Tag Archives: New Baltimore

That Sinking Feeling: The Boat Part of My Book Tour is Over. Part 1: Prep and Launch

The tides of the Hudson rise and fall as much as six feet in September, in the northern Hudson Valley, depending on the phase of the moon. The tides rise and fall twice a day, so you get two high tides and two low tides, roughly every 6 hours and 5 minutes. My fortunes over the last week have been like the tides, up and down, up again, down again, never abruptly, but noticeably, and, perhaps, predictably.

There was hardly a waking moment between the Friday before my launch and the Friday that I had to abandon ship that I wasn’t either working on the boat, working at my job, driving from my job to work on the boat or vice versa, or sleeping. During the four days before I launched the “finished” boat, I didn’t even shower. I slept between 3 and 5 hours per night.

On Saturday, August 26th, I left Albany for New Baltimore at 9 a.m., having worked till 11 the evening before. The whole point of building the boat was to raise awareness about the book I wrote about my experiences on the Hudson River, so first I checked on the progress of the sign my mother was painting. 

The sign on the top, with the stencils still taped on, needed a second coat of yellow paint, while the bottom sign needed three coats of polyurethane on either side to protect it from the water. Painting the second coat of yellow took most of my time. After every few letters I sprayed a coat of poly on the other sign. Then I drove down to the island where the boat was tied to Jake’s dock. I unloaded some supplies I’d bought at Lowes and Walmart for Monday’s planned construction work. Then I drove home, sent emails to reporters, bookstores, restaurants, etc, until I had to leave for work 3:30-11:30. The next day, Sunday, was similar except I worked on the second sign and drove back to Albany in order to leave for work 2-9:30, and do my correspondence after.

Monday, August 28th, was supposed to be the big day to finish the cabin, get the windmills wired, and try out my 2nd outboard motor. (I’d decided, once again, to supplement the wind power with an outboard motor, because I’d used the electric motor for only an hour since putting it in the water a month earlier, to go 100-feet from Jake’s dock to the landing at Barren Island and back, yet when I’d used the motor on Sunday it barely pushed the boat against a 5 mph wind).

I was excited to go to New Baltimore on Monday and woke up at 6 a.m., like I was getting ready to catch a flight to NOLA. Monday was my first day off in five days and the last I’d have off before I set sail three days later. Having to drive to New Baltimore and back, and clean things up, etc, each time I had a morning to work on the boat, ate up a lot of time. On Monday I figured I’d lined up all the dominoes and now I’d drop them into the “finished” pile one by one.

On the way to New Baltimore I stopped by my friend Justin’s house. He’d a left an outboard motor and gas tank in his barn for me. He said it ran good the last time it was used, and I could have it for $150 (a good price for an outboard) if I wanted it. I’d told him I’d try it out first and let him know, because I’d already bought one outboard motor which was supposed to work, but I couldn’t get it running. So I pulled up to his barn and loaded his 50-lb outboard and gas tank into the passenger seat of my 2005 Ford Taurus sedan. I dropped them off in my parent’s yard and drove to the island (I needed another person to help me carry the motor down the island’s steep cement steps) . I kayaked across Colwell Cove to the boat, pulled the tarps off, stacked the anchor and other junk onto the dock so I’d have room to work on the deck, and then I trolled back to the shore, eager to work in the crisp, cool, late-August morning river air.

This was the high tide; it began to ebb, and continued, through the end of Monday.

The first problem I tackled was the cabin. I didn’t want a cabin made of plywood, because I didn’t want i) the extra weight; or, ii) the wood to act as a sail, shoving my boat over the water instead of where I tried to pilot it. So the cabin was made of 1″ pine frames, over which I would unroll canvas. I’d gotten a dozen reeds of bamboo which a local restaurant was throwing out after using them as decor. My plan was to slide the bamboo over the 1″ cabin joists to look like tiki. But when I carried the bamboo down to the shore I saw that i) they weren’t hollow but had thin disks baffling the inside every foot or so, which were impossible to knock out without splitting the wood; and, ii) most of the reeds were either too narrow to slide over the boards or too thick so that the hole on the inside of the reed was too small. So after trying to knock to inner discs out, cut them out, etc, I gave up trying to make any supports out of the bamboo, and started cutting and screwing more wood and brackets to strengthen the cabin walls. Unfortunately, after I’d added extra joists, diagonal buttresses, etc, it was hard to get in and out of the cabin from the sides of the boat. Now whenever you got onto the boat you had to crouch under a horizontal board two-feet off the deck. And it didn’t really strengthen the cabin walls.

