While the days are short and the water is cold, the boat club is not hibernating! For qualified kayak and canoe paddlers there are trips exploring the frozen reaches of the East River and Newtown Creek. A recent expedition involving our new trailer to Jamaica Bay got postponed because of high winds but more adventures are in the works. In the meantime, there is nautical knitting, a book club, chess, paddle carving and boat restoration! There’s a double-barreled wood-burning stove in the boatshed! Bring an armful of broken furniture and join us!
Some people questioned the wisdom of establishing a boat club at a Superfund site. But such is the lure of water, even when sludge seems like a more fitting descriptor, that the North Brooklyn Boat Club emerged out of one of New York’s most-polluted estuaries, Newtown Creek.
Its docks sit just downstream from a sewage treatment plant and a recycling center. Its clubhouse is flanked by salvage yards and warehouses, not far from an area so contaminated by decades of oil spills that the soil resembles black mayonnaise. And, flashing a winking self-awareness, its logo features a rowboat in a stream gushing out of a sewer spout while a tin can and a dead rat drift alongside.
“There’s only so many times you can see a beautiful sunset or a nice little beach,” said Fung Lim, 52, a charter member who takes experienced and novice rowers out each week in a 28-foot skiff he helped build. “It’s more fun to poke around in a commercial waterway.”
Now in its second year, the boat club has more than 190 members paying the annual $40 membership fee, a testament that the best stretch of shoreline is your own. The resolute community of paddlers has embraced not just the opportunity for recreation but also a continuing crusade to clean up Newtown Creek, a commercial waterway that snakes between parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
“Once you realize you’re not going to die or get covered in toxic sludge,” Leif Percifield, 30, of Williamsburg, said after a row from Brooklyn to the Bronx, “it’s pretty relaxing.”
It was not long ago when New Yorkers kept a safe distance from the water, once so fouled by sewage and industrial waste that it was infamous for harboring cholera, typhoid and hepatitis. But in recent years, thanks to concerted rehabilitation efforts by environmental groups and government agencies, residents have taken to the waterways with a pent-up fervor.
They are paddle-boarding in the Hudson River, swimming in the Bronx River, canoeing in the Gowanus Canal. They are yanking up fish from Jamaica Bay, once declared a menace to public health, and having them for dinner. But perhaps the most unlikely site for recreation is Newtown Creek.
John Lipscomb, who has spent more than a decade conducting harbor surveys for Riverkeeper, an advocacy organization that has led the push to clean New York’s waterways, said tremendous progress had been made around New York City. Newtown Creek, Mr. Lipscomb said, is among the worst places left, especially the eastern parts, which do not have circulating waters from the East River to flush out pollutants.
When the North Brooklyn Boat Club first dipped its vessels in Newtown Creek last year, the members knew well the history of industrial waste and neglect that had lasted centuries.
Millions of gallons of petroleum — up to three times as much oil as the 11 million gallons spilled in the 1989 Alaskan disaster — has leaked underground in Greenpoint from refineries and storage sites over the decades. An unknown amount has seeped into the creek’s sediment and mixed with heavy metals, PCBs and other contaminants left behind by the factories that once lined the commercial port.
Even though new environmental standards have ended many of those dumping practices — and Exxon Mobil committed to a more thorough cleanup of its spills — all it takes is a heavy rain to overwhelm the wastewater collection and treatment system and send raw sewage and polluted storm water into the creek.
Every week Willis Elkins, a canoe instructor and flotsam expert, dips a bare hand into the murky edges of the creek for a water sampling program that tests for microbes of enterococcus, a bacteria found in human and animal waste.
“It’s important to be knowledgeable about the waters you’re paddling in,” he said.
Sometimes the water is too dirty. But when the water quality is fair, he takes out groups of paddlers to explore the tributaries, passing the silvery digester eggs atop the largest wastewater treatment plant in the city, to Maspeth Creek in Queens, where they might be surprised to see egrets and cormorants instead of two-headed fish.
Before he sets off, Mr. Elkins carefully reviews safety issues with an occasionally skittish audience. No one has fallen in on his watch, he said. But the club has an outdoor shower, a convenient accouterment for such situations.
Dewey Thompson remembers the days when he and other paddlers would climb through holes in fences and cross parking lots and trash-strewn shores to put boats in the water. That changed in 2011, when an eccentric landowner who appreciated the idea of renegade kayakers in need of a dock cleared the rusting cars and machines from his lot on Ash Street in Greenpoint and offered it for their use.
