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Paddling in New York City


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New York Times

May 29, 2007

The Lure of Seeing a Hushed City at Water Level


For years, a small, secretive group of people, most of them men, spent their off hours paddling just above the surface of the city’s dirty rivers in kayaks. They rowed to their own music, often alone, and few paid much attention.

Kayakers speak about their sport in spiritual terms: a feeling of freedom, the communing with nature, an enveloping quiet while paddling only a few meters off the Manhattan shoreline in temperatures that are often 15 degrees lower than on shore.

“When that sun is going down on the East River, there is nothing that compares,” said Robert DiMaio, 46, a documentary film producer who proposed to his wife as they were kayaking. “Everything is quiet. The lights of the city are coming on. It is beyond addictive. You want to be able to articulate it, but it is hard. The city becomes a theater of light and distant sound.”

Kayaking has been largely unregulated, but now the city is giving it closer scrutiny. The change has been met with both optimism and alarm by New York’s close-knit community of kayakers, which has grown to perhaps a few hundred serious paddlers since the mid-1980s.

This month, the Parks and Recreation Department began enlisting paddlers to help plan a water trail along the Hudson, Harlem and East Rivers, which will be turned into a guide that offers information about kayak and canoe launch and landing sites, suggested routes for day trips, safety tips, and data regarding currents and tides.

The city has also committed to building as many as a dozen new launch sites, in addition to the 18 that exist now, to counter complaints that kayakers lack sufficient access to the water.

Some kayakers fear that the Bloomberg administration’s new interest in the sport may spell the end of the carefree spirit that has often superseded rules in an activity characterized by volunteer instructors, free lessons and a go-at-your-own-risk attitude.

“Nobody, between the parks department, the harbor police, the Coast Guard — nobody knows what’s a real law or even what’s enforced any more,” said Phil Giller, 54, former commodore of the Sebago Canoe Club in Brooklyn.

Veteran paddlers fear that new rules are not far in the future. The parks department has said that it plans no major policy changes, but several paddlers who have spoken to parks officials privately say they have been told that the agency had become concerned about liability issues, especially as the city starts building more launch sites.

New rules, according to kayakers and department officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, could include requiring safety courses, boat inspections and licenses. The changes could include the imposition of standardized hours, which might limit or ban off-season and night kayaking; nighttime forays have become particularly popular in the past few years.

The city could also become stricter about requiring paddlers to buy a $15 permit for the season, which runs roughly from May to October. Such launch permits are currently required, but are rarely checked by the city.

The impetus for the change has been Dorothy Lewandowski, the parks department’s commissioner for Queens and an avid kayaker. She says the city has no sinister intentions.

“As I started meeting paddlers, I noticed there wasn’t a resource,” Ms. Lewandowski said. “We have miles and miles of waterfront, and people should have a place to recreate around that.”

Ms. Lewandowski said the department had not formally moved to change any rules. She said, however, that the city would probably start enforcing several regulations that had long been ignored, among them a rule requiring kayakers to have a parks department permit to be out after sunset.

“This allows us to coordinate with the harbor police and the Coast Guard so we know what is going on out there, because safety is paramount,” she said.

While no records of the number of kayakers and canoeists in the city are kept, the number of free trips taken by people at the Downtown Boathouse — a private group with three sites on the Hudson, at 72nd, 56th and Houston Streets — increased to almost 23,000 in 2005 from 2,800 in 1997. A national survey by the Outdoor Industry Foundation, sponsored by outdoor equipment manufacturers, found that the number of kayakers had increased by 23 percent in 2005 alone.

The number of kayakers and canoeists has grown as the air and water have become cleaner, and as new waterfront parks and new boathouses have offered free boats to use and guided group tours, yet veteran kayakers wonder if something is being lost.

“The experience is getting more and more suburban,” said Eric Russell, 60, who has been paddling for 18 years. “The difference I find is that as more and more people get involved, well, the purpose used to be to go to the club to paddle. Now, the club is more of a social experience.”

Some kayakers are birders or naturalists or use their kayak to fish or to play kayak polo. Other groups promote a back-to-nature philosophy that on hot summer days includes nude picnicking. Many of the newer kayakers in Manhattan are wealthier than previous generations of paddlers and think little of buying $3,000 kayaks before they learn proper technique.

To be a kayaker in the early 1990s — before the Downtown Boathouse began offering free rides to the public and waterfront access to paddlers with their own boats — often meant carrying a kayak to a deserted stretch of river and setting off before anyone could stop you.

“There were fewer launches, but more places to launch from illegally,” said Erik Baard, 38, who helps run programs at the Long Island City Community Boathouse in Queens. “The waterfront was much less regulated. The greenway has homogenized the waterfront. There isn’t the same kind of anarchy that existed back then.”

While some believe that tightening safeguards for inexperienced paddlers is a good idea, kayaking culture has traditionally frowned upon government regulation.

“Kayaking is a highly individualistic activity,” Mr. Baard said. “Quirky people get drawn to it. It draws a very eccentric crowd, so it’s tough to get them together on anything.”

On land, kayaking is regulated by the parks department, but once boats take to the water, the Police Department’s harbor unit and the Coast Guard are responsible for inspections and ensuring that paddlers comply with maritime laws.

The only maritime rule affecting kayakers is that each one wear a life jacket. In addition, officials recommend that each kayak carry bailers, a spare paddle and flares or some other signaling device, and many experienced kayakers say they carry radios and first aid kits as well.

Paddlers are not required to report where they plan to travel or to take a training course.

Despite the risk of large ships, water scooters, changing tides, unpredictable currents and cold water, and even though paddlers have sometimes had to be rescued or towed to safety, authorities said there have been no fatalities or serious injuries related to paddling in the city’s waters in recent memory.

Even as their numbers increase, kayakers say their hobby still mystifies many people.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding,” said Nancy Brous, 39, who has been kayaking for several years. “We get stopped by the Coast Guard and the cops. They’ll go: ‘Hey, honey, where are you going? It’s dangerous out here.’ ”

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Reminds me of what the "boomers" did to unorganized cycling by demanding "safe bike paths". No serious cyclist would be caught on one. They only succeeded in making everyone fearful of riding on the road. The suburbanization of cycling has yet to be extended to kayaking. Just wait!

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I personally will NEVER EVER pay a fee to launch a kayak or paddle

a kayak or ride a bicycle or any other Eco sane human powered activity, period!

The way i see it anyone who is not wasting petrol just for the fun of it and damaging the environment in the process should get a tax refund or something, not pay a fee.

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