If Not Now, When? An Old Sailor Signs On

A version of this blog post was first published on the Vermont Sail Freight’s Captain’s (b)log 

In a January 2014 on my blog I talked about the choices this old “sailor” was considering as I looked at 70.  In that piece I wrote about my interest in the Vermont Sail Freight

Vermont Sail Freight ProjectProject,  “the Vermont Sail Freight Project is the furthest along of these ideas.  Founded and implemented by Erik Andrus a farmer in Ferrisburgh, VT.  VSFP is a slow tech approach to energy and a resilient food system.

Erik has said about the project, “The Vermont Sail Freight Project originated out of our farm’s commitment to resilient food systems.  Producing food sustainably is not enough.  The other half is sustainable transport of goods to market and equitable exchange.  A good portion of the damage conventional agriculture does to society and the environment is through our overblown, corporation-dominated distribution systems.  The idea of a small, producer-owned craft sailing goods to market, perhaps even a distant market, is an alternative to this system, and one which has served our region well in the past. “

I signed on in significant part because Ceres, Erik, and the crew confirm my belief in preserving the skills of the past to serve the future.  The Vermont Sail Freight Project appealed to my head and heart in significant part because I agreed with Erik when he said to a member of a television crew, “I offered my belief that contrary to the techno-paradise that some expect, my belief is that our future will likely resemble our past, and that we mayhorses working fall back on proven, low energy approaches to supporting human life that have been historically proven to work.  “Isn’t that pessimistic?” asked the interviewer.  I replied that I don’t think so.  It is in my view even more pessimistic to imagine a world continuing on the current path, becoming a place in which there is no place for human labor or creativity, where rather than doing things with our backs and hands and minds, we must instead wait passively for conveniences and solutions to be marketed to us.   That, to me, is the most depressing future imaginable.”

The adventure started when I picked up Captain Steve Schwartz on my way to Vermont.  I met Steve briefly late last summer before Ceres’ first trip, and we exchanged emails when he learned that I was going to be a crew member.  We talked constantly all the way from IMG_4026the Hudson Valley to Erik’s farm.  It turns out we are close enough in age to share musical taste and Vietnam War draft board experiences.  (Maybe I will do another post about this to the tune of Alice’s Restaurant).

We also have Hudson and Harbor stories and friends in common from Steve’s long term commitment to Clearwater as Captain of the Sloop Woody Guthrie, to his friendship with and my appreciation of the work and life of Pete Seeger, from my days as mate on the Schooner Pioneer, and because of the people I met during my 20 years on the water in the Harbor and lower Hudson as the NY/NJ Baykeeper.

The next few days were an amazing ballet (or rugby scrum depending on your point of IMG_3986view) of riggers adding a topsail and outer jib, food shopping for a crew of four, moving and loading the cargo totes, trading one ailing outboard for a used but working one, deciding on last minute changes to the schedule, loading on personal gear, and finally getting underway.

But more than that I learned firsthand why Erik is so passionate about this project.  One of the reasons he asked me to help out for a few critical weeks was because he was in the middle of planting rice in a “paddy” that he had constructed in a low lying part of his farm.  It was eye opening to see what goes into the preparation and planting of this specialty northern variety.IMG_3956

He was also up early baking bread, for sale at a nearby farmers market from local grains in the wood fired oven that he had built.  Erik’s quest for resilient food became more apparent as I saw the dedication to local production and distribution that the bakery epitomized and that the care that IMG_3962went into the preparation of the muddy field for the rice.

It was also apparent that he put the same kind of thoughtfulness and consideration (and appropriate business model) into buying the local shelf stable products outright from neighboring farmers.  The cargo of mostly Vermont maple syrup, honey, preserves, cider syrup, “fire” cider, herbal teas, grains, flour, and beans meant cash in the pocket at a time when many farmers are strapped.

I watched from land as Ceres left the town dock in Vergennes, turned down stream just IMG_4013under the falls and disappeared around the bend in Otter Creek on the way to the Lake. Ceres and her crew, Captain Steve, Meade Atkeson, and Matt Horgan spent the first night anchored in one of the most beautiful shorelines on Lake Champlain, Button Bay just off the State Park.  The next morning Erik rejoined the boat along with Edward and Gary from the French television program Thalassa   for the trip down the Lake. I was not on board (that’s a whole other story), but.  I was fortunate to stand on a bluff above the bay and able to watch the boat get underway, Vermont-Sail-Freight-Setting-Sailand raise all sail for what proved to be an amazing downwind “sleigh ride,” shaking out the new topsail that Steve described as a “turbocharger.”

I caught up with the boat at Whitehall, NY.  Whitehall is like a town encased in amber.  Its IMG_3786nineteenth century brick buildings face the canal, many empty and waiting for the resurgence of canal traffic to reanimate this once thriving town.  It was at Whitehall that we took the rig down (with the boat’s own gear) for the canal passage.  We spent the evening in a waterfront bar, as sailors should, and got underway through the first of ten locks the next morning.  This was my first trip through the canal, and the only other lock I had been through was the one connecting Lake Union to the Puget Sound in Seattle.  Steve was a veteran of last year’s trip and drilled the crew on handling the boat through the locks.

