ducks: the perfect weed-eaters

by C. Sun

Boundbrook Farm is named after Boundbrook Island in Massachusetts where Erica's ancestors lived.  This design was done by Erica's brother, Adam Hurwitz

Boundbrook Farm is named after Boundbrook Island in Massachusetts where Erica's ancestors lived.  This design was done by Erica's brother, Adam Hurwitz

This beautiful cotton bag was hand-screen printed steps away from the ducks and the rice paddies it depicts. It illustrates how ducklings eat the weeds, and before the ducklings grow tall enough to reach the rice grains, they are taken out of the rice paddies and left to roam, frolic and create the next generation of weed-eaters.

Here they are! last season's weeders at feeding time.

Here they are! last season's weeders at feeding time.

Like a parent picking up toys that careless toddlers strew about, Erik gathered eggs left lying around and put them in the boxes where the mothers should be sitting.
However, they are not feeling terribly maternal yet.

Some eggs lie hidden.

They are beautiful colors!

 

Those ducks are eating M&M's. Or Smarties.

Those ducks are eating M&M's. Or Smarties.

Well, ok, Ducks. If you are not going to sit and hatch them...

...some will go into biscuits and cakes, some will go into these cartons...

...and some--mmmm. Incredible. One egg was a full meal.

Even if all the eggs Erik found were hatched, it would not be enough to man (duck) the weed control unit. 400 little ducklings will be arriving by post, hopefully after the fences have been set up around the rice paddies. 

Little ducks eating weeds mean no pesticides are used. This modern and revolutionary method of farming rice was developed by Japanese farmer Takao Furuno and others from the traditional Japanese way of weed control. It is better for you, for the rice, for the land. It's more colorful, more cacaphonic, more caloric, and quite joyful-- hilarious, even! (See video of jostled ducklings being driven to the fields!)

Trip to Vermont

by C. Sun

A meeting of the Vermont Sail Freight has been called, so I leave New York City by train to Fort Ticonderoga, NY, where I will be picked up. This is what I saw on the trip up to Vergennes, Vermont early in the morning:

Painting by Robert Knox Sneden

Painting by Robert Knox Sneden

The rising sun struck the majestic palisades. This painting shows the vessels that used to sail. Now, tugs and barges are the predominant vessels, and an occasional tanker to and fro Albany, loaded with tar sands and tight oil from fracking to bring to refineries.

The Tappan Zee Bridge:  the longest bridge in the state of NY! why build a bridge at the widest part of the river?

The project now costs $4 billion. Most regrettably, the intense number of work barges and support boats, compounded with the urgency of the construction has also claimed the lives of three crew members of tug Specialist, a captain of tug Pilgrim and one pleasure boat passenger.

Very good article here on phenomenal amounts of spending. But the bridge has been a costly and short-sighted political blunder since its inception.

Four hours and 235 miles / 378.2km north later, the scenery and feeling changes. The passing view is lush, less industrial, less populated. White buoys mark the channel, and I thought: Ceres has sailed here, following the paths of many little cargo vessels...the first since a hundred years.

Just north of the NYState canal system, Lock C12, Whitehall. The Champlain canal.

Navigable. Marked. Waiting.

Erik picks me up at Fort Ticonderoga, we catch the ferry that crosses from NY to VT:

What surprised me was that it was a cable ferry! winches pull the roro ferry by traveling along two cables below. Do not cross this ferry on either side too closely or your keel or props will catch the cable.

The little channel is deep, about 25ft / 7.6m at its deepest: 

The wheelhouse is outside the deck, chained and fenced off:

Blount! April 1959. That shipyard made sturdy vessels--and it still does! 

Many swallows flit below the ferry, make crazy loops and play over the spray.

Everything is hand-lettered: schedule, directions for passengers, and the four life ring boxes.
Too soon, the cables that were underwater are drawn up as we approach the VT side, Larrabee's Point in Shoreham:

As we dock, all deck strollers go back into their cars, and we pass old traditional stone houses typical of VT architecture as we enter the state. In a short time, we will be at the farm in Vergennes.

Breaking Radio Silence

It's been a long time since my last post on this blog.  I also noted that this is about the four-year mark since I first started writing and working towards creating Vermont Sail Freight Project.  Seems like a long time.  My boys Julien and Robin were six and four respectively when I began.

We've all grown up and learned a lot since then.  Looking back, this project was an insane burden for someone in my situation to have taken on, with many farm and business details that were not all working so fantastically in 2012 that I really had lots of extra time for a second full time job, plus a family that did not benefit from my level of distraction.  There has also been a lot of fretting about finances, team coordination and sometimes conflict, complex logistic arrangements, last-ditch repairs sometimes, none of which I really fully appreciated going into this.

Part of what draws me back to this work is I guess the kid in me who is as eager as ever to pack a canoe full of food, tents, lanterns, and sleeping bags and set off down the river.  That kid, who spent a lot of time messing about in boats in the Susquehana and Chenango valleys kind of made me do it in the first place, after all.

On our 2013 trip, Jordan Finkelstein, who had helped me complete the build of Ceres, donned the title First Mate as we set off from the Champlain Valley through the Champlain Canal and down the Hudson.  Jordan took a series of shots of the underside of bridges, noting which each one was as we passed.  This struck me as a little funny at the time because the bridges were about the least interesting aspect of the trip to me (except for maybe the Brooklyn Bridge and the G.W.).  But then it occurred to me, as a Hudson Valley native, Jordan had been over the top of each of these bridges countless times but had never seen them from this angle before...there's this sense of discovery, of inhabiting a special world known only to you and those right there with you.

There's also something intellectually interesting about coming into an unknown town and exploring the town just on foot, starting from the water and working your way up and in.  While many towns have gone out of their way to diminish the waterfront aspects they once had, in favor of rail corridors, condos, what have you, as we traveled on Ceres we nevertheless had to mentally construct water-oriented maps of each place.  Even as we dealt with our 21st century concerns of finding nearby ice, charging electronics and so on, we had a sense that we were maybe seeing these places from the same starting point that gave rise to these towns in the first place, where so many had walked before us, and where so many intriguing vestiges of history remain despite numerous efforts to pave them all over.

I was reminded of this contrast of ways of seeing a place just a few weeks ago when I met with Paul Fusco-Gessick, who's joining Vermont Sail Freight as a partner and general manager, in Troy.  Troy is not an insanely complicated city, and the meeting place we had established was one that I had been before....but only when visiting by boat.  I had no idea how the street layout really worked for cars, and it took me an awfully long time, driving around in circles, looking for the visual anchor of the river and wondering whether I was upriver or downriver of the spot I was aiming for.  Which was Brown's Brewing Co, by the way.  I had an excellent fish and chips, and a beer with lunch, which I almost never do...

But back to that kid for a minute, out there with his dad and little brother, exploring river islands rife with Japanese bamboo, dodging nettles, and looking for something really special like an old foundation or a rusted model A.  I really felt that I was close to home -- a mere few miles from my neighborhood in many cases, yet a world away, in a realm of running water and towering silver maples and uninhabited islands that none of my friends knew anything about.  The river world was a special place that felt new each time, no matter how many times you went there.  And the idea that just around the next bend was something new, a colony of herons or a broad, deep calm spot perfect for swimming, was often enough to want to go just a little further down that river.

Our collective efforts to bridge over, tunnel under and generally turn our backs to water have led us to make some lamentable changes to some of the most beautiful spots on this earth in the name of speed.  Now, when I'm in a car, I'm the same as anyone else.  How long until I get there?  I tend to view my time driving as largely wasted time.  Driving around the state highways and interstates of the regions, far from making me feel more connected to my surroundings and fellow inhabitants, generally makes me passive and irritable and I'm interested in stops along the way only as far as how many minutes it will cost me to obtain gas, restroom, coffee.  Probably everyone reading this post (except for Dave Zeiger) will know what I'm talking about.

Not wanting to rehash all the many ways taking on Vermont Sail Freight has put me personally through the wringer in the past, what keeps me coming back to it is this idea that the water itself, the original highway of our region long before Henry Hudson arrived on-scene, suggests a way to live here more meaningfully and enduringly.  That, and the fact that we now have several capable new people actively working to craft a new program to take place fall of this year, and some old friends back as well.

I received several responses to my appeal for new partners, and I'm glad to say that although waiting for them to present themselves meant a substantial hiatus, I believe the new energy will be well worth it.  We're smarter and wiser too than when we tore off downriver in a semi-complete boat in 2013 with a full load of cargo, and I think that we have a real shot of making Ceres a showcase of efficiency and skill as well as romance.

One of my correspondences with one potential partner had gone on for a while, with a lot of lengthy back-and-forth about every conceivable angle on the work, so I finally prompted him to propose some terms of mutual work.  He declined to offer to go into business with me, and proffered a sort of manifesto of rationale explaining this response.  One of his lines really struck me, though,   "we were not really talking about establishing a company.  We were talking about establishing an entire industry for a pilot company to be part of."  I do realize this was intended as a critique, a reason why the task shouldn't be attempted.  I look at this issue the opposite way, though.  Reinventing the industry, which also entails reinventing our relationship with water, is the entire reason to do this work.

If there were an existing industry of small-scale transporters using sail and simple machines to move goods around the region by water, probably I wouldn't be very interested in participating.  After all, there would be (and in fact there already are) hundreds or thousands of better candidates to operate a sail cargo vessel than me!    And you reading this probably wouldn't be so interested in reading what I have to say, or in following our adventures, coming to workshops or events as we travel, or in making the choice to stock some of your pantry via waterway, because you too would be surrounded by it everyday and it would be ho-hum. 

