The Vermont Sail Freight Project

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

The End (at least for now)

This will be my last post, for a while anyway.

It’s taken a lot of soul-searching to figure out just how much this effort has meant to me and what I am and am not willing to put on the line to see it advance.  In the end, the work asked more than I had to give.

In the early part of this year I put a lot of effort into trying to build a team to take the work of Vermont Sail Freight to the next level.  But unfortunately this team never really coalesced and unified around a single goal, and one by one we lost participants to the demands of other areas of their lives.

At the same time, serious obstacles to our long-term success were in fact overcome.  For instance we cemented access to warehouses and terminals at both the northern and southern ends of the route.  And we obtained a quote for a much better rate on our commercial marine insurance.  But it began to seem that for every problem solved three more would replace it.  None beyond our skill, but demanding too much in aggregated energy and time.

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So what of Ceres?  For now, our intrepid sailing barge is hanging out on the farm, under a tarp.  All the rigging and sails are sorted and put neatly away.  I still am responsible for taking care of her, even if we can’t put her to work.

The Willowell Foundation and I jointly came up with this crazy plan that in many ways surpassed our initial estimations of what it could be and mean.  But so to did certain costs exceed our expectations.  Our $20,000 insurance bill, which came as a total shock just prior to our 2013 voyage to New York (though we had been trying to obtain coverage since December 2012) came as a sucker punch to the effort, and would have killed it then and there if Willowell hadn’t paid the bill.  I had hoped that by continuing the work we could pay off that cost over time, but we did not succeeded in that, nor did we succeed in obtaining grants to continue the charitable aspects of our work (education, environmental stewardship, promotion of waterfront civic life).

I feel like I have tried everything I could think of, and that at this point I need to put my family and my farm first.  However I hope to keep Ceres and the past work of VSF in my pocket, at least for now, in case anything changes down the line.  I would welcome any serious inquiry from anyone out there who might be willing to take this on.  Personally, I don’t think the need for and interest in this kind of work is going to go away, but I already have two full-time jobs and can’t handle a third.

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Thanks to everyone who played a part in helping us get as far as we did!

2015 and Beyond

It’s been an interesting couple of years behind the scenes at the Vermont Sail Freight Project.  Cross-categorical work like this has plenty of challenges, not the least of which is closing the credibility gap, and making the argument that marine cargo has a place in the 21st century.  Our mission is much the same now as when we first set out–to make use of neglected cultural and environmental assets to connect producers to markets.  To package the products in such a way that the values underlying both the goods themselves and the means of delivery are upheld.

The grassroots collective known as the Vermont Sail Freight Project, generously supported and given a home by the Willowell Foundation, and helped through its infancy by the Eastman Foundation, the Waterwheel Foundation, and many generous individual donors, has done all we set out to do and more.

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However, I think we’re just getting started.  Last year we made some partnerships that I believe will really set the stage for the expansion of this work to a meaningful and economically relevant scale.  We have our sights on expanding routes to the Finger Lakes and overseas to the Caribbean as well.  For 2015, we are now making plans that will ensure that Ceres will be a regular visitor to New York City.  Larger vessels are now on the drawing board too, and we now have the experience base to progress to them.

The saying goes, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk.  In this Age of the Tweet, the value of experience and judgement is grossly underestimated.  You may already know about how we pooled our resources and we built ourselves a little wooden ship.  And it’s true that our team collected 13 tons of goods from 37 farms and delivered to about a dozen locations along the Champlain-Hudson trading route to general acclaim.  It’s also true that we have some solid accomplishments to hang our hats on, some stuff to be proud of.

 

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But let’s say that while I don’t always air our shortcomings in public, it’s true that we have also made our share of mistakes along the way.

What kind of mistakes, you might well ask?  Well, I might start with the poor design of the keel of Ceres, where the fiberglass joints failed and admitted water to the cargo hold, necessitating a 2-week haulout and major repair just weeks prior to our highly-publicized departure with goods in 2013.  And the inadequacy of our motor auxiliary systems.  The lack of a shakedown cruise or time to complete our sail kit and resolve problems with the rig.  The damaging of the tabernacle due to a simple oversight when lowering the mast, caught just in time before structural damage.  Extremely basic liveaboard accommodations and shipboard electrical systems.  The total absence of sensible land-based dock infrastructure almost everywhere we called.  A back-breaking, disorganized approach to filling and emptying the cargo hold.  Inadequate plans for marketing and distribution of our goods.  The paucity of experience amongst our gang in handling a cargo scow in widely varied weather conditions.  Numerous problems with haulouts.   Flaws in the fiberglass emerging during winter storage last year, resulting in heavy leaking on launch in Spring 2014, which took weeks to address before we could begin the season.  All of these issues dogged us (although you probably never heard about them) and some took a heavy toll on morale and our will to carry on.

But carry on we did.  And we’ve learned how to handle our boat, how to push her hard but not too hard, and where to fill and reinforce and patch to keep the water out.  I would go so far as to say that the working rig is now approaching the level of refinement of our older British cousins, the Thames Sailing Barges of England, and is no longer the slapdash affair that first appeared in New York Harbor in October 2013.  We’re honing in on a business model that makes the most of the virtues of marine freight and can sustain a modest company payroll.  Little by little, we’re figuring out how to play to our strengths.  None of this learning process could have taken place if we hadn’t had some room to stumble and fail, to recognize our shortcomings, and address them so that we could learn and grow.

Contrast our story of starting small and screwing up along the way, yet persevering and becoming wiser–with the sad story of the schooner John F. Leavitt.  (Below picture from the Ocala Star-Banner, March 6th 1977. 38 years ago exactly today!)

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In the late 1970’s, during the days of the oil embargo, idealist Ned Ackerman set out to revive Maine’s working schooner tradition by building and launching a schooner of 83 tons to engage in coastal cargo trade.  The shadow of this project, a similar endeavor to my own in that both set out to revive cargo by sail, is quite long: in 1991 when I attended the Rockport Apprenticeshop in Maine, boatbuilders there still cited the dramatic failure of this project as evidence that working sail is gone forever.  The visionary Ned Ackerman and his team had probably about as little practical experience handling heavily-laden cargo vessels in rough waters in 1979 as my team did in 2013.  But I wonder, how might things have turned out differently for them if they had simply started smaller and given themselves room to fail, instead of doing what they did, which is to have their opening move be to head out into the forbidding North Atlantic, loaded right to capacity, at the very worst time of the year?

