The Vermont Sail Freight Project

A Sailing Cargo Initiative Connecting the Farms and Forests of Vermont with the Lower Hudson Valley

Spring is coming…so they say…

An almost unreal weather reversal in Vermont these last few days.  Temps topped out over eighty on Monday.  Yesterday the wind switched from south to north and brought with it an inch of snow!  I am in the middle of getting rice planted, despite an early spring season which has offered very few decent days for working outside.  The key project right now is getting our hoophouse rebuilt with better features to be a rice nursery.  In northern climes, rice is typically started under frost protection and transplanted into the rice fields at 5-6 weeks old.  At any rate that’s what we do.

Today was to be my day to reassemble the hoops.  But just now I went out in that north wind for about five minutes before calling it quits.  I am actually not such a terrible wimp normally when it comes to weather, but 20mph winds with temps in the 20s turned out to be more than I could make myself tolerate on the 16th of April.  Nevertheless, one way or another, the rice is getting planted out by Friday.  By then the temperatures will have moderated a lot and the projection from there is pretty favorable.  For right now, the unpleasant (I wrote “foul” but then went back on it.  It’s not foul, just a little inconvenient) weather provides all the prompting I need to sit inside and write a nice long post.


So what about Ceres you might ask?  She is still parked under the pole barn where we built her, also waiting for the spring, as you can see.  We have been planning and scheming these last few months, and now emerge with a plan to take our sailing barge south again in less than 10 weeks time with a new load of cargo.  We hope to revisit Mechanicville, Hudson, Kingston, and other points, while making our way to Croton by June 18th where we will be hosted by Ferry Sloops at Shattemuc yacht club, offering an up-close view of our barge and goods for sale.  From there we take a short hop across Croton Bay to participate in Clearwater Revival, on June 21st and 22nd.  We are extremely excited about participating in this festival celebrating Pete Seeger’s legacy in the Hudson Valley.  We plan to offer goods for sale at the festival’s artisanal farm market and also to offer information on the project at the working waterfront exhibition area.

Beyond that the plan is still a little hazy, but it is likely we will head back to the northern part of our route to acquire more cargo from farms, with hopes to return to the south by July 12th to participate in the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance‘s City of Water Day.

Our 2014 crew is really coming together!  VSFP is proud to be working with the MiddCore Plus program at Middlebury College, and Meade Atkeson will be joining the crew as Ceres resumes trading.  Also, 2014 Binghamton University graduate Matt Horgan will be coming aboard for the June voyage.  Steve Schwartz has expressed interest in returning as our capable skipper, though this is yet to be confirmed.  Lastly, Andrew Willner, former New York / New Jersey Baykeeper will be holding the reins of the project for the first part of the season in the capacity of Acting Director.  Were you wondering how I was going to keep that rice growing while going down the river in June on a sailing barge?  Well, this is my answer — I’m staying behind in the mud with my plants and leaving the adventuring to others this time.


A Friend of the Hudson

This last week we lost Pete Seeger.  Ceres was very lucky to have gotten a cheerful visit from Pete just under four months ago when we docked in Beacon.  Beacon was a pretty busy market day for us.  Because of the distance between our berth and where we were setting up our open air market, our crew walked an estimated 15 to 20 miles combined running stuff back and forth from the boat.  I personally ran a lot of that distance when I could to save time.  On one of those trips, Steve Schwartz (whose friendship with Seeger goes back to the earlier days of Clearwater and her smaller cousin the Woody Guthrie) was showing Ceres off to Pete Seeger, who had come down to see her.  Pete was able to hop up on deck with just a little help, and looked down into the hold.

“Wow!”  he said, “Look at all this cargo!”  True enough, even with half of it fanned out over tables at the Beacon farmers’ market, there was still an outrageous amount of flour, beans, canned goods, potatoes and all the rest still down in the hold.  Around this time I hopped up on deck and Steve introduced me to Pete.  I told Pete that in my mind the mission of Ceres–to connect sustainable transport with agricultural revival in the region–was the next logical step in the work he began with Clearwater.  I was ready to elaborate but I didn’t need to, he understood me right away and shot right back, “Yes!  I totally agree!”  We then posed for this group portrait!  From left to right, Pete Seeger, Erik Andrus, Steve Schwartz and Jordan Finkelstein.


I wish I had had more time to spend with Pete but I am happy and honored to have at least met him.  And I hope those reading this can take some comfort in knowing that just a few months ago Pete was still getting around and plenty alert, and taking delight in new things.

Planning continues for 2014.  The plan is to make some improvements to the hull, get the last sail completed and rigged, and tip Ceres back into the lake a few short months from now.  I want to put together a mailing list for those in the area who would like to crew on a volunteer basis.  We’ll be moving smaller loads and won’t be at work every day, but we hope to get around.  Plus a second run to NYC is also in the offing.

