Whether you want a workout, a cruise or a little bit of both, you’ve got options for getting out on the water.
Well, we’ll say this for the pandemic: It did put the “great” back into “great outdoors” as many of us sought the open air. Boat operators can certainly attest to an increased interest in getting outside. Seven-year-old Penguin Paddling in Occoquan, for one, saw a 650% increase in business between 2019 and 2020, prompting owner Danny Barker to add about 50 kayaks to his fleet of single and tandem boats and paddleboards. Now he can send about 300 people out on the water at any given time.
With demand expected to be just as high this summer, area boathouses, tour companies and outfitters are expanding their hours and offerings, with more guided tours, specialty cruises and summer camps designed to give landlubbers their sea legs. Here’s what’s on deck at six local boating operations. Check individual websites for pricing, rules and hours.
Party while working out (or work out while partying) on one of two eco-friendly Cycleboats from Potomac Paddle Club. The pontoon-style boats allow up to 10 passengers to pedal, stationary bike-style, up or down the Potomac, though each vessel can carry 16 people total during the 90-minute roundtrip ride out of Georgetown’s Washington Harbour.
Guests can bring their own coolers or buy drinks onboard—a new addition this year. Owners Jack Maher and Jack Walten (Arlington natives and lifelong best friends) worked with Settle Down Easy Brewing Co. in Falls Church to create a summer hefeweizen called Hull or High Water that will be available starting Memorial Day weekend.
Also new is a 2.5-hour tour from Alexandria to National Harbor, available seven Fridays this summer.
Business is booming, according to “the Jacks,” whose boats are also equipped with motors for those who prefer to sit back and relax. “I think a lot of people who were just looking to get outside and do something discovered [us] last year,” Maher says, “and then that momentum has carried through. This year, it’s just exploded.”
A towering presence in Old Town Alexandria is Providence, a replica of the first ship authorized for use by the Continental Navy, with a mast topping out at 93.5 feet when fully extended. The 18th-century sloop is available for 45-minute tours led by Capt. John Paul Jones (a docent in costume), who commanded the real Providence. The guide explains the finer points of maritime navigation and takes guests into the captain’s cabin and hold for a look at what life was like for sailors during the Revolutionary War.
“John Paul Jones is in 1776. People try and trick him all the time. Doesn’t happen,” says Clair Sassin, executive director of the Tall Ship Providence Foundation, noting the guide’s unfailing ability to remain in character. “You really do go back in time.”
Beginning May 29, the ship will be open for two-hour sails, twice a day, Wednesday through Sunday. A public cruise in the afternoon includes a historic interpreter who can offer fun facts about the ship, along with nonalcoholic beverages and salty snacks. Sunset cruises are also available, as are craft beer, wine, rum and bourbon tasting cruises. On all rides, passengers help set the sails.
Dave Fries launched this company last July with six 2-person CraigCat boats—motorized catamarans that can reach speeds of 25 mph. After a 20-minute training session, tours depart from National Harbor and take a 2-hour, 20-mile roundtrip ride past Jones Point Lighthouse, George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Fort Washington. Another option is a 2.5-hour tour to take in the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and Old Town Alexandria. The latter tour requires boater certification, which is free but requires six hours of online instruction.
“It’s a guided tour, and [participants] get to be in their own boats so they’re completely Covid-safe,” Fries says. “We explain where they’re at and what they’re doing over our walkie-talkies.” (Watch this video for more info.) Passengers must be at least 5 years old; boat drivers must be 18 or older with a valid driver’s license.
Prefer a sporty outing that flexes those biceps, triceps and deltoids? Six of this D.C. operator’s seven boathouses are now open, with watercraft such as kayaks, canoes, standup paddleboards, pedalboats, rowboats and (at National Harbor) hydro bikes.
Some of the boathouses operated by Boating in DC have introduced new programs for getting on the water this season. The Key Bridge Boathouse has created a summer camp for children ages 8 to 13, with a camper to counselor ratio of 8:1. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday, campers spend about 90% of their time on the water while breaking for lunch, team-building activities, and arts and crafts.
“They’re basically an initiation to boating for kids that have never done it before,” says Natalie McCarthy, social media and content marketing specialist for Guest Services, which runs the locations. “We teach them safe boating, the proper etiquette on the water as well as how to canoe or kayak.”
Also new is Dinners at Dusk for the 21 and older crowd. The monthly event (reservations available) at the Key Bridge Boathouse includes an hourlong paddle on the Potomac, followed by dinner and live local music.
Feeling the need for speed? Grab five of your closest friends and charter one of Embark’s two 25-foot Chaparral sport boats—which can go up to 50 mph—for a private, customized tour on the Occoquan River, Potomac River or the Washington Channel. “I’ve got 1,000 facts and figures, 35 pages of notes on 50 monuments and sights in D.C. that all my captains have to memorize,” says Denny Clifford, the company’s founder and president.
In addition to the sport boats, Embark offers rides on a 56-foot vintage Chris-Craft yacht and a 41-foot Meridian Bridge Cruiser. Departures are available at 10 docks in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. As of June 1, tours will be available from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“Old-school hospitality and family fun” are the founding principles of Occoquan-based Penguin Paddling, says owner Danny Barker, a local firefighter and paramedic whose boating company offers kayak and paddleboard rentals by the hour, seven days a week. Participants must be 14 or older to paddle their own boat or board, and children must weigh at least 30 pounds to ride in a double kayak with an adult.
Also available: two-hour guided tours that meander along the Occoquan River past historic buildings and wildlife such as bald eagles, waterfowl and fish. “It’s a very mellow body of water,” Barker says. “When people think river, they think either wide open Potomac or a raging whitewater scene. That’s not what we do. It’s all flatwater.”
Penguin Paddling does not take reservations, but at its busiest last year, Barker says the wait was about 25 minutes.
Float DC, now available at The Wharf Marina, offers rentals of 100% electric, Scandinavian designed picnic boats for up to 8 people for 1-3 hours. (BYOB food and drinks are allowed, with the exception of red wine.) If you’re over 21 and have a valid driver’s license, Float DC allows you to be your own captain and steer your vessel up and down the Washington Channel. For those who haven’t completed the necessary boaters safety course, the outfitter offers a 1-day license option. Boat rentals available through October.
When George Washington’s Mount Vernon first opened to visitors in the mid-to-late 1800s, most guests arrived by boat. On May 28, Mount Vernon and City Cruises will launch a new series of weekend excursions recreating that journey down the Potomac with special guest Martha Washington (played by character interpreter Elizabeth Keaney). The cruises embark from The Wharf in DC and Alexandria City Marina and sail down river to the estate home of our first president. CityCruises also offers bike & boat tours, and photography tours to Mount Vernon.