It was like stepping onto the set of a horror film. An array of dusty knick-knacks lined the shelves, ranging from empty glass bottles to vintage photographs and eyeless doll heads. Torn pantyhose, some colored red, were strewn up as curtains. In the closet, there was a musty aroma and a pile of something furry.
This would be our home for the evening.
We were onboard “Ms. Nancy Boggs,” a 1967 Drift-R houseboat that had been outfitted as part of the Boatel floating hotel project at Marina 59 in Far Rockaway, Queens, just an hour from downtown New York City. Described as an “interactive art and sound installation,” the Boatel consists of 16 themed houseboats, clustered around a central dock that functions as an outdoor kitchen and common space. “Bad Irene” combines futuristic décor with Bollywood kitsch; “Sweet Annisa” sports a red vinyl interior said to have been designed for West Indian drug lords; and “Americano” was built for a weekend bender with Vanilla Ice, Richard Pryor and Neil Patrick Harris. Personality? This place has plenty.
Our adventure had begun earlier in the day, on the A train from Manhattan. Boatel’s website had advised us to come “adventure-ready,” so our overnight bags were stuffed accordingly: bug spray, sunscreen, sleeping bags, booze and an assortment of costume apparel left over from last year’s trip to Burning Man.
By the time we arrived at Marina 59, the sun had already fallen. A few grizzled sailors manned the entrance to the Boatel, swilling Coors Light on plastic chairs. When we inquired about our night’s accommodations, a fairy-like blonde appeared with directions to our boat and an invitation to return if we wanted sheets.
The dock had seen better days, and its panels groaned under our weight. After unloading our gear onto Nancy and gaping at her oddities with a mix of whimsy, curiosity and fear, we poured ourselves a drink and ventured out to explore our surroundings.
First stop was the convenience store next door, where we were instantly reminded that we weren’t in a nautical Never-Never Land, but rather smack in the middle of one of Queens’ rougher neighborhoods. The cashiers seemed used to drop-in hippies from the Marina, though, and they laughed at our tie-dye and face paint.
Back in the Marina, we dropped by a shipping-container-turned-art-studio, filled with paintings that were colorful but angry, and filled with sexual symbolism. A pillow and yoga mat lay in the corner, as evidence of artistic commitment.
Walking back to the boat, we encountered two goats that seemed perfectly at home in the middle of a parking lot in a dilapidated marina in Queens. This would be an interesting night.
Back on the dock, a lecture was in progress. In addition to houseboat accommodations, Boatel also offers a variety of community programming, including lectures, live music and a “Floating Cinema” featuring screenings of nautical classics like “Treasure Island” and “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.” Two-thirds of the way through, the lecture was interrupted by a theatrical play on a shark attack, complete with splashing kayakers and projected images of sharp teeth.
Post-lecture, we barbequed, drank and relaxed on the pier. Between the softly lapping waves and surreal surroundings, it was easy to escape the pulsating energy of the city we’d left just a few hours earlier. Conversation jumped from topic to esoteric topic, and laughter echoed in the air. No one checked their smartphones. Somewhere between late evening and early morning, we slipped into deep sleeps, aided by Nancy’s gentle rocking.
Morning came, and intense sunlight woke us long before we were ready. As my eyes fluttered open, I took in the surroundings: the glinting glass bottles, the vintage photographs. The light was soft streaming in through the pantyhose. Even the doll heads didn’t look so creepy in the light of day.
Stepping off the boat, we greeted the friends we’d made the previous evening and began to prepare a light breakfast. But soon, the morning calm was interrupted by a band of police inspectors, who stopped at each boat to inquire about the Boatel’s safety practices. Despite my initial reservations the night before, I now felt affectionate toward the Boatel, even a bit defensive of the otherworldly atmosphere the artists and organizers had managed to create. The Boatel is no luxury “I’m On A Boat” experience, but it is certainly something special, and we shared as much with our interrogators. Then, with one last look back at the dock, the goats and Ms. Nancy Boggs, we braced ourselves to reenter the real world.
The Boatel is located at Marina 59 in Far Rockaway, Queens, just off the A subway stop at Beach 60th Street. Rooms are available from Wednesday to Sunday until November 1, with rates starting from $55/night.