While winter lasts the Willowell crew and I are hard at work mopping up the last of the rewards for our gracious Kickstarter backers.  The main item still on my personal plate is the construction guide.  I have made many, many drafts of the hull in the past couple years, and my SketchUp skills have evolved along the way.  Now I am setting about making a complete, accurate digital model of the boat we actually built.  Lots of lines!

Into this model I have incorporated some planned upgrades, including a possible switch from a tiller to a wheel in a wheelhouse, a folding bowsprit, and some alterations in the living quarters.  There are a lot of details!

aft cabin interior

aft cabin interior cutaway


mast and tabernacle

Whither VSFP?

Malcolm Martin, a NYC harbor skipper and a friend of the project recently asked me whether the dust had settled yet, or whether a whole new cloud of dust is arising in preparation for 2014.  A good question.  If there’s one gift I value most about long nights and warm fires it’s the gift of perspective that a pause can bring.  If you live in a totally mild climate where nature never forces you to just….stop…..then I guess I might feel a little sorry for you.

So you already know that I have major props for my team.  We pulled out all the stops.  Most participants were barely compensated, if at all.  This project was brought about by fire in the belly and by the conviction that ordinary people working together can bring about creative, cooperative solutions.  If we had put everyone involved on payroll of any kind, you can be sure either the project would never have happened or else we would be so bankrupt that the boat would never see the water again after this year.

But this should come as no real surprise.   Our 2013 voyage was a statement, an experiment, an effort to explore and to suggest new ideas in a way that our major institutions are unlikely to ever do.  As such, we succeeded.  We did something that has been long talked about yet hasn’t really been acted on, at least not in our Northeastern waters.  It cost us a lot.  In general the greater the commitment, the greater the cost for the individuals involved.  But we did what we set out to do, and in a world of broken promises, I think that’s worth something regardless of what follows.

Still, lots of folks want to know, “Hey, this sounds cool and all that.  But did it make any money?”  My answer is no, not really.  However we did basically break even for the trading voyage, which for a start-up in its first year is not bad at all.  Also, now we have the data to steer us towards a better model.  It may take us a while to get there.  Keep in mind that we are dealing with a wickedly tilted playing field.

Road transport is artificially cheap, paid for invisibly through your tax dollars in so many ways.  As a lot of folks are already aware, that the price of road travel at the toll booth and the pump is a small fraction of the cost.  But you might not know that small-scale marine transport is, at least in in our case, artificially expensive! 

We have an insurance policy that costs more in premiums each year than it cost our team to build Ceres from scratch (materials bill $17000).  Without this policy we can’t tie up to many docks.  It costs this much simply because we are commercial and the handful of remaining marine underwriters consider us to belong to a high-risk pool.  Today’s marine insurance sector is very, very heavily consolidated and only three underwriters, all gigantic, would even consider covering us.  Of those three, only one was ultimately willing and able to offer us a policy that met our needs, but at a price tag that is, at least for our scale, quite onerous, in excess of $20,000 per year for all of the various required policies combined.  And consider that if Ceres were the exact same boat sailing the exact same places but classed as recreational rather than commercial, the policy would likely be only a few thousand per year, max.  It is not fair, but exhaustive research left us with no alternatives.  I could also add that our agent, S and P Underwriters of Montpelier, did their utmost to secure us a fair deal but ultimately were limited by their underwriters.  It took unreasonable amounts of time and patience to even get a quote, during which time we built and launched a sound vessel in good faith that we would ultimately negotiate an affordable policy that met our needs.

So, there we stood in September, with Ceres built, launched and ready to sail, and confronted with the choice of abandoning the entire project before we could sell a single pound of cargo or making the commitment to carry heavy insurance burden for a one-year minimum…well, we went with our gut and chose the latter.  We were–and we remain–convinced that we have a legitimate right to ply the water in trade.  We’re in it to win it.

I also believe, sooner or later, one way or another, that the insurance issue will resolve itself.  Either we’ll develop enough revenue streams to cover the cost, or maybe once we prove to our underwriters that we are a dependable client, that we are cautious, and that we solve our own problems (evidenced on numerous occasions on our first commercial run), and eventually our insurer will lower our premiums to a more reasonable level (and if anyone reading this has the wherewithal to help defray this single vexing expense and in so doing, tilt the playing field back to something approximating fairness, please let me know!)  At the end of the day, there are no blueprints out there about how to negotiate an endeavor like this into existence in the “real world.”  We can only do our best.


Sometimes our best isn’t even good enough for ourselves.  Let me tell you about an aspect of the fall voyage that was and remains a keen disappointment to me.  We didn’t sail nearly enough.  The majority of the beautiful trip was spent with the rattling of the Mercury outboard in the background.  That motor that was intended to be in the background for backup use only took center stage time and time again.  Why?  Well, I have a lot of excuses.  We didn’t have any base of experience know how long it would take with this craft, this rig, this load.  We had a very demanding timetable, with logistics and media waiting for us at nearly every stop.  We had to hit out deliveries on time and be back home through the canal system by November 15th.   And on the way down, pleasant southerly winds were in our face most every day, only to turn northerly the moment we set for home.  So, all together, this wasn’t at all what I had in mind as a demonstration project for sail power.