The schooner John Leavitt in 1979

The schooner John Leavitt in 1979

Perhaps our seagoing forebears might have routinely handled such a challenge.  But it’s wrongheaded to infer from that fact that we ourselves can do so.  After all, those crews had the advantage of building up decades of individual experience, not to mention the fact that their careers were part of a real living cultural tradition stretching into the dusky past.  Ackerman was attempting to resurrect a derelict way of life from the ashes and simply pick up where the old cargo sailors had left off, and off they went in November 1979, cracking on with a full hold into a howling gale.  Things went bad, and the schooner foundered many miles offshore.  The crew were rescued by coast guard helicopters.  Ackerman and his crew were indeed lucky to escape with their lives.  You could say that living through such an ordeal is punishment enough, but still I hold them partly responsible for setting such a poor example of how to honor and learn from our past.  This group’s apparent lack of recognition that their effort was missing an essential component–the accumulated experience and judgement of the officers and crews who once made up the living working sail tradition–remains to me a dismaying oversight, and in a way, still strikes me as somehow disrespectful to the long-passed sailors whose work Ackerman hoped to revive.

I doubt Ackerman saw it quite as I do, though, and in general I find his past noble, failed effort hugely sympathetic.  But I suppose my experience farming and woodworking along traditional lines has impressed upon me the extreme difficulty we encounter when we try to measure up to those who have gone before.  To accumulate any significant body of knowledge, you simply have to pay your dues.  Those dues are payable in money, time, pain and suffering, or some combination of all of these.  But they have to be paid if you aim to achieve anything truly worthwhile.

————-

Launching the Vermont Sail Freight Project has given me a chance to watch the beginning of mastery develop amongst my team, and it’s been both an extreme challenge and a great honor to see this happen.  I want to stay with this and see it continue to grow at a sane, organic pace.  I believe that our blend of commerce, appropriate technology and community-building is exactly what my region needs.  I’m proud to announce also that we are on the verge of setting up the work on a new organizational footing with a new executive board.

Let me name my partners:

  • Andrew Willner
  • Tianna Kennedy
  • Gregg Zuman
  • Malcolm Martin
  • Geoff Uttmark

For those of you reading this who have done your bit for VSFP whether by donating, buying our goods, volunteering, or what have you, let me say thanks for helping us get this far.  And to everyone reading this, you can weigh in on ranking some lead contenders for a new name for the venture.  Please rank your favorite names here, it’s just 2 questions.  And look for more updates soon, as we expect to roll out new web content and announcements about the coming season before long.

-Erik Andrus

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The Story So Far

2012 The Vermont Sail Freight Project began as an idea in 2012.  I was, and remain, very dedicated to small-scale agriculture and to the transition taking place in Northeastern agriculture generally, away from commodity dairy and towards direct-market and community supported operations.  It struck me that a transportation method that was based on historical patterns would attract interest to a collection of unique products, my own and those of my fellow producers.  I also believed that we could somehow built and operate a craft that could do the job at a scale big enough to be economically significant, but not big enough to pose major financial or regulatory barriers to construction and operations.  My goal for the Vermont Sail Freight Project was that a first vessel would reflect the spirit of Vermont farmers specifically, and that it would crack the door to the expansion of the work.  Ultimately I hoped to interest my fellow farmers in becoming part-owners and managers of the work.

We aimed to create a shipping venture that would follow in the wake of the historic Lake Champlain Sailing Canal Barges.

We aimed to create a shipping venture that would follow in the wake of the historic Lake Champlain Sailing Canal Barges.

I myself have the background and training of a sworn generalist rather than that of a mariner, boatbuilder, or naval architect.  The thesis of the project was rooted in my own brand of big-picture thinking, which was proved valid in many regards along the way but flawed in others along the way.  In 2012 however it was little more than an idea I peddled in my local community, which elicited a lot of general interest but no specific commitment or support.  However the project took a major step from talk to reality in October 2012 when Matt Schlein of the Willowell Foundation, a 501-c(3) based in nearby Monkton, Vermont, agreed to be the fiscal and organizational sponsor of the work for a period of multiple years, and to support the eventual transition to independent work.  This gave me the confidence I needed to take the next steps. Since the vessel itself is the major working component of the scheme, its nature is quite important.  The original cargo vessels that plied this route are long gone.  And while Art Cohn of the Lake Champlain Maritime museum suggested that some accommodation might be made on the replica canal schooner Lois McClure, the parameters seemed too restricted for the type of venture I had in mind.  I felt we needed the ability for producers, project management, or markets to propel changes in the sailing or market schedule, and with our cargo riding along with the museum show, that surely wouldn’t have been possible.  That left the Willowell team and I two major choices in craft.  The first option was pre-existing craft.  We might buy or lease something already in existence, perhaps hire some sailor with a largish sailboat to move some cargo for us, or else acquire one of the many cheapo fiberglass boats in the area and refit it for cargo to the extent that we could.  The second option was to design and build specifically for the job at hand.

The Fleet

a 2012 concept sketch

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the thames-sailing barge design we began to settle on by the end of 2012. The hull and rig would be further refined as we proceeded towards a build.

