Nautical Milestone for the Duluth Autonomous Navy

Announcing the formation of the Duluth Autonomous Navy, with co-Admirals Jim Richardson and performance artist Troy Rogers aka Robot Rickshaw. We want you. Every time you touch water, it becomes a naval engagement…

I would like to use my newfound powers of the co-admiralty to declare Troy a menace for his recent naval actions (see below), and I hereby issue a call to the new city attorney, who is a personal friend of mine, to charge him with sedition and place him under arrest before he causes an international incident. And then where will you be? I’ll tell you where: you’ll be in a room with the mayor and she’ll be saying, “Will you please just start listening to Jim Richardson, he’s Secretary of the Navy around here and in fact I’m giving him your office.” It’s a funny story, involving as it happens, my secret contact on the police force – another personal friend of mine – and what kind of superhero would I be if I wasn’t cultivating levers of law enforcement power from within the machine, a lot like Batman? I am all up in the Deep State of this chooch town.

Like I was saying, the public might recall the former autonomous-watercraft hijinks of this madman Troy and myself, from our iceberg ride, to going solo with my Flamingo Patrols. Then we were going to have a team-up for the Floaty Flotilla, the weather-sensitive non-event recently canceled at the last minute due to winds above 10mph, albeit blowing toward the Lakewalk – you’d be unlikely to blow out to sea, is the best I can say there. I’d had an irrational hope that the winds would dip below 10mph and perhaps be manageable. But there were whitecaps, and a small craft advisory and everything, so: no way. I found out later someone put in on some kinda floaty, and paddled it a short ways using shovels; I feel horrible and I shouldn’t be surprised these brave citizens didn’t get the message about the last-minute cancellation. So right there I’m like: I gotta quit doing this stuff.

The Safety Trifecta for a Navy of One

It’s fine for me personally to test my limits while I get recreation or whatever, floating around on something stupid. I am a Navy of one.

For me the safety trifecta is iron clad: wind speed, wind direction, and relatively warm water. The water temperature is negotiable; a wetsuit helps a lot. But I will not put in, on neither iceberg nor floaty toy, if the wind is above 10mph. Regarding wind direction, if it’s not blowing you toward town, do not get in that water. Blowing out to sea would be a miserable death; it could happen so easily, and it could risk the life of first responders trying to get to you. Imagine if someone died saving you on your inner tube in the middle of the stormy lake where you’ve been dying of exposure for hours. That’s not how I want this Navy to be remembered.

Unforeseen shifts of wind direction are always possible. They are one of the great dangers of fooling around on the big lake like overgrown children with no sense. As I recall, those were the sentiments of the county sheriff who pulled me over on my flamingo that time; as well as the state Department of Natural Resources officers who pulled me over that other time. They educated me about how they thought the wind could shift and suddenly I’d be a dot on an angry sea.

So I tend to stay close to shore. I internalized their messages. And I tried impressing those messages upon Troy. The trifecta had been in play on all the flamingo patrols, and our iceberg ride (regarding water temps there, it was a consideration, but both Troy and I believed, probably wrongly, that we could have swam to shore). And, as I will swear on this stack of Trump Bibles, once we set foot on that iceberg, Troy attempted subversion of my trifecta almost immediately.

The iceberg ride was more like the “Mutiny on the Bounty” than previously known. He wanted to take the iceberg out farther, closer to the open sea where the winds could really take hold. That seemed to be his solitary goal. How far out could we go? – that was his only question. In fact, I have never known him to behave otherwise in any other realm of life — if there is a realm of life beyond art, which I doubt very strongly. I should have formed the Duluth Autonomous Navy right there, promoted Troy to co-admiral, and then immediately given him a dishonorable discharge – the bad kind of discharge. That might have straightened him out.

Summer Naval Activity Thus Far

The other thing I internalized from my high seas flamingo imbroglios with law enforcement is this. I’ve had run-ins with successive levels of government: the county sheriff and the state DNR. So next up for me would be the federal level, which means the Coast Guard. And that is really just a little joke with myself, since I don’t really want to encounter the Coast Guard in a pink floaty or any other condition. It would of necessity mean that something had gone wrong. It would give me a nested law enforcement trifecta, but that doesn’t mean anything really. But I amused myself thinking of a Coast Guard encounter like winning an award — an award called the “Coastie.” As in, “I have a Grammy, and an Emmy, but I don’t have a Coastie yet.”

