The Vermont Sail Freight Project

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

Month: April, 2012

The Trade Route

Here is our route.  Pretty simple North – South run.  We will launch from Ferrisburgh, where my farm is located, and probably take on cargo from other towns on the lake before proceeding south into the Champlain Canal.

The canal joins with the Hudson at Fort Edward.  We hope to call at Saratoga and Albany, as well as Poughkeepsie, New Paltz, Kingston, Tarrytown, and of course New York.  From what I’ve been able to learn (and observe here in the Champlain Valley) is that the winds tend to come either out of the north or the south, and usually change direction ever few days.  This might make travel on the route and all-or-nothing proposition for sail power, with rapid progress some days and just lying-to and waiting out unfavorable winds on others.

Later on we hope to have an interactive map feature for the project, one that would let you know the boat’s current location and status, and also learn more about our dockside partners and pick up locations.


Interior plan of the T32x10 Sailing Barge

Here you can get another view of the construction and interior arrangements of theT32x10.  This is of course still a draft and subject to a a lot of consultation and revision.

The boat is reinforced with bulkheads every 8 feet of length at minimum.  This results in several separate watertight compartments.  Each creates a separate “hold.”  The foremost, in the forecastle sleeping area, has only storage for the crew’s personal gear and possibly for sails and tackle in a locker.  The main deck has hatches to the two primary cargo hold compartments.  The hold beneath the floor of the main cabin has additional cargo capacity.  It’s expected that the aft hold beneath the poop deck will be used mostly for the auxiliary motor and other mechanical systems.

Overall, the boat is 32 feet in length and 10 feet in beam.  The main holds are 2’6″deep  x 10′  wide x 12′ long, both combined.  A boom rigged from the mainmast can hoist heavy items or pallets and swing them to an adjacent dock.

Clicking on the picture gives you a better view of the labels and particulars.

I think that the boat would be a very pleasant home afloat for the working crew, especially when you consider that the frequent dockings the plan entails will also provide opportunities to mooch showers off of friends and buy fresh food and drink on shore.

A Question of Scale

Most people I talk to about this concept here in Vermont are pretty easily convinced that the Sail Freight Project should happen.  So it came as a bit of a surprise when I invited an old friend of my dad’s to participate, a serious thinker about energy issues and a lover of Lake Champlain and of travel on the water, and he dismissed it out of hand.  “In most things,” he told me, “I’m apprehensive.  But this makes me extremely apprehensive.”

Why, I of course wanted to know.  Well, the fellow, let’s call him Frank, had already been involved in a failed water freight venture in the 70’s in the Maine islands.  The operation had trouble keeping to a timetable leaving buyers frustrated.  Ultimately the boat in question was sold and the project abandoned.  But more to the point, Frank’s main objection was that water transport, such as on the Champlain-Hudson waterway, will never be able to meet the present needs of our society.  Therefore we shouldn’t waste our time with it, and focus on reviving the rail network instead.

Naturally I was disappointed that the sail freight idea didn’t appeal to Frank, who I had hoped would be a good adviser.  But there is something about this argument that “what you’re doing will never work on a large scale” that has been eating at me since the conversation.  Small-scale farmers in the Northeast hear this a lot.  Anybody who uses draft animals for their work hears it constantly.  But why must everything be able to work on a large scale in order to have any merit?

I lived for about 5 years in Southern Illinois.  I had the privilege of working a little with a chair maker there, who made very fine chairs from trees that he cut himself.  The source trees were usually shade trees, belonging to a homeowner, that needed to come down and would have required a call to a tree service company.  The chair maker would take the tree down for free, in return for the wood, saving the homeowner quite a lot of money and obtaining free raw materials for himself.  Apart from pieces of tree, which he painstakingly split, shaved, and joined to create beautiful chairs, there wasn’t much else needed in the way of materials.  This was part of his sales pitch, that the chairs are made out of a “peripheral resource,” i.e., a marginal source of forest products that no timber company would ever take an interest in.

