From a not-so-quite distance, New York City looks peaceful, tiny, and conquerable. Instead of riding around in the leisurely and loud Circle Line ships that frequent the waterways of New York, I am grunting with my fellow rowers, pushing and pulling our way through the messy tides of the Hudson. We are literally right on the river in a Whitehall Gig, a 25-foot-long rowing vessel. With three fellow rowers and our reliable, all-knowing coxswain at the stern I am experiencing New York from a different angleâ€”from the waters.
Rowing in New York City sounds impossible. In this city where grids of sidewalks, streets and subways guide us through our everyday lives, itâ€™s easy to overlook the fact that New York is, in fact, surrounded by water. At most points the cityâ€™s residents are literally blocked from the water by fences or by harsh, jagged rocks.
There are four rowers to a boat: the stroke, two engine rowers and the bow rower. The stroke rower dictates the speed and length of the oar stroke and the rest follow. Then there is the coxswain who, in addition to steering the boat, leads the boat by telling the rowers when and what pace to row.
Rowing under the Brooklyn Bridge during the FISA Row Around Manhattan tour. Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.
Whitehall Gigs were rowboats used to taxi people back and forth between boroughs and to larger ships. It is thought that they received their name because they were sent out from Whitehall Street, which used to rest on Manhattanâ€™s coast before the city extended the island with landfills.
Groups like Floating the Apple and East River CREW (Community Recreation and Education on the Water), promote greater access to our cityâ€™s waterways. The two non-profit organizations show anyone who happens to wander by their respective boathouses the ins and outs of rowing in the Hudson, the East, the Harlem and the Bronx Rivers. All for free.
â€œI kind of expanded with the program,â€ Yee says. â€œWhen I first came down here, it was originally Wednesday rowing and it basically consisted of about seven people.â€
Launching from East 96th Street for the 5 Borough Ramble. Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.
On the other side of Manhattan along the East River, Mary Nell Hawk acts as the ad-hoc program director of the East River CREW. Hawk is also the vice president of the organizationâ€™s board of directors and helps with the curriculum for the groupâ€™s educational activities.
Moving uptown, she felt she needed to do something. She was already in touch with Yee at Pier 40 and she could see the East River from her apartment window. â€œIt didnâ€™t occur to me to even think about getting on the water.â€ It wasnâ€™t even a thought for her until she read an article about groups like Floating the Apple and East River CREW who, working with City Council member Gifford Miller, were searching for increased waterfront access for smaller boats.
With St. Davidâ€™s, their boat, East River CREW looked for a boat house location on the east side. After some searching, the Parks Department gave them a strip of land at 96th Street where they soon installed a davit, a mechanical arm used to put boats onto the water, and obtained a storage container for the boat and other supplies.
â€œRowing the East River versus rowing the Hudson became a big deal for us,â€ Hawk says. â€œWe felt that the East River is what joins four of the five boroughs and even Staten Island if you want to, but everybody touches on the East River. This year weâ€™ve made it our focus to row to other boroughs as much as we can because we have the access.â€
Landing at the Italian Gardens, near the New York-New Jersey border. Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.
The first East River CREW row this season was the Cinco de Mayo row. â€œWe rowed to the Bronx River where the Bronx River Alliance was doing what they called a â€˜flotillaâ€™ of 75 canoes down the Bronx River. We joined them at the newly opened Hunts Point Riverside Park,â€ said Hawk.
Floating the Apple is affiliated with schools and programs throughout the city with rowing and boatbuilding programs. Among those in the past were the Graphic Arts and Communications High School through their ROTC program, Stuyvesant High School and Harbor School. With the City As School, students actually received gym credits for rowing.
â€œThe youth program legitimized us in the sense that otherwise it would be just a bunch of old folks sitting here in our own club,â€ Yee says. â€œGetting youth involved is very invigorating and it gives us a sense of community.â€
Schools programs, including Eugene Lang College at the New School Universityâ€™s Lang on the Hudson and BMCCâ€™s Now, take advantage of Floating the Appleâ€™s facilities. In Lang on the Hudson, students build a boat to add to the programâ€™s collection and learn about the New York Harbor. With BMCCâ€™s program, students combine science and language arts with rowing. This past summer they studied Homerâ€™s Odyssey on the water.
Out in the Hudson, along with an experienced Floating the Apple member, beginners get a sense for the waters by rowing around the basin at Pier 40. Those up for the challenge venture north or south of the Pier 40 and the more experienced traverse the river to New Jersey, whether to Frank Sinatra Park or Maxwell House Beach (known also as the Playa de Hoboken), a small strip of sand where another boathouse is opening up.
The sight of a Whitehall in the river is still a spectacle to many. Motor-boaters gawk as they sped by; people walking along the coast take pictures; passengers on the commuter and tourist ships wave.
Please, read more from “Brooklyn Rail