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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.



Clearwater in late October, fully rigged, before the end of sailing season



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.


Fully downrigged and the framing of the shed is taking place


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.



Shrink-wrapped for the season



Inside the shed, the deck is being prepared for winter


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.


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