Yankee Redneck Engineering: making a boat out of invasive weeds

Salisbury, Massachusetts

The Mighty Phragmites awaiting her maiden voyage.
The Mighty Phragmites awaiting her maiden voyage.

 37 degrees F. That’s how warm the north Atlantic is in February. And this is where I stand with my Yankee friends with a boat made of invasive weeds. 

For you Yankees who think I’m talking baseball, I’m not. I’m from the South and I still say “ma’am” and “sir” and call anyone from the north a “Yankee”. (oh, did you notice my use of capitalization? That was unconscious but I’m not fixin’ it).

My friend John, a Yankee and middle-school science teacher, has made a boat out of weeds and we’re out here to test its sea-worthiness. The weed? Phragmites australis, or known better as Phrag (pronounced ‘frag’).  Phrag is an aggressively invasive reedy weed that towers up to 20 foot tall, its tufted head swaying in the wind. Phrag invades marshes and wet grasslands throughout the country and is of particular concern in salt marshes as it displaces native grasses. It’s so aggressive that attempts to poison it, cut it, freeze it, dig it up, graze it, and burn it have done nothing but left us exhausted. In the local Great Marsh, the concern of Phrag has prompted the creation of the film Danger in the Reeds for public awareness of the reed presence. 

John stands among the tall Phragmites.
John stands among the tall Phragmites.

The idea to build a boat out of an invasive weed started first as a challenge by John to his students to make something useful out of this nuisance plant. Maybe if we can monetize this aggressive reed we can do a better job of controlling it, he reasons.

The students made spears and pens and decorations. John had another idea when he walked into his neighbor’s yard where the reed grows 20 foot tall. Some of the reeds had a natural bend in them, presumably due to a persistent wind. He thought, “I wonder if I can make a boat out of that?”

After two-weeks worth of work stretched out over a number of months, John harvested the tall reeds and lashed them together with hemp rope. He used the natural bend in the reeds to form the curved bow. His Mighty Phragmites (this is a name I have given it) raft looks like a single, curved pontoon.

I hadn’t  seen the finished boat and shot him an email to see if he’d set it on its maiden voyage yet. He hadn’t but would in the afternoon if I could make it out. And now I stand with three of his 7th grade students, his son and his son’s friend and one of John’s friends. The cold Atlantic licks the beach hungry for warm blood.

John claps his gloved hands together and says, “Let’s do this!” As the bow bounces over the first small wave, we whoop and holler –  we are all teenage boys today. Those of us in wetsuits jump on and paddle and surf it. I am only in waders in February water and stay in the shallows. I do make a brief surf in and almost roll the thing. 

After two hours and a near sunset, we haul it back. It is much heavier and is like what I imagine carrying a dead small walrus is like. As we grunt and walk over the uneven snowy terrain with our dead walrus I say, “Y’all may be Yankees, but that was redneck stuff right there.” A boat made of weeds and then thrown into the ocean to see if it floats? Yeah, that’s pretty redneck. All we need now is a trolling motor and a six pack.

John’s Mighty Phragmites may not lead to the eradication of Phrag, but it may require that kind of redneck ingenuity to control it. After all, in Louisiana they’re trying to turn the big rat that is nutria into a delicacy. Maybe we can feed the nutria Phrag…

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