Category Archives: Self-help

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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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

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


A Day in the Life of a Pre-Adventurer

For the last 5 months, I’ve been planning a new adventure: a 2,000 mile trip down the Ohio and Mississippi from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. I’ve wanted to build a boat and sail the Mississippi since 2006, when I first started building rafts for the Hudson. I figured I would do it after I rafted to NYC, but then that took four years, and by the time I checked that goal off of the list, I had a career at the NYS Legislature. Then I left to go back to school, and by the time that was over I was completely broke. Then I said I would do the Mississippi after I published my first book. But that took longer than expected, and I figured I ought to try and sell some books to make money first. Now it’s time to piss or get off the pot.

The Mississippi has a current, unlike the Hudson which is tidal. I’ve built a houseboat before that floated on barrels. My plan is to do the same thing again, and use the river current to move me slowly south. But because the Mississippi is so sinuous, I needed to acquire a motor of at least 10 horse power to steer myself out of the channel to avoid river traffic. I really wanted a motor of 50 horse power. I’d rather have more power than I need, and use 1/10 of it’s capacity, because at some point there will probably be a strong wind or some kind of contingency where the extra power will come in handy.

A 50 horse power motor costs between $3,500-$5,000. But a guy from Tivoli (on the east bank of the Hudson just north of Rhinebeck) was selling an old boat with a 50 horse power Mercury for $875. He told me I could have the boat and the trailer, too. So on the one really nice day that we’ve had so far in 2018, my dad and I took his truck an hour south across the river and I bought the boat. The guy was nice enough to put two new wheels on the trailer and rewire the break lights and blinkers. We brought the boat back to my parent’s house in New Baltimore, and for the first time in 13 years of Hudson adventures, I became the owner of a boat that isn’t a one-time use item.

Dad with the new boat
I’m on a boat.

It was really a wonderful purchase. I just expected to get a motor that I could put on the barge I was planning to build, and instead I got a whole boat with an electric start, hydraulically powered steering, lights, bilge pump, chairs and cupholders.

So that was a warm day in February, and then it snowed or rained every day I was off after that, and today (Monday, April 9th) was the first day I could go down and work on it.

In the mean time, I’ve been drawing plans. I want the boat to be big enough that me and my partner on the adventure can live relatively comfortably and have our own little space. It needs to be water proof because I will be bringing my computer in order to blog about the communities I visit as I travel down the river. Also, Sam, who is going on the trip with me, plays guitar and harmonic and sings, and I play keyboard and sing, and we want to try our hand at pod casting and busking, so there has to be space for the instruments too. Also, space for a wet bar and an ice maker so I can have afternoon cocktails, a galley for making food, space for storing provisions and clothes and a telescope and a microscope, because I really do want to learn as much as I can about the rivers as I go down.

Rob (my partner on the Hudson adventures) and I have been talking and going over some designs, and it seems like the best plan is really to go with a square wooden platform like a dock that floats on 16 55-gallon plastic barrels and has a 12X10 foot cabin on top. We’ve built a similar vessel before. We discussed using plastic pipes or metal pontoons for floatation but they are too expensive.

My friend Andrew is an engineer and he will help me wire the two 1Kw windmills which I have owned for ten years, which should supply us with more than enough power.

The motor boat I just bought, which I call Delaney, because she looks like a floating DeLorean to me, will function as a tug, interfacing with the cabin in order to steer it at something like 3mph relative to the current, while remaining detachable in order to operate independently at 35 mph.

So, Sam is my co-worker, and he has been in the Israeli army and made road trips across the U.S., and he’s looking for an adventure, and we have complementary strengths, so he is going to join me on the trip. But he is not terribly familiar with my previous river trips, so I thought it would be a good idea for him to come down and see the boat and see a representative day of boat work, which usually entails a lot of driving and hardware store planning and helping my parents move furniture and very little progress gets made, but we get ideas for the next time we work.

And sure enough, that’s how the day went.

I picked up Sam from his Albany apartment at eleven, after getting lost. We drove to my friend’s house, because he was giving my parents’ a patio set and they needed help loading it into their truck. Then we drove to New Baltimore and ate a sandwich with my folks, and I gave Sam a tour of the “boat graveyard”–the 4 canoes, 1 sunfish, 1 sailboat, 1 motorless motorboat, and 1 homemade fiberglass catamaran–that I’ve managed to accumulate in the woods behind my parent’s house.

The big order of the day, though, was to bring the motor boat over to my mechanic, Glen, in Hannacroix, about five miles away. I wanted him to give Delaney a once-over and to fix the trailer, which was missing left hand turn signal.

We had to fiddle with the trailer to get it on the hitch. Meanwhile, my uncle Paul showed up with a kind of wooden diner table he’d gotten from a worksite, which he was going to give to my mom, which annoyed my dad because they have more furniture than they know what to do with but always take more–and I said I would take it down the river with me. So, boom, I have two benches and a table for the boat now.

Then we set off for Glen’s shop. We were doing alright until I looked in the mirror and saw that the boat was tipping way to the left and I shouted to dad to slow down. We heard a scraping sound and came to a stop. Dad looked back and said,

“Oh, crap, the wheel fell off!”

We pulled off onto a side road across from the New Baltimore Town Offices.

“Oh, crap, the wheel fell off!”

Sam and I went looking for the wheel, which had rolled onto somebody’s lawn, and then we came back and called Glen.


“Hi Glen, it’s Dallas Trombley again. We ran into a little problem. The wheel fell off the trailer. We’re stuck across from the town office. We were wondering if you might be able to help us out.”

“Oops! Okay, do you have the bolts? Or they came out?”

“I’m thinking the guy who sold me the trailer forgot to put them in back in February.”

“Well, okay…give me a minute and I’ll mosey on over.”

As we waited we looked behind us, where two quarter horses were watching us from ten feet away. Somebody came by in a pickup truck and said “Hey Kirk,” to my dad, and he said, “Hey, Jimmy.”

“Wheel came off the trailer, huh?” Jimmy observed.


“You find the bolts?”


“They’re probably here there and everywhere a mile back.”

“I think so.”

Another guy passed and offered to help us because he had some bolts and lived a little down the road, but we thanked him and told him the mechanic was coming.

Glen came and got under the boat and jacked it up pretty quickly. As he was working he laughed and said,

“I told Steven the mechanic I was coming here and he said ‘Can’t those people get over here without their wheels falling off?'” Because my father had been driving to Glen’s a couple of years ago, and his front wheel fell off, and Glen had to go help him.

Glen took two of the four bolts off the other wheel and used them to put the first wheel on, and then we followed him as he drove Dad’s truck with the trailer the last mile to Glen’s shop, the wheel wobbling the whole time.


Back at my parent’s house, Sam and I decided to try and open the 1980s popup camper that has been rotting in the woods for 15 years and hasn’t been opened in 5, in order to see if anything might be usable for our trip–like the sink or stove or inverter or table.

First I had to find the lever that turns the capstan or ratchet which lifts the top up. I found this under the camper under years of leaves. The popup works by turning this ratchet which has a spool on it and this pulls a cable which runs under the cabin and somehow lifts the top. Of course, as soon as I turned the spool, the rusted cable snapped.

So now we had to find a way to get the top of the popup off. We went down to the workshop and found a vice and a come-along and tried to squeeze the vice unto the cable, anchor the come-along, and use it to pull the cable. But the cable pulled out from the vice immediately.

