Category Archives: Hudson River

2,000 Miles Down the Ohio and Mississippi–Pittsburgh to New Orleans by Raft

Ever since I was 21 and planning to build my first boat on the Hudson River, I’ve daydreamed about taking a raft down the Mississippi. Thirteen years later, I’m actually doing it. Starting on September 1st, 2018, I’m leaving from Pittsburgh on a homemade boat, and hoping to get to New Orleans about three months later.

I just launched a Kickstarter campaign, to raise $7,000 for the trip, which you can visit for details on the upcoming project. In the meantime I just wanted to tell all of my family and friends about my plan.

I started drawing the plans, making a schedule, setting a budget, and gathering materials back in January. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I looked at some of the designs for my previous boats and picked out the best parts. The new boat actually incorporates pieces of all of the rafts I took down the Hudson, plus hardware from a sailboat I bought but never used, a motorboat I bought but never used, several canoes, a sunfish, and a rowboat. For that reason, I decided to name her Float of the Phoenix.

Initial Drawing of Float of the Phoenix, March, 2018

As you can see from the picture above, I designed the boat to be two boats. The front 20-feet are essentially a floating barge with an 8×16 foot cabin. In this barge are rooms for me and my partner on this trip, Sam, a commode, a galley, and a bar. This barge will be propelled, very slowly, by two electric trolling motors (which I have left over from my Hudson River trips), as well as a small 4.5 horsepower engine. These motors will be enough to steer the boat, but hardly enough to push it into a headwind or upriver against a current. At the back of the living-space/barge, the boat interfaces with the speedboat which I bought in March. The speedboat has a 50 horsepower engine, which can propel the entire rig at around 3 mph. (Given that the current on the Mississippi runs around 3-4 mph, this would provide 7-8 mph movement relative to the shoreline when piloting the boat downstream). Or, the speedboat could be detached, the barge could be piloted alone or remain anchored, and the speedboat can travel 35 mph. Kind of like how the starship Enterprise-D has can separate its battle bridge from its saucer section. The combination of the two crafts gives us the space to live and store supplies, and the security to bring equipment like computers, but also a one-day range of 60 or more miles if one person stays with the barge while the other uses the speedboat.

Pontoons

I discussed the boat design with Mike, my partner on the Hudson River trips, during the first three months of this year. The main points were how big to make the vessel, how to get it to Pittsburgh (the only water route to the Mississippi is through the Great Lakes, over Michigan, through a canal at Chicago, and down a portion of the Upper Mississippi, which would add thousands of miles to the trip), and what to use for floatation. I decided I had to transport the boat over land in a Uhaul, so each piece had to be de-constructible to portions small enough to fit into the bed of a truck. I also decided that the best kind of floatation would be pontoons, as opposed to a displacement hull. We tried looking for second-hand pontoons from a pontoon boat, but they cost thousands. I contacted a company from New Zealand that makes plastic pontoons, but they said that the cost of transporting them to the U.S. would be many factors higher than the cost to me to purchase them. I thought about building my own pontoons out of plywood, but I’ve never been able to make them hold water, and they would cost a lot of money and time. I thought about using large-diameter sewer pipe, but, again, only one store stocks them in my area and they wanted $400 for a 16-foot pipe. Meanwhile, other years I have used 55-gallon plastic barrels and they worked great. I used to buy them for $13 apiece from a gourmet tomato sauce factory in Catskill, but they’re out of business. It takes 450 pounds to submerge a 55-gallon barrel. They are 2.5 feet in height. I could make two pontoons, each from seven barrels laid end-to-end, which would give me 6,300 pounds of displacement. I found a car wash in East Greenbush that sold the barrels for $10 apiece. They got their detergent delivered in them. So Dad and I drove across the river and got them on a rainy Sunday afternoon in March. In case you’re wondering, a standard pickup bed fits exactly 14 55-gallon drums standing upright. We brought the barrels to my parent’s house in New Baltimore, where, for the previous month, I’d been creating a work area in the woods behind their house.

Barrels from a carwash.

The problem with using barrels on a boat as opposed to a dock is that barrels are designed to float, but not to cut through water. The way most docks are designed, and the way I’d designed Assiduity back in 2009 (on which this vessel’s design is loosely based), the barrels are tucked up under the decking of the dock, strapped into place individually with fire hose, and there are gaps between each barrel of several inches. When a boat constructed this way is pushed through the water, not only the first barrel but every barrel gets pushed through the water, creating drag. Meanwhile, every vessel has a hull speed, which is the speed at which the vessel moves through the water most efficiently. Hull speed is based on the length and shape of a hull. Basically, when the bow of a hull cuts through the water, it creates a wave. At slower-than-hull-speed, that wave breaks along the sides of the boat, creating drag. At hull-speed, the wave breaks immediately behind the motor at the stern of the boat, creating the least amount of frictional resistance. (Boats can travel above hull speed, but it requires exponentially more power AKA fuel consumption for every integer increase in speed).

To overcome the problem of 14 barrels making 14 individual waves, I decided to combine the barrels into pontoons. This would come with a double benefit: not only would I greatly decrease the drag on the boat by presenting a solid shape to the water, but in the event that any part of a pontoon is punctured, it would only damage 1/7 of the pontoon, because each pontoon is composed of seven individually-sealed barrels.

I could only think of fiberglass for combining the barrels. And before I could fiberglass I had to get the barrels into a pontoon shape at least temporarily. I decided to use Gorilla Tape. It took me one day of working alone, and a few hours with my friend Andrea, to get the pontoons duct taped together. For ease of transport, we made two sets of 4-barrel long pontoons, and two sets of 3-barrel long pontoons.

Some of the barrels duct taped together.