Now I find myself working with another peripheral resource, farming a wet clay farm in the Champlain Valley.  This land has been chewed up, spit out, carved up for development to the extent the law allows, and then abandoned.  What was left was finally sold, and I am now trying to pick up the pieces and heal it into a place that can support my family and others in my community.  The conventional agricultural model simply doesn’t want this land–it has too many problems to be home to a CAFO dairy farm (which is the predominant conventional model hereabouts).  So if someone like me hadn’t come along, this farm would now be growing up to brush.  So I’m told that what I’m doing here in terms of farming can’t work on a large scale, and I simply don’t care.  It’s irrelevant.  What matters to me  is that even from a minor (peripheral, if you will) resource, with lots of labor and love, there is the opportunity to create worth and beauty that can improve life for my family and the lives of others who eat our food and are supported and uplifted by our work here.

I think the sail freight idea is much in the same vein.  I am not aiming to solve the marco-level transportation issues of the region.  Certainly I, as just your basic farmer, haven’t the capital or political clout to do anything whatsoever to build up our rail system or diminish our region’s dependence on the automobile and the semi.  But this simple idea–a group of farmers builds a basic boat and sails their produce to market–has worked here in the past, and can work again.  Maybe not on a huge scale, but so what?  We can at least improve the lives of a few farmers and inspire and uplift people who enjoy the food we will bring, along with the message that ordinary people can sometimes do a lot with a little.

The T32 with a gaff sloop rig, as an alternative

While the traditional Chinese junk rig is still our main contender for ease of handling and jibing when running before the wind on inland rivers, the traditional rig for these waters is another possibility.  When I was at the Rockport Apprenticeshop (a school of wooden boatbuilding) as a volunteer in 1991, I remember sailing for […]

Our Junk-Rigged Mini-freighter in an Urban Setting

Old Times on Inland Waterways

In the West it might be road and rail that bind the nation.  In the East we’re tied by water, though it’s easy to forget that in a culture in which water is something you have to inconveniently traverse on bridges over or drive around.  You don’t need to remind Vermonters of this, as we lost the Crown Point Bridge tying us to New York a few years ago.  It’s only just been replaced.  Take away that bridge and the water became a big nuisance to everyone with parts on their lives on different banks of the lake.

But it hasn’t always been so.  Not so long ago water itself was the highway, not the thing the highway goes over.  I grew up in Binghamton, New York.  Binghamton was originally settled by Marylanders in colonial times, who came upriver on the Susquehana from Baltimore and planted tobacco in the Southern Tier of New York.  The timber they cut and the crops they grew were sold not to New York City, which is pretty close to Binghamton as the crow flies, but all the way 250 miles or so downriver back in Baltimore.  Those early colonists owed their political allegiance to Maryland, too, and were reluctant to collaborate with other groups in what’s now the state of New York, such as along Lake Ontario, or along the Husdon River and Lake Champlain, to whom they were not bound by water.

If you’ve ever canoed the Susquehana, you might rightly wonder what these cargo boats were like that managed to float down to Baltimore rather than grinding or skidding down (The Susquehana is none-too-deep in many stretches, particularly in summer.  Well, they went down with the spring snowmelt, rapids, snags and all.  These craft were “arks,” one-way vessels, made to be dismantled and the components sold upon arrival., and the rivermen would return to Binghamton by land.  The craft often sported a sail, but poles were probably even more important in keeping the ark in the center of the raging current.

Here is a photo of an ark-like craft on the Connecticut river.  Look at all that cargo on the deck!  And the helmsman way up on the roof of the shack!  This boat is probably about 1.5 times larger than the one we have planned, but is of the same basic type–a sailing barge.

Poling flatboats is a time-honored technique, but also one that I imagine takes a lot of practice.  I want to use poling as a backup for sail power and for steering assistance with the T32x10. Our flatboat will also have a motor backup but the hope is to use it very seldom.  We’ll have the summer of 2013 to build up our competence with poles on the lake before heading south with cargo.



More about the mission

As mentioned previously, the goal is to launch in 2013.  A little more about that now.  What is this launch exactly? And what happens after that?

I strongly feel that building the boat is the easy part.  It will a lot more time networking and planning to execute the trip than it will to build the boat.  Once the boat is built, we have to store it and take care of it.  Therefore we’re going to wait until next spring to begin building.  Triloboats are not complicated and designer Dave Zeiger and I agree that about a month ought to be plenty from loft to launch.

