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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.


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September 9, 2014

Paper Boats In Troy

Paddling the Hudson, resurrecting local history and forgotten technology, an electric boat named Sol and a big march in NY City to bring attention to Climate Change policy

We didn’t know what to expect so we had to go see it for ourselves. I’d heard that some folks were planning to launch paper boats into the Hudson River at Troy, and that they intended to paddle those boats all the way to New York City, some 160 miles. Since The Wife and I like to throw our boats into the river at every opportunity we figured we had to go see what this was all about.

But paper boats? I had this absurd image in my mind of a schoolkid’s folded paper boat made out of a giant piece of notebook paper occupied by a cartoonish figure singing yo ho ho. Instead what we discovered was some surprising mostly forgotten local history that involved an everyday material that we now take for granted, and a serious attempt to reproduce lost technology. And more importantly, we found ourselves involved with the opening stages of an impending uprising over what is perhaps the most important issue of our times, Climate Change.

Saturday Morning Troy Farmer’s Market At 9:30, A Half Hour Before It’s Officially Open
Saturday Morning Troy Farmer’s Market At 9:30 AM

So on the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, we arrived at the Troy Farmer’s Market in the streets of downtown Troy a little after 9 AM to catch the activities around the boat launch. This is far and away the premier farmer's market of the region, a proven economic generator for the City. Early is the best time to go there, after 10 AM when the weather is good, like this day, the market gets crowded with bodies and by Noon it gets absolutely packed.

By the way, if you haven’t ever been to the Troy Farmer’s Market you’re missing a great opportunity to buy high quality food directly from the farmers or makers, much of it organic or natural. It’s like a weekly street fair complete with entertainment, held year round. In the cold months it moves into the mostly empty Troy Atrium, a ridiculous useless building except when it hosts the Farmer’s Market.

Mysterious Procession Emerges From A Side Street
Mysterious Procession Emerges From A Side Street

The parade started late, of course, just before 10 AM we noticed a procession emerging from a side street. Led by a mysterious figure in robes and wearing a big paper mache mask, a group of mostly youthful folks carried one of the paper boats that they had built like a coffin through the market. A group in the front solemnly tooted on plastic bottles with the bottoms cut off, making a sound both oddly comical and serious at the same time.

We eventually discovered that we were witnessing an “art and activism” project called SeaChange, which sports the slogan, We All Live Downstream. The sponsors are the Climate Change activism organization 350.org, and a Brooklyn based organization called Mare Liberum (The Free Seas) which advocates for and promotes maker projects such as this paper boat journey that bring people more in contact with our neglected waterways. A long trip like this has plenty of logistical problems that need resources that only solid sponsors can provide.

They Carried The Boat Like A Coffin Through The Crowded Market
They Carried The Boat Like A Coffin Through The Crowded Market

The ultimate point of this journey, estimated to take two and a half weeks, is to draw attention to what some are already calling the biggest Climate Change rally ever, scheduled for New York City on Sunday, September 21. Of course we’ll see how that goes, but it sounds like it is shaping up to be a major national event, with activities running from Thursday through Monday. Even at this early date organizers are predicting a quarter million participants, perhaps much more.

Some of the examples I’ve heard. A major activist network in Chicago is planning to show up en masse and hold four days of events. Several groups in San Francisco have reserved an entire Amtrak train to bring people to New York. And locally Citizen Action of Albany has reserved ten busses, although I hear that right now in early September they have plenty of room.

They Solemnly Tooted Their Plastic Jugs
They Solemnly Tooted Their Plastic Jugs

It sounds like the big activist event of the season. The significance of this march through Manhattan is that it will represent the emergence of a whole new wave of activism by the Millennial generation, or rather their re-emergence after the brutal suppression of the Occupy movement in the Autumn of 2011. All the old timer usual suspect activists are showing up in force, but like with Occupy we are seeing these elders move to the back seat while the kids do the driving.

So the paper boat procession moved through the farmer’s market just about when it was getting packed with bodies. But those shoppers stood aside, solemnly watching and snapping photos, most of them wondering what this could be. A young lady midway through the procession repeatedly called out, “Paper boats! Paper boats!” which I’m sure didn’t clarify one bit.

Wrestling A Boat At The Troy Municipal Dock: Not At All User-Friendly But They Made it Work
Wrestling A Boat At The Troy Municipal Dock: Not At All User-Friendly But They Made it Work

Eventually we emerged on the north side of the farmer’s market (which is quite huge) and made our way down to the Dinosaur Barbecue on the waterfront. Sure enough, there is a municipal boat dock there, accessed through a narrow usually locked gate onto a stairway which leads down to a narrow dock. A poor design all around, obviously created by someone who never actually launched or even sat in a boat.

