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How to Get Rockaway Rocket-pilled

Will expedited ferry service to the Rockaways save the City’s money-suck of a ferry system?

1:42 PM EDT on August 8, 2022

The Rocket enters New York Harbor. (Hell Gate)

There are many ways to get to Rockaway Beach. You can hitch a ride. You can take the bus (although the Ramones would counter that it’s “too slow”). You can ride a bike. You can take the subway. Since 2017, you can take a ferry. And now, you can take another, even more expensive ferry, the Rockaway Rocket. But is it worth it? 

The ferry is a relatively new way for people to access the Rockaways, a peninsula that although distant, is well-connected to the city by public transit. Since NYC Ferry launched in 2017, the route has been a fairly popular one for both Rockaway residents and those heading to the beach (at least, popular in contrast to other ferry routes, which tend to be underutilized), with ridership booming in summer months, and especially during summer weekends. At both Wall Street, as well as at the Rockaway ferry stop near 108th Street, it has become a fairly common sight to see lines stretching far away from the landing, with people hoping to crowd onto the next ferry. It’s typical to have to wait another half an hour for the next ferry, or even longer. 

Enter the Rockaway Rocket, which first blasted off on July 23. 

Birthed after New York City Comptroller Brad Lander found that the ferry system had actually burned through a quarter of a billion dollars more than previously reported (the City’s subsidy per ferry ride was a remarkable $12.88, compared to just over a dollar for subway rides), the Rocket is meant to eke just a little more profit out of the City’s money-pit of a ferry system. Alongside elevating the base fare of all the ferries to $4, the Adams administration announced that the Rocket would run three times, each way, during summer weekends, for the price of $8 a ride. The extra money would guarantee people a place on the ferry (no more waiting on line!), while also offering a direct shot to the Rockaways, skipping the Sunset Park stop and shaving off around thirteen minutes of the trip. There were also extra enticements—discount drinks! A "premium value" ticket! Cool graphic design! Truly, the ferries, a de Blasio administration sop to the mayor’s real estate donors, are returning to their once promised form—the bouge-degas of the seas, as I somewhat dismissively described them in 2017.  

I’ll admit—I was skeptical that the Rocket would be worth it. Extra money for the same ride sounds like paying extra to go from “Basic” to “Basic+” on a flight. But…as a New Yorker, there’s something about “premium value,” and “discount drinks,” and “skipping other people in line,” that appealed to me. Did I even have what it takes to become a Rocket Man? Or was I just another “wait on line” boy? 

With the weather hot hot hot this weekend, I decided to finally take the plunge, and hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach aboard the reservation-only Rocket. For the Rocket, you really do get to skip the crowd for the regular ferry, go to your own special line, and walk right on board. Atop, you can gaze upon the endless sea of humanity of people waiting for the next Rockaway ferry, with an air of superiority. Except, to my eye, because the Rocket has increased service to the Rockaways during particularly popular times, it appears as though the regular ferry can more than handle the remaining passengers…so did I just pay an extra $8 to not wait for a few minutes on line? No matter, away we go—because speed, especially aboard the Rocket, matters. 

The immediate impact of the cooling breeze aboard the speeding Rockaway Rocket. (Hell Gate)

I regularly take the normal ferry to the Rockaways, which basically putters along the east side of Governor’s Island until it reaches Sunset Park before hitting the burners, but now, with that stop disposed of, we were flying. Even the jet skiers, those speed demons of the sea, had to give us our due. It felt as if I’d finally gotten a ride on The Beast, but no, better—I was on the Rocket. 

With the skyline receding from view as we blasted into the harbor, the temperature instantly dropped, and passengers enjoyed the respite from the heat. Flavia Lagnado, who takes the regular ferry to the Rockaways often during the summer from her home in the East Village, told me that on her Saturday Rocket trip, the ferry was blasting loud pop music the entire time from the PA system. 

“It sounded like freshman orientation music,” she told me. Lagnado says she booked the Rocket after getting an email from NYC Ferry about it, and her boat was only half-full. 

Sadly, there was no music on my trip, but the boat was still only half-full. NYC Ferry did not respond to a request from Hell Gate for ridership numbers for the Rocket’s first few weeks. But according to numbers obtained by Hell Gate for this past Sunday, 107 people rode the first ferry from Wall Street which left at 9:30 a.m., 190 people rode the 11:30 a.m. from Wall Street, and 67 people rode the 1:30 p.m. Last summer’s average Rockaway ridership for the entire weekend was 4,271 people—meaning the Rocket is still just making a small dent.

(Hell Gate)

After caffeinating with an iced coffee from the on-board bar (with no promised discount in sight!), I exited the Rocket in the Rockaways after a beautiful 45-minute journey, boarded the free shuttle to Riis Park, and was walking on the sand within an hour of leaving Wall Street. Discounting the time to get to the ferry itself, the Rocket now provides the quickest journey from Manhattan to Riis of any public transit option.

After a resplendent day enjoying the rays, avoiding a rain storm, and generally satisfied that I beat the heat, I took my return ferry at 6:30 p.m., surrounded by sun-kissed and blissed out riders, who again skipped the line (even though the ferry returning at the exact same time now had more than enough room for everyone). 

Coney Island and a sail boat. To a Rocketeer, they appear but as little toys. (Hell Gate)

It is here that I will declare, quite simply, that I am officially Rocket-pilled. Why? Because an extra $8 for a guaranteed front-row seat ride along one of the world’s most glamorous coastlines is a deal I’d gladly make, especially as I’m so easily separated from $8 throughout my regular life during inflation summer. For $8, I would gladly extend my time beach-side, maybe grab a drink at Rippers, or catch one more wave, because I know I just have to get there when the ferry’s leaving, not a while before to make sure I get on board. (Also, unlike the regular ferry, you can reserve space for your bike, for no extra cost. Because the ferries can only carry eight bikes at a time, bike spot reservation is a HUGE plus.) 

“It’s the best view of the city you can get, and the pricing is pretty good” said Max Zeng, 26, who was riding the Rocket with three of his friends. “You see Manhattan from a different angle.”

I would agree with other Max here—while the Rocket takes the uncertainty out of the equation (this ferry or the next one), the real selling point of the Rockaway route is the unreal beauty of the skyline, cruising under the Verrazano Bridge, and the view of Coney Island, which looks like a toy set from out at sea. 

Reorienting how you look at the city makes you value it more, especially from atop a rapidly rising waterline. If the extra $8 keeps the ferry around longer, so be it.

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