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Aboard the Good Sloop Clearwater

After serving four months aboard the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, it is incredibly difficult to summarize the experience in any amount of words. I served as a crew member as the good sloop plied the Hudson River from the post-industrial valley town of Kingston to the bustling shores of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Along the way we sailed past historic bridges and lighthouses spread out over ninety river miles of the scenic Hudson River Valley. We enjoyed rain and rainbows, sunsets worthy of a Hudson River School painting, and city lights off in the distance of many unique Hudson Valley towns. The crew busied ourselves with teaching fourth graders all about their river ecosystem on schooldays, and with entertaining guests on chartered sails on evenings and weekends. Our crew played music together, played games together, slogged through the rain together, and all made sure that this 50 year-old replica of a historic cargo vessel sailed safely from dock to dock and would keep sailing for 50 more years. Mere photos of the ship can never do justice to the myriad of tasks that are involved in operating a historic tall ship, or to the vibrancy of the community aboard the vessel.  But as my tribute, here is a photo montage of the fine and splendid sloop Clearwater that has served as my workplace, my home, and my community for the spring and summer of 2019.




How Now Shall We Live?


Pete Seeger, folk singer and activist, founder of the Clearwater (c) Dona Crawford


The dark cloud lingering over the national election is passing, but even darker clouds loom on the late-January horizon. The future of the nation seems to be a spiral of uncertainty. Gains in social progress and human rights hard-fought for over the decades seem to be at risk to an ideology of fear and distrust. How could America stoop so low to have this happen?

It’s easy to get cynical about national elections. Being registered to vote in a deeply red state (Idaho), I knew a vote either way wouldn’t change the national outcome. The Electoral College masks the voice of the people, instead turning the power of the popular vote into a pundit’s game. But with extra hope for democracy, I made sure to cast my absentee ballot. In the end, my suspicions were proven; my presidential vote far from mattered, with the winning candidate leading by 31 percentage points in my state regardless.

I watched the outcome on election night with my shipmates in New York, hovering over a smartphone below decks as the results trickled in. Hopes for a promising outcome were initially high. An air of disbelief gradually set in as key states on the east coast began to turn solidly red. Optimism gradually dampened. Late into the night, the tone turned somber and morose as the reality of the outcome sunk in.

There would have been no other place I’d rather be to watch the results than on the Clearwater. The ship is meant to be a safe place. It is meant to be an inclusive community, free from the hate and bigotry that have marred recent national politics. Individuals from all walks of life find themselves aboard the Clearwater. Whether you like the people you end up around on the ship often becomes irrelevant when you must cooperate with each other to form a functioning environment (though I’d say we really do actually like each other aboard the Clearwater). We’re all we have on the ship; we have to look out and take care of each other no matter who we may be.

I wish the ship could serve as a model for how our nation ought to operate. America is a vast mosaic of cultures and ideas and values that has been functioning continuously for over 260 years. The social narrative of this nation has been one of gradually recognizing that the inalienable rights originally granted in the Constitution are inherent to every human being—rights for women, ethnic minorities, indigenous people, religious groups, refugees, gender identities, sexual orientations, disabilities, immigrants, the impoverished and beyond. At the large national scale, it’s easy to become afraid of those groups of people who are different than you. We preferentially segregate ourselves to be with others similar to us. The outsiders—they are unknown, impersonal, different. They might try and change our comfortable status quo, we reason. When relations with the alien other remain impersonal, it’s easy to slip into stereotyping and generalizing fear and distrust. But if instead we were to know our neighbors—to actually learn who we are in community with—how different could things be? In the words of Clearwater’s founder Pete Seeger, “I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.” If only our nation could behave like a small village, knowing and understanding our neighbors, then maybe cooperation and compassion could win out over fear.

Personally, I’d hate to slip into the cynicism that I have no control in how the nation goes. We’re the second largest democracy in the world, holder of the largest worldwide economy, and home to 320 million people. America is an immense nation; an individual can easily feel overwhelmed by changes in national politics. But the future of our society, I believe, must be won at the level of the individual. Grassroots efforts at change in this nation have and will continue to bubble up and will ultimately succeed in crafting a society of equality and fraternity. These efforts will face many setbacks along the way. But keep on. Don’t get disheartened. As grassroots activist Pete Seeger believed, “the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” Though cynical about politics on a national and even a state level, I know voting still remains a fundamental act of resistance. Be part of your community. Go and vote in local elections.

