How to build a paper boat
a journey on the Saint Lawrence River
"There's no way in Hell" The Old Salt had spoken. He'd seen all types of ships in his time and he was adamant that what we set out to do was impossible. "There's no way you can make a seaworthy boat out of paper". He should know. After all, he was a seasoned shipwright who'd lost digits on boatyards from Borneo to Bangor and mastered the craft of boat-building over a lifetime. Who were we? A bunch of amateurs. An arts collective by the Name of Mare Liberum. A motley crew of seven artists, poets, and designers who had gathered at the Antique Boat Museum, in Northern New York State, right on the edge of the Saint Lawrence. We were far from Brooklyn, and it showed.
I had my doubts too, but I didn't let it show. After all, paper boats had once been very popular, but it had been over a century since the last one rolled out of the Water and Son Factory in Troy NY. The building had burned down along with all the plans, so we were working on hear-say and a single clipping from a nineteenth-century newspaper.
What choice did I have? Mare Liberum was committed to the project. We were on a mission to make water more accessible to the public and out to prove that anyone can build a boat with a few rolls of Kraft paper and a gallon of glue. Plus, I was on a deadline. My artist visa was expiring in a week, and I had to leave the country, and I was determined to do so by boat. By paper boat.
How do you make a paper boat? Patiently, with intention, one little piece at a time.
You start with an existing hull and lay hundreds upon hundreds of strips of paper over it. It's a tedious process that leaves no room for error. First, you pull out a strip of kraft paper, cut it at the right length -that's when a good pair of scissors come in handy, the edges of the paper have to be sharp, cut precisely- then you dunk it in glue mixed with water, and lay it delicately over the shape. You have to make sure there are no ripples. Ripples create bubbles, bubbles create blisters where the paper will separate, which will create points of entry for the water. Even we knew that keeping water out is key for an enjoyable boating experience.
The form we were working with was a Peterborough skiff. An elegant rowboat designed for the Saint Lawrence, the majestic river that serves as a border between the U.S. and Canada. If there's such a thing as the perfect form, it can be found in this vessel. Double-ended like a canoe, which makes it easy to navigate the fast flow of the waterway, and as wide as a barca for stability. An adult can stand on the side of a skiff without capsizing it. The perfect boat for our journey.
It took us four full days of dedicated paperwork to create our copy of the form. Cut, paste, smooth out the paper, repeat. The orange scissors became an appendage of my right hand. Cut, paste, repeat. But we had it. A perfect replica of the perfect boat. We were all anxious when the time came to pull it off its mold. The moment of truth came. We gently pulled on the paper shape. Nothing. It was stuck. We had to yank it off the mold ripping it in the process. Our hull had a ten-inch gash that took half a day to repair. We were wasting time.
The Old Salt came to check on our progress and smirked at our papier-mache boat. "It'll never hold up" he taunted. He was right of course. A hull without a structure is like a body without its skeleton.
It was time to put down the scissors and grab the saws. I was new to marine carpentry. No piece is flat. It's all complex curves. Luckily all we had to do was copy the Peterborough. Every part of a boat has its name. I learned each one as we copied the original and transferred it onto our skin.
We dug into the pile of scraps in the woodshop. There was a good supply of white oak to work from. First, we laid down the stem and the keelson, the spine that keeps the ship true. Next came the gunwales -pronounced "gun-alls"-the top edge of the hull where the oars rest. They give the ship its form. Then the thwarts, a sturdy piece that sprays the gunwales apart and brings rigidity. As I learned the name of each part and its function, the boat took shape. With each rib, we bent with steam, each deck with cut, each skeg we laid on the hull.
Even the Old Salt had to admit it. "She might make it after all". She. Not it. That mark of respect sailors give their boats was all the encouragement we needed to finish our project, that and a few coats of epoxy.
On the night before the launch, he came to the old stone workshop with a pack of beer and a plastic bag he dumped on our bench with a clunk. A small treasure of antique brass hardware. The paper boat was deemed worthy after all. We mounted the cleats and the oar pins and drank in silence while contemplating our work. I carved a fist holding an anchor into the leather seats. There was no doubt we'd managed to build a beautiful object. Only one question remained: Will she float?
Sometimes you have to look back in order to move forward. When it comes to rowboats it's not a figure of speech but a fact. You row a boat with your back to the bow. I watched my friends wave as I pulled on the oars and tested our craft for the first time. The Massicot was holding up. She cut easily and held true. There was no time to stick around and celebrate our accomplishment. My visa was about to expire. I did not wish to experience life as an undocumented immigrant once again. I had to get out of there.
My friend and former intern Arthur was to accompany me on the journey. He was a golden angel in green framed glasses. He would read the maps and navigate us while I steered.
We were giddy when a voice over the intercom declared: Welcome to Canada.
Crossing the border was only the beginning. It was a long way to Montreal.
It was not an easy journey.
The Thousand Islands is a traitorous meander of rock formations that's difficult to navigate even for an expert sailor.
Our seventeen-foot boat was almost run aground by a giant container ship on our first crossing. We did not capsize thanks to the legendary stability of the Saint Lawrence Skiff.
After the first day of rowing, my hands were covered in angry blisters. On the fifth day, we had to portage over eighteen times because we could not take our small vessel through the locks, so we had to use an abandoned Canal instead. When we came across a four-lane highway under construction I thought we had to give up and abandon our ship on the side of the road. We struggled for every inch of that trip, but we spent each night on a different island, diving into the crystal clear water to wash of the fatigue of the journey. We were free.
In the early morning, the River was still as glass. Islands and clouds came together in the reflection and there was no telling where the water ended and the sky began.
On the last day, the River opened onto the Lac Saint Louis. Montreal was finally in view. I could almost taste the poutine I'd promised Arthur for our first meal when we reached the city. I pulled on the oars like I had done thousands of times on the trip. My callused hands strained on the handles.
The pain in my back was there to remind me that this was not a dream. We'd conquered the Saint Lawrence River on a boat made of nothing but a few rolls of paper, a little bit of wood, and a lot of dedicated work.
Then as a final taunt, the wind picked up. No matter how hard I pulled, the gusts took us to the middle of the lake, and away from our goal. I looked to my feet and realized a ripple in the paper had created a bubble. If the paper ripped we would sink. Arthur was unaware. As a wave of despair washed over me he asked:
"What is so special about Poutine anyway? "
"Who cares!" I wanted to reply. "We're about to sink"
I pulled on the oars once again, then I felt something. I had scraped the floor. We were in shallow water. We could have walked to the shore. I laughed hysterically from relief and exhaustion. We pulled up to repair the bubble. At this point, the brown hull was peppered with patches of black duct tape. I saw these as badges of honor, they were proof of how far we'd come.
The wind died down, and we finally made it to Montreal, exhausted, dazed, but happy.
How do you create your own happiness? Just like you make a paper boat. Patiently, with intention, one little piece at a time.