The Tale Of Building One Of The Boats Told With A Sharpie Under The Shellac
The Tale Of Building One Of The Boats Told With A Sharpie Under The Shellac

Finally I got to see the paper boats up close, six of them laid out on the grass. I found out that the bodies are constructed of eight sheets of acid free paper, each folded so that the hulls have sixteen layers of paper. Between each layer of paper is a thick layer of shellac. The frames are wood, I don’t know what kind but I think is bamboo.

Sadly, Duct Tape Did Not Help The Injured Paper Boat
Sadly, Duct Tape Did Not Help The Injured Paper Boat

The boats are much lighter than the equivalent sized wooden boats, but much more fragile. One of the boats lying in the grass had a nasty dent in the bottom near the bow, it seems the boat ran aground hard during a test run the night before. The guy who built it was industriously applying duct tape to the bottom, but he didn’t sound too hopeful that this would keep the boat afloat.

In the last decades of the 19th Century the City of Troy was, believe it or not, the world center for the manufacture of paper boats. They were invented by a fellow named George Waters while working in his father Elisha’s box factory. The new invention attracted a lot of interest, so by 1867 Elisha Waters and Son ran a large paper boat building factory at 271 River Street.

Sadly, Duct Tape Did Not Help The Injured Paper Boat
Elisha Waters And Son Paper Boat Factory At 271 River Street in Troy, Circa 1875

This whole enterprise sounds very odd to us today because paper is such a common throwaway item and considered flimsy. But in the late 1800s machine manufactured paper was a new wonder material that was being applied experimentally to a range of products. For instance, Waters and Son built paper domes for buildings, including a dome for the Lusk Observatory at West Point. A concern down in Hudson NY made train car wheels from paper encased in metal plates, these eventually became standard on Pullman train cars.

I was told that a major effort was made to discern the lost secrets of paper boat building that were lost when Waters and Son went out of business when their factory burned down in 1901. It seems that Mare Liberum spent 3 years on this discovery project. Of course nothing can test these secrets as well as throwing the boats in the water and seeing how well they hold up.

Inventor Of The Paper Boat George Waters And His Father Elisha
Inventor Of The Paper Boat George Waters And His Father Elisha

One thing I discovered is that Waters and Son used a higher quality of paper than we have available today, either manufactured from recycled linen (rags!) or, better yet, from hemp. Today, mostly for stupid social and political reasons, high quality hemp paper is unavailable. The boat builders of 2014 have to make do with wood pulp paper, which is inferior to hemp and linen in every way and much less sustainable. But no one recycles rags anymore. And you can’t get high from smoking wood, and that’s all that matters.

The Long Story-Telling Canvas Strip
The Long Story-Telling Canvas Strip

Before launching the boats we had a ceremony, everyone in a circle. After a minimal amount of talking and some singing, we passed along hand to hand a strip of canvas that was about eight inches wide and what, maybe a thousand feet long. I’m guessing here. The long strip more or less represented the Hudson River in both space and time, painted with representations of farming, industry, Cityscapes, natural beauty and polluted landscapes, all in one long depiction.

Finally the boats were moved down to the dock, maneuvering them through the stupid gate and down the stairs. The paper boats were not alone, they were accompanied by seven or eight conventional paddle boats, ranging from a common Old Town canoe to a Hornbeck kayak made of kevlar. Some of this escort was going only a short ways, but some were planning to go the whole way to New York City.

Flotilla Ready To Launch
Flotilla Ready To Launch

Five of the paper boats floated just fine, but that one boat that had the accident the night before immediately started sinking as soon as it was dropped off the dock. It seems the duct tape didn’t work too well. Last I heard the boat was undergoing repairs, which involves drying time, and will join the rest when and if it can be made seaworthy.

Quite sensibly the open paddle boats were accompanied by a motorized support craft, but what a special boat. This was Sol, hailing from Speculator New York at Indian Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. Sol is a 27 foot electric boat powered completely by the sun, the kind of technology that should have first appeared at least 30 years ago and by now should be commonplace.

Sol was eerily quiet, even quieter than a sailboat because it didn’t drag the wind. It has a cruising speed of five knots, it can go faster but high speeds quickly run down the batteries. It doesn’t need constant sunshine to run, with the batteries fully charged the craft could go for days with overcast skies.

Click to read more about Sol and her builder.

Sun Powered Electric Boat Sol Takes Off
Sun Powered Electric Boat Sol Takes Off

But Sol did not follow the flotilla all the way to NYC. The following weekend at the 15th annual Tugboat Roundup at the City of Waterford Marina (19 miles north of Albany) we were surprised to see Sol tied up next to another boat. It turned out that Sol followed the flotilla for four days downriver as far as Hudson/Catskill, then turned over support duties to another craft.

