Ceres the Spry
by Vermont Rice
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.
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!
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!