A collective of courageous ship-builders sail the waters of New York with little more than old art supplies and a boat-load of chutzpah.
They left their warehouse at midnight, piled into an old Volvo, a clunky wooden rowboat strapped to the roof. The darkness that evening provided the three men with cover, as they arrived at the deserted Floyd Bennett Field, a municipal airport turned waterfront park in southeast Brooklyn. They slowly eased their makeshift boat down a ramp and into the black water, taking a few tentative strokes to check for leaks before paddling out, leaving the shore behind. All was quiet but the rhythmic splash of seawater against old wood.
It was the first of many such expeditions that Ben Cohen, Stephan von Muehlen and Dylan Gauthier would take together as cofounders of the boatbuilding art collective Mare Liberum—Latin for Free Seas. And on this summer evening in 2007 all that kept them afloat, all that separated them from the cool, murky depths of Jamaica Bay were a few boards of plywood and a pile of nails.
“We didn’t know how legal or illegal it was,” Cohen recalls.
Apart from realizing the seats were a little too high, there weren’t any real problems that night. The men, all in their thirties, returned home around two or three in the morning, and people still out for the evening gave them odd looks and asked if their “boat” was made out of cardboard. Unperturbed, and completely invigorated, Mare Liberum knew one thing: they needed to paddle out again.
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Founded in 2007, Mare Liberum has a simple enough goal: to build small boats quickly and cheaply, and make the designs open-source so as many people as possible can embark on maritime explorations of New York City. Despite little to no boatbuilding experience, the thirty-something founders, had each looked out at the water surrounding New York and yearned for a better way to engage with it.
“You stare at the water in New York City, you go over it on the bridges every day, we see it at the end of every street. But how often have you been out on the water in New York?” Cohen asks.
Dark-haired with an easy smile, Cohen, thirty-three, is sitting in a side office in the Gowanus Studio Space, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2007 to offer artists, designers and craftspeople a place to build. And build they do—engaging in everything from printmaking to metalworking. Housed on the first floor of a large, brick warehouse at the end of 7th Street in Gowanus, an industrial stretch of Brooklyn, the Studio Space’s offices are also where Cohen and his two partners meet to make boats, and evidence of their quirky handiwork is everywhere.
Outside the studio, the skeletons of three no-longer-seaworthy vessels rest piled up on the sidewalk. Inside is an even greater assortment of boats in various states of repair. A colorful kayak made of bamboo and canvas leans against the wall. Two sawhorses support an unfinished paper canoe, its hull not yet reinforced by wooden ribs. A slightly older paper boat, a fourteen-foot skiff, bears the signs of the 160-mile voyage it took from New York to Montreal in the summer of 2012. A black swath of tape covers a tear in the sleek brown hull.
Mare Liberum has managed to make vessels that float well enough to lead them on adventures across the city, although some trips have gone less smoothly than that first one at Floyd Bennett Field. In 2009 they decided to row their small fleet of dories across the Buttermilk Channel from Brooklyn to Governors Island for the City of Water Day, a festival organized by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. Despite the short distance (about a mile), it took hours to cross the channel.
“The river looks smooth early in the morning, but once you’re down in it it’s pretty rough,” Cohen says. “With the current going a knot and us only going a knot or two rowing, we weren’t really moving.”
Four of the five boats arrived after a stressful journey (the fifth had to be towed in because the seats were too high, and the rowers thought they were too precariously balanced to make it across the channel without capsizing). Upon finally arriving at the festival, Mare Liberum gave a slideshow presentation describing the process of building the boats ; meanwhile, they had gained a new appreciation for the dangers of life on the water.
“We were pretty cocky going into that trip,” Cohen admits. “We realized we had to pay more attention to the time of day and the tide and current.”
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For the majority of New Yorkers crammed into tiny apartments, building a boat and taking it out to explore the waterways—let alone finding somewhere to store it—is, of course, close to impossible. But Cohen and his cohorts are among a small and growing movement of locals starting to voice their frustration over the fact that the water is so close, yet so difficult to access.
The absence of personal watercraft on the rivers and bays is lamented by outdoor enthusiasts, who salivate for the challenge presented by New York’s nearly six hundred miles of coastline, but also by environmentalists who connect centuries of waterfront abuse and neglect to the fact that New Yorkers don’t interact with our water enough. While it may seem contradictory for advocates of cleaner waters to actually encourage more boat traffic, the idea is to get people on the water so they have firsthand exposure to the toll pollution has taken on places like the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek, which were both declared federal cleanup sites by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010.
