NYC kayak


David Whitley gets a very different view of New York City whilst paddling along the Hudson River in a kayak.

It hardly needs saying that the Manhattan skyline is spectacular from pretty much any angle you look at it. But sitting just above the bobbing waters of the Hudson River adds a whole new perspective. From a kayak, New York looks profoundly intimidating. The race for the sky can be put in context; hundreds of separate developments trying to put their own brush strokes on an already hyper-detailed canvas. There’s a temptation to just stare at it, and let your paddle slide off towards the Atlantic. 

Kayaking probably isn’t the most immediately obvious form of transport in New York. Instinct says that the water is liable to be far too cold and that the waterways are liable to be far too busy. The former is mercifully inaccurate, although it all starts to get interesting once you attempt a pier-to-pier dash across a busy ferry terminal.

We have small lights on the fronts of our vessels, but there’s a strong suspicion that a ferry pilot will mistake them for reflections of moonlight on the water and mow on straight through. As such, the chicken run becomes a judicious exercise in granting right of way and waiting for a gap in the traffic. Think of it as being a little bit like walking into the middle of a busy road and waiting for brief respite to appear in the second lane before racing across.

From the boathouse on Pier 66, numerous options are available. According to our guide, Alex, it’d take eight or nine hours to circumnavigate Manhattan, “depending on how strong your arm muscles are”. Another popular option is to do a loop around the Statue of Liberty, which takes around three hours.
My group isn’t that ambitious; we’re going for a 90 minute after dark paddle. It’s an opportunity for an unusual perspective on the city, with the sun down, skyscraper lights on and the water plunged into a murky blackness.

I’m regarded as intermediate purely because I’ve been in a kayak before, while my cohorts are absolute beginners. One girl grabs her paddle as if it’s a spitting cobra and has neglected to bring a change of clothing. Silly mistake, but what do you expect – these guys are native New Yorkers, and most locals probably haven’t even considered seeing the city this way.

But part of the simplistic joy of kayaking is that it’s pretty easy to pick up the basics. Soon enough, the group is gliding in convoy, awed by the sun setting over the New Jersey skyline and the lights sparking into life on Manhattan’s skyscrapers. Of these, the most striking is the Empire State Building. The top of it is lit up in lurid colour. First there’s a swathe of orange, then a band of shocking yellow, and the red spire tops it off. It looks like one of those multi-coloured ice-lollies that is packed with E-numbers and marketed at hyperactive children.

Other, lesser-known buildings stand out too. One Worldwide Plaza looks like a giant, fat pencil – its sharpened end is lit up in a moody blue, with the lead at the very end acting as a yellow beacon.Also illuminated is the USS Intrepid, an enormous decommissioned aircraft carrier that monopolises Pier 86, further up the Hudson. Sidling up alongside it, we realise that the ferries are just small fry. A temptation to grab on to the ladders and board the museum ship pirate-style is wisely resisted.

Ferries aside, kayaking on New York’s waterways is remarkably peaceful. You start to notice things that you’d never see from street level. Take, for example, the night sky. On first glance, it appears sprinkled with stars. Then you notice the stars moving and make a mental note to never apply for a job at air traffic control in New York. The ‘stars’ are, in fact, scores of circulating planes, pirouetting in the skies at marginally different heights. They appear to be spiralling in formation, like water going down a sink after the plug is pulled.

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but gently rocking on the Hudson, it appears to be at rest. The car horns, the flashing signs and the sirens are stripped out to leave a more manageable whole. It becomes more of a singular great beast, and the low hum of traffic rumble, generators and ferry motors becomes its breathing pattern.

And we, the humble kayakers, are the tiny fly that can land on the beast’s back unnoticed.


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