In the News

When McNichol saw swirling trash he launched his Clean Up Boat

By Jenna Fisher The Christian Science Monitor   Posted November 1, 2013


Tom McNichol is the unofficial garbageman of the Charles River, beautifying Boston’s iconic strip of water.

Tom McNichol has fished a lot of strange things out of Boston’s Charles River. Among the most unexpected are a portable toilet, a recliner, and a dead body.

It’s been 10 years since he had to call the police about the body. In the intervening years he and his volunteers have found items that are far more mundane but no less surprising: grocery carts, a home-built raft with a crimson-colored “H,” a refrigerator (they apparently float), trash cans, bags of clothing, a rare carving of a Pakistani goddess, lawn chairs, flip-flops, and four or five plastic bags each about the size of a Smart car filled with packing peanuts. He’s also found countless beer cans, coffee cups, plastic bags, bottles, and smaller items that wash in from the Boston streets.

Mr. McNichol is the Charles River’s unofficial garbageman. Since he started the Charles River Clean Up Boat in 2003, his refurbished aluminum fishing boat has been on the river four days a week every week from May through October crewed by volunteers scooping up trash and recycling. He’s led the charge to beautify Boston’s iconic strip of water, and inspired and engaged the community along the way.

Ten years ago, when parts of the river were still covered with a six-inch-thick carpet of trash, the idea that one man could make a dent in it seemed foolish.

“It was a remarkable idea that he came up with,” says James Healy, who has worked for Boston Duck Tours for almost 20 years. “It was something that was really needed. A lot of volunteer organizations would clean up the parks and riverbanks, and no one was out there cleaning up the river. For one man he has made one big difference.”

The Charles River Clean Up Boat is part of a larger cleanup effort that began in the 1960s when the 1966 pop song “Dirty Water” immortalized the Charles River’s murky problem: The river was polluted. It was not uncommon to see scores of dead fish or strange-colored water (think pink), making swimming unwise (and illegal).

Through a number of efforts, including the creation of the Charles River Watershed Association and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Charles 2005 Initiative, to make the Charles fishable and swimmable by Earth Day 2005, the water quality gradually improved, as measured by state tests.

But there was still the matter of the way the Charles looked.

That’s where McNichol, a retired software engineer and sailing coach, came in. One day in 2003 he realized something about the river as he was setting up a sailing course on an 8-1/2-mile section hemmed in by dams that flows past Harvard University, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After the same pieces of trash – including a CVS drug store plastic bag and a Dunkin’ Donuts cup – floated by him twice in two different parts of the river, he realized the problem wasn’t just new trash being thrown into the river: Caught between the two dams, trash has no place to go.

“So, if you were a plastic bottle that got chucked out here,” McNichol says, “you’d just float back and forth until you disintegrated – or until someone pulled you out.”

Convinced that the river could be cleaned up, he came up with a list of what he’d need to make it happen. Then, despite naysayers and limited resources, he spent the next 10 years doing just that.

He found an old boat, cleaned it up, and got it into good working condition. The Boston Duck Tours company donated funds to help get the project off the ground. Today, more than 45 companies and organizations, including Boston’s Museum of Science and the outdoor-clothing store Patagonia, support the Charles River Clean Up Boat with funds or by encouraging their employees to volunteer as crew members, slots that fill up fast.

McNichol also approached the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. He figured that being short-staffed and having a large workload the state agency wouldn’t be able to help financially, but it might be able to haul away the trash. McNichol and the department worked out a system whereby McNichol drops off bags of trash at specific locations and the department disposes of them.

When McNichol started, trash was everywhere. Now, his boat can cruise for miles without seeing so much as a candy wrapper. On a recent autumn day it took 30 minutes before someone spotted the first piece of trash in the river: a fleece rowing jacket.

“This is the way we want the river to be,” McNichol says.

He knows to look at a few key bends in the river where trash can collect. A good day means finding less than two bags’ worth of trash, he says, something that now happens 85 percent of the time. In the early years, his boat would come back packed with garbage bags.

“Do I believe we make a difference?” McNichol asks. “Absolutely, we make a difference.” People may take the clean river for granted now, he says, but that’s OK: “I think once we cleaned it, people were less apt to throw trash into it.”