“For recreational purposes, I think water is a wonderful experience—but also so people can see what it’s like when they’re out there,” says Eleanor Rae, a spry seventy-eight-year-old who in 2009 founded the Hutchinson River Restoration Project , a nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up the freshwater stream that flows through Westchester County and the Bronx.
“The Hutchinson is in the most polluted category of rivers, and if you see what it’s like, you can take care of it,” Rae adds.
Responding to the demand for access to the water and for renewed cleanup efforts, in 2011 the New York Department of City Planning released a waterfront vision plan for 2020. Included in the plan, called Vision 2020, are suggestions for everything from restoring the natural waterfront to supporting industry on the water. But one of the problems the city can’t seem to make up its mind about is the logistics of granting people access to the water. (When asked for comment, the Parks Department simply referred to the department’s website.) Some, like Rae, have tried to navigate the city bureaucracy. She started the Hutchinson River Restoration Project from her home on City Island and has been leading small groups of canoes up the Hutchinson River and around Pelham Bay Park for the past three years, despite the fact that there is no official boat launch along the river.
“The (Pelham Bay) park administration has all been very helpful and cooperative,” Rae said, noting that they showed her the best locations for launching canoes and promoted the group’s cleanup projects. Rae’s group recently received a $14,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to complete a survey of the river and determine the best spot for an officially sanctioned boat launch. (They will, however, need to find a partner to fund any construction since they cannot afford it themselves.)
Mare Liberum, in contrast, has taken the opposite approach, favoring independence over cooperation. In its boating adventures around New York City and the rest of the state, the group has jumped fences and launched its boats in swimming holes. One particular spot where this is necessary is at the end of Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, where a fence prevents them from getting to the East River.
“Our philosophy is, just get in quick and get out quick,” Cohen says. “Most places don’t want to let you launch because they don’t know if they’re allowed to. Once you’re in the water, everything is fine. It’s just getting there.”
With their non-traditional access points, the Mare Liberum trio knows they are bending the rules a bit. But other times the group is simply not aware what the rules are—and it’s not clear if anyone is.
On one occasion, they tried to land their boats on the wet sand of East River State Park. According to maritime law, boats can land anywhere the water touches the land, including state-owned beaches. But this time, one of the rangers came running at them and refused to let them land.
“There are pretty obnoxious rules you come up against,” said von Muehlen, one of the other Mare Liberum founders. “The city hasn’t figured out what they want. People don’t understand it on the law enforcement side or on the citizen side.”
When it comes to rule-breaking on the water, there’s an invisible line that boaters have to dance around. You can only launch boats at approved sites, but, as Rae learned, there’s a bit of wiggle room for this. Anyone who owns and uses a personal watercraft in park facilities, no matter how small, is required to register the boat and pay for a permit. None of the half-dozen useable Mare Liberum boats has any licenses (which is part of the reason why they have to be careful about landing at park sites). The ambiguity about the rules and their enforcement can be confusing, and can lead to trouble if a boater isn’t careful.
Before founding Mare Liberum, Gauthier and von Muehlen worked together on the Empty Vessel art project, which featured a renovated sixty-three-foot Navy rescue boat that traveled down New York’s rivers and served as a floating gallery. Although they were at first promised free docking near the Carroll Street Bridge, across the Gowanus Canal from where their studio is, the boat was forced to leave after complaints about misbehavior and littering. The boat bounced around to different locations in search of a home, but eventually the project had to be scrapped in 2006 after problems paying docking fees.
The termination of the Empty Vessel project turned out to be fortuitous since Cohen, who grew up near Boston and sailed most of his life, had just opened the Gowanus Studio Space, where he met von Muehlen. Cohen had found most New York sailing clubs prohibitively expensive; buying his own boat and finding somewhere to dock it was out of the question. When von Muehlen, an industrial designer like Cohen, joined the Gowanus Studio Space, he introduced Cohen to Gauthier and the three quickly put together the idea to build boats and find venues to display the nautical creations in their spare time.
Gauthier, who has a background in art and musical theater, helped the group make connections in the arts community so that they could build boats for specific projects. Although he had no experience boating, he was drawn to the waterfront as a quasi-forbidden creative space.
“The story of the waterfront is always marginal activities, marginal people like immigrants, sailors, tattoo artists,” Gauthier says. “And I guess there’s some feeling that artists also seek out these marginal places because it’s the only places that they can get a foothold and find a space to work in.”
Mare Liberum quickly found a venue for its first boatbuilding project, crafting fifteen-foot dories—small rowboats that are traditionally used for hauling heavy loads of fish. They built one during a six-hour period at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Westchester County, New York, that was constructed mainly of plywood and screws. At the completion of the project, they put stencils and instructions online for people interested in replicating their dory design—although looking back now, they’ve come a long way since that first amateur foray.
