear and enjoyable.
Kayaking in the New York Harbor. Photo by Flickr/Dan Nguyen

Warm, and full of puffing sailboats and washing-machine clean. I am having a hard time believing this is New York Harbor — and that I am kayaking it.

The water is as transparent as my bathtub at home, but a lot more challenging and choppy. And unlike my tub, the harbor and the Hudson River are cordoned off into security zones I am not allowed to explore.

It’s a couple of summers back, in early July, and three friends and I are determined to see the Statue of Liberty by sea. Not by ferry, though. We want to paddle there, and we’ve found an outfit, Manhattan Kayak Company, willing to guide us to Liberty Island from the Pier 66 boathouse, just west of 12th Ave. and 26th Street.

None of us knows a spray skirt from a rudder — only my wife’s brother, Bill, has ever kayaked before — but we’re happy about our adventure and feel confident as we make the rounds of drugstores to buy up disposable CVS “Sport” cameras and boxes of Nature Valley Energy Bars.

Paddling day dawns with an eerie smog that is like nothing I remember from growing up here. The newspaper blames forest fires in Quebec and at the top of the front page there’s a warning from the New York City Department of Health to “refrain from strenuous outdoor activities.”

As it turns out, we’ve got even more pressing worries. We find out that, due to the ever-present threat of terrorism, there is a 150-yard “Exclusionary Zone” around Ellis and Liberty Islands. Manhattan Kayak founder Eric Stiller tells me that the other day, when kayakers accidentally got too close, Army Black Hawk helicopters buzzed in out of nowhere and circled the little boats until they paddled off.

“They’ll be watching us today,” warns Eric as we get fitted for life jackets at the pier, and check out the Necky “Amaruk” two-man sea kayaks. I knock on the flank of the baby blue one that Bill and I will be piloting: solid plastic.

It’s time for our mission briefing. Eric and colleague, Ray Fusco, roll out an oversized map of New York City’s rivers, bays, inlets and islands. To get to the Statue of Liberty we will have to pull off a 10 nautical-mile round trip, while wrestling with two-and three-knot currents. “The Indians called it ‘Great Waters Constantly Moving,'” says Stiller. “Twice a day the Atlantic shoves salt water almost 100 miles up the Hudson.”

What really worries me, although I don’t say anything about it, is the information — delivered in passing — that Stiller used this harbor trip to train for his recent kayak circumnavigation of Australia. At first I think this has to be a joke, but nobody’s laughing.

And it’s time to load up the boats.

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