By now it was 12:30 and I drove home to meet my dad, who was just getting home with my mom from . My mom showed me how the sign looked after she took off the stencil. It needed touch-up work where the yellow had bled. At least two hour’s worth. She had small paint brushes and offered to touch up the sign as Dad and I loaded the outboard motor into Dad’s truck and drove to the island. I kayaked out to the dock, brought the boat back with the electric motor, and Dad and I carried the motor and gas tank down the steep cement steps. We loaded these onto the boat, and Dad got onboard for the first time. I pushed us off and motored us over to a mud beach at the inside of the cove. We had to be in water to start the motor, but I wanted the boat to sit steady while we attached it to the transom. Unfortunately, the water at the beach was too shallow to put the motor onto the transom. So we used the electric motor to go back to the dock and tie up, and then we clamped the motor in place. Aside from the little bit of fiddling we’d done with the 60-year-old Johnson motor earlier in the summer, neither of us had ever even looked at an outboard. So we guessed how to hook up the gas tank to the motor, and I bent over the back of the boat to try to read the instructions on the motor. But the instructions were warn away. So we looked at the various levers and figured out which was the choke and which was the throttle, and guessed that a lever on the side was the shift. We primed the motor, turned the choke on, put the throttle to start, and I stood up to pull the starting rope. On the first pull I hit my head on one of the 1″ beams I’d screwed to the top of the cabin. I cursed and unscrewed that beam. Then I pulled the starting rope ten or twenty more times, and it didn’t seem to want to pull over or do anything. We played around with everything again and it didn’t seem like the fuel was going out of the tank into the engine. The palm ball didn’t even get hard when we primed it. So, frustrated, I motored Dad back to the shore, motored back to the dock (the electric battery now almost dead and moving me only inches every few minutes), tied up the boat, and kayaked back to the island. Dad and I drove home, met Katie who had just arrived from Albany and was helping my mom touch up the sign, and I sat and had a beer.

“My god, this is frustrating,” I said to Mom and Katie, who were hunched over the sign, and Dad, who sat at the other end of the table.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Katie asked.

“Grr. Well, there are ten thousand things that I need to do within the next 48 hours, but they’re all moot unless I can get a damn motor working.”

“What about the electric motor?” my mother asked. “I thought you had the windmills for that?”

“Yes, but the batteries give me like an hour and a half of propulsion apiece before they need to be recharged. But they take like eight hours to be recharged. So if I kill one battery by using it for 1.5 hours, let’s say, then I can hook up the next battery, while the first is recharging. After 1.5 hours I’ll have a second battery that is dead, another that is less than 1/4 charged, and two full batteries. So after 6 hours I’ll have three dead batteries and one that is only 3/4 charged. And the windmills only charge if the wind is blowing. But the electric motor isn’t really that strong for pushing a boat through the wind and the tide. So it’s like, I can use the electric motor if I’m going with the tide, and then by the end of 32 hours, I can use it for another six-hour tide. But on Thursday I’m supposed to go up to Troy, so I’ll be using the motor to go up, and then back down to Albany, and then from Albany back down to Coeymans. That’s going to be like 12 hours worth of traveling. I’d really feel more comfortable if I had a motor. It’s not even about comfort. I don’t think I can get from place to place reliably on the electric motor. I have appointments to make on the book tour–it’s not like other years where I could just drift from place to place.”

“Yeah and you don’t want to get stuck out on the river and the battery dies or something and you’re stuck,” my mom said.

“Yes. But now I am the proud owner of not one but TWO NON-WORKING OUTBOARD MOTORS! Ugh!”

“Well, just relax, baby, we’ll figure something out,” Katie said.

“It’d better be soon, because I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do if we can’t figure it out by tomorrow.”

“You could call Jake and ask him to come down and look at the motor tonight,” Katie said.

“I could call Glen [Peters–our auto mechanic] and see if he knows anything about boat motors,” Dad offered.

“Is there anybody else might have a motor you could use?” Mom asked.

“I did text Jake,” I said to Katie, “and he is coming tonight after his Executive Committee meeting to help me figure it out.”

“Oh! That’s good,” Dad said.

“Yes. And if you could call Glen, I’d love to know if he can take a look at the motor, but I’d need it by Thursday.”

“I donno about that…”

“Well, exactly. It doesn’t solve the problem if I can’t get it before Thursday. Oh!” I touched Katie on the arm. “Remember when we went to your co-worker Kate’s housewarming party, and I was playing Corn Hole with that guy? He said he’d just gotten a new outboard motor right out of the box. Maybe I could rent his for two weeks or something!”