The Flotilla Finally launches From Troy Just Before Noon
The Flotilla Finally launches From Troy Just Before Noon

They finally launched the boats around 11:30 or so, a tight schedule was not a priority. The Wife and I did a little shopping at the farmer’s market, then drove our car back to Albany. After lollygagging a bit we threw our own boats on top of the car and drove down to the boat launch on the north side of Albany, planning to meet the flotilla.

The Wife and I threw in our boats and headed north sometime before 2 PM. It looked like the two of us were the entire Albany delegation coming out to meet the boats. The participant’s plan was to spend the first night in Albany, first holding some sort of assembly at the Corning Preserve amphitheater, followed by a presentation and tour of the South End neighborhoods affected by the explosive oil trains. But we had no interest in any of that out-of-the-water stuff.

Heading North After 2PM Toward The I-90 Bridge, We’re About To Hit A Shallow Sandbar Dead Ahead
Heading North After 2PM Toward The I-90 Bridge, We’re About To Hit A Shallow Sandbar Dead Ahead

The tide was still going out against us when we launched our boats, my kayak and The Wife’s canoe, plus we headed into a strong wind. But it wasn’t bad going, the Hudson has quirks but is mostly predictable and usually easy to navigate in a small boat. We paddled past the I-90 Bridge taking our time, expecting to travel for another hour.

The Leading Boats Approach Us
The Leading Boats Approach Us

We were just past the I-90 bridge. Suddenly, to our surprise, The Wife spotted the lead boats of the flotilla coming toward us. Paddling steady but not too hard, the flotilla did Troy to Albany in only three hours. Nice.

Naturally, as soon as we met the flotilla the tide turned, so now we were all battling the tide going in the other direction as we headed south toward Albany. We had a little rough water, but nothing too bad. From around Kingston and going south the river starts to resemble the ocean more and more, with whitecap waves and strong currents and a slight salt tang in the air. No wonder back in 1609 Henry Hudson thought he might have found the Northwest Passage, the river doesn’t obviously look like a river to a boater until you get up around Albany.

Sol Floated By Lazily Like Cleopatra’s Barge

Sol Floated By Lazily Like Cleopatra’s Barge

This would be a matter of concern to the paper boats over the next few weeks. According to the passenger owner operators, the boats held up well for the three hour journey from Troy, no problems. I did note that at the waterlines of all five boats that the light brown color had absolutely leached out of the hulls, turned to a bleached-out looking off white. Apparently this was expected and not considered a problem.

This is one of those little things that I think indicated that the builders had not quite divined all the lost secrets of Waters and Son paper boats, such as the best kind of coating. I’ve read that different kinds of shellac and other similar coatings are all porous to some extant, some more than others. It looks like what they used might be a little too porous if it leaches out color like that, which may limit the long-term integrity of the
boats.

The Paper Boats Held Up Well, But Note The Bleaching At The Waterline

The Paper Boats Held Up Well, But Note The Bleaching At The Waterline

It’s very possible that old shellac coating is unavailable today and perhaps even dangerous to use because of toxicity. I did have a brainstorm while paddling beside the boats. Back in the day pitch pine tar, the sap of pitch pine trees like we have in our Pine Bush ecosystem in western Albany, was considered the best coating for ocean sailing ships, far superior to petroleum pitch. Perhaps pitch pine tar could be refined enough to coat paper like shellac, which might make these boats formidable?

Just a crazy thought. While we were heading north to meet the boats, we encountered a massive sandbar that had been revealed by the low tide that we hadn’t encountered before. The sand and gravel was inches below the waterline, sure enough I grounded my kayak at one point. That couldn’t hurt my old tub, with the appropriate curses I pushed off the sand and continued on my way.

Yes Indeed it’s A Dog’s Life

Yes Indeed it’s A Dog’s Life

But remembering from that morning the paper boat that was fubar after running aground, I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to paddle ahead of the flotilla and direct the boats around the hidden sandbar. It wouldn’t do to lose some or all of the boats on the very first day to something like that. Everyone made a wide detour at my bidding and all was well, I’m thinking sandbars like that one might be the biggest danger these paper boats will face during the rest of the journey.

The flotilla made a quick stop on a bank in North Albany, presumably to stretch their legs and let the dogs run. Yes, we had several sea dogs in the boats. After maybe 15 minutes everyone launched again. We went right past the boat launch and to the final destination, the floating docks set out by the amphitheater at the Corning preserve.

We Left Them At The Corning preserve Amphitheater Dock

We Left Them At The Corning Preserve Amphitheater Dock

Having reached their destination, The Wife and I were done escorting the boats. We waved goodbye and headed back to the boat launch. I understand they got going fairly early the next morning, and last I heard they were still heading south with all the paper boats intact. It looks like they’ll make it in plenty of time for the Climate Change rally in NYC.


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