The Week of November 30 - December 7, 1999 (Visit our Archives)


Maritime engineer Rik Van Hemmen of Fair Haven explores the 1,000 year history of the Navesink River in his new book, "A Chronicle of Boating on the Navesink River." Photo by Art Petrosemolo.

FH Resident Chronicles Boating On The Navesink

FAIR HAVEN'S Rik Van Hemmen started out to write a boat story - A Chronicle of Boating on the Navesink River - but it turned out to be so much more.

Van Hemmen, a two river area resident since 1976, is one of the founders of the Navesink Marine Heritage Association (NMHA) in Fair Haven. He has crafted a book which, through boating, also tells the story of the environmental comeback of the Navesink River and some of the thousand year heritage of this Coastal New Jersey river.

Early on Van Hemmen clears up a frequent question about this popular body of water that touches the communities of Red Bank, Fair Haven, Rumson, and Middletown. Is the Navesink really a river at all? The answer is "no" Van Hemmen says, "it's a tidal estuary and - because of proximity to the Shrewsbury River, it has been known by a variety of names including North Shrewsbury or the North Branch of the Shrewsbury River."

The Navesink meets the Shrewsbury River at the Sea Bright Reach (the access to Sandy Hook and Raritan Bay.

"But at times in its history," Van Hemmen says, "the Navesink would cut a path right through what is now Sea Bright peninsula and empty into the Atlantic Ocean. It is a very interesting river."

Chronicle of Boating on the Navesink is a nearly 100-page soft cover book which traces boating on the river from the earliest dugout canoes dating back ten thousand years. It describes boating on the river through multiple stages of sailing, rowing and power including the high powered Jersey Skiffs. In recent years, the book describes the popularity one design sailboat racing, much of it out of the historic Monmouth Boat Club and other local sailing clubs which has had a strong comeback and the book documents those trends.

The author touches on ice boat sailing that he calls "the original extreme sport" and some of the popular soft water boats that trace their heritage back to the Jersey shore including the Sea Bright skiff. The final chapters of the book focus on giving back and the work of the book's publisher - The Navesink Marine Heritage Association - and its programs for children including River Ranges and the Six Hour Canoe activity.

There is more than one book in this first time author and with the help of NMHA he projects additional titles including a close look at the history of ice boating on the river and environmental issues associated with the river.

Van Hemmen is a maritime engineer with a degree from Virginia Tech and a career that includes investigating many marine disasters. He is a principal in Martin, Ottaway, Van Hemmen and Dolan, a company of marine consultants, engineers, surveyors, naval architects and appraisers established in 1875 with headquarters in Red Bank and locations around the world.

He smiles when he talks about the company's work. "We are the first or second call after a marine disaster," he says... it's either the lawyers then Martin, Ottaway... or vice versa."

"We have been involved in work on the Staten Island ferry disaster, the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, and recently the Deep Water Horizon oil platform failure in the Gulf, " he says. "Our involvement may last weeks, months or years, depending on the severity of the disaster."

The Van Hemmens came to New Jersey from Holland. His dad, Henk, a marine engineer, who died in 2010, instilled a love of things nautical in his son...which Rik has passed along to his children. His son, a recent University of Pittsburgh graduate, will be working as an engineer in the offshore oil industry, his middle daughter is studying environmental science and economics at Dalhousie in Halifax, Canada and his youngest daughter, a junior in high school, has similar nautical interests.

Van Hemmen is proud of his work with the NMHA and how this small group of volunteers who banded together to look at the heritage of the local river has now expanded its mission to educational programs for both children and adults.

"The river is unique; it is both isolated," Van Hemmen says, " and also touches New York City through Raritan Bay. It is an environmental hotspot and at the center of the Atlantic Flyway, the North-South migratory bird route and more important in the scheme of things than you would think."

He goes on... "We found that in the 1990s when horseshoe crabs were found to be excellent bait and their wild population dropped off significantly as fisherman harvested them for fishing, we had a sudden, and significant drop in the Plover (migratory bird) population in the Navesink. It turned out," Van Hemmen said, "that the Plovers diet includes horseshoe crab eggs and without this food source, they were much more likely to fail in their migration. NMHA is helping to keep these environmental issues that surround the Navesink in the public eye.

The book touches on environmental issues and NMHA educational programs throughout the area. The NMHA got its start in 1999. It runs educational seminars for adults and activities for children.

A speaker series brings authors and marine-doers to the area. The speaking programs have a local focus and have included Chad Irwin of Irwin Marine speaking on "Iceboating on the Navesink."

and John Olson of Olson Boatworks, Keyport, who has given a presentation on the famous Sea Bright Skiffs.

Programs are held throughout the area at boat clubs, libraries and many at the historic Lifeboat Station in Sea Bright and are open to the public.

Two of NMHA's most visible programs are for children and they are the Six Hour Canoe session and River Rangers. In Six Hour Canoe, groups of children from schools, organizations (including Boy Scout troops), assemble and launch seaworthy canoes which hold one adult or two children in a single day.

Some 100 boats have been built and many are still in use.

The second program - River Rangers - gives children a one-week adventure on the river to learn about its ecosystems and to enjoy the river. Led by teacher-instructors some 15-20 students each week take part in the program, putting into coves and creeks each day. The children head home to sleep and they return to a different part of the river the following day.

Other activities of NMHA include boat restoration and river monitoring. The group is in the midst of restoring a Jet 14, a historic sailing dinghy from the 1960s. And NMHA is monitoring public put-in points on the Navesink for individuals to launch kayaks and canoes.

Van Hemmen points proudly now to four good spots and the NMHA continues to look for additional sites that can be used by the public.

There are 40 members of NMHA and they interact with a wide array of organizations including town recreation departments, boat clubs and educational groups. NMHA likes to call itself a "clearing house" for all things Navesink.

Van Hemmen says NMHA receives all its support from modest fees for its programs as well as public, private and foundation support. Recent foundation support has allowed the group to purchase a trailer to store all the tools and necessities for the Six Hour Canoe programs. And the group has been able to purchase easily raised tent covering to allow the canoe programs to proceed despite inclement weather. They hope, with financial help, to expand the River Ranger experience from just a day to overnight program.

Van Hemmen sees A Chronicle of Boating on the Navesink as a natural extension of NMHA activities and hopes readers will gain a better appreciation for the Navesink River ecosystem through learning of its boating heritage. For more information on NMHA and to order a book, visit http://www.