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While probably equally practical, we haven’t pursued a junk rig. At least not yet.

crane2 A few factors tipped us towards a build.  One was the ongoing dialog I had with the Coast Guard in Burlington, which provided a brief education in recreational versus commercial vessel classes.  Apparently it is extremely difficult to reclass a recreational boat as commercial.  However if a new vessel is built for commercial use right at the outset the path is easier, providing the parties doing the building and the using are U.S. citizens.  Although there was no doubt a lot of creative adaptation throughout our process, we wanted this vessel and its activity to be fully legal and compliant.  Early on I learned about the “uninspected cargo vessel” class, a size of trading vessel measuring less than 40 feet in length and with less than 15 gross register tons cargo capacity. Uninspected cargo vessels are issued documentation from the Coast Guard Documentation Offices in West Virginia based on paperwork alone.  The builders and operators are left to make their own judgements regarding issues of construction and safety.  We decided we were comfortable with that, and agreed that we hadn’t the ability to afford professionally designed and built craft at this early stage.  One contact I spoke with quoted a design fee at $15,000 for a vessel of about this size.  That was far beyond what we expected to raise. Dave Zeiger, the author behind the blog “www.triloboats.com” was an early influence.  He assured me that something in the 8-ton range could be built for about $10,000 all included, and in a matter of a few months.  An early source of inspiration was Dave’s “T32 Cargo,” a basic design of a flat-bottom hull that can be purchased from Dave for $15.  I started making my own changes to this platform and increased the base dimensions from 32 feet length and 8 foot beam to 39.5 feet length and 10 foot beam.  This was about the limit of what could be accommodated under cover in my build space and, coincidentally, worked out at just under 15 gross register tons. 2013 During the late months of 2012 and the early months of 2013, design, documentation, fundraising plans, and insurance were all getting off the ground.  Naturally there had to be feasibility all around or the work couldn’t proceed.  Fundraising began in earnest in March 2013 when I launched a kickstarter.com campaign to raise $15000 to finance completion of the hull.  This campaign exceeded its goals and raised $16800.  Along the way we began to attract interest from New York City, which of course we expected to be a major market.  The contributions, plus favorable media coverage and public comments all provided good early confirmation that the project in general and its products would get a decent reception.  At this stage I hadn’t the connections in New York to be very sure of this at all. cropped-crans21.png With the money to complete the hull in hand, a volunteer crew under my supervision worked away to complete the hull, the rig, and various other components in time for a midsummer launch.  Given that we began building in early March and launched in late July we did pretty well.  The rig and many aspects were still unfinished at launch, and in fact the boat was still only at a very basic level of functionality by the time we departed fully loaded with cargo in the fall.  As anyone who has built a boat or anything of equal complexity knows, there are a thousand details to attend to and they all take time.  This plus trying to manage my normal farming duties of rice-growing, pasture management and haymaking.  Jordan Finkelstein, a former student of my father’s, came to live on the farm and put many hours in on the second half of the construction.  Many other talented individuals either donated their time, or like sailmaker Dayle Ward, worked at reduced rates to make the vessel a reality.  It was due to this level of volunteerism that Ceres was in fact ready, albeit still lacking refinements that were to come later, by October 2013.

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The stern framing begins to suggest a boat shape in April 2013.

we heaved her up onto her side, with control ropes to keep her from tipping too far

we heaved her up onto her side, with control ropes to keep her from tipping too far

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the upside-down, freshly painted barge hull

looking down from the deck of Ceres, this is a view of the pine-tar-dribbled rigging party including Jordan, Matt, Kate, Will, and Carrie.

looking down from the deck of Ceres, this is a view of the pine-tar-dribbled rigging party including Jordan, Matt, Kate, Will, and Carrie.

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Will Young and Carrie Glessner masterminded our rigging approach.

Ceres in "drydock"

Ceres has crew quarters in the forward and aft sections, with the entire center given over to cargo.

However in this rush to build and launch, the process of obtaining insurance was constantly stalling.  Since Vermont is not a maritime state, commercial marine insurance falls within the category of “surplus lines,” or policies of a nature not commonly sold within the state market.  Our surplus lines insurer seemed at a disadvantage in that they didn’t have many marine clients and weren’t able to easily secure a quote from the marine underwriters to whom they had access, or to negotiate favorable terms.  It did not help that the vessel in question was amateur-built, or that the Willowell Foundation has no prior history of commercial marine activity.  Still, despite on false start after another we carried on in confidence that a policy could be located eventually.  I had expected maybe a few thousand dollars per year, given the replacement value of the vessel and what I knew others with similar vessels to be paying annually for insurance.  Also, naturally, the commercial side of the work that sold farm goods in retail markets would need general liability insurance, but I didn’t expect this to be very out-of-the-ordinary either.  Still, without a quote, this remained an unknown until just prior and a source of increasing unease. But ultimately the insurance question simply did not work out at all in our favor.  Despite having begun inquiries in December 2012, I had no quotes to work from until we were already fully committed to purchase contracts and a publicly-announced schedule.  The annual bill for our first year of coverage came in at $20000.  We simply couldn’t back out, and Willowell paid the policy in faith that funds would somehow be raised on the back end of the work, or paid down over time.  Still, this level of overhead for such a small commercial asset, and a seasonal asset at that, was a big setback.  But with insurance in hand and goods in the hold, we were at least cleared for departure and ready to head south to New York by early October 2013. I went along for almost the entire trip down Lake Champlain and down the Hudson.  It was quite an experience.  The food was good, the vessel outperformed expectations time and again, and we got a warm welcome in a dozen ports along the way.  Sales were also brisk from the start, and increasingly so as we went closer to the port of New York.  An organization with which we collaborated, Greenhorns USA and its director, Severine Fleming, were ever at work helping publicize our events and to rally local volunteers and partners.  The Willowell Staff were also in tow and had organized school visits in New York City and Kingston, as well.  All told it was a bit of a frenetic blur, with media also coming and going, all leading up to I knew not what.

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Cargo comes aboard in Orwell, Vermont on October 12th, 2013

Heading south from Whitehall

Heading south from Whitehall

The lower doors close behind us in Lock 12

The lower doors close behind us in Lock 12

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Jordan Finkelstein takes the helm just south of Albany

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Mists on the Hudson

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Near West Point

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Ceres prepares to round the battery, October 24th 2013

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Beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, photo credit Jackie Snow, National Geographic

20131025_103733 Steve Schwartz had come into the team as our captain, and I was more than happy to consign all decision making to his capable judgement during this trip.  Well, nearly all, anyway.  Steve is a professional with abundant experience with sailing vessels of about our size and demeanor and was able to manage us pretty well.  I think I can say that Steve took up the entire task and the entailed responsibility for life, limb and property, with the utmost seriousness.  And while this seriousness sometimes manifest as interminable mulling-over-options-out-loud or as generalized vocal worrying about everything pertaining to the boat, Steve was simply the guy for the job.  And in part as a result of his vigilance, our worst fears were not borne out, and we arrived intact and discharged our entire hold–or at least what remained unsold–onto the hard at Brooklyn Navy Yard.

