The Vermont Sail Freight Project

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

Hudson, Troy, Mechanicville

Ceres is on her northward trek now and the last few markets of the run are upon us.  They are coming right up.

  1. Hudson –Wednesday July 9th, 10 am -6 pm.  At the waterfront.
  2. Troy — Friday July 11th, 10am-4pm, Troy Downtown Marina near Brown’s Brewery
  3. Mechanicville — Saturday July 12th 10 am-6 pm, Mechanicville Public Dock

A few items are sold out but by and large we have a very wide array of syrups, preserves, oil, honey, flours and grains still on offer.  Come see us!

Following this trip we will take a well-earned break and plan our next moves.  Generally both the navigational and the commercial aspects of the project made positive steps.  We want to continue to offer markets and to sail in the latter half of the season as well. 008

A Symbolic Visit to NYC

Tuesday evening amidst few sounds other than the fish jumping and the lapping of waves, Ceres anchored just off of Edgewater Park next to the New Jersey Pallisades, about a mile north of the George Washington Bridge.  With Manhattan glowing just beyond the bridge to our south, we spent one of the most tranquil nights of the trip bobbing at anchor.

20140623_210505_LLS

Our trip to the city this time stands in some contrast to our trip last October.  We’re in less of a rush, and are in more of a cautious exploratory frame of mind than previously.  Last fall we searched frantically for a dock that would meet the requirements of our project (including low cost, adequate protection from currents and wakes, reasonable application process, and public access from shoreside) and settled on Brooklyn Navy Yard where project friend Marc Agger advocated for us.  We are very grateful to Navy Yard for allowing us to work with them on that occasion. However Navy Yard piers fall a little short of what we really need in terms of the security of the vessel, because the bulkheads there are a little too rough and the currents too strong, there are too few cleats and fenders for a vessel of our class.  And also, Navy Yard is not a public location, it is a rather gated industrial park — a very green and forward-looking industrial park I might add, but still not the public dockside location we really need to make this project thrive.  So we are back to searching for that elusive dock that will welcome Ceres to NYC.

20140623_152838

Robert LaValva of New Amsterdam market and his supporters get it.  Without a public-access waterfront with which to interface with the world, the city is cutting itself off from the very asset that made it what it now is.  And with remaining public rights to space still being sold or given away to private interest it seems this unfortunate trend is not reversing yet.  It’s ironic that while New Amsterdam market is right on the waterfront at the old Fulton Fish Market site, we can’t offload goods to be sold at that market without the necessity of a long road journey across town or over the bridge from Brooklyn or yet further afield.  We’re still working on this problem, but it’s tough for a volunteer-driven effort like ours.

And so it was, that on Tuesday June 24th, Ceres sailed into New York Harbor for the second time without any dock at all.  This was just a courtesy call, to show the city that we have not given up on them.  Philosophically the journey from the mountains to the sea has always been important to me.  While the cost-benefit calculus increasingly suggests that our cargo vessel ought to sail from Lake Champlain to the Tappan Zee bridge and then turn around and go back, we feel that in some ways such a plan diminishes the project.  So we are hopeful that by continuing to try, eventually that perfect–or at least adequate–dock will be found so that we can land our cargo somewhere in the Port of New York.

20140624_133131

Things got a little exciting this time on a few occasions.  First, when we were raising the topsail, which is flown from the deck, we had an equipment failure that stood to make us look pretty disrespectable indeed and posed something of a danger.  The topsail has a carabiner-style clip ring that allows the sail to travel up a thin steel cable.  On its way aloft, this carabiner clipped around something it should not have, 22 feet off the deck, which not only prevented us from flying the sail, but also prevented dropping it to fix the problem.  I was at the helm while Steve and Meade were working on flying the sail, and first became aware of the problem by hearing Steve yelling bloody murder about what a mess we were in.  The chop was significant and the wind increasing to around 15mph, and our second-largest sail was neither up nor down.

Steve first attempted to solve the problem by taping a boat hook to one of the 16 foot poles we use for maneuvering in shallows, and using the boat hook to try to unclip the carabiner.  At one point he almost had it.  But it was too far away, the boat was moving around too much, and he had no leverage.  It was hard to see how this was going to get solved.  Around this time French journalist Edward Bally put down his camera and volunteered to go aloft in a bosun’s chair, which is a sort of rope harness that allows others to haul you up into the rigging.  I guess it was determined that Edward was the lightest guy who could pull this off.  So Steve and Meade heaved Edward up to the crosstrees and Edward was quickly able to reach the ring and unclip it.  He was quickly lowered back to deck unharmed but a little shaky, and went below seconds before his colleauge arrived with a helicopter to film us from the air.

