They Built Their Own Boating 'Shangri-La.' Preserving It May Be Just As Hard : Code Switch Born out of necessity during segregation, Seafarers Yacht Club is one of the country's oldest black boating clubs. Over 70 years after its founding, the club's members must decide how to move forward.
NPR logo They Built Their Own Boating 'Shangri-La.' Preserving It May Be Just As Hard

They Built Their Own Boating 'Shangri-La.' Preserving It May Be Just As Hard

Founded in 1945, Seafarers Yacht Club, is situated in southeast D.C. — an area of the city with a largely African American population that has long been underdeveloped. The club lies at the end of a rugged asphalt road, framed by train tracks on the left, and the historically polluted Anacostia River on the right. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

Founded in 1945, Seafarers Yacht Club, is situated in southeast D.C. — an area of the city with a largely African American population that has long been underdeveloped. The club lies at the end of a rugged asphalt road, framed by train tracks on the left, and the historically polluted Anacostia River on the right.

Beck Harlan

It was the early 1940s, when 12-year-old Charles "Bob" Martin, a Washington, D.C., kid who had always loved the water, decided to try to rent a boat. So he headed down to the waterfront to ask about the cost. A white man working there told him it would cost $5 to reserve a rowboat, plus a quarter for every hour on the water.

The next week Martin headed back to the waterfront with money he'd cobbled together from his job at a local pharmacy. He saw the same man with the boats for rent.

What happened next remains seared into his memory.

Charles "Bob" Martin, 87, is the longest-standing member of Seafarers Yacht Club in Washington, D.C. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

Charles "Bob" Martin, 87, is the longest-standing member of Seafarers Yacht Club in Washington, D.C.

Beck Harlan

"This man broke my heart," he said. "I said, 'I got the quarter,' and the man looked at me, and I'm quoting him now. He says: 'I don't know why you keep running around down here to rent a boat, because we do not rent these boats to no — the n-word — so you can just leave here and just not even come back.' "

The encounter broke Martin's heart. But not his resolve. "I'm going home crying to my mom," Martin remembers. "I said 'Mom, I'm gonna get me a boat.' "

Clockwise from top: A life preserver bearing Seafarers' name hangs on the wood-paneled wall of the clubhouse; Photographs of past Seafarers' commodores and members hang on the wall inside the clubhouse; Boats are docked at Seafarers in the Anacostia River. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

Clockwise from top: A life preserver bearing Seafarers' name hangs on the wood-paneled wall of the clubhouse; Photographs of past Seafarers' commodores and members hang on the wall inside the clubhouse; Boats are docked at Seafarers in the Anacostia River.

Beck Harlan

Around that same time, just upriver from where Martin was turned away, Lewis T. Green, a shop teacher at a D.C. high school, was trying to create a boat club for himself and other black boaters in the city. Green asked federal officials for permission to use land for his fledgling group, but didn't have much luck. He eventually got the attention of the philanthropist Mary McLeod Bethune, who in turn contacted her friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was then-first lady of the United States. Soon enough, the Interior Department allowed Green the use of a small plot by the railroad tracks near the Anacostia River. It's where Seafarers Boat Club — now Seafarers Yacht Club — began and where it still stands.

Bob Martin, the young boy who vowed to get himself a boat, would eventually take over as the commodore, or president, of that club in the mid-1960s.

Left: Charles "Bob" Martin, 87, holds a photograph of himself with his late wife Natatchia. Martin has named four of his boats after her. Right: Martin's current boat, Natatchia IV, is docked at Seafarers today. He doesn't take the vessel, which is over 40-feet long, out much anymore, but he still visits the club nearly every day. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

Left: Charles "Bob" Martin, 87, holds a photograph of himself with his late wife Natatchia. Martin has named four of his boats after her. Right: Martin's current boat, Natatchia IV, is docked at Seafarers today. He doesn't take the vessel, which is over 40-feet long, out much anymore, but he still visits the club nearly every day.