Volunteers pulled weeds and raked up shards of glass and metal debris from the long narrow lot that opens up under concrete abutments of the Pulaski Bridge. Today, the space is bedded with mulch and has 22 kayaks and 8 canoes, a neighborhood composting center and a woodworking shop. This fall, they will host classes on environmental issues with LaGuardia Community College in an educational space dubbed the “Ed Shed.” There is also a stage constructed on top of a shipping container for its “Rock the Pulaski” benefit concerts.
“This isn’t just a bunch of boat nerds doing knots,” Mr. Thompson said.
Plans are under way to relocate the club to a larger site on Newtown Creek, using a several-million-dollar grant from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
The new location is still being negotiated, but within the next two years the boat club plans to have a landing with storage for more than 100 boats, an environmental education center and a library dedicated to the history of the area. There are also discussions to include office space for Riverkeeper and the Newtown Creek Alliance, nonprofit organizations working in the area.
But for many club members, the core attraction remains the chance to leave the city’s street grid to engage with the water. “There are 600 miles of shoreline in New York City and not a lot of access points,” Mr. Elkins said.
So on a recent morning Mr. Lim, a Singapore native with long graying hair pulled into a ponytail, prepared the flat-bottom rowboat for a day out.
The plan was to head up the East River to the South Bronx, or as far as everyone’s arms could carry them.
The river was bustling. An oil tanker heading south hummed past an elegant sailboat. Grumbling ferries shuttled passengers between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Pleasure craft eyed the rowers with a mix of awe and pity.
“Row, row!” some shouted.
The crew passed the decaying timber docks and lush green overgrowth on North Brother Island, where herons and cormorants have replaced the typhoid victims who were once quarantined there. They anchored near Baretto Point Park, where teenage boys somersaulted into the salty water from a rusty bulkhead. The rowers wet their toes and ankles as a gull homing in on a catch plunged in beak first.
When the current turned in their favor, the boat made its long return.
Back on land, the group unloaded and scrubbed the boat, then retreated to the folding chairs and benches circling a crackling fire. As the sun disappeared behind the Manhattan skyline, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building twinkled in full view of the dock.
The boaters cooled their blisters on bottles of Brooklyn Lager and traded stories with another set of sunburned paddlers grilling hot dogs.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to move my arms tomorrow,” one said.
A couple walking above on the Pulaski Bridge paused to make sense of the scene below. A bright blue tugboat chugged by, pushing a barge loaded with recycled plastics out to the East River.
An empty beer can, tossed from the window of a car crossing the bridge, tumbled into the black water below.
Acting is a calling for many people. They enjoy the emotions that they are able to invoke on the stage or screen while entertaining people. Actor Jens Rasmussen brings that same calling and passion to boating.
Rasmussen, who has played over 200 roles in his acting career on the stage and in film, helped start the North Brooklyn Boat Club (NBBC) in 2010. “I have always loved the water,” he says. “Growing up, I spent countless days swimming at my local YMCA. Then as a teen, I was introduced to windsurfing, which absolutely blew my mind. After that, I started crewing competitively for scow captains in inland lakes regattas.”
It wasn’t until he moved to New York from Milwaukee, however,that Rasmussen began to feel the entirety of the boating bug. “I was still interested in boating when I moved to NYC in 1996,” he recalls. “I first sought out and volunteered with Floating the Apple, which builds and uses Whitehall gigs. Unfortunately, I only learned of the East River Kayak Club, in my own neighborhood of Greenpoint, as they were winding down their operations in the late 90s.”
That left him unable to scratch his boating itch for a while, until something caught his eye. “A few years ago, when I learned of the Greenpoint Boathouse proposal that was being submitted to the DEC’s Newtown Creek Environmental Benefit Projects for Environmental Benefit Project funds,I naturally wanted to help make that a reality,” he explains.“I emailed Dewey Thompson (a Greenpoint filmmaker and NBBC harbormaster), who was the driving force behind the proposal and started getting involved from there.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, as a potential site for their boathouse fell through. “We had originally proposed and planned to be moving into the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a Civil War-era rope factory,” says Rasmussen, “but we were not able to procure a lease agreement that would have been sustainable, or honored the significant amount of community funds that our project would have brought to the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center’s infrastructure.”
The set back spurred the actor and his club members to look for other options. This led them to Tony Argento, the owner of Broadway Stages,a film and production company.He’d given the club a 20-foot-wide strip of land for use as an interim site while the club found a permanent location. They were initially hesitant to ask for help in securing a permanent location, thinking that they would be pushing the bounds of his generosity since he had been letting them use the site for free. “He didn’t even hesitate,” Rasmussen says. “He immediately started putting things in motion, and this is before he knew we would be bringing the EBP funds to the table.”
