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Dredging the World of New York City's Waterways

The East River isn't just for dead bodies and the Gowanus Canal isn't just liquid poison. Since the mid-90s, small, dedicated groups of alt-sailors have been quietly reclaiming the waters. Here are some of the notable crowds and characters braving the...

Duke Riley photo by Damon Riley/New York Times

New York City's Gowanus Canal contains over a dozen contaminants, including oil, lead, mercury, PCBs, coal tar, and reportedly, gonorrhea. Newtown Creek, further north at the border between Brooklyn and Queens, is so polluted that an aeration system is in place to oxygenate the water, but may only release bacteria from the black mayonnaise of the creek bed to burrow snugly into the esophaguses of nearby residents. And the beach at Dead Horse Bay, on the southern shores of the Floyd Bennett Field, is basically a landfill containing of 120 years' worth of glass, nylons, doll parts, and horse bones. Who wants to go canoeing?


The City of New York is an archipelago with 520 miles of shoreline, but due to industrial development that's choked the waterfront with pollution, most New Yorkers have never dipped a toe into any of its waters or floated on it in anything other than the Staten Island Ferry.

The rivers are much cleaner now than they used to be, and despite the pockets of filth, plenty of traditional boaters ply the major waterways to fish or drink beer someplace with a better view than the fire escape at home. Some sail the low seas of NYC in order to explore boat graveyards, ancient waterfront infrastructure, or other unlikely enclaves of beauty, as well as orchestrate elaborate naval shenanigans for art and entertainment. Some even do it for sport and health reasons.

Since the mid-90s, small, dedicated groups of alt-sailors have been quietly reclaiming the waters. Here are some of the notable crowds and characters braving the pathogens, wild currents, and politics of the New York City waterways.


Photo: Dan Glass

Maybe paddling through a steel canyon past garbage barges, scrap yards, and bloated rat carcasses doesn’t sound like a therapeutic jaunt through nature, but it's all the founders of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club had when they formed in 1999.

Starting with two canoes tied to a post and a beaver dam's worth of shopping carts and trash at the shoreline, the Dredgers grew to become one of the most prominent advocates for cleaning up the much-maligned canal. All their programs are free, and canoes from their boathouse—a shipping container behind a graffiti-covered gate—can be taken out on weekend afternoons just by filling out a waiver. Says Ray Howell, co-founder (and US Naval Academy graduate), "We don't charge fees because we don't want anything in the way of people getting on the water." Even if in some parts, that water is on the verge of becoming a solid.


In 2010, the Gowanus earned Superfund status, meaning it was on the Environmental Protection Agency's official to-do list. It's easy to make jokes about it, but is much cleaner since earning its ironic nickname "Lavender Lake" in the early 1900s, when it was the busiest commercial canal in the country. Completed in 1869, the one-ended, two-mile-long canal fueled a South Brooklyn economic boom, and with it, a housing boom and subsequent sewage boom. When trucking finally killed the local barge business in the early 1960s and the flushing tunnel that fed it clean water broke, the canal became a dumping ground.

The Dredgers spend their time organizing clean-up days, educating neighborhood groups, talking to politicians, and swelling their ranks with an eclectic and diverse crowd, says co-founder and treasurer Owen Foote. Over the past decade massive amounts attention, money, and resources have gone into clean-up efforts, and raw sewage only flows into it after rains overload the city's combined drainage and sewer system. Funds continue to be raised, Foote says, due in part to the canal’s increased recreational use. "The more people do it," he says about boating on the Gowanus, "the more we become the argument for taking care of the waterway."

The get-in-there attitude also got them attention from outside of the city. Japanese public television broadcast from their dock this past June, and what they were interested in, says Howell, "was how a community club such as ours, started by a couple local people, could reach a point that it has influence and makes things happen." The Fukushima disaster in March 2011 had prompted Japanese interest in self-started community action groups, he says, an unfamiliar notion in a hierarchical society that tends to wait for government to make the first move.