So there it is.  I'm still here because the vision resonates with me and provokes me.  Combine that with the astonishing power of a diverse and talented group of thinkers and workers and you get something potentially so much greater than the sum of its parts.  You're maybe here for the same reason, or perhaps it's the sheer audacity, or coolness, or craziness, or whatever that brought you to VSF.  But maybe also VSF and Ceres helped you see the region in a different way, like seeing your native river valley from a slow moving canoe instead of out of the window of a speeding car, and maybe that made you feel optimistic or hopeful, or else just in love with this place in a way you hadn't before.  Whatever the case, I'm happy to announce that there will be a next chapter.

Please stay tuned as we are soon to release new details!  I look forward to sharing this all with you.

 

 

 

What Would it Take?

Since I've been asked this question a few times," what would it take to have Vermont Sail Freight springboard into enduring reality?" I will offer my thoughts.  They might surprise you. Some assume the economic factors, the boat moving too slow and holding too little, doom the operation.  Not really the case.  We have still not launched the model that makes full use of the one vessel we have in commission.  Earlier this year, I drew up a plan, based on hard figures from our earlier voyages, to have Ceres land 80 tons of cargo on the dock in Brooklyn over the course of 8 trips beginning in July and going through October.  Each trip would involve a round-trip of two weeks, which entails about five transit days and 9 days docked at the north (Whitehall) and south (Brooklyn) terminals combined.  With the goods we were dealing, this 80 tons, at an average retail price of $3 per pound carried works out to a volume of about a half-million dollars in gross sales annually.  This is a fairly small figure in the world of transport and distribution but is still enough to support the annual costs and personnel required to perform these trips.  If we could cover such costs operating with one vessel, and develop niche markets incrementally, this would pave the way towards larger vessels and longer routes.

But personnel were in the end the limiting factor.  I used up a lot of personal capital launching the venture in 2013 and in attempting to continue it through 2014.  In early 2015 we drew up a plan that, properly financed, would entail fair compensation for key participants.  But a lot of the responsibility in this venture falls upon the vessel's crew, and who would that be?

If I did not have responsibilities that tie me to a farm for most of the summer, and if I did not have a young family that (usually) likes to have me home every night, then I would sign up right away to live, seasonally at least, on Ceres and put her through her paces.  But I'm not at the right stage of my life to do this, and so far, despite the huge number of fans that have come forward or gotten involved in some way, we haven't yet met the person or couple who have the right mix of sea-smarts, dedication to the mission, leadership skills and entreprenurial and electronic-media savvy who could be or become the captain-manager of Ceres.  We have had all these traits on the team, but never in any one person.

Currently our mission is on hold, with no plans to revive.  It's also for sale, as is.  Contact me for details on that.  Maybe Ceres will make a nice liveaboard for someone, if the aft deckhouse was extended forward to meet the forward deckhouse there could be several joined rooms, enough for a big galley, separate dining and living, lots of berths and room for stores.  But the addition of the right partner, or of a maybe of a patron who would help us through the process of finding this partner(because I have to believe that the talented person who would seize upon this as a career opportunity is out there, somewhere) might take VSF off the auction block.  I haven't lost my love for this work, but I need partners who will roll up their sleeves along with me to take it anywhere meaningful.

Till then, you can find me in the rice paddies, or the bakery!

The End (at least for now)

This will be my last post, for a while anyway. It's taken a lot of soul-searching to figure out just how much this effort has meant to me and what I am and am not willing to put on the line to see it advance.  In the end, the work asked more than I had to give.

In the early part of this year I put a lot of effort into trying to build a team to take the work of Vermont Sail Freight to the next level.  But unfortunately this team never really coalesced and unified around a single goal, and one by one we lost participants to the demands of other areas of their lives.

At the same time, serious obstacles to our long-term success were in fact overcome.  For instance we cemented access to warehouses and terminals at both the northern and southern ends of the route.  And we obtained a quote for a much better rate on our commercial marine insurance.  But it began to seem that for every problem solved three more would replace it.  None beyond our skill, but demanding too much in aggregated energy and time.

sailplan

So what of Ceres?  For now, our intrepid sailing barge is hanging out on the farm, under a tarp.  All the rigging and sails are sorted and put neatly away.  I still am responsible for taking care of her, even if we can't put her to work.

The Willowell Foundation and I jointly came up with this crazy plan that in many ways surpassed our initial estimations of what it could be and mean.  But so to did certain costs exceed our expectations.  Our $20,000 insurance bill, which came as a total shock just prior to our 2013 voyage to New York (though we had been trying to obtain coverage since December 2012) came as a sucker punch to the effort, and would have killed it then and there if Willowell hadn't paid the bill.  I had hoped that by continuing the work we could pay off that cost over time, but we did not succeeded in that, nor did we succeed in obtaining grants to continue the charitable aspects of our work (education, environmental stewardship, promotion of waterfront civic life).

I feel like I have tried everything I could think of, and that at this point I need to put my family and my farm first.  However I hope to keep Ceres and the past work of VSF in my pocket, at least for now, in case anything changes down the line.  I would welcome any serious inquiry from anyone out there who might be willing to take this on.  Personally, I don't think the need for and interest in this kind of work is going to go away, but I already have two full-time jobs and can't handle a third.

lakechamplain

Thanks to everyone who played a part in helping us get as far as we did!

2015 and Beyond

It's been an interesting couple of years behind the scenes at the Vermont Sail Freight Project.  Cross-categorical work like this has plenty of challenges, not the least of which is closing the credibility gap, and making the argument that marine cargo has a place in the 21st century.  Our mission is much the same now as when we first set out--to make use of neglected cultural and environmental assets to connect producers to markets.  To package the products in such a way that the values underlying both the goods themselves and the means of delivery are upheld. The grassroots collective known as the Vermont Sail Freight Project, generously supported and given a home by the Willowell Foundation, and helped through its infancy by the Eastman Foundation, the Waterwheel Foundation, and many generous individual donors, has done all we set out to do and more.

cereslakewindwardclose

However, I think we're just getting started.  Last year we made some partnerships that I believe will really set the stage for the expansion of this work to a meaningful and economically relevant scale.  We have our sights on expanding routes to the Finger Lakes and overseas to the Caribbean as well.  For 2015, we are now making plans that will ensure that Ceres will be a regular visitor to New York City.  Larger vessels are now on the drawing board too, and we now have the experience base to progress to them.

The saying goes, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk.  In this Age of the Tweet, the value of experience and judgement is grossly underestimated.  You may already know about how we pooled our resources and we built ourselves a little wooden ship.  And it's true that our team collected 13 tons of goods from 37 farms and delivered to about a dozen locations along the Champlain-Hudson trading route to general acclaim.  It's also true that we have some solid accomplishments to hang our hats on, some stuff to be proud of.

 

offmanhattan2

clearwatermarket

WaitingForBarges1

But let's say that while I don't always air our shortcomings in public, it's true that we have also made our share of mistakes along the way.

What kind of mistakes, you might well ask?  Well, I might start with the poor design of the keel of Ceres, where the fiberglass joints failed and admitted water to the cargo hold, necessitating a 2-week haulout and major repair just weeks prior to our highly-publicized departure with goods in 2013.  And the inadequacy of our motor auxiliary systems.  The lack of a shakedown cruise or time to complete our sail kit and resolve problems with the rig.  The damaging of the tabernacle due to a simple oversight when lowering the mast, caught just in time before structural damage.  Extremely basic liveaboard accommodations and shipboard electrical systems.  The total absence of sensible land-based dock infrastructure almost everywhere we called.  A back-breaking, disorganized approach to filling and emptying the cargo hold.  Inadequate plans for marketing and distribution of our goods.  The paucity of experience amongst our gang in handling a cargo scow in widely varied weather conditions.  Numerous problems with haulouts.   Flaws in the fiberglass emerging during winter storage last year, resulting in heavy leaking on launch in Spring 2014, which took weeks to address before we could begin the season.  All of these issues dogged us (although you probably never heard about them) and some took a heavy toll on morale and our will to carry on.

But carry on we did.  And we've learned how to handle our boat, how to push her hard but not too hard, and where to fill and reinforce and patch to keep the water out.  I would go so far as to say that the working rig is now approaching the level of refinement of our older British cousins, the Thames Sailing Barges of England, and is no longer the slapdash affair that first appeared in New York Harbor in October 2013.  We're honing in on a business model that makes the most of the virtues of marine freight and can sustain a modest company payroll.  Little by little, we're figuring out how to play to our strengths.  None of this learning process could have taken place if we hadn't had some room to stumble and fail, to recognize our shortcomings, and address them so that we could learn and grow.

Contrast our story of starting small and screwing up along the way, yet persevering and becoming wiser--with the sad story of the schooner John F. Leavitt.  (Below picture from the Ocala Star-Banner, March 6th 1977. 38 years ago exactly today!)

maine newspaper

 

In the late 1970's, during the days of the oil embargo, idealist Ned Ackerman set out to revive Maine's working schooner tradition by building and launching a schooner of 83 tons to engage in coastal cargo trade.  The shadow of this project, a similar endeavor to my own in that both set out to revive cargo by sail, is quite long: in 1991 when I attended the Rockport Apprenticeshop in Maine, boatbuilders there still cited the dramatic failure of this project as evidence that working sail is gone forever.  The visionary Ned Ackerman and his team had probably about as little practical experience handling heavily-laden cargo vessels in rough waters in 1979 as my team did in 2013.  But I wonder, how might things have turned out differently for them if they had simply started smaller and given themselves room to fail, instead of doing what they did, which is to have their opening move be to head out into the forbidding North Atlantic, loaded right to capacity, at the very worst time of the year?