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From left to right, the late, great Pete Seeger, Erik Andrus, Steve Schwartz, and Jordan Finkelstein

Following were our two strongest public markets to date, some more very favorable coverage by National Geographic, the New York Times, and the New Yorker.  And then a gradual winding down as Steve prepared to take Ceres back to the North before the canals closed on November 15th.  The public attention turned away, by and large, but Patrick Kiley (a volunteer who came to us through Greenhorns and had a major hand in the sales and cargo management) and I stuck around selling off chunks of the cargo that was left behind in the warehouse we had been loaned.  We did what we could, but after a week of making calls and deliveries, quite a lot of unsold goods still remained.  It became clear to me that having a plan to deal with delivered cargo that went beyond a few markets and a few rounds of calls to restaurants and shops was going to be necessary.  This observation will surely strike anyone in the land-based food distribution business as painfully obvious, as there is a established pattern of interlinked warehouses, truck routes, distributorships, and retailers for their trade.  But our little experiment in marine delivery took place on the periphery of this food system, so we lacked access to the networks, skills, and facilities that could have made our systems more efficient.  Of course this was just a first step. Ceres made her way right back to the muddy boat ramp from which she was launched and was hauled out and stored by mid-November.  With the project put to bed for the season, I was able to reach the following conclusions:

  • It is easier to get people to work and donate money to build a boat than to operate and maintain that boat, or do any of the work or development that accompany the boat.
  • High insurance costs would have to be addressed
  • Some docks were much more suitable for our brand of commercial activity than others
  • The goods we carried on board did generally prove to be cost-competitive and of interest wherever we bore them
  • The vessel, the route, and the story resonated with the general public as well.  People loved the idea, and were glad to see us.
  • For a crew to stay on long enough to increase in skill, or to come on-board already skilled, pay would have to be forthcoming, and competitive.
  • My original vision of a farmer-driven shipping effort was unrealistic as farmers simply haven’t the time
  • As much work was entailed in developing markets for goods (whether wholesale or retail) as in acquiring the goods and delivering them by boat.

Also, I discovered my personal limits for easygoing collaborations with other organizations.  The trip to NYC highlighted a serious conflict of leadership styles between myself and Willowell on the one hand and Greenhorns USA on the other.  Greenhorns had substantial involvement with markets and publicity during this trip.  But my frustration with many aspects of this relationship prompted me to increase the distance between the Project and Greenhorns (although VSFP continues to support Greenhorns and their aims generally).  This was not an easy decision because it cost us access to a powerful network of supporters and volunteers, a loss we would come to appreciate more in 2014, as the remaining in-house personnel tried to take up the slack. 2014 This was a difficult stage of the work, and it was difficult to translate the successes of the 2013 fall run into a 2014 program that was profitable yet manageable.  Volunteer exhaustion came to be a consideration, not the least of which was my own fatigue with managing a project with many, many needs as Volunteer-in-chief.  I often had to choose between my paying work at home on the farm and giving Vermont Sail Freight Project what it needed.  Many times I simply had to choose the former, and the net result was a less-ambitious season.  However this season was not without some major milestones. One development was the increasing participation of Andrew Willner, former New York / New Jersey Baykeeper who began to get involved in promoting and helping me manage the project.  Andrew is kindred big-picture guy and it was a relief to get some hands-on help and input in shaping this initiative. Another was the integration of Vermont Sail Freight Project into the Clearwater Revival Festival in Croton-on-Hudson.  I feel that the work of reviving merchant sail on the Hudson is closely allied with the Clearwater mission and the principles first lined out by Pete Seeger.  In fact Pete himself honored Ceres with an admiring visit months before his passing.  The education and environmental aspects of our work will, I hope, endure as the commercial mission advances, so I hope the relationship with Clearwater and its many programs can be one to grow on. The second was significant improvement of our sailing capabilities.  Two of our sails were not even finished for the fall 2013 voyage.  But in 2014 we were able to hang, modify, and master them.  The result is a cargo hauler that can fly a small mountain of sail and scoot right along, nearly keeping pace with the resin-and-dacron crowd.  Also, later in the season, I had many chances to skipper Ceres myself, something I rarely did the first year, and feel that I have become moderately proficient at sailing Ceres and directing a crew.  In particular I will remember the return trip from Waterford in September 2014, when Harry Milkman and I sailed 8 miles on a single tack, all sails set, and barely touching a single line.

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The completion of this topsail made a huge difference in our sailing abilities!

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Hudson Riverkeepers snapped this photo of Ceres under full sail, making her way south.

And lastly, though these occurred too late in the season to do any good this year, came breakthroughs on the insurance front.  Though the finalization of this is pending acceptance of a marine survey, we are looking at a major reduction in total annual premiums for Ceres from $20,000 to $3200.  Additionally, access to a dock, hosted by North Brooklyn Boat Club was approved by that organization’s board late in the year, giving us everything we could ask in a NYC host:  Ability to host a waterfront market, ability to secure the vessel, protection from wakes, a friendly, like-minded organization to work with. Looking forward, it’s clear that investment is needed in several areas for the work to advance, with adequately-compensated personnel for sales and marketing, vessel management, publicity, and general management.  We also rely heavily on our online presence, and have already proven that we can easily pre-sell our offerings online, yet our web architecture is lacking across the board.  But the uniqueness of the vessel and the mission continues to compel.  I am particularly interested in broadening the sail cargo concept beyond the Champlain-Hudson route, to include the Erie Canal, the Atlantic Coast and the Caribbean.  Naturally this would argue for expansion of the fleet to include vessels of a more oceangoing type than the sailing barge.  The branding element of bringing cargo into New York by sail has amazing staying power.  Mast Brothers brought cocoa beans into the East River from the Dominican Republic by schooner three years ago and the event is still talked about and earning them brand recognition.  The expansion of our routes to include coffee and chocolate as well as Finger Lakes and Long Island wines and Hudson River distilled spirits has real potential to help grow the seed of an idea that a single sailing barge built in a Vermont barn represents into an ecologically-minded real-goods trading network that is as story-laden, unique and regional in character as the global food system is mundane and generic.