So while the canal is still fetid from the sediment and combined sewer outfalls, there are fewer shopping carts and cans in the water, and more baitfish and birds that aren't garbage-eating pigeons. The Dredgers logged over 3,000 trips last year, and spawned canoeing and kayaking clubs in other neighborhoods, which has swelled their fleet from two canoes over a decade ago to over 115 boats now. The canal may never get to the pristine, oyster-supporting state of the pre-industrial past, but the Dredgers are out there, providing the reason to try.

The Gowanus Dredgers recently held their annual fundraiser at a new bar appropriately named "Lavender Lake" in Brooklyn, and the boathouse is open until November 1st. See for info.


Marie Lorenz gets the drift. She can even take you to work on it. Every summer since 2005, she's devoted a couple weeks to operating the Tide and Current Taxi, using the tides, river currents, and her paddles to move people from one place to another in a homemade boat.

"It's a highway," she says of the Hudson, the lower half of which is a tidal estuary, which means that twice a day the water flows upriver. Postulating why Manhattan was an important trading post for the Native Americans as well as the Europeans, she says, "You could get here from a hundred miles away, and then get back home like clockwork in a couple days, just riding the tide," adding that the tides in New York Harbor are the second fastest in the world. Even before construction of the world's first subway, New York still had one of the world's best public transit systems.


Lorenz gets intimate with the water, making boats of her own design, and often exploring the currents alone. She made her first boat out of a sheet of aluminum and some found wood in 1991 while attending the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. There was a lot of construction at the time, which had exposed hidden waterways in tunnels beneath the city. All her boats were built small enough to navigate those passages.

Years later she went to a boat building school, but left the world of precision craftsmanship and fine wood to return to basic utility and found materials. That school probably wouldn't have approved of her branches-and-garbage-bags designs, but swap out the plastic for animal hides and you realize that making one's own boat was what people did before becoming almost completely reliant on commercial and civil infrastructure. Sidestepping this infrastructure is a principal aim of her project.

Modern environments are tailored to our needs, she says, and people see the face of the city that its planners want them to see, minus the ugly realities. New York's waterways tend to show its underside, the parts that are forgotten or derelict. "It's like going behind a set," says Lorenz, "and looking at how it's all held up."

Recently she's begun making prints of objects she finds on her excursions—toothbrushes, bottles, and jawbones—and wants to make a map depicting where different types of materials tend to collect. "In the back of my mind I'm always writing the story," she says of her projects, which now incorporate more video elements. Simple captures from a head- or mast-mounted camera, the clips are wordless, intimate pieces that convey the sense that you are alone and discovering each next moment of the journey yourself. They also make clear that this stuff is physical. See Capsize, a 2010 video which documents a time she had to swim back ashore when big waves and strong winds dumped her out of her experimental sailboat and into the waters off Ostia, the ancient harbor city of Rome.


Both photos by Marie Lorenz

No matter where her art leads, she says she'll operate the Tide and Current Taxi for as long as she lives in New York. "The waterway is a part of the city that's uncontrollable," she says, "a constant reminder that we're still in nature, which keeps poking back at the city, eroding it, changing it, keeping it in check." She adds, "Everyone I take out comments in some way about how their perception of the city is profoundly altered."

Marie Lorenz will  be participating at Conflux 2012, Oct. 20-21.


Photo: Ben Mortimer

Crossing the Adriatic Sea in a two-story steam-powered scrap raft to crash the Venice Biennale is certainly one way to say, "Hi establishment, fuck you! We do what we want."

Founded by visual artist Swoon and members of art collectives from around the country, Swimming Cities began in 2006 as the Miss Rockaway Armada, three scrap rafts that floated down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to New Orleans, treating towns along the way to a sort of punk-vaudeville musical theater medicine show. Since then, the collective has sailed down the Hudson (Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea), from Slovenia to Venice (Swimming Cities of Serenissima), and, after some major crew changes, down the Ganges River (Swimming Cities: Ocean of Blood). And their message-by-example is actually more about living a creative, sustainable, and free life than "fuck you."


