Barn Raising on the River
What’s a ship to do when its river freezes in the winter?
While some boats transit to milder climes and others get pulled into dry-dock, there remain some ships that stick out the winter in the river.
The sloop Clearwater is one of those boats that remains in the water. Her winter home is on Rondout Creek in Kingston, New York, just a stone’s throw from the Rondout’s confluence with the Hudson River. The Rondout—once the bustling terminus of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, a thriving commercial shipyard, and a port of call for daily steamer traffic—is much quieter in today’s age, though it still well knows the hum of water traffic.
The sailing season for Clearwater ended October 31 with nothing short of a Halloween-themed sail and a crew dressed up as Peter Pan and the lost boys. The final sail—a sunset cruise—was pleasant and mild. It seemed a shame to put the boat to bed for winter with such a slew of nice days in the forecast. But as the temperature inevitably falls with the autumn leaves, the onslaught of cold wind and occasional snow flurries signals the forlorn truth that the end is nigh.
To prepare our boat for winter, we, the crew, must begin to disassemble the ship that has been our work and our home for the past summer. The process is called downrigging—taking off all the equipment on a boat that makes it sail. Anything that can come off the boat and be securely stored out of the winter elements will come in—sails, ropes, blocks, rigging, etc. We take the wind out of Clearwater’s sails—the 4,300 square-foot mainsail (the third largest in America) gets tightly rolled and unlashed from the rigging. It takes a full crew to finagle the hefty fabric sail into the loft of the storage barn. The boom, coming in at 65 feet long and weighing over 1,000 pounds, is removed from the main mast and dropped onto shore using the rigging that once raised the sails. Even the 30-foot tall top mast, from its perch high atop the main mast, comes down and reduces the height of the Clearwater to a squat 80 feet. On the deck, storage boxes and even the tiller disappear into the barn. The good sloop Clearwater, no longer a sailboat per se, is reduced to a shell of herself.
Clearwater’s naked deck and down-rigged mast don’t stand exposed for long. While the weather remains favorable there is much work to be done in preparation for winter. The shed—a barn-like structure—must be raised on the ship. Framed like a long, squat shanty house, the modular shed quickly gets pieced together. Like barn-raisings of yore, this step requires the community effort of the sloop crew to raise the rafters before the structure holds itself in place. In just a matter of days, the sloop transforms from sailboat to floating house.
This framed package of a ship does not stay open either. A thick white plastic becomes its skin and gives the barn on a ship its façade. Huge rolls of heavy plastic are strung over the rafters. Using a flamethrower (on a wooden boat of all places), the crew heats the plastic covering to tidily shrink-wrap the ship for winter. From the outside, the Clearwater stands as a neatly-wrapped package waiting to be opened once spring arrives. Inside the cover there lies a furnace that keeps the ship’s bilges heated to a low temperature just above freezing. After all, it’s not good to turn the bilge water in a wooden boat into popsicles.
Out on the Rondout, cold waters continually flow back and forth with the tides. Ice will soon cover the creek higher up in the watershed, but giant logs placed around the hull will form a protective barrier from flowing ice, and bubblers will aerate the surrounding water to keep it from freezing. A skeleton winter crew will stand guard over the ship all winter, protecting her from the elements while they mend sailing-season wear and tear. Through the depths of winter, Clearwater will sit quietly, awaiting the arrival of spring.