Those who work on the river notice.

As volunteers lean out of the boat using a swimming pool skimmer to scoop up trash, a Duck Boat tour boat floats by, and the driver shouts out across the water: “Hey, Clean Up Boat guy! You’re the best!”

That’s pretty much the sentiment among those familiar with McNichol’s work.

“The lower basin of the Charles River has definitely gotten a lot better, and the Clean Up Boat has a lot to do with it,” says Mark Jacobson, the general manager of Charles River Canoe & Kayak, who has seen how the river has been transformed in the past decade.

Each year, a number of people in other parts of the country contact McNichol for advice. Avid kayaker Rob Nykvist is trying to get his community in Alabama interested in setting up something similar to clean the Dog River.

“Tom’s approach to keeping a trash-impaired waterway clean using a shallow draft cleanup boat is as simple as it gets, and, relatively speaking, it is a cheap operation, considering the clean waterway result,” Mr. Nykvist says. “I am 100 percent convinced a cleanup boat operation would work in Mobile.”

Hoping that his concept will spread is part of the reason McNichol does what he does. “Once I made enough money to be comfortable, money no longer became a sole motivator,” he says. It’s a sense of accomplishment that pushes him.

And the river itself. “Boy, it just doesn’t get any better than this,” he says on a recent autumn day on the river. “The sun is nice and warm, and I get to spend a nice day with nice people knowing that I’m leaving the river cleaner than I found it. That’s the reward.”

It takes about $50,000 a year to keep the boat running: He must pay his captains, buy fuel, winterize and store the boat, and keep it maintained. McNichol’s fundraising consists of calling around and asking people for donations until he gets what he needs. He’s the first to admit it is his least favorite part of the gig.

He puts in as many as 500 hours of work on the boat each year – a quarter of what someone might put in at a “real” job. But McNichol is quick to point out that he gets a lot of help:

“This doesn’t happen because of Tom. There are hundreds of volunteers each year – and people who support this effort financially,” he says. “All these people want it to happen. Not everyone has the time or the desire to do the footwork. My job is to make it happen.”

On a recent trip Jane Otte, a historian and literary agent, served as a first-time volunteer on the Clean Up Boat. After seven hours on the river she looked out across the water. She reached over the side of the boat and cupped some water in her hands.

“That river was probably dying,” she says. “And what we saw today … what a tribute. Woohoo!” She pumps her fists into the air.

“He is making a difference. And he should be very proud.”

Devoted To Cleaning The Charles River

By Peter DeMarco/Globe Correspondent The Boston Globe   Posted August 20, 2013

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.

Framingham skipper guides boat of volunteers to clean the Charles

By Chris Bergeron/Daily News staff   The MetroWest Daily News   Posted Jun 17, 2013

Like a pair of gondoliers, Rori Greene and Roman DePaz stood on the prow of an aluminum boat cruising up the Charles River, using modified pool skimmers to scoop up trash.

Instead of fishing for bass or crappie, they spent six hours Wednesday volunteering on the Charles River Clean Up Boat removing marine debris dumped by other boaters or people along the shore.

At the controls of the 20-foot craft Lisa S, skipper Tom McNichol observed, “This is the way the river is supposed to look.’’

After launching from a dock in Brighton, he steered the boat along a quiet stretch of river that looked clean except for floating feathers from herons nesting along the shores.

By the time they reached the MIT Sailing Pavilion, Museum of Science and Hatch Shell several hours later, all kinds of trash could be found floating across the surface.

“We find everything,’’ said McNichol, a retired engineer from Framingham. “A lot depends on the weather.’’

The rangy DePaz dipped his skimmer into the water to come up with a Starbucks cup and a 20-ounce beer bottle. Blonde and athletic, Greene leaned over the side and pulled out an empty bag of Lays potato chips and a whiffle ball.

A boating enthusiast, McNichol started the nonprofit that operates the Clean Up Boat in 2003 after getting disgusted when coffee cups, plastic bags and a condom floated by on a day he was giving sailing lessons to students from Noble & Greenough School.