Barge and her cargo, October 2013

Barge and her cargo, October 2013

Brian Goblick (woodcarver extraordinare) and the barge in Kingston, October 2013

Brian Goblick (woodcarver extraordinare) and the barge in Kingston, October 2013

Tugboat Roundup in Waterford

Continuing our theme of posts not written by the blog’s primary author, Erik Andrus, here is the third in a series of contributing-Author posts by volunteer crewman Harry Milkman of Chester, Vt.  Thanks for stepping into the breach and making the Waterford run a success, Harry!  –Erik

As a Vermonter, sailor, and former New Yorker, I’ve been fascinated by the Vermont Sail Freight Project ever since I first heard about it.  I didn’t fully understand its economics at first, but its sailing aspect intrigued me.  I’ve sailed on Lake Champlain and on the Hudson River, but never before on the corridor that connects them, the Champlain Canal.  My reluctance to transit the canal was probably due to my preference of sailing over motoring.  The canal requires motoring most of the way, because of its low bridges, narrowness in spots, and frequent twists and turns.

But when Erik put out the call for crew to take Ceres to the Tugboat Roundup in Waterford, NY, I didn’t hesitate for a moment to volunteer. The crew for the Waterford trip all met for the first time in Vergennes shortly before we departed. None of us had sailed together before, and none of us had sailed on Ceres, so Erik joined us for the first leg to teach us the rigging and how to raise and lower the mast.

Soon after getting underway, we realized that we’d forgotten to replace the topsail block and halyard, which had fallen into the lake (and been retrieved) on a previous voyage. Rather than waste time de-rigging and lowering the mast again, Captain Christin Ripley offered to climb the mast. While I took the helm, Christin tied herself a safety harness and connected it to an existing halyard. Erik and Phil secured the line as Christin climbed to the top of the mast (over 30 feet high), replaced the missing block and halyard, and returned back down to the deck. Needless to say, we were all very impressed!

LeavingButtonBay

ChristinAloft

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We reached Lock 12 of the Champlain Canal at Whitehall, NY by nightfall on the first day (Wednesday), docked just before its entrance, and lowered our mast. (Fortunately, Ceres’ forestay is attached to a winch, eliminating the need for a crane to lower or raise the mast.) Erik disembarked, entrusting Ceres to his new crew. We had sailed about 50 miles, through the southern part of Lake Champlain and its “Narrows,” which more closely resemble a river than a lake.

The next morning we made our first passage through the lock. Christin took the helm, while Phil and I kept the boat parallel to the wall with ropes and boathooks. The first time through was a bit nerve-wracking, but once how we knew how it was done, the remaining 23 were routine. There are 11 locks on the Champlain Canal — there is no Lock 10 — and to reach our final destination in Waterford, we had to pass through the first lock of the Erie Canal.

Long stretches of the Champlain Canal coincide with the Hudson River, and resemble nature preserves. We saw many species of birds, including geese, ducks, loons, great blue herons, cormorants, egrets, and kingfishers. There were also cows grazing right up to the edge of the water, and on hot days, they stepped into the water up to their bellies to cool down!

OurFirstLock

GrazingCow

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By sunset of the second day (Thursday), we reached Lock 5 at Schuylerville, NY. There was heavy barge traffic in both directions due to the PCB dredging project. (GE illegally dumped PCBs into the Hudson River from 1946 to 1977, and it’s finally getting cleaned up.) We realized we wouldn’t get through the lock before dark, so we docked for the night at Hudson Crossing Park.

On Friday, we completed our transit through the rest of the locks of the Champlain Canal, ending in the open Hudson River north of Troy, NY. At Waterford, we turned west into the Erie Canal, and docked at our designated spot between Locks 2 and 3. Around the bend, we could see the Lois McClure of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum already tied up. At first we thought the Vermont vessels were “exiled” to an area separate from the New Yorkers, but later learned that we were in the entrance to the original Champlain Canal, long since abandoned. We raised our mast, not to sail, but to make Ceres more visible to visitors of the Tugboat Roundup. Since the southern tip of Lake Champlain, we had travelled an additional 64 miles.

On Saturday, we set up our pop-up canopy and unloaded our cargo of Vermont maple syrup, maple sugar, apple butter, honey, sunflower oil, coffee, switchel, dried herbs, various flours, grains and baking mixes, as well as VSFP mugs and t-shirts. There wasn’t as much foot traffic up in the Lock 2 area as we’d hoped for that day, but we did manage to sell some products, and generate a lot of interest in the project. We were visited not only by festival-goers, but also by members of the press, social media, NY State Canal System, and the local Chamber of Commerce.

Waterford’s weekly Farmers Market takes place on Sunday, and we were already set up right in the middle of it. It was especially gratifying to tell shoppers, “We brought all of these products here from Vermont on the boat right over there!” As a sailor and not a marketer, I was much more comfortable talking about Ceres and our route, but we had crew members among us who were well-versed in the economics of connecting small farms to new markets. My favorite questions to answer were “How old is the boat?” (“It looks 19th-century, but it’s only a year old.”) and “You can get here from Vermont by boat?” (“Yes, the Erie and Champlain Canals intersect right here in Waterford.”).

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At the end of the farmers market, we reloaded our remaining cargo and lowered our mast, in preparation for passing through the locks again. We headed east through the Erie Canal, back into the Hudson River, and re-entered the Champlain Canal. By nightfall, we had reached Lock 5 and docked there for the night again.

On Monday, we cleared the last lock at Whitehall by mid-afternoon, and were back on Lake Champlain. Christin needed to catch a train home, and Erik had agreed to replace her as captain. Unfortunately, Erik was unable to get a ride down to Whitehall, so either Phil or I had to drive his van back to Vermont. Phil graciously agreed, and I continued onward with Erik. We raised the mast and set sail northward.