Beck Harlan

It was Martin who charted the course for the Seafarers, which has become a mainstay on the Anacostia.

One of his first acts as leader of Seafarers was to build a clubhouse on the overgrown, overlooked plot of land so that his fellow boaters, along with their friends, family, and anyone else who wanted to join them, would have a place to congregate.

Joseph Quarterman (left), Bob Martin, Howard Gasaway, and Chubby Martin wear their Captain's uniforms as they prepare for the annual flag raising ceremony in June, 2016. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

Joseph Quarterman (left), Bob Martin, Howard Gasaway, and Chubby Martin wear their Captain's uniforms as they prepare for the annual flag raising ceremony in June, 2016.

Beck Harlan

"I don't hold [the incident with the boat renter] against nobody because that's the way things were at that time," Martin said. "Whether you're accepted or not, you make a way for yourself. That's just what we did — made way for ourselves, and we're still here."

The clubhouse at Seafarers has been host to everything from Thanksgiving dinner, to Friday night dances, to funeral repasts. Here, some Seafarers members and their families celebrate Thanksgiving with an oyster roast (top) and a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

The clubhouse at Seafarers has been host to everything from Thanksgiving dinner, to Friday night dances, to funeral repasts. Here, some Seafarers members and their families celebrate Thanksgiving with an oyster roast (top) and a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Beck Harlan

"We have quite a few members now, we do," Martin says. "We have the members, we have the members' friends, and their families come down all the time, admire the place. People want to have a dance, or wedding, or you name it, it has happened in this clubhouse."

LaVenia Bailey and Irene Hall feel the music at Seafarers Clubhouse on a Friday night in December, 2012. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

LaVenia Bailey and Irene Hall feel the music at Seafarers Clubhouse on a Friday night in December, 2012.

Beck Harlan

James "AJ" Hall had been hanging out at Seafarers Yacht Club since the 1990s, when a friend brought him to some parties there. Hall said to himself that if he ever got the money, he would become a "captain," which is what Seafarers calls its members who own boats. It wasn't until around 2012 that he became a full member, with the help of his cousin, from whom Hall also received his boat, The Raven. In 2013, he called his Seafarers' membership "a blessing from the man upstairs — it's a poor man's dream come true."

James "AJ" Hall fishes from his boat in 2015. Many people fish from the historically polluted Anacostia River, but there are consumption advisories posted in English and Spanish along shoreline, "A consumption advisory is in effect for fish caught in these waters," the signs read, prompting anglers to check their fishing licenses or go online to see if their catch is safe to eat. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

James "AJ" Hall fishes from his boat in 2015. Many people fish from the historically polluted Anacostia River, but there are consumption advisories posted in English and Spanish along shoreline, "A consumption advisory is in effect for fish caught in these waters," the signs read, prompting anglers to check their fishing licenses or go online to see if their catch is safe to eat.

Beck Harlan

Hall said that he was restless in his younger days. "I didn't have a lot of patience in life," he said. "But spending time on the water, fishing, it just taught me patience, you know?"

James "AJ" Hall walks down the dock at Seafarers to his boat, The Raven, on a Sunday evening in autumn of 2015. He died a little over a year later. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

James "AJ" Hall walks down the dock at Seafarers to his boat, The Raven, on a Sunday evening in autumn of 2015. He died a little over a year later.

Beck Harlan

"This is one of the most promising lands, blessed lands, in the city," Hall said. "Natural resources, natural resources. It's off the chain in the summer. You catch a fish every five, 10 seconds. That's how many catfish out there. This catfish heaven."

Hall ran a plumbing, heating and cooling business and would often stop in at Seafarers between jobs. His evenings were often spent on The Raven, fishing for catfish. He spent Halloweens cooking out on the boat. He held his family's Thanksgiving oyster roast at the clubhouse. When his sister was killed, her repast was held at Seafarers. Even as Hall fought cancer, he spent time on his boat, until he eventually got too sick to make it to the docks.

