A Step Taken Toward Casting A Die Across The Rubicon

For twelve years, it has been my dream build a homemade boat that can actually convey me from one place to another. Though I’ve built seven boats (eight if you count the improvements to my canoe that allowed Mike and I to travel from Troy to New York in a record three days), none has been what I really want: a kind of mobile laboratory, capable of moving itself with me inside.

I want to travel from Albany out the Erie Canal, through lake Erie to Detroit, north up to Mackinac Island into Lake Michigan, west to Lake Superior for a visit in Green Bay, south again to Chicago, through the Chicago Canal to the Mississippi, down to New Orleans, out to the Gulf around the Keys, and back up the east coast inside the intercoastal waterway.  It would be a 5,000+ mile trip and require tens of thousands of dollars. I want to visit the great cities of the eastern half of the United States; see the battlefields and sites of naval victories I’ve read about; survey the architecture; hear the differences in diction and music; taste the local cuisine; witness the geological structures; meet the local people; eat at the local restaurants; go to the local, state and national museums and colleges; contrast the cultures and economies–basically, sample and study half of America.

For that I need a boat. And tens of thousands of dollars.

I’ve had this objective for twelve years, from the time I started planning my first raft to go down the Hudson River in 2005. I can only think of three possible ways to make it happen:

  1. I could win the lottery. A lot of people say they would do x if they win the lottery. But the difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal is something you have a plan to achieve, and I cannot plan to win the lottery, because there is such an element of change involved.
  2. I could find one or multiple sponsors or benefactors. I could (a) start a GoFundMe site after listing the amount of money I would need for fuel, docking fees, food, occasional lodging, etc over the course of the trip, but it is unlikely that I could raise the $50,000 or more I would need to really study all of the small and large towns and cities along the rivers of the east over the course of a year, and I don’t want to just float along–I want to study America; or (b) I could try and find sponsorships from corporations, but I don’t want to deck out my boat like a Nascar and have to follow the dictates of a sponsor when it comes to where I visit and what I say and write.
  3. I could write a book and attempt to sell it along the way by meeting as many people, getting featured in as many local newspapers and radio shows, and connecting via as many social media sites as possible while I cruise the rivers and waterways of America.

I made my plan based on the third choice. I wrote a book, and I will attempt to sell as many copies as possible to fund my trip. The book is germane to the trip because it’s about building and piloting boats; once written I don’t have to write it again (the way that people with a skill must exercise the skill on an hourly basis or create more products to make greater integers of money); since I created the product myself I control what I wish to do; and the trip itself will constitute the advertisement for the book, so that book sales and my trip have a symbiotic relationship.

Before I can build my see-America-boat, however, I need to make some serious book sales. Yet, I thought, “How can I make the book sales without having a boat and traveling in order to generate news stories and a social following?”

The idea came to me just after Christmas: why not build a boat and sail down the Hudson again, this time on a week-long book tour, have my itinerary published in Boating on the Hudson Magazine, contact the commodores of and stop at all of the local marinas along the way, do readings in the libraries in the small towns, contact the local papers, and get a story in the New York Times upon my arrival in the city? Either I will sell a thousand or more books through word of mouth and print and social media, and know that my Great Loop expedition is potentially possible, or I will fail to make any money in the very area where I ought to garner the most interest and publicity, and I will know that a Great Loop trip is impossible for me.

And so I began to brainstorm  a new boat. I saved $15 dollars per serving shift from December to April and saved $1050 to start construction. I already own two electric trolling motors, wiring, and two canoes from my previous river adventures, but I knew I needed to include a small (3 hp) motor to make sure I could get from town to town for book events along the way. I had to be able to build the boat using my own labor with labor sprinkled in from my father, Mike, my friend Sam and a few other friends. I had to be able to build the boat in one month, between work shifts, at my parents house, in order to start the registration process (which takes 8 weeks for a homemade boat in New York State) by May first, in order to do the book tour during the month of August. The boat had to be either trailerable, or capable of dismemberment and re-construction, so that it could be transported to the river without a special permit from the Department of Transportation or monthly bills for docking it at a marina. The boat had to incorporate a cabin so that the books I bring along, and my phone or computer for blogging, don’t get wet. And yet whatever I planned to build had to weigh less than, say, 600 pounds, because the two canoes would provide the only buoyancy.

I started by reviewing the books in my library on boat construction.

My parents have a popup trailer that has been rotting “over the hill” behind their house for the last fifteen years. It hasn’t been opened in ten years, and it’s sunk up to its axel in mud.  My first idea was to detach the popup from its trailer and put it onto a frame which extended over the two canoes. The popup is only 6.5 feet wide, 10 feet long and three feet high when closed. But I looked up the manual for the popup model and found that it weighs 1,000 pounds. That seemed like too much weight in addition to the effort it would take to physically take the popup apart and lift it onto the canoes and ship it to the river–all of that seemed like too big a task.