“If you followed our first broadsheet instructions on how to build a boat, it probably wouldn’t even float,” jokes von Muehlen.
The dories weren’t as easy to handle on the water as the group would have liked, nor were they light enough for one person to transport. After several summers’ worth of trips, the guys decided to try building something new. At this point, they’d held a number of workshops teaching people how to build the boats and more than a dozen people had used a modified, seaworthy design to build dories of their own. Seeking a sturdier build, the next boat they decided to create was a kayak.
“Somebody mentioned that there was this infestation of bamboo in Brooklyn and Queens and we thought we could use it as a frame,” Gauthier said. They headed off to Douglaston, Queens, and asked one of the local churches if they could harvest some bamboo from their property, Gauthier recalls with a laugh.
Made almost entirely of bamboo, zip-ties and used canvas, the fourteen-foot kayaks were a success. Still, they weren’t quite the design that Mare Liberum had been searching for. What they finally settled on as a near-perfect material was an even more surprising material: paper.
“It’s basically a cardboard box; it just has a nicer shape to it,” Gauthier explains.
Von Muehlen called it the boat of their dreams, since “one person can handle it and any person can build it.”
The idea for the project came from historical research they’d done on the history of small boats in New York. A company called Waters & Sons, created by father-and-son duo Elisha and George Waters, began mass-producing paper racing shells for canoes in Troy, New York, in 1867. A fire destroyed their boat factory in 1901, but the idea of making a boat out of paper survived the passage of time and caught the imagination of the men of Mare Liberum.
They built the first incarnation of their paper boat over the course of two weeks at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, New York, located on the St. Lawrence River about 350 miles northwest of New York City. After two weeks, the sleek seventeen-foot skiff was launched and proved to be the most waterproof of any boat they’d built.
“The paper skiff is a dream on the water,” Cohen says. “It’s stable and tracks perfectly and is lively.”
The best compliment that Mare Liberum received was from one of the local sea captains who’d been critically monitoring their project and had previously voiced his skepticism about their success.
“He came by and looked at the boat and said, ‘I might have to build one of these for myself,’” von Muehlen remembers.
The men started building another version of the paper canoe when they got back to Brooklyn this past summer and found a way to make the process even more efficient. Using a $579 plastic canoe from the sports store REI as a mold (which they plan on returning for a full refund), they started layering strips of brown paper drenched in a glue and water solution. After twelve overlapping layers of paper, which creates a hull that’s one-eighth of an inch thick, thin strips of wood are added around the edges (the gunwales) to support the boat’s shape. With only the seats and some of the support structure on the inside left to add, the nearly complete paper canoe is light enough for one person to carry. The original design was so hardy that von Muehlen and two other men took the boat from Clayton up the St. Lawrence all the way to Montreal, a 160-mile journey.
While testing many of their boats, the Mare Liberum crew has had the chance to get up close and personal with places like the East River and Ruffle Bar in Jamaica Bay. On their trip to the latter, Gauthier remembers spending hours rowing out to the island, struggling to push the paddles through the current.
“And when we got there we saw this fleet of sailboats who were just out for the day. And they had no idea what we’d gone through to get there,” he says.
And of course the Gowanus is hard to forget.
“There’s this thick, oily layer on top that smells really bad,” Gauthier says of the canal, one of the most polluted bodies of water in New York City, containing bacteria like giardia and E. coli from sewage runoff and even more poisonous chemicals like mercury, PCBs and coal tar from its days as a dumping site for factories.
Whenever Cohen, Gauthier and von Muehlen take their boats out on the Gowanus, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, they always rinse everything down and use sanitizer to clean anything that comes in contact with the water. The problem of sewage in the water has only been exacerbated since Hurricane Sandy; almost a dozen sanitation facilities around the city failed and spilled over a billion gallons of raw sewage into the water.
Despite the grossness of paddling through garbage and a scummy layer of excrement, Mare Liberum remains committed to their mission. If they can get even a dozen new people out on the water every year to join them on their adventures—or to have their own after they’ve gone through Mare Liberum’s boat-building workshops—they’ll be satisfied.
Right now, though, Cohen remains disheartened that most of the traffic on New York waterways continues to come from barges, tugboats and ferries—from working craft, not from the curious public who might help to make a difference.
“If you’re out on the water you can see it,” says Cohen. “There’s hardly anyone out there.”
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Lorraine Boissoneault is a writer based out of New York. Her nonfiction and fiction work has appeared in City Limits, The Brooklyn Paper and Literary Laundry.