There was a Supermoon on Monday night which allowed us to keep sailing long after sunset. I cooked dinner (pasta and a wonderful marinara prepared for us by crewmember Rachael), and we eventually dropped anchor north of Fort Ticonderoga.

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On Tuesday, we sailed under the new Champlain Bridge at Crown Point, beyond which a huge flock of migrating loons had gathered, and continued on our final tack toward Button Bay, where we had first departed 6 days before. Rather than anchoring in the bay, we dropped sail and motored up the Otter Creek to Vergennes, passing some War of 1812 reenactors along the way.

When we reached Vergennes, I was hot, tired, and sore, but still didn’t want the journey to end. It was a long, physically demanding trip — and only half as long as Ceres’ usual trip down to NYC — but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. This voyage has convinced me that Ceres and the VSFP are no longer just concepts, but viable, reliable vessels to connect small Vermont and New York farms to the larger markets that will sustain them into the future.

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A “Foremast Jack’s Perspective” on VSFP

Note: The following piece was written by Meade Atkeson, our intrepid intern who came to us through the MiddCore Plus program of Middlebury College.   We all wish Meade the best in his future endeavors!


Ceres maneuvered slowly but gracefully onto the dock in the Vergennes basin. It was comforting to see her return to where our voyage began. I truly had the experience of a lifetime working for Vermont Sail Freight Project this summer. If the views of the Adirondack Mountains, the Champlain canal, the Hudson River Highlands, and New York City weren’t enough, both sailing and living on Ceres was a daily adventure.

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Ceres is an excellent teacher. She taught me things about myself and about what it takes to turn an idea into a reality. With this second trip I believe that Vermont Sail Freight Project has truly cemented itself as a reality. Every aspect of the project that needed improvement from last fall’s voyage saw spectacular success. First and foremost, we sailed the crap out of that boat! Ceres’ tall wooden masts and crisp white sails are far from ornamental. The newly discovered sailor in me jumped for joy each time that Captain Steve called for our gorgeous new topsail to be brought on deck. Every day that we hauled up the sails she sailed a little faster and a little smoother. This is a essential development for the future crew of Ceres, because there is nothing more exhilarating than when Ceres is tearing through the water at seven knots, and there isn’t a crease to be found in the mainsail.

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The second major improvement has been in simply moving the goods from the boat into the hands of our customers. Under favorable conditions, Matt and myself could set up the entire market in an hour. We were able to accomplish this with some rigorous organization, and some handy blue crates. Not to say that it wasn’t hard work, market days left us tired and weary. I can’t recall who first said it, but shifting around these blue crates in the cargo hold was deemed the “tetris from hell.” However, this year’s cargo management was a resounding success compared to the stories I’ve heard of last fall’s expedition, and it can only get better. Reducing the amount of manpower the operating requires is the key to future success as it allows the boat to function independently from any shore assistance.

In my mind, Vermont Sail Freight Project has found its missing puzzle pieces, and is poised to put them together. One thing I learned during the voyage is that we aren’t the only ones in love with this idea. Nearly everyone we interacted with expressed sincere excitement and support, and that was encouraging, knowing we weren’t simply dreaming. I want to recount one moment that solidified my belief in VSFP. I took a day off to go visit my grandparents and I happened to spot a jar of the same brand of honey that we sold on the boat. I was surprised to see the brand so far down river but they were one of our larger producers so it wasn’t totally out of the question. Then I noticed the price; it was about three dollars more than the exact same jar we sold off the boat! I asked my grandmother where she had purchased it, and she replied that it was her favorite honey that she always bought from the grocery store in town. I was shocked. Our delivered by sail honey was cheaper than that of a store that had shipped the jar 300 miles by truck. My conclusion from this and the finding of our second voyage is that Vermont Sail Freight Project has a place in the communities and economies of the Hudson valley.

IMG_1930For now, I bid a reluctant farewell to Ceres, but I know that our paths will cross again in the future. Sailing is a hard habit to break.

If Not Now, When?

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The following piece was written by my colleague and contributing author Andrew Willner, a sustainability advocate and sailor in the NY/NJ area of long standing.  I am pleased to be actively working in partnership with Andrew this year and to share his observations on the blog.  –Erik Andrus


In a January 2014 on my blog I talked about the choices this old “sailor” was considering as I looked at 70.  In that piece I wrote about my interest in the Vermont Sail Freight Project,  “the Vermont Sail Freight Project is the furthest along of these ideas.  Founded and implemented by Erik Andrus a farmer in Ferrisburgh, VT.  VSFP is a slow tech approach to energy and a resilient food system.

Erik has said about the project, “The Vermont Sail Freight Project originated out of our farm’s commitment to resilient food systems.  Producing food sustainably is not enough.  The other half is sustainable transport of goods to market and equitable exchange.  A good portion of the damage conventional agriculture does to society and the environment is through our overblown, corporation-dominated distribution systems.  The idea of a small, producer-owned craft sailing goods to market, perhaps even a distant market, is an alternative to this system, and one which has served our region well in the past. “

I signed on in significant part because Ceres, Erik, and the crew confirm my belief in preserving the skills of the past to serve the future.  The Vermont Sail Freight Project appealed to my head and heart in significant part because I agreed with Erik when he said to a member of a television crew, “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 the interviewer.  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.”

The adventure started when I picked up Captain Steve Schwartz on my way to Vermont.  I met Steve briefly late last summer before Ceres’ first trip, and we exchanged emails when he learned that I was going to be a crew member.  We talked constantly all the way from the Hudson Valley to Erik’s farm.  It turns out we are close enough in age to share musical taste and Vietnam War draft board experiences.  (Maybe I will do another post about this to the tune of Alice’s Restaurant).

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We also have Hudson and Harbor stories and friends in common from Steve’s long term commitment to Clearwater as Captain of the Sloop Woody Guthrie, to his friendship with and my appreciation of the work and life of Pete Seeger, from my days as mate on theSchooner Pioneer, and because of the people I met during my 20 years on the water in the Harbor and lower Hudson as the NY/NJ Baykeeper.

