Floating dead rats and decomposing human feces couldn’t stop fearless boaters from racing along the fetid Gowanus Canal.
More than 50 kayakers, canoers, rowers, and even one stand-up paddle boarder, took to the toxic inlet on Saturday for the much-hyped Gowanus Challenge, a non-motorized watercraft race along Brooklyn’s nautical purgatory.
And many of the racers were in on the joke.
A few boaters donned full hazmat suits, goggles, gloves, and even paper face masks, in preparation of paddling through the foul-smelling waterway, which is loaded with hazardous heavy metals, raw sewage, cancer-causing chemicals, and, famously has gonorrhea.
But none of that scared the racers.
“I was hoping not to fall in,” said Red Hook daredevil Chru Brar, the risk-taking paddleboarder who was dressed in protective gear from head to toe.
Throngs of spectators watched about 30 cleverly-named teams race the 2.5-mile course, which started at a dock on Second Street, went to the mouth of the canal near the Gowanus Bay, and looped back to the dock for the big finish.
Brar, a member of the Red Hook Boaters, had to kneel on his 12-foot board when traveling under the low-lying Ninth Street Bridge that spans the canal, and miraculously managed to keep the contaminated tide from touching his skin.
“The hazmat suit really helped,” he said.
Competitors who didn’t wear any protective clothing weren’t so lucky.
“It was really nerve-racking there,” said Williamsburg resident John Marra, referring to when the stinky water kicked up from his paddle and splashed him in the face.
The race, billed as the first-ever to start and end on a federal Superfund site (which basically means humans shouldn’t go near it), was more about advocating for the putrid canal than anything else, said organizers.
“It was a huge success,” said Owen Foote, a founding member of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, which organized the race. “I think it did exactly what we wanted, which was that everyone walked away saying that this waterway needs a lot of help and a lot of funding from the federal government.”
Foote wanted to raise awareness that every time it rains, millions of gallons of raw sewage flood the waterway. This is why the federal government will likely force the city to install massive $78-million holding tanks to catch the runoff as part of a federally mandated cleanup.
The race also served as a fund-raiser. It generated $10,000 to support the Dredgers’ work of bringing free waterborne recreational activities to the city.
Rower Rob Buchanan of Fort Greene and his student, Ormando Watson of the Benjamin Banneker Academy’s rowing team in Fort Greene, won the race thanks to what they dubbed “superior technology.”
“We had the fastest boat,” said Buchanan, who, paddling a handmade, sliding-seat, rowing boat, completed the course in a little more than 20 minutes. “It would have been embarrassing if we didn’t win.”
Buchanan was awarded a bottle of Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin for winning. Second place winners received gift certificates to local restaurants.
Most of the racers were local, but boating teams from Canada, New Jersey, and Maine came to compete, surprising many who thought a race in such a location would, for lack of a better word, stink.
“This was something that naysayers felt no one would join,” said Foote. “The opposite was true.”