20140624_13034520140624_130443

Once the gear issue was addressed our sails all flew beautifully and we sailed on looking our best off of 58th street or thereabouts, and then turned for home.

One final bit of drama occurred when my straw hat blew off and into the sea.  “Keep your eye on it” Steve yelled.  I insisted that it’s only an 8 dollar hat and totally not worth retrieving, but Steve said, “Man overboard drill!  It’s good for the crew!”  And so, since I guess we hadn’t had enough excitement for one day, we tacked around and came abreast of my poor hat which was still, amazingly, floating.  I reached for it but missed by about six inches, but the next second Meade speared it with a boathook.  So now we know that we can execute a man-overboard routine in some pretty challenging conditions.

Following that we had a pleasant market in Nyack, facilitated by Mayor Jen White and the Claremont association which gave us access to the Claremont Pier.  We had such a good time that we intend to come back next Tuesday, and will hold another market from noon to 6 pm at memorial park.   Thanks again to Mayor White and Village Administrator Jim Peloti to helping us arrange dockage in the fine Village of Nyack, and also thanks to Gypsy Donut and Espresso Bar for helping us get the word out and for bringing us treats!

20140625_102414

But before that we are due in Kingston, where we will be open for business at the Hudson Maritime Museum at the Rondout from 10-5 tomorrow, Saturday June 28th.  Hope to see you there!

Hudson River Revival

On rejoining Ceres after a marathon rice planting session, I did not accidentally check myself into Sing Sing prison just outside Ossining, but almost!  After exploring the Ossining waterfront a few hundred feet at a time for about an hour, I finally found the Shattemuc Yacht Club, our gracious host.  It was no problem spotting Ceres’ one-of-a-kind wooden masts and brailed-up sails in amongst the jungle of aluminum and stainsless steel poles.  I had just driven down from Vt to relieve our capable Acting Director Andy Willner for about a week.

Ceres’ crew, comprised of Andy, Captain Steve, Matt Horgan and Meade Atkeson had just finished some really impressive sailing that I told you about last post, including a delivery of a wholesale order to Cold Spring General Store by sail alone,

photo (1)

and had held a really nice market and a talk afterwards at Shattemuc, all of which I personally missed.  What I was really sorry to miss but was happy to hear about was yet another mayoral visit from the mayor of Ossining, William Hanauer.  We are grateful for the mayor’s expressions of support for our project, and for this statement:

We want to make the waterfront Ossining’s front door, not its back door

Our intention is exactly that — to help the water that built our region in a previous era  to be once again a conduit of life and trade.  And yes, we’ll be back.

After Ossining we headed back north to dock next to the Sloop Clearwater and the Mystic Whaler at Clearwater Fest.  How to describe the weekend?  The entire time we were surrounded by music, of course working like dogs moving and selling our goods and showing off Ceres to all comers.  Hannah, Ashton, Tony and Matt Schlein from Willowell came to staff a booth at the working waterfront section, while Matt and Meade ran the market stall, and Steve wandered around talking to old friends.  Of course in this last year since the last Clearwater festival the world has lost both Pete and Toshi Seeger so it was an emotional time, especially for folks like Steve who were close friends.  So no coincidence that Ceres ended up there or that Steve is now captain of Ceres; there is a philosophical convergence between the work of the sloop Clearwater and what we are trying to do with Ceres that flows in all directions.photo (3)

 

What next?  Well, Manhattan of course.  What else is there?

Before fans get too excited, please note right away that we have no viable plans to dock or have a market this time, although we may yet succeed in pulling something together small scale and last minute.  It is very, very, difficult to arrange viable docking for what we are trying to do in NYC.  It is as difficult in the city as it is easy in places like Nyack and Ossining.  Each spot potentially available to us has either physical dangers to the vessel, high costs, daunting bureaucracy, lack of public access, or all four problems at once.  Sometimes our project is viewed as being too commercial for the recreational facilities and yet too small-scale for the commercial facilities.  Often being cross-categorical is to our benefit, but sometimes not so much.

There are still possibilities, and we are going to the city if only briefly to show NY and the world that we have not given up on them.  Perhaps our visit will only be ceremonial in scope this time around.  Look for Ceres off the west side later this afternoon!

Following that we are aiming to come to Nyack either tomorrow afternoon or wednesday morning, and I will announce details as soon as I have them!

