People often mistake Boat for a publication about boats. It is likely that this post may add to the whole maritime mix-up but, having visited Marina 59 at the weekend, this is certainly not a place you’re likely to find in the pages of any other boat magazines.
After spending my first weekend in New York dressed as a mermaid at Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade, I thought it would be impossible to top such a unique day out in the city. When a friend told me about Marina 59, however, curiosity quickly lured me away from the mainland once again as I spent my last weekend in New York smiling by the sea.
Whether it’s a barge on the canal or a yacht on the Riviera, I have always imagined living on a boat to be one of the happiest lives a person could hope to lead. Spending the day at Marina 59 only confirmed this inkling. An hour subway ride from the city, nestled in Somerville Basin in Jamaica Bay, Queens, the boating community at Marina 59 have created a place where boaters can dock, fisherman can fish, local artists can exhibit, and parties can be off the hook.
When we arrived at the marina last Sunday the first boat to catch my eye wasn’t one of those merrily bobbing on the water, but the colourful one moored on land next to the car park. ‘Dragonfly’s Banquet’ is a raft boat that was built in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1995 by radical free-wheeler Poppa Neutrino, now maintained by the Rockaway Artists Alliance. Neutrino’s belief that “rent is the thing that beats us” led to a dedicated troupe of triadic followers through both his life and in his wake. He built the whole vessel using materials from the decks and cabins of The Son of Town Hall (the first recycled raft to cross the Atlantic) as well as other materials gathered from beaches and construction sites. The original artists, Tim Johnson and Gretchen Neutrino, sailed the boat all the way from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts to New York where we were lucky enough to be shown around it by artist Geoff Rowling.
Geoff, who used to live in England before moving to New York in the late 70s, has been part of a team of artists maintaining the upkeep of Dragonfly’s Banquet in the hope of returning her to the water next summer. Drawn by a dragon-shaped bow, the cabin and hull present a beautiful hand-painted holistic mural populated by underwater urchins, animals, mythical beings, and other dedications to Poppa Neutrino. Another feature of the boat was a friendly Manchurian man sitting high up on the upper deck in a white cap and matching beard who, in typical sailor style – after hearing I was visiting from London – joked that he ‘could easily be my grandfather.’
Apart from this magnificent rainbow coloured vessel, at first there appeared to be little else going on in the marina that day. On other days, I’ve been told, films have been screened against sails at night and festivals have taken place across weekends. I told Geoff how I had heard about a special event that was meant to be going on today called ‘Battle for Mau Mau Island’ and he pointed us in the direction of the A Dock.
Here we were greeted by a man covered in tattoos wearing a purple skirt. With little idea of what to expect from this strange state of affairs, the cross-dressing pirate kindly ferried us across the marina in his motorboat. As we drew closer to the mysterious cluster of boats docked in the middle of the marina we passed a couple floating in a dingy, a seemingly endless row of yellow school buses parked on land, and airplanes flying overhead in and out of JFK airport. What was revealed as we got off the boat was something like entering a Bermuda triangle full of lost hipsters.
It turns out that Battle for Mau Mau Island was not the serious boat race we expected but a battalion of inflatable turtles, dolphins and make-shift rafts helmed by more topless sailors. While we left the racing to the pros, the canoes and boats that made up this manmade cove were like treasure troves full of shiny sea junk. After getting a drink from the half-sunken creaking boat bar, we clambered bare-foot across the sterns, eager to spend the afternoon exploring. As night fell, a grey bearded man warmed up the barbecue, supplying everyone with tonnes of delicious shrimp for dinner and the party carried on well into the night.
Marina 59 is clearly becoming a light bulb for hip young New Yorker moth types, but it is still a well hidden gem to the majority of out-of-towners. Finding it on Sunday was like looking for the skull and cross bones at the centre of a treasure map, and well worth the effort. Many of the events that go on are not promoted online and kept quite exclusive but, if you do want to visit, I highly suggest booking one of the 13 boatels to stay on for a few nights. Sadly I had to catch a flight back to reality the next day, otherwise I would happily have stayed. Prices are very reasonable but you will have to book well in advance. Marina 59 turned out to be the perfect way to end my time in New York and I would recommend it to anyone looking for something a little bit special. As I ascended out of JFK the next day and the airplane window filled with the immense sea below, a sailor’s life, I thought, oh, that’s the life for me.
Words and images by Zara Miller