Come On In, Paddlers, the Water’s Just Fine. Don’t Mind the Sewage.
Published: August 29, 2013
Some people questioned the wisdom of establishing a boat club at a Superfund site.
Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
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 forRiverkeeper, 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.