“Do you have his number?”

“Yeah–I texted him pictures of the boat the night I met him. I’m going to text him right now, just as a backup plan.”

So I texted the guy, and Dad called Glen the auto mechanic, and then we ate some homemade tomato pie from Mom’s garden and waited for Jake to get out of his meeting.

After dinner, Katie and I went to the island to do some painting and anything else we might do as we waited for Jake. When we were out on the dock we saw Jackson, Jake’s dog, running along the beach, and then heard Jake shout down to us from atop the steep cement steps. So we trolled back to him and we went through the same steps that Dad and I had gone through with the motor four hours earlier, with no effect.  We tried taking the gas tank off of Jake’s sailboat and attaching it to my motor, but the lines had different fixtures. Now it was dusk and Jake had to go home to put his daughter to bed, and all I’d really accomplished on this Monday when I was supposed to get everything done was to put up a couple of support beams and for Mom and Katie to touch up the sign. Very discouraged, we drove back to my parents’ house to debrief them. There, my Dad said he’d spoken to Glen who did know about outboards, and who said he would take a look at mine if we dropped it off to his shop the next day. It was too dark at this point to get the motor from the island, so I told Dad I’d come down the next day so we could get the motor before Dad had to leave with the truck, and he would drop it off to the mechanic. Meanwhile I got a text from the man I’d met playing Corn Hole, and he offered to let me rent his motor. I figured a working motor in hand was worth two non-working motors on hand, so I told him I’d drive up to his house in Cohoes and get the motor that night. I left my parents, drove up to Cohoes, met the guy at 10 p.m., gave him $100 in cash, and for the second time that day I loaded an outboard motor and a gas tank into the passenger seat of my car. I can’t say I loved the idea of having the gas tank in there as I drove, or the expensive motor in the passenger seat as I parked in Center Square. Back in Albany I spent a couple hours corresponding with parties interested in the tour, and making Facebook Event invitations, and went to bed at 2:30, knowing  had to get up at 6:30 to drive the borrowed outboard to New Baltimore, because I didn’t want it sitting in my car during the day.

On Tuesday I drove down in the morning and dropped off the borrowed motor. I showed my mom what I was looking to do with the canvass drop cloths functioning like curtains to roll up and down the side of the cabin. I drove to the island to check on the boat and saw Jake’s gas tank floating away. A barge had just passed and the dock and Jake’s sailboat were rocking from the wake, and the red tank was bobbing out into the channel. I a kayak down the steps and paddled out to rescue it. It was good timing, but I’m not sure Jake would consider it fortunate that I was there, since the whole reason the tank was on his dock (and therefore knocked into the water) rather than on his sailboat, was because he took it out to help me get my motor working the previous day. I brought some supplies from the island back to my parent’s house and then it was time to head back to Albany to go to work. I got out at 10 p.m. and, like the night before, spent the night corresponding and doing clerical tasks for the trip.

Wednesday was do-or-die-time. It reminded me of the days before launching one of our rafts back in the two-thousand-and-0’s. I knew I’d be spending the entire day (outside of work) finishing up the boat. I met my friend Nick in New Baltimore at 7 a.m. Right as we arrived, Jake pulled into my parent’s driveway with his trailer. He left it there before going to his New-Teacher Orientation at Coxsackie-Athens. We put the ball-hitch on my father’s truck, and he took my car to his morning job. Nick and I drove to Barren Island, where Nick dropped me off. He drove up to Coeymans with the trailer.

That’s Life, in the water at Barren Island, 8 a.m., Wednesday, the day before launch.

I kayaked out to the boat and used the trolling motor to go up to Coeymans. We backed the truck down the launch ramp and brought the boat onto the trailer. It was difficult tying it to the trailer because the boat is almost sixteen-feet long, while the trailer is only ten-feet. We ran all of the ropes around the front of the boat so it wouldn’t bounce off the trailer on the way back to my parent’s house. By 9 a.m. we were back with the boat.

The first order of business was to attach an outboard motor mount to the back of the boat. An outboard motor mount is a pretty heavy metal hinge that the outboard vices onto. You can adjust a lever on the mount in order to raise the motor out of the water so it doesn’t strike rocks or mud in shallow water or when transporting or launching the boat. I just happened to have an old mount lying around from a 21-foot sailboat I’d bought off of a man from Delmar 4 years earlier, and cut up into pieces. Nick and I went back into the woods and found the mount among a bunch of other odds and ends I’d collected over the years, like the old paddlewheel from Assiduity, another dilapidated speedboat hull I’d gotten for free from Amsterdam NY, two boat trailers, a sunfish, and some sailing masts. We brought the mount back to the boat and bolted it to the transom, or back end, of That’s Life.

