Help me kayak to work in Brooklyn!
April 23, 2017 5:00 PM   Subscribe

I would like to kayak to work, in Brooklyn, this summer. I live near the Gowanus Canal, and work in DUMBO, so my proposed route would cling to the Brooklyn side of the East River, but I wouldn't have to cross it. I'm interested in hearing from folks who have spent some time exploring the waterways of New York City in human-powered watercrafts.

Context-setting: I've kayaked in the past, and have canoed the Gowanus before, with the awesome Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club (don't worry, I'll see if I can ping some of those nice folks for advice too). I am aware that there is a boat launch on the Gowanus Canal, and another one in Brooklyn Bridge Park. I am under the impression that technically I need a $15 permit from the Parks Department in order to use these facilities.

My plan: buy a foldable Oru Kayak, launch it from the Gowanus, paddle around Red Hook, and land in DUMBO. The kayak folds up, and my workplace has showers. I'll try this first on a weekend, before trying to commute this way. I assume it will take a few hours and a decent amount of upper body strength, and I'll probably have to take some breaks.

My questions: if you've paddled around NYC, does this seem feasible or nutso? Is Buttermilk Channel (or any other part of the route) going to be too choppy to really paddle through? Is ferry traffic going to kill me? Is it actually legal to paddle the waterways without any coast guard / NYPD interference? (I mean, I won't be landing anywhere forbidden.) What else haven't I considered?

Many thanks.
posted by thejoshu to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
If the tide is running against you as you try to move north up the buttermilk or the east river you are going to be late for work. Don't get me wrong I love the idea! But I do not think this is a practical commute. Do it for fun. Check tide charts for the bigger parts of the river.
posted by vrakatar at 5:59 PM on April 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Pay verrrrrrrrrrrrry careful attention to the other boat traffic patterns in Buttermilk channel.

I have indeed kayaked this spot with a group - from Red Hook over to Governors' Island, and also the exact path you're talking about (Red Hook up to DUMBO, and then even past it to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and back). And the particular waterway you're looking at is a very busy one - you have the East River ferry, the NYC Water Taxi, and several shipping companies using that exact portion of waterway as their path; and the city is even about to add two more ferry lines. And even if you hug the coastline, that still puts you right bang in the path where you're crossing in front of all the shipping lanes from the Columbia Waterfront.

Which means, what you're thinking of doing is the equivalent of taking a bicycle on the BQE. It's possible to do, but it will be very busy. Try paddling that path with a group first and see what the group leader does when he charts the route, and ask questions about why. There are a number of boat groups in the city alongside Gowanus Dredgers; that very route is a popular one for groups, actually. But the reason why groups do a little better than a single kayaker is because a group of kayaks is an easier thing for a tugboat to spot.

Get guidance from a group first and see what they say. But I'm doubtful.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:28 PM on April 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you really want to do this rent one of the Oro Kayaks first and test drive it for the weekend.
posted by Marinara at 6:55 PM on April 23, 2017

I am not in your area but I'm frequently boating in a much (much, MUCH!) larger power boat and I travel near barges and tourist boats.

Even in my large boat the effects of the barges on the current is spectacularly dramatic for, perhaps, a quarter mile behind the barge. If you have several large vessels traveling in the same waterway the currents may become very unpredictable. In my large boat on inland navigation channels, the boat experiences lots of heavy chop and unpredictable currents that make it difficult to control the boat at times.

If you do attemp this, the commercial vessels could make it quite challenging and downright dangerous. Please always wear a life jacket and protective gear. A marine radio and knowledge of how to use it is very important. I would not be surprised if you end up unintentionally swimming once a month or so. I would not bring anything that you can't easily replace.
posted by littlewater at 8:31 PM on April 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

A bit more about the marine radio: at times, and particularly at dangerous times, you may need to communicate with the captains of the commercial vessels. You will need to learn their language, and also understand that it's very likely they will be supremely irritated that they have to deal with you in the navigation channel. You will be making their jobs more dangerous (because they have to make sure they don't kill you) and probably slowing them down off their schedules. You may also unintentionally cause dangerous situations between the commercial vessels and not even understand that.
On the other hand, these are the same people that will quickly pull your sorry ass out of danger before you even know you are in danger.
You'll need to learn how to coexist with them as well as communicate with them in an efficient, effective way. The marine radio is your communication method.
posted by littlewater at 9:14 PM on April 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

I was in Seattle last summer and rented a kayak for the afternoon and paddled around Lake Union on the warmest day of the year. It was glorious, I signed a waiver, they said "try not to hit anything" and that was pretty much it. You can't do that in NYC. Literally, none of the boathouses will rent kayaks to individuals unless they are members who have demonstrated through training and certifications that they know what they're doing. Between the traffic and the currents, it's just too dangerous.

I've done some kayaking with some of the public boathouses in the area and have also done BBP to Red Hook with a group. It took at least an hour, maybe almost two? each way and that was taking advantage of the very strong tidal currents. (We timed our key lime pie break so that we'd have the tide in our favor coming and going.). It was fun and I would never do that on my own without doing a LOT of training and group paddles first. If you're really set on doing this, get in touch with one of the bigger boathouses that go out on the rivers and offer training and spend a summer learning to navigate New York Harbor first.
posted by yeahlikethat at 6:12 AM on April 24, 2017

I have kayaked a good bit in the East River, with the boathouses that do the tours folks are mentioning above. As all have mentioned, its not really recommended to kayak alone, so you should defitely get safety certified via ACA before you do this. The water is not too choppy, though you can always lose your balance and fall in, happens all the time... kayaks tip.

Commenters are correct that your biggest danger would be boats, and you'd need a radio if going alone. BUT let's just say you are crazy enough to do this (its only mildly stupid, not illegal).

To me, the biggest hurdle would be coming out of Gowanus and getting to Buttermilk Channel. That's a long trip for a commute, definitely more than an hour, and probably the most challenge dealing with boats coming in/out of the bay.

Could you bike to Red Hook, and launch from there? The run from Red Hook to DUMBO is pretty well protected if you stay close to the piers, and there is much less commercial boat traffic there than right on the Gowanus. Again, seems like not a great idea, but I think avoiding the Gowanus to Buttermilk would be best.
posted by RajahKing at 10:47 AM on April 24, 2017

I think those Oru Kayaks are cool. But I got to see one close up at an REI store and realized that they would never work for me. I'm a bit tall, about 6' 2'' and not super flexible. I fit in a Kayak but I need it to be a bit roomy to fold my legs in. Those guys had very tight cockpits.

Also, I would definitely get training in the standard methods for getting yourself back into the kayak if you fall out (self rescue) and carry/wear all the right gear all the time.
posted by cron at 8:51 PM on April 24, 2017

There was a great cover story in this month's Smithsonian magazine about revitalizing the NY waterfront, and I believe they profiled some kayak teachers. Maybe you could hunt those folks down for advice and input on your plan?
posted by missmobtown at 8:23 AM on April 30, 2017

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