The Stamford Advocate
Boathouse hits rough waters on its way to NYC
By John Nickerson
June 15, 2004
NORWALK — A year after construction began, Bette Midler’s boathouse sailed out of the harbor yesterday morning bound for the Harlem River, where the 85-foot-long craft may well be the first boathouse anchored off the Manhattan shoreline in 100 years.
Born and bred in Norwalk, the $2.8 million boathouse didn’t leave the place of her birth unscathed.
As it bumped and scraped along wooden bollards protecting the 60-foot-wide Metro-North Railroad bridge opening, the bright green and yellow craft momentarily yawed in the breach.
“She’s hitting the bridge, he’s got to get her a little more to port,” a voice cracked over the marine radio.
The tugboat towing the 55-foot-wide boathouse gunned her 600 horsepower engines, trying to steer the drifting craft out of harm’s way.
A few seconds later, the sound of splitting wood and shearing metal proved those efforts were not entirely successful.
As it went through the opening, a metal electrical linkage kissed an overhanging eve, cracking the wood trim and peeling away some of the sheet metal roof.
Less than a minute later, as she was about to clear the bridge, onlookers watching the boathouse pass through the narrowest opening on its 60-mile trip to Harlem, sent up a chorus of cheers and whistles.
Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said the bridge, which remained open from 9:28 a.m. to 10:08 a.m., sustained minor damage to electrical linkage.
One of four trains delayed was held up for 30 minutes, Anders said.
Carol Camcheck, with oars in hand, watched the spectacle from the seat of her bright yellow rowing shell.
“It’s exciting. It’s incredible,” Camcheck said moments after the boathouse cleared the bridge.
Through the rest of the harbor, the boathouse saw easy sailing. The Stroffolino Bridge, which opens 100 feet wide, gave the boathouse plenty of room to move.
“I think it went well,” said state Harbormaster Mike Griffin, who, with Marine Division police officers, accompanied the vessel out of the harbor. “There is a superficial amount of damage. Some things are impossible to calculate.”
Still, it was too bad, he said, that the boathouse was damaged before it got out of the harbor.
“They darn near made a perfect pass. It’s a shame that there is a mark on her at all as she left Norwalk,” Griffin said.
“It’s a little stressful going through the bridge,” said Gary Wetmore, who was at the helm of a second tug, Tom Cat, maneuvering the rear of the boathouse through the bridge.
“It fit snug, but it fit,” a relieved Wetmore said after reaching the docks at Veterans Memorial Park, where he tied up Tom Cat.
The construction of the boathouse, named for Peter Jay Sharp, a New York real estate developer and philanthropist, was underwritten by the New York Restoration Project, which was founded by Midler.
Once anchored off the shore at Swindler Cove, near 208th Street in Harlem, it will house rowing sculls and other watercraft for use by underprivileged children and dues-paying members.
Principal donors to the boathouse project include Midler, Paul Newman, Yoko Ono and the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation.
Wetmore estimated that the voyage, which will take the boathouse through Hell’s Gate, down the East River and up the Hudson River, will take about 30 hours at a speed of about 3 mph.
New York Restoration Project officials hope to have the boathouse in place by Thursday, when it is scheduled to host the nonprofit organization’s spring picnic with “Sex in the City” actress Sarah Jessica Parker, New York Gov. George Pataki, Midler and gossip columnist Liz Smith.
Construction of the boathouse has not gone smoothly in Norwalk, which was chosen as a less expensive place to build it than Brooklyn, N.Y.
Scheduled to arrive in Harlem at the end of October, the project was first hampered by bad weather, said Alex Foglietta III, who was constructing the boathouse for the New York Restoration Project at the Norwalk Marine Contractor bulkhead near Harbor Avenue and Merwin Street.
As the project was seemingly nearing completion, a miscalculation in the boathouse’s weight-to-bouyancy ratio left it too low in the water, tipping toward one end.
A floatation tank system devised over the winter and installed about a month ago gave the boathouse a 200,000-pound lift in the water.
But about two weeks ago, the largest of the tanks broke off the boathouse, leading some to question whether it was seaworthy. The tank, however, was successfully reinstalled last week.
As it was being pulled down river, people gathered to watch it pass by. At about 9:15 a.m., just after the boathouse passed under Interstate 95’s Yankee Doodle Bridge, Courtenay Austin rushed to Heritage Park.
Austin, who until 1995 was the chief bridge tender for the Metro-North bridge, said she got word from someone on the bridge that the boathouse had begun its journey.
“I think it’s a very pretty building. It’s going to be close going through the bridge,” she said about 30 minutes before it came to the span.
Guy Wetmore also was at Heritage Park, after being tipped to the boathouse voyage by his son, Gary, vice president of Norwalk Marine Contractors.
“I think it’s terrific,” Wetmore said as the boathouse rounded the bend in the river and headed to The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk.
People also gathered atop the Stroffolino Bridge and on docks on the harbor.
At the aquarium, John Harman also was excited to see the boathouse begin the journey to its new home.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” he said. “This is part of the history of the river. I wish they’d leave it here.”