Nick bolting the motor mount into place.

 

The motor mount bolted into place.

 

Next, we made a cover for the center console, to stow small items. It always helps to have a second guy when you’re running a piece of plywood across a table saw. Then we measured and drew out the hatches to cut in the deck so I’d have access to the space in the canoes to store my equipment. The problem was cutting those hatches out. My circular saw is broken, or dull, or something, and burned more than it cut. So I asked my mom if she’d call my Uncle Paul, who is a carpenter, and see if he’d come down and cut the hatches for me while I was at work that night. He said he would. Nick had to leave around 10:30 a.m.. I helped my mom with the canvass coverings she was making for the cabin, then headed up the Napa in Ravena to buy three deep-cycle marine batteries. These cost $349. That included $30 in savings because I returned three old batteries and there is a kind of deposit or credit you get when buying a new battery if you return the core from an old one. Unfortunately the batteries weren’t in stock and the clerk said I’d have to pick them up at 7:30 a.m. the next morning (the morning of my launch). I ensured with the clerk that the batteries would come charged, because I’d have no time to charge them, and he said that they would. Next I went down to Coeymans Marina and bought the “coast guard package”–which is to say, the items which the State mandates I must have on board my vessel. These included a four-pack of flares ($34.25), a white stern light ($20.99), a red/green bow light ($16.95), a throwable life preserver ($16.19) and some other items I needed to finish my boat, for a total cost of $166.49. I’d been saving $10 every shift I worked since last November for the boat, and this finally depleted my budget. I brought the supplies back to New Baltimore, checked on my mom’s progress, and we realized I’d need to buy two more drop cloths to complete the canvas covering for the deck, one more set of hinges, and four more pieces of 1″ boards. I told them I’d pick up the items on my way back down to New Baltimore that evening, then set off for Albany to work my serving shift. 

Luckily, it was a slow night, and my coworkers, the manager and the owner of El Loco were sympathetic to my book sale endeavor. They let me leave at 6:30. I went to Lowes and Walmart (to get the food and other provisions for the trip) and got to New Baltimore at quarter ’til eight. My parents and Uncle Paul were working on the boat under the floodlights of the workshop. Uncle Paul had cut the hatches into the deck and put hinges in place, and drilled holes and ran bungie cords through to close them. This opened up a ton of space. My mother was in the process of sweeping the deck with a broom, because it had gotten covered with mud and pebbles while I worked on it at Barren Island. At the back of the boat I saw that they had attached the motor to the motor mount. After showing me the improvements (Uncle Paul said the price for the work was to take his son, my cousin, Pauly Junior, out on the boat when the trip was over), my dad left to bring Uncle Paul home, my mother went inside with the drop clothes I’d bought at Lowes to make the rest of the cabin walls, and I brought some 2x4s out of the workshop to build the poles that would hold the windmills up under the floodlight. The windmills rotate on 2″ diameter pipes, through which the wires run down. To attach these, I cut 2x4s to the correct height, then used a jigsaw and a chisel to cut 2″ slots in the 4″ sides of the 2x4s, then I lowered the windmill mounts in and duct taped them in place. You’d be surprised how well this holds. This was the same process we’d used to attach the windmills to Assembly Required in 2010 and they held all the way to NYC in 15 mph winds 150 miles. Once I’d bolted these vertical boards to the deck I ran a horizontal board connecting the posts halfway up. By then my Dad was home and we built a frame for holding the gas tank for the outboard motor in place, with a bungie to keep it from popping out. Dad then went inside to help my mom with the canvass flaps for the cabin as I cleaned the boat off, put all the tools away, and loaded the back of his truck with all the supplies I would need for the next day. My mom finished the canvass sides just as I finished cleaning and loading–12:30 a.m.. I drove home to sleep for four hours. 

 

 

Thursday, August 31, was launch day. I woke up at 6 a.m. and drove to New Baltimore. My mom realized she had sewed one of the canvass sides incorrectly, so we took it apart and she started re-glueing it. Dad and I drove to Napa to get the three 60-pound deep-cycle marine batteries, and I bought 5 gallons of gas. Back home we mixed the gas in a 50::1 ratio with marine 2-stoke oil and put it in the boat’s gas tank. Then we noticed that the trailer had a flat tire. So we brought out my grandfather’s old air-compressor and filled the tire. Then we backed up the truck and it took my dad, mom and I about a half an hour to maneuver the trailer with the heavy-as-hell boat hanging 6-feet off the back into place above the ball-hitch on the truck, lower it, and snap it into place. I got into my car and followed my parents as they drove slowly down their driveway. At the bottom of the driveway, which is steep, the back of one of the canoes scraped the pavement. My dad stopped, but I told him to keep going, because we probably wouldn’t go over another section of road as steep as their driveway. 

