Rowing across the Hudson: `Floating the Apple' boat finds temporary home in Weehawken
Weehawken resident Lia DiStefano never gave it much thought four years ago when she climbed aboard a hand-made rowboat with four friends and began to paddle their way across the Hudson River from New York to Weehawken. She had always been interested in trying to preserve the Hudson River's wildlife, but never realized that the quest would actually take her atop the water. "It was a way of making people aware of the environment, to protect the river," DiStefano said about getting involved with the New York-based 'Floating the Apple' organization, which helps to build classic rowing vessels to put into the Hudson River. "It's really a different perspective, being out on the water. It's much different than standing on the cliff and looking out. Out on the water, the perspective changes. Everyone who goes out enjoys it." "Floating the Apple" is the brainchild of Mike Davis, a New York anthropologist who, in 1992, wanted to devise a way to allow the common man to have access to the Hudson River waterways. While there was plenty of river traffic in small vessels 100 years ago, the river is only congested these days by the commercial and much larger boats, like ferries and ocean liners. "We have waterways that are quite remarkable," Davis explained. "It's everyone's right to enjoy the waterways." "Pure and simple, the mission of the group is to get people out on the water," said Bruce Sherman, the president of the Weehawken Environmental Committee. "Get the common man out on the water. Let people know that the rivers that surround Manhattan are to be used by the everyday man, not just the luxury boats or the commercial boats." So Davis did research on watercraft and took a liking to the Whitehall Gig, a classic rowing vessel of the 1800s. "They were used for smuggling goods into the country back then," Davis said. "They came to this country around 1810, so these vessels have a historical significance." Davis then was able to organize a group of people to build these vessels from scratch, then take them to the water. Davis found a way to make the boats safe by using empty two-liter plastic soda bottles to help floatation and Styrofoam blocks, wedged under the wood, to prevent the boat from capsizing. "They were designed for open water rowing and incredibly safe," DiStefano said. "It rides like a surfboard, sitting high on the water." The boats, 25 feet in length, are designed for four rowers, plus a coxswain to steer. Becoming an accomplished coxswain takes proper training. The rest takes brawn, stamina and heart. Since 1992, Davis and his Floating the Apple group have built 20 such vessels for use for the general public. The boats had been stored at a storage facility in New York, but recently, the storage space became unavailable. The boats are now placed in storage containers along the waterfront. So Davis has been searching for local communities to house the vessels on a temporary basis, while perhaps stirring up enough interest to build more boats. Through the efforts of Sherman, DiStefano and fellow WEC member and boat enthusiast Jim Dette, Weehawken has now been selected as a site to temporarily house one of the boats, in a container adjacent to the old Banana Building on the property owned by Arcorp. Sherman and Dette met extensively with Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, Arcorp representative Donald Liloia and Davis to bring the container across the river from New York to Weehawken. As soon as the boathouse container is secured, then the boat can be put into place as well, with free use for the general public, as long as the use is supervised with an experienced coxswain. "I think it's wonderful," Davis said. "For years, we've been hoping to have a boat housed on that side of the river. And we've always had a great relationship with the people of Weehawken. Several people from Weehawken have been involved from the beginning, so we're excited to have them involved now." Three years ago, a race sponsored by Floating the Apple was held from the USS Intrepid Museum and a team from Weehawken participated, with DiStefano's daughter, Susannah Shepherd, serving as the team's coxswain. Now that the plans have been put into place, Sherman said that a community effort is necessary to have Floating the Apple as a part of Weehawken's regular fabric. Which means getting organized people who will be willing to help supervise the use of the boat, take the necessary training sessions to operate the vessel, or step forward to help build more boats. "We need to develop coordinators or supervisors, to make sure that everything is done according to the rules of the Floating the Apple organization," Sherman said. "Safety has to be the No. 1 priority. Rules and order have to be maintained. There has to be supervision at all times. That's why we need people who want to be involved." The first step will take place on Friday and Saturday (May 6 and 7), when there will be a coxswain training weekend at Croton Point Park on Haverstraw Bay in New York. Sherman is encouraging any Weehawken residents interested in learning to attend the weekend seminar. Then, beginning May 15 inside the World Financial Center in Manhattan, Davis and the Floating the Apple group will be coordinating another effort to build another boat. Students from many area schools, including the Hudson County Schools of Technology, will help to build the boats. The entire building project is slated to take place on the main floor of the Winter Garden atrium. Construction of the boats usually take about three months to complete. "With all the young people we have in town, we're hoping to get a few interested," Sherman said. "It's fun, it's a good form of exercise and it's a way of protecting the environment." Davis wanted to stress the value of the community in the project. "That's what it's all about," Davis said. "It's all about community, getting everyone involved. It's the crux of the entire program. It all has to be about community. And we're hoping to have Weehawken make a long-term commitment to be a community boathouse site. But building the boats are not hard. Families can get together and chip in." DiStefano has been very active with getting members of the community out on the boat. Already, Councilwoman Rosemary Lavagigno and Councilman Robert Sosa have taken boat trips with DiStefano. "They both loved it," DiStefano said. "I'm sure other people as well. It's really very safe and a lot of fun. Some people wonder how can they do that, go out onto the river in a rowboat. Like you need a permit or something. They don't understand that there is free access. The problem is that we don't have enough access." With efforts such as this, then there will be even more free access - with the emphasis on free. For further information about the "Floating the Apple" program or the efforts of the Weehawken Environmental Committee to establish the organization locally, contact Bruce Sherman at 377-7058.