The sloop Clearwater:
Report on a Sail

September 6, 2010


EMF's annual Ear to the Earth Festival is about water this year, a fact that led us to seek out the Clearwater, a sloop that sails up and down the Hudson conveying a message of environmental concern and education. As a prelude to what quickly became a general partnership of overlapping missions, we joined the sloop Clearwater on August 29 at its temporary dock on Rondout Creek, a tributary of the Hudson River, at Kingston, New York, and sailed in the Hudson River until about 9pm, with soft winds, quiet water, friendly crew, lively passengers, and a pastel sunset.

It was Pete Seeger, legendary folksinger recently turned 90, and a few friends who in 1966 commissioned the Clearwater's construction as a replica of the Dutch sloops of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Hudson River sloops, as they were called, were designed specifically for operation in the winds, currents, and depths of the river. In transporting mail and a variety of cargoes among the riverfront villages and outlying areas, they constituted a primary vehicle for communication and commerce.

The sloop Clearwater was launched on May 17, 1969 in South Bristol, Maine. In the years since, the Clearwater has traveled to numerous towns and cities along the Hudson, New York Harbor, and Long Island Sound, but its mission, not at all commercial, is to promote the rescue of the river from raw sewage, toxic chemicals, and oil pollution. The Clearwater has become a symbol for environmental activism and a platform for fostering relationships with the river and environmental education.

We went on board at about 6pm and shortly after, with about 40 other passengers, began to motor slowly down the narrow creek to enter the wide river.

Entering the Hudson from Rondout Creek

The mainsail, we were told, is the third largest sail of any registered sailboat in the United States, which distinction also makes it heavy and difficult to raise. The Hudson River sloops of the earlier centuries, with a crew of three to five depending upon the size of the boat, often hired dock hands to help raise the sail before the boat left the dock. The Clearwater crew asks willing passengers to help well after the boat is underway.

Raising the sail

The sail

Captain Betsy Garthwaite

Captain Garthwaite tells her story

A comment

River at Sunset

Education Director Dave Conover

Standing in the center of the boat, passengers all around us, we talked with Dave Conover about his job, about the 19th century Hudson River School of painters, the Hudson River heritage, how the Clearwater came to be built, the book titled Hudson River Sloops, and the modernization of the Clearwater.

"My job as education director ..."

"The great thing about the Hudson River School ..."

"The Hudson is ..."

"This boat was actually built ..."

"That's the book that inspired Pete ..."

"The fact is we had to put an engine in this boat ..."

And by the way ...

The Clearwater sloop is 106' feet long, 25' wide, and with centerboard extended, has a draft of about 14'.

A sloop is a type of sailboat that has one mast and two sails. A large sail, called the 'mainsail', is attached to the mast and to a 'boom' which keeps the mainsail extended outwards and backwards. A smaller sail, called the 'jib', is tied to the mast and to the front of the boat, called the 'bow'. On the Clearwater, the jib is tied to the 'bowsprit', an appendage extending forward from the bow.

Typically, on a sloop, the top of the mainsail is attached to the mast, giving the sail a triangular shape. But the Clearwater mainsail, untypically, is extended on top by a 'gaff', a smaller boom on top of the sail that gives the sail a greater area with which to catch the wind. Also untypically, the Clearwater has a 'topsail' above the mainsail.