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Boat Race Slated for Heavily Polluted Gowanus Canal

GOWANUS — It may be a Superfund site, but a boating club says the Gowanus Canal is a super fun venue for an upcoming boat race.

The Gowanus Dredgers canoe club announced Monday that it's inviting canoes and other human-powered watercraft to test their speed — and comfort around toxins — at a June 15 regatta dubbed the Gowanus Challenge.

The race's 2.5-mile course will start and end at the Gowanus Dredger's boathouse off Second Street. Racers will guide their vessels through the heavily polluted canal to the mouth of New York Harbor, where they'll maneuver around a buoy with a view of the Statue of Liberty, then race back to the boathouse.

In addition to speed, racers can win awards in other categories including best dressed and best team name.

The Dredgers hosted a small-scale canoe race in 2007, but that was before the man-made canal, long a dumping ground for local businesses, was declared a Superfund site and targeted for an expensive EPA clean-up.

"This is the first race we've ever known that begins and ends on a Superfund site," said Gowanus Dredgers co-founder Owen Foote. He'll compete in a canoe as part of a team called the Toxic Avengers.

The point of the waterborne competition is to draw attention to New York's polluted waterways, Foote said. Getting up close and personal with the canal is a way to spur public interest in restoring it, he said.

"When you touch something or come close to touching it, you're much more likely to become an advocate for its restoration than if you’re looking at it from a distance as if it's a painting," Foote said.

The race is a fundraiser for the Gowanus Dredgers, and teams must raise money from donors to participate, similar to how marathon runners sometimes raise money for causes such as leukemia research.

The goal is to get each team to collect at least $500 in donations, Foote said.

The Gowanus Dredgers is a nonprofit organization that leads canoe trips during warm weather on the Gowanus Canal, as well as kayaking expeditions in Red Hook, Long Island City and at Riverbank State Park. Members of the club can pay a yearly fee for unlimited access to six canoes docked at the club's boathouse.

As for whether racing on the toxin-filled canal is safe, Foote said he and other club members have been recreating on the canal for more than a decade and haven't suffered any ill effects. He noted that most of the canal's toxins are on the waterway's bottom, inside a sludge known as "black mayonnaise."

"Obviously it's unsafe to drink, but recreation is occurring all over New York Harbor and the more we recreate the more likely it is we'll have a citizen advocacy movement to clean our harbor," Foote said.