Volunteering in New York: Free Kayaking on the East River

The past few weeks have kicked off the summer season. Not only has it been extremely hot and sunny, but some fun outdoor activities have started again. My friend suggested that we try volunteering this year, and I was all for it. Brooklyn Bridge Park offers free kayaking throughout the summer months and of course they need a bunch of people to help them out. Free Kayaking is open to the general public throughout the summer months. Whoever feels like floating on the East River can do so for 20 minutes at a time.


Since a lot of people come to the Dumbo area, many tourists, locals, students, and just passer-bys are expected to take advantage of this free program. So of course volunteers are needed at any time on the weekend and also during some weekend days. My friend and I thought this could be a great opportunity to spend some time on the water and do a good deed. Last weekend, we started attending the introductory lesson, which was around 1 hour long. Here, the basic tasks of a volunteer were explained and also what exactly could be expected during a 4-hour-shift. It involves collecting waivers, greeting people, leading people to the kayaks, and making sure they get into the boat in the right way (without falling into the water).

We didn’t know that the second session was right after the first one and decided to stick around for it. This one was a safe-boating lesson and we ended up spending 4 hours on the East River. Of course I came totally unprepared but luckily one of the 7 participants had an extra wet suit she was able to borrow me. So here I was, in a strange wetsuit, on a kayak, on the East River. Taking volunteer training on a random Saturday afternoon! Crazy agenda, I know (and so typical for New York!).

Random wet suit kinda day...
Random wet suit kinda day…

The first part evolved around learning the basics of kayaking, such as paddling, turning in a circle, and back paddling. Needless to say, the first hour flew by quite fast. We were initiated to always form a circle around the instructors and that helped in applying our newly-acquired techniques.
Then, we paired up and each couple got to play the victim and the rescuers. In case someone got stuck in between the rocks or underneath a bridge, we were able to apply our back and forward paddling techniques while hooking our kayak to the other one. Towing a kayak was learned on the go.

Aside from getting to know much about that side of the East River, we were also instructed on currents, how to place watermarking via an anchor in the river, and other fun basics. We paddled in and out of wooden drafts, past the stone walls and into other potential danger zones. At the very end, we had the option to fall into the water and rescue ourselves onto our own kayaks. Half of the class completed this lesson, the other half (including me) wanted to wait for warmer water temperatures. The extensive session ended with each one of us having to rescue one of our instructors back onto his kayak again. He had fallen off and was aimlessly swimming in the water for the purpose of this exercise. The exercise required pulling him up on his life vest and somehow making sure he stayed in his kayak without it toppling over again.

Of course we are not yet qualified safe boaters after the initial lesson. I would certainly have to complete the self-rescue part and perhaps other lessons, too. It was a pretty interesting session and reminded me how much fun it is to be out on the water during summertime in New York. I also ended up with a very intense sunburn all over my face and arms, so I will make sure to wear sunscreen during my next volunteer shifts.

Volunteer session one
Volunteer session one

I can only recommend free kayaking on the East River. Even if I don’t volunteer, I bet I will be here a few times in the hotter months.
To find more information on volunteering and other programs, please go to the BBP site!

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