So let’s just ask this question: what if everything about the project could be adjusted so that we could pay a crew and make money doing the same run in the same way as we did last October, under power most of the time?   In fact, let’s take it one step further.  You could cut to the chase and strip the masts and sails off the barge and thus simplify everything–simplify it a lot!   Would we do it?  The answer is no.  If we can’t make adjustments to make greater use of wind and muscle and still serve some useful economic function, then I say the hell with it, I’m not interested.  So maybe that means that some less dogmatic person comes up behind VSFP and launches a motor-only-minifreighter delivery service/floating farmers market, taking advantage of the market we have proved is there?  I say, that’s great.  That’s not a business I’m interested in running, so anyone is welcome to it.  I think it’s a fine idea for someone to pursue, but motors are of no interest to me, so someone else would have to do it.

However I feel like it needn’t come to that.  The learning curve to getting the most out of our sailing barge and other craft like her is a long one, and an interesting one.  I want to keep climbing it, at a pace I can sustain on a personal and financial level.  After all, nothing truly worthwhile can be learned in a single season.  We’ve only begun to explore the potential of our new barge, and have lots of ideas based on our experience to improve performance and function.  Most notably a new folding bowsprit and the long-awaited completion of our upper sails!

ceres bowsprit

And so, on this note of constrained optimism, I can at least share at this point that we are in the process of formulating a plan for 2014 that will:

  • Return us to NYC at least once
  • Further develop VSFP as an educational platform
  • Collaborate with Bread and offer Puppet Theatre in Lake Champlain to offer “Shipboard Theatre”!
  • Visit many towns in the Hudson and Lake Champlain that were passed by in 2013
  • Develop innovative shore support infrastructure in partnership with the Southern Saratoga Chamber of Commerce
  • Remain a volunteer-driven project of the non-profit VT-based Willowell Foundation
  • Create improvements in our barge-tracking and notification software
  • Integrate additional farms into our producer network, particularly those in the southern part of our route

Please note that part about remaining volunteer-driven.  This means we still invite your help to stay sailing.  There will be opportunities for volunteers to crew aboard or even skipper Ceres (so long as standard qualifications and training protoc0ls are satisfied).  Get on our mailing list to learn about that.  We’ll also continue to invite general financial support for the work we do and to also offer you the opportunity to support us simply by trading with us.  Putting a bulk cargo aboard (dock-to-dock rates start at $.25/lb) and shipping it from one Champlain-Hudson waterway port to another is yet another way to support us.  We’ll also be refining our pre-order and pop-up market systems and of course patronizing those anywhere we go is fantastic too.

Okay.  I have this goal, an easy and lighthearted goal, that you can help me with.  We have 98,600 views of this blog to date.  Please share this blog with your friends and help me over 100,000 before 2014 arrives!



When Captain Steve (Schwartz) began to get acquainted with the project and learned that he’d be working with me and first mate Jordan Finkelstein, he started to get excited about a lot of things.  The funniest of them was maybe this exclamation.  “What are the odds!  Three jews sailing food down the Hudson River!”  I think it was the menorah on my piano that tipped him off, as we were in my house at the time.  But I had to tamp down his enthusiasm a little, saying I am really not that much of a jew.  Though I enjoy a seder every year and we do hannukah with the kids, I am really a lapsed Quaker if I am anything at all.  Still, it was a funny moment, one that stood out in an endeavor replete with funny moments.

And now with Thanksgivukah at a close, the first and last Thanksgivukah any of us will ever know, we give thanks for the Mayflower, the perky little ship that helped the Pilgrims sail from Judea to escape the religious oppression of the Seleucid Empire, and for the Maccabees they met in the New World who saved them from starvation by teaching  them how to make latkes and jelly doughnuts, and how to properly cook a turkey brisket, and of course for the oil that unexpectedly lasted the pilgrims through their entire first winter in Massachusetts, and many things besides.

I personally am especially thankful for the support and understanding of my family as we pulled this thing off and proved our point, an undertaking that did more and demanded more of us than we had imagined at the outset.  I am thankful for the many partners who helped pull this all off, too. We made many great connections along the way, including Chipman Point Marina, the City of Mechanicville and Southern Saratoga Chamber of Commerce, Transition Albany/Troy, the Hudson Sloop Club, the Hudson Maritime Museum in Kingston, Riverside Marina in Newburgh, the Beacon Sloop Club, Hook Mountain Yacht Club, the Science Barge in Yonkers, the Sloop Clearwater, Brooklyn Navy Yard and New Amsterdam Farmers’ Market.  What a roundup!

I am thankful for the help Greenhorns USA gave us in filling gaps in our organization as we plied our route for the first time, and for help in getting the word out.  Greeenhorns works tirelessly to advance agrarian revival and the interests of the next generation of farmers.  If you are passionate about these issues that are so vital to the future of our region, take a look at Greenhorns’ ambitious program and please consider supporting them.