Now the fiberglass cloth could be laid across the barrels without falling into the spaces between them. It didn’t matter that the duct tape will eventually not hold up to the stress. It just needed to hold the barrels together until the fiberglass hardened the barrels into a single shell.

Fiberglassing is not fun. You have to use an epoxy, which is a two-part chemical that hardens when mixed. A “hardener”–the smaller container in the picture–is mixed with a “resin”, which begins the reaction. The mixture has to be exact, a few drops too much hardener and the mixture will cure in just a few minutes; too few drops and it will never harden. The cheapest epoxy I could find was from Older Timer Industries, on Amazon, for $87 a gallon. [TIP: If you’re ever using epoxy to fiberglass, get all of your materials set up first, like your brushes, and your fiberglass strips cut to size, because once you mix the epoxy you’re working against a ticking clock. Also, put the hardener into your mixing container first, and the resin on top. It is counterintuitive but it will help you mix the materials together more easily.]

Fiberglass

Fiberglass also is not cheap. Luckily I had a roll laying around since 2010 when I built my last boat. Fiberglass comes in a long roll. You lay it on whatever you’re building or fixing and then you paint the epoxy on it. The epoxy gets absorbed into the threads of the fiberglass and when it hardens it makes a composite of a hard kind of amber with strong fibers running through it. It’s the same principle that makes bricks, which are dried mud and straw, so much stronger than just dried mud or straw. There are two tricks with fiberglass. The first is to select the right weave size as you’re buying it. Too small a weave (less than, say 1.5 oz) and you need to put many layers on before you get a good amount of strength; too big a weave (say, over 5 oz) and it gets hard to get the epoxy to permeate the weave and make a strong bond (although you could fix this problem by contacting an epoxy supplier and getting them to make you an epoxy with a lower viscosity). The second trick is to cut the fiberglass into the largest strips that can go around whatever curve you’re fiberglassing without wrinkling. You can bend fiberglass a little bit better than you can wood or plywood, which can only bend along one axis at a time, but if you try to fiberglass over a long conical surface with a sheet of ‘glass the size of a bed sheet you’re going to end up with a lot of wrinkles because it won’t lay flat.

Fiberglass sheet laid on pontoon.

In the picture above, I could use one long sheet of glass, because the barrels are cylindrical but not conical. That is to say, the fiberglass only has to bend in one direction–down–not sideways or diagonally.

Once I finished fiberglassing the pontoons, I started to think about what I could put on the front of them to make them cut, rather than plow, through the water. I discussed the idea of making shapes out of cardboard and taping them in place at the front of each pontoon and then fiberglassing them, with my father, but he had another idea. Back in the woods, I’d left my 2010 boat, Assembly Required, for the last eight years. Mike and I had made that boat by covering a canoe with plastic wrap and then fiberglassing it and taking the mould off when it hardened. So it had two bows made of fiberglass that were shaped like canoe bows. I took a saws-all and cut these tips off [insert mohel joke here].

It was a little janky trying to attach the tips of Assembly Required to the bows of the pontoons, because the tips widened a little wider than the barrels. Eventually the barrels would be sort of arrow shaped ====> rather than completely flush.

Barrels with bows.

Next we took more fiberglass and used it to attach the tips to the pontoons. Sam came down to help on this part of the project. He is going with me on the trip. It helps tremendously to have a second person around when epoxying, or carrying something heavy, or framing, or traveling 2,000 miles down the Ohio and Mississippi over three months.

Sam does some fiberglassing.

Mike always suggested filling anything close to the water with foam for extra protection. I decided to fill the pontoon tips with foam because they were the most likely to hit something. If they sprung a leak, the water could only fill as much space as not taken up by the foam I put in. I cut pieces of foam from a sheet of 2″ insulation foam I’d had lying around since 2012, and then I sprayed expanding foam into all the crevices. I used two cans.

Pontoon bows stuffed with foam.

Then it was time to duct tape the tops of each pontoon, to present a solid surface for the fiberglass.

Then I coated the whole kit and caboodle with more layers of fiberglass. The 1″ stick in the picture is in place to help the boat track through the water (move in a straight line).

In the meantime, I happened to see on Facebook Marketplace that a man in Castleton, across the river from Coeymans, was selling a rowboat for $200. I wasn’t quite sure how to support the deck of my barge if it was going to be 12-feet wide as planned, because the floor joists would have to stretch over eight feet unsupported between the pontoons. If I had something like a rowboat between them, it would provide support beneath the deck and also give me a lot of storage space. I checked out the boat, it seemed in good shape, it was light enough that two people could lift it, it was made of fiberglass, it was approximately the same depth as my pontoons, and it had flat gunnels (side walls) so that I could run the floor joists of the barge across and they would sit evenly. I bought the boat, Dad drove his truck up to Albany, met Sam and I, and we brought it back to New Baltimore. Sam and I tried the boat out in the Hudson with a trolling motor and found she moved well, and I needed just to patch a small hole in the stern and to get a bilge plug to fill the bilge hole.

The rowboat would form the center hull of my barge.

Now it was time to paint the pontoons with a pigmented “gel coat.” I actually did not do this. The gel coat I bought off of Amazon was the wrong product, and I was in a hurry to get the pontoons done (I only had one whole day and one morning a week to work on the boat during May). Instead I bought an “epoxy paint”–which I had never heard of before–from Shady Harbor Marina in New Baltimore. I could choose from green or red. I thought green was more woodsy.

Applying the epoxy paint.

I used the green epoxy paint on the bottom of the rowboat, too, and put about ten coats on the seam on the transom where the rowboat leaked. When I was finished, it was nice to see the three hulls all matching in color.

Pontoons and center hull finished.