The people’s voice may not have been heard this time, but we will be heard in the future. In the meantime, there is work to be done in the village. Bigotry and hate start locally, even within oneself. This must be stamped out. But it won’t be easy.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

The City and the Ship



The Clearwater approaches her dock in Manhattan


The sloop Clearwater has a berth in New York City, 79th street on the west side of Manhattan. This is the southernmost dock for the sloop, and the most urbanized. While the ship’s surroundings can change drastically at different ports, daily life on the boat remains much the same.

The 79th Street Boat Basin sits beside a long stretch of parkland in the city, a thin insulating strip of green that buffers the recreational waterfront from the tumult of the city. Access into the city is by crossing through the open air Boat Basin Café onto the terminus of 79th street. Going through the arches of the café is like stepping into a rabbit hole; an entirely different world exists onshore.

A few blocks away from the docks runs Broadway. In the residential Upper West Side, the street is well trafficked but lacks the frenetic aura it is caricatured for. Continue along Broadway until it begins its southeast turn; the buildings soon become larger and more commercial. A few miles further on lies Times Square. At the heart of the city, the hustle and bustle grows to its climax here. Flashing lights and monumental billboards scream for your attention. The pace of life seems to quicken, and you can almost feel the chaotic energy of the square seeping into your veins. The metabolism of the city is high. It’s calling you to see and do and consume.

The big city is fun and exciting. There is lots to see and experience. Somewhere, at all hours, something is going on in the city that never sleeps. A diversity of people walk the street. New sights and sounds lurk around every corner. The smell of exotic foods wafts from street vendors. A lifetime of exploring could never discover all the corners of such a metropolis.



Times Square at night


I find the city lively and exciting. Its abundant stimuli rouses the mind. But I can easily get overwhelmed by the city.

I prefer the simple life instead. The boat, though basic, is homely and comforting. The bounds of the ship are fathomable to an overworked mind, and the intricate corners and inner workings are knowable with time and care. The 76 foot length of deck serves as the bounds of my home, one that I share with 18 others. Down below deck, 36 cubic feet of space is all that I can claim as my own, which serves as my bed and storage space by night, but doubles as a couch during the day. Inside the ship, the spontaneous whims of the city don’t find their folly. Instead, a set schedule adds structure and predictability to daily life. Life onboard is a ritual of sorts.

It is a lifestyle of simplicity, not excess or extravagance. On the Clearwater there are no fancy restaurants or fine dining. Vegetarian meals are shared with the crew, who gather together to eat in the cozy main cabin, sitting on the floor or perching on bunks to make room. The fare, whole and nutritious, sustains the body after a day of labor. No fancy dress or designer clothing are required onboard. The dress code is one of practicality and pragmatism. Most of the crew onboard have just a few articles of clothing, second-hand flannel shirts and thread-bare workwear. The grassroots vibe emanates still from the earliest days of Clearwater. Crew all contribute their part to the internal functioning of the ship. Daily chores and tasks are shared among shipmates in this communal setting.

Far fewer people live on the boat than in the city. But instead of a metropolis full of people whom you never get to meet, the boat is full of people you quickly get to know. Working closely during the day transitions to hanging out later at night. We play music together, and share in conversational rabbit trails. Daily life on the boat is an exercise in communal bonding of the sort that gets a boat to run and sustains an idea of environmental activism.

On a night at 79th Street I can crawl up on deck from below. The lights of the big city surround me. Red and white glowing orbs from traffic continually roll past and the noise of urbanity lingers still. Looking up I can see the lighted spire of the Empire State building and I know that I’m in the heart of America’s most densely populated city. But things are calm and quiet on the sloop upon the Hudson.

I much prefer my little ship in Manhattan.

Learning the Ropes


The sloop Clearwater sailing through the Highlands section of the Hudson River


“It is not that life ashore is distasteful to me. But life at sea is better.” –Francis Drake


I’ve been learning the ropes lately, so to speak.

It’s been two weeks on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, in a crash course on boatsmanship and environmental education. I’m a sailor now, though I’m not yet as salty as my boots are from swabbing the deck with brine.