The Champlain Canal is a 60 miles long.  It connects the south end of Lake Champlain, to IMG_4042the Hudson River. It was built at the same time as the Erie Canal and was completed and opened in 1823 from Fort Edward to Lake Champlain.  The canal carried commercial traffic until the 1970’s.  Today, except for the tugs, crew boats, dredges, and barges connected to the General Electric PCB clean up, most of the traffic is recreational boats that can travel up Lake Champlain to the Chambly Canal that connects the Lake to the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

A Sailor Looks at 70

willner2With Apologies to Jimmy Buffett (who is also looking at 70)

Mother, mother ocean, after all the years I’ve found My occupational hazard being my occupation’s just not around I feel like I’ve drowned, gonna head uptown 

I was sitting with a valued friend the other night beside the pot belly stove in his boat building shop with a cup of tea at hand.  We were talking, as usual, about life, choices made, roads not taken, and my reluctance to do what always makes me happiest – starting a new adventure.  Faced with this vexing problem I talked it through with my friend.  He is always honest, and gives his opinion with insight, compassion, and clarity.  This decision is a tough one.  I have lots of excuses not to embark on the next adventure, but the voyager in me is restless.

I don’t know what is preventing me from moving on – winter storm  commitments to my loving family (perceived and real), a  job where I still  feel useful, the gloomy winter weather, or the fact my mortality is creeping up on me, but I feel a bit like Ishmael in Moby Dick. 

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from Ishmaeldeliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

My friend and his wife had recently, after talking about it for years, made the choice to move to coastal Maine from central New Jersey.  When I asked why now? His answer was, “if not now, when?”

After more than 45 years at work as a planner, woodworker, homesteader, boat builder, sailing vessel captain, environmental advocate – all of it challenging, some of it difficult, and much of it out doors, my thoughts have turned to a more sedentary life with more time spent by the wood stove with a good book, or time in the wood shop, but despite the appeal of that choice, my mind churns out a hundred new ideas a day.  I write about them now, but it is not as satisfying as using my artist’s skills, picking  out one of many plans (damn the consequences), envisioning how it might look like when completed, figuring out what resources and people have to be in place to make it happen, and just doing it, in other words, if not now, when?

The following quote by Sterling Hayden has made me realize how complacent I have become. Although written about sailing I think it applies to any person’s life, no matter the path they choose:

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous hayden wanderergadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?” Sterling Hayden (Wanderer, 1973)
As quoted by Stuart Kiehl

I have been wondering what’s next because I would like to stretch myself and do something that calls for new perspectives. I have had varied careers, but I am thinking I should make one more significant change, to make a contribution that will take full engagement of heart and mind.  I want to go voyaging not cruising.

My friend asked me a few months ago why I am so interested in food.  I facetiously answered, “Because I like to eat.”  But the real reason is obviously much more intertwined with the work in which I am engaged on climate change, “Peak Everything,” Permaculture, Transition, and social resiliency.

Food is at the heart of how we change the disastrous status quo.  How and where food is grown and by whom, how it is distributed and transported, where the water and energy carrotscome from to grow it, and thousands of other components provide a focus for me.

I have been spending my “free time” working on three interconnected ideas, Wellbeing Farm, CityFood, and The Vermont Sail Freight Project.  Of these, Wellbeing Farm is the most comprehensive and encompasses several of the ideas that I have been thinking about for years..

The mission of Wellbeing Farm is to provide the means to survive the decades ahead as individuals, communities, and bioregions; to determine pragmatic implementable methods of transitioning away from the use of fossil fuels, and to do this as peacefully, equitably, and intelligently as possible.  We will help to create ethical lifestyle changes, teach appropriate technologies that provide benefits rather than cause harm, foster self-reliance, and promote Slow technology through hands-on practice for students, professional practitioners  from rural, suburban, and urban areas.  We will do so by  taking lessons from nature, through care and love of the environment,  by developing the skills necessary in all areas of life, and by incorporating the values of care of the earth, care of people, ethical sharing of any surplus, and by teaching that actions have consequences, and that we have responsibilities for ourselves and others.

CityFood is a partnership in several senses.  It is the idea of three colleagues, and it is about to establish another collaboration with Will Allen’s Growing Power to build a “training Will-Allencenter” and urban farms in northern, NJ.

  • CityFood™ is a “triple bottom line” vertically integrated sustainable green business consulting firm and incubator focused on developing urban agricultural facilities, fostering farm and urban relationships, and infrastructure and logistics for local food.
  • CityFood™  identifies and rehabilitates industrial real estate, designs and develops aquaponics and hydroponics facilities that will  provides living wage jobs.
  • The organically grown vegetables and fish will be sold on site or through  farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture.
  • CityFood  will redevelop space for start-up and small local food processing, alternative energy demonstration projects for solar, wind and geothermal businesses while powering/heating/and lighting the facilities.

