Voyage of the Tule-Tankwa!



How’s paddling a reed boat to Governors Island for arriving in style at City of Water Day?

This summer HarborLAB worked with the International High School at CUNY LaGuardia Community College  to build a boat made of an invasive variety phragmites, a species of marsh reed. Volunteers and the recent-immigrant students bound the dried reeds with natural jute twine and we waterproofed the hull with coconut oil (a Vietnamese practice with bamboo boats) for a fully biodegradable boat. The reeds were harvested from Alley Pond Park with permission from the Natural Resources Group of the NYC Department of Parks and recreation. Diana Szatkowski, PhD, an anthropologist and HarborLAB volunteer, provided academic guidance and research readings to the high school students engaged with the project, and helped build the boat as well.

Our design inspirations were blended. The papyrus tankwa boat of Ethiopia started us off, but we drew heavily from North America’s ancient tule boats too. Given the choppiness and open water crossings of New York Harbor, we made the boat longer and narrower for steadier navigation. In the end our skinny sit-on-top craft was like a slow, reed surfski. Executive Director Erik Baard conceived of the project and oversaw it.

Our educational goals were to teach about:

  • Estuary marshes.
  • Invasive species and native habitat.
  • Our shared, global maritime heritage.
  • Team building.
  • Renewable materials.
  • Research methodology.


HarborLAB volunteer and CUNY Start Director Thomas Dieter had the privilege of paddling the Tule-Tankwa the most, including its launch and heroic landing at Governors Island. Not only was he our best strength-to-weight ratio paddler, but he also worked on it with Erik until 3am the night before City of Water Day. Our launch was scheduled for early morning. Other builders and harvesters included Katherine Bradford and Greg Leopold (and their granddaughters), Dorothy Morehead, and Patricia Erickson. Matthew Kane of Prime Paddlesports also took a turn, and shared towing duties in high traffic areas and the final crossing, so as to not give the US Coast Guard a heart attack.

We put the Tule-Tankwa on display at Governors Island’s Pier 101, the hub of City of Water Day. We playfully invited the Coast Guard Auxiliary unit to inspect it. Many visitors delighted in the boat and ask us questions. A thunderstorm prevented our paddling the Tule-Tankwa back, so the HarborLAB crew for City of Water Day had to improvise. We carried it to the top of a staircase and rolled it from a wall to the top of our trailer. We might expand the boat, or simply inter it with honors in our waterfront native planting berm. All seeds were removed to prevent the spread of phragmites.