On Saturday evening, I ambled down a pier at the Wharf to meet a white-haired entrepreneur from Brooklyn. His name was Adam Schwartz, and he was in tremendously good cheer. Honestly, I would be, too, if I were the owner of a “hot tub boat.”
The boat in question is a 40-foot, 13-ton, custom-built vessel loaded with two circular hot tubs, each big enough for ten adults. It was engineered, Schwartz explained, at a cost of $900,000 by naval architects in Albany, then driven down the ice-choked Hudson into the Atlantic, bound for Fort Lauderdale, where it began its life as a “hot tub tour boat” in 2021.
This September, the boat relocated to DC, and my colleague received a press release about its arrival. It described the boat’s two-hour BYOB cruise of the Potomac as a “unique and unforgettable experience” that “combines the serenity of hot tub relaxation with the stunning views of the iconic DC landmarks.”
I searched for it on Instagram (under the company’s official name, “Sea the City”) and found groups of women dancing in unison in the tubs, couples snuggling in the water, bodies that looked made of champagne and silicone, photographed to tremendous effect against the soft, setting sun.
Immediately, I signed up for a complimentary tour, which would ordinarily cost $1,795. That’s how my husband and I wound up alone in a ten-person hot tub on a glorious November night.
Our tour began around sunset. The air was 63 degrees, and the clouds lay mottled across the sky. On the dock, the “first mate” took our bags, stuck the beers I’d brought into a cooler, then listed the rules: no food, no hard liquor, no smoking or vaping. “Oh,” she added, “the lifejackets are under the hot tubs—the Coast Guard wants us to tell you where they are.”
When Schwartz commissioned this vessel, he’d been clear about his intent: “I wanted a Hot Tub Boat, not a boat with a hot tub, just maximum hot tub space, the biggest hot tubs I could find.” That is precisely what he got. Aboard the craft, I found two enormous hot tubs—no lounge space, no deck chairs—plus a bathroom, a changing room, and a booth where a man called “Captain Josh” (a former pilot of Hawaiian tourist submarines) had taken the helm. Schwartz was coming along, too—not tubbing, but available to answer questions. I turned out to have a few.
We began with the basics. The business is occasion-driven: bachelorette parties, birthday parties, some anniversaries, sporadic proposals. You can rent the whole boat if you want to, or just book one of the tubs. Around 70 percent of customers are youngish women, most of whom arrive in large groups. And Schwartz actually operates a second Hot Tub Boat out of Jersey City. He says the clientele is similar, except the ladies of DC are more apt to dance.
To be fully transparent, I conducted this interview from the hot tub. More precisely, Schwartz answered my questions—for over an hour—while standing, fully dressed, on the deck. I guess I should have felt self-conscious, lounging with my husband in the water, splashing and sipping a drink while asking about regulatory hurdles to commercial boating ventures. From a professional standpoint, the setup was odd—but what else was I supposed to do?
As we spoke, the boat traversed the Washington Channel, past a golf course and Fort McNair. Gulls cried and wheeled overhead. The trees were just past their peak. Sliding around Hains Point into the Potomac, we hit a wake and the tub water sloshed around. I’d been using my phone to take notes, and it nearly slipped from my hand, but I found myself too relaxed to care.
I’m going to be honest that before embarking on this cruise, it was not clear to me why one would need to get boated around in a hot tub, rather than tubbing in a stationary fashion or boating without a hot tub on board. Did a hot tub enhance the boating experience? Does one need scenery to enjoy a warm, two-hour bath?
But as the sun sank and the winds came up, people on passing boats donned hats and scarves. Not me; I sat half-submerged in a pool of heated water, feeling nothing more than a pleasant fall breeze.
To these other boats—speedboats, water taxis, a party boat called the Boomerang Yacht—the Hot Tub Boat was a spectacle. When they spotted us, the crowds on deck would hoot and wave. People took pictures of the hull (which says, in big letters, DC Hot Tub Boat) while they elbowed their companions and howled. They seemed to expect a big party. Come to think of it, I did too.
Surely, the Hot Tub Boat attracts bad behavior: people puking into the Potomac, excessive canoodling in the tubs. But Schwartz insisted that it doesn’t. The occasional party bus shows up belligerent, yes, but he said that’s only happened once or twice.
The Hot Tub Boat is not a booze cruise, Schwartz stressed—nor even primarily a tour. “Sure, [guests] want to see the sights,” he explained, “but you almost have to bring their attention to it, because they’re mostly just talking to each other.” He also claimed that people rarely drink as much as they think they will, because they’re just too busy hanging out.
Initially, none of these claims made sense. Bachelorette parties were booking a Hot Tub Boat to socialize, not to wear swimsuits and get lit? But by this point, we were near the Lincoln Memorial, and I figured I should lay off the questions and try to fully experience the cruise.
We passed the Kennedy Center’s weeping willows, then the Watergate with its balconies of undulating teeth. In the middle of the river, two police vessels had parked with their lights on, doing a safety inspection of a passing boat.
For a moment, my husband and I sank down into the water, so low that we could only see sky. With the shoreline gone, we watched the drift of backlit clouds, and the world felt quiet and transformed. Idly, my husband brought up the artist James Turrell, who makes experiential artworks that ask you to notice light. I only mention this because I could hear him when he said it. That’s when I understood that Schwartz was right.
Have you ever caught up with ten of your friends at a crowded bar? No, I promise you haven’t; you shouted until you were hoarse while missing key details of everyone’s stories because you literally couldn’t hear what they said. But on the Hot Tub Boat, you control the soundscape with your phone. There’s a Bluetooth speaker mounted by the tub—turn the music up for dancing, and turn it down when you want to hang out. Therein lies its genius: The Hot Tub Boat is both a party and a couch. It’s a firepit and a nightclub. It’s whatever you need it to be.
If the Puritans had landed at Plymouth Rock with a premonition that our nation’s vast waterways would one day be populated with multiple Hot Tub Boats, they might have turned around. And I get that. It’s an outrageous indulgence that I feel sheepish about defending, but it strikes me as more than the sum of its parts. The Hot Tub Boat is tourism, relaxation, partying, catching up—urban in the presence of nature, low-key but also luxe.
Heading back towards the dock, we saw monuments—though not the most spectacular views. From the boat, they seemed small and sporadic. It didn’t matter to me at all. I liked the sky and the water and the helicopters flying low overhead. I liked glimpsing the Pentagon and peering into bright windows at the Watergate. Beside the boat, ducks skimmed the water, headed for the wild tangle of brush on the banks.
Returning to the dock at twilight, the Wharf was lit up and glistening, and the Washington monument loomed in the distance. The tub lights came on, emitting a fishtank pale glow. My husband threw on a song, and suddenly it felt like a party. Our lives were far, far away on the shore.