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Mike Davis, Builder of Boats and Dreams


Published: November 8, 2008

Mike Davis, whose landlubber’s vision of one day gripping an oar and skimming a rowboat through the gentle chop of the Hudson River inspired something of a movement to reclaim New York’s waterways for recreational use, died in Manhattan on Monday. He was 68 and lived in Manhattan.

Village Community Boathouse: Mike Davis, in 2006, on the East River. He envisioned a New York where rowboats would be commonplace on the Hudson.

It was in March 1994 that Mr. Davis, along with several other rowing enthusiasts, founded the nonprofit group Floating the Apple. With grants from organizations like the Open Space Institute, the rowers began building 25-foot-long wooden replicas of the Whitehall gig, a four-oared craft.

They worked in the lobby of the old McGraw-Hill building on West 42nd Street, then loaded their boats — each weighing 300 pounds — on hand-pulled carts and rolled them to the river. Sometimes students from Manhattan schools helped build the boats; sometimes neophyte seafaring families from the neighborhood did.

Whitehall gigs are named for the Manhattan street where they were first built more than 250 years ago. George Washington used them to evacuate troops from Brooklyn during the Battle of Long Island, a surreptitious middle-of-the night operation on Aug. 29, 1776, that saved the Continental Army from destruction. Through the 1800s, they served as small ferries plying the harbor. Thirty gigs have been built by Floating the Apple.

But Mr. Davis’s dream went far beyond the boats; he wanted to reclaim the Hudson, the Harlem and the East Rivers for, in his phrase, “universal public access.”

As late as the 1930s, the Hudson had been dotted by 41 communal boathouses, where anyone could rent a boat. By the 1990s there was only one. In 1993, with pollution abating along the river, the Department of Parks and Recreation began creating launch sites and issuing permits for rowboats, canoes and kayaks. Mr. Davis saw the potential.

“Mike had a kind of Johnny Appleseed vision in which Floating the Apple would spawn a series of spinoff boathouses and, in fact, that is pretty much what has happened,” said Rob Buchanan, president of the Village Community Boathouse, at Pier 40 in Hudson River Park, one of the spinoff groups. Others include the East River Crew, on East 96th Street; Rocking the Boat, in the South Bronx; WeeRow, in Weehawken, N.J.; and five others north of New York City. Floating the Apple is now located at Pier 84 in Hudson River Park.

In 1998, Mr. Davis told The New York Times that his goal of letting people know that the city’s waterways were for recreation had largely been met. “People don’t ask us, ‘Isn’t the water polluted? Isn’t it dangerous? Aren’t there sea monsters out there?’ ” he said. “We just don’t get those kind of questions anymore.”

Michael Kincaid Davis was born in Baltimore on Dec. 6, 1939, one of three children of Harry and Dorothy Feltner Davis. His father was a Coast Guard captain. He is survived by his brother and his mother.

It was not his father’s Coast Guard career that sparked Mr. Davis’s nautical interest, but his own work as an anthropologist and archeologist. He graduated from Beloit College in 1964, then earned a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Oklahoma. He later worked with archeological teams from the University of Chicago. For many years, he worked at a dig in Turkey.

“We have great water, but no one uses it very much,” Mr. Davis said of New York’s waterways in 1995. “In Istanbul, there are small boats everywhere. Anyone can rent a boat and row on the Bosporus. That’s the way it should be on the Hudson.”

From FTA History: 2001 American Star Rowing Race

Eleven (11) crews competed Floating the Apple’s annual American Star Rowing Race on Sunday, December 9th, 2001. Our own Johann Orvalle of the NJROTC, was a member of the winning crew. Taking 2nd place was Beach Channel High School. 3rd and 4th Place was taken by the Sound School from New Haven.  The final was a race from Pier 40 across the Hudson River to Newport Marina on the New Jersey side and back.  In 2000 the Sound School took three of the first four places.

Over one hundred (100) people were on hand for the event and with rowers from as far away as Charleston, South Carolina and Boston, Massachussets. Don Betts and Brendan Malone set up the course in the morning. Frank Cervi brought the Lox and Bagels, Hazelnut Coffee and Cream Cheese, which shocked the guests (especially Hull Massachussets). Becky Olinger was signing the crews in and securing the waivers. At this point I lost track of our guys and what they were doing, there was so much going on.


I saw Roy Arezzo was working the dock with lines with Tim Rutgers, Matt Bianco and Walter (unknown last name). Melissa Carp was chopping the lettuce and tomatoes and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Karl Schulman was the master chef cooking eighty-eight (88) hamburgers and fifty (50) hot dogs which were all consumed. Mary Nell Hawk provided the hot cider and fish chowder and Emma Tichenor brought a barrel of home-made cookies.   Lissa Wolfe was one of Chris Berg’s judges for the race. Steve Bydel filmed and Ori Dubow taped the video of the event using the chase boat generously provided by Diana Russell and Louis Norris. Steve Bond provided his usual communication services. Making cameos were the two Anne’s, Cavallero and Polster. Networking were Mike Davis, Eric Russell and John Tichenor (and I thought they were low tech?). Martha and Mary Betts, along with Moxy were there to cheer as were Amy and Audrea Berg. John Breitbart who judged also provided first aid to a Sound School Crew member who twisted her knee (a good indication that a thorough warm-up is needed on a cold day).

Everyone performed more then I listed above and we were happy to have them there to make this event a success. There were also others who could not attend who helped prepare the Boathouse or help build a new Chase Boat  for the event. The next big event is Coxswain Training in May. We hope to have as good of a team for that event as this one.

-Philip Yee, Village Community Boathouse

History Behind the American Star Race

This annual race, sponsored by Floating the Apple, commemorates the December 1824 contest between two gigs similar to those built in the city today. One the British, Thames River champion, the “Dart”, the other the Brooklyn-built gig, the “American Star”. $1000 was placed on that race which added to political factors between the two nations to draw out 50,000 spectators turned out at the Battery, on third of the city’s population and the largest crowd up to that time to witness an American sporting event.

The “American Star”, rowed by Whitehall boatmen and coxed by a fourteen year old named John Magnus, decisively won the race. At once the elegant “American Star” was a celebrity, a symbol of the country’s engineering skills and the vigor of its people. So it is not surprising that when an appropriate gift was sought for General Lafayette during his visit to the city the next July, that the beautiful boat was it. It was presented to the General by young John Magnus with his statement of the great maritime motto “Freedom of the seas and sailors right” – which was affirmed by Lafayette. The “American Star” is the oldest American craft still in existence today, and one of the most elegant. It is housed in a small museum at Lafayette’s family estate outside Paris with the winning rowers names still visible on its four thwarts (seats)

Posted by admin   @   7 October 2010 0 comments

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