The Lawrence and Lillian Solomon Fund donated the current boat that replaced a smaller vessel.

Now in its 10th year, the Charles River Clean Up Boat, skippered by McNichol and three other captains, patrols a 7.5-mile stretch of river from Watertown to the locks by the Zakim Bridge about four days a week from May 12 to Oct. 4. They bring along a “crew’’ of two to four volunteers who typically fill two shipboard containers – for recyclable and non-recyclable trash – every day.

He estimated volunteers fill two trash bags or less per trip “about 85 percent of the time,’’ which signifies they’re doing their jobs.

“We remove about 200 bags of litter a year,’’ said McNichol. “We measure our success by whether or not we can leave the Charles River cleaner than before.’’

On Wednesday morning, the sun was trying to poke through overcast clouds.

Making their first trip on the Clean Up Boat, Greene and DePaz, who are both 27, work as a floor leader and sales associate, respectively, at Patagonia in Boston.

McNichol informally divides the river journey into three sections which get increasingly more littered. He calls them the Okeechobee section, the suburban section and the metropolitan section where volunteers usually find the most trash.

He said the strangest things volunteers ever found on the river was a man’s body near the Boston University Bridge and a Porta-Potty that might have been thrown in after a festival. They alerted the Massachusetts State Police about the corpse and tied the floating outhouse to the Longfellow Bridge to be removed later.

Cruising along a clean stretch of river, McNichol pointed out the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square and the city’s majestic skyline. “It’s my favorite view of Boston,’’ he said.

As a boat labeled Harvard-Radcliffe Rowing raced by, a balding coach shouted, “Keep to the right.’’

McNichol noted the Clean Up Boat receives financial support from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, the city of Boston, several yacht clubs, Boston University, MIT, Patagonia and other agencies and businesses, “but not Harvard.’’

He’s presently looking for more corporate sponsors “to keep us doing a job I really believe in.’’

Greene and DePaz became progressively busier as they sailed toward Cambridge, finding larger clumps of litter instead of isolated objects. Litter especially collected against the granite walls by the MIT Sailing Pavilion and the back of the Museum of Science near some picnic tables.

By midday, DePaz and Greene had each developed their own styles of skimming, scooping and stabbing trash, which included a sneaker, curious red plastic disks and a disgusting semi-filled dog poop bag. By noon, each must have removed dozens of coffee cups and fast food bags from the river. DePaz joked, “The Charles River runs on Dunkin’s.’’

“I think it’s good to just get out and do something,’’ said Greene, of Boston. “It’s easy to talk about recycling. It’s important to get out and do it.’’

DePaz, of Brighton, said volunteering on the Clean Up Boat had “driven home the point’’ that seemingly small amounts of litter accumulate, contaminating the river and affecting the fish and birds that depend on it.

In mid-afternoon, McNichol steered the boat to the shore by the Hatch Shell where they found a “floating garden of trash and litter’’ that took an additional two-and-a-half hours to remove.

“I like to think we left the Charles cleaner than we found it,’’ said McNichol. “The river is cleaner now than it used to be because people work at it.’’

To learn about the Charles River Clean Up Boat or make a contribution, visit

River rescue: Volunteers scoop trash out of the Charles

By Kerri Roche/Daily News staff   Daily News Tribune   Posted May 07, 2008 @ 12:29 AM

As he steadies himself in a 20-foot aluminum boat and reaches his net toward a Doritos bag in the water, Robert Canterbury has perfected his technique for pulling trash from the Charles River.

“I work out three times a week for balance so I can do this,” said Canterbury, 62, with a laugh.

Aboard the Sea Ark, Canterbury points the captain, Framingham resident Tom McNichol, in the direction of an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

Scooping it out of the water with ease, Canterbury tosses it in one of the two trash barrels aboard the boat.

Looking at the trash he’s collected in just one stretch of the river near the Museum of Science, Canterbury said, “I just don’t get it.”

Going into his fifth season of patrolling Boston’s famous river, McNichol, 70, said as a boat owner and sailing coach at Noble & Greenough School, he too was fed up with the trash in the river. As a result, he started the nonprofit Charles River Clean Up Boat, bringing volunteers out four days a week to skim, scoop and stab the trash.

