Last night, while I was speaking on a panel about food entrepreneurship, my cellphone suddenly lit up with frantic texts asking if I was ok.
Something about some kayaks on the Hudson and a crash.
I quickly searched Twitter while still on the panel and saw the horrific news. A group of kayakers had been run over by a ferry boat backing out of a dock near West 39th Street.
The reason why people were checking on me is because I've been paddling on NYC's local waters for about 13 years, and encouraging others to do so by helping to run free kayaking programs. I started volunteering at the Downtown Boathouse in 2003 and helped form the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse in 2010. Given the sheer numbers of people (in the thousands) these programs put on the water each summer, if you've paddled in Brooklyn Bridge Park, or in Tribeca back in the day, and the amount of hours I've put in, there's a decent chance I'm the guy who helped you into a boat and taught you the proper stroke.
Over the years, I've heard every question imaginable about paddling in the Hudson River or the East River.
It usually boils down to the following three questions:
1) Is it dirty?
2) Is it safe?
3) How do I sign up?
It's not unlike all the questions I get as a NYC cyclist:
1) Don't you sweat? (Is it dirty?)
2) Is it safe?
3) What kind of bike should I get to start out?
What we know from the alterations our streets have gotten over the past few years is that bike safe streets are better streets for everyone. Streets that have bike lanes actually have better traffic flow, and 40% fewer street fatalities (cyclists and pedestrians). Basically, pro-bike laws are pro-people laws, and they tip the balance away from a car centric city full of smog, cloverleafs and overpasses.
Well, the same goes for our waterways. Whether the experience is safe and sanitary all depends on how you apply the law.
NYC waterways weren't designed for boats. They weren't "designed" at all. They're a natural resource that everyone should derive value from--and the closer you get to them, the more you start to care about their use. The more people that actually use the water down at the water level, the more people are about the quality of that ecosystem.
No one cares more about the water quality of the harbor more than the rowers and paddlers that get right down in it every week. They can tell you where the combined sewer overflow points are, and which parks have landing points for human powered craft. These types of issues have repercussions that affect millions of NYC residents, not just the people who show up at free walk up kayaking programs.
Fixing the sewage problem, for example, means redesigning our streets and sidewalks to have more trees and less concrete--so rainwater doesn't just bounce off our streets and into sewers but it actually collects in the soil. More trees means improved air quality. It means serious commitment to a cleanup of the Gowanus Canal and the Newtown Creek--both waterways that have dedicated human powered boating programs as part of their advocacy groups.
I have also seen firsthand how much kayaking can create a sense of physical accomplishment in inner city kids that never learned to swim, or those who suffer from obesity, or in a veteran who has lost the use of his legs. There is no other activity in New York City I have seen create more universal joy than what we see among all of the paddlers who participate in our programs. In twenty plus years of various public kayaking programs across the city, paid and free, these efforts have a stellar safety record.
Kayaking programs have helped the city redesign our relationship with the water. Brooklyn Bridge Park has two beachfronts and a floating kayak dock to encourage interaction with the East River. Generally, our experience with local ferry traffic has been very positive. The East River Ferry crews keep a watchful eye for our boats and obey Coast Guard rules to honk three times when backing out.
Until yesterday, shared use of our waterways has produced a safe and enjoyable experience for all. It shows that participants must keep vigilant around safety training and observance of the rules of the water--and that includes boat pilots and other motorized craft as well, like the sea planes that land in the East River.
Waterways aren't highways, but if you treat them as such, our most precious resource will go back to become commercialized dumping grounds for pollution and overdevelopment that affects everyone in the city.
The Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse extends our deepest sympathies towards everyone affected by this tragic crash and hope that this does not affect the open access human powered boaters have to our natural resource.