Fast forward to this summer of the COVID. The Flotilla got canceled, but I did a couple solo flamingo patrols, winds less than 5mph and blowing the right way if at all. One day it was hot, and I felt like putting in; the winds were only like 6-8mph, but blowing up the shore toward Canada. And so I was all, “Nope — I got my rules; as Paul Lundgren hath written, the lake is trying to kill you.”

So then the other day I got a text from my Police mole: “Hey are you on an inner tube right now?” I wasn’t! I was indoors. But they’d gotten a call about someone — or something — out there. The wind was blowing in, which would have been safe if just a light breeze, but it was 10mph or more, which is too rough to be goofing around. Like, maybe in a little bay or whatever, where you’re out of the wind a little – otherwise, less safe.

The next day, another buddy sent me a city press release, about how the fire department had responded to a report of an inner tube on the water, or some kind of water toy — but no person was found and everything was assumed probably fine.

I was like, “LOL,” because I love getting aqua-texts like those.

The Sousaphone Boat

Photo by Richard Narum

I knew Troy was working on a pedal-powered sousaphone boat. He’d been threatening to build it for a while. I knew also, he is chronically late in everything he does. To the point of: any time estimate he gives you, multiply that figure by, like, eight. And that is how long it will really take, whatever it is. So, this alleged boat he was building was to be ready by the Floaty Flotilla event, but it wasn’t – no matter. Then he was itching to have it done and almost got it in the water a couple weeks later, but had to cancel for a family thing. And in each case I wanted quite badly to be in the water when he launched this thing, to document this important moment in the history of the Duluth Autonomous Navy.

Last Saturday arrived. The reports I saw said winds were at 24mph, blowing directly to Canada. I saw this information first thing in the morning, because I track that stuff on the daily in my duties as Lake Superior Aquaman. So I knew I would not be putting in on my flamingo, nor would I be diving or swimming, nor would I be working on my tan in that wind. 24mph is crazy talk. Wind-wise, that’s twice what canceled the Floaty Flotilla. It’s three times the wind speed we had during the Iceberg Ride — which was borderline unsafe, considering we were standing on a rapidly disintegrating ice slab in 10 feet of water. But at least that wind was blowing us into town, not to Canada … although it did switch directions for several long minutes there…

And so, on Saturday I get a text from Troy: “I’m down at the lake, I’m going to launch the sousaphone boat.”

Me: “You are crazy to launch in 24mph winds.”

That was the extent of our conversation. That was all I had to say on the matter, and there was no reply. I watched a couple fragments of the scene play out on social media, with the usual array of Duluth Autonomous Navy support crew cackling in the background. I tried to push it out of my mind.

I wanted to go down there, but it would have been to dissuade him from going, and he would have ignored me anyway, and I just would have been a wet blanket. And then I knew — I knew — he was going to instantly head away from the protection of shore. He was going to head out on the open sea to where the wind really blows unimpeded. You can see the line from shore normally, and a normal person has an affirmative desire to avoid that line. Troy normally considers that line a starting point.

In my mind’s eye I saw him going for this, and I felt he would get into trouble, and then I’d have to try and rescue him, and get into trouble myself. So in my anxiety, I decided not to join them — I just let Troy’s karma play out. If he was going to die, he was going do it without me. I wasn’t going to stand there and watch it happen. I was going to stay home and watch a movie.

Later that night he texted me: “The Coast Guard got involved. Not for anything serious. I’ll tell you about it over a beach beer sometime.”

My first instinct was: “Aw man, Troy got a Coastie?!?”

It felt like losing Best Actress.

Troy Gets His “Coastie”

That beach beer got arranged with a quickness; it was the next day he told me the whole story. We were sitting on the rock beach (“The Ledges”) a stone’s throw from where he’d put in. All this is paraphrased from that discussion and hopefully not too garbled. But basically:

He did wear a life vest. I asked him if he was in costume, which is the sort of thing superheroes ask each other. He said no, just his 3-D printed snowflake hypergoggles. Fair enough.