My plan had been to have the boat in the water at Henry Hudson Park, which is ten miles north of New Baltimore and about 15 miles south of Troy (where I was meeting a reporter that afternoon) at 9 a.m.. But it was 9 a.m. already, and we had to creep along the road because every bounce sent the back of the boat bottoming. I got more and more nervous as we turned onto 144, which runs along the river up to Albany, and started to accumulate traffic behind us. Over one bump a washer came bouncing off the boat and almost hit my car. As we got into Coeymans, where the road is full of potholes, I thought the boat might hit the ground again. Worse, I feared that my parents might get pulled over and a cop would tell us we couldn’t have the boat on the road. So I called my mom on her cellphone and said “Let’s just launch in Coeymans. If the motor works I can make up the time.” So we turned down to Coeymans Marina. 

Dad backed the boat back, as Mom and I directed him, down the boat launch, until Jake’s tires were nearly submerged. Then Dad and I took off our shoes and waded into the water to untie the boat as Mom stood on shore with a length of line. Once the boat was untied we tried to lift the front off the trailer, because the back was in the water. It took a series of back and forth lifts to get it off, but we lifted it and pushed it down into the water with a splash. Once tied, I jumped aboard and opened the hatches to load the supplies from the back of the truck. I was startled to see a foot of water in the port hull. It had never leaked before, but if there was that much water in the hull, it must have a massive hole, I thought. Maybe the hole was made when the boat scraped the driveway. I couldn’t tell how fast the water was coming in. As my mom held the boat and my dad started unloading the truck I ran over to Coeymans Marina to buy a bilge-pump (a battery powered kind of sump pump), for $50. I ran back and hooked it up to the battery to pump the water out. This took about fifteen minutes, and once the water was pumped out, it didn’t seem to flood again. I decided that the boat wasn’t leaking; rather, when Dad and I pushed her off the trailer into the water, the back of the left canoe had gotten pushed under the water and scooped the water up. 

By now it was 10:30–an hour-and-a-half later and 8 miles south of where I’d planned to launch. We started loading the supplies on board and putting the windmills in place and bolting the boat together. A couple of older men gathered around the dock and watched us. Dad had to run home for a hammer and an adjustable wrench. One of the onlookers came over and gave us a hammer without our asking, and we were thankful for it. He asked what we were doing, but seemed exceedingly shy and a share skeptical. By the time we’d loaded the supplies onboard, and screwed in the boards that needed to be screwed, and bolted in the boards that needed to be bolted, it was after noon. Mom started to tell me how she planned to affix the canvass to the frame of the cabin, but I exclaimed that I had to just throw the stuff on board and get going, because I was running out of time. Likewise, Dad tried to suggest how to run the fuel line to the motor so it was out of the way, and different ways to load the supplies onto the boat. Finally I said “I’ve got to just try out this motor already, because if it doesn’t work this whole trip is over!” So we primed the motor, set the choke, Dad and Mom got off the boat, and I pulled the cord. On the third try she started, then began to stall.

“Kill the choke now!” Dad shouted.

I did, and the motor roared to life. Immediately I moved away from the dock. This motor made much more momentum than the trolling motor. Rather than turning on a dime, I started arcing from the dock awkwardly.

“Watch where you’re going, now!” Dad shouted. Indeed, I was headed right for the boats docked at Coeymans Marina. I jerked the motor around and twisted in a 180. Then I turned the throttle lever and twisted her down to a troll. Still I was moving away from the dock. I twisted the motor to face south, toward Barren Island, in order to take the channel around the mile of rocks in the middle of the river, at the end of which was a buoy, where I would turn to port and head north again. After just a moment I was already 50 feet from the dock where my parent’s stood. My mom was shouting to me, but I couldn’t hear her over the motor.

“I can’t hear you!” I shouted, moving rapidly downstream. “I’ll call you in a few minutes. Thank you!” 

I saw them nod and stand watching me on the dock. Every second, they grew smaller from my perspective. I sat down and looked toward the buoys in front of me, and glanced back at the motor, which I’d need to learn how to use on the fly. My trip had begun. 

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.