“Before, large islands of trash were floating back and forth,” said McNichol, a retired employee of Compaq Computer Corp. which merged with Hewlett-Packard.

Because the Charles River is dammed, litter and trash tends to stay in many of the waterway’s stagnant areas, said McNichol.

“Once the trash got in, if it didn’t sink, it continued to float year after year,” he said.

In the winter of 2003, he restored at 17-foot aluminum boat. With a motor donated from the Boston Duck Tours company, McNichol set off the following spring on his first season of trash duty.

As the first and only person, company or organization determined to continuously target the trash in the river, those in McNichol’s organization had their work cut out for them.

Patrolling a six-mile stretch from Watertown to the locks near the Zakim Bridge, McNichol said the trash was so bad during the first year that the boat would quickly fill soon after departure. It took three weeks and hundreds of garbage bags of trash for his crew of volunteers to make their way from start to finish, he said.

“People now think the river was always like this,” said McNichol, pointing to comparatively debris-free water.

Over the years, McNichol and crew have pulled the odd, strange and downright scary from the Charles River.

A Porta-Potty was recovered, floating upside down under the Longfellow Bridge. A two-foot high Buddha statue turned up near the Royal Sonesta Hotel.

In their first year on the water, the crew found a dead body near the Boston University bridge and promptly called police, said McNichol.

During the clean-up season, which runs from late April until October, volunteers are the busiest after a large rain storm and the Fourth of July, said McNichol.

“We make it a point to really clean it out by July 3rd (and then) we schedule extra days on 5th (through) the 8th,” he said.

Since the beginning, partnerships and donations are crucial to the success of Clean Up Boat. The Department of Conservation and Recreation has allowed McNichol to drop off any trash collected from the river at its office in the Boston Esplanade’s Hatch Shell.

Shortly after Clean Up Boat began making headway with the river’s trash, people started to notice, said McNichol.

A larger boat, the Lisa S., was donated by the Lawrence and Lillian Solomon Fund. The Charles River Yacht Club provides the necessary fuel and the Watertown Yacht Club agreed to let McNichol house the Clean Up Boat there.

But, most importantly, said McNichol, are the 200 or so volunteers who have contributed a full day on the water.

“Some come once a year and we got one guy that comes once a week,” said McNichol.”If everybody does a little then it’s not a big problem.”

Canterbury said over the past three years he has volunteered whenever “the mood strikes.”

“If you persuade someone to do something, they do it once. If you allow someone to do something they enjoy doing, they keep coming back,” said Canterbury. “It’s not a bad way to spend the day and you see results.”

Compared to earlier years when crews would pull boatloads of garbage from the water, McNichol said two bags of trash in one outing is now a busy day.

“To the casual observer, you’d never find that,” said McNichol, who is now able to spot the sparkle of cellophane from yards away.

Agreeing with McNichol, Canterbury said, “If you’re going after gum wrappers, the river’s pretty clean.”

Neglecting the Charles
Government needs to pitch in for river cleanup

By Sam Allis, Globe Columnist  |  May 27, 2007        THE OBSERVER

The Observer cruised down the Charles last week with Tom McNichol. Helluva guy. I was planning to write about the gorgeous stretch above the Arsenal Street Bridge that made me go all arty and think of Monet in Giverny. But I found a better story: trash.

Since 2004, McNichol, 69, has run a guerrilla band of volunteers who clean up the 7 miles of river from the dam at Watertown Square to the Colonel Richard Gridley Locks into Boston Harbor. The outfit is called Charles River Clean Up Boat. Teenagers to octogenarians go out for a day, gratis, to collect crud from the river’s surface. They do it because — guess what? — no one else is doing it.

Not the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which has responsibility over the river. Neither the city of Boston nor the city of Cambridge, which benefit immeasurably from its beauty.

Not river users like the four yacht clubs or the three rowing clubs on its banks. Not Harvard, MIT, BU, or Northeastern, whose rowers and sailors are all over the water. (They all kick in some cash.) Not the EPA, which monitors water quality beneath the surface, but doesn’t touch what’s on top.

