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Biking down the boardwalk in the Rockaways neighborhood of Queens, New York, I glanced behind me at the storm clouds approaching fast. Thunder ripped loudly, and lightning began to flash with increasing regularity. My friend and I had been riding for 15 miles already, and I thought my legs might stop working. But we continued as fast as we could manage, the empty beach sprawled on our right. It looked dark and ominous and strangely beautiful in the sweep of the approaching storm.
We arrived at the 15-acre waterfront event space Marina 59 just in time to duck under a large tent sheltering a bar and picnic tables before the downpour hit at full force. Constance Hockaday, the creator and proprietor of the “boatel” where two friends and I would be spending the night, greeted us.
Hockaday has been renting out spots at her Boggsville Boatel and Boat-In Theater since June, as part of art collective Flux Factory’s summer-long extravaganza Sea Worthy. The show features artists making work “about, around and on the waterways of New York City,” and in addition to a more traditional gallery exhibition, has included water excursions, processions and boat-building workshops.
For her part, Hockaday has created a floating hotel in Marina 59. The project was inspired both by Nancy Boggs, a madam who ran a floating brothel in Portland, Oregon’s Willamette River in the late 19th century, and by the Floating Neutrinos, a group of “boat builders and psycho-spiritual warriors,” as Hockaday describes them. The Neutrinos, among other endeavors, built a recycled raft and sailed it across the Atlantic Ocean in 1998.
Hockaday informed me that our lodging, a vessel named the Americano, might be a little wet inside. “It’s hard to keep the water out when it’s coming down this hard,” she said. Sleeping on a soggy boat in the wake of battering thundershowers — this should be interesting, I thought. But I was still excited. The rain added mystique and a further element of ruggedness to the whole endeavor.
Some mainstream press about Hockaday’s boatel in early July, causing spots to sell out almost immediately. Guests that managed to snag a night — for either $50 or $100 depending on the vessel — must venture out to Far Rockaway, and then to the end of the marina’s C dock, where they encounter a neon blue “Boatel” sign. There the refurbished vessels await them, castoffs that radiate ratty charm and boast names like Crumb, Americano, Queen Zenobia and Nancy Boggs.
My companions and I waited until the downpour ended to go see the Americano. On the project’s website, Hockaday describes it as “a Guido vessel” with an interior that’s “very Slick Rick” — an apt description for a space whose main attraction is a cozy V-shaped sleeping area for two. It also includes a mini (defunct) kitchen, a sleeping cubby and a small table with benches — which apparently doubles as a bed — and requires a lot of ducking and watching your head. But this is what I was expecting: not discomfort, exactly, but certainly a measure of improvisation.
After dropping our bags and liberally applying bug spray, we made our way back to the on-shore tent bar to hang out with the other guests and boatel volunteers. The crowd was young and skewed toward a certain demographic: people weird enough and with enough free time on their hands to think that sleeping on a boat on a Thursday night as part of an art project is a good idea. Soon after arriving I discovered that I was already Facebook friends with another guest. Everyone mingled and talked over improvised dinners, until the scheduled entertainment began: a lecture by writer Porter Fox about trekking in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains.
If I had any illusions about the level of adventure I was undertaking in the boatel, Fox quickly disabused me of them. Equipped with slides and videos, he told his story of venturing into the formidable mountains to find an old trans-Saharan trading pass, with little besides some bread and a compass. “It’s like the Alps with no people and about one-hundredth of the cost,” he concluded.
Gradually the gathering wound down. People who didn’t know each other drifted back to their own groups, and then to their own boats; my friends and I settled into the Americano and actually managed to sleep ( I did, at least). In the morning, we emerged to a quiet stillness. Only one or two people could be seen moving around on shore. An air of tentativeness hung over us, and, it seemed, over the whole boatel. We had made it through the night — we had slept on a boat. Now what?
Hockaday had announced, via a welcome e-mail, that the bait shop in the marina would serve coffee and muffins. We sought them out, but a middle-aged man with a weathered look sipped from a beer as he apologized for the lack of muffins. He offered us coffee, and we went next door to the convenience store for fruit and breakfast sandwiches.
It was there in the bait shop, and there in the convenience store, and then back at the picnic tables inside the marina, that I fully realized that we had entered another world — one still part of New York but not our own; a world where we were visitors and observers. Hockaday had written as much in her e-mail:
It is a working class marina that is home to many fisherman, some of which have been here for 30 years and have long standing relationships with each other [sic]. Our biggest hope is that you will enjoy, appreciate and be an observer to what is here.
But the night before, all this hadn’t occurred to me. I was wrapped up in the rain and in meeting new people. I had been filled with anticipation, and I was drinking a little.
The morning brought both a blue sky and a clearer understanding. The marina’s resident goats emerged and started chewing grass. I chatted with a South Asian man who was taking kids from his neighborhood out for a boat ride around Jamaica Bay. I waited to buy my egg-and-cheese sandwich behind women who were also buying breakfast, women who probably buy sandwiches in that convenience store everyday.
I also talked with more of our boatel neighbors, two couples that appeared a little later. The men in both pairs offered up slight critiques of the experience: the boat could have been nicer, a bit better decorated, one said; the coffee could have been free, the other said, even the EconoLodge in Hicksville has free coffee. I wanted to quote them a line from Hockaday’s e-mail:
Let’s first get one thing straight we are not a real hotel [sic]. This is an adventure at best and an art project at worst.
But she knows that many of her guests carry their own expectations and fantasies out to the Rockaways. As we spoke later that day, she told me she’d love to reprise the project somewhere else, with storytellers and lecturers local to that area. “You’d get a different sense of place,” she said, adding, “This is all New Yorkers looking for an escape from their own reality. That’s what the water is.”
Sea Worthy is presented by EFA Project Space, Flux Factory and The Gowanus Studio Space and continues until September 2011.