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 with the subject line “Boat Building.” To sponsor, please email


UNFCU Sponsors Estuary Education Gear!


HarborLAB is thrilled to announce on 2013 World Environment Day, and just in time for World Oceans Day, that the United Nations Federal Credit Union has sponsored our purchase of estuary learning gear! HarborLAB will enhance its paddling programs with handheld and stationary video microscopes, waterproof cameras, waders, seines and traps, organism models, educational guides, and other materials thanks to the United Nations Federal Credit Union. (UNFCU).. City University of New York faculty, who sit on HarborLAB’s Board, will select these purchases along with advisers and Executive Director Erik Baard, who was the UNFCU 2012 World Environment Day keynote speaker.

Celestron handheld video microscope.

Celestron handheld video microscope. An example of the type of gear we will use.

HarborLAB will debut some of this learning gear at the Clearwater Festival, where it will be the sole provider of “walk-up” paddling programs. HarborLAB will make the UNFCU-sponsored items available to the Environmental Science program of CUNY LaGuardia Community College to maximize their educational value throughout the year, and so that CUNY students are best trained to serve with us as estuary and watershed ecology docents and rising leaders.

Long Island City, NY-headquartered UNFCU is a member-owned, not-for-profit cooperative institution that serves the financial needs of the United Nations staff, UN Specialized Agencies, former international civil servants, and their families globally. It has members located in more than 200 countries and territories, and summarizes its mission as “Serving the People Who Serve the World.” Both HarborLAB and UNFCU are members of LIC Partnership.

HarborLAB is deeply grateful that UNFCU’s sponsorship is allowing us to ignite a love of environmental science in the young people we serve. For a glimpse of this kind of gear in action, here’s Erik Baard’s brief video of the New York Restoration Project‘s environmental education program seining in the Harlem River:

UNFCU joins Con Ed and TF Cornerstone as top tier financial sponsors of HarborLAB. Tax deductible donations are made through HarborLAB’s 501(c)(3) fiscal agent, Earth Day New York, to which we’re grateful for this service. HarborLAB is currently seeking a $5,000 sponsor for a Trailex UT-1200-16-04 boat trailer and related insurance to better enable its programs for youth throughout the NYC metropolitan region. Please email with your interest.