I crawled under the camper and managed to tie a loop into the cable and hook the come along directly to it. We ran a heavy rope between two trees and hooked the come along to it. But it kept stretching the rope rather than pulling the cable.

Sam and the come-along with the camper.I then ran a rope to a tree that was farther away, and we got everything taut, but instead of pulling the cable, it started to pull the whole popup forward. Sam observed that the whole cable apparatus under the camper was probably seized up and rusted. So we gave up with the come-along plan, but not before I jammed my hand releasing the tension. It was the first blood of the new trip.

Sam asked if I was alright, and I said “There will be worse injuries than that on the trip, I’m sure.”

We tried to lift the top of the popup and some weird chewed-up cushion material flew out. Then we heard my mom calling that dinner was ready, so we gave up.

We had a nice dinner, and afterwards, as Mom and I were clearing some plates, Dad asked Sam sincerely, “Hey, what’s going on with you guys and the Gaza Strip or whatever. I saw something on the news.”

I wanted to say, “That’s quite the topic to bring up casually to someone you met three hours ago,” but Sam went into an immediate summation of the issues based on his experiences and seemed to explain it to Dad in a way I never would have been able to do.

We left around 6:30 and on the way back we re-hashed the events of the day.

“So, we managed to bring the boat over to the mechanics’ shop,” I noted.

“Hey, that’s something,” Sam observed.

One Last Setback of 2017, Averted!

It wouldn’t have been right if there wasn’t an hours-long setback on the last day of 2017, a year that was pretty much one long string of disasters politically and culturally. But personally, this year I’ve learned to take action ahead of time in order to have the time and resources to meet such challenges.

Back in February I hit a piece of ice while moving my car on a street-sweeping day, and busted the exhaust system. The mechanic said it would cost $1,200 to fix. I said he should junk the car. He called me back fifteen minutes later and said “You know, I think I could Jerry-rig something up for $300.” So I had a car for a while longer.

I had a big grand boat book tour planned for the summer. It turned out that a lot of book stores won’t stock my book and NPR won’t have me on the radio, because I’m self-published. Even the BS Albany ALT Magazine wouldn’t respond to my emails. After two days on the boat, she started taking on water. The old me would have said “It’s NYC or bust!” and ended up sinking with $1,000 worth of equipment and books on board around Poughkeepsie. Instead I adapted and drove to bars and marinas for the tour, met an international group of people canoeing up the river, and now I’m working with them to schedule their adventure down the Hudson next year (and I still have my boat and motor because it didn’t sink).

At Thanksgiving, coming back from my sister’s house downstate, my engine started crapping out, like it wasn’t getting gas when I hit the pedal. The next day I was supposed to drive to Indian Lake to visit a friend for the night. Its an hour and a half drive without cell service at the end. The old me would have driven up and made due with whatever happened. But then I thought “If I get up there and my car breaks down I’m going to have to flag someone down and then get towed for fifty miles at least, and all this might cost me $1,000.” So instead I picked up a shift at El Loco and made money and avoided potentially losing $1,000. It’s little stuff like that that adds up.

Today I am having dinner with my family at Red’s in Coxsackie. I’m going to my parent’s house at four. I haven’t started my car since Tuesday and it’s been really cold. I figured I’d just make sure it would start at noon. Of course it didn’t. But it gave me time to check the fuel cap, try starting it in neutral, turning the wheel, brushing the terminals free of corrosion, and then finally calling my friend Alison for a jump, which worked, two hours later, but one hour before I had to leave.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.” I think we should keep that in mind as we enter 2018.

Books I’ve Read in 2017

These are 36 books I’ve read in 2017.

If you know me socially, you might not know what a big part of my life reading comprises. I view reading the way an actor views his first important role: it’s the vehicle for me to advance in life, my career, and art.

I was an awful reader in elementary and middle school. It wasn’t until 8th grade that I really started reading, after being shamed by my sister about the terrible spelling on my Christmas List. My mother took the list to the toy store and the clerk said, “Maybe you should buy him a dictionary for christmas.” So I started checking out books from the Middle School Library about ESP and the Bermuda Triangle and Atomic Submarines and anything else that seemed cool or paranormal or militarily interesting. Anyhow, looking back on my life so far, I can see that reading has been the most fruitful activity I’ve engaged in, and my books are, collectively, the most valuable possession that I own.

A couple of the 36 books I read in 2017 were boring, but some were very interesting. When I look at a book on my shelf like Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, which I read in 2008 and which served as the basis for the musical, I wonder how I ever hadn’t read that or another book. Reading changes your perspective so emphatically that I don’t think I am really the same person that I was in, say, 2007, a hundred and fifty books ago.

Teddy Roosevelt read a book a day. I was struggling to read a book a week this year and I only made about 3/4 of the goal. But in Edmund Morris’ biography, he talks of how TR read many different genres and allowed the ideas to “cross pollinate” in his mind, where they would form new ideas. I’ve tried to do that over the course of my adult life, but I could never describe what I was aiming at, until I read Morris’ description.

Anyhow, here are a couple of interesting things I learned from books this year.

–A lightbulb can burn for 100 years if you leave it on. What destroys the filament in a lightbulb is turning it on and off, because it heats up and cools down, which causes stress in the metal, like bending a spoon back and fourth until the metal softens and it breaks. (To Engineer is Human, The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Hentry Petroski, 1985.)

–After the great Chicago Fire of 1871, the only living creature to survive the flaming inferno was the postoffice cat, who workers found nestled in a half-filled pail of water when they dug through the debris. (Ten American Cities, Nina Brown Baker, 1949, p. 218)

–Anyone with an interest in great literature, characterization, and New York City history should read Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell, who wrote profiles for The New Yorker in the 1920s-60s. In this book I first heard of McSorley’s Tavern and the health benefits of raw oysters.

–What made New York the Empire State was not just the construction of the Erie Canal, but the dispersal of the toll money which accreted to the state to individual banks throughout the state, for use as their capital. This stimulated the financial sector in New York while supplying capital to small investors when capital was scarce. It also allowed very small investors to invest in canal stock through the first savings and loan institutions. (Nathan Miller, The Enterprise of a Free People, Aspects of Economic Development in New York State During the Canal Period, 1792-1838, Cornell, 1962.)

–How did Calvin Coolidge become president? By being in the right place at the right time, all the time. He had a pretty radical college professor when he was at Amherst. The professor taught the students that life is like a river, and the trick is to stay in the middle where the current is. Don’t get stuck in the weeds or grounded out on rocks–in other words, caught up in scandals or an impulsive decision or leave politics, and then eventually some opportunity will arise and you will be in a position to make use of it. In 1922 that opportunity was being appointed as Harding’s VP–basically a throw-away job designed to attract votes from the northeast. Then Harding died of a heart attack, and Coolidge was in the right place. (Coolidge, Amity Shlaes, 2013)

–Hoover, on the other hand, was in the right place at the wrong time. Here is a man who’s reputation history has really destroyed, who had such promise before 1929. He made himself a fortune in mining in Australia and China before he was 30. When WWI broke out he was living in Brittian and organized the efforts to get Americans out of Europe, when they had no access to money because the markets had frozen. Then he organized a huge food relief effort for Belgium during the war–the only man allowed to travel behind enemy lines of both sides. Then he was head of food mobilization for the U.S. under Wilson. Then he organized a massive relief program for Europe after the war, in order to keep communism from spreading to a destroyed France, Germany, etc. But when in office during the Depression, his insistence on a strict reading of the Constitution and that Americans needed to find a way to help themselves left a poor taste in voter’s mouths. In 1932, FDR didn’t have so much of a plan as an attitude that when 1/4 of the country was out of work, the government must, to paraphrase, “Try something, anything. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try something else. But above all we must try.” (Hoover, Kenneth Whyte; FDR, Jean Edward Smith).

