As Tom McNichol pilots his motor boat past Soldiers Field Road, Harvard, and MIT, you wonder whether he’s full of it. The Charles River, he’d boasted before the trip, is always a mess after the annual July Fourth fireworks spectacular. “I guarantee trash,” he’d proclaimed. But the river looks clean — really clean — with barely a bottle cap floating by.
McNichol, captain of the Charles River Clean Up Boat, has been at this for 10 years, though. As he putts up to the Hatch Memorial Shell, a vast array of garbage comes into view: soda cans, coffee cups, candy wrappers, tennis balls, energy drink bottles, Tupperware containers, wine corks, even shoes, all floating amid the thickets.
It’s just gross.
“This will take three or four days’ of work to clean,” says first mate David Solomon, as he bends over the side to snag a clump of trash with a swimming-pool net.
“I can tell tomorrow’s crew exactly where to go, and the trash will be here,” McNichol says. “I never have to worry about someone taking our trash.”
McNichol, a retired Compaq engineer from Framingham, is the Charles River’s unofficial garbage man. His nonprofit cleanup boat patrols the waterway from Watertown to the Zakim Bridge four days a week, May through Columbus Day, sifting out every piece of trash in sight. In the beginning it was just McNichol, his family, and a few friends who did all the work. This summer, more than 200 volunteers will take shifts on the water.
Thanks to their diligence, you can go miles along the river before spotting a single coffee cup or plastic bag.
“I’d say the river is like five times as clean now,” says Angelo Tilas, longtime Esplanade supervisor for the Department of Conservation and Recreation. “These guys just make a huge, huge difference, and everyone can see it. Stuff along the river banks get caught up in places that we can’t physically get to. But he’s out in the boat, able to.”
Charlie Zechel, executive director of Community Boating Inc., says McNichol’s boat never stops.
“It’s not hit or miss — you see them out there all the time,” Zechel says. “I’m looking out at the river right now, and there’s literally no trash.”
When McNichol launched his boat 10 years ago, the Charles was as dirty as the song proclaims: a junkyard of everything from construction barrels to shopping carts and wave after wave of plastic bottles and bags. Just below the surface, you might have discovered a living-room recliner or a portable toilet.
The thought that anyone could make even a dent in such waste seemed kind of laughable.
“I said to him, ‘Tom, how can you even think about cleaning up the Charles River?’,” remembers Solomon, a river advocate who met McNichol soon after he began fishing for flotsam in 2004. “I would have thought it impossible.”
Oddly, it wasn’t.
By the end of that first summer, McNichol and a cadre of 25 volunteers — his kids and grandkids included — had plucked thousands of trash bags’ worth of refuse from the water. They towed beer kegs and newspaper boxes to shore. At one point, they alerted police about a floating body.
McNichol’s cleanup boat returned for duty the following spring and has ever since. “We’re a maintenance operation,” he says.
The cleanup boat came about largely by chance. While coaching a high school sailing team on the Charles, McNichol noticed something peculiar about the river’s then-abundant trash.
“I had just started a race when these three items — a CVS plastic bag, a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup, and a condom — sailed by,” says McNichol. “Then the winds shifted and we had to rearrange the course. Son of a gun, these three items came sailing by again. That’s when I realized the dam was holding stuff back.”
His theory was that people weren’t throwing large amounts of trash into the Charles anymore: It just looked that way because the Charlestown dam blocked the trash from floating out to sea. With nowhere to go, the waste kept piling up.
If someone could make a clean sweep of the river’s trash, McNichol thought, they might be able to keep the Charles more or less flotsam free with routine cleanups. Turns out, he was right. Nowadays, a six-hour patrol is lucky to net two or three bags of garbage.
Other factors have helped. Nearly all of the Esplanade’s trash barrels have been replaced with solar-powered trash compactors that don’t tip over in the wind, can’t be plucked by birds, and can’t be heaved into the water by vandals. People, in general, seem to be littering less and recycling more, McNichol says. “We seldom see cans or bottles that have deposits.”
Hundreds of volunteers from the Charles River Watershed Association, the Charles River Conservancy, the Esplanade Association, and other nonprofit groups pitch in annually to clean the riverbank, Tilas says.
But without the Charles River Clean Up Boat, trash surely would start mounting again. After July 4, the boat hauled eight trash bags’ worth of cardboard scraps from the river — the remains of exploded fireworks canisters that fell from the sky.
Despite the success, McNichol still struggles to keep his boat afloat financially. He gets help every year from Solomon, a Wayland philanthropist who donated the vessel. The Watertown Yacht Club provides a free mooring, and the DCR hauls away all the trash. But McNichol has to raise the boat’s annual $45,000 operating cost by himself, requiring pleas to Boston Duck Tours, the Museum of Science, and dozens of businesses along the river.
Most who use the river, or jog or picnic along its banks, don’t know the Clean Up Boat exists.
“He’s never looking for someone to come up to him and say, ‘You did a great job’,” Tilas says. “He’s just very, very passionate about the river, and that’s what gets things done.”
McNichol says he couldn’t have accomplished anything without his longtime board of directors and boat captains, and his wife, Mary, the operation’s bookkeeper. But really, it’s his ship.
Join him on patrol and his blue eyes sparkle as he revels in stories about the Charles. At 75, he can still spot a bottle of SunnyD bobbing 100 feet away.
“Trash, 11 o’clock!” he barks.