“I guarantee you no one was cleaning the surface of the river when we started,” says McNichol, retired from computer sales management. “And I know of no one else doing it today.”

The lone, 20-foot aluminum boat is out four days a week from 9:30 to 4:30. Volunteers wield sieves on poles to capture junk and dump it into garbage bags onboard. At the end of the day, they drop the bags on the DCR dock by the Hatch Shell, and its maintenance crews remove it.

Whoa, why is the DCR not on the river? “We would love to help keep the Charles clean but unfortunately we don’t have the boats or the money,” says DCR spokeswoman Wendy Fox. The DCR, to be fair, is underfunded, but that answer won’t fly. Governor Deval Patrick, a committed environmentalist, needs to get creative here.

Yo, Deval, either help clean the Charles or pay McNichol to do your dirty work.

But it’s not just the state. “Why are we cleaning up around BU’s sailing pavilion?” asks volunteer Bob Canterbury. “Why isn’t BU picking it up?” BU sends money — a whopping $500 last year.

The Boston Foundation rejected McNichol’s request for help in 2005. Paul Grogan, what’s up with that? McNichol says former Cambridge mayor Michael Sullivan promised money if he sent a request in writing. McNichol did and never heard back. (There’s a new mayor, whom he hasn’t called yet. He has no fund – raising help.) He tried Mayor Tom Menino’s office a couple of years ago and was bounced to a woman named Toni who never got back to him.

We find gunk all over the river. The surface sparkles from a distance but can go ghastly up close. We clean up mucho junk floating near the MIT Sailing Pavilion. McNichol regularly removes stuff inside the yellow boom that CFX, owner of the rail yards in Allston, puts out to catch its detritus. A lot of unspeakables come from storm drains after heavy rains. Some one has to clean it up.

Even rowers can be culprits. They leave water bottles on boat house decks that blow into the river. McNichol says he once watched a staffer at the Cambridge Boating dock actually hose debris into the river. That ended fast.

McNichol is a trash connoisseur. He’ll tell you the number one plastic bag on the Charles comes from CVS. He will tell you Dunkin’ Donuts is the dominant coffee cup, except during the Head of the Charles, when, wouldn’t you know, Starbucks reigns supreme.

He’ll tell you he finds very few beverage bottles in the river but a plague of small plastic juice bottles and, separately, plastic tops. He has found chairs, desks, portable toilets, a 250-gallon oil tank, a suitcase with a passport in it, a dead body.

There is an array of volunteer groups who do separate pieces of God’s work with the Charles. It’s rather like the Balkans. We’ve got the Charles River Watershed Association, the Charles River Conservancy, the Esplanade Association — it goes on. What we need is a Charles Riiver Authority, an independent, omnibus nonprofit that brings everyone under one umbrella. Egos such as they are, fat chance of that.

There are no real bad guys in the story, but rather a roster of thoughtless players, private and public, who are oblivious to the problem. Either way, the results are the same.

McNichol needs help. His $29,000 budget goes fast. He used his own credit card one year to carry the operation for awhile. (If you feel generous, try

The Charles doesn’t need our adoration. It needs money and help on the river. The big players — the state, Boston, and Cambridge — can’t duck this anymore. Nor can the river users, who need to coordinate their contributions — preferably as a permanent river compact — or, better yet, clean up the Charles themselves. Regular river cleanup would make a rowing program sparkle.

In the meantime, hats off to my man McNichol and his volunteers for doing our dirty work.

Sam Allis can be reached at

08/2005 –Newton Tab
In Search of Garbage
By Sarah Andrews, CNC Staff Writer

    “Take a look at this river!,” Tom McNichol exclaimed, gesturing to the Charles River from behind the control center of his 17-foot aluminum boat as he motored off from the Nonantum public ramp.  “You could be in the middle of the Okeechobee Swamp!”

    On a sunny, Thursday morning, with nets and picks in tow, McNichol, 67, steered the Charles River Cleanup Boat toward Cambridge and Boston in search of garbage.  And judging from the candy wrappers and grass on the boat floor, it wasn’t his first trip out that week.

    “When I can only fll these two buckets,” he said, referring to a 20- and a seven-gallon bucket, “Then I know the river is clean.”

