GOWANUS — Critics are calling a boat race on the Gowanus Canal this weekend an "irresponsible" stunt designed to advance a pro-development agenda.
They point to the fact that the Lightstone Group, a developer that wants to build a 700-unit housing project on the polluted canal's banks, is a sponsor of the race.
"Lightstone is trying to send the message out that it's safe to be in the canal and it's not as bad as everyone says, but I think most likely it's worse than everyone says," said Carl Teitelbaum, a member of Save Gowanus, which advocates for "responsible development" on the canal.
He noted that recent heavy rains have churned up putrid scents from the canal. "The idea of putting people in there, of putting kids in there — it's completely crazy," Teitelbaum said.
Close to 30 teams have signed up to brave the canal's toxin-laden waters — which are a SuperFund site — during a regatta this Saturday. The field of competitors includes a Canadian team, a paddle boarder and City Councilman Brad Lander.
"I'm very surprised that so many people took us up on the challenge," said Owen Foote, co-founder of the Gowanus Dredgers, the canoe club organizing the contest. "It's turned out to be an amazing event."
Racers are expected to wear costumes and toast their triumph at a post-race awards banquet featuring local pizza. Bands will provide a soundtrack of water-themed songs, and there will also be a raffle and silent auction. Team members range from age 7 to 73.
The event is a fundraiser for the nonprofit Gowanus Dredgers, but Foote said the real goal is to raise awareness about the sorry state of the manmade canal, which is slated for a massive cleanup by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Local environmental activist Marlene Donnelly said letting people recreate on the canal is an "ethical issue." Her kids canoed on the Gowanus with the Dredgers several years ago during an Earth Day event. She thought they were going to scoop water bottles and other trash out of the polluted waters, but instead her 6-year-old twins came back with bunches of used condoms that they thought were balloons.
Donnelly said Gowanus Dredgers stands to gain in supporting Lightstone because the developer has promised to build a boathouse for the canoe club.
"[The race] is a political ploy and people are being asked to participate without knowing the risks," Donnelly said.
An EPA spokesman said he couldn't commently directly on whether the race is safe, but referred to various studies and warnings the agency has issued about the canal, which harbors dangerous pathogens. Namely, EPA warns that people avoid contact with the contaminated water.
In 2009, a firefighter who rescued a drunk driver from the canal had to have a hepatitis shot afterward. An FDNY spokesman said Wednesday emergency crews would respond Saturday if the need arises.
Race organizers say they'll have plenty of soap, hoses, Purell and baby wipes on Saturday to help boaters cleanse themselves.
Foote said canoeing or kayaking on the Gowanus Canal carries risks, but so does activity on any New York City waterway, none of which are safe to drink. The Gowanus Dredgers have been recreating on the canal for 14 years and members haven't suffered any ill effects, he said.
As for the connection with the Lightstone Group, Foote noted that the developer is one of several sponsors for the race. "Yes, we are promoting some change and many people don’t embrace change," Foote said. "Change can be scary. One of our 12 sponsors is involved in development. The other 11 I would hope would outweigh those critics."
John Lipscomb, a boat captain who regularly monitors the canal's water quality for the nonprofit Riverkeeper, said canoeing on the canal compares to riding a bike on city streets — both can be dangerous.
He called the race a "marvelous" opportunity for the public to "take back a waterway that was taken from them."
"People being involved with the Gowanus Canal is only good," Lipscomb said. "What it does is move the bar up, and the bar never goes back down. The more the public is involved, the better it is for that waterway."