Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Sad Death of the Side-wheeler "Lang Syne"

Click here to see The Lang Syne in better times

I wish I had something better to report.  The side-wheeler “Lang Syne” is being demolished as I write this words, and it didn’t have to happen.  It makes me rather Ill.

I don’t remember how this started.  My friend Robert on Steampunk Empire and I were chatting on the board, and this thing came up.  He sent me a link to an old article about the boat, and I became intrigued.

The Lang Syne was a side wheel steamer, built in the 1880s, that plied the passenger trade between Baltimore and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  She was 70 feet long, 27 feet in beam, counting the wheels, and was rated for 150 passengers.  She was tug-like, utilitarian, and, to my antiquarian mind, utterly beautiful.  We started doing a bit of research.  The boat had been in the Susquehanna River, at Havre de Grace, and had been bought to restore her.  She had been moved to the Baltimore area. There was a veteran’s group involved in her restoration, there was a family involved.  We learned there had been several refits of the boat.   We learned the old boilers had been replaced with diesel engines. . . .

It was Robert who finally found her.  There she was on Google Earth, at a rotting dock a few miles north of Baltimore.  

That’s where I live, a few miles North of Baltimore I mean, on the Middle River on our Shantyboat.  I called Rich, one of our neighbors in the Marina and an avid machinist, pneumatic maven, and all round inventive guy and set up an expedition to find the vessel.  I contacted my friend Kristen, a bio-geographer with lots of contacts in the ecology community, for suggestions and contacts.  I contacted the Paddlewheel association, and bunch of other folks with an interest in such things.  We were stoked.  We would crowd fund, save the vessel, and preserve a bit of our history.

Then we went to find her.

Look, I don’t like pissing people off.  If you know me, you know I always seek the positive and the possible.  I try to see the good in everything because without that, hey, whats the point.

But this. . . . .

The “marina” where she was moored was, without doubt, the scariest freaking place I’ve ever been.  Let me be clear:  I’ve lived in Philly, in Watts, in Chicago;  I’ve lived in small, poor towns in Idaho and Illinois.  . . .I’m an artist.  I’m not staying at the ritz here, if you get my drift.

But this place was scary.  I was going to say it was like the third world, but I’ve BEEN in the third world, and they have way more pride.  The marina consisted of a haphazard mass of rotting boats, all crammed together on the hard.  Some had collapsed into their blocks or trailers.  Others were obviously occupied as cheap housing.  There were a couple of decomposing buildings, one either half torn down or half constructed, hard to tell.  The “marina office” was some kind of packing container with that sign in the window.  I could see through the window that it was packed floor to ceiling with storage.  Nobody home.  Behind that was a decomposing house, missing  a number of it’s windows.  Large, not terribly friendly dogs roamed the yard, eyeing us.   It was more like a scene from some post-apocalyptic computer game, and I half expected half decomposed zombies to come crawling out of the rotting boats after us.  Over this detritus toward the water side, we saw a stack, and I raced across the gravel, around a rusting tin boat house, to a collapsed dock leading out to the boat. . . 

. . .the boat. . . .

The picture that I’ve linked to here was the boat, if you can believe it, in better times, about 10 years ago.  The vessel we saw was in advanced deconstruction.  All the wooden parts had been broken away from the superstructure and were piled on the deck.  A burn barrel was incongruously burning away ON the upper deck just aft of the smokestack, and an older man with a hat and a grey beard was feeding wood into it.

I walked—rather carefully—down the collapsed dock.  It had been repaired here and there with plywood nailed to the boards but was still far from trustworthy.

“Ahoy the Lang Syne.” I yelled out to him, afraid to walk any farther.

He turned from his fire.  “What?” He said, “Don’t walk on the dock, it’s not safe.  What do you want?”

I was kind of flummoxed.  “We came to ask about the boat.”

“What about it?”  He demanded.  He plainly didn’t want me there.

“We wanted to know what was going on with it. . .her status.  Do you own her?”

“It’s mine.”  He said, “I don’t want you on the dock.  It’s not safe.  I won’t be responsible.”

I backed up to the end of the dock.

“I understand.  We were curious about the boat.”  I said  “We were interested.  What is. . . “

“It’s being demolished.”  He said. “Its under water down there, the motors.  It’s being demolished.  I really don’t want you on the dock.”

And he turned his back on me and went back to burning the Lang Syne, piece by piece.  

