The Joy of Urban Paddling

nyc skyline, paddling, paddlexaminer

Paddling in and around the Big Apple

I get all kinds of reactions (typically “ewww”) when I tell people that I paddle on the Hudson River. Bystanders look at me and my friends in disbelief when they see us paddling. Maybe it was from watching too many episodes of Law & Order, when I first started paddling on the Hudson, I too, used to fear what I might find in the water.

Instead of urban detritus, what I found were huge schools of fish, turtles, jellyfish, and crabs. We even saw a seal popping its head out the other day, though this is not surprising considering that there are two islands close to the Verrazano Bridge that you can go for seal-watching around this time of the year. Even whales have been spotted in the river in the past two years.

Beyond these unexpected treasures in the water, just over the horizon the Hudson offers magnificent views of the Manhattan skyline and a unique view of some of the most iconic man-made landmarks of the world, including the Empire State, Chrysler, the Standard, Whitney Museum, and One World Trade Center. It also offers a surprising access to its culture, food! Not many people get to see the city the way we do from the water, and in my opinion, it’s the best way to see New York.

Battery, New York City, paddling, paddlexaminer
Heading towards the city! Photo: Stephanie Levine

How it started

Like many New Yorkers, after moving to the city I spent many years not even leaving Manhattan, simply because there was no need. There is a convenient craziness about being a New Yorker that we just deal with on a daily basis. But one trekking trip along the Na Pali Coast in Hawaii drew me closer to nature. After that, I started venturing out to Upstate New York for hiking, and to New Jersey and Long Island for the beaches. I still enjoy the benefits of being in the city, but I find myself craving more of the replenishing effect of the pure and raw energy I find in the mountains and oceans.

One weekend in late summer, I went to a beach party hosted by Jade, a friend from salsa dancing. She had a couple of boards for her guests. I hopped on one, not even knowing how to properly hold a paddle, but fell in love with the sensation of floating on the water. The following early summer, I visited the boathouse that would subsequently changed me forever. It only took a few intro sessions before paddling became a part of my life.

The boathouse, Manhattan Kayak +SUP (MKC) is located on 44th street on 12th Ave at Pier 84. From Times Square, the heart of New York City, passing by the glitz and bright lights the Broadway theatres and Restaurant Row, suddenly you arrive at panoramic view of the river facing New Jersey. Right next to it, the Intrepid Museum is a major tourist attraction. If you paddle near the embankment, you are guaranteed to get a lot of attention of the cameras and cheering from the crowd.

The boathouse offers classes, all sorts of tours for different levels, and rentals. The boathouse also has kayaks and surfskis, so it gives you options of vessels that allows you to paddle even when the conditions are too rough for paddleboarding. This helps me train slightly different muscle groups and improves my overall paddling technique.

The people I’ve met at the boathouse have inspired and made a positive impact on me in many ways. The director, Eric Stiller, whose father operated the first Kayak outfitter in New York City, is a legendary waterman and has trained many fantastic guides and paddling professionals.

Jules and LouAnne were my first instructors. As Atlantic SUPer Girls, these two empowering duos did a self-supported expedition from New York to Miami over the course of 4 months. Shannon and Carey (currently on the West Coast) are absolutely phenomenal technical training coaches and mentors. They all, along with the boathouse members, have instilled in me a love for paddling and nature.

The clients and visitors of the boathouse come from all over the world. You become friends with them and suddenly you have people to visit and paddle with, everywhere you travel. There’s also the occasional SUP celebrities, media personalities, and industry executives that drop by. The boathouse is also where I met a group of daring and fun-loving group of women with diverse backgrounds. We have formed a team “RedSUPLadies” after the director started calling us “Red Ladies” because of the boards we own—Red Paddle.

Battery, New York City, paddling, paddlexaminer
The RedSUPLadies!

We obviously had way more in common than just our choice of boards. We now train, race, and travel, and have picked up various activities outside of paddling together too. There is just too much funny stories about this group to write about, I will save it for another article. Finding an outdoor community sharing the same passion in the city can be difficult. Nothing compares to these connections and bonding that I’ve form with my fellow paddlers and the memories I share with them.

Endless adventures

With these friends at the boathouse, I’ve seen the July 4th fireworks on our paddleboards, celebrated the City of Water Day by paddle-in-camping at Governor’s Island, done a Palisades paddle & hike, and have enjoyed countless paddling tours along the Hudson. You can paddle up to Statue of Liberty, or to Ellis Island thinking of how the very first immigrants arrived. Many people don’t know that even a full circumnavigation of the Manhattan Island is possible from the Battery, up the East River passing by Brooklyn Bridge, United Nations, Randall’s Island, Harlem River, Columbia boathouse, and Spuyten Duyvil, and down the Hudson River. Once you pass the Little Red Lighthouse by George Washington Bridge, you’re in home stretch.

About a month ago, Louanne and I visited the Japanese Market called Mitsuwa across the Hudson in Edgewater, NJ. We paddled north during the end of flooding and slack and caught the ebb back with the view of the city glowing in the beautiful sunset. The ebbing of the Hudson is much stronger than the flooding and makes a great return trip. It feels as if you are on a magic carpet! If you wish for a good workout, try going against it, and it will be just like a treadmill. If it wasn’t for the short daylight, we would have had ramen or sushi for dinner, but we were super happy with the delicious matcha latte we grabbed.

Now you know, my favorite part of paddling in the city, especially in crappy conditions or a dreadful weather, is food! For those interested, on the New York side are waterfront dining or boat restaurants, namely La Marina, Pier i Cafe, Frying Pan, and Grand Banks, and on the New Jersey side, there are food stands in Hoboken and an outdoor bar (Surf City) past the Colgate clock. If you make it to Brooklyn, you can get the most amazing key lime pie in Red Hook.

Like anywhere in New York City, crazy things often happen on the water. I’ve been surrounded by jet skiers who were attempting to cause a wake and make me fall, as well as chased down by the NYPD and being yelled at because “Who paddles this time of the year anyway?”. We are also required to watch out for cruise ships, ferries, tug boats, sailboats, yachts and other boat traffic which can get quite heavy particularly around sunset. Even off the water, there were two members of the boathouse who were recently stopped by the police. One friend was carrying a dry suit, which was mistaken for a hazmat suit, and another had a paddle bag which was mistaken for a short rifle. But aside these typical New York drama, most of the time the Hudson is a perfect playground for the urban paddler.

This summer I would love to try commuting to my office in Wall Street from Queens, where I live, or go for a seafood brunch in City Island. I also want to paddle to Coney Island, Verrazano Bridge, or Sandy Hook and maybe camp and surf out there. I cannot wait for the days to get longer so that I can enjoy my after-work routine; head over to the boathouse, hop on a board, and paddle in the beautiful sunset. Most of the time, it’s so soothing and liberating and takes all your troubles away. And if it doesn’t happen that way, I know I will come home with at least one crazy New York story to tell!


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Noriko Okaya
Noriko Okaya was born in Japan and has been a resident of New York since 2001. Noriko grew up participating in all kinds of sports and always loved the water, so standup paddling immediately captured her heart when she tried it for the first time three years ago. When Noriko isn’t paddling she can be found traveling, hiking (Noriko is an aspiring Adirondack 46er), dancing (salsa and tango), various cross-trainings for paddling, and she recently started learning surfing and rock-climbing. Noriko is also a member of the RedSUPLadies, based in New York City. The RedSUPLadies paddle, train, and race together, but mostly share tons of adventures and laughs.