Both their rafts and way of living were inspired greatly by the Floating Neutrinos, an extended family led by Poppa Neutrino and Captain Betsy, aka David Pearlman and Betsy Terrell, who in 1998 became famous for sailing a raft made from a condemned barge and scrap materials across the Atlantic Ocean. The story of their life—scrap-rafting down the Mississippi; illness trapping them in Mexico for two years; busking, with no musical knowledge, to survive, and then morphing into a successful jazz band; bootstrapping humanitarian aid projects for victims of Katrina; and the spawning of other rafts-with-a-mission—is an adventure that inspired people around the world to rewrite the stories of their own lives. When Poppa Neutrino died in January 2011 in New Orleans, hundreds of mourners followed his jazz funeral parade to its end on the banks of the Mississippi.

Orien McNeill has now assumed captainship of Swimming Cities, having first joined the crew as a builder for the Switchback Sea project. After Serenissima, he lead the ambitious Ganges trip with the help of writer Porter Fox, building a modular, motorcycle-powered craft that was a departure from the scrap style.

They became known for throwing epic fundraisers and other parties, the last being the second annual Battle for Mau Mau Island, which they describe as Waterworld meets Thunderdome. More simply, it's a gaggle of drunken people in homemade boats ("boat" being a generous term) attempting to joust, battle one another with padded weapons, and otherwise compete for nothing but the obscurest of glories. So if we add Sanford & Son meets American Gladiator to the metaphor, we're getting closer—but no matter how you describe it, it's at least a really fun way to drown.


The legalities of turning a half-sunken, listing tugboat into a bar and tethering a huge ring of boats to it are murky at best, but authorities don't really bother them in the waters off the Rockaways-based marina surrounded by housing projects that serves as their base.

McNeill moved to Marina 59 to escape the typically ludicrous rents and oppressive event restrictions, commenting that the city's neglected waterfronts are the last bastions of space in New York.

"No one wants anything to do with them," he says. "A lot are ecological nightmares, on land owned by the government or people who don't pay their taxes, all brown and unusable to most people, so you can go and use it—hang out there and have parties or do projects and no one cares." Which was exactly the case for one of his first fundraisers, a West Indian Day Parade-themed gala held on floating platforms in the middle of Newtown Creek, the site of a 30 million-gallon oil spill in 1978. From day into night, hundreds visited and music boomed off huge structures, without a peep of complaint from the neighbors.

Video by Jason Eppink

The refuge of the waterfront may be fleeting, however, as the city moves to revitalize its shorelines, which usually translates into rising property values and the same kinds of restrictions McNeill has been trying to get away from on land. Such is the case with Marina 59: Boatel, an art installation at the marina that features colorful, cobbled-together boats the public could rent for the night is shuttering its doors because the property owner reportedly wants to make slick renovations to the boats and charge more for overnight stays. Guess McNeill has a point.


The next Swimming Cities project being planned involves the creation of a floating village in the canals of Mexico City.


Photo by Dylan Gauthier

Mare Liberum wants you to build a boat. Any boat. Make it out of plywood, out of vinyl—make it out of stale bagels and duct tape if you want. Need help? They have easy-to-follow plans so you can make a reliably floaty thing for cheap.

It was a call for art at upstate New York's Neuberger Museum that brought Dylan Gauthier, Ben Cohen, and Stephan von Muehlen together to build a boat in 2008 at Gowanus Studio Space in Brooklyn. For a show about challenging conventional infrastructure called Off the Grid, boats were their answer, and they didn't stop at a studio installation. They did a live build alongside a completed model to show people that they could make their own boat in one day.

"Part of it," says von Muehlen, "was also a response to the culture of fine boat building—you know, old men with boats in the garage that they don't finish for a decade. We said we wanted to make quick and dirty boats to help people get out on the water in New York City, and then open-source that."

They started with a seemingly simple design for a classic 15-foot fishing boat called a Banks dory, and in the spirit of upcycling, thought the plywood fences around stalled construction sites in the neighborhood could be put to better use. "The guerrilla dream was to wheatpaste boat plans at the sites," von Meuhlen says, "and encourage people to take the wood off the sites and make a boat out of it." They tried it themselves, but when they bent the wood around a jig to test how it would take the curve of the hull, it blew apart into splinters.


"We were committed to the Gowanus then," adds Gauthier, "and if you're gonna go out on the Gowanus, you gotta try to stay out of the Gowanus."