There is a mindfullness to the New Orleans culture which is refreshing compared to the doctrinaire morality of the north. Up here people go to the bar and do shots to get drunk, but poo poo a person who has a cocktail before noon. In New Orleans they enjoy themselves. Lift Your Spirits is a cocktail book written by Chris Williams, bartender extraordinaire from New Orleans. The cocktail recipes are great, but the philosophy of his book is the best part. He describes the bar as a kind of “proscenium”–a word I had to look up. It is the portion of a stage in front of the curtain, where a narrator or MC introduces the action. What a great image for a bar, and what a great way to think about your bar experience. You’re not just at the bar to get drunk, but to share a communal entertainment. If you’re a fan of the art of cocktails you should really watch this video of Chris Williams making a Mint Julep.

I’m not sure why Machiavelli has the reputation of saying “The Ends Justify the Means.” I didn’t find that quote anywhere in The Prince. Also, he seems like a yes-man who’ll do anything to curry favor with a local tyrant.

Karl Marx was too clever by half. The first half of his manifesto seems reasonable enough, insofar as he anticipated that wealth and power could not continue to accrue into the hands of rich robber barons while the majority of people worked 15 hour days for 6 out of 7 days just to make a bare subsistence. But he throws the baby out with the bath water and insists that democracy is also ineffectual, and so there must eventually be a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and it must be worldwide. It set up the 20th century to be a war between Communism and any other form of government, which they viewed as enemies. I think I’d rather live in a corrupt democracy that at least depends every election cycle on seeming to have the support of a majority of people, than live under a dictatorship of mechanics and factory workers without any constitutional rights. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Or as Robert Frost said, “Revolutions are the only salves, but they’re one thing that should be done by halves.”

There were highlights from the histories of the medieval times, and a fascinating book by The Economist about the different kinds of financial markets and their function, but, alas, I’ve got to get ready to go to work now.

December 27th: A Date Which Will Live In Fame (On the Tromblean Calendar)

For about a decade I’ve observed The Tromblean Calendar of Seasonal and Cultural Consistency. The most popular of the holidays on that calendar seems to have been Gin Day, which occurs on the first day that it is warmer than 63 degrees in Albany, which is when gin cocktails, having been retired for the winter, come back into vogue. This year I am adding a new day of observation — December 27th–Pre Resolution Day.

Normally people make a New Year’s resolution and they implement it on January 1st. It is a pretty hard day to start a new resolution, because most people’s resolutions entail the avoidance of some vice, and New Year’s day generally includes champagne at mid-night and a substantial meal at mid-day. So right away people find themselves in this moral quandary where they say, “Hmm, I’m giving up drinking or smoking but I’ll wait until after I go to sleep following this New Year’s Eve party, and the new year will start when I wake up in the morning.” Or, “I’m supposed to jog every day, but I’m having dinner with my family and I’m going to wake up late so I’ll start my New Year’s resolution on January 2nd.” Then, having failed to follow through on the resolution on the very first day, it gets much harder to start it on the 2nd, and a lot of resolutions die of exposure.

I’m going to start implementing my resolutions on December 27th (they are to jog and practice the piano scales everyday, while limiting myself to five smokes). That way I will start to form a routine before the New Year comes. I will have built up four days and laid the groundwork for the more healthy habit. My legs will have already begun to be conditioned for running, and I will already have overcome the first test of cutting down on smoking: New Year’s Eve.

If you really are resolved to follow your resolution, why not start four days early?

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.






Five Weeks Till Launch – Katie Labors, Jake Helps, Johnson Runs

Time constricts. You turn your head for a moment, and bills pile up, deadlines approach, laundry and dishes clutter. It seems like just last week I was sending pictures of my popsicle stick boat model to Mike, and saying “I think it’ll take about a month to build.” That was March. Now it’s July and five weeks until I set sail on my book tour, which could either be my big break, or a huge flop.

In mid-June, Katie quit her job to see what else is out there. I encouraged her to do so. (I left a career at the New York State Assembly to write and travel, and although it’s been hard financially, I think the benefits of working for myself, setting my own schedule, working outside of an office, experiencing the sun in the middle of the day–far outweigh the costs.) With alacrity she offered to help me construct the boat, and I eagerly accepted her help. It came at an especially opportune time, because Sam, who ‘d been helping me on weekdays, is a recent father, and can’t come down to help as often.

So we went to New Baltimore to put a second coat of primer on the canoes. It was late June and about 95 degrees. Katie rolled up her sleeves as we mixed the paint and flipped the canoes upside down. With sweat beading on her forehead, she said, “This feels great. I’m out of the office. I feel like a real laborer!” It took about an hour to coat both canoes with white paint.

My dad, meanwhile, was cutting firewood from some recently-felled trees, as my mother burned brush and leaves. After a while, Dad passed us, under their carport, where there was a pile of about 50 forty-pound bags of mulch. My parents were having their driveway resealed the next day, and my dad had to get the bags of mulch off the driveway. I felt like a brat painting while my father, already sweating buckets, began to move the mulch bags onto the lawn. So I put my brush down and went over to help him. Katie followed, watched me throw a bag over my shoulder, and carry it onto the pile. She bent, tried to lift a bag, and couldn’t get it over her shoulder.

“How much do you think this bag weighs?” she asked. She spends about an hour a day working out, and I think she thought that would translate to manual strength. But there is a kind of strength that builds in your bones and sinews as much as in your connective muscles from years of doing things like raking and lifting mulch, which is different from the kinds of muscles you build doing pushups and leg lifts.

“I’d say it weighs about 40 pounds,” I said.

Undeterred, Katie bent and lifted a bag, which much effort, dragged it ten feet away, and put it on the ground by the pile of mulch. I lifted it onto the top of the pile. This went on as we helped Dad with twenty or so bags. Finally my mother came up from the bonfire, saw Katie lifting the heavy bags, and said,

“Katie! What are you doing!”

“I’m LABORING!” Katie said. I couldn’t help but laugh at how she brought the word full-circle, and enjoyed doing manual work.

Next, Katie and I carried the pieces of the deck out from the workshop onto the driveway as the canoes dried. I only needed Dad’s help for the middle, heaviest section, which is composed of a piece of plywood connected to six 2X4s. By then the canoes were dry, so Katie and I carried them to the driveway and measured the distance between them. We placed the sections of the deck on top.

I’d bought new bolts capable of passing through the multiple pieces of plywood and joists. The idea was that the deck would be built of multiple sections, each of which could be carried by Katie and I and stacked in the back of a pickup truck, and then bolted together at the river on the canoes. That, I figured, would allow Katie and I (or Mike or Sam or Dad and I) to use the boat whenever we wanted, without  a trailer. We lined up the deck and drilled the holes for the bolts to connect the two center pieces. But when we put the back section of the deck in place, we realized that we didn’t have bolts long enough to pass through all the decking and joists. We’d need bolts at least 7″ long. So we drove up to True Value in Ravena and bought the bolts. As soon as we got back, I held the bolts next to the two sections of deck, and saw that they would be long enough to pass through the two sections of deck and connect them. But then I tried to drill the holes for the bolts to pass through, and my drill bit was too short.

