The Story So Far
by Vermont Rice
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.