Surviving the Boatel: An Economy Family Vacation on a Junk Ship in Jamaica Bay

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By Rochana Rapkins I first heard about the boatel on my first trip to the Rockaway Beach. I was exuberant to find myself alone on the beach with two lifeguards and a retiree, within a few minutes walk of the boardwalk and the fresh tostadas of Rockaway Taco. I didn't fancy getting back on the A train for the nearly two hour schlep home. "Well you could try staying on the boatel," the cashier at Rockaway Taco told me. "It's sort of a combination of a boat and a hotel and it rents out for about fifty dollars a night." It is also, according to its website, "an interactive art + sound installation" crafted by 23 artists out of a collection of reclaimed junk boats and the "the floatsam and jetsam of Jamaica Bay." Visitors are advised to come adventure-ready. To my surprise, my 13-year-old daughter - who can be quite an exacting hotel guest - agreed to come along. "It's nothing fancy," I said vaguely, remembering a fit she had one year when a hotel lobby was once not up to par. The promised rough and tumble started with our approach. After spending some time on Rockaway Beach, we followed the shoreline past the high rises and beach condos. As the sun started to set, the markings of beachfront living disappeared and the only sign of commercial life was the occasional dusty corner deli sitting at the edge of overgrown lots. In the distance were housing projects. Just as I was contemplating giving up my hope for a low-cost beach vacation and fleeing on a nearby subway, a beat-up but jaunty sign for Marina 59 appeared in the distance. We stood outside the barbed-wire fence wondering how to get in until a guy who looked reassuringly like a hipster joined us at the gate as he waited for his girlfriend to buzz him in. ( The gates swung open. Although there were no signs and no staff on duty, we eventually found our way to a floating platform that combined the charms of a decaying Victorian-era parlor and a backyard patio. There was a settee with velvet cushions that had been exposed to the elements, some cabinetry, a child's wooden chair, and a large barbecue grill. A guy lounging on the platform indicated he was a friend of the owners and showed us where to go. (The volunteer was actually a squatter who was evicted later that night.) The door to the cabin on the old yacht I had reserved was locked (perhaps by said squatter) so one of the organizers - a tiny, sprite-like creature who had helped design some of the boats - suggested I find another boat. She showed me one that had a few vinyl cushions set on a narrow berth for a bed. "This isn't a resort," she said in a tinkling voice, noting my dubious expression. "Although of course we are happy to share our boatel with you." ( For me, it wasn't about resort living. It was about finding a boat that had a smell I could accept and a bed I could sleep on. The boat we ended up in, the White Lobster, had glass shards decoratively pasted to the walls and ceiling, an iPod dock, a chandelier that cast an amber light, and a bed that was wonderfully commodious for a 28-foot boat. As soon as we had covered their sheets - which were not of hotel, or even motel, quality - with our own, we were ready to settle in. There were other things to appreciate: the stray kitten with cheetah spots on its belly that we invited into our boat. The planes from nearby JFK airport that passed over our heads. The patches of untouched marshland, the moonlight on the dark waters of Jamaica Bay, and egrets that swooped down to skim the surface of the water for fish. The shared barbecue and leftover gin from the event that took place the night before (this involving a "sea battle" in which homemade, unseaworthy boats were tugged to the center of Jamaica Bay and glitter guns deployed.) The tugboat on the dock that served as someone's utterly charming summer home. The community of fellow boatel guests who migrated to the lounge and chatted amiably about watersheds and sustainable development, state politics, and the business of making art. After some time, my teen disappeared and I discovered her walking down the narrow piers with the stiff lurch of a runway model. She had found a catwalk. Together we jumped off the deck of our boat, visited the floating art instillations on the five-acre property, and ate Pad Thai that Alex, a sculptor and jeweler who lives with his wife in Floral Park, had generously offered to pick up from a nearby restaurant. Because I didn't have enough cash, I gave him my credit card. ( When he arrived with the food, he handed me his own card by mistake but in the dark I didn't notice the mix up. That night my daughter and I fell into fitful but contented sleep until it was time to wake up and take a bus back to beach 98. I found Alex through his website two days later and we arranged to meet in midtown to exchange credit cards. I offered to pay for any charges I had made on the look-alike card, which turned out to be the cost of one deli lunch. I commented that it was probably one of the few times a New Yorker has made a fraudulent credit card charge, tracked down the victim, and insisted on promptly refunding the money. And yet this wasn't surprising. The boatel was exactly as advertised: a "world within worlds, an hour from the city and a thousand miles away from reality." And, thankfully so. I have always enjoyed escaping reality but the alternate reality of the boatel ? at least on the warm July night when I visited ? had a particular charm. To the curious, I would say go if you possibly can, though only if the prospect of merging installation art with rough and tumble camping feels intriguing. Just don't forget to bring your own sheets.

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