The next few days were an amazing ballet (or rugby scrum depending on your point of view) of riggers adding a topsail and outer jib, food shopping for a crew of four, moving and loading the cargo totes, trading one ailing outboard for a used but working one, deciding on last minute changes to the schedule, loading on personal gear, and finally getting underway.

But more than that I learned firsthand why Erik is so passionate about this project.  One of the reasons he asked me to help out for a few critical weeks was because he was in the middle of planting rice in a “paddy” that he had constructed in a low lying part of his farm.  It was eye opening to see what goes into the preparation and planting of this specialty northern variety.

He was also up early baking bread, for sale at a nearby farmers market from local grains in the wood fired oven that he had built.  Erik’s quest for resilient food became more apparent as I saw the dedication to local production and distribution that the bakery epitomized and that the care that went into the preparation of the muddy field for the rice.

It was also apparent that he put the same kind of thoughtfulness and consideration (and appropriate business model) into buying the local shelf stable products outright from neighboring farmers.  The cargo of mostly Vermont maple syrup, honey, preserves, cider syrup, “fire” cider, herbal teas, grains, flour, and beans meant cash in the pocket at a time when many farmers are strapped.

I watched from land as Ceres left the town dock in Vergennes, turned down stream just under the falls and disappeared around the bend in Otter Creek on the way to the Lake. Ceres and her crew, Captain Steve, Meade Atkeson, and Matt Horgan spent the first night anchored in one of the most beautiful shorelines on Lake Champlain, Button Bay just off the State Park.  The next morning Erik rejoined the boat along with Edward and Gary from the French television program Thalassa    for the trip down the Lake. I was not on board (that’s a whole other story), but.  I was fortunate to stand on a bluff above the bay and able to watch the boat get underway, and raise all sail for what proved to be an amazing downwind “sleigh ride,” shaking out the new topsail that Steve described as a “turbocharger.”

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I caught up with the boat at Whitehall, NY.  Whitehall is like a town encased in amber.  Its nineteenth century brick buildings face the canal, many empty and waiting for the resurgence of canal traffic to reanimate this once thriving town.  It was at Whitehall that we took the rig down (with the boat’s own gear) for the canal passage.  We spent the evening in a waterfront bar, as sailors should, and got underway through the first of ten locks the next morning.  This was my first trip through the canal, and the only other lock I had been through was the one connecting Lake Union to the Puget Sound in Seattle.  Steve was a veteran of last year’s trip and drilled the crew on handling the boat through the locks.

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The Champlain Canal is a 60 miles long.  It connects the south end of Lake Champlain, to the Hudson River. It was built at the same time as the Erie Canal and was completed and opened in 1823 from Fort Edward to Lake Champlain.  The canal carried commercial traffic until the 1970’s.  Today, except for the tugs, crew boats, dredges, and barges connected to the General Electric PCB clean up, most of the traffic is recreational boats that can travel up Lake Champlain to the Chambly Canal that connects the Lake to the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

It rained almost every day of the transit, and the thing about foul weather gear, even the new “high tech” stuff is that you sweat, so you are almost as wet at the end of the day as if you hadn’t worn anything at all.  But that didn’t stop all aboard from being astounded by the canal.  The trip through the locks was eye-opening and the 19th century technology (with some 20th century updates) is a credit to the ingenuity of the engineers and builders. The  lock tenders for the most part were friendly and supportive while the always gregarious Captain Steve renewed friendships from the previous voyage and made new friends.  These relationships were important as the tug, barge and crew boat traffic is very heavy, and our small vessel and its crew were treated with professional courtesy, and once in a while even given hints about where there might be a place to spend the night near electricity and water.

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We did a quick stop in Mechanicville where Pete Bardunias from the Southern Saratoga Chamber of Commerce, (a long time supporter of the project)   brought local dignitaries and some vendors to the newly rebuilt town dock.  We took on some cargo from local preserve and herbal tea businesses to sell down river.  A local newspaper covered the arrival and like last year the project got some amazing press.

Our next stop was Waterford where we thought we might spend the night but then forged on to Troy.  Troy was an excellent stop especially because the dock is just steps from Brown’s Brewing Company ,  where, if I hadn’t already learned that Steve was a beer connoisseur (I guess I should have known since half of his gear he packed in my car was artisanal home brew), I knew by the end of a  well deserved meal and brew in a nice dry pub.  Eric the dock master at Troy was elated that Ceres would be doing a market on the way back north, and said he would spread the word among the many advocates for the Project in Troy.

We raised the rig at Troy and then partially dipped it to get under the Troy/Albany lift bridges and then lifted it all the way back up and sorted out the rig, practicing raising and lowering the sails, but mostly motored through foul currents and a bad rain storm. This was the part of the trip that a transformation began to happen, four people of different ages, backgrounds, and experience began to become a crew.  Only people who have spent time on a small vessel for a length of time understand the mysterious way it happens.  Maybe it is called teamwork, but I believe it goes beyond that.  On a boat, each  person has a job to do, but that job is entirely dependent on others doing theirs, and intuitively knowing when someone needs assistance.  It is also about shared “hardship.”  There is nothing much fun about being so busy that breakfast lunch and dinner are all peanut butter and jelly on day old bread, or leaks over your bunk, or sores on your hands from handling wet coarse manila lines.

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But it goes beyond bunker mentality, you share chores, share stories, find commonality, begin to make friends, and that is when the crew and the boat become a working whole.  There is nothing in the world like the feeling of a sailing vessel, trimmed right, crew at their stations, a fair wind off the quarter, heeled slightly, sails full, a telltale vibration in the tiller, smiling, and thinking, “this is the most fun I have ever had standing up.”
We anchored just south of Saugerties after a passage through an unmarked, “local knowledge” channel where the crew was afforded great courtesy at the home of one of Steve’s friends “Doc” and his extended river family.  Not only was it good to sit in a dry house, but the food and company was good as well. The anchorage was remarkably beautiful and serene.  For those who have not had the experience or treat of sleeping aboard a boat in a safe anchorage, with the sound of water lapping on the hull lulling you to sleep, it is impossible to describe the peacefulness.  However, as old men do, I was up in the middle of the night, and by habit, checking to make sure the anchor hadn’t dragged, looking at the stars, seeing the reflection of lights on the water from the far shore, and tired again, going down below, and back to bed.Next morning we took on a guest, Chris O’Reilly, who is a shipwright, rigger and Clearwater crew member. With a fair wind and current we raised sails and made two quick stops.  We dropped Chris off at Rhinecliff, and then sailed down to Poughkeepsie where we picked up Meade after his weekend back at school, finally we continued our downwind charge including the “turbocharger” topsail.

