Sometimes he feels the river call to him, in the middle of the night when everybody else is sleeping. His yacht is still, tied to the pier he built, attached to the land where one of the country’s oldest black yacht clubs sits. It waits as a testament to the story of a boy who, because of his color, could not rent a boat.
The story of the Seafarers Yacht Club began around the time its co-founder Charles Martin — “but everybody calls me Bob. It don’t rhyme with Charles no kind of way, but everybody calls me Bob” — was just a child.
One day, young Bob got an idea: He and his best friend, Willie, would ride their bikes down to the river and rent a boat. When they got there, Martin says, “I looked up at the sign, and it said, ‘25 cents an hour to rent boats.’ I said I have enough money. Let’s go rent us a boat.”
Martin and Willie walked over to where a man was renting boats.
“ ‘Look, I can’t rent you one of these boats,’ ” the white man said. “ ‘You have to have a $5 deposit, plus 25 cents an hour to rent these boats.’ ”
The year was 1942. That was big money then for a boy of 12.
“Is it okay if I come back next week?” Martin asked.
“Five-dollar deposit plus 25 cents an hour,” the man responded.
He said it just like that. “Very cold.”
The next week, Martin worked his rear end off as a delivery boy. Again, he and Willie rode their bicycles down to the river. Martin told the man he had the $5 deposit.
“That man looked at me dead in the eye, just like I’m looking at you now and said, ‘I don’t know why you keep running around here talking about renting a boat. We don’t rent these boats to no [racial slur].’ ”
And tears just rolled down young Bob’s face.
Dressed in a white commodore uniform, Martin, now 81, is sitting in the clubhouse of the Seafarers Yacht Club, which started an annual Anacostia River cleanup in 1985. The bar is empty, and a fan blows a hot breeze. Outside, the Anacostia River keeps rhythm as Martin tells the story of how he came to establish the club, which has 42 members, the youngest 32, according to Andre Briscoe, 48, the club’s current commodore.
Martin taps a card on the table. “I know what it feels like to want to ride a boat,” Martin says. He smiles, but his charm masks a steely resolve.
You can tell it is important to him to finish the story. Martin’s father was a laborer. His mother stayed home. Martin was the middle child of five. He grew up in a house on 12th Street NE, which he calls a “no, no, no house. No electric, no bath, no nothing. ... Everything was a no for a black man or a colored person at the time.”
But he did not let circumstances define him. “I said, ‘I’m going to get me a boat if that is the last thing I do,’ ” he says.
The pharmacist, “Dr. Read,” for whom Martin worked delivering prescriptions, told Martin that his daughter would let him use her garage as a workshop if he kept her coal bin filled.
Deal, Martin said. During the day at the drugstore, Martin would stand at the news rack, studying drawings of boats in Popular Mechanics magazine. He bought wood and built a boat frame.
The shoemaker who worked around the corner, “a big white fellow named Jimmy,” asked Martin: “What are you going to cover your boat with?” Martin told him canvas. The shoemaker replied: “Get the canvas and cut it out, and I will sew it for you.” When Martin finished his first boat, shaped like a canoe, the shoemaker helped him test it in a swimming pool.
As Martin grew, so did his boats. “When you get a boat, you always want a larger boat.” In the 1950s, Martin, who worked in construction, started a boat club called the D.C. Mariners. It needed a home.
One day, Martin’s former shop teacher Lewis T. Green, who in 1945 started the Seafarers Boat Club on land leased from the federal agency, called Martin and made him an offer. “Mr. Green said, ‘Bob, my wife is sick, and I got to leave. I have to turn this yard back over to the Interior Department.”
Martin says Green told him: “ ‘If you want this yard, I will tell you what you can do to get this yard. You change your name from D.C. Mariners to Seafarers Boat Club and vote me out. When you vote me out, that gives you a chance to start Seafarers all over again.’ ” The year was 1965.
Years later the name was changed to Seafarers Yacht Club. “That ‘yacht’ was put in there by one of the other commodores,” Martin says. “... I guess they wanted to be big-time or something. But a boat is a boat. ”
He looks out at the Anacostia and wonders why no government agency has fulfilled promises to clean it. “Every year, we clean that river as much as we can,” Martin says. “But it looks like as soon as we get it done, the rain comes and the trash comes back again.”
Sometimes, it piles around the railway bridge and stops right at the club’s pier, just below the John Philip Sousa Bridge. Even so, “I do have love for that river,” Martin says. “I have been there all my life. ”
On the river, Martin’s yacht, Natatchia, waits. She’s a beautiful boat. Martin climbs aboard. He spends his days spiffing and shining, preparing to take the boat out. Often, he has driven his yacht past the place where the man denied him a rental boat.
“Times change. Times change,” says Martin, the captain of his own yacht.