The schooner John Leavitt in 1979

Perhaps our seagoing forebears might have routinely handled such a challenge.  But it's wrongheaded to infer from that fact that we ourselves can do so.  After all, those crews had the advantage of building up decades of individual experience, not to mention the fact that their careers were part of a real living cultural tradition stretching into the dusky past.  Ackerman was attempting to resurrect a derelict way of life from the ashes and simply pick up where the old cargo sailors had left off, and off they went in November 1979, cracking on with a full hold into a howling gale.  Things went bad, and the schooner foundered many miles offshore.  The crew were rescued by coast guard helicopters.  Ackerman and his crew were indeed lucky to escape with their lives.  You could say that living through such an ordeal is punishment enough, but still I hold them partly responsible for setting such a poor example of how to honor and learn from our past.  This group's apparent lack of recognition that their effort was missing an essential component--the accumulated experience and judgement of the officers and crews who once made up the living working sail tradition--remains to me a dismaying oversight, and in a way, still strikes me as somehow disrespectful to the long-passed sailors whose work Ackerman hoped to revive.

I doubt Ackerman saw it quite as I do, though, and in general I find his past noble, failed effort hugely sympathetic.  But I suppose my experience farming and woodworking along traditional lines has impressed upon me the extreme difficulty we encounter when we try to measure up to those who have gone before.  To accumulate any significant body of knowledge, you simply have to pay your dues.  Those dues are payable in money, time, pain and suffering, or some combination of all of these.  But they have to be paid if you aim to achieve anything truly worthwhile.

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Launching the Vermont Sail Freight Project has given me a chance to watch the beginning of mastery develop amongst my team, and it's been both an extreme challenge and a great honor to see this happen.  I want to stay with this and see it continue to grow at a sane, organic pace.  I believe that our blend of commerce, appropriate technology and community-building is exactly what my region needs.  I'm proud to announce also that we are on the verge of setting up the work on a new organizational footing with a new executive board.

Let me name my partners:

  • Andrew Willner
  • Tianna Kennedy
  • Gregg Zuman
  • Malcolm Martin
  • Geoff Uttmark

For those of you reading this who have done your bit for VSFP whether by donating, buying our goods, volunteering, or what have you, let me say thanks for helping us get this far.  And to everyone reading this, you can weigh in on ranking some lead contenders for a new name for the venture.  Please rank your favorite names here, it's just 2 questions.  And look for more updates soon, as we expect to roll out new web content and announcements about the coming season before long.

-Erik Andrus

ropeswithsunset

 

The Story So Far

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. We aimed to create a shipping venture that would follow in the wake of the historic Lake Champlain Sailing Canal Barges.

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.

The Fleet

t36x8 basic

scow3

crane2 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. cropped-crans21.png 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.

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we heaved her up onto her side, with control ropes to keep her from tipping too far

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looking down from the deck of Ceres, this is a view of the pine-tar-dribbled rigging party including Jordan, Matt, Kate, Will, and Carrie.

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Ceres in "drydock"

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.

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Heading south from Whitehall

The lower doors close behind us in Lock 12

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20131025_103733 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.

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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.

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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.

Barge and her cargo, October 2013

Brian Goblick (woodcarver extraordinare) and the barge in Kingston, October 2013

Tugboat Roundup in Waterford

Continuing our theme of posts not written by the blog's primary author, Erik Andrus, here is the third in a series of contributing-Author posts by volunteer crewman Harry Milkman of Chester, Vt.  Thanks for stepping into the breach and making the Waterford run a success, Harry!  --Erik

As a Vermonter, sailor, and former New Yorker, I've been fascinated by the Vermont Sail Freight Project ever since I first heard about it.  I didn't fully understand its economics at first, but its sailing aspect intrigued me.  I've sailed on Lake Champlain and on the Hudson River, but never before on the corridor that connects them, the Champlain Canal.  My reluctance to transit the canal was probably due to my preference of sailing over motoring.  The canal requires motoring most of the way, because of its low bridges, narrowness in spots, and frequent twists and turns.

But when Erik put out the call for crew to take Ceres to the Tugboat Roundup in Waterford, NY, I didn't hesitate for a moment to volunteer. The crew for the Waterford trip all met for the first time in Vergennes shortly before we departed. None of us had sailed together before, and none of us had sailed on Ceres, so Erik joined us for the first leg to teach us the rigging and how to raise and lower the mast.

Soon after getting underway, we realized that we'd forgotten to replace the topsail block and halyard, which had fallen into the lake (and been retrieved) on a previous voyage. Rather than waste time de-rigging and lowering the mast again, Captain Christin Ripley offered to climb the mast. While I took the helm, Christin tied herself a safety harness and connected it to an existing halyard. Erik and Phil secured the line as Christin climbed to the top of the mast (over 30 feet high), replaced the missing block and halyard, and returned back down to the deck. Needless to say, we were all very impressed!

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We reached Lock 12 of the Champlain Canal at Whitehall, NY by nightfall on the first day (Wednesday), docked just before its entrance, and lowered our mast. (Fortunately, Ceres' forestay is attached to a winch, eliminating the need for a crane to lower or raise the mast.) Erik disembarked, entrusting Ceres to his new crew. We had sailed about 50 miles, through the southern part of Lake Champlain and its "Narrows," which more closely resemble a river than a lake.

The next morning we made our first passage through the lock. Christin took the helm, while Phil and I kept the boat parallel to the wall with ropes and boathooks. The first time through was a bit nerve-wracking, but once how we knew how it was done, the remaining 23 were routine. There are 11 locks on the Champlain Canal -- there is no Lock 10 -- and to reach our final destination in Waterford, we had to pass through the first lock of the Erie Canal.

Long stretches of the Champlain Canal coincide with the Hudson River, and resemble nature preserves. We saw many species of birds, including geese, ducks, loons, great blue herons, cormorants, egrets, and kingfishers. There were also cows grazing right up to the edge of the water, and on hot days, they stepped into the water up to their bellies to cool down!

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By sunset of the second day (Thursday), we reached Lock 5 at Schuylerville, NY. There was heavy barge traffic in both directions due to the PCB dredging project. (GE illegally dumped PCBs into the Hudson River from 1946 to 1977, and it’s finally getting cleaned up.) We realized we wouldn't get through the lock before dark, so we docked for the night at Hudson Crossing Park.

On Friday, we completed our transit through the rest of the locks of the Champlain Canal, ending in the open Hudson River north of Troy, NY. At Waterford, we turned west into the Erie Canal, and docked at our designated spot between Locks 2 and 3. Around the bend, we could see the Lois McClure of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum already tied up. At first we thought the Vermont vessels were "exiled" to an area separate from the New Yorkers, but later learned that we were in the entrance to the original Champlain Canal, long since abandoned. We raised our mast, not to sail, but to make Ceres more visible to visitors of the Tugboat Roundup. Since the southern tip of Lake Champlain, we had travelled an additional 64 miles.

On Saturday, we set up our pop-up canopy and unloaded our cargo of Vermont maple syrup, maple sugar, apple butter, honey, sunflower oil, coffee, switchel, dried herbs, various flours, grains and baking mixes, as well as VSFP mugs and t-shirts. There wasn't as much foot traffic up in the Lock 2 area as we'd hoped for that day, but we did manage to sell some products, and generate a lot of interest in the project. We were visited not only by festival-goers, but also by members of the press, social media, NY State Canal System, and the local Chamber of Commerce.

Waterford's weekly Farmers Market takes place on Sunday, and we were already set up right in the middle of it. It was especially gratifying to tell shoppers, “We brought all of these products here from Vermont on the boat right over there!” As a sailor and not a marketer, I was much more comfortable talking about Ceres and our route, but we had crew members among us who were well-versed in the economics of connecting small farms to new markets. My favorite questions to answer were “How old is the boat?” ("It looks 19th-century, but it's only a year old.") and “You can get here from Vermont by boat?” ("Yes, the Erie and Champlain Canals intersect right here in Waterford.").

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At the end of the farmers market, we reloaded our remaining cargo and lowered our mast, in preparation for passing through the locks again. We headed east through the Erie Canal, back into the Hudson River, and re-entered the Champlain Canal. By nightfall, we had reached Lock 5 and docked there for the night again.

On Monday, we cleared the last lock at Whitehall by mid-afternoon, and were back on Lake Champlain. Christin needed to catch a train home, and Erik had agreed to replace her as captain. Unfortunately, Erik was unable to get a ride down to Whitehall, so either Phil or I had to drive his van back to Vermont. Phil graciously agreed, and I continued onward with Erik. We raised the mast and set sail northward.

There was a Supermoon on Monday night which allowed us to keep sailing long after sunset. I cooked dinner (pasta and a wonderful marinara prepared for us by crewmember Rachael), and we eventually dropped anchor north of Fort Ticonderoga.

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On Tuesday, we sailed under the new Champlain Bridge at Crown Point, beyond which a huge flock of migrating loons had gathered, and continued on our final tack toward Button Bay, where we had first departed 6 days before. Rather than anchoring in the bay, we dropped sail and motored up the Otter Creek to Vergennes, passing some War of 1812 reenactors along the way.

When we reached Vergennes, I was hot, tired, and sore, but still didn't want the journey to end. It was a long, physically demanding trip -- and only half as long as Ceres' usual trip down to NYC -- but I'd do it again in a heartbeat. This voyage has convinced me that Ceres and the VSFP are no longer just concepts, but viable, reliable vessels to connect small Vermont and New York farms to the larger markets that will sustain them into the future.

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A "Foremast Jack's Perspective" on VSFP

Note: The following piece was written by Meade Atkeson, our intrepid intern who came to us through the MiddCore Plus program of Middlebury College.   We all wish Meade the best in his future endeavors!