Posted from on board Ceres just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge!   photo (4) photo

Ceres the Spry

So there’s, me, Erik, totally plastered in mud and wallowing around in the rice paddy, while Ceres and her crew are cracking on, throwing up spray in Haverstraw Bay, making a wholesale order delivery.  Did I hear that they were making 6 knots upwind?  That they sailed off their anchor without motor assistance?  That they tacked upwind and against the current?  Rather than be irritated that I wasn’t there to see it, this news filled me with delight.  It has always been my goal for Ceres to have a life of her own and at least somewhat apart from mine, and to hear the enthusiasm with which my crew (who I have not seen for eight days) reported their feats this is clearly beginning to happen.

This spunky project had a lot of doubters.  They are becoming fewer in number now that we are still doing this thing one year from launch, and getting better at it each day.  Some said our rectilinear barge would have poor sailing properties, could never work her way to windward.  Others were quick to point out our reliance on the motor during our first run.  To these folks I would point out, in the friendliest way possible, that working sail took many decades to slowly vanish from our view, so it’s only realistic to expect that it will take some time to rebuild not just the craft that can do real work but also the skills and the confidence to perform.

.BqQuf00CAAElWQ4.

We can meet these challenges.  I say “we” because this project has attracted, time and again, a perhaps odd assortment of principled and talented individuals that have in common the fact that the mission of this project personally moves them.  No one of us, least of all myself, can perform all of the roles needed to make this little ship sail.  But together we can pull off this thing that has an element of … dare I say .. grandeur.  This grandeur commands attention, and has garnered respect from NYC transportation theorists, Brooklyn hipsters, trending-conservative upstate NY local business types, Nyack Jewish ladies, and more.  It inspires conversations, and I think and hope that it also inspires people to take joy in the place they inhabit, as well as in the notion of seeing our common waters not as a barrier but as a conduit of life and trade, such as it has been for the majority of our nation’s history.

Yes, this is some pretty high-flown language from a guy who spends the majority of the days now quite literally coated in mud and getting bitten by three kinds of flies.  But I do believe in this work.  Yes, we still have problems, but we’re still sailing!

photo(1)

We are all looking forward to a huge event at Clearwater festival this weekend.  In its way I think VSFP encapsulates the mindset of Pete Seeger’s early vision for the Sloop Clearwater–that radical idea, sprung from the grassroots, that eventually won over the doubters.  Not a facsimile reenactment or period piece but a people-driven cause with a reason and a spirit!  As I recounted a while back, I only got to share our project and our boat with Pete for the most brief of moments last fall, and that will have to suffice (Pete’s one word appraisal of Ceres’ below-decks accommodations — “Palatial!”). I would be carrying on even if Pete hadn’t come aboard to validate our effort personally, but the fact that he did makes me a little more resolved.

But while the sloop Clearwater is a vessel for education, advocacy and activism and is funded for the great work she does in those areas, Ceres is funded primarily through trade.  We buy our goods from farmers along our trade route and mark them up for resale, much as any store would do.  Except that our “store” is on the move, deploying in public waterfront locations wherever we can arrange it.  This is no doubt a little different from the way the old river and barge trade worked, where most larger vessels were not floating general stores so much as they were  bulk haulers, carrying say 100 tons at a time of lumber, coal, or potatoes.  But our strategy is not to strive to compete for least-cost transport of bulk goods, but to perform a moving community retail function that allows us to make personal connections throughout the region in a way that bulk maritime transport cannot.

So how can you help?  Well, come and see us.  Try out some of our goods from farms around our watershed and region.  If you are a business or know of one, consider placing a wholesale order with Ceres.  (We are working to get a cargo manifest page up on the main website, www.vermontsailfreightproject.org, in the next few days, so you will be able to view the contents of Ceres that are for sale).Perhaps you can help us get connected with decent docks and public spaces in your area if we haven’t done so yet.  Advocate for public market spaces and sturdy public docks in your community, and for municipal support of a revived working waterfront.  We depend on our fans and supporters to take an interest in what we are doing and to help ensure its continuance!

Vermont Sail Freight Project

Arriving at Brown’s this Evening

Just wanted to add a quick update to the earlier post to say that after quick calls in Mechanicville and Waterford, Ceres is off to Troy to tie up this eve.  I spoke with Andy about arrangements just recently.  In the background, I heard Captain Steve ask, “Is that the dock with the bar?”  Yes, Steve, it is the one with the bar….a guy has gotta have his priorities, I guess.   So, if you are in Troy and you want to meet a real character just go to Brown’s this evening and look for the guy with the big white beard who looks like he just crawled up from the river.  Just to warn you though, Captain Steve is a little shy.  Doesn’t have too much to say.  Pretty hard to get an opinion on any subject out of the guy.  Especially anything having to do with boats or sailing.  Whatever thoughts he may or may not have on sailing he pretty much keeps to himself.

1925_425x_fill

These barrels are for the captain. Everyone else get your own from the basement.