    A Framingham resident and Nobles-Greenough School sailing coach for five years, McNichol has spent a lot of time on the waters of the Charles.  And last year, he got fed up.

    “It was just covered in trash,” he said.  “And I had a theory that it was a lot of the same trash.  Because the river is dammed, it is more like a pond than a river.  So you keep seeing the same plastic cup, the same bag, the same condom going back and forth, day after day.”

    McNichol decided to take matters into his own hands.  He found a run-down Grumman boat, enlisted some volunteers, secured a modest donation from the Duck Tour Company, and began cruising the river, picking up trash out of it several days a week.

    Funded by private donations from companies along the river, McNichol said the Cleanup Boat volunteers have been able to make a noticeable difference in the appearance of the water, though he admits they’re somewhat constrained by a small budget.

    “I believe in the Walt Disney factor,” he said.  “If you keep it clean, people will tend not to throw trash in it.”

    Because the boat had been out five times since the Aug. 5 thunderstorms, the river looked pretty good last month.  McNichol picked up volunteer Robert Canterbury, 59, at B.U. and the two scanned the riverbanks and water in Cambridge and Boston for any left over or new debris, finding plenty near the Museum of Science.

    “Are you going to talk about that or are you going to pick it up?”  McNichol teased Canterbury, who was trying to stab a Doritos bag with a pick as McNichol spun the boat around.

    “Well, are you going to give me a fighting chance?” Canterbury retorted.

    While keeping the river looking nice is the Cleanup Boat’s main goal, both men agree it’s not a bad way to spend a day.

    “I haven’t met one jerk [out here] yet,” said McNichol.

    And, they are both frequently shocked by some of the larger pieces of debris they find.  In the past year, they’ve discovered a dead body by the B.U. bridge, a fully upholstered armchair, a tw0-foot Buddha statue by the Royal Sonesta Hotel and a porta-potty.

    “We couldn’t get that one out, so we tied it to the Longfellow Bridge” and called the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said McNichol.

    “The mind boggles at some of the trash we find,” said Canterbury.  “Ya know, it’s like, what are people doing?”

    McNichol and Canterbury said now their focus is on fundraising and developing more partnerships with state and private organizations.

    Currently, they exist on small donations and rely on the DCR to haul away the trash they pick up, which they leave for collection down by the Hatch Shell.

    Small debris makes up the bulk of what they fish out and they try to stick to their rules of thumb–they don’t remove organic matter and they try to stay clear of the riverbanks, though sometimes they can’t help themselves from snagging a soda bottle or two from those.

    The cleaning season runs from April to October and the Fourth of July and the Head of the Charles are the busiest times, attendees at both events end up putting a lot of trash in the water.

    According to McNichol. the latter event changes the character of the trash.

    Most of the year, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups are found in the water; after the Head of the Charles, this changes to Starbucks.

    “I don’t know that people are aware of the amount of activity on the water,” Canterbury said, as he netted a red bottle cap, adding later, “Irt bugs me when I hear people complain about how dirty the Charles is,” he said.  “Well, whose fault is that?  It’s like somehow it’s the river’s fault!”

07/11/2005 – Boston Courant
Groups Cleaning Up Famous Dirty Water
By Daniel Friedman, Courant News Writer

Hours after the last fireworks exploded over the Charles River last week, Tom Hosker pulled a beach chair from the water near the Hatch Shell.

The chair was one of thousands of pieces of debris snared by two privately funded boats cleaning up after the city’s Fourth of July celebration.

Hosker works for Boston Line and Service, a private company contracted by the Boston Harbor Association (BHA) to pluck debris from locations around Boston Harbor.  The company’s two-person boat has picked up more than 170 tons of material since 1999, according to the BHA.  The vessel cleans the Charles after events along the Esplanade, BHA Consultant Sarah Kelly said.

Removing the debris makes the water safer for swimmers and boaters and protects marine life, according to the BHA.

For Tom McNichol, however, the garbage is personal.  A retiree who keeps a sailboat on the Charles, McNichol said that frustration with litter in the river led him to found the Charles River Cleanup Boat, which is both a nonprofit organization and a 17 foot vessel, last summer.