Lastly and most importantly, Vermont Sail Freight Project owes a huge debt of gratitude to our sponsor the Willowell Foundation, whose director Matt Schlein went way out on a limb and took a chance on my vision of a Lake Champlain and Hudson River repopulated with working sail.  Willowell has wrangled volunteers, helped with countless hours of administrative support, has provided financial security and support to the project.  As project director I pledged to seek funding to get the project off the ground, but did not fully succeed in this and our venture still struggles with unfunded project creation costs.  We have been unable to offer much compensation to those who worked so hard to bring the project about.  And particularly due to our high insurance costs, Willowell continues to carry a fiscal burden but yet has refused to abandon the Vermont Sail Freight Project or to drastically reduce it in scope.  So, if Thanksgivukah or the coming of Christmas has put you in a giving frame of mind, if the voyage of the Ceres has brought a sense of adventure and hope to your year, please consider supporting them as we have high hopes to carry on in 2014 and still need support (tax-deductible)!  In fact if you are in our area you can come to the Willowell Annual Fundraiser at the Vergennes Opera House this coming Saturday, December 14th.  BandAnna is playing and it will be a fantastic time.  We will be auctioning off some dinner tickets and a cruise aboard Ceres in 2014!  Hope to see you there and Happy Holidays!

On one last note, this blog is so close to the 100,000 views mark!  97,000 to date!  Tell a friend and help us claim that accomplishment by New Year’s Eve!


Following in the wake of the Thames Sailing Barge

spinnaker breeze 001

I was recently introduced to this book (with a title that I very much hope will ultimately turn out to be inaccurate), The Last of the Sailormen, written by Bob Roberts, and first published in 1960.  Probably at that point the prospect of renewed sailing trade was as bleak as it could be.  Well, it’s still pretty challenging, but perhaps reports of the death of sail will turn out to be greatly exaggerated.

I am not very far into it, but I wanted to share the preface with you to give you a taste of the world of Mr. Roberts so you can see how his themes resonate with our work here at VSFP.  Perhaps is easy to write off the intangible virtues of doing work in a slower, more deliberate way when it has become an ingrained cultural habit that we will make seemingly any sacrifice in the name of progress.

Bear in mind that the world of work that Bob Roberts lived in was no holdout of medieval cargo methodology but was in fact a highly refined and efficient system, one that endured and remained economically viable in England into the 1970s, at which point the barges began to degrade.  In the U.S. we stopped hoisting commercial sail at least 70 years prior, so it strikes me that in many ways we have a lot to learn from our historical counterparts in Britain.

Much of this book has been written in a barge’s cabin, rolling at anchor in Yarmouth Roads, storm-bound under the lee of the Yantlet Flats, waiting to load at Keadby or while lying idle in London River.  I have not attempted to glorify or exaggerate this account of life in a type of sailing craft which is one of the most unique and efficient in the world.  It is a life in which, to my mind, the pleasantness, satisfaction and occasional thrills, calling for the exercise of a man’s more sterling qualities, far outweight the times of hardship and frustration.

Sailing barges, like farm horses, belonged to a more peaceful and expansive age than the uncertain, war-wracked, nervy, money-grubbing years to which mankind has descended.  A bargeman knows nothing of regular working hours, overtime pay, crowded city trains, noisy, bustling streets, or the clanging hell of a vast, modern factory.  Like the fisherman, the wildfowler, and the farm hand, he lives by the winds and the weather, the tides and the seasons.  The artificial sort of life which shackles millions of people to great, powerful industries is something foreign to him and something to which he cannot adjust himself.  He has never known what it is to be pushed, shoved, and ordered about like the clever town-dweller who comes and gapes at him with a sympathetic curiosity.

Barge-like hulls are the most ancient of all English sailing craft and the art of handling shallow draft vessels has been handed down through hundreds and hundreds of years.  It is not a thing you can learn at a university.  That the epidemic of mechanisation which has spread all over the world and eliminated the square-rigged ships, schooners and sailing smacks should in time leave the barges rotting in their salty creeks has for long been inevitable.  But at least it can be said that when all other wind-driven vessels had gone into history the fleets of spritsail-rigged sailing barges held their own for many years against an ever increasing number of steam and motor ships, and might still have prospered had new hulls been built and new blood encouraged to learn the ways of the sea in the best, though hardest, school.”

Bob Roberts

Pin Mill, Suffolk (From Last of the Sailormen, 1960, Seafarer Books London

coal from the north 001


Last Thursday afternoon Ceres returned to the boat ramp in Ferrisburgh where we first put her in the water not quite four months ago, after a deck-soaking eight-day passage up from Brooklyn.  Not easy to do when operating only in daylight at this season of shortening days, but the crew (Steve, Tianna, Jordan, and Brian) made better than 30 miles a day on average, under sail much of the time.  Of course there were fewer stops along the way, and no expectations of holding a market in each town either, just a run for home in a boat without heat or hot water with winter coming up hard on their wake.