So it was CAD to the rescue, courtesy of Cohen's and von Meuhlen's industrial design background, and a simplified design set off a boom of dory building. Mare Liberum then became the go-to group for local artists in need of boats, lending craft to people like artist Jeff Stark for his play at an abandoned power plant on the Hudson, the Queens-based Flux Factory collective for their Going Places Doing Stuff field trips, and Marie Lorenz to bulk up her fleet for a 40-person tour of Staten Island's tugboat graveyard.

People are always surprised that you can just put a boat in the water, says Cohen. "They're like, 'we're not gonna get a ticket?' They don’t understand that you can just do it." Adds von Meuhlen, "There's a different set of rules out there on the water, which is kind of where our name came from—the 'free seas.'"

Jean Barberis of Flux Factory joined the crew in 2011 near the end of the dory phase, and they began making skin-on-frame kayaks—one made with bamboo, zip-ties, and vinyl sign material. Mare Liberum then somehow found themselves, weirdly enough, among the fine boat building community.

Emmett Smith, a young curator at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, New Yorkinvited them up for a two-week residency, where they were allowed to use an old skiff from the collection as a mold to make a paper boat. "We had the resources of all these real boat builders and sea captains, and an audience of traditionalists who were initially very wary of us," says von Meuhlen. "But then they saw us after two weeks go from not knowing anything to making this boat that looked like one from their collection, and immediately rowing it to Montreal."


Photo courtesy of Mare Liberum

Poetic vindication came when the museum asked to display the boat in an upcoming exhibit. But von Meuhlen describes the real kicker—a comment from an expert builder working on a $300,000 restoration project at the museum's workshop. Looking at their sleek and tightly finished craft, he said, "I think  I'm gonna make a canoe like that."

Mare Liberum says the next project is to "democratize" the paper skiff. So far, their plan begins with "Buy canoe at REI," and ends with "Return canoe to REI."

Mare Liberum built a paper boat at the Sep. 28-29 NYC World Maker Faire, and will  be participating at Conflux 2012, Oct. 20-21.


In 2007, Duke Riley built a fucking submarine—a Revolutionary War-era replica—and floated it as close as possible to the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship while it was docked in New York Harbor. That should give you some clue as to how he operates.

He says he was sick of the security theater and rhetoric after 9/11. "I wanted to show that it was bullshit—that you could still get to one of the top five terrorist targets in the world using 1700's technology." However, the tides weren't cooperative, and the sub, named the Acorn—a wooden oval loaded with rocks and sand for ballast—wouldn't completely submerge, so he had two friends in an inflatable boat tow him towards the luxury liner. He got within 200 feet before he was arrested by the NYPD Harbor Patrol, which responded to the alert with three boats and a helicopter.

"I don’t call myself an activist of any sort," says the former tattoo artist about his "performative interventions," as he calls them, "but they definitely create a dialogue." And like his drawings, sculptures, mosaics, and multimedia works, his performance pieces are water-themed. He doesn't address the romance of the open sea so much as the border zone of the waterfronts and their shifting nature, both physically and socioeconomically. A line from his artist statement is as clear as it gets: "I am interested in the struggle of marginal peoples to sustain independent spaces within all-encompassing societies, the tension between individual and collective behavior, the conflict with institutional power."

He is nowhere nearly as formal in conversation. He's a regular guy—friendly, boisterous, with an open, mischievous grin—but principled and ready to risk his own safety and liberty to create temporary autonomous zones that also happen to be a goddamn hoot.

Many of these projects—The Dead Horse Inn, an illegal bar under a bridge at Jamaica Bay; Those About to Die Salute You, a mock naval battle on a pond at the Queens Museum that ended with utter mayhem and reed boats ablaze; The Rematch, a Chinese zodiac-themed boat race in Shanghai—got him in trouble both home and abroad (he's on the US terror watch list), but he continues undaunted.

"You've got so many people blabbering on this mantra of how free we are in this country," he says, "and half of them never even exercise their freedom, so how the fuck would they know? How do you know if you're free or not if you never even test the boundaries of it?"

Duke has built a voter registration booth that will be operated by toga clad volunteers and stationed in Union Square and various locations around the NYC until Election Day.