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Paper boats — bits of ‘poetry’ and protest — head downriver

TROY — From the city marina to Albany, the Hudson River runs parallel to rail tracks that will annually bring to the Port of Albany nearly 3 billion gallons of crude oil, or the equivalent of about 250 fully loaded rail tanker cars every day.

When compared to the mile-long oil trains and the behemoth industry and energy demand they represent, the little flotilla of canoes made of paper that floated on the Hudson on Saturday morning toward the port and beyond to Manhattan might seem but the tiniest, most flimsy of protests, said Sunitha Prasad. She was among the organizers of the paper-boat project, called SeaChange: We All Live Downstream.

But, Prasad said, “What we’re really interested in as activists and artists is the poetry of the paper boat. … If we apply our resistance layer by layer, just as we have applied paper to these boats … we can actually make something that’s strong.”

During a two-week voyage, the four paper boats — their hulls made of craft paper, glue and shellac, with wood added for gunwales, seats and flooring — and accompanying craft will be paddled about six hours a day with the outgoing tide. Stops have been scheduled along the way to include forums, films, presentations and potluck meals to educate and boost support for a host of interconnected causes, including global warming, fracking, oil trains, water rights and water pollution, said Prasad. She is a member of the Brooklyn-based boatbuilding collective Mare Liberum, which organized the SeaChange voyage with a global climate change activism network called 350.org. They will post updates online, on blogs and social media, as well as power mobile phones and otherwise communicate with a solar-powered Internet connection mounted in a picnic cooler.

The boats are projected to arrive in New York and circumnavigate Manhattan in time for the Sept. 21 People’s Climate March, scheduled two days before the UN Climate Summit 2014 at United Nations headquarters.

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“These are epic times; this is literally the biggest thing man has ever faced,” Kevin Buckland, a member of the Capital Region chapter of 350.org, told the crowd assembled to watch the flotilla launch.

The boats, made of eight double layers of paper soaked in wood glue that are formed using an existing canoe as a mold before being covered with a dozen layers of shellac, are lighter than comparable wooden craft and more fragile than plastic or aluminum canoes, said Jean Barberis, a French-born, Brooklyn-based artist who was one of the builders. Before sending the last canoes down a ramp to the marina docks, Barberis examined the shellac finish, reinforcing it in a few spots with wide strips of black duct tape.

The flotilla’s itinerary calls for a rally Saturday evening in Albany, stopping in Catskill on Monday and Hudson on Tuesday. Prior to the boats casting off, one of the paddlers, Shawn Forno of Brooklyn, climbed into one of the low-sided, tippy paper canoes. A quick capsize, and he was into the river, with 160 miles still left to go.


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