By Jefferson Siegel
It’s taken decades, but New York is slowly reclaiming and making use of one of its most valuable resources: its rivers. Earlier this year world-class yacht, sailboat and tugboat races brought crowds to the riverside. A new park is slowly taking shape along the Hudson.
Saturday, another waterborne race churned the waves off Pier 40, the 12th annual American Star Rowing Race.
Organized by Floating the Apple, a non-profit group located on Pier 40 at Houston St., this year’s race fielded more participants than past years, with 90 rowers filling 18 boats.
Participating in the race were students from Stuyvesant High School, City-As-School, the NYC Harbor School, Graphic Arts and Communication HS, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Out-of-town crews came from as far as Newburgh, Cold Spring and Glen Cove, N.Y.; New Haven and Bridgeport Conn.; and Elizabeth N.J.
“It’s pretty cold out!” said Phil Yee, Pier 40 coordinator. With bright sunshine and temperatures below freezing, the day started with time trials at 10 a.m., as teams made three circuits each around the cove between Pier 40 and the Holland Tunnel vent pier. Of the 18 teams, 10 finalists qualified for the main event, a cross-Hudson race to New Jersey and back.
Several dozen family members and onlookers stood on the pier watching the preliminaries while others found temporary respite from the cold inside Pier 40’s Floating the Apple area. Many wandered inside the cavernous space, looking at gigs and maps of the river while holding cups of cocoa, coffee and soup. A bookshelf held a library of maritime-themed books.
Newburgh completed the trans-Hudson course the fastest with a time of 17 minutes, 36 seconds. One of the Floating the Apple boats, powered by students from B.M.C.C. and Graphic Arts, came in fifth with a time of just under 20 minutes. Stuyvesant finished eighth.
As yells of “Stroke, stroke!” filled the cove, Yee said of the race’s origins, “We first started up at Pier 84 [in Midtown], at that boathouse. Since ‘98 we’ve had races here.”
Most of the students participating in the group’s rowing programs are recent converts to the water. However, there was one old salt among them, student John Wittrock of Stuyvesant. “I’ve been rowing since I was a toddler,” Wittrock said after his team qualified for the final race, “I was rowing guide boats up in the Adirondacks.” Coxswain Ye Liu of Stuyvesant has been rowing since the summer of her freshman year, three years ago. “I was in a summer program that had a rowing component to it and I returned every summer,” she said.
Two-hundred years ago, New York’s rivers were crowded with every conceivable sailing vessel, from steamboats to canoes. One ubiquitous craft was a 27-foot-long boat known as a Whitehall Gig. These boats were the river’s workhorses, but they were also prime racing vessels. One in particular, the American Star, was a gift from the French general, Lafayette.
The American Star race commemorates the December 1824 two-gig contest that drew 50,000 spectators, more than any other American sporting event up to that time. On that day 180 years ago, New York Harbor’s Whitehall boatmen easily won the $1,000 prize in the Brooklyn-built gig “American Star.”
Floating the Apple is located on the south side of Pier 40, mid-pier. Its rowing programs are open to all. Tuesday and Thursday their popular “After Work Rowing” serves as an introduction to rowing on the city’s rivers. Their 25-foot-long “Whitehall Gigs,” the same as were used in Saturday’s race, were built by F.T.A.’s volunteers and city school students. Each boat carries five rowers.