But it’s as important to wear latex gloves when using epoxy paint as it is when using epoxy! I had been in a hurry that day and didn’t want to bother. Bad choice. After washing with gasoline, soap and water, and a pumice stone, this was the best I could do. I had to wait tables that night looking like I had moldy fingernails.

Wear gloves when you paint with epoxy paint.

Decking

The pontoons had taken almost a month and a half to finish. The reason they took so long was because I work on the boat in New Baltimore, and live and work in Albany as a waiter. Generally I would leave Albany at 8 a.m., put a coat of fiberglass on the pontoons between 8:45-11:30, and then I would have to drive back because it would take at least two hours for the epoxy to harden.

The decking was much more straightforward framing work, except that I had to plan it in sections which could be easily moved and transported.

The final boat will be 12×20, which dimensions are easily divisible by four, to keep my cutting to a minimum. (Plywood comes standard in a 4×8 foot sheet; 2x4s come standard in 8-foot lengths.)

I brought the two front sections of the pontoons and the rowboat down into my parent’s yard, where it is flat, and where there are electrical outlets nearby. I placed the hulls within a 12-foot square.

Starting to lay out the front deck.

The front of the pontoons (pictured above to the left and right of the rowboat) were almost exactly 12-feet in length, as was the rowboat, so that I could frame a deck by building three 4×12 foot sections of deck and bolting them together to produce a 12×12 foot deck, or 144 square feet. [144? Gross!]

I’d gone to the hardware store to buy the pre-treated 2x4s for the decking, but I forgot about all the bracing I would need, every 16-inches between the crown and base plates of the deck frame, to support the plywood. So I went around the “boat graveyard” in the back of my parent’s house and took all the 2x4s off of my old contraptions, raided my workshop for odds and ends, and ended up with the 30 pieces of 45″ joists that I needed.

This was June 7th. Dad and I framed out the deck sections in the yard during the mid-late afternoon (I happened to have a Thursday off).

Three sections of 12×4 foot decking, stacked atop one another.

Many hands make light work. I have a paragraph in Coming of Age on the Hudson about how one extra person does not cut your labor time in half, but by 4/5, because one extra person just makes it so much easier to frame something or cut something by holding the other end of a board so you don’t have to make a jig or hold a board in place with your foot while putting a screw in with your left hand and holding a screw gun in your right. Anyhow Mike and Sam (my friend from last year’s Hudson River boat) came down on Thursday evening and helped me bolt the frames together. Sam was much better than I am at drilling holes so that the bolts pass through in a straight line and don’t get stuck in the wood (because he measured everything precisely), and I asked Mike to focus on how to make a jig that would allow for the 4.5 hp gas motor to vice onto the back of the boat.

Mike and Sam helping to bolt the barge pieces into one deck.

I took a 12-foot board and bolted it through the 4×12-foot sections to hold them all in place. When we were done, I could really see what the dimensions of the boat would be.

Sam bolting the deck.

Loading the Pieces Individually

As I said, I had to construct the pieces in fragments small enough that I could lift them with one other person, and they could fit in a pickup truck, because I will have to disassemble the whole craft and ship it to Pittsburgh. On Friday of last week, Dad and I unbolted everything Mike and Sam and I had bolted together the day before, and shipped it to my friend Jake’s island on the Hudson River.

Loading the deck segments.

I was glad to see that we could load all of the deck pieces as well as the two front-halves of the pontoons into the bed of the pickup truck, as planned.

The whole front deck and pontoons in one pickup bed.

We brought all of the materials to Jake’s island. They would be safe there, so that Sam (the other Sam, who is going on the trip with me), and I could assemble them on the beach inside Jake’s island’s cove on Monday, when we both had a day off of work at the restaurant at which we are jointly employed.

Assembling the Boat for the First Time

On Monday, June 11th, I picked Sam up at his apartment and we drove to New Baltimore to assemble the deck on the pontoons. We hadn’t yet tested the pontoons, or the rowboat after I’d (attempted to) fix the hole in the transom. We drove to Brigg’s Island, the island of which Jake is the caretaker and where we’d build the boat. Brigg’s Island is 1/2 mile south of Coeymans and forms the northern boundary of the Hannacroix Creek. Jake maintains the northern tip, where he has a dock with a sailboat that he and his friends are fixing up. There is a very steep staircase that leads down from the north cliff of the island to the river. To the left of this staircase is an outcropping of rock which protrudes north toward Coeymans. This outcropping creates a natural, small, beach bay approximately 100 feet across. The bottom of this bay is sand. The bay is made of sediment which flows into the bay from the tidal action of the Hudson, because the north side of the island has been filled with silt from dredging the Hudson, so that the “island” is technically now a peninsula, although the easiest access to this bay is from the tip of the island, which Jake owns, by boat, rather than overland, through the jungle which has grown from the deposited silt over 95 years.

I wanted to assemble the boat on the sand beach within the bay, because I was wary of the effect of frequent tides and wakes from barges and speedboats jarring the boat as I took several weeks to assemble it. I preferred to bring the materials to the beach and anchor it in such a way that 3/4 of the time, the boat would be beached (and therefore immune to the effects of wakes, tides, and winds) while 1/4 of the time it would float, so that I could come to the island and test the buoyancy of the pontoons and the motive power of the outboard.

So, Sam and I had to carry the pontoons and the frame down a staircase to the very tip of the island, which is composed of broken rocks which are submerged for 1/2 of the day and dry the other half, and get the pieces around a sheer outcropping where our only choice was to carry each individual piece while wading hip-deep through moss-covered rocks (an endeavor which would require several hours).

Instead, I proposed that we carry the rowboat to the river’s edge at the bottom of Jake’s cliff, load the framing, screws, and tools on top, and I would wade around the island pulling the boat by a rope. Sam agreed, mostly because I emphasized that this was objectively the safest and most time efficient plan.

