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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