It was now almost four o’clock in the afternoon, and although we’d been working for five hours, we’d only painted the two canoes and drilled four holes. I didn’t want to stop again to drive back to the store and spend another $15 on a longer drill bit. So, while Katie held the two sections of deck in place (by sitting on them), I drilled holes through the back deck, and then we took that deck section off. There were dimples in the bottom deck where the drill bit had passed through and made its impression. I used the bit to drill the holes through the bottom deck where the dimples were. Then we put the back deck back in place. I was able to pass bolts through two of the holes, connecting the decks in those two places, but I couldn’t put a bolt through one of the holes, because the hole was situated right above the canoe, and it hit the canoe instead of passing through. And another hole in the top deck didn’t line up with the hole in the bottom deck, because I must not have drilled them straight, so I couldn’t get the bolt through there. The engine I’d just bought would be attached to the back deck, and it needed to be connected damn well to the rest of the boat, or else the 7.5 horsepower force of the engine would just break the back deck off from the front. Two little bolts would not do the trick. So I lost my patience and started to curse and throw tools around. But seeing Katie there, I thought I needed to be more manly and not get so frustrated as soon something didn’t turn out as planned. (Especially because Katie is going with me on this boat tour, and is kind of nervous because 6 of 7 of my previous rafts sank, and asks me, now and again, to explain to her why I believe that this new raft will be safe.)

So I was kind of throwing things around in frustration, and Katie was offering to help if I could give her some direction, which I couldn’t, because I was frustrated (a word that means you have run out of ideas). Luckily, just at that moment, my friend Jake pulled into the driveway. He’d offered to help to get the new outboard motor I’d bought running. He would’ve come earlier in the day, but he had to wait to pick up his two year old daughter, Rosalyn, from daycare.

Jake’s arrival relieved a lot of stress, because Katie basically looked to me for direction, because the raft construction was my plan based on my previous experiences, but I was out of ideas. Jake is a hands-on type, who owns an outboard motor and is fixing up an old sailboat, so we could look to him for fresh direction.

Katie hadn’t met Jake before. Indeed, except for a visit from Jake two weeks earlier, I hadn’t seen Jake in about ten years. But he is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He messaged me one night while I was working at El Loco, because he is running for Town Council in New Baltimore, and I had run for Assembly in that district five years ago, and he was looking for advice.

I want to make an aside right here and just say that I think of Jake Cowell as a great friend and a spectacular candidate for office. He is a gym teacher, he has travelled all over the country, he has been dating the same woman as long as I’ve known him (who is also very sweet and smart), to whom he is married with a two-year old daughter. When he told me he was running for office, my first thought was not whether he would do a good job, but whether the process of running for office was good for him, as a person. Because when you run for office, you have to interact with a lot of people who you know you could help, but they will only vote for whatever party they are registered for, even if it is against their own interest, the interest of their community, the interest of their family, and the economic interest of the area. But I sat down with Jake two weeks earlier and after ten years I found that he was the same smart guy, who loves life, who grew up in the area and wants to help as best he can, who has ideas and energy, who is invested in the area as a property owner and the patriarch of a family, who is neither a strict liberal or strict conservative, but someone who wants to bring the community together to lower taxes, stimulate economic activity, and just make the area a place for people to be proud to say that they live in. Plus the damn guy is busy as heck between raising a family, his own hobbies, and running for office, but he wanted to come over and help me with my boat motor, after not seeing me for ten years.

So Jake came and introduced Katie and I to Roselyn, who was shy at first, but immediately took a liking to Katie. Katie picked her up and showed her around my parent’s yard, looking at trees and dandelions, as Jake and I carried the 1957 Johnson two-stroke engine out into the yard and hooked up a hose and tried to get it started for the first time.

The man who sold me the motor said it ran great. However, the rubber fuel lines, which run from the 1957 gas tank to the motor, were cracked, and the fuel in the tank was old. There are two dials on the motor which point to “lean” and “rich”, which I didn’t really understand. There are some other switches which I didn’t completely understand either. Anyhow, Jake showed me how to prime the motor by pushing a button on the gas tank which pressurizes the tank and sends the fuel up into the engine. We took off the engine’s cover and Jake marveled at how clean the parts were, since they are 60 years old. We put the engine in neutral gear, twisted the drive into the “Start” position, pulled out the choke, and pulled the starting cord. Nothing happened. Jake tried pulling about ten more times, and nothing happened. I tried pulling a few more times. We looked at the engine some more. Jake pointed to a little reservoir in a glass bulb which had fuel in it. He played with the choke. We tried to start it with no luck. We tried starting it with the clutch in drive instead of neutral, with the choke pushed in, with the drive set to “forward.” No luck. Jake got some tools from his car, and I got some electrical tape from my parents’ garage, and we mended the fuel lines. We played with the dials. Finally, with the top dial set to “rich” and the bottom dial set about half, we got the engine started. Jake, Katie and I clapped. Roselyn pointed to an airplane flying overhead, which was much more interesting, from her perspective. We tried to adjust the throttle and the engine stalled. We tried to restart it with no luck, again and again, until we primed it even though the fuel reservoir was full. Then the engine roared to life again, but Jake said it seemed to run too fast, and smoke wafted from the impeller, so we shut it off. By now it was almost six at night, Roselyn was getting antsy, Jake’s wife was home, and Katie and I had been working on boat things for seven hours, so I decided to pack it in. Jake was nice enough to help me take the boat apart and carry the heavier pieces back into the garage, and carry the motor back inside, so that Katie wouldn’t have to do it. Then he left, and Katie and I cleaned up the rest of the driveway.

Here is a picture of the workshop I’ve set up in my parents’ garage, in case you’re interested. The windmills which will supplement the propulsive power of the boat are on the wall.

On the way home, I said to Katie, kind of discouraged,

“We just spent eight hours putting a coat of paint on two canoes, drilling eight holes, only six of which will accept the bolts they’re designed for, and starting the engine which is supposed to get us to New York twice.”

Another week passed. Time moves quicker the older you get. I’d like to think that’s because the older you get, the shorter any period of time seems, relative to how long you’ve lived. But I think its also a function of having a life. I work at least five days a week,  to pay for things like rent and utilities. We celebrated Katie’s birthday. I’m trying to write a book on the Erie Canal, and that requires reading on the subject two to three hours a day. Anyhow, after a week or so I I hadn’t made any more progress on the boat. So I called the man from Athens who sold me the motor and asked if he’d come up to my parent’s house and try to start the motor with me. Nine days after the events I just described, Katie and I drove to New Baltimore on a rainy Wednesday morning, carried the motor on it’s stand, attached to it’s gas tank, into the driveway, and hooked up the garden hose to the impeller. Mike (the man who sold me the motor) showed up, and we tried to start it. I must have pulled the cord 100 times, because my hands blistered.

We cleaned the spark plugs, took the top off the engine and looked at it’s insides. We fiddled with the starting levers. Still we could barely get the motor started–only after priming aggressively–and then we couldn’t adjust any of the levers without it stalling out. So Mike left, Katie and I drove to Napa, bought new spark plugs, I changed them out, and it made almost no difference. Now we’d spent three hours working on the engine, to no effect, and I had to drive back to Albany to work that night.