First we carried the pontoons, individually, down the staircase to the water’s edge. We put them in the water and they floated perfectly. I swam each one to the rock outcropping and shoved them into the cove, because the waves would push them onto the sandy beach just a few yards away. Then we carried the decking down and put it on the center hull.

The three segments of deck loaded on the center hull for transportation to the bay in which we would assemble the pieces into a boat.

Sam commented, “Dude, I feel like we’re in the 1800’s on the Erie Canal.” As I pulled him, inside the boat, around the corner of the precipice and dragged him and the boat onto the beach, he sang, “…fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.”

When we’d drove, carried, and pulled the materials into the cove, we were overcome by the picturesqueness of the scene.

The materials in Colwell Cove, waiting for assembly.

After all, what were our friends doing at that moment? They might have been in an office, working at a service job, overcoming a hangover, or playing video games. None of that could compare with the present, in which Sam and I were assembling pieces of our creative projection on a beach on a beautiful spring afternoon.

We assembled all the pieces, vice-gripped the trolling motor and marine battery into place, and installed the 4.5 hp outboard motor, to give it a shakedown trial. The electric motor carried us easily into the river, and then the outboard started up on the first pull, and moved us at least 3 mph. We went south to the mouth of the Hannacroix Creek, in New Baltimore, which is the one 1/4-mile of the Hudson River that I have visited by boat more than any other part of the 150 mile stretch from Albany to NYC (and I have gone past places like Coxsackie or Poughkeepsie four or six times.) I took this picture from the first evening we tried out the motors on the boat.

First time trial with the boat, at the mouth of the Hannacroix Creek, New Baltimore, NY.

It was a really grand time putting the boat together with Sam on a deserted beach with tug boats and yachts going up the river and the sun coming down, up to our calves in the water, the birds flying over, the fresh breeze blowing in our faces.

The next week was fun but stressful. I’d agreed to house sit/ cat and dog sit for my good friends Nyssa and Rich. They are two of my closest friends. After the apartment that I’d lived in for nine years burned down, I stayed with them, and their cat slept with me every night, and their dog is always excited to see me. At the same time, a group of folks I’d met on the river last year, who are part of an international organization called Ninth Wave which, among other endeavors, paddles rivers across several continents, were about to canoe the Hudson River, and I’d agreed to pick them up from the train station, let them sleep on Nyssa and Rich’s couches, and then drive them to New Baltimore where they would stage their 2018 river adventure. In exchange for the hospitality, they accompanied me to the hardware store to purchase the lumber for the walls and ceiling of the cabin, and then helped me paint the 35 2x3s and seven sheets of plywood, front and back. I had to paint them so that the lumber would not absorb water and increase in weight by 300%.

On the next Monday, June 28th (three days ago as of this writing), I picked up Sam and we drove to New Baltimore to frame out the walls of the cabin and the ceiling. We accomplished this task by 2 pm. Sam and I went to the Halfway House Tavern, the oldest business in Ravena, for lunch. Then we brought two canoes to Coeymans, lashed them together, and loaded the walls and ceilings on top. I figured it would be easier to paddle the materials 1/3 mile south to Jake’s island than to carry each piece from the top of Jake’s island around the precipice, our bodies semi-submerged.

The materials for the walls and ceilings of the cabin, loaded onto two canoes as a makeshift barge, Coeymans, NY.

Once we’d loaded the plywood and walls onto the canoes, there was no place left to sit. Sam and I tried to sit atop the lumber and paddle south, but the wind was blowing north, and twice we tried to paddle south only to be blown back north into the dock from which we’d departed.

I decided the only way to get the materials to the island was for me to take a rope and walk along the shore rocks. I’d done this for eleven miles along the Hudson in 2010, when the wind was so unfavorable that neither our motor nor our oars could overcome the blowback. Sam remained in the boat and used an oar, and later a 2×4, to keep the canoes from getting stuck on the piers that make the dyke along the western shore, built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1920s to prevent erosion and maintain the channel depth.

It was a treacherous expedition which took an entire hour to complete. The rope was short enough to be caught, frequently, on the protruding piers and the bolts of metal that extend from them. The rope tended to pull Sam and the canoes with the lumber into the piers. Fallen trees and other obstructions laid over the piers and required me to let go of the rope, overcome them, and meet Sam on the other side, ready to toss the rope, having paddled. The heat index triggered several alarms, so that we could not exert any effort without sweating so profusely that we required cloths to wipe our eyes. Then suddenly a storm broke over us, and it began to rain. Sam shouted jovially,

“Of course! This is our luck, man!”

And I rejoined, sarcastically,

“Hey it could be worse!”

After we did finally make it to the cove, we just checked that the barge was anchored and tied up well, which it was, and unloaded the supplies on it.

The Cabin

Two days ago, June 19th, I went to New Baltimore and met my dad to build the walls of the cabin. I used to not like to work with my dad, because neither of us had any experience working with power tools or framing walls. Now, I love working with my dad. He has learned about framing walls and using power tools from me, as I built boats and a cabin in the woods at Mom and Dad’s property. Especially, though, Dad read my book, and there is a lot of specific information about boatbuilding, and he is a character in it, and we have grown closer since he read the book, and I have come to anticipate his help and ideas in my boat construction.

He is also nearly seventy, and although he is a great help as a physical laborer–greater than, say, any girlfriend I’ve had, even at sixty-nine years old–I don’t want to tax him. So I like to ask Sam or Mike or my other friend Sam to help me move heavy things that require dexterity.

But Dad can certainly carry a framed-out wall, hold up 40 pounds, or suggest unorthodox ideas by which to complete a task, so I certainly like his company.

