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!
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!
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.").
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.
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.