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Canal Dock Boathouse programs near soft opening in New Haven

NEW HAVEN >> Volunteers with the Canal Dock Boathouse are planning a soft opening of programs this summer to be ready for the day when the long-awaited facility opens.

The 48,000-square-foot platform in New Haven Harbor just north of the Long Wharf Pier, which will support the boathouse, has been finished, but the boathouse itself won’t open its doors until the spring of 2017.

John Pescatore, president of Canal Dock Boathouse, Inc., the nonprofit that will run the facility, said some rowing activities will take place soon on the Quinnipiac River.

Lisa Fitch, owner of the Quinnipiac River Marina on Front Street, has put in new launching areas for rowing shells and kayaks as a way to get some programs up and running that will eventually be offered at the boathouse on Long Wharf.

“We are starting slow, just to do it right,” Pescatore said. “Our coaches and community members want to become familiar with the site and get safety measures in place,” he said of the Quinnipiac River and the marina.

Fitch said using her marina will help get the boathouse programs established.

“They will have a lot of time to set up and get the kinks out and get a good fan base,” Fitch said of efforts over the next two years. “Once the neighborhood gets to know it, I think it will be very attractive.”

Pescatore said he hopes to reach out to local Fair Haven teens in grades 7th to 12th who can walk over to the marina a couple days a week for lessons. He said it would be limited to kids who are good swimmers.

Separately, Fitch soon will be offering canoeing and kayaking rentals to the public.

“We have the bird sanctuary right there,” she said pointing across the Quinnipiac. “It’s a pretty nice river.”

Pescatore applauded Fitch for pitching in and for her other efforts in salvaging the Old Barge, a historice oyster boat, that was part of her marina.

She was instrumental in making arrangements to dismantle it so it can be reassembled in Brooklyn to eventually go on display as a piece of Connecticut marine history. It is currently being stored in a truck trailer at the marina.

The $37 million Canal Dock Boathouse is being built with federal and state funds as a way to mitigate the impact of the New Haven Harbor Crossing project. The two-story facility is a stand-in of sorts for the George Adee Boathouse, which was demolished in 2007 to make way for the massive highway expansion project involving Interstate 91 and Interstate 95. That boathouse from 1911 to 1923 was used by the Yale rowing team and was later repurposed as an office building.

Pescatore, whose love of rowing goes back to his high school team in New Jersey, is a two-time Olympic winner in the sport.

In 1988, he was part of a team that won a bronze medal, and four years later he came in sixth place at the games in Barcelona.

Before that, in 1987, his 8-man team took first place at the world championship. He was a coach at the games in 2000 in Sydney, where his team took home a silver medal.

He ended up in New Haven as the head rowing coach at Yale University from 2002 to 2010.

His vision for the boathouse is a place where New Haven residents will reconnect with the waterfront, which has been cut off from the city since Interstate 95 was completed in the 1950s.

To get teens interested in the sport, for the past year, stationary rowing machines have been available at Hillhouse High School and at the Metropolitan Business Academy.

“The goal was to create awareness. Because it is a very obscure sport for public school kids in a city, it will take time to catch on,” Pescatore said. He expects its popularity will grow in spurts.

The long-term goal is to interest 100 kids, with representation from 7th to 12th graders from all the schools, enrolled in a rowing program,

Beyond that, he wants them to take part in water activities generally, whether that is rowing, kayaking, canoeing or paddle board.

“We want kids to get on the water anyway that speaks to them,” he said.

Vespoli Rowing, a New Haven firm and one of the largest manufacturers of rowing equipment, is reconditioning two, four-person shells. The program also has five one-person boats and an eight-person boat. It is looking for donated sailboats.

The boathouse, which has been designed by Gregg, Weis and Gardner, will include boat storage, offices and support facilities, as well as a marine science research lab and public education space. It will incorporate elements of the Adee boathouse into the design and provide displays on the history of the area.

The University of New Haven’s Marine Science Center also will be housed there and in addition to courses for its students, will provide educational programs for the public.

The water programs for students are loosely based on Community Rowing Inc. in Boston, which combines homework help for participants with rowing.

By September, Pescatore hopes to have a more robust program in place, with greater participation by the spring and summer of 2016.

He said transportation is still an issue, but he feels it has been solved for the Metropolitan Business Academy students who can take an after-school bus to the marina and get public bus passes to get home.

“It’s important to me to use systems already in place and not spend money on vans,” he said.

Pescatore, whose newest passion is cycling, said many people in New Haven get around by bicycle and go out on 20-mile rides for exercise. He said it shouldn’t be hard for older students to get to the marina by bike.

Planning for the full program is still very much in the beginning stages and Pescatore said officials are putting sailing and rowing committees in place and are looking for volunteers.

An agreement with the city for Canal Dock Boathouse Inc. to lease the facility for $1 and run the program has been submitted to the Board of Alders for review.

The boathouse will support itself through grants and with events and lessons geared to paying adults.

Pescatore sees the students who get involved in the boathouse programs as the next generation that will advocate for protecting the harbor.

“It’s important that the kids fall in love with the water,” he said.

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