Model boating not allowed on Mall’s reflecting pools


Model sailboats raced across the pool in front of the Capitol on April 30, 1935. Model boat races are not allowed on the Mall today. (The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist November 27, 2012

There was a time in Washington when sightseers could amble down to the Mall nearly every Sunday and watch sailboats locked in intense competition. Colorful model boats sailed across the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial. Sometimes the pool at the other end of the Mall, near the Grant Memorial, was the setting for these Lilliputian regattas.

There was something festive about these contests. Model boating, a Post reporter wrote in 1939, was “a pipe-smoking hobby, soothing to the nerves and the digestion. It’s a pleasure to see your craft heeling over before a miniature squall, and you never have to get wet unless you want to.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Now, though, model boating in these historic locations is a thing of the past, a victim of our government’s obsession with security and misguided ideas about what is proper for the Mall.

Greg Viggiano of Alexandria is a model-boating enthusiast. He’s into model submarines, too, remote-controlled craft that can actually submerge. He said as recently as 18 months ago that the club he’s active in would hold regattas at the reflecting pool near the Capitol. Then control over that area was transferred from the National Park Service to the Architect of the Capitol’s office. Now they can’t get a permit for boating events there.

Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers wrote back to Greg that after review, the Capitol Police Board decided not to grant an exception to a rule that prohibits any objects “guided by means of . . . remote control.”

I suspect they’re worried about an attack employing explosives-laden model planes — and someone was convicted of plotting to do that — but it’s a shame we won’t get to see more of those lovely photographs of triangles of sailcloth in front of the Capitol Dome.

What about the Reflecting Pool by the Lincoln Memorial? No, that’s off limits, too. The Reflecting Pool, the Park Service’s Carol Johnson said, is “culturally significant. It’s meant to have a mirror quality. Radio-controlled boats would alter that.”

That leaves the lake at Constitution Gardens as the only place where boats are allowed. Greg said it’s not a preferred location, since parking near there is tough and enthusiasts have to lug their gear a greater distance.

Greg was hoping his congressional representatives might be able to help, but as issues go, model boating doesn’t seem to excite politicians.

Still, Greg is persevering. He said he has been talking informally with legislators in Northern Virginia, trying to interest them in the idea of allowing model boat sailing on the North Pond in the new Potomac Yard development area.

“The idea seemed to be well received,” Greg said.

I hope so. New York City has a dedicated area for model boaters: the Model Boat Basin in Central Park. Hyde Park in London also has a pond for model boats. It would be nice if some part of the Washington area was similarly equipped.

Greg sails all manner of craft, from a submarine that looks like Captain Nemo’s Nautilus to a 30-inch sailboat that looks like an America's Cup yacht

“It’s such a pleasure to sail,” Greg said. “When you have it way out there a few hundred feet out and you have good bit of wind, it’s almost like flying a kite without a string.”

Flying a kite? That sounds dangerous. How long before the Kite Festival is canceled?

A gift for Children’s

The holidays are upon us like an Alpine avalanche. There’s nothing we can do but go with the flow. If there’s someone on your gift list who’s always hard to shop for, why not make a donation in that person’s name to Children’s National Medical Center? I would be happy to send a letter informing him or her of your thoughtful gesture.

All the money we raise goes to the hospital’s uncompensated care fund, which is used to pay the bills of underinsured families.

You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to www.childrensnational.org/washingtonpost or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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