This past weekend marked the sixth annual Battle for Mau Mau Island, a DIY boat-building extravaganza-meets-raucous party on the high seas. Costumed teams build and bring all manner of watercrafts to the Rockaways for a day of participatory mayhem, with swimming races, marine challenges, flag-stealing, and just trying to get through the day without the boats falling apart and sinking. According to organizer Orien McNeill, the purpose behind the madness is “to increase the use and awareness of public waterways, specifically their potential as a frontier of temporary arts and theatrics, recognizing the increasing scarcity of free creative space in NYC.”
Participants launched their watercraft from a beach near the Beach 44th Street stop on the A line, then paddled, sailed, kicked, or motored to a flotilla a few hundred feet from shore, where rope was passed hand over hand so each floatable could tie on. Early in the day, gangs were fairly territorial, staying on their own boats, drinking their own booze, and protecting their own flags, but soon people began leaping from boat to boat like they were huge, precarious, funny-looking lilypads, sharing snacks, trading stories, and slathering sunscreen on each other’s backs.
This year’s watercraft ranged from decorated canoes, yachts, and sailboats to a junk boat made of plastic bottles, a pontoon boat floating on appropriated construction barricades, and a catamaran complete with a crow’s nest lookout tower. There were boats topped with tents, a boat with an old-fashioned paddleboat wheel, a boat powered by a double-chained bicycle connected to a propeller. The boats bore coolers and lawn chairs, parasols and pool noodles, endless snacks and booze. There were also inflatables of every shape and size: a gaggle of swans, a handful of cockroaches, a banana, an alligator, a giant penis. Some were lashed together to make huge rafts; others bobbed along alone, the larger ones with several people perched together atop them, trying not to capsize.
The boats didn’t just float around doing nothing—one had a pole for dancing, another had a working grill cooking up sausages, another had buckets full of oysters being shucked and passed around. There was a Venus Piratetrap that snapped shut on unwary seafarers, a floating beaver burrow that could only be accessed from underwater, and a huge handmade octopus trailing tentacles. Several self-appointed lifeguards bobbed and paddled around, and everyone kept a vigilant eye for trash floating away so it could be retrieved and prevented from littering the ocean.
Teams included The Plagues, Skull Eaters, Fulton Mules, Newtown Greeks, Cygnus Buccinators, Space Pirates, and Beavers With Cleavers. The costumes, which mostly consisted of accouterments draped around and over the tiniest of bathing suits (it was 90+ degrees on Saturday due to that malevolent heat dome), featured duct-tape pasties, bird-head hats, head-to-toe silver bodysuits, gauzy togas, sparkly tiaras, and plenty of body paint.
Although there were many bouts of fake fighting and a lot of pilfered flags, by all accounts this year’s battle was less, well, martial than in previous years, which have included boat jousting, wanton sabotage, colored flour bombs, and flung pudding-filled diapers. The day began and ended with music: Smidge Malone from Stumblebum Brass Band floated out, supine on a stack of air mattresses, playing a trumpet, and he sang on the captain’s boat, sometimes joined by other musicians, until after dark. The water was speckled with tiny bioluminescent jellyfish (thankfully not the kind that sting). The sunset was gorgeous and the waterborne revelers had a full-sky view, unobstructed by buildings and the denseness of urban NYC.
Part of the strange beauty of Mau Mau is that it’s perfectly ephemeral: battlers know going in that they’re spending weeks building boats that aren’t expected to last a day, hours doing costumes and makeup that will be washed off or ruined in minutes, and stocking up on snacks and drinks that could be sloshed right overboard with the slightest tip. But who cares? The sun and the water and the weird costumes and the crazy boats and the pervasive glee—it all thrummed together into beautifully manic merriment, a day outside of time, a celebration of the chaotic misfit magic that can still sometimes manage to exist in this increasingly unforgiving city of ours.