Next I thought about building a boat, on two canoes, which had a teepee for a cabin, which attached to the deck via hinges. If the cabin was collapsible I could put the cabin down if I faced a strong headwind, thus diminishing the amount of “freeboard,” which is the part of the boat which rises above the water and is affected by the wind rather than the current. In the summer, the wind on the Hudson River tends to blow upstream, and becomes a significant impediment to downriver progress.

I threw the model together with cardboard after a particularly slow lunch shift at El Loco Mexican Cafe. But it wasn’t to scale and I didn’t like the triangular design, so I set about building an actual model. I went to the arts and crafts store for sticks, dowels, and a glue gun, and made a not-scale model of the canoes out of corks glued and painted.

A model is like practice that you don’t have to spend $200 dollars to learn the lessons from. Right away I saw that one problem was that canoes have pointed tips at the bow and stern, so you can’t just put a deck across them. There isn’t a flat surface to attach to. They’re shaped like bananas. So I thought I’d put bulkheads or beams arising from the base of the canoe to the height of the tips at the bow and stern, and run a 16-foot beam lengthwise on each, which would provide material to attach the crossbeams (which would attach the two canoes) together.

And so on Sunday (April 9th), I drove from my apartment in Albany and picked up Mike, my perennial partner in boat construction, at his house 13 minutes away.

If you’ve read Coming of Age on The Hudson, you know that Mike and I are friends for more than two decades, having met in fifth grade, and that he helped me build and pilot all seven of my boats down the Hudson River between 2006 and 2010. So it might interest you to hear a brief update on Mike’s life.

Mike is married to Renee, who you might remember from Volume II of the book, as they met during, and she helped assemble, Excelsior, the fourth boat in the series. That was in 2008. Nine years later, they are married and live in a house in an affluent suburb of Albany. Mike is a professional civil servant, a profession which gives him an opportunity to improve methodically over time. He frequently takes civil service tests in order to qualify for new positions, and has availed himself over the years by moving, sometimes laterally, sometimes vertically, through various agencies of the state, learning the process and substantive material along the way. He is currently a supervisor and an M/C, having also been a member of PEF and before that CSEA. He also worked briefly after college for the Postal Service, and was therefore employed by the Federal Government.

I parked in Mike’s driveway and rang his doorbell. I walked through the entryway and saw Mike’s good parlor on the left, and the stairway upstairs on the right. We walked into the kitchen and looked out his sliding glass doors, over his patio, over his yard, at the pen he built for his bunny, Cleo. Upstairs, Mike and Renee have a master bedroom (1/3 of the house), with a master bathroom with skylights, two guest bedrooms, and a walkable attic. In the basement Mike hung a dartboard, we re-built a 1940s bedroom set into a bar and back-bar, he has a ping pong table and he’s put down wall-to-wall carpeting, which came in squares with an adhesive back. Mike has repainted his entire place in the last year, as well as transplanted evergreen trees along the periphery of his lawn. Also, he has climbed about 30 of the Adirondack Mountains in the last year, and biked from Buffalo to Albany (more than 360 miles) along the Erie Canal. And he and I have canoed 250 miles down the Delaware, 80 miles from Ticonderoga to Troy, and down the Hudson a second time. So he’s a pretty solid guy to solicit for help when building a homemade boat to sail on the Hudson.

We got in my Ford Taurus sedan and drove to Lowes. It smelled of saw dust. It smelled like we were re-living old times. We found a blue metal flat cart and made our way to the lumber aisle. We loaded three 2x4x16s which hung off the cart at least five feet in either direction, as well as four 2x4s, three 1x6x6s, bolts, washers and nuts. Loading them in my car was a challenge. The 2x4x8s almost fit, but the 2x4x16s had to be pushed through the back seat into the buttons of the dash and out the trunk, hanging six feet. We tied on some red tape and I made sure I took all the right turns wide. When we got to New Baltimore we had to carry the lumber (in two trips apiece) over the hill at my parent’s house where the canoes were stored. We walked down to the driveway, where the garage is located, and back over the hill, two more times in order to carry the bolts, nuts, washers, jig-saw, drill and extension cord over the hill. Not to mention once in order to search the fridge at my parent’s house for Coors Light (of which there was none) and then to make Captain and Pepsis, from what we could find behind my parent’s bar.

First we simply laid out the canoes to see how long they are, compared to their widths, which are almost three-feet on each canoe.

I’d planned to make the boat eight-feet wide. That way if something goes wrong, and I don’t want to have to take it apart, I can ship the boat along the roads to and from the river for any distance without a special permit. A 2×4 is by default 8-feet long, so we laid them across the beam of the boats in order to see how wide she would be.

My father came over the hill carrying my niece, and we all enjoyed the sunlight. My niece is too young to appreciate the novelty of such a situation, so my dad carried her back to the house, and Mike and I followed. Though we hadn’t come near to completing the boat, I had purchased and we had shipped the materials of which to build a frame, and I now had measurements off of which to make models back in Albany. So while we didn’t make a lot of tangible progress on Sunday, I had done a fair amount “back of the house work,” if you will, which is necessary to any elaborate operation.

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