"You can sit out here and read your books, and you can understand what's going on," Hall said. "No distraction, you know? You gotta have that peace of mind. ... The rest will come. The rest will come. It's really peaceful out here ... until the train comes."

A train passes by Seafarers Yacht Club on the Anacostia railroad bridge, which was originally built in the 1870s. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

A train passes by Seafarers Yacht Club on the Anacostia railroad bridge, which was originally built in the 1870s.

Beck Harlan

Hall died in December 2016. His family held his repast at the Seafarers' clubhouse, the place where he had found so much peace.

That tranquility is why so many people say they're drawn to the river and the yacht club — it's an oasis amid the din of Washington, D.C. Seafarers wants to remain a refuge for anyone who wants to be a part of it, even as things change near their once-overlooked corner of the river. And things are changing, quickly.

A quiet view of Anacostia River on a Monday evening after a heavy rain, which stirred up debris in the river. The Seafarers clubhouse and the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge appear in the distance. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

A quiet view of Anacostia River on a Monday evening after a heavy rain, which stirred up debris in the river. The Seafarers clubhouse and the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge appear in the distance.

Beck Harlan

The Anacostia River is often called D.C.'s "Forgotten River" — shallower and tougher to navigate than the Potomac. It's historically polluted by industry waste, sediment, sewage and just plain garbage. For a long time, though, the Seafarers have thought of themselves as the Anacostia's stewards.

Seafarers' members work together to take down a wind-tattered American flag on Earth Day, 2017. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

Seafarers' members work together to take down a wind-tattered American flag on Earth Day, 2017.

Beck Harlan

Left: Volunteers from the organization Concerned Black Men and their mentoring program "Just Say Yes" remove debris from the banks of the Anacostia River at Seafarers during the annual Earth Day Clean Up, now organized by the Anacostia Watershed Society, in 2013. Right: Shamaari Pondexter, a mentee in the "Just Say Yes" program cleans up driftwood at the annual Earth Day clean up in 2016. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

Left: Volunteers from the organization Concerned Black Men and their mentoring program "Just Say Yes" remove debris from the banks of the Anacostia River at Seafarers during the annual Earth Day Clean Up, now organized by the Anacostia Watershed Society, in 2013. Right: Shamaari Pondexter, a mentee in the "Just Say Yes" program cleans up driftwood at the annual Earth Day clean up in 2016.

Beck Harlan

Back in the mid-1980s, Howard Gasaway, a long-time captain and former commodore at Seafarers, was approached by then-mayor Marion Barry. "Howard, why don't you clean up this river?" the mayor asked. Gasaway's response: "Mr. Mayor, it's not my river — It's your river." But Gasaway took Barry's suggestion to heart, and corralled his fellow Seafarers to create the first Anacostia River Earth Day clean-up back in 1985. It's an event they've taken part in ever since.

Bob Martin built Seafarers Clubhouse by hand in the 1960s with the help of his son Chubby and a few other friends. "When we come, there wasn't no building here, there wasn't nothing but tall grass, and weeds," says Martin. The structure now sits in the shadow of the larger Anacostia Community Boathouse. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

Bob Martin built Seafarers Clubhouse by hand in the 1960s with the help of his son Chubby and a few other friends. "When we come, there wasn't no building here, there wasn't nothing but tall grass, and weeds," says Martin. The structure now sits in the shadow of the larger Anacostia Community Boathouse.

Beck Harlan

In recent years, the much-maligned river has become more attractive to developers looking for new land near the city's waterfront. Luxury condos, event venues, and parks have been sprouting up all around Seafarers, which is attracting more new faces to the area. And all that new activity is encroaching on the club's tranquil, off-the-beaten-path vibe.

Tony Ford, Seafarers' current commodore, knows this. Ford wants to make sure the organization remains accessible — and sustainable.