Ceres maneuvered slowly but gracefully onto the dock in the Vergennes basin. It was comforting to see her return to where our voyage began. I truly had the experience of a lifetime working for Vermont Sail Freight Project this summer. If the views of the Adirondack Mountains, the Champlain canal, the Hudson River Highlands, and New York City weren’t enough, both sailing and living on Ceres was a daily adventure.

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Ceres is an excellent teacher. She taught me things about myself and about what it takes to turn an idea into a reality. With this second trip I believe that Vermont Sail Freight Project has truly cemented itself as a reality. Every aspect of the project that needed improvement from last fall’s voyage saw spectacular success. First and foremost, we sailed the crap out of that boat! Ceres’ tall wooden masts and crisp white sails are far from ornamental. The newly discovered sailor in me jumped for joy each time that Captain Steve called for our gorgeous new topsail to be brought on deck. Every day that we hauled up the sails she sailed a little faster and a little smoother. This is a essential development for the future crew of Ceres, because there is nothing more exhilarating than when Ceres is tearing through the water at seven knots, and there isn’t a crease to be found in the mainsail.

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The second major improvement has been in simply moving the goods from the boat into the hands of our customers. Under favorable conditions, Matt and myself could set up the entire market in an hour. We were able to accomplish this with some rigorous organization, and some handy blue crates. Not to say that it wasn’t hard work, market days left us tired and weary. I can’t recall who first said it, but shifting around these blue crates in the cargo hold was deemed the “tetris from hell.” However, this year’s cargo management was a resounding success compared to the stories I’ve heard of last fall’s expedition, and it can only get better. Reducing the amount of manpower the operating requires is the key to future success as it allows the boat to function independently from any shore assistance.

In my mind, Vermont Sail Freight Project has found its missing puzzle pieces, and is poised to put them together. One thing I learned during the voyage is that we aren’t the only ones in love with this idea. Nearly everyone we interacted with expressed sincere excitement and support, and that was encouraging, knowing we weren’t simply dreaming. I want to recount one moment that solidified my belief in VSFP. I took a day off to go visit my grandparents and I happened to spot a jar of the same brand of honey that we sold on the boat. I was surprised to see the brand so far down river but they were one of our larger producers so it wasn’t totally out of the question. Then I noticed the price; it was about three dollars more than the exact same jar we sold off the boat! I asked my grandmother where she had purchased it, and she replied that it was her favorite honey that she always bought from the grocery store in town. I was shocked. Our delivered by sail honey was cheaper than that of a store that had shipped the jar 300 miles by truck. My conclusion from this and the finding of our second voyage is that Vermont Sail Freight Project has a place in the communities and economies of the Hudson valley.

IMG_1930For now, I bid a reluctant farewell to Ceres, but I know that our paths will cross again in the future. Sailing is a hard habit to break.

If Not Now, When?

image      image The following piece was written by my colleague and contributing author Andrew Willner, a sustainability advocate and sailor in the NY/NJ area of long standing.  I am pleased to be actively working in partnership with Andrew this year and to share his observations on the blog.  --Erik Andrus


In a January 2014 on my blog I talked about the choices this old “sailor” was considering as I looked at 70.  In that piece I wrote about my interest in the Vermont Sail Freight Project,  “the Vermont Sail Freight Project is the furthest along of these ideas.  Founded and implemented by Erik Andrus a farmer in Ferrisburgh, VT.  VSFP is a slow tech approach to energy and a resilient food system.

Erik has said about the project, “The Vermont Sail Freight Project originated out of our farm’s commitment to resilient food systems.  Producing food sustainably is not enough.  The other half is sustainable transport of goods to market and equitable exchange.  A good portion of the damage conventional agriculture does to society and the environment is through our overblown, corporation-dominated distribution systems.  The idea of a small, producer-owned craft sailing goods to market, perhaps even a distant market, is an alternative to this system, and one which has served our region well in the past. “

I signed on in significant part because Ceres, Erik, and the crew confirm my belief in preserving the skills of the past to serve the future.  The Vermont Sail Freight Project appealed to my head and heart in significant part because I agreed with Erik when he said to a member of a television crew, “I offered my belief that contrary to the techno-paradise that some expect, my belief is that our future will likely resemble our past, and that we may fall back on proven, low energy approaches to supporting human life that have been historically proven to work.  “Isn’t that pessimistic?” asked the interviewer.  I replied that I don’t think so.  It is in my view even more pessimistic to imagine a world continuing on the current path, becoming a place in which there is no place for human labor or creativity, where rather than doing things with our backs and hands and minds, we must instead wait passively for conveniences and solutions to be marketed to us.   That, to me, is the most depressing future imaginable.”

The adventure started when I picked up Captain Steve Schwartz on my way to Vermont.  I met Steve briefly late last summer before Ceres’ first trip, and we exchanged emails when he learned that I was going to be a crew member.  We talked constantly all the way from the Hudson Valley to Erik’s farm.  It turns out we are close enough in age to share musical taste and Vietnam War draft board experiences.  (Maybe I will do another post about this to the tune of Alice’s Restaurant).

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We also have Hudson and Harbor stories and friends in common from Steve’s long term commitment to Clearwater as Captain of the Sloop Woody Guthrie, to his friendship with and my appreciation of the work and life of Pete Seeger, from my days as mate on theSchooner Pioneer, and because of the people I met during my 20 years on the water in the Harbor and lower Hudson as the NY/NJ Baykeeper.

The next few days were an amazing ballet (or rugby scrum depending on your point of view) of riggers adding a topsail and outer jib, food shopping for a crew of four, moving and loading the cargo totes, trading one ailing outboard for a used but working one, deciding on last minute changes to the schedule, loading on personal gear, and finally getting underway.

But more than that I learned firsthand why Erik is so passionate about this project.  One of the reasons he asked me to help out for a few critical weeks was because he was in the middle of planting rice in a “paddy” that he had constructed in a low lying part of his farm.  It was eye opening to see what goes into the preparation and planting of this specialty northern variety.

He was also up early baking bread, for sale at a nearby farmers market from local grains in the wood fired oven that he had built.  Erik’s quest for resilient food became more apparent as I saw the dedication to local production and distribution that the bakery epitomized and that the care that went into the preparation of the muddy field for the rice.

It was also apparent that he put the same kind of thoughtfulness and consideration (and appropriate business model) into buying the local shelf stable products outright from neighboring farmers.  The cargo of mostly Vermont maple syrup, honey, preserves, cider syrup, “fire” cider, herbal teas, grains, flour, and beans meant cash in the pocket at a time when many farmers are strapped.

I watched from land as Ceres left the town dock in Vergennes, turned down stream just under the falls and disappeared around the bend in Otter Creek on the way to the Lake. Ceres and her crew, Captain Steve, Meade Atkeson, and Matt Horgan spent the first night anchored in one of the most beautiful shorelines on Lake Champlain, Button Bay just off the State Park.  The next morning Erik rejoined the boat along with Edward and Gary from the French television program Thalassa    for the trip down the Lake. I was not on board (that’s a whole other story), but.  I was fortunate to stand on a bluff above the bay and able to watch the boat get underway, and raise all sail for what proved to be an amazing downwind “sleigh ride,” shaking out the new topsail that Steve described as a “turbocharger.”

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I caught up with the boat at Whitehall, NY.  Whitehall is like a town encased in amber.  Its nineteenth century brick buildings face the canal, many empty and waiting for the resurgence of canal traffic to reanimate this once thriving town.  It was at Whitehall that we took the rig down (with the boat’s own gear) for the canal passage.  We spent the evening in a waterfront bar, as sailors should, and got underway through the first of ten locks the next morning.  This was my first trip through the canal, and the only other lock I had been through was the one connecting Lake Union to the Puget Sound in Seattle.  Steve was a veteran of last year’s trip and drilled the crew on handling the boat through the locks.

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The Champlain Canal is a 60 miles long.  It connects the south end of Lake Champlain, to the Hudson River. It was built at the same time as the Erie Canal and was completed and opened in 1823 from Fort Edward to Lake Champlain.  The canal carried commercial traffic until the 1970’s.  Today, except for the tugs, crew boats, dredges, and barges connected to the General Electric PCB clean up, most of the traffic is recreational boats that can travel up Lake Champlain to the Chambly Canal that connects the Lake to the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

It rained almost every day of the transit, and the thing about foul weather gear, even the new “high tech” stuff is that you sweat, so you are almost as wet at the end of the day as if you hadn’t worn anything at all.  But that didn’t stop all aboard from being astounded by the canal.  The trip through the locks was eye-opening and the 19th century technology (with some 20th century updates) is a credit to the ingenuity of the engineers and builders. The  lock tenders for the most part were friendly and supportive while the always gregarious Captain Steve renewed friendships from the previous voyage and made new friends.  These relationships were important as the tug, barge and crew boat traffic is very heavy, and our small vessel and its crew were treated with professional courtesy, and once in a while even given hints about where there might be a place to spend the night near electricity and water.

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We did a quick stop in Mechanicville where Pete Bardunias from the Southern Saratoga Chamber of Commerce, (a long time supporter of the project)   brought local dignitaries and some vendors to the newly rebuilt town dock.  We took on some cargo from local preserve and herbal tea businesses to sell down river.  A local newspaper covered the arrival and like last year the project got some amazing press.

Our next stop was Waterford where we thought we might spend the night but then forged on to Troy.  Troy was an excellent stop especially because the dock is just steps from Brown’s Brewing Company ,  where, if I hadn’t already learned that Steve was a beer connoisseur (I guess I should have known since half of his gear he packed in my car was artisanal home brew), I knew by the end of a  well deserved meal and brew in a nice dry pub.  Eric the dock master at Troy was elated that Ceres would be doing a market on the way back north, and said he would spread the word among the many advocates for the Project in Troy.

