So for a few years now, I have done occasional volunteering with a kayak club in Brooklyn. There are several such clubs, actually – groups with their own little chunk of shore on New York Harbor, with a handful of group-owned boats carefully tucked away except for group activities. Lots of them run free public days in summer, where anyone can wander up and borrow a boat for 20 minutes to splash around in the groups’ own little bay.
And that was great for a while – we were on a smaller quiet bay near a great ice cream place, and we always got a lot of families with kids. I always loved it when there was someone who’d never been on a kayak before, and they were nervous – because invariably they would come back to shore with a huge smile on their face, and gush, “that was awesome! I’m gonna come back next week and do it again!” Some people loved it so much they went away, but then came back an hour later and sheepishly asked if they could take out another boat again right now? Maybe?
But like any volunteer program, resources were few; our “clubhouse” was a shipping container with the eight club boats piled inside. A lot of the eager volunteers that were there when I joined got priced out of the neighborhood, or were flooded out after Hurricane Sandy. The group sometimes organized members-only kayak trips, more extensive trips along Brooklyn’s coastline or out to the islands dotting the harbor; but after a while I noticed that some trips I was only hearing about after the fact, and realized that for whatever reason, I wasn’t always on the invite list when they were setting up trips.
By that time, though, I’d gotten chummy with another member, J, who was souring on the group for his own reasons. He started checking out other groups, and I asked him to let me know if he found any that were especially good.
A month ago he started raving about the Sebago Canoe Club, a longstanding club he’d found. I checked them out online, and balked at first – it’s in the wilds of South Brooklyn, and they charge a hefty membership fee. But J had instantly signed up when he saw it, and was making some other powerful arguments in its favor – they had the same kind of public-access program, but not just for kayakers – there was also a canoe group, stand-up paddleboards, and there was even sailing. I asked if I could tag along one day he was going to vet the place.
J brought me along this past weekend – every year, the city’s waterway system hosts a big public event devoted to “Hey everyone! You can use the harbor for fun outdoor recreational stuff!” A lot of the city’s boat clubs join in, with open-houses, presentations, chances to go on free trips, and the like. J said Sebago was doing a whole round of free trips all day, launching out into Jamaica Bay; he was eager to get on the water anyway, and it seemed the perfect chance to show it off to me. He started the sales pitch while we were still out on the highway on the way there.
Now – the old club I was with had just that one shipping container, and setting up for the group programs involved staking claim on a spot on shore and setting up a card table. If people needed food, we directed them to a nearby supermarket; if they needed a bathroom, we directed them to some coffee shops a couple blocks further. So when J walked me through the entry gate and gestured at a row of about 20 shipping containers, I was already impressed. “A lot of these are group boats,” he began, “and the port-a-potties are just between the ninth and tenth ones there…oh, and that twelfth one is the workshop.”
“Workshop for what?”
“….For building boats,” he said. “Oh, yeah, they do that too.” He pointed out the rows upon rows of canoes, kayaks, sunfish sailboats, pointing out which were members’ own boats and which were used for the public. “And here’s the clubhouse,” he announced, guiding me into a small shed-looking thing. I was expecting bare walls – but there was a kitchen, and plumbing, and a big meeting table, and storage lockers, and even a small library. He chatted a bit with the group’s leader, whom everyone called “The Commodore,” as I stood and gawped at the extent of everything.
I’d barely finished taking it all in before J brought me outside again, to sign up – and then to check out the view from the dock. Because they had their own dock as well – three slips, big enough to launch three war canoes or about nine kayaks. He pointed out some of the nearby landmarks (“that’s Canarsie pier through there, and that’s the Shore Parkway bridge, we drove over that on the way here”) but I was still marveling over the fact that there was actually a dock. “So we’ll be paddling around in the marina here, then, eh?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” J grinned. “This isn’t like at the other place – the walk-up programs are guided trips. We’ll be out in Jamaica Bay for about an hour.”
A whole hour out on the water! I followed J back up to shore with starry eyes.
J helped me pick out which one of the scores of boats I should take (“this one has a rudder, so it’ll be agile but tippy….that one is a little tippy, but pretty stable…yeah, I’d take one of these two here”) as the scores of other volunteers were helping newcomers pick out boats and strap on lifevests, and giving the newcomers paddling tutorials. Meanwhile, still more volunteers were loading families into canoes and a couple of the sailors were waiting to give people rides on the sailboats. I was pondering signing up for that later when the call came to bring our kayaks down to the dock – and still more volunteers materialized to run the boats down the gangplank to the docks, where yet still more volunteers were standing by to patiently hold the boats steady while everyone climbed in.
We were a group of about fourteen, with four of our number being volunteers serving as squad leaders and safety boats. And after a couple of brief safety announcements (“if you’re having trouble, hold your paddle up like this and we can tow you along”), we set out, splashing our way out of the marina into Jamaica Bay. It wasn’t the sunniest weather – we’d actually just missed a thunderstorm – but I didn’t care; I was too happy gliding along past the shoreline, eyes peeled for egrets or gulls. J pointed out a big pylon that used to mark the entrance to Floyd Bennett Airfield, and I pointed out a whole cluster of cormorants huddled on top of a buoy. “Yeah, you see a lot of those out here,” J said. “There’s a lot of birding trips that come out here; this is a wildlife sanctuary, and the channel’s wide and deep enough that it’s easy for boats to dodge each other. And it’s way calmer than the old beach,” he added, as I glided effortlessly away from him after a cormorant. We made it nearly all the way to Mill Basin channel, about two miles out, before the leaders got a bit spooked by the looming clouds and herded us back in.
As J was showing me around, he kept on alluding to “if and when” I would join (“If and when you join the club, that’s where you’d find the boats…” “if and when you join, she’s the one who leads the kayak trips….” “if and when you join, there are a lot of ways to rack up your volunteer service requirements….”). When we got to shore after the trip, he stationed me at one of the group’s picnic tables so he could round up hamburgers for us both from the pot luck the group had going for the visitors; while I waited, I listened to our group leaders swapping stories about some of the other trip adventures. A moment later J came back and plunked a fresh hamburger in front of me, and settled across from me with a big bowl of salad. He began again – “If and when you join -”
“There’s no ‘if’ about it, dude,” I interrupted. “I”m in.”