New York City has 520 miles of shoreline, yet it has traditionally fallen behind the arguably superior U.S. sailing cities on the water, including Boston, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego. That may be changing.
New and ongoing waterfront projects, improved water access, better water quality and a sharp increase in high-profile events have sailing poised for a robust return to New York City.
America’s Cup racing returned Saturday and continues Sunday with the America’s Cup World Series, in which teams from six nations compete on foiling catamarans in the biggest sailing event on the Hudson River in nearly a century.
The six teams will race off lower Manhattan for points that go toward the America’s Cup final in Bermuda in 2017. U.S. Team Oracle is defending its 2013 America’s Cup win against challengers from Sweden, New Zealand, France, Japan and a British team led by Olympic sailor Ben Ainslie.
As part of the America’s Cup, the Endeavour Programme will teach area students sailing basics on catamarans, with boats resembling the city’s old yellow checker cabs.
Shortly after the America’s Cup, boats from the Transat, the oldest solo transatlantic race in the world, which began in Plymouth, England, on Monday, will start arriving in Brooklyn.
The finish will coincide with the formal opening of New York Harbor’s first new marina in 20 years, ONE°15 Brooklyn Marina , a sailing-oriented facility that offers a club and school to grow the sport and a community outreach program to make it more accessible to kids and new sailors.
Sailing, it seems, has gripped New York.
“The Hudson River is one of the most untapped stadiums in America,” Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said. “It’s right up there with Wrigley and Yankee Stadium.”
Spithill also said New York, though it has less space for boats with fewer slips and marinas than other waterside cities, is an unparalleled place to sail.
“There’s a definitely a bit of resurgence in sailing in New York, and I hope the America’s Cup will be somewhat of a catalyst to get people to the water,” Spithill said.
“Other cities all have their special thing, but Manhattan’s atmosphere is like no other,” he said. “It’s a really fun place to sail with the backdrop and iconic landmarks. I mean, what an awesome place to get out there and feel like you’re not all crammed together.”
New York historically is a commercial port. By the 1970s, the city’s waterfront had deteriorated into a broken chain of derelict docks. The only activity was the Circle Line sightseeing cruises.
After decades of shoreline neglect and decay, the city started revitalization programs in the 1980s aimed at developing vacant and underutilized waterfront property into public parks with bike and pedestrian pathways, improving public access to the waterfront and restoring the habitat.
The city introduced a 10-year waterfront plan in 2011, which detailed plans to open up miles of shoreline that had been inaccessible to the public for decades, including projects in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island, Randall’s Island and Manhattan. Other goals included increased waterfront investment and improved water quality, according to the city.
New York’s water quality has gotten better in the past 44 years because of the Clean Water Act, but it remains a problem. Wastewater pathogens, harmful nutrients and raw sewage continue to flow into the city’s waterways virtually every time it rains, according Larry Levine, attorney for the National Resources Defense Council.
“Nobody wants to be at the waterfront if it stinks like sewage,” Levine said. “It’s better now. But there’s still a long way to go.”
Sailing events such as the America’s Cup help raise awareness to water-quality issues, Levine said.
Tim O’Brien, co-founder and general manager of ONE°15 Brooklyn Marina, said sailing is coming slowly to New York but access remains a problem. He said most properties on the water are controlled by commercial groups or the government.
The New York Police Department “still uses [the] piers as a car lot,” he said. “And that’s one of the most beautiful places in the city.”
O’Brien points to Brooklyn Bridge Park as an example of the changing waterfront. “The waterfront was not nice a nice place to be,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to be around there at night. But they turned around a derelict space into something great.”
O’Brien also said perception plays a big part in growing sailing, especially in New York.
“The average person’s interpretation of boating in New York relates to what they see, which is often the East River, which looks and is scary,” O’Brien said. “But past the Statue of Liberty, where the harbor opens up, is one of the biggest and most natural harbors in the world.
“New York is generations behind other waterfront cities when it comes to boating activities like sailing. Culturally, New Yorkers view boating as something that happens someplace else. That’s changing. People are just beginning to view New York Harbor as it’s their own. There’s a lot of energy around sailing and boating right now. But it still has a long way to go.”
Like many sailing races, the America’s Cup is changing to provide a show for spectators — for example, the weekend races in New York. Many offshore sailing races now have inshore components, and regattas are being hosted in smaller confined spaces such as Boston’s Charles River because there’s public access to help grow the sport, said American sailor Charlie Enright, a former skipper in the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race.
Sailing has been long been associated with open bodies of water such as San Francisco Bay and Seattle’s Puget Sound, Enright said. Lately there has been a movement to bring the sport to the masses.
“With that you see more condensed racing along shorelines and city fronts, and New York is featuring more of that than it did in the past,” O’Brien said. “There are a lot of good sailors in New York, and most of them have gone elsewhere to do their sailing. But I think you’re seeing a changing of the tide.”