Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in downtown Boston, so I’m familiar with the landmarks all around me: Storrow Drive, the Prudential Center, and over there in the near distance, the big Citgo sign towering over Kenmore Square and Fenway Park. Sure, I’ve seen them all before, but never from this particular vantage point—on a sailboat on the Charles River, smack-dab in the heart of the big city. What?!
At the helm of our sporty little Sonar, trucking to weather in a fresh fall breeze on a roughly mile-long track between the Longfellow and Harvard bridges, is an old racing mate of mine, Charlie Zechel. I’m here not to talk about old glory days, however, but to check out Charlie hard at work at his day job, as executive director of one of the sailing world’s rather unsung little jewels, the urban resource (or is that oasis?) for one and all called Community Boating. It’s the 75th anniversary for this way-cool, one-of-a-kind Beantown institution—what better time to sing its praises?
Charlie knows the history well, and tells a good story—a fine combination. The program was originally started by a prickly rascal called Joe Lee, who liked to tweak the exclusive Brahmins on Beacon Hill by getting the working-class West Ender kids out on the water. “Joe liked to do things that upset the apple cart,” Charlie says. Eventually that led to the building of a boathouse on the Charles in 1941—which exists as the base to this day—and the formal creation of Community Boating in 1946. “Community was and still is the most important of those two words.”
Back in the day, a kid’s membership was a buck a summer…and for many young Bostonians, it still is, though there’s a sliding scale that’s more than reasonable. Blind sailors are welcome, as are those who roll through the doors in a wheelchair, who pay $50 a season for the accessible program. Adult memberships are $395, though Charlie admits that if someone sidles up and says they’ve just lost a job or are having trouble making ends meet, his response is often: “What can you afford? Oh, a dollar sounds good.”
His motto is pretty straightforward: “I can say unequivocally that anyone who comes in the front door will be able to get on a boat. And they’re going to be greeted by a smiling face. That’s a culture we work hard at.” (A local who used to live in the neighborhood by the name of Tom Brady would regularly show up, before relocating to Tampa Bay for work, though Charlie couldn’t rent him a kayak on one visit because his kid was too small. “He was very nice about it,” Charlie says, with a laugh.)
So, what’s available once that door is walked through? All sorts of lessons, a racing program, different ratings you earn that allow you more and more privileges, and a pretty incredible fleet of boats: 60 Mercurys, a dozen Lasers, 18 420s, eight Sonars, 18 windsurfers and more than 50 kayaks. And access to the bustling Charles River, with the rowing shells from the local colleges plying the waters, as well as the sailing teams from MIT and Harvard. It’s a happening little piece of water.
And as I witnessed after my own spin on the Charles, it sure does attract an eclectic bunch, some of whom—how shall I say this?—do not exactly seem like masters of the sport. Seriously, if I had Charlie’s job, my blood pressure would be through the roof, but he just chuckles. “It’s a pretty safe place here, in every way,” he says. “And look at them. Everyone’s having fun.”
Well, that was certain.
We in the sailing biz can learn a few lessons from Charlie’s crew. Many of us, myself included, wring our hands trying to figure out how to get more people sailing. Community Boating has it figured out: Make it affordable and accessible and a blast. Not so hard, right?
The Boston Globe ran a piece about Community Boating this past summer, and concluded it with a Charlie quote, which is too good to pass up here a second time: “When you get on the water, there’s this euphoric sense of ‘life is good again.’ It’s the reason people like me hang out here so long.” Amen, brother.
Herb McCormick is CW’s executive editor.