We raised the rig at Troy and then partially dipped it to get under the Troy/Albany lift bridges and then lifted it all the way back up and sorted out the rig, practicing raising and lowering the sails, but mostly motored through foul currents and a bad rain storm. This was the part of the trip that a transformation began to happen, four people of different ages, backgrounds, and experience began to become a crew.  Only people who have spent time on a small vessel for a length of time understand the mysterious way it happens.  Maybe it is called teamwork, but I believe it goes beyond that.  On a boat, each  person has a job to do, but that job is entirely dependent on others doing theirs, and intuitively knowing when someone needs assistance.  It is also about shared “hardship.”  There is nothing much fun about being so busy that breakfast lunch and dinner are all peanut butter and jelly on day old bread, or leaks over your bunk, or sores on your hands from handling wet coarse manila lines.

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But it goes beyond bunker mentality, you share chores, share stories, find commonality, begin to make friends, and that is when the crew and the boat become a working whole.  There is nothing in the world like the feeling of a sailing vessel, trimmed right, crew at their stations, a fair wind off the quarter, heeled slightly, sails full, a telltale vibration in the tiller, smiling, and thinking, “this is the most fun I have ever had standing up.” We anchored just south of Saugerties after a passage through an unmarked, “local knowledge” channel where the crew was afforded great courtesy at the home of one of Steve’s friends “Doc” and his extended river family.  Not only was it good to sit in a dry house, but the food and company was good as well. The anchorage was remarkably beautiful and serene.  For those who have not had the experience or treat of sleeping aboard a boat in a safe anchorage, with the sound of water lapping on the hull lulling you to sleep, it is impossible to describe the peacefulness.  However, as old men do, I was up in the middle of the night, and by habit, checking to make sure the anchor hadn’t dragged, looking at the stars, seeing the reflection of lights on the water from the far shore, and tired again, going down below, and back to bed.Next morning we took on a guest, Chris O’Reilly, who is a shipwright, rigger and Clearwater crew member. With a fair wind and current we raised sails and made two quick stops.  We dropped Chris off at Rhinecliff, and then sailed down to Poughkeepsie where we picked up Meade after his weekend back at school, finally we continued our downwind charge including the “turbocharger” topsail.

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It was at this point that I started to learn a few hard lessons:

  • I didn’t remember as much as I thought from my days of being the mate and captain of traditional sailing vessels since that had been more than 20 years ago.
  • Despite that experience I was not the captain, or even the mate, but a deck hand,
  • That 70 year old deck hands have trouble keeping up with 20 something deck hands.
  • That I was having fun despite the hard work and wet weather,
  • And that this unlikely boat when trimmed well and sailed skillfully would go to windward.

Below Chelsea we began to tack to windward using the lee boards. Steve kept experimenting to see how well she could do and drilled us in tacking, finally taking the Yankee down because it wasn’t doing as much as when sailing down wind.  We made some down river progress on close reaches and the current, and used the old trick of “backing the jib” to get the bow around.

We got into Beacon that afternoon.  The next morning Matt and Meade set up our first market at the Beacon Farmers Market.   This was the first test of the tote system, and the bar code inventory.  The market went very well and Ceres was a hit.  At times during the day there was line at the market stall and at the boat with people wanting to know about the products and the “why” and “how” of the project.

image We stayed in Beacon for a couple of days, and then got underway, raised all sails except Yankee and tacked upwind again for a short sail to deliver an order to the Cold Spring General Store at the public dock. People started to gather at the dock to admire the boat and watch cargo being transferred from hand to hand right from the hold into the arms of the store owner.  We made more good friends and by the time we were ready to cast off there were so many people on the quay that if we were set up to do so we could have done a “pop up” market.  We arranged on the spot to do a July 4th market with the owners of the Cold Spring General Store.  After leaving Cold Spring we continued sailing until we were in sight of the Mid-Hudson Bridge.

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That evening we anchored and spent the night on the northern edge of Iona Island.  There is something pretty astonishing about watching the sun pass behind Bear Mountain, and watch the lights of the commercial traffic as we sat on deck having out dinner. The next morning we sailed off the anchor, and sail/drifted until the current turned and we motored to the bulkhead at the Clearwater Festival site to familiarize the crew about where the boat would be the next weekend. We arrived at Ossining early afternoon checked in with dock master and the Ferry Sloop   contact, found the showers and then the bar.  The Yacht Club folks and especially the Ferry Sloop members were helpful and even took me for a needed  grocery and hardware store run. The next day we set up a market at the club house of the Shattemuc Yacht Club and drew a pretty big crowd.  That evening Steve and I gave a slide show and talk about the project and this year’s voyage to about 25 people.

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Ossining Mayor, William Hanaurer came down to the boat at least twice.  He said that he wants to make the Hudson Ossining’s front yard not its backyard.  He is also advocating for the use of a new public dock adjacent to the Ferry dock for vessels like Ceres.  The next day Erik arrived and I reluctantly headed home.

In retrospect, I had a terrific time.  It has been a while since I did so much physical work, thought about tide and wind, learning the boat’s gear, assessing its sailing ability, and as observing and participating as much as I could in cargo handling and the marketing.  It didn’t hurt that Steve is an experienced mariner and a terrific teacher.  I observed that he was instructing the crew as he is learning about the boat’s ability.  He is both willing to press the vessel to see how the gear holds up, but is conservative and prudent when it comes to boat handling.  Mat and Meade are terrific young men and great crew.  Under trying circumstances they figured out the marketing while learning how to be crew members.

I agree with Erik when he says, “running the vessel and its market requires skilled operators and solid river sailor, plus business capability to maintain inventory and accounts while on the move.  It also requires a serious interest in the farms and waterfront communities of the region, and some facility at outreach and social media.”

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My take away is while crowded for a crew of four, two to three, friends, a married couple, or partners, could live aboard for the season.  I see this second voyage as “proof of concept.”   Ultimate success of the project is not necessarily measured by whether it is profitable or not (although I believe it will be).  Ultimate success is that in some small way lay the groundwork for the development of the next generation of watermen and women while building an alternative carbon neutral logistic chain, from farmer, to processor, and finally to individual, wholesale, or restaurant customers.

The use of sailing vessels as transportation is nothing new.  Many coastal schooners and sailing vessels are still working in the trade between main ports and remote islands and harbors in Africa, Caribbean, South America, The Indian, Ocean and the Pacific.   From Northern Ireland to Fiji, freight carrying sailing ships are being planned, built, and sailing.  These first forays into what will become a huge post carbon enterprise are examples of how coastal short sea shipping along the North American coasts, bays, and rivers will be changing in the near and mid-term.    Some operating and soon to be operating examples are, the Gundalow Company in New Hampshire, Farm Boat in Seattle, Dragonfly Sail Transport in Michigan, while SV Kwai, Tres Hombres Packet Company, Greenheart, andB9 Shipping are ocean  crossing sail transport vessels in various states of implementation.

Ceres is now an integral part of this world-wide effort of sail freighters who have started a revolutionary movement to prepare for a carbon constrained world by preserving the skills of the past; marlinspike seamanship, building, rigging, and sailing traditional vessels, developing an alternative logistic chain, linking the farm to the table, participating in “fair trade,” and providing real world examples of what happens when you stop talking and start doing. This movement is led in part by Jan Lundberg’s Sail Transport Network .  Jan said, as long ago as 2007, “Sail power is more than some theoretical future mini-substitute for today’s oil-based trade and flying and driving. The Sail Transport Network’s team is growing, dedicated, talented and well informed about energy and environmental issues — and we love adventure and accept risk. You’re welcome to not just watch but help bring about a better reality for sustainable transport all the sooner.”

Based on my limited experience, I am more comfortable than ever before that the Vermont Sail Freight Project is a timely, doable, and potentially a profitable enterprise.  If I wasn’t before, I am now a convert.  I am off the boat now, but I think my adventure is just beginning.

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Hudson, Troy, Mechanicville

Ceres is on her northward trek now and the last few markets of the run are upon us.  They are coming right up.

  1. Hudson --Wednesday July 9th, 10 am -6 pm.  At the waterfront.
  2. Troy -- Friday July 11th, 10am-4pm, Troy Downtown Marina near Brown's Brewery
  3. Mechanicville -- Saturday July 12th 10 am-6 pm, Mechanicville Public Dock

A few items are sold out but by and large we have a very wide array of syrups, preserves, oil, honey, flours and grains still on offer.  Come see us!

Following this trip we will take a well-earned break and plan our next moves.  Generally both the navigational and the commercial aspects of the project made positive steps.  We want to continue to offer markets and to sail in the latter half of the season as well. 008

A Symbolic Visit to NYC

Tuesday evening amidst few sounds other than the fish jumping and the lapping of waves, Ceres anchored just off of Edgewater Park next to the New Jersey Pallisades, about a mile north of the George Washington Bridge.  With Manhattan glowing just beyond the bridge to our south, we spent one of the most tranquil nights of the trip bobbing at anchor. 20140623_210505_LLS

Our trip to the city this time stands in some contrast to our trip last October.  We're in less of a rush, and are in more of a cautious exploratory frame of mind than previously.  Last fall we searched frantically for a dock that would meet the requirements of our project (including low cost, adequate protection from currents and wakes, reasonable application process, and public access from shoreside) and settled on Brooklyn Navy Yard where project friend Marc Agger advocated for us.  We are very grateful to Navy Yard for allowing us to work with them on that occasion. However Navy Yard piers fall a little short of what we really need in terms of the security of the vessel, because the bulkheads there are a little too rough and the currents too strong, there are too few cleats and fenders for a vessel of our class.  And also, Navy Yard is not a public location, it is a rather gated industrial park -- a very green and forward-looking industrial park I might add, but still not the public dockside location we really need to make this project thrive.  So we are back to searching for that elusive dock that will welcome Ceres to NYC.