I researched the motor on some boating forums. It seems that this engine works in an old fashioned way–it sends air pressure into the gas tank, which in turn sends fuel back up into the engine. Since the fuel lines were cracked, they might have been leaking air, and therefore not pressurizing the engine. My new hypothesis was that if I changed the fuel lines, they wouldn’t leak air, and therefore the engine would get oxygen and not choke out. But the boating forums also had CAPITALIZED WARNINGS THAT THIS KIND OF FUEL TANK CREATES AND EXTREME EXPLOSION RISK.

Nonetheless I only had this engine, so I figured I’d fix it rather than replace it. After all, I’d spent $375 dollars on it, I couldn’t afford to buy a new one or pay a mechanic to retrofit the engine to a new fuel tank, and I’d wanted to learn about motors as part of my list of things to learn in my 30s. 

I made that list on the eve of my 30th birthday.

So a week later, Katie and I drove to New Baltimore, determined to clean out the gas tank, change the fuel lines, put new fuel in the engine, and get it running. We wanted to try the boat out in the water with the motor that day. We got to New Baltimore at 10 am. The first thing we did was paint the two canoes yellow–the most striking color, I thought, so that I could attract attention while on the river trying to advertise my book.

Yellow was a good choice: my three-year-old niece was up visiting my parents, and she looked out the window and exclaimed to my mom, “Yellow boats!” That’s exactly the reaction I’m looking for.

Next, I guided Katie around as I cleaned the motor. I was particularly proud to know what I was doing on this task, because I used to make a living cleaning, torching, sandblasting and fixing gas tanks on the night shift at a place in the ghetto of Albany. First I got rid of the old gas the way my grandfather used to: I found a stump in the woods which was in the way, and poured the old fuel on top of it. It will help it disintegrate, so that my parents will be able to drive their truck in that place to get firewood without worrying about popping their tire. Next I used regular dish detergent and a garden hose to clean out the inside of the motor.

It was about ninety degrees and I figured the water would evaporate from the tank if I let it sit in the sun for a while. We touched the canoes, but they were still tacky from the paint. So we drove up to Coeymans Marina to talk to one of the mechanics in the repair shop, just to see how expensive it would be to replace the tank because it is an EXTREME EXPLOSION RISK. The shop was open but we couldn’t find a mechanic. And since Katie had never been to Yanni’s Too Restaurant, we went inside and got a couple of beers and calamari. At that point, Jake, my old college buddy who is running for Town Council, texted me. He was down at Barren Island, and he said we should come down to see the place and take a ride on his sail boat.

This I couldn’t resist. I’ve always been interested in Barren Island. My grandparents used to tell me about an amusement park that was there in the 1910s, with a ferris wheel and observation tower. My mother grew up in Coeymans, a mile upstream, and used to swim in the area and tell me about finding tokens from the amusement park on the beach. Barren Island is a peninsula now, having been connected to the land, like so many of the Hudson River islands, when the Army Corp of Engineers dredged the Hudson and shot the silt onto the shore. In middle school I had a friend named Andrea who lived in Coeymans and I used to walk two miles to her house, and then we would walk down to the island to explore it. I couldn’t believe that an amusement park used to be there, because it’s full of tall trees now, 20 times taller than a man. We’d walk through the woods and look at the abandoned old-timey cars there, and find holes in the ground which must’ve been parts of old foundations, which we were too scared to explore. I couldn’t believe that hundreds of people would take day-liner steamboats from Catskill or Albany to spend their leisure time in this overgrown place. But then I found a book by Edward Giddings called Coeymans and the Past which had pictures of the amusement park, in my grandparent’s lifetime. It really brought home how quickly nature retakes anything man creates and abandons, because there are no traces of any built structures now. When I was in high school, my first real girlfriend and I walked around Barren Island in October, sat on the cliffs overlooking the river, gazed at the fall foliage across the river, and that was probably the first time I really fell in love. After college I read a book by Adrian Van Der Donk, “A Description of New Neatherlands,” written in the early 1700s, which had descriptions of the island. Anyhow I always felt it was a real shame that the place was overgrown and underused, so when Jake told me that he’d fallen into being the caretaker of the island, because his wife was related to Mr. Briggs, the owner, I was almost ecstatic about coming to see what he was doing.

So Katie and I packed some beers in a cooler and drove down to Barren Island. There is a paved road which leads from the highway to the Coeymans Filtration Plant at the southern tip of the island. Right before the gate for the filtration plant there is now a dirt road which leads up through the woods to the north side of the island. When we were almost at the northern tip, Jake’s black lab came running out of the woods and almost jumped through the driver’s window into the car with us. Jake showed us where to park, and we got out, gave Jake a beer, and he gave us a tour. At the top of the biggest hill on the island, Jake had made a clearing where there was a nice lawn and a place for a bonfire. From this spot we could see all the way to Castleton to the north, and across the river to Schodack and Houghteling Islands. Jake had made walking paths, and dug out around the brick foundations of other structures so we could walk around and see what used to be there. This is a kind of preservation which doesn’t get enough credit, because, again, I’d walked around this island for years and never saw exposed foundations, etc, because it was all overgrown private land. He told us about how his wife’s great grandfather, so-and-so Briggs, had built the first electrical power generating plant in the Hudson Valley, after selling his shares in the ice business, because he knew refrigeration would kill that industry. Then he sold the power plant and built the amusement park. Jake had built a stand for his canoes, kayaks and sunfish. He showed us the stairs he had built–which took many man-hours–to descend down the cliffs to the bay at the north of the island, where he had build and floated docks, and where he had a sailboat which he is in the process of fixing up. He offered to take us out on his sailboat (the sails are all destroyed at present, but his sailboat had an outboard motor). So we carried a canoe down, and used a piece of driftwood and a small snow shovel from the trunk of my car to paddle 40 feet out to the docks, which of necessity were situated over deeper water. Then Jake took us out into the river, down around Mathews’s Point. This was not the first time Katie had seen my hometown from the river, for I’d taken her out canoeing, somewhat dangerously, on our fourth of fifth date, but it was the first time we’d been out together on a vessel that didn’t operate under human power, and we felt like a king and a queen in the lap of luxury in this sails-down, broken-deck sailboat with its mast laying across the deck and portions of the railing broken off. After about an hour we got back to Jake’s dock, and he said he had some brush he had to burn that night (a Monday) and we should come and join him for a bonfire. So Katie and I drove back to Albany to feed the cat, get long-sleeved clothes, some more beer, and drove back to Barren Island to meet Jake just before dark.

What a nice time we had that evening. It was twighlight when Jake lit the bonfire, which illuminated the surrounding field and reflected across the cliffs onto the dark river thirty feet below. Over our heads the stars sparkled. I asked Jake about the several poles supporting chains along the dirt road and in the field where we had the bonfire. He laughed and explained that they constituted an Ultimate Frisbee course, and then showed Katie and I all the different kinds of frisbees one uses for the game, as one would choose different clubs for golf. We talked about television shows, and then my book, and then the writing society Katie, my friend Sarah, and I, recently started, which Jake wanted to participate in, if only as an audience member. We cooked hot dogs and some stewed beef I’d brought, on sticks. Jake told us the story of the stick he’d carried for something like twenty years for fire-poking and fire-cooking. Eventually I said to Jake,

“It’s funny man, I feel like you and me have such similar lives or interests or something. You’re fixing up a boat–I’m fixing up a boat; you’re running for office in New Baltimore–I ran for office in New Baltimore; you’re the caretaker of an island in the Hudson River–I was once the caretaker of an island in the Hudson River. We’re doing all of these similar things, and yet we haven’t seen each other in, what, ten years? Until like a month ago. I feel like this is going to be a very productive friendship renewal.”

