Boaters Love that Dirty Water!

Hudson sewage makes waves, but boat basin river rats go with the flow.

First came the reports of a 200-million-gallon leak caused by a fire at a Harlem sewage plant. Then came the musings on whether the two swimmers who died in the city triathlon had fallen victim to contaminated waters (they hadn’t). A few weeks ago, Riverkeeper released a long-term study demonstrating that for one and a half days out of every week, the Hudson is unsafe for swimming. Just days later, torrential downpours flooded the citywide sewer system by two billion gallons—on the heels of a revelation that a sewage pipe in Ossining had been spewing a million and a half gallons a day.

Something stinks.

But not according to the owners of permanent year-round slips at the 79th Street Boat Basin.

“I think all the talk about the leak was an overreaction,” Ed Bacon, who has lived in the basin for 41 years, told The Observer. “We used to have ‘Coney Island whitefish,’ which are condoms, hanging off our dock lines, and at low tide the sulfur dioxide would bubble up through the mud.”

“Sure, I knew about it, but nothing was wrong,” said Michael Fischer. He’s a tall, Austrian man with blond curls, and as he lounged on deck in bright orange swim trunks, he mentioned owning several businesses in Europe and a pied-a-terre on 74th and Columbus. “You couldn’t tell there was any sewage,” he said.

Others said the stench was palpable, but they take the Hudson’s lack of sanitation for granted.

Ryan and Teresa Diehl, who have a summertime slip, thought the floating sewage was disgusting—but par for the course. “It’s gnarly, man, there’s floating bleh,” said Mr. Diehl, a drummer trying to break into the New York jazz scene.

“But we wouldn’t swim here anyway,” Ms. Diehl quickly chimed in.

The untroubled attitude harkens back to an earlier New York—one in which sewage drained uninhibited into the Hudson and 79th Street was oh-so-unfashionably uptown.

In the ’70s, the boat basin was a hideaway for divorced dads, according to Mr. Bacon, who quit his job at IBM to “sail off into the sunset.” Run by haphazard concessionaires, the basin was a playground for children on the weekends, but during the week, their fathers were busy with more adult fun and games.

“They’d have wild parties all through the ’70s and ’80s,” Jane Clegg told The Observer. Ms. Clegg, who learned to sail in the Suez Canal while serving in the British Women’s Royal Navy Service in the ’50s, has lived at the boat basin (often with multiple pets) for decades. Reclining on deck with her one-eyed cat, Saucy, slinking around her neck, she gave off an air of hardy nobility sculpted by what she calls her “theatrical background.”

“It’s been cleaned up and cleared out!” she pronounced, swirling the contents of her wine glass. “Oh, in the bad old days when I first came here, it was operated by concessionaires who had very few rules.”

And the few existing rules were ignored. Rent was rarely paid, bribes were commonplace, and the management hid profits from the Parks Department. Residents would move into the city proper and sublet their slips on the sly. “We’d have sinkings every week,” Ms. Clegg said. “We had to be very, very self-reliant in those days.”

“It was like the Wild West,” said a neighbor who had dropped by Ms. Clegg’s boat for a sunset chat. When asked about his cowboy past, he demurred. “Even if I had bribed anybody, I wouldn’t tell you about it,” he said. He chuckled and nudged The Observer’s leg with a barefoot big toe.

But as the Upper West Side itself became more sanitized (and more expensive), the boat basin’s seedy lifestyle and comparatively cheap “rent” began to irk the neighborhood’s fussy new guard. Critics called the basin a “squatters’ paradise,” Ms. Clegg said, and city officials crusaded against the corruption, at one point threatening to oust the boaters altogether.

In 1989, the Parks Department asserted its control over the basin, claiming that the concessionaire under contract with the city had acted as an “absentee slumlord.”

Today, at $108 per linear foot for the summer season (with a minimum of $2,700), the slips are in high demand. The Diehls were stuck for eight years on the waitlist for their current summer slip.

While the yachting world may be the explicit domain of the wealthy, the 79th Street basin is far from a glamorous haven for the elite. “I don’t think it’s very ritzy,” said Leah Oppenheimer, whom Mr. Bacon introduced as a “boat basin baby.” Raised on her parents’ boat, Ziskeit (Yiddish for “sweetheart”), Ms. Oppenheimer attended the Upper West Side’s Heschel School and only realized that the boating lifestyle was “abnormal” when she transferred to a school in New Jersey. “Living in a boat, your kitchen’s the size of this box!” she exclaimed, indicating what looked like a garbage bin.

“You’re your own superintendent here,” Mr. Bacon said. “If you live in an apartment building, you have a super to take care of your problems, but here you have plumbing, electrical, snow, hazardous weather. A lot of things that the apartment-dweller takes for granted that we have to deal with ourselves.”

In the winters, the water splashes onto the docks and forms a precarious layer of ice, and the paths through Riverside Park (the only way to exit the basin) are often the last stops for snow trucks. Ms. Clegg said the boaters were stuck in the basin for two days before the roads were cleared last winter.

But in the inevitable emergencies, boaters are quick to lend a line (boat-speak for “rope”), and shared hardships have fostered a tight-knit community.

“Every time we’re docking, there are at least one or two people ready to catch our lines, and any time we’re going out, people ask if we need a hand,” said Ms. Diehl.

Mr. Bacon publishes a short community newsletter and even helps to arrange reunions for basin alumni. “It’s a little bit like a suburban cul de sac because you tend to know the people on your dock a little more,” he said.

Shielding his eyes from the sun, he surveyed the dock. “The basin’s a jewel,” he said. Boaters Love that Dirty Water!