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It was at this point that I started to learn a few hard lessons:

  • I didn’t remember as much as I thought from my days of being the mate and captain of traditional sailing vessels since that had been more than 20 years ago.
  • Despite that experience I was not the captain, or even the mate, but a deck hand,
  • That 70 year old deck hands have trouble keeping up with 20 something deck hands.
  • That I was having fun despite the hard work and wet weather,
  • And that this unlikely boat when trimmed well and sailed skillfully would go to windward.

Below Chelsea we began to tack to windward using the lee boards. Steve kept experimenting to see how well she could do and drilled us in tacking, finally taking the Yankee down because it wasn’t doing as much as when sailing down wind.  We made some down river progress on close reaches and the current, and used the old trick of “backing the jib” to get the bow around.

We got into Beacon that afternoon.  The next morning Matt and Meade set up our first market at the Beacon Farmers Market.   This was the first test of the tote system, and the bar code inventory.  The market went very well and Ceres was a hit.  At times during the day there was line at the market stall and at the boat with people wanting to know about the products and the “why” and “how” of the project.

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We stayed in Beacon for a couple of days, and then got underway, raised all sails except Yankee and tacked upwind again for a short sail to deliver an order to the Cold Spring General Store at the public dock. People started to gather at the dock to admire the boat and watch cargo being transferred from hand to hand right from the hold into the arms of the store owner.  We made more good friends and by the time we were ready to cast off there were so many people on the quay that if we were set up to do so we could have done a “pop up” market.  We arranged on the spot to do a July 4th market with the owners of the Cold Spring General Store.  After leaving Cold Spring we continued sailing until we were in sight of the Mid-Hudson Bridge.

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That evening we anchored and spent the night on the northern edge of Iona Island.  There is something pretty astonishing about watching the sun pass behind Bear Mountain, and watch the lights of the commercial traffic as we sat on deck having out dinner. The next morning we sailed off the anchor, and sail/drifted until the current turned and we motored to the bulkhead at the Clearwater Festival site to familiarize the crew about where the boat would be the next weekend.
We arrived at Ossining early afternoon checked in with dock master and the Ferry Sloop   contact, found the showers and then the bar.  The Yacht Club folks and especially the Ferry Sloop members were helpful and even took me for a needed  grocery and hardware store run. The next day we set up a market at the club house of the Shattemuc Yacht Club and drew a pretty big crowd.  That evening Steve and I gave a slide show and talk about the project and this year’s voyage to about 25 people.

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Ossining Mayor, William Hanaurer came down to the boat at least twice.  He said that he wants to make the Hudson Ossining’s front yard not its backyard.  He is also advocating for the use of a new public dock adjacent to the Ferry dock for vessels like Ceres.  The next day Erik arrived and I reluctantly headed home.

In retrospect, I had a terrific time.  It has been a while since I did so much physical work, thought about tide and wind, learning the boat’s gear, assessing its sailing ability, and as observing and participating as much as I could in cargo handling and the marketing.  It didn’t hurt that Steve is an experienced mariner and a terrific teacher.  I observed that he was instructing the crew as he is learning about the boat’s ability.  He is both willing to
press the vessel to see how the gear holds up, but is conservative and prudent when it comes to boat handling.  Mat and Meade are terrific young men and great crew.  Under trying circumstances they figured out the marketing while learning how to be crew members.

I agree with Erik when he says, “running the vessel and its market requires skilled operators and solid river sailor, plus business capability 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.”

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My take away is while crowded for a crew of four, two to three, friends, a married couple, or partners, could live aboard for the season.  I see this second voyage as “proof of concept.”   Ultimate success of the project is not necessarily measured by whether it is profitable or not (although I believe it will be).  Ultimate success is that in some small way lay the groundwork for the development of the next generation of watermen and women while building an alternative carbon neutral logistic chain, from farmer, to processor, and finally to individual, wholesale, or restaurant customers.

The use of sailing vessels as transportation is nothing new.  Many coastal schooners and sailing vessels are still working in the trade between main ports and remote islands and harbors in Africa, Caribbean, South America, The Indian, Ocean and the Pacific.   From Northern Ireland to Fiji, freight carrying sailing ships are being planned, built, and sailing.  These first forays into what will become a huge post carbon enterprise are examples of how coastal short sea shipping along the North American coasts, bays, and rivers will be changing in the near and mid-term.    Some operating and soon to be operating examples are, the Gundalow Company in New Hampshire, Farm Boat in Seattle, Dragonfly Sail Transport in Michigan, while SV Kwai, Tres Hombres Packet Company, Greenheart, andB9 Shipping are ocean  crossing sail transport vessels in various states of implementation.

Ceres is now an integral part of this world-wide effort of sail freighters who have started a revolutionary movement to prepare for a carbon constrained world by preserving the skills of the past; marlinspike seamanship, building, rigging, and sailing traditional vessels, developing an alternative logistic chain, linking the farm to the table, participating in “fair trade,” and providing real world examples of what happens when you stop talking and start doing.
This movement is led in part by Jan Lundberg’s Sail Transport Network .  Jan said, as long ago as 2007, “Sail power is more than some theoretical future mini-substitute for today’s oil-based trade and flying and driving. The Sail Transport Network’s team is growing, dedicated, talented and well informed about energy and environmental issues — and we love adventure and accept risk. You’re welcome to not just watch but help bring about a better reality for sustainable transport all the sooner.”

Based on my limited experience, I am more comfortable than ever before that the Vermont Sail Freight Project is a timely, doable, and potentially a profitable enterprise.  If I wasn’t before, I am now a convert.  I am off the boat now, but I think my adventure is just beginning.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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,

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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.

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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

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