“The same trash just floated back and forth,” he noted.  “I kept seeing the same soda bottle, condom, and plastic bag floating by.”

McNichol’s boat has no connection to the BHA’s craft.  He noted that he sees the Harbor Association boat on the Charles only immediately after July 4, while his skiff is on the river three or four days a week.

On July 5 McNichol and frequent volunteer Robert Canterbury found liquor bottles, a piece of chicken, soda cans, unopened beers, a bottle of Ralph Lauren cologne, a large piece of rooming material, wrappers, plastic bags, condoms and hundreds of pieces of cardboard used to case fireworks.

Cleanup Boat operators have previously found an overstuffed chair, a Porta Potti, a newspaper box and a dead body.  Last week, however, McNichol was particularly concerned about four bags full of Styrofoam pellets he had found a few days earlier.  “Can you imagine the mess if those had broken open?” he asked.

After rain storms, which flush trash from storm drains into the river, or after events on the esplanade, it may take the boat five days to complete its circuit from Watertown to near the base of the Leonard Zakim Bridge, McNichol said.  Once that is cleaned, however, the trash stabilizes and the boat completes the circuit in one day, accumulating about two bags of debris each trip.

“The theory was that if you started to clean it you could get (trash) out faster thank it goes in,” he noted.  “We’ve found that’s true…Once you get it clean, it’s easy to keep it clean.

Cindy Brown, general manager of Boston Duck Tours, the Cleanup Boat’s largest sponsor, said the vessel has improved the river’s appearance.  “Our drivers who are out there notice that it’s much cleaner.” she said.

The boat gets funding from boat clubs, hotels, nonprofits, universities and state and city agencies.  With hefty insurance costs, however, dollars remain tight.  McNichol expressed disappointment that some institutions benefiting from the boat’s work do not offer support.  “Harvard University has three boathouses on the river and they won’t give us anything,” he said.

If money is limited, though, gratitude can be plentiful.  Many passing boaters thank the Cleanup Boat’s occupants.

“Great job guys,” yelled one woman last week.  “Thank you for cleaning our river.”

The Cleanup Boat has four regular operators but relies on volunteers who sign up at  Because the work consists of picking up trash with a pool cleaner, McNichol noted, anyone can volunteer and immediately work efficiently.

“People usually have a good time, ” he said.  “If it gets hot or the thunderclouds build, we go in.

“When you go back up the river at the end of the day, and you’re tired, it’s nice to look around and see a perfectly clean river and know you helped achieve that.

03/13/2005     Boston Globe Magazine
Best of the New:  Ideas
Charles River Cleanup Boat

Seeing condoms and coffee cups float by his sailboat day after day drove Tom McNichol over the edge. Fortunately for us, he took a large net with him. The Charles River has been so choked with litter in recent years that McNichol fixed up a 17-foot aluminum boat, handed 25 volunteers some nets, and did something about it. The 66-year-old retired sales manager went trolling for trash with a crew three times a week for five months, filling 200 garbage bags. They recovered a Porta Potti, an oversized chair, even a human body. McNichol has more ambitious trash-removal plans for his nonprofit operation this year. We owe you one, Tom.

Love that dirty water

By Peter DeMarco, Boston Globe Correspondent  |  October 10, 2004

The air is crisp, the sun shining, and the view of Boston’s skyline is simply spectacular as Tom McNichol motors his boat along the Charles River. And yet, Captain McNichol can’t stop apologizing for the disappointing ride.

”We’re in the middle of the basin and how much trash are we picking up? Hardly anything,” he says, shaking his head at the dozen or so paper wrappers and bottles in his trash bag. ”This is the cleanest I’ve seen it yet.”

If anything, McNichol has himself to blame for his meager haul.

Tired of seeing coffee cups and condoms floating down river, McNichol, a retired Compaq engineer from Framingham, reconditioned a small motor boat last winter and outfitted it with swimming-pool scoop nets. On June 10, he revved up the engine of the Charles River Clean Up Boat and set out from Watertown Yacht Club in search of every piece of flotsam he could find.

