This Google engineer uses a rowboat to commute to work in NYC


Don’t call him bridge-and-tunnel.

New Jersey commuter Tommy Lutz treks to work across the Hudson River not by bus nor PATH train, but via a small dinghy boat he built himself.

As the current carries him to Manhattan, Lutz, an engineer at Google, sips coffee from a thermos and listens to the distant sound of traffic while observing the wildlife around him.

Tom Lutz
Tom LutzStefano Giovannini

“It gives me some quiet time by myself to think and reflect,” said the soft-spoken 34-year-old on a recent humid Tuesday morning before setting off on the 2 ½-hour journey from his home in Leonia, NJ, to his office in Chelsea.

At the crack of dawn, Lutz rides a foldable bike 20 minutes from his home to a boat ramp below the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, NJ. He pulls a 6-foot boat, folded in two, behind him on a homemade trailer.

When he arrives at the ramp, he unfolds the boat’s hinged panels like a book and fastens them into place with two hulls. Then, he folds his bike up and sets it in the boat, suits up with an inflatable life vest and sets off toward the city at about 4 mph, watching out for coming ferries and barges, which have the right of way.

“Those things can’t stop for you,” he said of the vessels.

Within five minutes of setting off, he’s just a dot on the Hudson. It takes him anywhere from an hour to an hour and 45 minutes to get to Manhattan, depending on winds and the current.

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“You move faster than you might think,” he said.

He lands at the West 79th Street Boat Basin on the Upper West Side, gets out of the water and folds up the boat. He then rides his bike, with the dinghy trailing behind it, to his office in Chelsea.

Alhough the current reverses directions later in the day, he doesn’t often take the boat back. Instead, he bikes all the way home across the George Washington Bridge, towing the boat, which takes about an hour. And Lutz doesn’t ride his boat to work every day. The river’s currents vary from day to day, and he won’t go if it’s not fast enough, or even neutral. That would be too much rowing. He also won’t do it in the winter.

“The earliest I’ve gone out is April, and they haven’t even put out the dock yet, so I have to track through the mud to get to the water,” he said, adding that he usually stops making the trips in November.

Tom Lutz on the dock in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Stefano Giovannini

The idea to forgo conventional modes of transportation occurred to Lutz about three years ago. He was fed up with his bus commute, which took two hours each way. He found a video on YouTube of a collapsible dinghy that could attach to the type of foldable bike he owned and started tinkering. Every day for three months, the former Boy Scout and his then-4-year-old son worked on the boat, which is made primarily of wood and PVC.

It typically takes him longer to get to work by boat than it did by bus, but he says it’s still an improvement. He can comfortably read on the water while enjoying a cup of coffee and some peace and quiet.

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“I’ll get sick on a bus, but put me on a boat on the Hudson and I’ll be just fine,” he said.

His wife, Megan Lutz, admits she “worried about him the first couple [of] times” he did it. But knowing how methodical her husband was put her at ease. “[He] takes all the necessary precautions and he has a good head on his shoulders.”

Tom Lutz drops his boat into the Hudson River.
Stefano Giovannini

In addition to his life vest, he has a marine radio to give other vessels a heads-up about his presence, in case he can’t get out of the way fast enough.

“The worst that can happen?” he said, “I guess the same thing that can happen to anyone on the roads — you get hit by a vehicle and die.”

And he noted that there’s something relaxing about being in control of your commute.

“I’m convinced that uncertainty is what drives a lot of people’s frustration with public transportation here,” he said. “People who take New Jersey Transit every day, I just have to ask, ‘You’re paying how much for that? And you’re going how slow?’ ”



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