NBBC is still developing architectural plans for the site, but hopes to be fully moved into the permanent site, which is near the Pulaski Bridge, in two years.The club has about 250 members, each paying $40.00 yearly. NBBC has two main types of activities, canoeing and kayaking, though there are opportunities for other pursuits such as paddle carving, boat restoration, rowing, survival skills, and open-fire cooking. Rasmussen says that there’s generally some boating by members all year round, though only the most advanced paddlers go out when there’s cold weather. “We have fewer activities in the winter, but we never stop. Anytime you see folks at the yard, feel free to stop in and visit,” he says.
Besides dropping by, new members are encouraged to get involved via social media, the club’s website (www.northbrooklynboatclub.org), exposure in media outlets, and at an annual public meeting. At the NBBC meeting this past November, Rasmussen didn’t pitch the club as being a club. “I said that I don’t view us as a boat club; we’re story tellers. We go out on the water and write stories with our paddles, collect them in our boats, bring them back to land, and share them,” he elaborates. “These are stories about the adrenaline rush of strong currents and healthy bodies, stories about city infrastructure and our water quality, and stories about the surprising return of wildlife to the New York City estuary.”
Rasmussen feels very strongly about the club’s role within the boating world. “As stewards of these waterways, it’s our duty and pleasure to share these stories with people who have not yet had the chance to experience the NYC archipelago up close,” the actor articulates.
That’s no act.
Original piece by Michael Griffin for Boating Time Long Island
Since 2011, a handful of passionate Brooklyn residents have dreamed of a boathouse and environmental education center in Greenpoint. Their dream is far from dead, but it has certainly taken on a different form. Last night, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) hosted a public meeting in Long Island City where various organizations gave updates on projects around the Newtown Creek. There, North Brooklyn Boat Club (NBBC) members delivered a blow-by-blow of how plans have evolved—in a somewhat circuitous way—to their current status.
The boathouse project began as a $3 million project at the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center at 1155-1205 Manhattan Avenue. Negotiations commenced, but in the end an agreement could not be reached to situate the NBBC which would operate the boathouse, at that site. Nonprofit City Parks Foundation, which, to put things as simply as possible, is actually responsible for getting the boathouse built, paid one architect until the project’s lack of progress rendered that firm unavailable. Then funds were spent hiring a second architect. Madonna Architects received $3,000, and Ed Weinstein Architects received $36,444.13.
President of the North Brooklyn Boat Club Dewey Thompson made it clear at last night’s meeting that, despite the delay in its planned HQ, the boat club is already an active organization with over 250 members and a mailing list that reaches over 1,000. In addition to boating, it hosts events related to nautical crafts and composting, and even have days when the public is invited to paddle. (The next one is May 3.) They also do guided tours of the Newtown Creek in association with the Newtown Creek Alliance. The NBBC’s Jens Rasmussen said the club received a $20,000 grant three years ago to purchase boats and safety equipment. But, he added, the rest of its financial needs have been met by donations, dues, fundraisers such as Halloween and solstice parties, and by picking through trash.
The club is currently operating out of a temporary location at 51 Ash Street. That site is owned by Broadway Stages, and negotiations are now underway to build the boathouse at that location instead of the Manhattan Avenue one. There are renderings, but due to ongoing negotiations, Thompson said the NBBC cannot share them at this time.
Several outlets have made allegations about unsavory spending and other agendas related to the slow-moving project; Thompson sought to refute them. First of all, none of that initial $3 million earmarked for the original boathouse has ever been received by the NBBC, nor will it ever be. That $3 million was for the City Parks Foundation to actually build the boathouse; meanwhile, a revised budget for the 51 Ash Street site has not yet been released.
When it comes to Queens Crap’s report that “one of the boathouse regulars got a $20,000 grant to paint a mural,” Thompson replied that he knows of no such mural. According to QC, the mural is supposedly part of another project that the boat club is working on in Maspeth, Queens. As for New York Shitty’s assertion that boathouse funds are being used for a “transient hotel,” Thompson said that landlord Broadway Stages is working on its own separate commercial plans for the site, but hasn’t announced what their function (or functions) will be.
A few of the several dozen in attendance said they felt out of the loop about the boathouse construction’s progress. The NBBC and the City Parks Foundation, who already have regular newsletters, said they would consider sending out more updates on the boathouse project, even if those updates would be communicating that there is nothing new to communicate. Stay tuned.