I cannot pretend to quote Jake (people have different speech patterns, only some of which I can replicate verbatim from memory, but not Jake’s kind) but he agreed whole heartedly.

Perhaps the quaintest part of the night was around 11:30. We strolled down the hill from the clearing, into the dark of the woods. We could see lights shining through the sparse black tree trunks between us and the harbor, across which, upstream approximately two miles, was the facility where they are building the new Tappan Zee Bridge. We emerged from the trees onto the landing above the harbor, and, carefully, descended Jake’s homemade stone and cement stairs to the beach. Earlier, when we’d taken the sailboat out, we had to canoe across the water to the sailboat from the bottom of the stairs. But the tide had receded, exposing ten more feet of beach before it dropped off and made a place for the sailboat, in the moonlight, to bob. We walked along this low-tide beach. There was a fallen-down tree with it’s roots exposed, like 300 fingers of wood dangling. Jake and I talked about me bringing my boat to the spot, so that I’d always have access to it, floating, without having to transport and assemble it. Jake needs to move building materials, like plywood, paint, two-by-fours and hardware to fix up the docks and sailboat. This material is difficult to move by canoe, especially alone. My boat is a platform run by electricity powered by windmills. It could generate the power for Jake’s island and allow him to use electric speakers, power tools, chargers and to jump his sailboat motor. He could stack his materials on my boat, and troll across the harbor. He could easily ferry three people and two coolers over to his sailboat–this would require two delicate trips in a canoe.

Around two am we poured water on the fire. Driving home, I remarked to Katie that we’d spent four hours just the three of us talking, and there was never an awkward moment. We’d washed out the motor’s gas tank, painted the canoes, and now we had a more convenient place to store the vessel. Plus I’d gotten to explore Barren Island, I’d renewed my friendship with Jake, Katie had seen Yanni’s, and we’d both taken a sailboat out on the river. Not bad for one day.

Sometimes I wonder if I made a mistake leaving the Assembly, and I’m fairly certain Katie must sometimes wonder if she made a mistake leaving her office job. But days like these recent ones make me remember why we left. Even if we didn’t accomplish all that we’d set out to do, still, we’d packed our day full of adventure in a way we couldn’t have done in a cubicle (or husbanding our strength for 8 hours in a cubicle the next day). If we can pack every day full of such novelty and adventure, then someday we will look back and think we had a LIFE full of such stuff. That is my real goal with all of this.

Grace and The Glory of Minutiae

We set our sights on grand goals–for me, the publication of a new book; my book tour down the Hudson Valley; ultimately, a “grand tour” of the U.S. though the Great Loop. But the great majority of our lives are filled with mundane minutiae. It’s hard not to lose motivation when the victories are so rare while the work is so frequent, unprofitable, and unacknowledged.

Toward achieving happiness we have choices. We can push our dreams and goals out of our minds in order to rid ourselves of the anxiety that comes with trying to attain them. (That strikes me as a pretty sad path). We can set goals and fight through the work that needs to be done, biting our lip and numbing our mind, while telling ourselves that the work will be over soon, and then our goal will be met. But over a timeline it seems like such a path would lead to an aggregate of annoyance for fleeting feelings of success. Or we can take what I think is the enlightened path, where we acknowledge that the minutia, the unacknowledged and unprofitable steps, are part of the whole experience of obtaining the goal, and try to enjoy those steps as part of the chosen experience.

Eleven years ago I read an essay in Farmer’s Almanac about Grace–a word I’d never really thought of before, especially in a secular sense. The author talked about how he used to loathe shoveling snow. As soon as the snow would pile up he’d get mad, then go out and rush through shoveling his driveway, taking the biggest shovelfuls he could lift in order to get back inside as quickly as possible. I remember he said that if you see your neighbor doing that, and you don’t like them, you should let them keep going on that way, because they’ll have a heart attack soon. (If you’re reading this blog I probably like you, which is why I’m trying to convince you not to act that way.) Anyhow one day the author of the essay was outside and suddenly he just had a change of opinion. He realized that picking up the heaviest scoops of snow didn’t get the driveway shoveled faster, because he tired himself out and had to rest. It also made his back hurt. Instead he started taking little scoops, and he stopped sweating, and then he stopped shivering. Then he wasn’t so uncomfortable or cold or achey. He looked around and noticed that it was actually quite beautiful outside as the snow fell. He realized he was getting exercise, which made him feel good about himself. He found himself even making little side paths just for the hell of it. After that, he didn’t look forward to snow falling, but he didn’t resent it either. He just acknowledged that when the snow fell, he had no choice but to go out and shovel it, and that he was equal to the task, so he might as well do it his way, enjoying what he could about it, because what possible benefit was there for him to deplore the idea of doing what he had to do before and while he was doing it? He called that Grace: doing what you have to do without complaining, in a mindful way, and even deriving some joy from what could otherwise be unpleasant. The essay struck me as really very wise, and for the last decade I’ve tried to follow the author’s advice. I think it’s helped me attain an aggregate of happiness that is far beyond what a  person feels if they don’t enjoy how they spend the majority of their time.

For example, last Wednesday was a pretty average day. I had a neat dream that made me think at 5:45, and since I drifted awake, I decided to get up and start living. (If you hate the idea of getting out of bed in the morning because you’re afraid you’ll run out of energy and get yelled at over the course of the day, you’re probably not living gracefully). So I got up and started doing my Fives, as I call them: I wash exactly five dishes, put away exactly five articles of clothes from my hamper, practice a melodic progression on the keyboard exactly five times, do five sit ups, five push ups, and read five pages of a book. None of those things are themselves very taxing, and over the course of the day, if I do my fives five times, I’ve done 25 sit ups and push ups, read 25 pages, learned a melodic progression, done my dishes and put away my clothes. I enjoy going from task to task, thinking about how my hands or stomach muscles feel, or what my mind is thinking as I read. I feel like I’m Here, Existing, which seems to me so much better than having my mind somewhere else because I’m daydreaming because I don’t like what I’m doing because I’m working for someone else’s profit just to get money.

After each set of Fives I do a task which is mundane or boring or irksome–the minutiae of everyday life. I was done with my first set of Fives at 6 a.m. and I updated my Excel spreadsheet which has my list of receipts for expenditures for my book business, including the cost of building my boat for my boat tour. I updated the list and it took about 15 minutes and I thought “Why did I think this was going to be so irksome? Because I had to open a drawer and look at receipts and type them into boxes?” I found that so far this year I’ve spent $1,409 to purchase copies of my book, build a model of my boat, and build the plywood deck. I would normally pay 30% of my income to taxes at the end of the year, so keeping track of this amount (which is tax deductible) will save me about $400. Not bad for 15 minutes worth of work. I did my next round of fives.

