Watch Hill Yacht Club being lifted to thwart future storm damage
By New London Day
WESTERLY — Glacially slow.
That's how Christopher Houlihan, the past commodore of the Watch Hill Yacht Club, explains the progress of hydraulic lifts hoisting the clubhouse sitting over Watch Hill Harbor 15 feet into the air.
By last week, the two-story, 4,000-square-foot clubhouse had been lifted about 7 feet in an effort to create a new storm-resistant, first floor.
The building was damaged by the storm surge from 2012's superstorm Sandy and the club is having the 4,000-square-foot building raised 15-feet to clear it from future storm surges.
The work started after Labor Day and, when completed, will feature a "wash-through" entry-level floor with roll-up garage-like doors on all four sides that will be opened when big storms with rising tides and waves blow through. With the doors opened, seawater and marine debris will drain through the lower level, and not wreak havoc on the building as they did during Sandy.
Houlihan said eight synchronized hydraulic jacks are doing the heavy lifting.
"They are coordinated, and they operate in sync and raise it at a glacially slow rate. I want to say it's something like 3 inches every three hours, and as they go up, workmen insert more of these wooden blocks and the tower gets higher," he said, referring to "cribbing towers" that are being erected to help support the elevated clubhouse.
AZ Corp., of North Stonington, is the general contractor and is working in concert with Atlantic Marine Construction, of Westerly, and High Calibre Contracting. High Calibre, based in Milford, specializes in lifting buildings.
Houlihan said that as work progresses, large steel beams will be inserted horizontally to further strengthen the structure and the jacks.
In 2003, members of the club supported a remodeling project that included structural changes designed so that if it ever became necessary, the clubhouse could be elevated. At the time, they didn't realize how quickly that day would arrive. But after extensive damage in 2012, the club's 500 members voted in favor of the elevation project. While Houlihan has declined in the past to reveal the cost of the project, he did say that all members were assessed and a half dozen members made additional contributions.
The day after Labor Day, the clubhouse was closed and its contents removed. On Monday, workmen were in the shell of the building as a cold, gusty wind blew through.
"It's going about as well as can be expected," Houlihan said by telephone. "We are either on schedule or maybe a little ahead. Everything is in good shape."
The club plans to have the work completed in time for the next boating season.The Shingle-style building with white trim will retain its same footprint in Watch Hill Harbor, just be elevated 15 feet. When finished, the new first floor will be used for access and storage, and not as habitable space.
In July, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Coastal Management Council, which worked with the club on its plan, praised the project and said it would help to alleviate further flooding and storm damage.
Last week, a few cars drove into the lot off nearby Larkin Square to watch the workmen and take photographs. One man said he stops by about once a week to see the progress.
"It's very slow," he said, declining to give his name.
Since 1922, the Watch Hill Yacht Club has been headquartered in one building or another on the site. The picturesque clubhouse is often part of sunset photographs on Watch Hill Harbor.