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Delta Wagon Pilot Run

July 24, 2018

Combating the modern malaise with aquatic art

The Sacramento–San Joaquin’s 10,000 miles of river delta offer a vast blank canvas for interactive floating art. This canvas moves and breathes with the tide. The flood tide holds back the river’s westward flow and the ebb sucks it out to sea with surprising speed. It took a little over four hours to tow my half-ton “Delta wagon” platform against the current four and a half miles to Mandeville Tip, home of the annual Ephemerisle festival (aka “Burning Man on the water”). I guess I had to learn my lesson about the tides the hard way before installing my first art project.

The Delta has mostly been the province of farmers, meth-heads, bass fishers, and too-tan river-rats. More recently it’s become a temporary home to a handful of festival goers and “seasteaders” looking toward the ocean as a future habitat for humankind. Seasteading aims to turn a political problem — the lack of diversity and choice in governance — into an engineering problem: the construction of floating autonomous communities to challenge the status quo. My interest lies there, not in all-night raves, but the Burning Man ethos of interactive art has created a bridge between a particular Wild West sub-culture and the drive towards earth’s last frontier.

I conceived of my platform as a standard module for “Deltasteading” to serve as an addition to sailboats like my little Columbia 24′. While the Delta is not a true frontier, it can serve as an incubator for the “life support” technologies that will make seasteading possible in the future. A small sailboat provides many of the amenities of a houseboat, except living space. I wanted a comfortable place to hang out, move around, and eat meals, all under a shade covering. More important than comfort and habitability, however, I wanted my platform to be inspiring and visually appealing like so much of the art at Burning Man.

I appreciate how much life slows down on the Delta, but the slog from the Pirate’s Lair Marina to Mandeville Tip was too rapid a deceleration given my low tolerance for boredom, reinforced by my worrisome addiction to distraction — especially coming off of a week of frantic construction and preparation. I alternated between checking my cruising speed and Google Maps, while listening to the last chapters of an audiobook — Kevin Starr’s California: A History.

Although more accurately described as a sailboat patio, the Delta wagon was inspired by the Conestoga wagon that opened new tracts of western land to American settlers in the 1800s — sometimes bringing them to the banks of the Sacramento in search of gold. In 2018, the gold is gone, but the dream of something glittering remains. Starr writes about California as a perpetual Shangri-La — a paradisal mega-state where countless pilgrims have flocked in search of a better life. Science and technology have been rumored to hold the key to this utopia, and California’s natural landscape has been reshaped by engineering to a greater extent than any other. The elaborate system of levees that divert fresh Delta water hundreds of miles to Southern California and farms in the Central Valley make Starr’s case in a single point.

The Build

In my last article, Building Delta City, I laid out my plans for the Delta wagon, using time-tested houseboat building techniques, but transposing the standard rectangular shape onto a triangular frame.

Here’s how that went:

Testing the limits of my trusty Toyota 1/2 pick up, and the patience of Pirates Lair’s management…

The platform — built out of just wood, bolts, barrels, and a few screws — took about a week of driveway prep, culminating in a day-long assembly sprint at the boat ramp at Pirates Lair Marina. It took another day of working on the water to lay smooth redwood floor boards over the coarse plywood and to set up a makeshift awning, repurposed from an old worn out jib.


In the end, we only got to enjoy the wagon/patio for a couple of days before towing it back to land (going with the tide this) and disassembling it in a record two hours.

Rapid houseboat disassembly as an Olympic sport.

Was it Worth It?

Jacob and Ben play improv games on the Delta wagon

I consider the pilot run a success. The thing got built and was safely transported to and from the event. It also hosted some overnight visitors, several hearty ketogenic meals, a workshop on writing blessings, and an impromptu improv session (h/t to Jacob Lyles). Few people from the festival came out to visit the Delta wagon, or were even aware of its presence — in part because I intentionally anchored it away from the earsplitting electronic dance music zone closer to the main islands.

Next year, the Ephemerisle festival will celebrate the 10th anniversary of radical freedom on the water, but I think I may opt out and instead come a few weeks earlier to enjoy the 243rd annual celebration of regular old freedom, at the Hilton-sponsored 4th of July fireworks show at the same location.

There’s a certain amount of dont-give-a-damn pioneering spirit that is necessary to break out of land-locked mediocrity. Toward this end, Ephemerisle has served a noble purpose. Society pats itself on the back for technological progress, yet this same progress seems to be driving us deeper into isolation and soul-sucking unreality. Hunched over our screens and peering into the abyss of our endless digital timelines, our shoulders curve in a bit more with every limp scroll and click. Our hands grip with less force, and our bodies have forgotten what it’s like to navigate a harsh physical environment in search of new means to sustain life and give it meaning. There’s much to be said for the effort involved in taking to the water and building stuff — physical stuff — to live on for a time.