Now it was 6:45 and although I hadn’t done much, I had the satisfaction of knowing that I’d done a fair amount of “over-and-above” work before most people’s alarms had gone off. Next I set about re-formatting my new book, Siren Song, so that it will have a title page, a blank page, and then the page numbers would start on the first page with text. First I tried to figure out how to reformat the Word document by clicking on the drop boxes in the toolbar. I didn’t want to Google how to do it and have to find different answers and read them and click between the web browser and the document, reading and following the directions on a help page. But then I did, and discovered that you can divide a Word document into sections using the Headings tab, and number them independently. I made a section including two blank pages, then the title page (so that the title page would appear, like in a book, on the right-hand side after the reader flips one blank page, then an empty page on the left, so that the text would begin halfway down the middle of the next right hand page.) Then I had to Google how to delete the numbers from the first section (which was complicated). After completing and saving the formatting of the draft I signed into CreateSpace, the publishing website, and uploaded the file. They have a proof-reviewer after the document is uploaded. In reformatting the book I’d added an extra page after the title, so the text began on the left page after a full blank page after the title page. Etc. I edited and re-uploaded the draft six times, each time taking several minutes for the draft to upload. I began to wonder if I would get the draft finished before I had to set out for the day. With some luck, just after 8 a.m. (1 hour and fifteen minutes later) I got the document uploaded, the cover designed, and the whole package submitted for final review to the publishing outfit. Review takes 24 hours, and when the book is done I can publish it on Amazon and Kindle. (I have to charge $4.99 to make 84 cents per copy; I will be lucky if I sell 100 copies of the book, called Siren Song, about leaving my employment at the New York State Assembly. So this hour, added to maybe 300 other hours, will bring me in maybe $84. That comes out to about 28 cents per hour–though theoretically I could always sell more copies. (If it wasn’t for grace and patience I could never be a writer.)

By now it was a few minutes past 8 a.m. and I had to leave by quarter to nine to meet my friend Sam at Lowes to get some materials for finishing the construction of the deck of the new boat (which I will use for a book tour down the Hudson Valley in August). So I had about 35 minutes, which I used to edit and post a picture I’d taken two days earlier with Tess Collins, who runs McGeary’s and used to own the Lark Tavern, which was the best bar in Albany, and in which several scenes in my book are set. I emailed myself my picture, then realized it was in my “i-cloud”, but then I had to edit the picture and save it so I could post it on Facebook, and then I struggled trying to tag McGeary’s and the old Lark Tavern page (though it was easy to tag Tess)–so the post took 30 minutes–another piece of minutiae. But, as with the other minutiae that morning, it has the potential to be profitable: the post got 6 shares and 160+ likes, many from people who I do not know, through Tess’ page, who now know about the book. If five people buy the book as a result, I’ll earn $24.25, which isn’t bad for a half-hour’s worth of minutiae.

By 9 a.m. I’d driven to Lowes in Glenmont for the next step that no one will see when the boat is finished. I had to buy a piece of 15/32″ plywood, two 2X4s, 25 3-1/2″ bolts, nuts, washers and a 1/4″ drill bit. I didn’t have a way to transport the plywood with my 2001 Ford Taurus, but my friend Sam met me and we loaded it onto his car’s roof rack. By 9:50 we’d driven the materials to New Baltimore. By 10:10 we’d carried all of the materials out of my parent’s workshop, lined up the canoes, and put the parts of the deck together on top. So 4.5 hours after waking up, I could finally begin the physical work for the day. My goal was to build the bow of the deck, which, like the back portion of the deck, had to sit higher than the middle of the deck, in order to allow for the rise of the canoes at their bows and sterns.

We began by building a simple wooden square, which will be bolted to the center deck and extend between the canoes forward to support the foredeck.

The battery in the picture is keeping the square from falling off. The final boat will have a cable running from the bow of each canoe under the deck as a suspension support. For added support we cut two lengthwise beams running from the bow of each canoe back to the deck. These required a little math to make the correct cut at the front of each beam to allow for the “rise” of either canoe (the two canoes are different brands and rise at different angles.)

Next we built cross-wise braces, and then we screwed the plywood on top and cut it at angles in order to match the shape of the aft deck.

Here is a picture from the opposite angle:

The angles need to be cut and sanded into a prettier shape, but by now it was 1 p.m. and we had to take everything apart and store it in the work shed. By this point in the day I’d been up since 5:45 doing minutiae items and the only “progress” anyone besides me would observe was that I’d built a small front deck for my boat.

I drove back to Albany and slept from 2-3 p.m. before getting ready for work. I worked 4-9:45 and earned $168 dollars from the job that pays my actual bills. By the time I got home, my girlfriend was asleep (she works 8:30-5 in an office), so I kissed her goodnight, then worked on this blog post from 10:30 to midnight. I did not complete it but by midnight I was exhausted, and I wanted to get up by 7 a.m. the next morning, because there is always more work to do, so I went to sleep.

In the past, on boat projects like these, I’ve often felt overwhelmed. But in the past on boat projects like these I was working at the Assembly working 60+ hour weeks, whereas now I work about 32 hours per week. I’ve got a lot more flexibility in how I spent my time. But the main improvement is that nowadays I don’t think of my job, or driving to Lowes, or making expense reports, or cleaning, working out, reading or practicing piano as obligations. Rather, I’ve got hobbies and goals that I want to experience, and an experience includes all of the preparation. I often joke that at 32 years old I’m “semi-retired.” But if you go through your life gracefully performing the minutiae of daily life, it doesn’t seem like work, and since I don’t seem to be doing work, I do feel like I’m retired. Ironically I’m probably more productive now than I’ve ever been, but I feel like I’m playing around all day. So the point of this post is that you can really get a lot more pleasure from life if you own what you’re doing and don’t think of it as toil. Your moods become more even, you get more accomplished, time seems to last longer, you become proud of the miscellany you’ve finished, you’re more mindful, you sleep better…all of that adds up to being happier and healthier.

Working With My Dad

My dad is 68 years old. He was born in 1949. Harry S Truman was president when he was born. America was experiencing full employment, and thanks to the Marshall Plan, which funded rebuilding Europe after WWII, probably its widest world respectability.

My father grew up in Ravena, New York, a small town about 152 miles up the Hudson River from NYC, or 15 miles south of Albany. When he was a kid there were three bars, two restaurants, a hardware store, a pharmacy (where he and his mother worked), a roller skating rink, two churches and miscellaneous stores on Main Street. He went to elementary school on Main Street. His goal in life was to retire to Ravena where he had a front porch, so he could sit out most of the day and chat with  people he knew. But he moved to New Baltimore, where I grew up, in the woods. And it was a good decision because Main Street of Ravena is now a ghost town of broken windows and abandoned businesses.

The empty storefronts trigger my dad’s nostalgia. He and I both think of the decaying town like we would think of a bedridden friend. We used to park the car on Pulver Ave outside his old house, when I was in high school, and walk down Main Street, and chat with one another as a man and an adolescent.

Nowadays we’ve turned, my dad and I, the way a fruit discolors. There is no Main Street to fulfill his 40 year goal, and as a member of the modern generation, I feel bad, but can’t understand why he wasn’t cynical to begin with, since (today) nothing every turns out positively.

So last Monday I went to New Baltimore to work on my new boat, which I am hoping will be my ticket out of the cycle of broken down Main Streets. I left my apartment at 9 a.m and met my father at Lowes. I carried a list of materials which included 10 1X10″ boards, five 2X4s, four pieces of plywood, two gallons of paint, rollers, and four 2X4X16 foot boards. We loaded my dad’s truck with the plywood and 2X16s, which stuck out of the bed by eight feet, and he drove them to New Baltimore while I followed.

