Amede Bennett on their fixer-upper boat, which will soon be their home

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Understandable if this year has been so frustrating that you’ve wanted to uproot everything and eject yourself from the ties of modern society.

One Strawberry Mansion resident is actually doing it.

“I’ve been feeling like I’ve been letting a lot of opportunities in life pass up,” Amede Bennett told Billy Penn. “Being in my head with COVID, I was like, I need to do something.”

Equal parts motivated and driven to the edge by pandemic quarantine, Bennett decided in May to get a Pennsylvania boating certificate. Scouring the internet, they then managed to score a free sailboat on Craigslist — which by the end of the year will become their full-time home.

Just eight months ago, Bennett knew nothing about nautical life.

The 27-year-old, who makes a living as an STD testing coordinator, is fixing the boat, rehabbing it from the helm to what they call the “Titanic-y part” — aka the bow. As soon as Bennett is done repairing the decaying vessel, the plan is to travel North America, distributing testing supplies and bringing friends from the Black queer community along with them.

The whole process is being documented on YouTube with a vlog called “Float Jawn.”

It’s already a big dream, but there’s another lofty goal. When the pandemic is a distant memory, Bennett wants to turn the boat into a floating drag venue docked beneath the Ben Franklin Bridge.

“The front of the boat, it’s big enough for a 5-by-8 stage,” Bennett said. “I’d just like to give another space for queer people of color.”

YouTube video

A free boat, found by fate

The passion project was born of coronavirus-induced mental anguish.

After the March coronavirus lockdown, Bennett started taking daily walks through Fairmount Park. One day, they noticed a small island in the Schuylkill River near Mount Pleasant Mansion, overrun with foliage and crowded with geese. Bennett peeped Google Maps, which identified the land as Peters Island.

The tiny oasis across from Kelly Drive aroused a lot of feelings, including the recurring thought that life would be simpler if they and their friends could just live there.

“We’re all broke bitches. We can’t live like boomers live, where we work and we’re able to do our dreams,” Bennett said. “That’s where this personal vendetta started.”

After getting certified for boating, Bennett found on Craigslist a 40-foot boat docked in Tullytown, Pa. The exterior paint was chipped, the hull rusted and the sails missing. But Bennett thought the bones were good — and it was free.

Plust, they felt a special connection to the vessel.

“I lowkey think the boat’s haunted, because the boat was made in the same province I was born in, and my initials are lowkey on the steering wheel bolt,” Bennett said.

Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Celebrating an alternative lifestyle

Now, the long journey of renovating the thing lies ahead.

Funding is coming from Bennett’s CARES Act stimulus check, plus money saved from not attending music festivals that were canceled. They’ve been reading books on boat repair and scouring the internet for necessary info. They’ve used a lot of duct tape.

“I have to learn like, vessel culture and nautical law,” Bennett said. “I’ve learned so much from boat memes. I’m a millennial. Memes are a very efficient way to learn about things.”

First on the slate for replacement are parts necessary to make it livable, like the hull and the roof. Then they’ll move in, and fix the rest up using the money they would’ve spent on rent.

Forget about that tiny island in the Schuylkill. The current plan is to sail around the country via the Great Loop, a network of rivers connecting the Eastern United States and Canada. They’re going to visit cities like Baltimore, Chicago and New Orleans — bringing some of their friends for stints of the journey.

One who’s already signed on is Marcus James, a Philly chef who met Bennett in high school. James plans to sail for at least a few months, cooking in the yet-to-be-built galley.

He said projects like this are pretty on brand for his pal of a decade. “This is the friend that does all the cool stuff,” James said. “It didn’t come as a surprise.”

In living their dream, Bennett hopes they can continue to support Black LGBTQ people, first by creating a place where they can have new experiences — the traveling boat — and then by converting the vessel into a drag venue.

“There aren’t many spaces like this,” Bennett said. “A lot of my friends are in the same boat as me, where they’re looking to live alternative lifestyles. I plan to elevate my friends with me.”

Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...