I could harp on the shortcomings of Ephemerisle — the obnoxious music disturbing the peace, the gratuitous nudity, the grunge, and the mindless intoxication. But the biggest offense to my mind, more noticeable this year than in years past, was the lack of interesting interactive art on display and the incoherence of what little could be called art with the surrounding structures. An aesthetic and cultural monoculture seems to reign over the event — made worse by the lack of individual houseboats, and their replacement with bigger vessels (barges, tugs, and pressure-treated platforms in varying states of disrepair).

I did not end up putting too strong an emphasis on production over consumption, as I said I would in the last post. The “Ketosis Cafe” served approximately four “customers” besides its residents — a group of partiers who exchanged some of their grapefruit mezcal cocktails for Carbquik™ pancakes.

I did, however, remain fairly faithful to the original design (albeit scaled down), and am fairly certain I got myself into ketosis for the majority of the time, which gave me the extra endurance during long days of lifting, hammering, drilling, sailing, and swimming.

Finally, I kept my plan to make it an island of prayer — intercessory prayer, to be specific. One of my prayers was for the people on the other islands, that they might salvage the seed of goodness at the core of the Ephemerisle event. It needs more dissenters, and people splitting off to form their own island art projects.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “a dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” Just as the land needs seasteads to demonstrate a better way of doing things, Ephemerisle needs more artists to challenge the status quo of what a festival is all about. The artist’s job is to fight the modern malaise. I believe this malaise is rooted in a general spoiling of our senses by inane distractions and overindulgence. The internet is partly to blame, but so are our cities and general recreational offerings (think Roman bread and circuses).

Festivals, floating or otherwise, should be a sharp break with the culture of frenetic intemperance and ugliness we’ve become accustomed to in our overstimulating cities. Ephemerisle needs a return to beauty, not only for its own sake but to point to a better way for all of those back on land still struggling to find meaning, still looking for Shangri-La.

  1. Konstantin Kosov permalink
    July 30, 2018 7:47 pm

    Hey! I met you on your island. I shared some homemade cheese and a melon.

    I appreciate some of what you say. Where I principally disagree is the art thing. In my opinion form must follow function. One of the things I like the least about burning man is that it is all about art per se. I think it is better to build a structure for a purpose, and then make it beautiful, or make it beautiful in the process. Everything we create can be beautiful, and can be art. I think it is a mistake to divide that which is utile and that which is art. So, I would say, I don’t want to see more art islands. I’d like to see more people try to build more different functional stuff (including myself), and for the stuff that has already been built, or will be built, to be more beautiful and artistic in its execution. My main problem with burning man is that it serves no practical function. With seasteading, islands can have an end goal, a purpose: to float on out to sea and be sufficiently well-built and -equipped to sustain life out there.

    Any interest in building a floating garden island? I want to call it Pacifis.

  2. crasch permalink
    July 26, 2018 12:16 am

    Sorry I missed the Delta Wagon maiden voyage! Thanks for building and bringing it out! Have you connected with Tim Anderson? While Tim doesn’t share your religious sensibilities, he definitely shares your distaste for much of the music at Ephemerisle. He found a good location on the opposite side of the island where the music was no longer audible throughout the week.

    I find it odd that you think that the lack of houseboats resulted in a greater aesthetic monoculture. From my perspective, their absence has forced us to expand beyond the comfortable blandness of a corporate monoculture. What festivals/events do you think rise to your standards of beauty/creativity?

    I also confess to a bit of irritation at your criticism, given that I’m currently on day four of strike. It’s much easier to build only for yourself, than it is to create something for hundreds of people to enjoy. If you think Ephemerisle lacks beauty, I encourage you to join in the planning and execution stages next year. Not only would we welcome more beauty and creativity, but I suspect you will find more beauty in our efforts–homely as they may be– after you’ve experienced firsthand how much effort it takes to create them.

  3. July 25, 2018 11:12 pm

    Sounds like you missed Siren Island which was on the far side of Washed Up Yacht Club and to me was the most notable art piece. You also had Brian’s “jet propelled” dinghy and a big seesaw on a moving pontoon. I find the kindergarten carpentry of Elysium overall to be its own artistic statement; just not one of beauty.

    Ephemerisle was definitely missing a display of work this year. The barge itself was incredibly ugly with the complex of a kitchen, a porta potty, and a generator pretty much right next to each other.

    I disagree with Rizzo’s musical taste but respect his aggressively friendly approach to playing loud music at Ephemerisle. The sound seemed pretty well contained except for when they docked at Washed Up Yacht Club Wednesday night and let a DJ play low quality MP3s or somehow lost the bass frequencies while playing bass music. Saturday night their music was only obnoxious to the poor people that wanted to have an acoustic music night at DIYland.

    Ephemerisle has a history of terrible music, and I’m proud to have thrown together the Friday Elysium lineup, which seemed to create a certified “good party” in a way that I’ve never before seen in my 8 years of Ephemerisle. So there was obnoxious music, but I’ve heard basically no negative feedback on the Friday night Elysium sound which I consider to be the main party of Ephemerisle.

    I think this was a transition year and next year we can focus on art. Thanks for building a platform! Sorry I didn’t make it out to it.

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