“Silent Shore” Paddle

You don’t need to have studied American Sign Language to enjoy this video recounting a beautiful and adventurous day of kayaking. HarborLAB looks forward to hosting our first “Silent Shore” kayak tour this summer, thanks to volunteer and ASL interpreter Dylan  Geil. Going back to the late Commissioner Matthew Sapolin, HarborLAB’s core volunteers have been striving to create a more accessible harbor (and Gotham Orchards, which has overlapping volunteers, planted an orchard in his memory at the Queens PS 233 campus). Stayed tuned for details about Silent Shore and how you can help or support it.

NYC Harbor Sewage Alert

New York Harbor will be plagued by sewage this week. Days of steady rain, heavy at times, are overwhelming our antiquated system which combines rainwater with household waste water into the same pipes and treatment centers. To prevent backups and pressure damage, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) release excess into the estuary untreated. More than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage hit our waters last year, according to Riverkeeper.

For notifications about CSOs and other emergency conditions, sign up at Notify NYC:


HarborLAB samples and tests littoral estuary water in cooperation with other NYC Water Trail Association members and associated labs. CSOs are growing challenge for New York City and neighboring cities in New Jersey because storm surges and sea level rise are adding strains to systems. With climate change and greater atmospheric moisture, rain and snow storms are becoming more extreme. NYC’s population is already meeting 2020 projections. We need enormous investment in cisterns and new catchment basins to hold overflows for later, gradual release, and even more green infrastructure like bioswales, green roofs, street trees, and other green spaces where plants can absorb rainfall.

Many thanks to Mai Armstrong and John McCluskey at Working Harbor Committee for posting today’s conditions on Facebook. The NYC Department of Environmental Protection text copied and pasted below came by way of them.


CSO’s as of 2/24/2016 7:02 AM
Rainfall at three NOAA rain gauges over the past 24 hours in inches:
John F. Kennedy Airport 0.4 inches
LaGuardia Airport 0.3 inches
NYC Central Park 0.43 inches

List of Advisories:
Bergen Basin On advisory until 2/25/2016 7:00:00 AM
Gowanus Canal On advisory until 2/25/2016 7:00:00 AM
Newtown Creek On advisory until 2/25/2016 7:00:00 AM
Thurston Basin On advisory until 2/25/2016 7:00:00 AM
Westchester Creek On advisory until 2/24/2016 7:00:00 PM

Current CSO advisories: 5A CSO Waterbody Advisory has been issued. For more info on affected waterbodies, call 311 or go to:




Phragmites Tankwa?!?!


Ethiopian Tankwa boat. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

HarborLAB will commence its multicultural boatbuilding program in March with the International High School! We’re thrilled to serve these students, who are in an intensive college preparatory program for immigrant youth with limited English. IHS is housed within CUNY LaGuardia Community College.

We’ll make reed craft using invasive phragmites, which crowd out many of region’s indigenous estuary species. We’ll start with a demonstration inspired by the tankwa, an Ethiopian work boat made from papyrus on Lake Tana. Other models will follow, launching on June 8 for United Nations World Oceans Day. Our goal is for these boats to greet the arriving Hokule’a, a Hawaiian canoe circling the globe for environmental education. This is easily achievable at Gantry Plaza State Park, if permitted, directly facing the UN and a few minutes paddle from our launch.

We welcome volunteers to join the effort and donors to sponsor us!

Grass (family: Poaceae) and sedge (family: Cyperaceae) boats are among the most ubiquitous types because papyrus, bamboo, and reeds are renewable and readily available to those working the water as fishers, ferryers, and traders. Grasses and sedges also wonderfully pliable materials, providing both planking and twine. We’ll work with the United Nations community and immigrant cultural centers to maximize our inclusive service and multicultural representation.

This world heritage is truly ancient, as evidenced by petroglyphs depicting reed boats in Azerbaijan that date back 12,000 years. These boats quickly return to the soil, so archaeological evidence is spotty. Logic would indicate African origins. The earliest remains of a reed boat are 7,000 years old, unearthed in Kuwait. Palm fronds are also used in a similar fashion in the Persian Gulf. Even the story of Moses begins with him set afloat in a bulrush ark. The apexes of accomplishment in this art include ancient Egyptian papyrus voyaging vessels and the ornate craft of the living Uros culture of Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Our most famous reed heritage boat in North America is the tule (pronounced too-lee). Watch one get built in the video below!

On the East Coast, science writer and ecologist David Samuel Johnson proved the viability of phragmites boat construction. Even young students can build these boats.


David S. Johnson paddles a phragmites boat. Photo by Brian Landergan.

Benefits of this project:
  • Environmental science education: Indigenous/invasive species, rhizomes, ecological services, estuaries, wetlands, etc.
  • Cultural and Economic Education: World heritages, commonalities and differences, economic development and identity, renewable resources and growth, etc.
  • Habitat Restoration: Tangible results from removing invasive reeds (and removing seeds before construction). New, native plantings would bring even more value.
  • Safety: No power tools are needed. Adults would maintain a good ratio and oversight of youth. All paddling would be done under HarborLAB insurance with Red Cross certified (Water Rescue, CPR, AED, First Aid, adult/pediatric) volunteers in safe areas. HarborLAB will provide safety support from sit-on-top kayaks, though these reed boats will be much more seaworthy.
  • Youth empowerment: Students will do much of the building, paddling, documentation, and outreach themselves.
  • Publicity: We’ll paddle these boats past the UN and skyline, generating great images and video. This would be a sight never seen on the East River. This is especially true if we are able to support the Hokule’a effort.
  • Budget: The materials are harvested invasive plants and twine.
  • Sustainability: The boats will last a season and then be composted to enrich planting areas for habitat or ornament (not edible gardens).
  • Outreach: The students, educators, organizations, agencies, and companies involved will trumpet this unique project, delivering some aspect of its value to wider audiences. The boats will be brought to communities throughout NYC.
  • Long-term Results: Thorough documentation will allow other educators to reproduce our results and build upon them. The excitement may seed the founding of a World Boatbuilding Museum (a place where the public can see small boats from around the world — reed, skin-and-frame, wood, and more) built before their eyes, and ride aboard them) that could be a major tourist draw.

If you’d like to volunteer with us and the students, please email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line “Boat Building.” To sponsor, please email support@harborlab.org.


WPIX and NY1 Coverage of “Cocoa Coast”



HarborLAB is grateful to Greg Mocker of WPIX and Tanya Kilch of NY1 News for sharing our “Cocoa Coast” work with fellow New Yorkers. You can click through to read and view NY1 story, “Student’s and Volunteers Use Cocoa Beans to Restore Queens’ Shorelines.” Gallery below by Erik Baard.


Both reporters did a great job of showing HarbotLAB, MAST Brothers Chocolate Makers, and Hunters Point Community Middle School are combining environmental service with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning. HarborLAB will be conducting classroom activities to build upon this field experience in late winter and early spring. The method we chose to generate soil in situ is called “lasagna composting.”