Kids get a boat's-eye view of New York

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A new group of Navy Junior ROTC kids is out on a windy Wednesday afternoon, 20 freshmen and sophomores from New York's High School of Graphic Arts. They're at Pier 84 well before 3:30 p.m., blue lifejackets cinched tight. A swirl of Spanish and English, shouts of "wait" and "give it slack," fill the air as they lower a 25-foot rowboat into the choppy Hudson River. The plan is to row around the "cove" between Pier 84 and the USS Intrepid.

Stephanie trembles a little in her baggy sage-colored pants. She has never been out before. Jonathan and Edgar swagger next to her, excited to get back onto the river. "Last week we went all the way to the G.W. Bridge," Jonathan brags.

Jennifer, one of the experienced older kids, directs the younger ones as they load into the boat, and then takes the stern as coxswain. The crew pushes off, heading straight for a metal pier.

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Mike Davis watches the students from Pier 84 as they row. This is his legacy: giving New York City children the opportunity to experience - and become comfortable with - a new world within the limits of their city.

Mr. Davis runs Floating the Apple, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing community boating on the city's public waterways. He is a powerhouse, always moving, talking, rowing, and dreaming. The child of a Coast Guard man, he spent his youth in spots around the world that had one common denominator: water.

Now he is a father figure to the roughly 30 teenagers who participate in their high school's Navy Junior ROTC program every year, building rowboats and participating in races.

"I never tire of going out with the kids," Davis says. "They have less hang-ups. It's just a delight seeing them all of a sudden become totally aware."

He keeps a quotation from John Gardner - the man considered the dean of small-craft boating - close to him: "Trust youth, give them room, permit them to develop as whole persons, ask, and set no upper limits, and they will rebuild the world."

Once on the water, Edgar and Jonathan slide their oars out and quickly toss little circles of rope onto the wooden pegs sticking up from the side of the boat. They lean their oars into the water and wrap the ropes around them, sliding them back over the pins again. Their oars are secured. Stephanie and Anthony watch before attaching their oar.

"Come on, guys," says Jennifer, her voice sharp. "We're gonna hit the pier if we don't row. Let's go!"

Stephanie takes a few strokes and passes the oar to Anthony, shifting starboard to stay out of his way. Anthony's hopeless. He slides off his seat backward, hits Stephanie in the head with the oar, and splashes water on her in a matter of minutes.

Jennifer's frustrated. "Stop playing around! Castro, you're gonna have to be my voice today. I can't talk loud enough."

Castro, one of the older students, nods and grits his teeth as he strokes. "In!" he shouts. "Out." Slowly, a ragtag rhythm builds.

"Swimming's more fun than this," Anthony says with a pout.

"Well then maybe you should go swimming in the river," Castro tosses back. Anthony is silent.

The boat lurches toward the far end of the USS Intrepid.

Davis was inspired by boating in Istanbul, near where he worked on an archeological dig for more than 20 years. He wanted to create a way for New Yorkers to go onto the water in their communities that was affordable for everyone.

He and his friend David Lutz founded Floating the Apple in 1992 after helping to start the East Coast Greenway, an off-road hiking/biking route that then stretched from Boston to Washington. Through their new organization, Davis and Mr. Lutz hoped to encourage community members to build boats as well as use them.

Today the organization has 18 Whitehall boats, or "gigs," modeled on the early 19th century water taxis that filled the New York Harbor. The 300-pound boats seat four rowers apiece, though 10 can fit, and the coxswain sits in a seat at the stern to steer and give orders.

Preparing a boat for a group of adult community members, Davis guides the mast into a hole in the second seat and hoists up the sail. After tying off the sides of the sail, an action as familiar to Davis as tying his shoes, he sits back in the bow with his legs up on the seat in front of him on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Moving at four knots, it's the slowest boat on the river. The sun, the breeze, and the lack of traffic sounds all make the boat seem miles away from New York City.

"There's something very special about this," Davis says, smiling like a man in love. The wind blows his white hair in every direction. "It's not something you usually do in New York City, just walk down to the water and go. And it doesn't have anything to do with clothes or style." He settles back for just a moment, closes his eyes and is silent, then leans forward again. "You can feel the lapping, feel the wake. Isn't this incredible?"

There were as many as 100 boathouses on the Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers through the 1930s, Davis says. Now, only those who can afford to dock their boats can easily reach the waterways.

Floating the Apple's rowboats are spread between Pier 84, Pier 40, Erie Basin in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Croton Point Park in Westchester County. Three gigs are also on loan right now to community boating groups in Newburgh, N.Y., Weehawken, N.J., and Groton, Conn.

What Davis really wants is a boathouse on Pier 84.

Two architects from Dallas volunteered to draw up plans for a potential design after one of them took a ride on a gig. The first floor would be a storage space for the existing boats, and the second a good-sized area to build boats and house a library for the kids. It would have a fireplace, and double glass windows to block out the city sounds and let the light come through. The kids want a cupola, too, large enough to get up to the top of the building and really see the water. Public restrooms on the first floor would draw visitors interested in peeking at the boats and learning about community boating.

Nothing is definite, though, since Davis has not yet seen another set of boathouse plans drawn up by Floating the Apple's landlord, the Hudson River Park Trust.

"I'd love to see facilities for community boating scattered all around," Davis says. "Up the Hudson, the lower bay, Long Island Sound, New Jersey. Always some place that could comfort you."

Davis also wants the students to take part in the planning process, since he believes that people often underestimate the teenagers he works with.

"I think we've got to recognize what kids can do and how much they're capable of, and not be condescending," he says. "Kids, they just have so much. They're bursting to express themselves and take responsibility and come up with solutions to problems."

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