McNichol and the 25 volunteers who take turns on his boat have since filled nearly 200 trash bags with river refuse during their weekly patrols. They’ve hauled up a full-size portable toilet from underneath the Longfellow Bridge, a newspaper vending box, orange construction barrels, and, last week, a big, puffy beige recliner that weighed about 300 pounds wet.

”The one people find most interesting is when Charlie Newhall spotted a body in late July,” McNichol says, adding that the State Police handled that discovery. ”We take anything out except vegetative matter.”

As sailing coach for the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, which uses the Charles River, McNichol would see ”the same trash floating back and forth” for weeks on end. With some time on his hands, and a love for the water, he called the state Department of Conservation and Recreation in March and got the OK to troll for trash.

Cleaning the river hasn’t been easy: McNichol’s crews spent a week plucking ”layers” of trash from bridge pilings and Esplanade crags after the July 4 celebration. Garbage, meanwhile, has poured out of Charles River storm drains after heavy rains, requiring intense, spot pickups.

The results of McNichol’s handiwork are plain to see.

”We’d splash in with a group last summer and the comments would start about the trash. ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” said Jody Johnson, a Boston Duck Tours guide who volunteers on McNichol’s boat. ”There are no comments anymore because the river’s clean. There’s nothing to comment about.”

Tom Grosvenor, dock master of the Charles River Yacht Club, agrees it’s been weeks since the last tidal wave of bottles and cans drifted his way.

”We had to figure out if we could get the trash out faster than it goes in,” says McNichol, 66. ”And the answer is yes, you can.”

He estimates it will cost $9,000 to keep the boat insured and running next summer, with T-shirts for volunteers. ”Nobody ever says thanks,” he says. ”We clean Harvard’s front yard three or four times a week. They could kick in.”

On a recent morning, McNichol and Johnson start out from Watertown on his modest 17-footer. It’s Johnson’s first time out collecting trash, but McNichol is a pro: Spotting a Cheezit wrapper on the starboard side he deftly swings the boat around so Johnson can pluck it with her 8-foot pole.

”I got it! I got it! I’m not taking no for an answer,” Johnson yells as she stretches as far as she can — almost falling out of the boat — to reach a piece of floating Styrofoam past the Weeks Foot Bridge.

Moments later, McNichol calmly reaches over and scoops it up with his net.

”How many more years until you can swim in it?” shouts a man standing on the docks of MIT’s sailing pavilion as the Charles River Clean Up Boat, its name spelled out on its side, chugs by.

”Go right now,” McNichol shouts back.

Volunteer groups such as the Charles River Conservancy and the Esplanade Association, along with college students, regularly pitch in to clean the river’s banks and the Esplanade’s grounds.

With a backlog of nearly $750 million in statewide capital improvement projects, the Department of Conservation and Recreation couldn’t keep the Charles clean without such help, said spokeswoman Martha King.

”We don’t have the budget to clean up the water, so we’re really dependent on these wonderful friends groups and volunteers and corporate partners and advocates,” she said. ”Every little bit counts.”

McNichol’s efforts are also benefiting wildlife that might choke on bottle caps, cigarettes, or condoms in the water, said Dr. John Looney, a professor of earth science at the University of Massachusetts’s Boston campus.

The only hitch, McNichol says, has come with raising enough funds to outfit the boat and cover its hefty insurance costs.

”We thought that if we give people publicity with signs on the boat — you know, the NASCAR approach — that might work,” he says.

To their credit, Boston Duck Tours, the Charles River Yacht Club, the Watertown Yacht Club, The Massachusetts Bay League sailing league, the Esplanade Association, and the DCR — which hauls off the trash bags — have all pitched in. McNichol’s brother, wife, children, and grandchildren have manned the boat’s butterfly nets, too.

”We usually go out from 9:30 to 4. But if it’s a nice day we’ll stay out until 5 o’clock. It’s rewarding,” he says while motoring home, past scullers and diving black cormorants, with two small bags of trash in tow.

”It’s not a case of having to stay out here. Once you’re out here, you don’t want to go back.”

Littering on the Charles River carries a fine of $25 to $250. More information about McNichol’s boat can be found on-line at