I turned around to see Rich headed, rather rapidly, for the car as a rather large black dog closed in on him.  We hit the car and left.  Morgainne, who had come with us with her camera, was even afraid to take any photographs for ‘fear they’d shoot us.’

I spent the rest of the day angry and testy.  Part of me wants to make this about something larger, about a country that has no pride, no sense of anything but what’s profitable, and about the disposable people that live in it, but that’s too complicated.  The Lang Syne found herself in a sad place, full of poor and perhaps desperate people, and I’m trying—desperately—to have some kind of compassion for the rude old man who was methodically destroying a piece of American history—MY history—because it was in his way.

Lang Syne didn’t have to be destroyed.  There were plenty of resources, of willing hands and willing bank accounts ready to save this wonderful old part of American and nautical history.  She was just inconvenient, in the way, and expendable.

I feel that way myself, sometimes.  

Let’s not let this happen again.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays Everybody

Amazingly warm weather, vast overeating, and good friends:  Hope you all are enjoying the season as much as we.

Mungo and Morgainne

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


I just wanted to share this with you guys:  One of the great joys of living here on Middle River is our surroundings.  Early evening and early morning, the river becomes calm--far calmer than any lake or stream I've ever seen--and the light is absolutely magical.  If anyone wonders why I chose to live on the water, this is one of the best answers.

Enjoy.  We do.


Kindly visit our other blogs:  Onboard Cooking and Life, Art, Water.  We'd love to share them with you.

Monday, December 15, 2014


Tomorrow it will be 6 months since we launched the Floating Empire at the Baltimore Boating Center. I thought this would be a good time to look bank and take an inventory of our success' and well not failures, rather our shortcomings.

On the whole i would judge what we have done as successful; with one very large caveat, our floatation is inadequate. Put simply we are too heavy. We misjudged by a fairly large factor the weight of the things that we have put in the boat. Sigh! Still, we are floating and we have plans to address this important issue in the very near future. Mungo is working on the plans as i write this. We are planning on adding an extra rank of floatation to both sides of the boat which will while providing much needed extra floatation will also function as the base for catwalks on each side of the structure. The catwalks will allow us to address other issues as well. The spar varnish that we used on the exterior walls has not held up. A pity as both of us like the look of the wood. So with the catwalks instead of trying to paint the walls from our inflatable dinghy we will have a nice stable platform to work from. While we're at it we're planning to install a drip edge under the roof membrane.

Yup, there are a bunch things we didn't think of when we started this project. Sounds like a six month make-over right? Stay tuned.

We both love the space, especially now that we have a reliable non-electric heat source. We are big fans of Kero! Check out Mungo's posts on this topic. We are making changes inside as well, most of which are still in the talking stage. Our bathroom is still not finished and will likely not be until spring as some of those changes require taking part of my studio wall down. Not something either of us fancy doing in January. We will be rebuilding part of the galley as well. With the arrival of the Butterfly cook stove we discovered immediately that the hearth is too high to cook on comfortably. I do not relish the thought of stirring a risotto with my elbow over my shoulder.

You know all of this may sound  as if there are more things wrong than right with the Floating Empire. This is simply not true. What is true however is that the Empire is an experiment. Not just a design experiment; but an experiment in a whole new way of living. We have taken charge of our lives and our home and we both expect the Empire to change and grow as we learn to live in her.


More later

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Quest for Fire

Yep, that's snow. . .
...or heat, anyway.  Now that we're moving into winter, thoughts turn to staying comfy aboard ship. One of the factors common in almost ALL smaller vessels is that there is little or no insulation.  As you've probably noted in earlier posts, we've been steadily increasing the amount of insulation here aboard Floating Empire, and it's really helped.  Still, it can only do so much with the space and weight restrictions within which we must work.

For most of the fall, our big Kirkman #2 lanterns, cranking out about 1200BTU when turned up, were more than enough to heat the space comfortably.  As the evening temps began dropping into the 20's and teens, however, they began to be less and less able to cope.

One of our first moves was to purchase a small quartz heater for use in the colder evenings.  While this was safe, inexpensive, and took up very little space, it still tied us more to shore power than we're comfortable (resistance heating being a major battery suck).

With limited wattage available here on the dock, running the small heater, with the lanterns, proved barely adequate on the colder nights, not to mention being rather expensive.

