A local man wants to put the “water” back into Watertown when it comes to public transportation.
If everything comes together, Drew Rollert’s company Wada Hoppah will be ferrying passengers from Watertown to Beacon Hill, with stops along the way, beginning this fall.
Cities such as Venice, Amsterdam, and London are known for using their rivers and canals for transportation, and Rollert believes Boston should join them. He is confident that people would like an alternative to sitting in traffic jams, or riding the MBTA’s buses or trains.
The Watertown resident remembers the moment that the idea of river transportation came to him.
“A friend gave me Red Sox, really nice tickets. It was going to be a great game. We provided what we thought would be plenty of time, but half an hour before the game the Uber driver canceled,” he said. “We ordered another one and the same guy took it for twice the amount. We were not going to do that and we walked to the 57 bus. We expected it to be on time, but it didn’t come. By then, the game had already started. We definitely couldn’t to drive because we had a couple of beers.”
As they walked back across the Galen Street Bridge, Rollert saw the Charles River, running toward Boston and with no one on it.
“I looked at the old river dock, which was completely open,” he said. “Why was there no way to get down river?”
Rollert found that there were some obstacles standing in the way, both bureaucratic and physical.
“We found out one of the issues about running a boat on the Charles is an issue about depth,” he said.
Heading up river from Boston to Watertown, the river depth shrinks significantly, particularly as the river passes by the Newton Yacht Club.
“When it gets to where the bend is, it is like a foot-and-a-half (deep),” Rollert said.
Rollert’s does not have experience running boat service, but he has started other businesses as a software entrepreneur. He grew up in a boat culture on the Cape, and has added people to the Wada Hoppah team with experience on the Charles River. Will Congram is Head of Water Services and Rob Mayo is working on docks and river operations.
The Wada Hoppah team realized they would have to find a special kind of boat, which can not only handle the shallows of the river, but also do so without causing a wake on the surface and cannot go over 10 mph.
“We don’t want to disrupt the rowers, the kayakers, who have been there for years,” Rollert said.
Wada Hoppah could not find a boat that would satisfy their needs, so the company commissioned a new one. The boat needs to be able to traverse the Charles from Watertown to Boston, carry 12 to 15 passengers, have a bathroom, be electrically powered, and look appealing.
A boat is being designed and constructed by Julius Pireli and Ken Green from InRiver Tank and Boat in Concord.
Instead of a traditional boat hull, the Wada Hoppah boat will have three long floats on which it will float. The top of the boat will look like a typical boat, Rollert said, adding, “I don’t want it to look like a pontoon boat.” The propeller and rudder will not go much deeper than the floats so they do not hit the river bottom in shallow areas.
Next, Wada Hoppah has to get permission to run the boat on the river, which is controlled by Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and gain access to docking locations along the way. Rollert has found some spots where boats could stop, including at Community Boating near the Longfellow Bridge, the Fiedler Dock near the Hatch Shell, the Gloucester Street Dock on the Esplanade east of the Mass. Ave. Bridge, The Docks at Boston University, as well as a stop by Arsenal Yards.
He envisions taking Watertown residents who work in Boston one way, and picking up people who work in the growing life science sector in Watertown from Boston and Cambridge.
The boat service could even encourage tourists to come to town, as sort of a Freedom Trail extension.
“People could get dropped off at the dock (in Watertown Square). A historical representative could meet the boat and then walk to the Edmund Fowle House,” Rollert said. “Then they could eat, drink (in Watertown) and put them back on the boat back to Boston.”
While researching potential stops on the river, Rollert found a spot along Greenough Boulevard, near Arsenal Yards, where large sailing ships used to dock and load and unload. He found a photo of one of the ships moored in Watertown circa 1875. There also appears to be a place to pull in a boat near The Speedway in Brighton, on the other side of the Arsenal Street Bridge.
While passenger traffic on the Charles River may seem like a foreign concept, Rollert found a sign one day when he was getting his car serviced at an autoshop just down the street from the Watertown Square Dock.
“There was a ferry (on the Charles) around 1908, 1910 to Watertown,” Rollert said. “There is a photo in Sullivan Tire.”
The photo shows a boat and crew on the side of the river with what appears to be the Longfellow Bridge in the background, and a sign saying “Watertown Trips, 35 cents, Wed. Sat. & Sundays.” According to the Digital Commonwealth historic photo archive, the Watertown Elk was a sightseeing boat that operated on the Charles River in the 1930s.
Rollert estimates that the cost of running the boat would require charging passengers $25 per ride, but he hopes to find a way to subsidize it. He has contacted the Watertown Transportation Management Association, which runs the shuttles on Arsenal and Pleasant streets, in hopes of getting some financial assistance.
In time trials, the trip from Watertown to Beacon Hill can be done in 40 minutes, Rollert said.
He believes people will be attracted to an alternative form of transportation, with zero emissions and it would help cut the number of vehicles on the roadways.
“They say 90 percent of cars carry just one person,” Rollert said. “If we take 12 people (on the boat) that’s 12 cars off the road.”