In the meantime we’ll be working on the Plan.  The Vermont Sail Freight project is (at least in my mind and as of this moment) primarily a retail concept with some wholesale possibilities.  I have in mind some software applications to make it work smoothly.  The boat could have its own website, which would list inventory currently on board and for sale, and this cargo could all be purchased item-by-item through a regular “shopping cart” type function.  Then the purchaser meets the boat at some point in its voyage, and the already-purchased goods change hands and the sale is complete.  Some cash sales could take place at the dock too.  The website, or iphone app, could also report the boat’s current location in real time and pinpoint it on a map.  Or even generate a semi-automated twitter feed, for instance:

We’re 6 hours out of Saratoga.  Our next port is Troy, due there around 3pm.  Making 8 knots, winds light NNW.

These electronic aids could help overcome one of the limitations of delivery by sail: somewhat unpredictable schedules due to vagaries of wind and current.  For customers, up-to-the-minute information on the boat’s whereabouts would be entertaining and informative, and also practical for purposes of meeting it on time.  So we’ll be working on this as well in the lead-up to launch.

For the first voyage, most likely to take place in September 2013 after the rice is harvested, I will probably sail the boat along with my friend Will Trithartt.   Maybe 10 days down, a week in the Big City, and 10 days back.  We’ll see how it goes!  I grew up on the banks of the Susquehana and spent many, many happy hours in canoes on her waters.  I have always wanted to canoe the Susquehana from source to mouth, Cooperstown to Baltimore.  But that trip never happened.  But that’s okay because this one is even better! I might bring my son Julien, who at that point will be 8, if I can talk my wife into that.

I could probably fill the hold with produce just from my farm but the hope is to assemble a cargo with an assortment of Champlain Valley wines (actually very good), hard cider, apples, potatoes, onions, garlic, rice, cornmeal, wheat flour, hops, and so on.  I have noticed that NYC Greenmarket has an initiative to promote regional grains.  We Vermonters can help you with that!  At any rate, I think once there is real forward momentum it won’t be hard to convince producers to consign cargo.

Ultimately my vision is that the Vermont Sail Freight “Project” will become the Vermont Sail Freight “Cooperative,” and take on the organizational structure of a producer-owned cooperative.  It could easily grow to multiple craft, each making several trips per season, and some dedicated warehousing and docking facilities somewhere on the lake.  By the time I’ve run the route once or twice, the project will either be ready for such a group to take it on, or it won’t.  I already have a job, and hope that this idea will grow wings (or sails) so that I can be one Champlain Valley producer among many, all of us working together to send our sail merchant fleet out into the world.

A Note on the Design

The most eminently practical and cost effective design I’ve come across is the T32 as designed by Dave Zeiger of Alaska.  I’ve rendered a 10′ wide one (T32x10) in these pictures.  Constructing the vessel will likely be the easy part of this project.  The harder part is building the network and solving the various logistical puzzles to ensure a smooth launch of the model.  Not to mention the software components I have in mind for the sales platform, which are rather out of this farmer’s depth.

Various plans to build it next year are under discussion, including building it at my farm and also possibly at a school.  The beauty of this design is that it can be transported on a mobile home trailer quite easily and thus stored on the farm inexpensively when not in use.

scow3 profile

A junk rig.  And carrying rice, too.

No, it’s not out of a fetish for all things Pacific that we are leaning towards a junk rig to carry rice. It’s just the most sensible rig there is, particularly for river trading flatboats. And it’s not my fault the Chinese came up with the most practical ideas however many thousand years ago.
At any rate you would never mistake it for a pleasure yacht, nor for a grease-covered diesel barge either. Nor even for a historic replica of a workboat from times past on the lake. It’s its own thing. And that’s okay by me.

scow3 interior

Interior of Sailing Barge

Here you can see the interior space arrangements — basic liveaboard accommodations for a working crew of 2. Bunks forward, and a table, galley, and head in the aft cabin. Cargo can be stored right on the main deck. The helmsman steers the boat with a tiller from the aft deck, which is raised, allowing a clear view over the cabin.