The Vermont Sail Freight Project

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

Tag: triloboat

One Possible Future on the Water, Part 2

Where could we go with sail power in the Champlain-Hudson Waterway?  With rising hopes and a good crew and plan coming together to launch our barge in 2013, I’m already thinking ahead to the next several years.

I have to say that our current design has a lot of advantages for what we are planning as a group.  It has low material costs, low requirements of time and skill for building, and is very cargo-friendly.  It is small enough to transport overland on a simple running gear without a wide load permit, and to store easily for the winter.  You might not want to take it out in the open ocean but then our plan would not call for that.  And additionally, the design falls below the US. Coast Guard design-review threshold for cargo-hauling boats.  Our goal is to build a sailing cargo vessel with a very low cost per ton capacity.  I think it’s safe to say at this point that our 36′ Triloboat-derived design will have a materials cost of under $2000 per ton.  Figuring in labor costs (which we needn’t do right away, this being a volunteer-driven build) we might be up to $6000 per ton.  For a new-built sailing vessel this seems pretty good!

In fact, if our little project grows, there might never be any reason to build a larger or more sophisticated design, if we can instead build multiple smaller boats.  A fleet of sail powered micro-cargo haulers (and I think 8-9 tons qualifies as micro-cargo, at least by water-transport standards) could be buying and selling in many places at once.  But could there also be an argument for a new-built boat with a larger cargo capacity, say for instance something along the lines of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s canal schooner Lois McClure, or a typical Thames sailing barge?  To speculate about this kind of thing is definitely getting ahead of ourselves, not having built one single boat yet nor navigated the route with cargo once.  However I can’t help but ask myself, as the snow drifts blow around the windows, is such a thing possible?  We’re pretty confident about building our 10.5 gross ton vessel on a budget.  What about a 60 ton vessel?  Could we do that too, or would be be better off to build six 10.5 ton boats instead?

I can’t conclusively answer, not having the engineering credentials to design a 60 ton barge.  But I would wager that we could probably build one for around $60,000 in materials, 64′ long and 12′ in beam, using 4′ x 12′ sheets of plywood laid athwartships for the deck and hull bottom.  Just like a Thames Barge, but with the simplified Triloboat-style lines and construction.  In a conversation a while back Dave Zeiger (aka Mr. Triloboat) agreed that it was possible, though we wondered together whether it would be more worthwhile than the building of multiple smaller boats.  But let’s just ask the question, if we were to consider such a thing, what would it look like?abt64x12 deck view abt64x12 section plane
This gives you some idea of the possible accommodations for both people and cargo on a platform this size.  Now we have bunks for five or six in the focsle, in 3 separate cabins.  The hold has nearly 6′ of headroom below decks, and the aft cabin has a more spacious galley and plenty of room for food, supplies, and gear in adjacent storage aft.

The more I learn about the “real” Thames Barges the more I think I need to go to England and sail on one for myself.  Thames barges of about the same size and shape pictured here were the definitive semi-trailer of the pre-WWII English coast and inland waterways, not to mention the heroic service of these barges in rescuing Allied troops from Dunkirk!  Yet despite their size they were routinely sailed by “an old man and a boy,” as you can here told in this neat little video, Barging Down The River.  These barges are absolutely awe-inspiring to me, and the tradition of their use is kept alive by the Thames Sailing Barge Trust.  I am sending in my membership for 2013!

If it turns out that 10.5 gross tons is just too small to keep pace with demand for this service, we may consider larger barges with increasing seriousness as the project evolves.

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Planning continues for VSFP

The rice harvest is nearly complete on my farm, and considering the dryness of the year and other challenges I think we did pretty well. We had 10 Bhutanese refugees take the bus down to the farm from Winooski and work a 9-hour day, harvesting some thousands of pounds of rice. I worked alongside them, along with two other white guys. I think it was something of a surprise to the Bhutanese to see a white person wielding a sickle and harvesting rice by hand!

Now a year into planning the sail freight project, we are pretty clear about our objectives and what design we will pursue. We’re still working out the people aspect of the project, as an effort like this can only succeed with the support of many and some measure of talent, too. It’s also possible that some of the research and possibly construction effort as well could be shared with a school. This project entails aspects of physics, economics, history, industrial arts, and geography, so it really invites the participation and intellectual engagement of students. There are a few local schools with which I’ve been parlaying, but no working partnership has yet solidified.

Triloboat guru Dave Zeiger and his partner Anke came to visit us here at the farm a week ago and we really enjoyed their company. Dave’s support and guidance of this project has been invaluable.

We discussed modifying the barge hull by bringing the sides in at the bow and stern. this complicates construction a little but having worked as a builder for some 10 years I think I can handle it. Below you can see the latest revisions. I’ve reduced the footprint of the deckhouses to make deck work easier–in previous drafts a person would have had to pass through the aft cabin to go from the main deck to the tiller. The smaller deckhouse with a walkway around it is more typical of 19th century workboats. The aft cabin is also lower, and the decks are more shear, with just a slight rise in the poop deck to ensure a sightline forward. In profile, now, this sailing barge hull more closely resembles a Thames barge or American scow schooner.

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 […]

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.