Anyhow yesterday, Dad and I went to the island. Sam and I had already deposited all of the heavy parts to assemble. Dad and I had to transport our bodies, a cordless drill, screws, some lumber, and a waterproof roof rack that you might put on the top of a car, to the cove, around the precipice that is 5-feet deep at high tide, which it was.

The wind was blowing so hard that white caps were crashing over the surface. Dad asked me about an object he descried in the river, whether it was a stick. I confirmed that it was a whole branch, almost a section of a tree, floating downriver. It took merely ten minutes for it to float a half mile past us, which suggested the river surface was blowing south quite fervently.

The most eventful part of the day was canoeing around the tip of the island into the cove in the heavy wind. Dad, I believe, has only been in a canoe one another time, and we were loaded with supplies. Dad got into the front of the canoe, and a barge passed just as I was pushing us off. A wake broke over the bow and doused him with water. Soon, though we were around the tip of the island and the wind blew us safely into the cove.

I brought the anchor up. It’d held the barge off the beach. When the anchor was aboard, I blew right onto the beach, next to Dad, who waited with the canoe and supplies. Once beached, we began to take the plywood and framed lumber that Sam and I had brought aboard the previous day off the boat. Then we laid out the plywood decking, screwed it in place at the corners, and left a half-section right in the middle unscrewed, as a hatch for access to the rowboat.

Dad and Phoenix with decking.

Next we screwed the walls into place.

Walls attached.

Here’s a view out the front of the cabin. Hopefully I’ll have a similar view for about two and a half months straight this fall.

A view over the bow.

The hatch opening was 4 ‘ by 4’, and gave access to the entire rowboat for storage space.

Inside the hatch.

Today, June 21st, the first day of summer, Dad and I went to the island and put the roof on. We used a cordless drill to drill pilot holes, and my power drill plugged into an inverter attached to a marine battery to drive the 3″ contractor’s screws. Adding the roof made the structure much more ridged.  My phone overheated so I had to take this picture from back atop the ridge on the island, on zoom, so it is a little blurry. That is the status of the boat as of today.

The boat, with three walls and a roof, as of June 21st.

The Next Steps…

The next steps are to finish the construction of the boat, fundraise for the expedition, wire the electrical charging system, and prepare the boat for transportation overland from New Baltimore, NY to Pittsburgh, PA.

Construction

The portion of the boat seen above is currently 12-feet square. The finished boat will be 12-feet wide by 20-feet long. Thus I will be extending the length of the boat by eight more feet, the same size as the cabin in the picture. I need to finish fiberglassing and painting the rear portions of the pontoons, frame out two more deck sections like Mike, Sam, Dad and I made ten days ago, and then frame out the rear of the cabin and roof as in this picture. Then I need to purchase and cut the plywood for the sides of the cabin. The cabin will have 2.5-foot windows which will fold down around the entire length of the cabin, beneath which will be screen to help protect us from mosquitos. I will be adding a door to the front and a sort of hinged deck on either side which will extend over two canoes. The rear portion of the deck will interface with the speedboat I bought in February, as a barge interfaces with a tugboat, so I will have to come up with some sort of bumper system that also secures the speedboat in place when driving the barge. Interior work on the cabin and the final paint job will not be completed until we have launched in the Allegheny River above Pittsburgh.

Fundraising 

I am using Kickstarter, a fundraising website, to try to raise $7,000 for the trip. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing fundraising site, meaning that people offer to donate to a project but are not charged for their donation unless the total amount of the fundraising goal is pledged. There are incentives built into the donation levels. For example, donating $25 entitles a contributor to a copy of my book, Siren Song, $60 gives a contributor a two-volume copy of Coming of Age on the Hudson, and $500 buys a contributor two days and one night on board the boat as we make our expedition. I have 30 days to raise the $7,000 or I lose any lesser amount pledged. The Kickstarter math is complex, though. If 140 people pledge $50 and get a copy of my book, and it costs me $10 to print a copy and $5 to mail it, and Kickstarter takes it’s 10% fees and charges, I net $4,200. If 700 people donate $10 and receive no books, I net $6,300. It makes it a little hard to budget the total amount of money I will have available until the end of the Kickstarter period. I’m also saving for the trip from my regular employment, but much of that money is currently going to purchase construction materials. Along the way, I am hoping to raise awareness of my book on Amazon.com and sell enough copies to supplement the amount I will start out with. The more books I can sell or money I can raise, the more interesting of a trip I will have, because I will be able to visit more places and see and blog about more things. Since the purpose of the book I’m writing on this project is to compare the political and cultural life of the small towns along the Ohio and Mississippi, and abstract those conditions or policies that are leading some communities to thrive, my fundraising is directly related to the quality of the book. The more I can raise, the longer I can stay on the river, the more places I can dock, the more tributaries I can travel up, the more cultural facilities and local businesses I can visit and patronize.

Also, as of today, I am quitting smoking in order to save money for the trip (as well as for it’s health benefits)!

Electrical System

Having enough electricity on this trip is key. My partner on the trip, Sam, and I will be bringing our laptops, cell phones, and AV equipment in order to blog and podcast along the way. I need to use my phone for the river charts app which requires running my location services. The navigation and anchor lights and interior lights need to run. And I am using two electric trolling motors, mounted on the two sides of the boat, one of which is remote controlled, to steer when the river presents conditions that do not require the outboard motor. To power all of this equipment, I am installing two 1Kw windmill generators, which I already own, but which I need an expert to help me wire to the bank of four deep-cycle batteries which will store our power. We will also bring a generator and, if the budget permits their purchase, solar panels. All of this needs to be wired to a sacrificial fuse which prevents overloading in high gusts of wind and a charge controller, at a minimum.

