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Unfiltered: Eric Stiller

Manhattan’s Kayak-Fitness Guru

PHOTO BY ROBERT ZALESKI
This originally appeared in the March 2012 edition of C&K

You want to get to know Eric Stiller? No problem, but you've got to keep moving. Chop chop, this is Manhattan. Stiller will spin yarns all day about developing paddlers here—just walk with him. Let's start right in Union Square, where Stiller's father ran the country's flagship Klepper Folding Kayaks store for nearly 35 years. Stiller grew up in that shop, coaxing rock stars and hot-dog vendors alike into kayaks, and guiding them on the mighty and misunderstood Hudson River, often for the full 26 miles around Manhattan. In 1992 he tried to paddle a tandem Klepper 9,400 miles around Australia. He'll tell you all about that too, but we don't have all day. Let's take the E train up to 23rd Street, head west, and walk over to Chelsea Piers, where Stiller, 51, launched the Manhattan Kayak Company in 1995 and became Gotham's kayak-fitness guru.
Now MKC fills a larger boathouse three blocks north at Pier 66. Here Stiller pauses, momentarily, to reflect on the rainiest summer in the city's history, which, oddly enough, left him busier than ever. A new social marketing push and the arrival of a new generation of globetrotting craft—inflatable standup paddleboards—have revived his business and stoked his seemingly boundless enthusiasm. On the water, Stiller paddles the way he lives—nonstop, and talking with vigor about tackling the challenges of spreading the sport, and staying afloat, in the big city. — Dave Shively


We almost never have anything resembling the classic beginner environment—with the tides, the current, the wind, the ferry traffic. You've got to teach something even for sit- on-top boats to get off the dock.

The water quality is now truly good 87 percent of the time. But the perception is that it's still like Kramer from Seinfeld trying to jump into the East River—that you're going to be covered with tar or something.

I'd left on an ebbing tide cycle and zipped down to the Statue of Liberty in no time. Turned around and was probably heading right into the peak of that cycle. You realize that's a lot of current. That's when it dawned on me. I said, 'Oh, wow. This isn't just a slow, meandering Mississippi River kind of thing. Something's going on here.'

You've got this grandeur, this beauty out here. In those days, in '83, there was no ferry system. There was hardly any boat traffic. And it's all mine, which seemed a little bizarre when you have a city of 7 million people and you're the only guy in a small boat out here.

David Lee Roth, I could call my first paying client. He bought two boats to start, and we met and got along instantaneously. We'd roll the boats down to the garbage plant at the end of Gansevoort Street—where we could get over the fence to a little area of rocks where we'd launch. His first trip he wanted to go down to Coney Island—in the winter in the middle of the night and with lights and waterproof Outback boomboxes.

Tony Brown and I were the first to cross the Gulf of Carpentaria in a kayak—five nights and six days. You might say that it's because we crossed the Gulf that Freya thought it was an acceptable option [for her 2009 Australia circumnavigation].

Hey, we're the longest two-man-in-one-kayak trip in Western recorded history. We'd never done any overnight sea kayak journeys prior. We were 100 days out in the water. We went 4,000 nautical miles, we averaged 40 miles a day. That's the way we did it. We're not doing 20 miles a day and spending, what, four hours a day playing?

When you do a long trip, you do it solo. You have to follow your own rhythm, your own time schedule, your own selfishness. When you've got a long, long journey, it cannot be by committee.

If you're the pied piper, you can get a nice following because they're going on new adventures with you and that's where the basis of my business came from. New York is like that—people following their favorite yoga instructor or their favorite gym guy.

Why am I still here? It's unfinished business. A lot of that has to do with the standup paddleboard being an additional tool to get me closer to that merging of the fitness world with the paddling world and get them to understand each other.

When you boil it all down, it's more about the paddling, more about sharing the thing you have a belief in, because you truly know it's a good thing for people. You've had enough experience where you see how it's changed people's lives for the better.

They weren't the people who got it right away. They were people who liked it, were earnest people; smart, capable, not necessarily very athletic, but through the process became more physical, lost the weight, regained a sense of competence and capability, separated themselves from their peers. What do you do? I'm a kayaker.