.

Tomorrow, while the crew gets to work getting the mast upright, as well as getting to work getting the captain upright, there may be an opportunity to say hello at the docks and perhaps even to make a quick purchase.  Our ability to quickly find items within the boat should be much improved over last year.  We promise a more lengthy stop in Troy, as well as Waterford and Mechanicville, in the coming weeks.

Sailing Like Stink

Topsail aloft!

Captain Steve looking aloft

Cracking spars on the first day out not allowed

Cracking spars on the first day out not allowed

We had our work cut out for us to get Ceres ready to head south, but this time the cargo loading was actually a snap.

Yes, it’s a pretty odd expression, but one I’ve heard Captain Steve use several times. Yesterday it applied to us pretty well.  It was an amazing experience to see Ceres belting down into the narrows of the southern end of Lake Champlain under all canvas, heeled over nicely (but not too nicely) under a freshening north wind.  At about 5.5 knots we were verging on overpressed with sail, and started to worry about losing the topsail club or even the topmast on the first day out, and so we doused it.  Still, we can put up a nice little mountain of canvas even without the topsail, and after lowering it we were still making 5 knots under staysail, yankee jib, main, and mizzen.  Sailmaker Matthew Wright and Riggers Carrie Glessner and Will Young ought to be good and proud of their work.  Breathtaking.  Brings to mind an expression my grandfather used that I occasionally deploy myself, “there’s glory in it!”

 

Three wagons full of just-baled hay rolled under cover mere minutes before a thunderstorm?

“There’s glory in it!”

Perfect blooms on your dahlias?

“There’s glory in it!”

Dealing with bloated sheep by tubing the sheep gas out of the stomach?

“There’s no glory in it.”

Well, sometimes there’s plenty of glory and sometimes there’s not.  We are on the move and bound for New York for the second time.  There’s glory in that, for certain.  But also a lot of unglorious work, lifting, sanding, fixing, and struggling with the many complicated challenges in making this project of many moving parts work the way it is supposed to.  About half my day yesterday was consumed with a task with no glory in it, chasing small water leaks out of hidden air spaces in the hull construction by injecting epoxy resin into voids, tough to do at any time but very challenging when the boat is full of stuff and is pounding down the lake.

Today Ceres is still on the move, masts down now, motoring through the New York State canal system, and at last check is nearing Fort Edward.  As for me, your author and raconteur, at least up to this point, I am no longer with the ship.  Last night after a round of drinks at Howie’s in Whitehall, I traded places with Andrew Willner who now assumes my shipboard role in the capacity of Acting Director.  I personally am very hopeful that this is the beginning of an excellent collaborative working partnership with a man with many years of experience in craftsmanship, sailing, and in promoting waterfront sustainability, whose work and genial nature have earned the respect of pretty much everyone I have met who has had much to do with traditional sail and New York Harbour.  VSFP is lucky and honored to welcome Andrew on board.

As for me, the rice plants that I mentioned last time are now pushing seven inches tall and the paddies are in great shape and transplanting is underway.  I needed the liberty to tend to my farm at this early point in the growing season.  I can’t deny that I track the progress of Ceres compulsively now, as perhaps some of you readers did last year when I was aboard.  So I know that the same steady rain that watered my garden transplants and added depth to my rice fields also fell on Ceres as the crew guided her through at least seven or eight locks today.  But the mission advances, despite the challenges, delays and problems.  We have a much smaller crew than last year, when many events were amped up into mini-festivals through the energy of Greenhorns and its dedicated volunteers and staff.  Now we are trying to advance to the next stage, to where we can hopefully build on the work and the recognition of last year, and hopefully wean ourselves down to a primary crew of four, all based on the barge.  Ultimately a small craft like Ceres really ought to be run as a mobile market by a crew of two, but we are not there yet.

Erik at the helm on Lake Champlain.  That little mizzen sail really helps push us along when running with the wind.

Our current crew is Captain Steve, Middlebury College intern Meade Atkeson, Andrew Willner as I mentioned above, and recent Binghamton University Grad Matt Horgan, who we will be losing to grad school later this month.

Running the vessel and its market requires that a skilled operator be a solid river sailor, plus a capable businessperson in order to maintain inventory and accounts while on the move.  It also requires a serious interest in the farms and waterfront communities of the region, and some facility at outreach and social media.  Interested?  Well, we are in need of a new crew member to volunteer at the end of this month and are considering recruiting full-time staff if our operations in 2014 prove successful.  While crowded for a crew of four or more, for a working crew of two, be they friends, a married couple, or partners, Ceres affords reasonable on-the-water living, in the space not consumed by cargo that is.  I never intended for this liveaboard operator to be me.  I have a farm and am pretty well bonded to my family and my place.  Sailing around the battery into the East River?  Well, that was unforgettable.  But the next time someone else can do it.  Ultimate success of the project is not measured by what I personally get to see, do, or experience, or even necessarily by whether it is profitable or not (though we strive for it to be).  Ultimate success is that we help crack the door and in some small way lay the groundwork for the development of the next generation of watermen and waterwomen.

