Swimming in the Charles

Five minutes after meeting my new roommate Wombi in Cambridge, I joined a team of motivated individuals in constructing a Mississippi steamboat, which they planned to launch into the Charles River Basin on the 4th of July.

The Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular draws in about 500,000 people, and the fireworks are launched from a barge in the Charles River. Consequently, a boat has become a VIP pass to the fireworks. Wombi had been planning this build since the year before, when he produced the “Shark Boat,” a three-person rowboat. The main difference was that this year’s vessel would hold thirty people, 300 beers, and other essentials.

So I went along with this plan as I had in second grade when my friend Eric wanted to build a spaceship. Only this time the technicalities had been ironed out. I justified my survival off of the academic credentials of my roommate and his friends, who were graduates of the Webb Institute and MIT.

However, that didn’t seem to persuade my Fathom colleagues that I would return safely after the fireworks. I took this as a challenge and documented the project over the following two weekends. Jimbo Grady lent me his highly sophisticated Day 6 Plotwatcher Time Lapse Video Camera, which I used to create the video below.

During the build about twenty of us cut, painted and assembled over 1000 feet of lumber. We logged over 500 man/woman hours.

Our goal was not only to stay afloat but to do it with class. Function followed form in what was to pay homage to the splendid Mississippi steamboats of Mark Twain’s era. The engineering plans and superstructure design generated the extensive shopping list of materials.


Wombi Rose Miss USA
Plan views Niko Martecchini. Superstructure design: Jonathan Ward.

I chose the name MISS USA because it tied in Mississippi and commented on America’s perception of beauty. After the name had been chosen via democratic vote, I designed the signs with the hope of communicating our concept to a larger audience— i.e. when we made the news.

Wombi Rose Miss USA
The night before the Fourth we U-Hauled MISS USA down to Magazine Beach in three parts. Once she was in the water, we paddled two miles down past the Mass Ave bridge, and around 2:30 am dropped our homemade anchors (cement + bed frame) into five-fathom-deep waters. Some of us slept on the water to keep our party flotilla safe.

The boat was the perfect urban oasis. In the afternoon we had our first and only state police encounter. In the words of Wombi. “We are relying on the spirit of the 4th,” in reference to the legality of our excursion. Although we had done our homework thoroughly and passed the state trooper’s inspection ‘with flying colors.'

Wombi Rose Miss USA
In case any of you are planning a homemade boat trip, this should keep you further from trouble: a cement barrier between the grill and boat, a fire extinguisher, non-chemical lights (green, red and white) running off a deep cycle battery and placed in proper locations, two anchors, and life jackets for all. Also, if you are into recycling—as we are—a trap door through the deck will suffice.

MISS USA from terrencefradet on Vimeo.

A last note on christening your boat. If the Champagne bottle doesn’t break on the first swing, the carbonation may produce glass shrapnel on new swings. This is also an effect of a wooden boat without metal surfaces.

Wombi Rose Miss USA
Always bring a first aid kit.

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,my sister purchased some of you wonderful cards. I was wondering if you have done any designs with a kite on it.

Bev Dockrill

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