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Robert LaValva of New Amsterdam market and his supporters get it.  Without a public-access waterfront with which to interface with the world, the city is cutting itself off from the very asset that made it what it now is.  And with remaining public rights to space still being sold or given away to private interest it seems this unfortunate trend is not reversing yet.  It's ironic that while New Amsterdam market is right on the waterfront at the old Fulton Fish Market site, we can't offload goods to be sold at that market without the necessity of a long road journey across town or over the bridge from Brooklyn or yet further afield.  We're still working on this problem, but it's tough for a volunteer-driven effort like ours.

And so it was, that on Tuesday June 24th, Ceres sailed into New York Harbor for the second time without any dock at all.  This was just a courtesy call, to show the city that we have not given up on them.  Philosophically the journey from the mountains to the sea has always been important to me.  While the cost-benefit calculus increasingly suggests that our cargo vessel ought to sail from Lake Champlain to the Tappan Zee bridge and then turn around and go back, we feel that in some ways such a plan diminishes the project.  So we are hopeful that by continuing to try, eventually that perfect--or at least adequate--dock will be found so that we can land our cargo somewhere in the Port of New York.

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Things got a little exciting this time on a few occasions.  First, when we were raising the topsail, which is flown from the deck, we had an equipment failure that stood to make us look pretty disrespectable indeed and posed something of a danger.  The topsail has a carabiner-style clip ring that allows the sail to travel up a thin steel cable.  On its way aloft, this carabiner clipped around something it should not have, 22 feet off the deck, which not only prevented us from flying the sail, but also prevented dropping it to fix the problem.  I was at the helm while Steve and Meade were working on flying the sail, and first became aware of the problem by hearing Steve yelling bloody murder about what a mess we were in.  The chop was significant and the wind increasing to around 15mph, and our second-largest sail was neither up nor down.

Steve first attempted to solve the problem by taping a boat hook to one of the 16 foot poles we use for maneuvering in shallows, and using the boat hook to try to unclip the carabiner.  At one point he almost had it.  But it was too far away, the boat was moving around too much, and he had no leverage.  It was hard to see how this was going to get solved.  Around this time French journalist Edward Bally put down his camera and volunteered to go aloft in a bosun's chair, which is a sort of rope harness that allows others to haul you up into the rigging.  I guess it was determined that Edward was the lightest guy who could pull this off.  So Steve and Meade heaved Edward up to the crosstrees and Edward was quickly able to reach the ring and unclip it.  He was quickly lowered back to deck unharmed but a little shaky, and went below seconds before his colleauge arrived with a helicopter to film us from the air.

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Once the gear issue was addressed our sails all flew beautifully and we sailed on looking our best off of 58th street or thereabouts, and then turned for home.

One final bit of drama occurred when my straw hat blew off and into the sea.  "Keep your eye on it" Steve yelled.  I insisted that it's only an 8 dollar hat and totally not worth retrieving, but Steve said, "Man overboard drill!  It's good for the crew!"  And so, since I guess we hadn't had enough excitement for one day, we tacked around and came abreast of my poor hat which was still, amazingly, floating.  I reached for it but missed by about six inches, but the next second Meade speared it with a boathook.  So now we know that we can execute a man-overboard routine in some pretty challenging conditions.

Following that we had a pleasant market in Nyack, facilitated by Mayor Jen White and the Claremont association which gave us access to the Claremont Pier.  We had such a good time that we intend to come back next Tuesday, and will hold another market from noon to 6 pm at memorial park.   Thanks again to Mayor White and Village Administrator Jim Peloti to helping us arrange dockage in the fine Village of Nyack, and also thanks to Gypsy Donut and Espresso Bar for helping us get the word out and for bringing us treats!

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But before that we are due in Kingston, where we will be open for business at the Hudson Maritime Museum at the Rondout from 10-5 tomorrow, Saturday June 28th.  Hope to see you there!

Hudson River Revival

On rejoining Ceres after a marathon rice planting session, I did not accidentally check myself into Sing Sing prison just outside Ossining, but almost!  After exploring the Ossining waterfront a few hundred feet at a time for about an hour, I finally found the Shattemuc Yacht Club, our gracious host.  It was no problem spotting Ceres' one-of-a-kind wooden masts and brailed-up sails in amongst the jungle of aluminum and stainsless steel poles.  I had just driven down from Vt to relieve our capable Acting Director Andy Willner for about a week. Ceres' crew, comprised of Andy, Captain Steve, Matt Horgan and Meade Atkeson had just finished some really impressive sailing that I told you about last post, including a delivery of a wholesale order to Cold Spring General Store by sail alone,

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and had held a really nice market and a talk afterwards at Shattemuc, all of which I personally missed.  What I was really sorry to miss but was happy to hear about was yet another mayoral visit from the mayor of Ossining, William Hanauer.  We are grateful for the mayor's expressions of support for our project, and for this statement:

We want to make the waterfront Ossining's front door, not its back door

Our intention is exactly that -- to help the water that built our region in a previous era  to be once again a conduit of life and trade.  And yes, we'll be back.

After Ossining we headed back north to dock next to the Sloop Clearwater and the Mystic Whaler at Clearwater Fest.  How to describe the weekend?  The entire time we were surrounded by music, of course working like dogs moving and selling our goods and showing off Ceres to all comers.  Hannah, Ashton, Tony and Matt Schlein from Willowell came to staff a booth at the working waterfront section, while Matt and Meade ran the market stall, and Steve wandered around talking to old friends.  Of course in this last year since the last Clearwater festival the world has lost both Pete and Toshi Seeger so it was an emotional time, especially for folks like Steve who were close friends.  So no coincidence that Ceres ended up there or that Steve is now captain of Ceres; there is a philosophical convergence between the work of the sloop Clearwater and what we are trying to do with Ceres that flows in all directions.photo (3)

 

What next?  Well, Manhattan of course.  What else is there?

Before fans get too excited, please note right away that we have no viable plans to dock or have a market this time, although we may yet succeed in pulling something together small scale and last minute.  It is very, very, difficult to arrange viable docking for what we are trying to do in NYC.  It is as difficult in the city as it is easy in places like Nyack and Ossining.  Each spot potentially available to us has either physical dangers to the vessel, high costs, daunting bureaucracy, lack of public access, or all four problems at once.  Sometimes our project is viewed as being too commercial for the recreational facilities and yet too small-scale for the commercial facilities.  Often being cross-categorical is to our benefit, but sometimes not so much.

There are still possibilities, and we are going to the city if only briefly to show NY and the world that we have not given up on them.  Perhaps our visit will only be ceremonial in scope this time around.  Look for Ceres off the west side later this afternoon!

Following that we are aiming to come to Nyack either tomorrow afternoon or wednesday morning, and I will announce details as soon as I have them!

Posted from on board Ceres just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge!   photo (4) photo

Ceres the Spry

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.

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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!

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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!

Vermont Sail Freight Project

Arriving at Brown's this Evening

Just wanted to add a quick update to the earlier post to say that after quick calls in Mechanicville and Waterford, Ceres is off to Troy to tie up this eve.  I spoke with Andy about arrangements just recently.  In the background, I heard Captain Steve ask, "Is that the dock with the bar?"  Yes, Steve, it is the one with the bar....a guy has gotta have his priorities, I guess.   So, if you are in Troy and you want to meet a real character just go to Brown's this evening and look for the guy with the big white beard who looks like he just crawled up from the river.  Just to warn you though, Captain Steve is a little shy.  Doesn't have too much to say.  Pretty hard to get an opinion on any subject out of the guy.  Especially anything having to do with boats or sailing.  Whatever thoughts he may or may not have on sailing he pretty much keeps to himself. 1925_425x_fill

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Tomorrow, while the crew gets to work getting the mast upright, as well as getting to work getting the captain upright, there may be an opportunity to say hello at the docks and perhaps even to make a quick purchase.  Our ability to quickly find items within the boat should be much improved over last year.  We promise a more lengthy stop in Troy, as well as Waterford and Mechanicville, in the coming weeks.

Sailing Like Stink

Topsail aloft! Captain Steve looking aloft

Cracking spars on the first day out not allowed

We had our work cut out for us to get Ceres ready to head south, but this time the cargo loading was actually a snap.

Yes, it's a pretty odd expression, but one I've heard Captain Steve use several times. Yesterday it applied to us pretty well.  It was an amazing experience to see Ceres belting down into the narrows of the southern end of Lake Champlain under all canvas, heeled over nicely (but not too nicely) under a freshening north wind.  At about 5.5 knots we were verging on overpressed with sail, and started to worry about losing the topsail club or even the topmast on the first day out, and so we doused it.  Still, we can put up a nice little mountain of canvas even without the topsail, and after lowering it we were still making 5 knots under staysail, yankee jib, main, and mizzen.  Sailmaker Matthew Wright and Riggers Carrie Glessner and Will Young ought to be good and proud of their work.  Breathtaking.  Brings to mind an expression my grandfather used that I occasionally deploy myself, "there's glory in it!"

 

Three wagons full of just-baled hay rolled under cover mere minutes before a thunderstorm?

"There's glory in it!"

Perfect blooms on your dahlias?

"There's glory in it!"

Dealing with bloated sheep by tubing the sheep gas out of the stomach?

"There's no glory in it."

Well, sometimes there's plenty of glory and sometimes there's not.  We are on the move and bound for New York for the second time.  There's glory in that, for certain.  But also a lot of unglorious work, lifting, sanding, fixing, and struggling with the many complicated challenges in making this project of many moving parts work the way it is supposed to.  About half my day yesterday was consumed with a task with no glory in it, chasing small water leaks out of hidden air spaces in the hull construction by injecting epoxy resin into voids, tough to do at any time but very challenging when the boat is full of stuff and is pounding down the lake.