Dad and I, I don’t think you could describe us with any kind of cliche description. We are friends in addition to father and son. But not friends the way that Jared or Mike or Morgan and I are friends. Nor the way that Katie and I are friends and lovers and roommates. Dad is my fundamental roll model, and a very good one. But we are different people. I want to travel all over the world and teach myself piano, history, economics, literature, and law; Dad’s fundamental goal is to hang out with me, my sister, and my mom as a family as frequently as possible. He is like a neutron which has mass and therefore gravity, while I am like a proton which has significantly less gravity but charge. I sometimes envy electrons, which have movement and charge, but they are insubstantial, literally, and so I don’t emulate them. My father neither envies nor emulates electrons. He is certain in his gravity, and for him, rightly so.

We unloaded the truck, stacking the plywood and boards in front of the new garage he and Mom built in front of their driveway (which is newly paved). Since I didn’t want to clutter their front yard or detract from the improvements they are making to their home in their retirement, I stated matter of factly after he’d parked Dad’s truck,

“I guess we’ll have to carry these boards over the hill, past your house into the woods.”

But my father said, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we go up and get the canoes and bring them down here?”

Such a scenario saved several steps.

Dad’s second-hand F250 didn’t start, so he slid the shifter into neutral and backed through using his rearview mirror down the slope off the driveway where he’d parked. His truck doesn’t have license plates. He has offered to sell it to me for a dollar and keep it at his house if I pay the insurance, but I’m short on funds at the moment and trying to fund a boat.

I drove my Ford Taurus halfway down the driveway, popped the hood and attached the jumper cables. The truck started after Dad and I shot the shit for two or three minutes.

We drove up my parent’s law which is quite steep by the driveway, across a level yard about fifty yards wide, past their in-ground pool, down a ramp formed after my cousin poured concrete on a hill made of limestone rocks that served as a ramp to convey the truck to the next level of my parent’s property. My parents own eight acres of hills composed of shale expulsions covered in a mix of deciduous and coniferous flora. It is completely unproductive but quite picturesque. Down the first slope into the woods Dad parked, where my two canoes and speedboat, as well as several cords of wood and a 16-foot picnic table, are stacked along a precipice. I had to push his truck out of the mud when it got stuck.  We loaded my canoe into the bed. It dangled 8-feet over the tailgate. We lifted Mike’s canoe, carried it, and slid it on it’s side into the bed of the truck. Then we slid the lumber Mike and I had carried over the hill two days earlier. Dad drove the truck and the boards and canoes over his back yard and down the hill to beside the garage, leaving ruts in his yard, and then we unloaded everything in the grass.

I hadn’t planned for such cheerful help. I thought my parents would complain if I built my new boat within sight of their house. I figured I would have to spend at least an hour every time I worked on the boat running lead cords and carrying power tools and hardware to the workspace.  So my dad’s alacrity will save me probably a hundred man-hours over the course of my construction project. My father said,

“Okay Son, so what do we do now? I assume you want to take the canoes off first.”

“Well of course,” I said. “Let’s lay them approximately eight feet out from the outside of each canoe’s gunnels, which will approximate the diameter of the finished boat.”

“Ha, okay, you just grab the damn thing and tell me where to place it down.”

So we laid the canoes  eight-feet apart: the diameter of the finished boat.

Problem 1. We didn’t notice this until six days later, but each of the canoes has a kind of seam, running 1/2-inch deep from the bottom of its hull under its length the entire way, which makes the canoe cut straight through the water instead of sliding sideways. On the ground, the canoe would not balance on that line, but rested to either side so that the gunnels of the canoe (the uppermost part of it’s side walls), sat at an angle to the cross beams that connected the canoes. This made it difficult to lay the cross beams across the canoe to connect them.

(The last picture above is from a week later, after I’d given each canoe a coat of white paint.)

So we were standing in the driveway with a bunch of lumber and my sketches and the little model I’d build of the boat, and it was apparent that we had to change the plan.

I have to underscore that my father and I have never really worked on one of my boat projects together, though I’ve built seven boats over five years at a cost of $20,000 in his yards. I always worked with Mike or T.J. or Jared or Morgan or Oliver. When Dad and I worked together, we fell into arguments almost immediately. It was like we couldn’t just focus on the task at hand, but wrapped up in construction was the feeling that Dad didn’t really approve of my lifestyle living in an apartment in Albany instead of buying his and my mother’s house; that I wasn’t settling down and starting a family like he did; that I didn’t want to pursue a career like he did for the State. And also he is so extremely modest as to consider himself dumb when it comes to construction projects, which somehow annoyed me, because I am dumb when it comes to construction projects, but I found that if you just sit there and think of solutions you can create them. Anyhow we always argued before. But in the last six months our relationship has changed. His father and his best friend have passed away and I feel more empathy for him lately. Also I published my book last November, and I never thought he would read it (he’d never read a book in his life)–but he is the only person so far who has read the book cover to cover. There is a lot of tragedy in the book related to our family and to my former depression. Ever since he started reading my book our relationship has changed. He quotes little passages. It seems like the book really affected him, and that he empathizes with me too. It’s like between the book and the deaths he’s faced, we now treat each other as two equal male friends, with all the respect that that entails, rather than just father and son. Like we are working on this boat together because we like spending time together. Like we are friends. I’ve respected my father because of the setbacks he’s had to deal with, but now I feel respected, too. So instead of getting mad at not being able to follow my sketches and model step-by-step, we stood beside the two canoes with the four pieces of 2X4s stretched across unevenly, and considered what to do, together.

The original plan called for six 2X4s to run perpendicular to the canoes, connecting them together, and four 2X4X16-foot boards to run parallel to the canoes, on top of the crossbeams, to support the main deck, which would be composed of four pieces of plywood. This would create a boat that floated on two canoes and was eight-feet wide by 16-feet long. The deck would be built in two sections, each four-feet wide by 16-feet long, which would be connected at the river. I wanted the boat to be detachable so we could ship it to the river in pieces in the back of a pickup truck, because we don’t own a trailer.

Since neither of us are engineers, I decided we’d just build one-half of the deck and see what went wrong–something always goes wrong–so we could make a new plan from there. Over the course of seven hours we built one half of the deck.

Here the 2X4X16s are running parallel to the canoes on top of the 2X4 crossbeams, and the middle piece of plywood has been added. If you look closely you can see the next problem: each canoe is shaped like a banana. Where the bow and stern of each canoe rises, the plywood for the fore and aft deck could not be attached to the 16-foot beams. I’d planned to cut holes in the plywood deck to allow the bow and stern of each canoe to rise through the deck as a kind of aesthetic design–like a fin on an 1950s hotrod–but I couldn’t plan how to do it. And it didn’t help that my canoes are two different lengths. Dad suggested I cut the front into a T shape and cut the back through a series of larger and larger incisions until I cut a hole in the plywood that allowed the deck to lay flat on the 2X16 beams. But it ended up looking kind of shoddy.

Where the canoe protruded from the stern there was an asymmetrical cut; the front appeared unsupported; and the deck would not cover the entire canoe, so rain and waves would splash inside (where I plan to store my batteries and electrical equipment, as low and wide as possible, for ballast and convenience).

So I wasn’t really satisfied, but I felt that we had made progress insofar as we had tried plan B of the design, and now I can think about how to make improvements.

Thus ended Day 2 of work on my book-tour boat. This was a Monday, I drove to New Baltimore on Friday and painted both canoes with a first coat of white metallic paint (it will take at least three coats) and I planned to come back on Monday with a new work plan.

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.