Transportation

As of right now, the plan is to take the boat apart on August 1st and store it on land at my parent’s house until the last week of August, and then to rent a Uhaul to transport all the pieces, as well as the speedboat, out to PA. I would much prefer to find a professional driver with a flatbed to bring everything out. I have started to spread the word that I am looking for that service, but if anyone has any advice, please contact me at DallasTrombley@gmail.com.

I will be updating this site at least once a week as the construction progresses.

 

One Week Till Launch

I’ve got one week until Katie and I set sail from Troy to Manhattan on my book tour. I need to finish the boat, connect with the media, and finalize the schedule with the businesses at which I’m stopping. I just started to remember, today, what the last week before a raft trip used to feel like. There are lots of problems, and I’m not totally sure that everything will work out. But it feels exhilarating.

I decided to ditch the gas motor. It always felt like cheating, since I’d never used a gas motor on the trips that my book is about. Or, it felt like I was getting old, because I never worried about a gas motor when I built boats before. And if you read the previous post, you know the motor was 60 years old, it was hard to start, and it had a gas tank that the boating blogs warn poses an EXTREME EXPLOSION HAZARD. I was spending too many hours fiddling with the thing every day, when I should have been focusing on something I already know how to do (more or less), which is to wire together a bank of deep cycle batteries and hook them up to the two windmills I had on Assembly Required, the boat that I sailed to Manhattan in 2010.

Assembly Required, 2010, the day we installed the windmills.

Next I decided to ditch the idea of taking the boat apart into pieces and shipping it in the back of a pickup truck whenever I wanted to drive it from place to place. It was a good idea back in February, but the pieces were heavy, and required two people spending an hour to put the boat together whenever I wanted to work on it, and then a half-hour to take it apart again. Instead, I decided I’d get a trailer, put the boat together on top of it, and then I could work on painting it, wiring it, and building a structure on top to protect from the weather, without wasting time whenever I had 3 hours to go to New Baltimore to work on the vessel before I had to drive back to Albany to go to work.

So I drove to New Baltimore and Katie, my dad and I put the boat together in the yard. This time we used bolts but I put a whole bunch of screws through it too, so that the boat is really one piece now. To attach the platform to the canoes I crawled under the boat and tied the platform’s joists to the cross-beams of the canoes. Katie and Dad were unsure this would be a sturdy enough connection, but I knew from building Mother of Inventions in 2009 that rope is a really great medium for connecting hulls to platforms. They can take a lot of stress without snapping.

The boat finally connected into one structure.

The bow of the platform floats between the two canoes, as does the back of the boat. I wanted to support the bow so I could stand on it. Also, I didn’t want the canoes to shift or pizza-slice like a person trying to slow down on skis–the canoes have to stay exactly parallel. So I tied a rope through the loops at the fronts and backs of either canoe, to a bolt with two eyelets on either side, which when screwed together, adds tension to a line.

Connecting the canoes at bow and stern to one another.

After screwing in a set of oar locks, the next step was to lift the boat onto a trailer. My friend Jake had dropped his trailer off early in the morning, but he’d to leave to help demolish a house. So it was up to me, Dad and Katie to get the boat, which now weighed about 500 pounds, onto the trailer before Jake came back, so we could take the boat to the river that night and test it out. Getting The Manhattan Project (2007) and Assiduity (2009) onto trailers required cranes and 20 people, respectively. But this boat is much smaller. My father and I were able to lift the front of the boat while Katie slid a 12-foot 2×4 underneath, so we could hold it better. We then rested the 2×4 on higher and higher piles of lumber until we could back the trailer underneath the bow. Then I put a series of pipes under the bow on top of the trailer, and Dad and I lifted from behind and rolled it forward. This was how we rolled the bridge off of Assiduity 16 feet in the air when we had to move that monstrosity to the river in 2009.

The boat partially loaded onto the trailer. The trailer is 10 feet long and the boat is 16, so it hung off the bat quite a bit.

By 2 p.m. we’d gotten the boat permanently put together and onto the trailer. Jake was not due back to tow the boat to the river until 7 p.m. It was at this point that I saw a big difference in my Dad, compared to years ago. Back when I was building rafts, as I describe in my book, Dad used to joke about how silly I was, how I was ruining his yard, messing up his driveway, and wasting my time. My dad read my book about those adventures, and told me he didn’t like the way I’d described him, like an adversarial figure. I didn’t really know how to respond to that, because I know he wasn’t trying to be adversarial, but that was how he seemed to me, then. Well, now Katie and I rested on the boat and Dad sat on the stone wall that’s waist high across the driveway by the hill below the house. We were trying to figure out what to do next. Suddenly, he stood and asked, “Do you want me to drive over to Glen’s [our mechanic in Hannacroix] and see if he has my trailer hitch?” Dad and Mom had bought a newer truck which did not have a hitch attached, and Dad was waiting for the mechanic to fix the flat tire on the wood-splitter, and he was going to install the trailer hitch, which would only take a second to install, while Dad happened to be out there to get the wood-splitter (whenever that happened). “I’ll go over. What the heck. We gotta try out the thing sooner or later, right?”

“If you want to go over to Glen’s and get the trailer hitch, and use it to take Jake’s trailer to the river sooner rather than later, I’m down for that! I just don’t want to inconvenience you or anything with the truck. I’d really like to get this thing to the river as soon as possible.”

“It’s nothing,” my dad said, and took off to get the trailer hitch so we could finally try out the boat that I’d been designing and building since April or something like that. I didn’t feel total relief, but I felt partial relief because the solution to one problem–how to tow the boat conveniently–was largely solved. I could borrow my Dad’s truck, or he could drive.