Today Ceres is still on the move, masts down now, motoring through the New York State canal system, and at last check is nearing Fort Edward.  As for me, your author and raconteur, at least up to this point, I am no longer with the ship.  Last night after a round of drinks at Howie's in Whitehall, I traded places with Andrew Willner who now assumes my shipboard role in the capacity of Acting Director.  I personally am very hopeful that this is the beginning of an excellent collaborative working partnership with a man with many years of experience in craftsmanship, sailing, and in promoting waterfront sustainability, whose work and genial nature have earned the respect of pretty much everyone I have met who has had much to do with traditional sail and New York Harbour.  VSFP is lucky and honored to welcome Andrew on board.

As for me, the rice plants that I mentioned last time are now pushing seven inches tall and the paddies are in great shape and transplanting is underway.  I needed the liberty to tend to my farm at this early point in the growing season.  I can't deny that I track the progress of Ceres compulsively now, as perhaps some of you readers did last year when I was aboard.  So I know that the same steady rain that watered my garden transplants and added depth to my rice fields also fell on Ceres as the crew guided her through at least seven or eight locks today.  But the mission advances, despite the challenges, delays and problems.  We have a much smaller crew than last year, when many events were amped up into mini-festivals through the energy of Greenhorns and its dedicated volunteers and staff.  Now we are trying to advance to the next stage, to where we can hopefully build on the work and the recognition of last year, and hopefully wean ourselves down to a primary crew of four, all based on the barge.  Ultimately a small craft like Ceres really ought to be run as a mobile market by a crew of two, but we are not there yet.

Erik at the helm on Lake Champlain.  That little mizzen sail really helps push us along when running with the wind.

Our current crew is Captain Steve, Middlebury College intern Meade Atkeson, Andrew Willner as I mentioned above, and recent Binghamton University Grad Matt Horgan, who we will be losing to grad school later this month.

Running the vessel and its market requires that a skilled operator be a solid river sailor, plus a capable businessperson in order to maintain inventory and accounts while on the move.  It also requires a serious interest in the farms and waterfront communities of the region, and some facility at outreach and social media.  Interested?  Well, we are in need of a new crew member to volunteer at the end of this month and are considering recruiting full-time staff if our operations in 2014 prove successful.  While crowded for a crew of four or more, for a working crew of two, be they friends, a married couple, or partners, Ceres affords reasonable on-the-water living, in the space not consumed by cargo that is.  I never intended for this liveaboard operator to be me.  I have a farm and am pretty well bonded to my family and my place.  Sailing around the battery into the East River?  Well, that was unforgettable.  But the next time someone else can do it.  Ultimate success of the project is not measured by what I personally get to see, do, or experience, or even necessarily by whether it is profitable or not (though we strive for it to be).  Ultimate success is that we help crack the door and in some small way lay the groundwork for the development of the next generation of watermen and waterwomen.

Ceres ties up to the southbound bulkhead at Lock 12

We are being filmed by the extermely-active Edward and Gary (deux noms qui ne sont pas tres francais je dois dire) from the French television program Thalassa.  In the course of our many (sometimes a bit repetitive) interviews, I offered my belief that contrary to the techno-paradise that some expect, my belief is that our future will likely resemble our past, and that we may fall back on proven, low energy approaches to supporting human life that have been historically proven to work.  "Isn't that pessimistic?" asked Edward.  I replied that I don't think so.  It is in my view even more pessimistic to imagine a world continuing on the current path, becoming a place in which there is no place for human labor or creativity, where rather than doing things with our backs and hands and minds, we must instead wait passively for conveniences and solutions to be marketed to us.   That, to me, is the most depressing future imaginable.

About our schedule.  We are so far behind that our plans to stop with our partners in on the way south are pretty messed up.  We have to make "fast" progress toward our most important destination, Clearwater Festival, and any chance to see us along the way will be catch-as-catch-can.  Not the way we wanted it, but it is just the beginning of the season and we hope for many chances to make up for the lost opportunities early on.   I will be posting weekly here now, and will try to get some authorship going from Ceres herself now that I have left the ship, so look out for that.

Plans to Sail South Once More

My rice seedlings that I told you about last time are doing really great.  The modified hoop house is certainly my best cheapo rice nursery solution to date, and I'm very happy with it.  On a sunny day, even with temperatures outside in the 70s, entering the hoophouse will fog my glasses up.  Tropical!  On cloudy days the effect is less pronounced but all in all it is a nice environment for cold-climate rice seedlings.  A couple of days we had sub-freezing temperatures and I have never been less worried about losing seedlings than this year. At the same time of course plans are coming into place for our upcoming trip!  I have a few docking dates to announce:

  • Mechanicville, NY  Saturday June 7th.  Market at the dock.  Hours TBA
  • Waterford, NY  Sunday June 8th.  Attending Waterford Farmers Market 10am - 1pm (subject to confirmation)
  • Coxsackie, NY Wednesday June 11th, Attending Coxsackie Farmers Market 4-7 pm
  • Croton-on-Hudson NY, Ferry Sloops, Shattemuc Yacht Club, June 18th, Market, hours TBA
  • Croton-on-Hudson, Clearwater Festival, June 21st-22nd
  • Manhattan, NY, New Amsterdam Farmers Market, June 28th, 11-4pm

This is just the beginning of the list.  The hope is that in the course of this trip from VT to the sea and back again that we will hold about 20 public markets.  There are many more localities we are looking to stop at, and where confirmation is too many steps away I hesitate to list them.  Still I am confident that many more venues will be added in short order.  We're delighted to be able to say yes, we're coming back, and if you live along the route and have a burning desire for us to visit your local dock, then please get in touch!  Our local partners and allies are totally essential to our success.

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Another opportunity to visit and engage with the project is our upcoming Dinner at the Falls in Vergennes, for which we still have 6 seats available.  We had a fantastic time hosting this last August.  The setting is perfect, the food awesome.  If you live up our way in Vermont please consider coming aboard for dinner and good conversation on Friday May 30th at McDonough Landing, Vergennes.  Advance purchase of tickets necessary, $150 per couple.  Proceeds go to support the nonprofit Willowell Foundation and VSFP.

setting up for a dockside dinner

Now that the rice nursery is secure my attention is pretty much all on planning, coordinating this with the esteemed Andrew Willner who will be superintending this round-trip from on-board the barge in the capacity of Acting Director.  In addition to planning are a number of small repairs and modifications needed to get Ceres ready for the water again in a few short weeks time.  Structurally, she held up to the rigors of the last voyage faultlessly.  So the improvements are mostly in the direction of improved cargo management and improved shipboard quality of life, with some attention as well to improvements of the sail rig.  I hope to begin sinking my teeth into that work in the coming week and look forward to telling you about it all in detail in the next post.

topside unsectioned topside sectioned

 

Spring is coming...so they say...

An almost unreal weather reversal in Vermont these last few days.  Temps topped out over eighty on Monday.  Yesterday the wind switched from south to north and brought with it an inch of snow!  I am in the middle of getting rice planted, despite an early spring season which has offered very few decent days for working outside.  The key project right now is getting our hoophouse rebuilt with better features to be a rice nursery.  In northern climes, rice is typically started under frost protection and transplanted into the rice fields at 5-6 weeks old.  At any rate that's what we do. Today was to be my day to reassemble the hoops.  But just now I went out in that north wind for about five minutes before calling it quits.  I am actually not such a terrible wimp normally when it comes to weather, but 20mph winds with temps in the 20s turned out to be more than I could make myself tolerate on the 16th of April.  Nevertheless, one way or another, the rice is getting planted out by Friday.  By then the temperatures will have moderated a lot and the projection from there is pretty favorable.  For right now, the unpleasant (I wrote "foul" but then went back on it.  It's not foul, just a little inconvenient) weather provides all the prompting I need to sit inside and write a nice long post.

 

So what about Ceres you might ask?  She is still parked under the pole barn where we built her, also waiting for the spring, as you can see.  We have been planning and scheming these last few months, and now emerge with a plan to take our sailing barge south again in less than 10 weeks time with a new load of cargo.  We hope to revisit Mechanicville, Hudson, Kingston, and other points, while making our way to Croton by June 18th where we will be hosted by Ferry Sloops at Shattemuc yacht club, offering an up-close view of our barge and goods for sale.  From there we take a short hop across Croton Bay to participate in Clearwater Revival, on June 21st and 22nd.  We are extremely excited about participating in this festival celebrating Pete Seeger's legacy in the Hudson Valley.  We plan to offer goods for sale at the festival's artisanal farm market and also to offer information on the project at the working waterfront exhibition area.

Beyond that the plan is still a little hazy, but it is likely we will head back to the northern part of our route to acquire more cargo from farms, with hopes to return to the south by July 12th to participate in the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance's City of Water Day.

Our 2014 crew is really coming together!  VSFP is proud to be working with the MiddCore Plus program at Middlebury College, and Meade Atkeson will be joining the crew as Ceres resumes trading.  Also, 2014 Binghamton University graduate Matt Horgan will be coming aboard for the June voyage.  Steve Schwartz has expressed interest in returning as our capable skipper, though this is yet to be confirmed.  Lastly, Andrew Willner, former New York / New Jersey Baykeeper will be holding the reins of the project for the first part of the season in the capacity of Acting Director.  Were you wondering how I was going to keep that rice growing while going down the river in June on a sailing barge?  Well, this is my answer -- I'm staying behind in the mud with my plants and leaving the adventuring to others this time.

