Latest Craze to Hit New York May Be Row, Row Your Boat

THE oarlocks creak, then there is a slight splash. After a hard pull, there is only the sound of water rippling past the wooden hull.

Yes, we're rowing.

Once upon a time, New Yorkers were in love with putting their back to the oars. Now, a small group of enthusiasts, calling themselves, ``Floating the Apple,'' hope to revive the team sport of rowing in New York harbor once the water turns warmer.

``It's part of New York's lost heritage,'' says Michael Davis, one of the organizers.

That heritage includes the remarkable victory of the American Star over the crew of the British frigate Hussar in 1824. On a cold and windy December day, 50,000 New Yorkers - one-third of the city's population then - lined the shoreline to watch the Americans win $1,000.

Right up to the 1930s, boathouses lined the Hudson River and rowing clubs flew their colors as they raced. Then, rowing sank from public view.

This winter Mr. Davis and a handful of people can be seen most nights building 25-foot row boats in a 42nd Street storefront. Their goal is to get five, four-oared gigs ready for New York harbor by spring. They have already built the ``John Gardner'' and the ``Libbet.'' They are attaching the planking to a third boat.

Rowing revival

If the Apple does indeed float, New York will join Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, and San Francisco in reviving the sport of team rowing. Both Boston and Philadelphia have a strong tradition in racing. There are university and private boathouses. High-tech sculls race along their rivers.

In Seattle and San Francisco, local maritime museums are encouraging rowing.

``It's more recreation for fun or exercise,'' says Stewart Parnes, director of exhibitions at Connecticut's Mystic Seaport Museum, which currently is hosting ``The Rhythm of the Oars'' exhibit.

Getting back to the Big Apple's rowing roots is like pulling against the harbor's strong tides. First Davis and his crew had to build their own boats. In the 1970s, the Coast Guard had offered some lifeboats in an effort to get rowing off the ground. ``They were clunkers - very heavy and no fun to row,'' recalls Davis. Rowing was not revived then.

Now, Davis has gone with a much sleeker and faster boat, modeled after the ``Whitehalls,'' which used to race out to the frigates from lower Manhattan's Whitehall Street, with supplies, newspapers, and passengers.

Davis estimates his boats, which only weigh 300 pounds, will skim along at 5 to 6 knots ``if everyone works together.''

Unlike racing sculls, the Whitehalls are designed for amateurs. The rower's seats are a few feet apart so the participants won't hit each other, but can still respond to the calls of the coxswain, or helmsman.

The boats have a long bow, designed to knife through the waves in the harbor. The basic hull costs only about $3,000.

Once the group started building the boats, curious New Yorkers wandered into the store space. Violinmaker Steve McGhee started coming to the boat-building sessions ``because it was something I wanted to do for a long time.''

Students from the Hudson River Middle School arrived to learn and work. Sailors in port found it relaxing to build the boats. The Hudson River Foundation contributed money and individuals donated tools.

Boats without homes

Getting the boats built may be easy compared with finding a place to launch and house them.

Ideally, Davis would like to build boathouses along the Hudson. The group has been actively lobbying to have boathouses included in the proposed Hudson River Park, a ribbon of public space running along the Hudson from Battery Park City to 59th Street.

The proposal might eventually become reality. A spokesman for the Hudson River Park Conservancy, the state and city planning arm for the park, says the ``concept'' plan now envisions alternative spaces for marinas and ``possibly'' some boat sheds.

But the park is still a long way off. And the first formal outing for the boats won't be on the Hudson. Instead, they will travel up to Hull, Mass., for the five-mile ``Snow Row'' on March 4. The New Yorkers will compete against Boston boats in a race into Boston harbor.

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