Once Dad came back with the truck hitch it was a simple matter to hook up the trailer, then Katie and I followed behind as he and Mom drove up to Coeymans Marina. Katie and I veered off in order to drop my car at Barren Island, then we met my parents by the docks in Coeymans. This was the easiest transport of one of my boats to the river yet. We simply backed the boat down the launch until the trailer’s wheels almost touched, and the overhanging canoes licked the water. Then I untied the boat, lifted the bow off the trailer, and she slid right in.

Well, we tied the boat up to the dock and loaded the oars, the marine battery, the trolling motor and our life jackets. In a tupperware “dry box” we kept our keys and cellphones. While Katie, Mom, Dad and I stood on the dock, I did a little dedication ceremony. I threw a pocketful of coins onto the deck, popped a bottle of champagne, poured the first three libations to Poseidon, poured a little over the deck, and I named her “TL” — short for That’s Life.

It was obvious that she wasn’t taking on any water and that the whole deck held together well. She only drew about 6-inches of water, just about what a canoe would normally draw. My dad was surprised because he thought the extra weight of the deck and battery would push the canoes under water. Katie was visibly relieved because she has been in a canoe only about four times, and of course a singular canoe threatens to tip whenever you shift your weight. But when we got aboard she saw that the two canoes cancelled each other’s tipping motion, and that it would be very difficult to capsize the boat (more difficult than it would be to capsize a V-hulled boat like a speedboat or a sailboat, whose ballast must be kept below water level). We only had about two hours of daylight left, and I wanted to test the boat out and tie her up in Colewell Cove, on Barren Island, where Jake had planted a dock and moored his sailboat. So Katie and I boarded and waved goodbye to my parents. I hooked the electric motor to the battery and turned her on. We started moving downstream on half-power at about 3 mph, which is just below the boat’s cruising speed of about 4 mph. I remarked to Katie that it had been seven years, but I was now I was the captain of a boat again!

There is a point on Bannerman Island that makes a peninsula and cuts off the view of Coeymans from downstream. On our first raft it took us nearly 45 minutes to pass this point. On our later boats with oars it took us about 12 minutes to pass this point. On this night, with the water like glass, and no wind, and the perfectly streamlined hulls and an electric motor, we reached the point in 5 minutes, before my parents had pulled away from Coeymans in their truck.

We finally get the boat on the water.

It was mid-August and this was the first time Katie and I had been out on a canoe the whole year. We had the bottle of champagne to pass back and forth. So we decided to motor south to the beach at the southern side of the bay formed where the Hannacroix Creek meets the Hudson, a mile downstream. Katie watched her first three barges pass in close proximity. I told her,

“You’d think we have to worry about the wakes from barges, but they’re not so bad. Their wakes come at you slow and rolly. All you’ve got to do is turn and face them, and they’re over in a couple of seconds.” We turned and rode the wake of a barge and it was no problem. “It’s the speedboats that you have to watch out for. When the go by at 40 miles an hour, their wake comes flying out, and they’re bigger and less predictable than the wakes of the barges.”

In Hannacroix Cove, with Barren Island to the north behind me.
Katie in Hannacroix Cove.

You can tell it’s low tide because the littoral grass and lily pads are protruding from the water almost out to the channel. After we made our stop, we motored back up to the north side of Barren Island. I brought us to shore and we carried a canoe down from a hill where Jake keeps it. We put this on the boat, then motored out to the dock where Jake has his sailboat. We tied up TL, then canoed back to the land, where there’s a path through the woods which led to where we’d dropped off my car. I took a final picture of the boat tied to the dock next to Jake’s 30-foot sailboat. It’s grainy because I had to zoom in with my camera. All the lights and cranes behind are the works they’ve built just north of Coeymans. None of that existed when I was taking rafts down the river. We stowed one of our rafts where the tanker is moored in the picture below, because the whole place was an abandoned brick plant with some falling-down sheds.

The next day was Monday and I had a book event up in Dana Park in Albany, the Monday Night Concert Series. It is the little park next to Lionheart in the triangle formed by the intersection of Lark Street and Delaware Ave on Madison Avenue. I spent three hours there, and made a profit of $5. But I feel like every movie you watch about some comedian or singer has a scene at the beginning, when they’re just starting out, and they are performing at some hole-in-the-wall place with about two customers, one of whom is heckling them. So I didn’t resent being there–in fact I was honored to be asked to attend. I was adding to my starving artist creds. While I was there, the publisher of Boating on the Hudson Magazine, John Vargo, emailed me a proof of the cover of the September issue. Boating on the Hudson is a free magazine; 6,000 copies are distributed each month between Lake Champlain and Manhattan, and he put a picture of me and my book on the cover with the caption “The Next Hemingway.” That sure felt good, especially since Hemingway was one of the main authors I emulate in my writing (the first chapter of my book, which uses driftwood as an epic simile, is a nod to the first chapter of A Farewell to Arms, which uses falling leaves as an epic simile).

I didn’t have a lot of time to go down to check on the boat over the next week (August 14-20), because I worked every night, and every day I had to email restaurants, breweries, bookstores and marinas about the book tour. Sometimes in the serving industry you have the option to leave early if business is slow, but for two weeks I couldn’t leave early because I needed the cash so badly to order copies of the books, which take a couple of weeks to be printed and mailed, for the book tour. 20 copies of Volumes I and II cost $290, and I wanted to have 100 on hand before I set sail. So I definitely had to work every night, and still transfer $600 from my line of credit to get the books. The worst thing I can picture would be to have people show up to buy my books at an event, and I am sold out. So eight days went by and I didn’t have a day to go down to New Baltimore to check on the boat, and then on Monday I started to get nervous. On a raft trip in 2007 I’d left my boat tied up in New Baltimore, and first the wind snapped its anchor line, then the tide washed it onto shore, then the police ticketed it, and then somebody cut its mooring lines as an intentional act of vandalism. So I made a point of getting up early and driving down to check on the boat on Monday morning.

