Last weekend was another occasion for NYC’s chaos-loving DIY crew to cobble together their best watercraft and head out to the Rockaways for this year's Battle for Mau Mau Island. For the ninth year running, teams assembled, chose themes, created bathing-suit-adjacent costumes, and built or procured something capable of staying upright in water. Then everyone paddled, kicked, floated, or sailed out to tie on to a massive nebulous flotilla, anchored this year by a huge multi-level platform constructed atop several legitimately seaworthy vessels.
Orien McNeill originally conceived the event as an after-party for the 2011 Swimming Cities project Ocean of Blood, during which he and a dozen other artists piloted handcrafted motorcycle-powered pontoon boats 400 miles down the Ganges River. He describes the Battle for Mau Mau Island as “cathartic joy mixed with a bit of art and some gladiatorial combat for structure.” It started as a wild but intimate gathering for friends, and even as it’s grown, that feeling remains. Even the name is a tribute: When McNeill was trying to find a location for the first one, Duke Riley suggested Mau Mau, a small, uninhabited island in Marine Park, Brooklyn. The festivities haven’t been held there for years, but the name stuck.
As always, “combatants” decked themselves and their boats out spectacularly. There were the Sea Monkeys, in fur bikinis and monkey ears, whose boat was a canopied platform atop two yellow-painted canoes. The Trash Birds, up from Richmond, Virginia, had a glorious craft called Riff Raft that boasted a waterslide and a hammock, which was powered by two bicycles turning a paddleboat-style plastic barrel with rubber fins. Hades Water Taxi was a catamaran with coffin-shaped platforms and guitar-shaped oars; costumes included Styx t-shirts to match the lyrics from the album The Ferryman stenciled on the boat’s sides. The GarBarge, which had sailed to the Rockaways from near Riis Park under cover of darkness the night before, was a platform tied onto a huge net filled with recovered plastic bottles. The Lagoonigans were draped in neon-green mesh and rowed their double canoe smoothly—despite balancing an enormous fist with its middle finger raised. There was also what appeared to be a large wood duck (but no Mandarin duck).
Smaller craft darted around throughout: 16 Bins was made of, well, 16 plastic tubs lashed together; Swamp Thing was a huge plastic-ivy-draped inner-tube, and Team Swans were laid out on a half-dozen big inflatable white birds with tiny ones bobbing in their wake as individual beer koozies. There were inflatable flamingoes, bananas, aliens, and a gigantic guitar, not to mention rafts made of stitched-together pool noodles. Gallivanting among it all were some 150 people of all ages, including an extremely enthusiastic kid attacking everyone with a high-powered water gun, as well as four or five dogs, some standing proudly like figureheads and others scampering from boat to water and back again.
The event includes some semi-regulated “war games,” like swimming races, pugil stick fighting on floating mats, and boat jousting, during which two canoes row fiercely toward one another like a game of sea chicken, with one player on each bow wielding a foam-tipped lance and attempting to knock her opponent overboard. But despite a lingering competitive spirit, Mau Mau Island is much more about camaraderie. It’s a gleefully anarchic, sun-soaked day, featuring hours of fearless and foolhardy seafarers leapfrogging from boat to boat like so many bizarre lily pads, sharing booze and snacks and sunblock and helping hands. Many in legitimate vessels spent their time rowing hard after escaped inflatables and windblown accessories, and when the Sea Monkeys’ craft sunk in spectacular fashion, more than 25 people paddled or swam over to help, attending to every person, plank, and piece of food or trash that had been swept into the sea.
As the sun began to set, punk banjo-picker Morgan O’Kane (who we last heard serenading folks upstate on another waterway) sailed out on an inflatable raft and started to strum in the gloaming. He was joined, spontaneously, by a fellow in a kiddie pool bearing a violin, a woman on a bobbing plank wielding a ukulele, and a man in a canoe caressing a melodica. None of them had met before, but they fell into an easy harmony, joining their melodies together while everyone around them clapped or pounded to the beat on whatever surface was closest to hand.
“Mau Mau always runs at a reasonable loss and is decentralized in organization,” says McNeill, “so it’s not-for-profit and un-bureaucratic. In a city where you need a hundred grand and an LLC and lawyers and 50 pages of paperwork to open a hot dog stand, it’s nice to do something that feels as if it’s for the sole purpose of irreverent, chaotic joy.” Stay tuned for next year, for the 10th-anniversary extravaganza! We're gonna need a bigger flotilla.