Ceres returns to the farm

As for me, I returned to the farm just a few days ahead of the crew.  It’s great to be home.  I was away over a month with the Project, certainly the longest I’ve been away from my home and family since the boys were born.  I don’t enjoy that part of the work too much.  It’s been a strenuous season, what with trying to hold the farming operations together and launching this endeavor too…trying to make it to wintertime with the household still on speaking terms.  Well, now winter is at our doorstep, and I am relishing the immobility and limitations to human activity it brings with it more than I usually do.  This winter at least I won’t be concocting new schemes that will make all my saner acquaintances roll their eyes–I am sure I will have enough to do just putting a better polish on schemes already in motion.  That is, I’ll do what polishing I can, in between the normal domestic round of building fires, feeding animals, and dad stuff.

Winter fire at Boundbrook

There’s still work out there to do of course.  Some of it is still fairly pressing.  We hauled Ceres out of the water with a tractor on Friday and in the process broke a spindle on the running gear (the trailer frame we use to carry the boat around on roads).  Note to self: next time remove ballast before hauling the boat.  We have 5000 lbs of ballast in cement slabs in the bilges of Ceres.  Yes, we can remove them and take them back to the barn with a different vehicle, but it’s not…convenient.  Still, it’s more convenient than breaking your boat hauling mechanism.  What does that say, that we take the barge 660 miles, through some tough conditions right at the waning of the year and return to have our first major equipment failure…in the parking lot.  I guess that’s luck.  Or, more accurately, our vigilance dropped off a cliff the moment we had the barge hauled out of the water.  Whatever the reason, I am very grateful for John Baker of Wildflower Ironworks who came to the rescue of Ceres yesterday and spent several hours grinding and welding while lying under the boat in cold gravel.  The repair held (since we had removed the ballast and everything else heavy over the weekend) and we had a speedy trip back to the farm.

John Baker saves the day

Did I mention that VSFP is, I think, the only Vermont source of Brooklyn Roasting Company coffee, of which we back-hauled a modest little cargo?  This is our little foray into bringing a little bit of the Brooklyn Mystique back north with us.  Until Ceres sails again in the spring you can get it from the farm, or we’ll bring it to Burlington or Middlebury if you order some.  We have 9oz cans of Iris Espresso, Sumatra Permato, Peru, Mocha Java, Ethiopian Yirge Cheffe, and Decaf Peru  ($9 per can).  When we hit the water in 2014 the coffee will be available along with our other offerings, including the first run 0f 2014 syrup to sweeten the coffee with if you are inclined that way.  The coffee is all fair trade certified, by the way.

I’m very grateful as always for having had the opportunity to see this thing through, and for the friends who came along for the ride.  We started a lot of good conversations.  We shipped a lot of goods.  And there are still parts of the vision still to pursue next year.  For instance we have only really started to master Ceres’ sailing potential.  Observers will surely have noted that we had only our lowers rigged.  Given how stable we are under sail, it seems we really need to get the two remaining sails rigged to achieve our potential.  Plus there are significant alterations that are needed for the sails we already have.  We managed, but if we are to make the usage of sail a centerpiece of the effort (and this is still very much my goal) then we need to make the rig really work.  This and many other challenges lie ahead.

Many changes to the business are in the offing too, but for a start I’ll say that we are looking to acquire permits to be able to transport and distribute cider, beer, and wine in NY state.  Retail liquor sales are not feasible for us, but we could deal with stores and restaurants who could tout their connection to the project and the river to their customers.  Another is the possible upgrading of the boat (we only lack in a few particulars) for the billeting of passengers à la windjammer cruises, only writ much smaller.  Share a day in the life of Ceres, have your own sleeping cabin, meals provided, etc.  Get on in Kingston, get off in Peekskill.  Typical mid-range B and B rates.  If you have any thoughts on whether this might appeal, please comment!

Icicles hanging from the rubrail

Icicles hanging from the rubrail

Beans, delivered by Sailing Barge

Next Project — Dirigible!

The Vermont Airship Freight Project!


Just kidding….I think!

But if airships aren’t the answer of the question, where do we go from here, then what is?  The answer is pretty simple.  We do it again.  And over time we will get better and better at this.  Our first trip with cargo was like a fair, a fun and crazy fair at times, and every one on our team were reeling to cope with challenges of all kinds.  Everyone performed above and beyond the call of duty, and those who have been reading me for a while can easily see what I mean when I say that this project has grown quite a bit from its genesis as one farmer’s quirky idea of using watercraft to transport cargo as a kind of off-kilter business model and activist statement.  We’re all tired, we’re ready for winter.  Or at least I am, and I can probably speak for most of the crew in this regard.