 

A Friend of the Hudson

This last week we lost Pete Seeger.  Ceres was very lucky to have gotten a cheerful visit from Pete just under four months ago when we docked in Beacon.  Beacon was a pretty busy market day for us.  Because of the distance between our berth and where we were setting up our open air market, our crew walked an estimated 15 to 20 miles combined running stuff back and forth from the boat.  I personally ran a lot of that distance when I could to save time.  On one of those trips, Steve Schwartz (whose friendship with Seeger goes back to the earlier days of Clearwater and her smaller cousin the Woody Guthrie) was showing Ceres off to Pete Seeger, who had come down to see her.  Pete was able to hop up on deck with just a little help, and looked down into the hold. "Wow!"  he said, "Look at all this cargo!"  True enough, even with half of it fanned out over tables at the Beacon farmers' market, there was still an outrageous amount of flour, beans, canned goods, potatoes and all the rest still down in the hold.  Around this time I hopped up on deck and Steve introduced me to Pete.  I told Pete that in my mind the mission of Ceres--to connect sustainable transport with agricultural revival in the region--was the next logical step in the work he began with Clearwater.  I was ready to elaborate but I didn't need to, he understood me right away and shot right back, "Yes!  I totally agree!"  We then posed for this group portrait!  From left to right, Pete Seeger, Erik Andrus, Steve Schwartz and Jordan Finkelstein.

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I wish I had had more time to spend with Pete but I am happy and honored to have at least met him.  And I hope those reading this can take some comfort in knowing that just a few months ago Pete was still getting around and plenty alert, and taking delight in new things.

Planning continues for 2014.  The plan is to make some improvements to the hull, get the last sail completed and rigged, and tip Ceres back into the lake a few short months from now.  I want to put together a mailing list for those in the area who would like to crew on a volunteer basis.  We'll be moving smaller loads and won't be at work every day, but we hope to get around.  Plus a second run to NYC is also in the offing.

While winter lasts the Willowell crew and I are hard at work mopping up the last of the rewards for our gracious Kickstarter backers.  The main item still on my personal plate is the construction guide.  I have made many, many drafts of the hull in the past couple years, and my SketchUp skills have evolved along the way.  Now I am setting about making a complete, accurate digital model of the boat we actually built.  Lots of lines!

Into this model I have incorporated some planned upgrades, including a possible switch from a tiller to a wheel in a wheelhouse, a folding bowsprit, and some alterations in the living quarters.  There are a lot of details!

aft cabin interior

aft cabin interior cutaway

wheelhouse

mast and tabernacle

Whither VSFP?

Malcolm Martin, a NYC harbor skipper and a friend of the project recently asked me whether the dust had settled yet, or whether a whole new cloud of dust is arising in preparation for 2014.  A good question.  If there's one gift I value most about long nights and warm fires it's the gift of perspective that a pause can bring.  If you live in a totally mild climate where nature never forces you to just....stop.....then I guess I might feel a little sorry for you. So you already know that I have major props for my team.  We pulled out all the stops.  Most participants were barely compensated, if at all.  This project was brought about by fire in the belly and by the conviction that ordinary people working together can bring about creative, cooperative solutions.  If we had put everyone involved on payroll of any kind, you can be sure either the project would never have happened or else we would be so bankrupt that the boat would never see the water again after this year.

But this should come as no real surprise.   Our 2013 voyage was a statement, an experiment, an effort to explore and to suggest new ideas in a way that our major institutions are unlikely to ever do.  As such, we succeeded.  We did something that has been long talked about yet hasn't really been acted on, at least not in our Northeastern waters.  It cost us a lot.  In general the greater the commitment, the greater the cost for the individuals involved.  But we did what we set out to do, and in a world of broken promises, I think that's worth something regardless of what follows.

Still, lots of folks want to know, "Hey, this sounds cool and all that.  But did it make any money?"  My answer is no, not really.  However we did basically break even for the trading voyage, which for a start-up in its first year is not bad at all.  Also, now we have the data to steer us towards a better model.  It may take us a while to get there.  Keep in mind that we are dealing with a wickedly tilted playing field.

Road transport is artificially cheap, paid for invisibly through your tax dollars in so many ways.  As a lot of folks are already aware, that the price of road travel at the toll booth and the pump is a small fraction of the cost.  But you might not know that small-scale marine transport is, at least in in our case, artificially expensive! 

We have an insurance policy that costs more in premiums each year than it cost our team to build Ceres from scratch (materials bill $17000).  Without this policy we can't tie up to many docks.  It costs this much simply because we are commercial and the handful of remaining marine underwriters consider us to belong to a high-risk pool.  Today's marine insurance sector is very, very heavily consolidated and only three underwriters, all gigantic, would even consider covering us.  Of those three, only one was ultimately willing and able to offer us a policy that met our needs, but at a price tag that is, at least for our scale, quite onerous, in excess of $20,000 per year for all of the various required policies combined.  And consider that if Ceres were the exact same boat sailing the exact same places but classed as recreational rather than commercial, the policy would likely be only a few thousand per year, max.  It is not fair, but exhaustive research left us with no alternatives.  I could also add that our agent, S and P Underwriters of Montpelier, did their utmost to secure us a fair deal but ultimately were limited by their underwriters.  It took unreasonable amounts of time and patience to even get a quote, during which time we built and launched a sound vessel in good faith that we would ultimately negotiate an affordable policy that met our needs.

So, there we stood in September, with Ceres built, launched and ready to sail, and confronted with the choice of abandoning the entire project before we could sell a single pound of cargo or making the commitment to carry heavy insurance burden for a one-year minimum...well, we went with our gut and chose the latter.  We were--and we remain--convinced that we have a legitimate right to ply the water in trade.  We're in it to win it.

I also believe, sooner or later, one way or another, that the insurance issue will resolve itself.  Either we'll develop enough revenue streams to cover the cost, or maybe once we prove to our underwriters that we are a dependable client, that we are cautious, and that we solve our own problems (evidenced on numerous occasions on our first commercial run), and eventually our insurer will lower our premiums to a more reasonable level (and if anyone reading this has the wherewithal to help defray this single vexing expense and in so doing, tilt the playing field back to something approximating fairness, please let me know!)  At the end of the day, there are no blueprints out there about how to negotiate an endeavor like this into existence in the "real world."  We can only do our best.

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Sometimes our best isn't even good enough for ourselves.  Let me tell you about an aspect of the fall voyage that was and remains a keen disappointment to me.  We didn't sail nearly enough.  The majority of the beautiful trip was spent with the rattling of the Mercury outboard in the background.  That motor that was intended to be in the background for backup use only took center stage time and time again.  Why?  Well, I have a lot of excuses.  We didn't have any base of experience know how long it would take with this craft, this rig, this load.  We had a very demanding timetable, with logistics and media waiting for us at nearly every stop.  We had to hit out deliveries on time and be back home through the canal system by November 15th.   And on the way down, pleasant southerly winds were in our face most every day, only to turn northerly the moment we set for home.  So, all together, this wasn't at all what I had in mind as a demonstration project for sail power.

So let's just ask this question: what if everything about the project could be adjusted so that we could pay a crew and make money doing the same run in the same way as we did last October, under power most of the time?   In fact, let's take it one step further.  You could cut to the chase and strip the masts and sails off the barge and thus simplify everything--simplify it a lot!   Would we do it?  The answer is no.  If we can't make adjustments to make greater use of wind and muscle and still serve some useful economic function, then I say the hell with it, I'm not interested.  So maybe that means that some less dogmatic person comes up behind VSFP and launches a motor-only-minifreighter delivery service/floating farmers market, taking advantage of the market we have proved is there?  I say, that's great.  That's not a business I'm interested in running, so anyone is welcome to it.  I think it's a fine idea for someone to pursue, but motors are of no interest to me, so someone else would have to do it.

However I feel like it needn't come to that.  The learning curve to getting the most out of our sailing barge and other craft like her is a long one, and an interesting one.  I want to keep climbing it, at a pace I can sustain on a personal and financial level.  After all, nothing truly worthwhile can be learned in a single season.  We've only begun to explore the potential of our new barge, and have lots of ideas based on our experience to improve performance and function.  Most notably a new folding bowsprit and the long-awaited completion of our upper sails!

ceres bowsprit

And so, on this note of constrained optimism, I can at least share at this point that we are in the process of formulating a plan for 2014 that will:

  • Return us to NYC at least once
  • Further develop VSFP as an educational platform
  • Collaborate with Bread and offer Puppet Theatre in Lake Champlain to offer "Shipboard Theatre"!
  • Visit many towns in the Hudson and Lake Champlain that were passed by in 2013
  • Develop innovative shore support infrastructure in partnership with the Southern Saratoga Chamber of Commerce
  • Remain a volunteer-driven project of the non-profit VT-based Willowell Foundation
  • Create improvements in our barge-tracking and notification software
  • Integrate additional farms into our producer network, particularly those in the southern part of our route

Please note that part about remaining volunteer-driven.  This means we still invite your help to stay sailing.  There will be opportunities for volunteers to crew aboard or even skipper Ceres (so long as standard qualifications and training protoc0ls are satisfied).  Get on our mailing list to learn about that.  We'll also continue to invite general financial support for the work we do and to also offer you the opportunity to support us simply by trading with us.  Putting a bulk cargo aboard (dock-to-dock rates start at $.25/lb) and shipping it from one Champlain-Hudson waterway port to another is yet another way to support us.  We'll also be refining our pre-order and pop-up market systems and of course patronizing those anywhere we go is fantastic too.

Okay.  I have this goal, an easy and lighthearted goal, that you can help me with.  We have 98,600 views of this blog to date.  Please share this blog with your friends and help me over 100,000 before 2014 arrives!