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The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater: Sailing to Save the River

Hudson River Valley Review Vol. 25, No. 1

The bell chimes twice, cutting through the air to tell the crew of the sloop Clearwater that lunch is ready. They retreat below deck, where sounds of laughter and talk escape from the cabin. Waves break against the ship’s dark-green underbelly, gently rocking the hull and those aboard. A breeze flows across the hardwood deck, its polished finish timeworn by forty years of weather and passengers. A looming mast casts a shadow across the foredeck, standing 108 feet tall. The three canvases used to sail lay still. Lengths of wrist-thick rope lay neatly coiled around the side of the boat, sun-washed to a light brown, cared for by crews of volunteers past and present. Movement is heard from below deck as the crew cleans up, gathers themselves, and prepares for the day ahead. Later, they will sail to Newburgh, but for now there is music from Waryas Park, as the people of Poughkeepsie gather around the forty-year-old vessel. Captain Patrick Flynn issues a few last-minute orders to the crew as the children waiting by the dock can no longer hold back. They rush aboard this environmental icon of the Hudson River.

The Hudson flows from New York Harbor to Albany (in either direction, depending upon the Atlantic’s tide) over a span of 150 miles. The estuary’s composition of fresh and salt water provides all sorts of creatures and observers with a unique yet delicate ecosystem. Failure to protect this ecosystem could result in the species’ extinction. One group in particular watching over the river and its denizens is Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. It was founded in 1966 by folksinger/ songwriter Pete Seeger. At the time, the Hudson River’s beauty was just surface deep. The river itself was being destroyed from below by pollution. Deposits of waste had caused it to become “rank with raw sewage, toxic chemicals, oil pollution, and bacteria too anoxic to support fish life” (www.clearwater.org).

Seeger aimed at saving the Hudson by halting the pollution and raising awareness. “You can’t expect people to fight for a cleaner river until they learn to love it,” he has said. Clearwater organizers feared that simply raising awareness through word of mouth would not be enough to bring about the necessary changes to clean the river, so the organization built the sloop Clearwater in 1969 with the notion that if they could give people an incentive to come to the river, they would want to help. Two thousand people were present when the sloop left port for the first time from South Bristol, Maine (www.clearwater.org).

The following year, Seeger and his friend and fellow musician Don McLean sailed the Clearwater to Washington, D.C., where a press conference and impromptu concert were held for the House of Representatives; the goal was to raise awareness for polluted waterways such as the Hudson and emphasize the need for aid to clean up the damage. Two years later, the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendment of 1972 was signed. It introduced a permit system for regulating point sources of pollution (www.waterboards.ca.gov). In 1977, this law became known as the Clean Water Act; it “continued requirements to set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters. The act made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant into navigable waters; funded the construction of sewage treatment plants; and recognized the need for planning to address the source of pollution” (www.epa.gov). Clearwater has continued to fight for legislation to protect the Hudson and all other wetlands from pollution, and has collaborated with groups such as the Hudson River Watershed Alliance and Town of Poughkeepsie Wetland Protection (www.clearwater.org).

Though legislation helped reduce the damage being done to the Hudson, pollution present before these initiatives still lingers. PCBs are a group of synthetic, oil-like chemicals of the organochlorine family. Until their toxic nature was recognized and their use was banned in the 1970s, they were widely used as insulation in electrical equipment (www.clearwater.org). Five hundred pounds of PCBs discharged for more than 30 years from General Electric plants in upstate Hudson Falls and Fort Edward get washed downriver every year, explained Manna Jo Greene, environmental director of Clearwater. While the threat of PCBs to humans is not direct, it seriously affects wildlife, primarily fish, and crippled the Hudson River’s fishing industry. With some forty separate PCB “hot spots” along the river, the Hudson was until recently the nation’s number-one Superfund site, with a cleanup area stretching 200 miles. The first phase of the cleanup process is complete; phase two, to begin next year, will require the dredging of contaminated areas.

It has been because of efforts of organizations like Clearwater that, after nearly forty years, the Hudson’s remediation is being addressed. Clearwater also offers a number of educational opportunities for communities throughout the Hudson Valley to become more aware of the issues and dangers threatening the river. “The problem goes below just the surface [of the Hudson River],” said Captain Flynn. “People need to be made aware that there is life down there and that it is worth protecting.”

The sloop Clearwater weighs in at seventy tons, can sleep a crew of eighteen, and carry up to fifty passengers. Those aboard sail from Albany to New York Harbor and Long Island Sound. The design of the ship replicates the Dutch sloops that carried cargo up and down the Hudson in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, the Clearwater functions not as a cargo ship, but as a mobile icon for educating people about the Hudson River.

Many of Clearwater’s passengers are students from local schools. “We do three hour education sails with students, usually fifth- and sixth-graders. In the history of Clearwater we have had over 450,000 students aboard the sloop!” said Captain Flynn. This, he added, is the biggest effect Clearwater has had,—that so many people have been touched, been made aware, and educated by the organization to what damage has been done to the river that gives them so much. “We are trying to undo a lot of the myths,” noted Greene.

The educational philosophy of Clearwater’s Classroom on the Waves Program is “learning by doing.” Through inquiry-based activities, students help raise the sloop’s sails, navigate the boat, set and haul in a fishing net, as well as interact with learning stations on board to examine and touch the day’s catch, perform water quality tests, and study plankton and other invertebrate life under field magnification. Clearwater’s Tideline Discovery Program is offered to school groups in grades K to 12. Clearwater caters to the general community with its Community Educator Programs, designed for adults and mixed ages. Clearwater also offers educational programs in classrooms throughout the Hudson Valley. Its educators bring slides, songs, and stories, as well interactive exhibits.

Moving beyond the traditional classroom, The organization also offers onboard experience through sloop apprenticeships, educational internships, and volunteer positions aboard the sloop. Apprentices are selected for two-month campaigns between April and July. They assist the crew in all aspects of sailing, including education and maintenance. Educational interns join Clearwater for two to three months between April and October. While serving as full-time crew members, they focus primarily on assisting with educational programs. Volunteers working as crew hands are part of a two-crew rotation from April to October. They may occupy the positions of first mate, second mate, cook, engineer, bosun, and deckhands.

Aside from providing educational opportunities, Clearwater hosts a number of fun on-shore events. The most prominent of these is the Clearwater Festival, held each June at Croton Point Park in Westchester County. For three decades now, Clearwater has hosted approximately 15,000 attendees who come to enjoy top-quality performances of a diverse mix of contemporary, traditional, World, and American Roots music, dance, and storytelling.

Pete Seeger’s dream has changed little since Clearwater was first created in 1966. The Clearwater still sails up and down the Hudson River, spreading its message of hope, its crew continuing to educate and fight for the river.

Learn more about the Clearwater, its educational and sailing opportunities, and its work in environmental efforts, and with sloop clubs around the region by visiting the Web site www.clearwater.org or contact them at 112 Little Market St., Poughkeepsie, NY 12601. 800-67-SLOOP or 845-454-7673; office@clearwater.org.

 

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