Foremost, learning the ropes entails that a rope isn’t just a rope—it can be a line, a sheet, a halyard or a downhaul. The nominal difference doesn’t mean much to a landlubber’s hands, though—every rope helps aid in developing the all-important sailor callus. Two weeks in and I can now flop-flake a downhaul, dogbone a line, or Ballantine a halyard. Better yet, I know what all those terms mean too. But learning the ropes goes beyond just the ropes—among other things I’ve learned how to hoist up the main sail, steer with the tiller, be a dock jumper, and furl the jib.

Confused by any of the terms yet? Sailing culture has its own lingo. Rarely does a component of a boat share its name with its onshore counterpart. The cook prepares food in a galley, not a kitchen. Below deck, we walk upon the sole instead of floors. And, using the head on a ship is an entirely different thing than using your head on land. By now, practical experience has resolved my long-standing confusion of which side of the boat is port and which is starboard. There are so many new and funny-sounding terms to learn: jib, gaff, shroud, boom, peak, throat, transom, fo’c’s’le, dogged, pin, cleat, lazy jack, and my favorite new term baggywrinkle. Though we may be on a tall-masted historic ship, we aren’t pirates. No arrrghs or ahoy mateys found here.



The 106-foot long Clearwater under full sail


The Clearwater is very much an educational ship. Its revolving crew of apprentices, interns, and volunteers, who stay for one week to a few months, means that new hands are always coming aboard to learn the ropes for themselves. This means that onboard the ship is an active learning environment; new crew learn from their shipmates, and those aboard for longer gradually switch from primarily learning to teaching as well. Two weeks in and I’m happy that I can now ‘show the ropes’ to newcomers. The constant influx of trainees and volunteers serves as an indicator of the grassroots origins of the Clearwater, which was founded by Pete Seeger and other activist musicians in the late 1960’s to educate and create awareness about issues of water quality. Clearwater’s alumni crew number many and all contribute their part to the mission of the ship in a different way.

New crew members get one full day of formal training before taking part in educational sails. The rest of learning on the Clearwater is done practically—learning by doing. The process of sailing itself proves to be very educational, and with around 20 sails now under my belt, I’m beginning to feel quite comfortable at the undertakings. Tasks onboard are done in a progression of difficulty. Prove yourself capable of performing one task, and the captain or mate will assign you to something more challenging. Each day and each sail is a little bit different, so there’s always something new to learn. Standing by as a deckhand, you never know which task the mate will assign you to—and once you’re told, you just have to repeat back the command and perform the task with minimal preparation. Learning by doing on such a large sailing vessel seems like a high-stakes game, but everyone’s looking out for each other to make sure the crew is learning well and performing their best.

Education aboard the Clearwater extends from training the crew to instructing the participants on the ship’s many educational sails. The primary focus of Clearwater is the educational sails, and a typical day sees two three-hour sails of this type take place. All of the crew onboard are not only sailors but are also educators, and will lead a variety of educational curricula. Students who sail are as young as fourth graders and as old as college students. Just like every sailing condition is different, every educational program is tailored to the needs and learning level of the group. The basics of each educational sail remain the same, with participants helping to hoist the sails before going to different learning stations covering aquatic life, water quality, Hudson River history, and navigation. As someone not from the Hudson River watershed who knew little about the river before sailing, I’ve ended up learning as much about the Hudson River as the students I teach. At first, teaching the standard material is being only one step ahead of the group in knowledge. After a number of sails, though, I’ve found I’ve learned enough to teach more and more, and every new sail presents an opportunity to teach the same material in a different manner. And, I absolutely love it when people ask me a question that I’ve just learned the answer to.

Learning the ropes also means adjusting to a different lifestyle. A life on the river is different than a life on land, particularly when you live on a replica of an 18th century cargo ship. The modern conveniences of life aren’t found in the living quarters. There is no air-conditioning or heating, no refrigeration, and only limited electricity and running water. Our restroom situation is as simple as using a five-gallon bucket. Living on the ship really shows you how much—or how little—it actually takes to live. The social environment is an adjustment too. With a crew of up to 19, quarters are close on the 76 feet of Clearwater’s deck. You have to be comfortable not only working closely with people, but also living with them on your time off. However, the Clearwater tends to attract a certain type of person who can thrive in a tight community aboard an active sailing ship. The community onboard the ship has been the best resource for learning to sail and one of the biggest highlights of learning the ropes.

Learn more about the sloop Clearwater at