Ceres ties up to the southbound bulkhead at Lock 12

We are being filmed by the extermely-active Edward and Gary (deux noms qui ne sont pas tres francais je dois dire) from the French television program Thalassa.  In the course of our many (sometimes a bit repetitive) interviews, I offered my belief that contrary to the techno-paradise that some expect, my belief is that our future will likely resemble our past, and that we may fall back on proven, low energy approaches to supporting human life that have been historically proven to work.  “Isn’t that pessimistic?” asked Edward.  I replied that I don’t think so.  It is in my view even more pessimistic to imagine a world continuing on the current path, becoming a place in which there is no place for human labor or creativity, where rather than doing things with our backs and hands and minds, we must instead wait passively for conveniences and solutions to be marketed to us.   That, to me, is the most depressing future imaginable.

About our schedule.  We are so far behind that our plans to stop with our partners in on the way south are pretty messed up.  We have to make “fast” progress toward our most important destination, Clearwater Festival, and any chance to see us along the way will be catch-as-catch-can.  Not the way we wanted it, but it is just the beginning of the season and we hope for many chances to make up for the lost opportunities early on.   I will be posting weekly here now, and will try to get some authorship going from Ceres herself now that I have left the ship, so look out for that.

Plans to Sail South Once More

My rice seedlings that I told you about last time are doing really great.  The modified hoop house is certainly my best cheapo rice nursery solution to date, and I’m very happy with it.  On a sunny day, even with temperatures outside in the 70s, entering the hoophouse will fog my glasses up.  Tropical!  On cloudy days the effect is less pronounced but all in all it is a nice environment for cold-climate rice seedlings.  A couple of days we had sub-freezing temperatures and I have never been less worried about losing seedlings than this year.

At the same time of course plans are coming into place for our upcoming trip!  I have a few docking dates to announce:

  • Mechanicville, NY  Saturday June 7th.  Market at the dock.  Hours TBA
  • Waterford, NY  Sunday June 8th.  Attending Waterford Farmers Market 10am – 1pm (subject to confirmation)
  • Coxsackie, NY Wednesday June 11th, Attending Coxsackie Farmers Market 4-7 pm
  • Croton-on-Hudson NY, Ferry Sloops, Shattemuc Yacht Club, June 18th, Market, hours TBA
  • Croton-on-Hudson, Clearwater Festival, June 21st-22nd
  • Manhattan, NY, New Amsterdam Farmers Market, June 28th, 11-4pm

This is just the beginning of the list.  The hope is that in the course of this trip from VT to the sea and back again that we will hold about 20 public markets.  There are many more localities we are looking to stop at, and where confirmation is too many steps away I hesitate to list them.  Still I am confident that many more venues will be added in short order.  We’re delighted to be able to say yes, we’re coming back, and if you live along the route and have a burning desire for us to visit your local dock, then please get in touch!  Our local partners and allies are totally essential to our success.

Oct 12th2013 042

Another opportunity to visit and engage with the project is our upcoming Dinner at the Falls in Vergennes, for which we still have 6 seats available.  We had a fantastic time hosting this last August.  The setting is perfect, the food awesome.  If you live up our way in Vermont please consider coming aboard for dinner and good conversation on Friday May 30th at McDonough Landing, Vergennes.  Advance purchase of tickets necessary, $150 per couple.  Proceeds go to support the nonprofit Willowell Foundation and VSFP.

setting up for a dockside dinner

Now that the rice nursery is secure my attention is pretty much all on planning, coordinating this with the esteemed Andrew Willner who will be superintending this round-trip from on-board the barge in the capacity of Acting Director.  In addition to planning are a number of small repairs and modifications needed to get Ceres ready for the water again in a few short weeks time.  Structurally, she held up to the rigors of the last voyage faultlessly.  So the improvements are mostly in the direction of improved cargo management and improved shipboard quality of life, with some attention as well to improvements of the sail rig.  I hope to begin sinking my teeth into that work in the coming week and look forward to telling you about it all in detail in the next post.

topside unsectioned topside sectioned

 

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.

SNOW2063

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

wheelhouse

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.

24vermontsailproject-slide-8VBC-jumbo

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!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 731 other followers