With our earlier success with our new kerosene cookstove, and our love of lanterns, we thought we'd try a Kerosene heater as an option.  One of of dockmates had this lovely old Perfection heater that he was willing to lend us for a trial run.

I'll be honest, I've limited experience with Kerosene as a heat source, but having played with this thing, I'm now a fan.  The heat is dry, relatively inexpensive, an man do these things crank.  In coming weeks, we've ordered our own 10,500 BTU heater and will be running that through the winter.

So stay warm, folks. . .
Is it spring yet?
And watch those slippery docks.

Hey new posts on Morgainne's blog Life, Art, Water about artifying the boat.  Check it out.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Butterfly Kerosene Stove Review

So in a continuing effort to, well, cook, we're trying an option to our recalcitrant Butane stove.  Based on reviews and recommendations, we purchased from St. Paul Mercantile a Butterfly Kerosene stove.  Their customer service has been great, especially after our paypal order reverted for some reason to an obsolete address.  John dealt with our problems rapidly, and we were frankly impressed.

The stove in question is a 16 wick unpressurized kerosene stove with a catalytic burner, cranking out a bit over 10,000 BTU on high.  Following advice on the web, we gave all the metal parts a coat of auto polish before setting it up (caution, sheet metal edges can be SHARP).

A couple of notes you should consider:  This is a stove for long term cooking (varieties of this stove are used in restaurants in Asia and Africa).  As the Kerosene well is an open pan with the wick assembly just sitting on top of it held by friction, if you tilt the stove, it will leak.  If you overfill the stove, it will leak.  In order to transport the stove, the pan would have to be drained and the wicks wrung out.  As a result, this is NOT a camping stove, unless you're setting up a base camp for fairly long term use.

Wicking the stove is as simple as it is tedious. A piece of wire is provided for you to hook the midpoint of each of the ragmop wicks and pull it through the wick holder.  We wound up using a pair of pliers to save our fingers pulling the wire hook.  The whole process took about 15 min.  Pull the wicks through, and then pull them back down with the stove set on high until they're all even with the ridges on either side of the burners.

Lighting the stove takes a bit of practice.  First of all, on filling, you want to give the wicks a couple of hours to saturate before lighting.  This can be sped up by taking a straw or syringe and putting a few drops of Kerosene on each.  Lighting is really quick, just wipe a lit match around the wicks and it's done.  It can be a bit of a struggle to get the catalytic burner in place with the little floppy wire handle, but we rapidly got the hang of it (It should be noted that lots of folks apparently use bamboo skewers or fireplace matches to light the stove with the catalytic burner in place.  We haven't tried that yet).  After about three minutes, when the burner heats up, you'll have a murderously hot blue flame from the stove, utterly smokeless and odorless.

It's wise to let the stove burn for about an hour or so outside so that oils and paint and things can burn off without smelling up your space.

After wrestling with other stoves, cooking on this thing is a wonder.  Once it comes up to temperature, it boils a full tea kettle in about 8 minutes, has plenty of heat for cooking, and can be turned down to a decent simmer.  The broad stance of the stove and its huge pot rest means that even our largest cast iron Lodge dutch ovens will rest on it happily.  After dealing with butane in cold weather and tossing away can after can after can, this has been a wonderful option.

The stove isn't without it's downsides, of course.  Aside from the potential to leak if tipped or overfilled, most of the paint on the catalytic burner has burned and flaked off over the first few weeks.  The fuel gauge is mostly useful to warn you of overfilling.  Aside from that, it's wildly inaccurate.  The fill opening, being below the pot ring, can be a bit awkward to get to.  The large burner opening is big enough to swallow a very small pan (we use a bit of cooking rack on top of it when using our smallest pans).  The blue flame, in addition, can be hard to see, so turning the thing up and down is a matter of practice.

Still and all, the little Indonesian stove works beautifully and reliably, and at less than $70, it's a bargain.  The company also makes an oven for use with the stove (which we may be picking up) which is pretty well reviewed.  They also make double burner and pressurized versions.

Since we already use Kerosene lanterns for both light and heating, the Butterfly 16 wick stove has been a great choice.  We'd recommend it.

Pontoon Boat Shanty Conversion

Hey we came across this on a recent trip.  I think they're WAY light on the floatation, but it does show some of the easy things one can do.  Good on you guys whoever you are.

More shortly