So he got the pedal-powered sousaphone boat in the water (it also has a glockenspiel) and the drive shaft immediately broke. So boom, it went from boat to raft. He was powerless, adrift. In fact the sousaphone was acting as a sail. He had an oar and worked it like Hell, fighting the wind to get back to shore and his crew. But like I said, that wind wanted him in Canada ASAP to create an international incident.

Photo: Lissa Maki

Finally, he had to give in to these chaotic forces much larger than him, and he is pretty large, but not larger than chaos. I mean, assuming we accept his choice to risk that water in the first place — from that point on, he had no choice but to let the fractal wind and water take him up the shore at 24mph. His only option was to use the oar to try and steer toward land – hopefully American land – it must have been like using a toothpick. His trajectory was taking him past the pier at Glensheen Mansion (almost a mile from his drop-in point – still well within America, thank God…).

Meanwhile his support crew booked it to their car. They had not been expecting Troy to just, you know, blow away like that. There was no way to talk to him which in hindsight the Autonomous Navy is going to have to work on. But, they had a kayak, and they thought they might have an autonomous rescue operation on their hands. They chased Troy up the shore in the car, hoping to have a chance to put in close to him somehow. They perceived, as Troy did, that Glensheen Pier was the place to try and get to.

Someone on the Lakewalk – an anonymous Good Samaritan — watched Troy zoom past. And they called 911, or possibly called the Coast Guard directly. Regardless, all the first responders got involved. And they all converged on Glensheen, the historic mansion on the lake, a House of Mysteries about to receive a strange guest.

Meanwhile, Troy was expending an enormous amount of energy rowing into position to slip behind the pier. And luckily this worked, or he’d be in Canadian Guantanamo right now. Now out of the worst of the wind and waves, he rowed along behind the pier, and beached his stricken craft. He arrived on that beach facing a cadre of first responders, including an ambulance, fire engines, and police cars, with the Coast Guard bugging out.

Troy laughed when he told me how clueless he was at first. He pulled his broken boat onto shore joking with them, saying, “Gosh I hope this isn’t for me hahaha.” But it was for him. Then a cop said, “Yeah, a citizen called in a report from shore about something like a diving platform that had come loose, with someone on it?”

Troy’s boat looks exactly like that but Troy still didn’t get it, so he earnestly replied, “Well, I’ll keep my eyes peeled, officer.”

I asked him if anyone got mad at him for wasting taxpayer dollars and so forth. And he said no. The worst was when a cop asked him, “So was it your idea to turn that into a fishing platform?”

And Troy told him no, but confided to me his inner reaction, which was something like, “Dude, really? It’s got a sousaphone on it, are you serious? Have a more artistic imagination, grumble grumble…”

“Anyway,” Troy went on, “After the incident I was so bushed, I had to leave the boat on the beach at Glensheen overnight. I’m going back for it right now — they should just add it to the permanent exhibit. I hope I don’t find it ticketed…”

The Trial of Troy Rogers

Your Honor, Troy has done that Thing Which Should Not Be Done. He looked at that water, and he did not ask himself, as I ask when I look at water, “Can I survive this long enough to get a meme?” No, Troy looked at that fast-moving water, and he said to himself, “It’ll be fine.” He is a theist: he worships Chaos. He is trying to find that edge, like a scientific observer hurling himself into a black hole. And, he misjudged how his day might go. It was an accident. We can say that, as an engineer, his vehicle was stress-tested in the worst conditions and survived. But he did it for art. The documentation of the incident is already local legend. He was impressed with the emergency response time. You must find him guilty, your Honor — of being fabulous.


Duluth Autonomous Navy (DAN)
Duluth Independent Autonomous Navy Association (DIANA)
Duluth Autonomous Drowning Artists (DADA)

-My other essays here.



about 4 years ago

This is beautiful.


about 4 years ago

A funny story. Well written. Largely, or at least, somewhat true.

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