Floating a New Kind of Ride: The Water Bike

A San Francisco Bay Area man wants you to get on the water—without getting off your bike


Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Judah Schiller is a water-biking evangelist. And what, you are likely asking, is a water bike? It’s pretty much what it sounds like: a bike mounted on pontoons. It moves by way of a small propeller linked to the back hub.

Last week, Schiller crossed the San Francisco Bay, riding under the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco. He says he is the first to ever cross the Bay via water bike.

“This is a new aquatic frontier,” Schiller told me by phone, as he was wending his way through JFK airport, where he had just landed.

On Thursday, Schiller will pedal his water bike over the Hudson River from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Manhattan—another first.

Schiller doesn’t need a water bike to commute to his job. The Marin County resident can ride over the Golden Gate Bridge to AIKO Agency, San Francisco-based design agency he founded.

His friends in the East Bay are not so lucky, and while the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge sports a bike lane, it does not extend to the western span. A plan to extend the path to S.F. is likely to take many years and more than ten million dollars. In an area where biking is woven into the cultural fabric and bike commuting is increasingly popular, he figured there had to be another solution. 

Schiller didn’t invent his water bike; he purchased a Shuttle Bike conversion kit from a small Italian manufacturer called SBK. “But Gary Fisher didn’t invent the first mountain bike, either,” Schiller says. “He took an old Schwinn” and redesigned it. Similarly, Schiller plans to build upon and improve water bikes, and make water biking a popular mode of transport, both for commuting or recreational riding. (A New Zealand outfit called Akwakat also sells a conversion kit, but its design does not accommodate wheels, which would make commuting rather tricky.)

Schiller has launched an IndieGoGo campaign, hoping to raise $50,000 to fund BayCycle, an organization he’ll use to drum up some excitement around water bikes and develop some new infrastructure for commuters. One could carry the conversion kit, which breaks down into a duffle, and then assemble and inflate the pontoon at the water’s edge. But if you’re crossing salt water you’ll need access to fresh water to rinse the vehicle off before disassembling, packing up, and riding off. 

This reporter thinks all of this makes hopping into a sea kayak—provided you’ve got somewhere to stow it on the opposite shore—a more appealing transbay commute. But just as windsurfing begat kitesurfing and masochism begat cyclocross and skydiving begat B.A.S.E. begat wingsuits, the wheel of sport hybridization continues to spin. Someone, somewhere, is always trying to find a news means of self-propulsion. And why not?

“When the water is flat, it feels like road riding. But when you’re in choppy water, it feels more like mountain biking,” says Schiller.

By next year, he hopes to be bringing large groups out on the water and even start organizing races.

Any advice for novice water bikers? Use your common sense and always carry a personal flotation device, says Schiller. Also, commercial ship traffic gets the right of way. So don’t play chicken with a cargo ship.

promo logo