For the past month, a new, free public kayaking program has been operating out of Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

It’s May, on a bright, breezy afternoon, Charlie O’Donnell is giving the founders of a tour of the developing site where two blue shipping containers and 16 one and two-person kayaks will be docked. On the sloping lawn, kids are running around picnic blankets while other locals lie supine in the grass next to their bikes. We’re walking the perimeter with O’Donnell, a triathlete and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at First Round Capital, and it’s hard not to stop and marvel at the Manhattan skyline and Brooklyn Bridge.

When the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy poached the Downtown Boathouse—a 10-year-old nonprofit with three locations in Manhattan—for someone to run the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse (BBPB) in Dumbo, O’Donnell, a volunteer of seven years, raised his hand. With his entrepreneurial sensibilities in tow, O’Donnell saw an opportunity to galvanize the locals, get them taking advantage of the new waterfront park—actually use the water instead of “staring at it from behind a fence.”

“Most New Yorkers forget they’re on an island,” O’Donnell said. “But now I’m seeing a lot of Brooklyn residents getting excited about the boathouse,” he continued with a big grin, his bald head glinting. “New York is at the forefront of taking industrial waterfronts and repurposing them for recreational use, and I do think folks from across the borough will come together here to enjoy it.” And for the past several weekends, hundreds have been showing up at the launch pad to, as one person phrased it on the BBPB meetup page, “explore a new view of things from the water.”

NYC is not without its treasured free activities, from Shakespeare in the Park to biking on Governors Island. But paddling on the East River, just a stone’s throw from the Brooklyn Bridge, gives you a close-up experience with the city unlike any other. And in this particular nook of the borough, kayakers are within a one-mile radius of cultural and foodie hot spots like St. Ann’s Warehouse, Grimaldi’s, Powerhouse Arena, the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, and Bargemusic.

“New York City is, as far as we know, the only place bigger than a dinky little village on the entire planet where a person can simply go down to the waterfront and kayak for free,” said Graeme Birchall, the founder of Downtown Boathouse. “What is more, the “free” bit is truly free. We are not talking about taxpayer subsidized kayaking, we are talking about free kayaking, where almost all of the work is done by volunteers, and the vast bulk of the money comes from small donations given by ordinary citizens. Nor does one need to give a “suggested donation” to go kayaking. Free means free.”

Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse is next open for kayaking on Saturday, August 28. O’Donnell says if people continue showing up, there’s no reason why the program can’t continue operating until October 1. For future dates and times, check the schedule at If you’re interested in being a volunteer, visit Also see our Guide to Paddling in Brooklyn.

Photos: Courtesy of Julienne Schaer



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