But fun as a fair can be, the ultimate goal is for us to become ordinary.  The day when Ceres is just another sailing barge on the Hudson, not really worth of a second look, will be the day the project has become ultimately successful.  In the meantime, we’ll be doing our best to keep our effort present in the public eye and dialog while also becoming better at our jobs.

But back to the mission for a moment.  Last I left you we had just arrived in New York Harbor.  We had a great time with our markets and celebrating our feat both in Brooklyn and at New Amsterdam market near the Fulton Fish Market site.  The enormous pile of bottles I told you about?  Well, we clinked a few glasses but no three-day bender ever came of it.  Blessedly both the workload and the liquor consumption are backing down to reasonable levels now that the business is ashore and we are no longer looking down the barrel of seemingly impossible-to-meet commitments both on land and on water.


First I have to come clean a little bit about my feelings about New York City.  I call myself a Vermonter, see, but I am basically an upstate guy, born and bred in New York well north of Poughkeepsie and raised on a healthy diet of antipathy towards the city.  In fact come to think, of it just calling New York City “the city” always rankled a little, as if there are no cities elsewhere in the world, or even in New York State.  But I have to say that I am warming to it.

The thing is, the city is so multi-layered that no matter what you are into, there is a lot of it in close proximity around here.   Even farming!  And at breakfast this morning the waitstaff in the Astro Diner were discoursing with customers in four languages (English, Spanish, French, Greek)!  You don’t get that in Vermont, where I am now especially conscious of the whiteness and English-only-ness of my boys’ social milieu.  So despite the fact that in the end I still want to go back to my little valley, hobbit style, and spend the winter feeding the woodstove, I have made some really great friendships and connections along the way and here in the harbor area in particular.     The collegiality and generosity with which both myself and the project as a whole have been received is incredible, and this has forever altered my perception of this place, and changed my thinking about the kinds of collaborations that we might be able to undertake.  In particular we are grateful for the hospitality of Marc Agger of the Brooklyn Fish Transfer and to Matt Hopkins of Brooklyn Navy Yard for hosting the dockage of Ceres and our scheduled project-related events.

Brooklyn Navy Yard is a really unique place.  Most of the time while working on the final disposition of the cargo and markets I spent the night on board Ceres at the dock here.  The yard is really like a city unto itself, with streets, bike lanes, a cafe, but is also a secure industrial park.  Everyone here from the tugboat company to Marc Agger’s staff to Navy Yard security and administration has been absolutely terrific.  I would go so far as to say that our involvement with Navy Yard was yet another one of those things in the trajectory of this project that turned out to be totally crucial, and we were largely unaware of just how crucial until fairly late in the game.

Navy Yard has a history of shipbuilding, docking, and warehousing going back hundreds of years, and its management has become very proactive about repurposing the yard for changing times.  The evidence is all around you here–as a vertical axis wind turbine fan I noticed the Darrius rotors collecting wind energy on the streetlamp posts right away.  And many business startups are taking up residence too.  It seems to me that VSFP could be a good fit with this community, particularly as we become more predictable and seasoned, in that we can help carry the Brooklyn mystique north along our route through “craft transport.”  We’re doing this already, as Ceres has taken on a cargo of fair-trade Brooklyn Coffee Roasters coffee with the intent to sell it in the North.  I bet it will be a hit.




As of this moment Ceres is on her way north, and has reached or passed Nyack.  We are trying to get an AIS signal up so that the barge tracker will function for the remainder of the      return journey.  I have stayed behind to take care of some loose ends and will catch up at some point.  We still have some unsold cargo that Patrick and I are working to dispose of.  So, if you have a store or a restaurant in the city,  and need some great yukon gold potatoes, or flour, or garlic or dry beans, we still have several pallets of Ceres’ cargo here at Navy Yard and would love to get it into your kitchen.  Get in touch if you’re interested!  We’ll have a complete list of the remainder shortly.


I am so proud of our crew!

Ceres has arrived in NYC

As many of you are aware, our plucky little cargo ship Ceres has made it to NYC with barely a scratch on her.  The last few days have been very intense, and it has been very difficult for me to sit down and write, feeling very drained both physically and emotionally, yet also knowing there is a huge amount of work to do in the coming days for which we all need to conserve our energy.

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Night before last we tied up to the hip of the majestic sloop Clearwater who in turn was tied up to the fascinating Science Barge in Yonkers.  Now I don’t know too much about Yonkers other than that there was a set-piece battle there against the zombies in the book World War Z.  Now, the Science Barge would be an awesome  place to hold out against the zombies.  They capture rainwater, produce their own energy and food…

Anyway, containment of an outbreak of zombie virus was pretty much the last thing on our minds as we joined the crew of Clearwater for a pizza dinner that couldn’t be beat (Clearwater boasts a very impressive galley).  Jordan couldn’t help but notice that there are regular mealtimes on Clearwater, not like on Ceres where Steve and I routinely work past the point of being fairly hungry.  But poor Jordan needs meals at regular intervals in order not to get cranky.  And in order to be a big enough guy to be able to walk around in rough neighborhoods too of course.

