A storm-damaged Fire Island marina in the national park is about to get a multimillion-dollar makeover to the delight of recreational boaters, but some criticized federal officials for not changing the dock’s layout to create more wider slips for larger craft.
The project to repair the Watch Hill marina inside the Fire Island National Seashore, estimated to cost up to $10 million, calls for a new bulkhead, a boardwalk, and electrical, lighting and water systems.
To the chagrin of some boaters, park officials have decided to leave the design of the 182-slip marina as it was laid out in the mid-1960s, saying federal funds only allow the park to replace the infrastructure, not put in something different.
“I am not here to make sure everybody who wants to do something can do it when they want to,” said K. Christopher Soller, superintendent of the Fire Island National Seashore. “Right now, my hands are tied with what I am able to do.”
Longtime mariners, some of whom have been coming to Watch Hill since they were children, said this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake the aging marina to meet the needs of today’s boats, which are generally wider and longer and require higher electrical power to run their equipment.
“It’s actually sad,” said Rob Lyman, 50, an air conditioning contractor from Bellmore. “We have this beautiful place for everyone to enjoy, and it’s in our own backyard, and we can’t get in.”
On most summer weekends, Lyman and several boaters said vessels, typically 40 feet or longer, are turned away because there aren’t enough large slips that also have the necessary electricity to accommodate them. Meanwhile, they said narrower slips and those that don’t provide electricity sit unused.
“You can fit a small boat in a large slip, but you can’t fit a large boat in a small slip,” said Brian McCabe, 55, of Holbrook, who owns a 55-foot Sea Ray.
Bids for the project are due Thursday, according to the contract. Work is to begin on or after Sept. 6 and must be completed by no later than Sept. 1, 2017, which means boaters won’t be able to use the marina next summer unless contractors voluntarily finish the project ahead of the deadline.
Watch Hill is a destination marina, one of two under control of the Fire Island National Seashore. For the past 12 years, park officials hired Kenneth Stein, 50, and his wife, Marybeth Stein, 51, of Sayville, to operate it.
Six of the marina’s 182 slips are reserved for park personnel, leaving 176 slips available for rent by the public, according to Elizabeth Rogers, a spokeswoman for the park. Of the 176 slips, 141 have electricity and 35 do not. The slips are of varying widths, ranging from about 10 to 20 feet.
Hit by Irene, Sandy
When superstorm Sandy swept across Fire Island in October 2012, it flooded the electrical system under the boardwalk, park officials said. It was the latest blow to the system that had been battered by other storms, including Hurricane Irene in 2011.
“While it was still sort of operating, it was underwater,” said James Dunphy, the park’s facility manager. “And we all know saltwater and copper wires don’t mix.”
The National Park Service received about $5 million in post-Sandy money to repair the electrical system and replace the boardwalk. Before work could begin, the bulkhead, about three-quarters of a mile long, failed in May 2014. Park officials allocated $3 million from its budget to replace the bulkhead and make other improvements — such as raising the building that houses the electrical supply by about a foot and adding 10-inch columns to electrical stanchions to make the marina less susceptible to damage from rising sea levels.
“That will give us a product that will have a minimum life cycle of 25 years,” Dunphy said.
Decades ago, the average length of a boat was about 29 feet with a beam of about 10 feet, 6 inches wide, said Walter J. Valentine, 57, of St. James, who has been coming to Watch Hill since he was about 6 or 7 years old.
“Back then, 30-foot boats were considered huge boats,” said Valentine, owner of a company that sells and installs phone systems and computer networks. “Today, a 30-foot boat is considered a small boat.”
Vessels of today that are 40 feet or longer typically need slips that are 15 feet or wider and require higher electrical power to operate appliances such as a refrigerator and an air conditioner, said owners of large boats.
Of the 176 slips available for rent at Watch Hill marina, they said there are only eight to 10 slips that can accommodate boats 40 feet or larger.
“Ninety-five percent of the slips that are there now only have stanchions with 110 volts,” Valentine said. “So between the width and lack of power, big boats can’t get in there.”
The 35 slips that don’t have electricity are used by boaters who come for the day, said Kenneth Stein, who manages the marina.
“Nobody ever uses those slips overnight,” he said. “It bothers me, as a concessionaire, that I cannot fill those slips.”
Some boats turned away
Other than holiday weekends, such as the upcoming July Fourth, Stein said there are a handful of smaller slips — 11 feet wide or smaller — that are typically not rented. But there aren’t enough wide slips with the necessary electricity to meet the demand from big boat owners who want to visit.
“We turn away the bigger boats,” Stein said. “But we never had to turn away the small boats.”
When McCabe wants to spend a weekend at Watch Hill in July or August on his 55-foot Sea Ray, he has to get there by Wednesday. The big slips, he said, are typically rented by Thursday.
“They’re not addressing the concerns of the boating community,” said McCabe, who works for a construction company. “My sense is the park service is not interested in the opinions of a large portion of the boating population.”
As a steward of the national park, Soller said he and his colleagues have to protect the park while balancing the needs of all visitors, not just one class of boaters.
An area referred to as D Dock, where big boats berth, has 23 slips with widths ranging from 13 feet, 6 inches to 20 feet. Only 10 of the slips provide higher electrical power, which big boats need to operate their equipment. Park officials said they plan to upgrade electricity service by bringing higher power to all 23 slips in D Dock, which should alleviate some of the shortage.
“We believe it’s our responsibility to provide a range of services for a range of visitors who come to the park,” Soller said.