Build a Reed Boat With Us!

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International High School students binding phragmites reeds. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB is building a reed boat to debut on City of Water Day, July 16, and you can help!

To join our reed harvesting and boat building efforts email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject “Reed Boat.”

Cultures across the globe have made reed boats or equivalents for thousands of years, from the woven ark of the story of baby Moses to the elaborate totora balsas made by the ancient and surviving Uru people of Lake Titicaca on the border of Bolivia and Peru even today. Our boat is most inspired by Ethiopian papyrus tankwa and North American tule canoes. The plant we use  is invasive phragmites, a widely distributed plant with Eurasian genotypes brought to North America as decorative accents on estate landscapes. Phragmites  grew out of control because they reproduce by both fecund seed tufts and rhizomes that sprout new shoots from underground. Our whole region is fringed with this tall, densely growing marsh reed.

To honor the shared heritage of reed boats HarborLAB chose to work with the International High School at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. A cheerful crew of Tibetan (via India and Nepal), Colombian, Ecuadoran, Egyptian, Peruvian, Uzbeki, Bangladeshi, and Senegalese students launched our construction under the guidance of teachers Amy Bouros and Sanjeeb Anower, and HarborLAB volunteers Erik Baard and Katherine Bradford. One Bangladeshi student recounted how in his homeland he built a raft from a banana tree to cut miles from his daily walk to school. We thank Principal Jackie Valane for introducing us to the teachers and taking such an active interest in the project.

Reed boats are great classroom projects for a host of reasons. They require no power tools and the materials are simply reeds and burlap twine, made from another reed called jute. International High School student Tenzin Woesel researched the plant’s growth patterns to calculate how much we’d need to harvest. We included that information in our research application to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group. Tenzin also learned about the history, construction techniques, and anthropology surrounding reed boats from readings selected by HarborLAB volunteer and anthropologist Diana Szatkowski (PhD, Columbia  University).

Phragmites aggressively displace native marsh plants like cordgrass, so most conservation scientists are only happy to see them felled by clippers and machetes. The reeds we use have so far been harvested and fetched from Alley Pond Park by Tenzin, Erik, Patricia Erickson (who also lent her van; HarborLAB Chair Scott Sternbach, director of the LaGCC photography program, lent his pickup truck), Greg Leopold, Katherine, the NYC Parks Stewardship Team, and volunteers from Latham and Watkins, LLP, thanks to coordination by Natural Areas Conservancy and NYC Parks coastal wetlands engineer Jamie Ong. Our quarry was the dead cane. We were careful, however, to remove all seed heads to avoid propagating the species.

When our reed boat has passed its useful working life by the end of the summer, it will entirely return to the earth. We hope that it inspires future projects, or even a World Boatbuilding Museum in NYC!

Please enjoy a photo gallery by Erik Baard of the work so far:

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