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We met a few members of the public briefly in Yonkers although we were so tired from a blowout market in Nyack we couldn’t bring ourselves to break up the holds and have any sort of a market.  Someone asked me what our plans are for once the cargo is sold, would we arrange for back-hauling to the north?  I answered that probably once the cargo is sold the crew of Ceres would probably not sober up for several days.  I was only partly joking.

This has been an incredibly exciting and meaningful journey and is hopefully opening the door to something that can grow and last.  It’s also been very strenuous in every way, being always on the move and alert for hazards, watching the current and the time and the wind and trying to avoid the much larger and faster commercial vessels that can swamp us with their wakes, plus lifting cargo over and over and over again.  We have done this as a team with widely varied personalities and skillsets, all working through conflict and way past the point of being tired enough to call it a day.  And when the day is done the empty bottles tend to pile up.  When there is finally no work to do the following day I imagine it could be a pretty large pile of bottles indeed.  So you can see that this is a different life than the one I am accustomed to living as a small farmer in Vermont, but not without its own unique rewards, and with a kind of cameraderie that makes us all feel a little like we’ve come through the wars together.  When we haul Ceres out and put the project to bed for the winter I imagine I’ll have very mixed and conflicting feelings about it, just as I do now.

Before dawn the next day we slipped our lines and started down past the Pallisades.  The skyline of the city had been in view since we passed under the Tappan Zee Bridge, but grew as we drew closer.  By 8:30 in the morning we passed under the George Washington and began sailing down the West Side under a freshening west wind.  The commercial traffic was intense, as we knew it would be, and we were heaving and rolling around like the small underpowered boat that we really are in no time.  Captain Steve at first tried to turn to meet wakes bow-on, but before too long there were so many workboats, barges, ferries, tugs, and water taxies that waves were flying every which way and there was no turning to meet each one.  Therefore we just sailed south and hoped for the best.

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The barge always seemed to gracefully swim out of the toughest wakes and chop, throwing up spray.  Our greatest fear was swamping the outboard which we would need for backup power in the East River.  In the end all was fine, our fine barge rose to each challenge gloriously.  Captain Steve, who had been dubious about the seaworthiness of the barge right from the start was ready to hug me and declare me a master shipbuilder by the time we had rounded the battery.  Well, we were all a little giddy.  We had made it to New York!  How could this get any better?

We found just how it would get better when we reached the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Now here is a place with a pedigree of ship building and docking going back centuries.  Our host and partner Mark Agger has helped create the perfect cargo terminus arrangement, and his crew are busy even as I write these lines in helping us offload the cargo and arrange it in a warehouse big enough to have a game of football inside, field goal posts and all.  Our volunteers are rallying to the call, and we are organizing everything and making up orders in anticipation of lively markets this Saturday and Sunday plus delivery of our wholesale orders through our partnership with Revolution Rickshaws’ cargo trikes.  Not only that but Mark has offered to help VSFP make arrangements to buy Brooklyn Coffee Roasters coffee, many pallets of which are already stocked in the Agger Fish warehouse just at hand.  It’s fair trade, of excellent quality and reputation, and is exactly what I had in mind for back hauling.  And here it is, ready to load.  I can hardly believe it.



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Storm King and Breakneck

Ceres has just passed through the North Gate of the Hudson Highlands, between the mountains Storm King and Breakneck, through the area the Dutch called the “Warragut,” or “Weather Hole.  A final resting place for a lot of ships, but we sailed through it today during a near total calm without the least anxiety.


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This same weather that has been so kind to us in terms of markets — the beautiful days just go on and on — is not so great for sailing towards the south.  Day after day we have the wind right on the nose.  This has made for less sailing than I had hoped.  This being the first time out, our schedule was laid in pretty far in advance.  Schedules and sailing vessels are really a poor match and we’ve done the best we can to balance between being on time so that our land-based partners can plan for our arrival and maximizing sail.  Hopefully in the future we’ll be able to develop a more flexible schedule that will have fewer distance imperatives built into it.  But for the time being we have the schedule we have and the weather we have, and all together we have a lot to be thankful for as the voyage has gone quite well so far.


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We have just departed Beacon where we had a great market and delivered a huge batch of pre-orders.  Beacon could really use a better pier so we can dock closer to the land (anyone on the Beacon City Concil reading this?  Maybe dredge out and repair the old ferry landing?) but we managed despite a 300 foot walk between our market setup and the boat.  Which is tough when you have 160 products!  But as I said it was a terrific market, followed by some beer and Chinese food eaten in the Galley.  The boat was reloaded just after dark,m with little to do the following morning, so the coffee was made and Ceres was underway well before sunrise today.