Tony Ford is the current commodore, the equivalent of a president, at Seafarers. He has the challenge of balancing the history of the club with its plans for the future. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

Tony Ford is the current commodore, the equivalent of a president, at Seafarers. He has the challenge of balancing the history of the club with its plans for the future.

Beck Harlan

"I think the people before us made a mark here, so our time is to try to get this club stabilized," says Ford. "The community of boaters is very tight, everybody down here kind of knows each other. If you don't know them by name, you know them by face," says Ford. "The challenge that we're facing now is that we know that development is coming."

Ford hopes that nearby real estate developments and rising property values won't compromise some of Seafarers core values.

James "AJ" Hall takes festival goers on electric boat tours of the Anacostia River as part of the first ever Anacostia River Festival in 2015. The area's continued development has brought more attention and more visitors to the river. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

James "AJ" Hall takes festival goers on electric boat tours of the Anacostia River as part of the first ever Anacostia River Festival in 2015. The area's continued development has brought more attention and more visitors to the river.

Beck Harlan

"The goal is to maintain what we call 'affordable boating,' but more importantly 'affordable boating' for minorities," says Ford. "It's not just about black, it's not just about white, it's not just about Hispanic, but when I say minorities, [I mean] minorities on the economic scale."

Seafarers is also facing challenges — from Mother Nature and Father Time. The river adjacent to the club is silting in; as it becomes gradually shallower, it's impossible for bigger boats to enter and exit the dock except at high tide. "The siltuation isn't going to stop, it's going to come to a point when it's real low tide some of these boats are literally sitting in mud," Ford says. That can ruin the engines of boats. Dredging the river might be one option, but it's a political long shot and could cost upward of $20 million. Some Seafarers think the condition of the river has discouraged new boaters from joining their ranks. At the same time, Ford wants the club to attract younger boaters to their tight-knit organization, as its current members get older.

A young girl wades in the shallow water on the shore of the Anacostia River. She visited Seafarers to participate in the 2013 Earth Day Clean Up. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

A young girl wades in the shallow water on the shore of the Anacostia River. She visited Seafarers to participate in the 2013 Earth Day Clean Up.

Beck Harlan

"You have the Baby Boomers, Generation X-ers, that's pretty much who is here now," says Ford. "The next generation is the Millennials. Because of all of the political things that we've had to go through trying to maintain down here, there's not been enough outreach to the Millennials the way that they need to be," he said. But Ford wants to teach these kids the Seafarers' way too, "because we think that's just as important."

As the club steers through the uncertainty brought on by gentrification and the river's ecological challenges, some members would rather stay put at the club's historic location, where it's been for over half a century. But other members, who are generally younger, want the club to move downriver to a deeper, more navigable stretch of the Anacostia where they can take their boats out more easily.

Birds flock past the 11th street bridge, which crosses the Anacostia River, connecting Capitol Hill with the historic Anacostia neighborhood. The pillars of the old 11th street bridge are the proposed site of a future elevated park that's estimated to cost 45 million dollars. Beck Harlan hide caption

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Beck Harlan

Birds flock past the 11th street bridge, which crosses the Anacostia River, connecting Capitol Hill with the historic Anacostia neighborhood. The pillars of the old 11th street bridge are the proposed site of a future elevated park that's estimated to cost 45 million dollars.

Beck Harlan

Ford wants to split the difference — pursuing a temporary move while maintaining Seafarers' current spot, in the event that the nearby riverbed is dredged. That way, the Seafarers could ultimately return to the place that's been a sanctuary for working people in the area for seven decades.

"This is everyone's Shangri-La,'" says Cornell Brown, a Seafarers captain. That's Bob Martin's phrase — everyone's Shangri-La — but Brown shares the same sentiment. "Once you find Seafarers, it seems like you might want to be a part of Seafarers. Just being by the water. Just being around people ... somebody that looks like you."