The Vermont Sail Freight Project

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

Month: November, 2013

Following in the wake of the Thames Sailing Barge

spinnaker breeze 001

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Roberts

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

coal from the north 001



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

Ceres returns to the farm

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

Winter fire at Boundbrook

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

John Baker saves the day

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

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

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

Icicles hanging from the rubrail

Icicles hanging from the rubrail

Beans, delivered by Sailing Barge