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Our market in Newburgh on Saturday was not quite so successful.  Not nearly as many farmers were in attendance, mostly a mix of flea market type activity and various organizations passing out leaflets.  Riverside Marina was a great host, though.  The funniest, though also the most alarming aspect of the visit was when I sent First Mate Jordan to go buy us some bagels.  We’re downstate now, so bagels ought to be everywhere, right?  Not like Vermont.  But despite his iphone nav system–actually partly because of it–Jordan got one bum steer after another, walking six miles into some pretty sketchy neighborhoods.  One teenager was having some sort of an argument in a house Jordan walked past, and ran down the steps, shouting, “No, I ain’t gonna do it!  It ain’t worth it.  The guy is too big!”

Lucky thing we feed Jordan well, or else maybe he might not have been too big.  And he might have been worth it.  Whatever “it” is.  And hey, maybe it was some other big guy who was being discussed, anyway…. Whatever the case, Jordan didn’t stick around to find out, and so we didn’t lose our first mate in Newburgh.  But it does serve to remind us that not all the risks in this mission are in the form of shoals and squalls.  There’s plenty of potential for sailors to get in trouble ashore, too.  Which just goes to show, there really is nothing new under the sun.


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Events for the Lower Hudson Valley and NYC

We are having a great time marketing our way down the Hudson River.  Everywhere we go we are delighted to make new friends at dockside.  Now we are coming to the final phase of this odyssey, the goal that all of this work has been leading up to for well over a year.  Some of you readers out there have been reading me since long before we had a boat, a crew, a cargo, all there was was a lone farmer’s loopy idea of building a sail cargo vessel to unify the goals of low-impact water trade and revitalization of the regional foodshed.  An idiotic concept that would have certainly died at any bank loan officer’s desk or any self-respecting boardroom table.


99% of the time I am still so immersed in the challenges of the day to day that I fail to appreciate the big picture, but occasionally it’s worth taking a moment to consider how far we’ve come, and how this whole endeavor is really the product of teamwork and community-building on a regional scale.  Sailing through this stunningly beautiful land on a handsome (yes, handsome) craft we all made together by hand, working alongside friends whose values I share, I feel incredibly fortunate that despite all the havoc the last 70 or so years of rapid “development” that have been wreaked on this landscape and its human culture, there is still beauty there, and there is still potential to rediscover a more benign way of living together.  VSFP artist, builder and stevedore Brian Goblick has termed this a “utopian reality project.”  Now, maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but the mere fact that we are here, on the final approach to NYC, suggests that community-driven approaches to change can’t be written off as categorically unworkable.


Here is the roundup of our coming events.  I’m going to put this in its own page in the menu bar, too.  Some of these events may be subject to change but as of this moment this is the authoritative, final word on the trajectory of Ceres for the final 10 days of our first southbound voyage with cargo

  • NEWBURGH oct 19
  • location and time:
  • waterfront 10-4pm
  • Market and participation in the Newburgh Fall Festival
  • Ceres will  be by Torches restaurant at the waterfront.
  • BEACON oct 20
  • location and time:
  • Beacon Farmers’ Market: 11am-3pm
  • at the river by the train station
  • Farmer’s market and picnic with Beacon Sloop Club
  • NYACK oct 22
  • Location and time:
  • 11-4
  • Market at Hook Mountain Marina
  • in conjunction with Pie Lady and Son
  • YONKERS oct 24
  • location and time:
  • Groundwork Hudson Valley Science Barge, time TBD
  • Downtown Yonkers just North of the Yonkers Pier.
  • BROOKLYN oct 26
  • Location and time:
  • Brooklyn Navy Yard, 3-5pm, reception after
  • Building # 313
  • Event:
  • In partnership with Agger Fish and Brooklyn Grange
  • Cargo demonstration with Revolutionary Rickshaws. Reception and market at the BROOKLYN NAVY YARD Warehouse with Brooklyn Grange, triple island, Agger Fish, Marlow and Daughters , the Pines. Pumpkin carving, art installation with Mare Liberum and other nautical artists. MORGAN OKANE plays from 3-4:30pm.
  • MANHATTAN oct 27
  • location and time:
  • New Amsterdam Market 11am-4pm
  • South Street between Beekman Street and Peck Slip
  • Event:
  • pumpkin carving, doughnut frying, music and market
  • and a toast to the first of many VSFP runs!
  • NY oct 28
  • Vermont Sail Freight Prix Fixe Dinner with Beer Pairings
  • Jimmy’s No. 43
  • 43 East 7th St. btwn 2nd and 3rd Ave.
  • please RSVP online for this paid event.

We just had a great time in Kingston where we were kindly hosted by the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston.  Sold some cargo (Ceres floats an inch higher than 24 hours ago, and that’s 2000 lbs of cargo), led some school groups through a tour of Ceres and what she represents to their fine city and its longstanding heritage of waterborne freight, and even played some music.  Thanks especially to Patrick McDonough and Lana at the museum and to Gai Galetzine and Pamlela Boyce-Simms for being such great hosts.  Photographer Jim Peppler took these photos and I hope to post some directly onto the blog soon.

In the meantime, enjoy these, taken just outside Kingston.20131016_070501  20131016_070347


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