When you think NYC, what immediately comes to mind? Skyscrapers? Broadway? Maybe a movie or three? Sailing, rowing and whale watching probably wouldn't be your first associations. But NYC—a port city—wouldn't be what it is today without its waterways. We're surrounded by vast bodies of water (almost all of which make up the kayak-friendly New York City Water Trail) that flow into one another. With them come endless recreational possibilities—swimming, boating and kayaking among them. Whether you're looking for a novel twist on your daily commute or just something fun to do on a sunny summer day, New York City's liquid assets are enough to pull even the most dedicated landlubber out to sea.
New York Harbor
Separating Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island, the New York Harbor sits at the mouth of the Hudson River and empties into the Atlantic Ocean (thus a lot of seaworthy trips cross-pollinate with those two waterways). Native Americans had been using the body of water for many years when, in 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed into it and became the first European to visit what would become NYC.
The harbor's central location makes it a great place to start finding your sea legs. Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises offers daily boat tours out of Pier 83, at West 42nd Street and the Hudson River, that take full advantage of the harbor. The line's tours include partial- and full-island routes that pass by such landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge and the United Nations, as well as an evening voyage that offers a look at the bright lights of Manhattan's skyline. Looking for a thrill? Take a 30-minute tour on the Beast, a 70-foot speedboat that can zoom across the water's surface at speeds up to 45 mph. Manhattan by Sail gives passengers a taste of the jazz-age good life, offering tours on an 82-foot, 1920s schooner that was originally built as the personal yacht of prominent NYC industrialist Charles E. Dunlap.
The Staten Island Ferry affords great views of the Statue of Liberty—which welcomed generations of immigrants to the harbor—and Ellis Island on a (free!) 25-minute trip from Manhattan's Financial District to St. George on Staten Island. For another scenic commute, there's New York Water Taxi—a buoyant twist on the classic yellow cab.
Hidden Harbor Tours take passengers off the beaten path (think tugboat berths in Kill Van Kull and container ports near Red Hook) accompanied by tugboat captains, maritime historians and others who know the harbor intimately. In the summer season, the New York Beach Ferry sails past the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Coney Island Lighthouse, all while making your lazy weekend beach days that much easier with frequent round-trips between Lower Manhattan and Jacob Riis Park. And those who'd like their rock to come from more than the motion of the water can take advantage of Rocks Off Concert Cruises, three-hour rides on the harbor that feature rowdy live music.
The East River (which, in fact, is not precisely a river but rather a tidal strait that connects on both ends to the Atlantic Ocean) separates Manhattan and the Bronx from Brooklyn and Queens, and opens up into the Long Island Sound on its northernmost end. While the Water Taxi and the Circle Line make their way here as well, the East River has tours and activities that you can't start anywhere else.
NYC Ferry offers seven-day-a-week service stopping in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn and at Governors Island, taking you under the City's beautiful bridges while others may be sitting in traffic on them. The Long Island City Community Boathouse hosts paddling and kayaking sessions (preregistered during the week, free walk-up rentals on select weekends in partnership with Socrates Sculpture Park), mostly staying near Hallet's Cove—though some trips venture all the way down into the harbor. Meanwhile, the East River C.R.E.W., a nonprofit organization promoting the stewardship of New York City's waterways, combines opportunities to learn about water conservation, ecology and the environment with free, noncompetitive rowing in the estuary; and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse facilitates both open and preregistered kayak polo matches (the sport is a challenging hybrid of leisurely kayaking and aggressive water polo) and free walk-up kayak use.
The Hudson River separates our great city from New Jersey (and thus also serves as a buffer between our respective casts of Real Housewives). In 1609 Henry Hudson stumbled upon the river while hoping to find a route to India—he didn't reach that country, but the waterway bears his name. Today the Hudson offers plenty of opportunities to get out on the water.
In addition to its public sailing program, which includes lessons for sailors of all skill levels and hands-on recreational excursions, Hudson River Community Sailing offers weeklong learn-to-sail summer sessions for kids in grades 5–11. If you have a need for speed, head over to Jetty Jumpers for one of their Jet Ski tours. Meanwhile, Manhattan Kayak offers a choice between tours or lessons on both kayaks and stand-up paddleboats, and the Downtown Boathouse and Manhattan Community Boathouse have free kayaking from a handful of westside piers.
Circle Line Sightseeing Tours, New York Water Taxi, Manhattan by Sail and Manhattan Kayak also ply their trade in or venture over to the Hudson.
Bodies of Water Within Parks
Those uninterested in launching too far past the shoreline can still get out on the water in some City parks. Loeb Central Park Boathouse offers rowboat rentals and even classic Venetian gondola rides on the Lake in Central Park, authentic Italian gondolier included—so that's a worthy date option. Would-be seafarers in a less-romantic mood can head out to Prospect Park in Brooklyn for free public rowing on that park's lake.
Atlantic Ocean: NYC Beaches
Summer in New York City wouldn't be complete without a trip with friends and family to the beach—whose waters are, of course, part of the Atlantic Ocean (in some form or other). Take the Staten Island Ferry from Lower Manhattan and spend a day on Midland Beach, where you can catch some sun and surf, and kids can play in the famed sea turtle fountain. If you're not in the mood to just lounge around, head over to South Beach and go kayaking off the shore as part of the Kayak Staten Island initiative. Queens has its fair share of shoreline with Rockaway Beach and Fort Tilden Beach; close by, whale-watching tours on the American Princess set off from Breezy Point and head out into the Atlantic, and through Thai Rock's Rockaway Jet Ski, you can set off on your own (they also have tours that explore the harbor and let you marvel at the City's skyline). In Brooklyn, visitors can cool off in the water after a day of games and rides at Coney Island and try Russian delicacies near Brighton Beach; and even the Bronx—NYC's only mainland borough—holds its own with Orchard Beach, which hosts Salsa Sundays every week until the end of the summer. Its waters are part of yet another more or less distinct body of water, the Long Island Sound, an estuary of the Atlantic.
The Harlem River flows from the Hudson River into the East River—and Harlem River Community Rowing wants you to know that it's also a fine destination for rowing. The volunteer-run organization aims to give adult rowers an outlet for their hobby and welcomes novices, too.