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Innovators Float New Ideas on Barges

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The Science Barge, a sustainable vegetable farm that offers tours and educational programs, floats on the Hudson River. (Anna Colliton/CNS)

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Concert-goers assemble in kayaks and small motor boats to watch Victoria Symphony Splash, an daylong concert on a barge moored in the Victoria Inner Harbour. (Courtesy of the Victoria Symphon)

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Fireworks mark the end of Victoria Symphony Splash, an annual concert on a barge that lasts all day and draws approximately 40,000 spectators. (Courtesy of the Victory Symphony )

As fireworks faded into the night sky, the Canadian Scottish Regiment bagpipe band played “Amazing Grace” to celebrate the end of Symphony Splash, an annual concert put on by the Victoria Symphony in August. As they exited the stage, one piper took a fall--pipes, kilt and all.

He went right into the chilly waters of Victoria’s scenic Inner Harbor, at the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

“Piper in the water, code red!” came over the radio, remembered Karen Seeto, education and marketing coordinator for the symphony. “He was so embarrassed, he pulled himself out and ran off. We don’t even know which one he was.”

The Victoria Symphony's Splash concert, held on a rented barge moored in the harbor, is one of many entertainment ventures that float, and the opportunities that come with such new venues bring their own set of challenges--like swimming musicians.

The floating concert was first conceived as a celebration of the symphony’s 50th anniversary, in 1990, and the waterfront setting was deemed most appropriate to represent the city of Victoria.

But finding space for such a large production--the 46-piece orchestra and some 40,000 spectators--proved difficult, according to Marcus Handman, executive director of the symphony. “When we looked around for someplace to accommodate it, we realized there really wasn’t anywhere else,” he said.

As waterfront space once used for industry becomes available because of changes in the economy, the frontiers of development now extend beyond shorelines and onto barges. In Boston, a barge docked off the financial district offers movies and dancing, and in Montgomery, Texas, a barbecue barge caters dockside parties. In New York Harbor, barges have been used as a theatrical stage set, a floating iceberg cum advertising backdrop and a swimming pool.

“As we develop our waterfront across the country, these venues will be a natural corollary,” said Harris Steinberg, the executive director of Penn Praxis, the consulting arm of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Penn Praxis is currently working on developing a seven-mile stretch of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, and that area is likely to include floating venues, Steinberg said.

The bright blue Blues Barge on Boston’s Rowes Wharf offers free music, movies and dancing four nights a week. The Blues Barge has been so successful with its weekly blues concerts that the city, in conjunction with the Boston Harbor Hotel, added a swing night and a Motown night, when patrons can dance on the barge, and a movie night, when classic films and other favorites are shown.

The Blues Barge was so crowded when it featured “The Princess Bride” that another screen had to be set up. The Boston Harbor Hotel provides popcorn and other refreshments for sale at the events, and each night brings a slightly different crowd, said Jeri Wooten, director of finance at the hotel.

In New York City, any person or business hoping to put a barge in local waters must first clear the launch with the U.S. Coast Guard, and Lt. Nick Jarboe, a chief of marine events at the Coast Guard has seen all kinds of strange proposals. He remembers a fast-food company that took a particularly novel approach to promoting its commitment to using American beef.

“They converted a barge into some sort of cattle-carrying mechanism, and they were carting around a bunch of cows out in New York Harbor,” Jarboe said. “Of course, we had to make sure it was structurally sound first.”

Last summer, one company turned a barge into an iceberg manned by scantily clad hired models. The iceberg barge, advertising a new vodka, sailed near Manhattan one afternoon. A proposal for a tennis court on a barge was floated but never took shape.

Transforming a garden-variety barge into an iceberg, concert space or dance hall poses logistical difficulties. Perhaps the toughest obstacle for many would-be barge developers is finding a suitable barge.

It took Ann Buttenwieser three attempts over 27 years to fulfill her dream of creating a floating pool that would navigate around New York, giving residents of underserved neighborhoods a place to swim.

On the first attempt, Buttenwieser received a decommissioned garbage barge from the New York City Department of Sanitation. This barge was ideal because the sunken area that would house the pool was already there--in the barge's former life, that was where the trash was stored en route to the dump. But long before water was put into the pool, the barge itself wound up underwater. “They called me and said, ‘Ann, you’ve just lost your pool. It’s on the bottom of the river!’ ” she recalled.

Eventually, Buttenwieser found a 260-foot decommissioned river barge in Morgan City, La., and began construction on the pool, but Hurricane Katrina delayed the operation for five months. Last summer, the floating pool opened off Brooklyn, where 50,000 people visited it before it closed for the season. Next summer, Buttenwieser expects it to dock off Queens.

Ruth Maleczech, who directed the play "Song for New York: What Women Do While Men Sit Knitting," which was performed on a barge on New York City's East River, searched the country before finding her barge. “I looked as far south as Florida and as far north as Maine and along the Mississippi,” she said. She ultimately found a barge in Staten Island, New York. Her theater company, Mabou Mines, rented it for $7,500 a week.

The production featured a steel set welded to the barge, which was slippery when wet. Between getting the necessary permits and canceling rehearsals because of rain, the production was four years in the making. “It’s a lot of jumping through bureaucratic hoops,” Maleczech said. “You have to get permits from everybody, God on down.”

“God on down” includes the Coast Guard, Harbor Patrol, Police Department, Fire Department, Parks Department and others. The barge also had to be inspected and approved for seaworthiness.

Not only was the barge slippery at times, but it also rocked slightly, even on days when the water was relatively still.

“We had to have wristbands with pressure points for some of the crew and singers, which kept them from getting seasick,” Maleczech said.

Zach and Holly Dorris of Montgomery, Texas, recently finished the first summer season of Zach’s BBQ Barge, a full-service floating restaurant that caters dockside parties (its services even include garbage removal at the end of the event) and offers dinner cruises.

After searching for a commercial barge, which Zach estimates would have cost $50,000, plus the cost of installing a kitchen, he found a houseboat that had been seized by the county.

Zach bought it at auction for $150. He was the only bidder.

Zach’s BBQ Barge opened for business 32 days later. Zach is fully expecting others to copy his idea but isn’t concerned about that prospect.

“I just wanted to be the first one out there,” he said.

E-mail: ac2568@columbia.edu