If I’d gone down to check on the boat one day later, I wouldn’t have a boat to write about. I hadn’t thought to screw in cleats when we’d launched the boat, so I’d had to tie her to Jake’s dock by throwing climbing ropes around the bow and stern lines that connected the two canoes, and I tied one line to an oarlock and passed it through a cleat on Jake’s dock. When I drove to barren island and kayaked out to the dock, the boat was literally hanging by a threat. The line that had been tied through the oar lock had snapped the oarlock in half; the line tied around the bow had snapped; the one remaining line was chaffed and threatened to break at any moment. I retied the lines and ran home in order to get cleats to attach to the boat. This was the day of the solar eclipse, and as that was going on, I ran a long lead line behind my parent’s house, over the hill, stringing three 100-foot lines together, and carried up the electric drill. I used the drill to harvest the cleats and other hardware from the my old boat, Assembly Required, which I’d sailed from Albany to Manhattan in 2010, and which was now a pile of rotting wood and chipping fiberglass. I removed the hardware as the noise of the drill sent bees swarming and grasshoppers jumping all around me.

Neglect and sunlight does a lot of damage to a fiberglass boat over seven years.
A view inside the cabin of Assembly Required. She has plants growing up through her hull now. The plywood floor has completely rotted away.

I’d bought an inverter–a mechanism that you can hook up to a big battery like a car battery which converts the current from DC to AC so you can run appliances off of it. I brought this device, the drill and the cleats back to the river, kayaked out to the boat, brought the boat back to shore, and loaded them aboard. While I was doing this, several boats passed, and I saw why the ropes had snapped over the previous week. Jake’s dock is in shallow water, and when the wakes from the passing barges and powerboats hit the shallow water they grow in size. I watched as the wakes hit Jake’s dock and sent it and his sailboat bouncing violently. Meanwhile a couple of boats passed–I think one was Riverkeeper–and men stood with binoculars gazing at me. I managed to screw in one of the cleats, but the inverter kept beeping because the drill drew more power than the inverter could handle. So I got some of the cleats half-screwed in, then brought the boat back to the dock and tied new, stronger lines, directly around the boat’s frame. I decided I needed to come back to the boat on my next free morning (two days later, Wednesday the 23rd) with a cordless drill, to attach the cleats more securely.

Wednesday started, for me, at 6:30 a.m., because I had to go to traffic court in Delmar at 8 a.m., because I had a totally B.S. ticket for not counting to four at a stop sign coming off the Thruway in Selkirk, but I decided not to fight it if they gave me a plea, because it doesn’t matter if you’re guilty or innocent in a traffic violation, either you get found guilty or a lawyer finds some procedural error, and I didn’t feel like getting a lawyer. (As a side note–I can see how the process is very confusing to a person without experience in government–the Prosecutor appears to be a functionary of the court system, and when they call you into the room alone, it seems like a representative of the judge is speaking to you. I accepted the plea of parking on pavement, and then the prosecutor started lecturing me on the dangers of “blowing a stop sign.” I didn’t blow a stop sign, I stopped a stop sign behind a dump truck where I could see a quarter mile of highway in either direction, and I didn’t stop a second time, but drove onto Route 144 at 2 mph behind the dump truck. I must have had a look on my face because he stopped halfway through his sentence and said, “Well, I don’t need to lecture you,” and I felt like saying, “Yeah, you’re function here is to make sure that these BS tickets take the money out of my pocket and put them into the town coffers, let’s cut the pretend-moral-authority.”)

I drove back to my apartment and Katie and I drove down to New Baltimore. It was now eleven a.m. Katie worked with my mom toward making the signs which will be on either side of the boat reading “DALLASTROMBLEY.COM, Coming of Age on the Hudson.” I’d already cut and painted the boards on which the letters would be displayed, and my mom was using a high-end printer she got for Christmas to cut out the letters. Then we’d just have to tape them to the boards and they’d function as stencils.

IMG_0624 (A video of the printer at work)

As mom worked on the stencils, Katie and I drove to Barren Island with some one-inch boards, screws, and the cordless drill. The boat was still tied up fine when I kayaked out to the dock. We beached the boat on land and used the drill to put the five cleats in more tightly, so now we have the ability to tie up to docks quickly. Then we built the frame of a “cabin.” It’s basically a stick frame that we can unroll a canvas drop cloth on top of, and bungie it down, to make an 8-foot by 6-foot room which is 4-feet high. Larger than a tent, it will give us a place to ride out summer storms, and a place to hook lanterns and navigation lights.

By then it was past two p.m. so we had to pack it in. I retied the boat. We drove back to my parent’s house, where my mom was still working on the stencils. She offered to finish them, tape them to the boards, and give them the first coat of paint. I’ll check out the signs tomorrow. As of today she had a first coat.

Tomorrow (Friday morning, 6 days before launch) I’ll get up at 7:30 to go to Lowes for L-brackets, hinges, polyurethane, and 1-inch boards, then bring back two of my old marine batteries to NAPA and get three new ones (if you return a marine battery you don’t have to pay the NYS surcharge of $10), then go to Yanni’s to see about getting a boat slip for my book signing there are 9/1, then to the island to work on the boat for an hour, then to Uhaul to see about renting a trailer to bring the boat up to Troy before my trip, then clean up and head back to Albany for a 4:30-11:30 table waiting shift.

 

 

 

 

 

Don Weeks Radio Interview, 8/2007

My friend Paul, who used to administer the website for my raft projects, found this gem in his files. It’s a radio interview on the Don Weeks Show on WGY in 2007, after my third raft was stolen and wrecked by vandals by the Normanskill Creek on the border of Albany and Bethlehem. The audio file takes 7 seconds to start.