The Vermont Sail Freight Project (VSFP) is the furthest along of these ideas.  Founded and implemented by Erik Andrus a farmer in Ferrisburgh, VT.  VSFP is a slow tech approach to food, energy, and a resilient food system.

The Vermont Sail Freight Project originated out of our farm’s commitment to resilient food Vermont-Sail-Freight-Setting-Sailsystems.  Producing food sustainably is not enough.  The other half is sustainable transport of goods to market and equitable exchange.  A good portion of the damage conventional agriculture does to society and the environment is through our overblown, corporation-dominated distribution systems.  The idea of a small, producer-owned craft sailing goods to market, perhaps even a distant market, is an alternative to this system, and one which has served our region well in the past. 

The VSFP appeals to my head and heart.  I have thrown what little influence and connections I have behind Erik’s project after learning about it through Jan Lundberg’s Sail Tranport Network while I was working on my own idea for transporting farm goods by sail called HARVEST.

Two of these projects would be full time and may require a move.  All of them would necessitate a huge amount of time, a significant reduction in income, and disruption of my routine – sounds like I should be heeding Sterling’s advice “To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse.”

My friend also pointed out that I am now officially an “elder.”  The term brings to mind a traditional society where age equals knowledge and respect, and where younger members of a community would seek out the elders for advice.  I began to wonder what being an elder means in our society where age is often equated with a burden on the state, ill health, poverty, and loss of respect.
One elder skill I possess is that I actually remember the “60’s and 70’s” when  many of us were involved in anti-war conscientious objection, racial integration, back to the land, growing and preserving home grown fruit and vegetables, making clothing, brewing beer and wine, setting up housing communities and cooperatives. This all got derailed by the 1980’s oil glut and Reganomics , with its promised shiny future powered by endless resources. If there is one thing I could pass onto younger members of the community, it should be: “don’t ever let this happen again.”

So, I find myself wanting to teach, to start to pass on a lifetime of experiences, but not in a sterile classroom of some university, or seminars at conferences.  I want to engage young people (and those not so young) who are looking for something meaningful and unique – for those who really want to change our world by preserving the skills of the past to serve the future.

I could continue to write about my ideas or I can get out in the world, teach by example, Ship wakeand take one more crack at it. I will probably not live to see the final implementation of any of these projects, and I am OK with that. 





 Harbor and River Vessel Transport Company

The Sail Transport Network has printed an interview and my blog post about the Harbor and River Vessel Transport Company HARVEST

Since “Sail Transport for New York City Takes Shape” was posted on https://www.resilience.org/, and https://www.sailtransportnetwork.org/ , here are a few other websites that have picked it up using a “feed aggregator.” https://content.usatoday.com/topics/article/south+street+seaport/0cGO7ub82J1fc/1 

There is also a new video about the Vermont Sail Freight Project

harvest produce

Why HARVEST? Why Now?

The New York City Bioregion is connected tenuously to the rest of the world by literally thousands of lifelines, including an aging and increasingly failure-prone power grid; an aging and leaky water system; and a vast network of roads, rails, shipping and air routes that rely exclusively on increasingly costly fossil fuels. Like a patient on intravenous life support, any major interruption in the flow of natural resources, energy, water or food to the metropolitan area could hamstring or permanently harm its economy and people. With global oil, gas and coal production predicted to irreversibly decline in the next 10 to 20 years, this collapse becomes not a question of if, but when.

 All three of these great calamities were born out of the world’s profligate use of cheap, non-renewable fossil fuels. Like so many past boons, this one has now become a bane. It’s important to understand that all three crises are intimately linked to each other, and magnify each other: For example, a severe drought that continues in the mid-west, could cut off our region’s supply of wheat, corn and soy, causing food shortages and a financial meltdown. Peak oil requires that we drill for fossil fuels in increasingly extreme landscapes, like the deep-water Gulf of Mexico, prone to more and more powerful hurricanes, or by using hydraulic fracturing that will likely contaminate groundwater in the heart of New York and Pennsylvania farming. Our sprawling global oil pipeline stretches halfway around the globe, making us vulnerable and dependent on volatile states. An economic crash or financially-sapping resource war abroad, could wreck our balance of trade, and shatter our tax base, making it fiscally impossible to harden our infrastructure against climate change impacts, which would lead to more economic disasters. The accumulation of shocks could be catastrophic, if we do not prepare.

 One of those tenuous lifelines is the global shipping industry and the NY/NJ Port.  Higher petroleum costs, and higher wages in countries in which much of our imported goods are made could tear that lifeline.  According to Low Tech Magazine, wind powered freighters may be just as fast as the largest most “modern” container ships. 

 Eugen Maersk“The Eugen Maersk (the world’s longest ocean freighter at 1,300 feet) left Rotterdam on the tail end of a journey from Shanghai. But the giant freighter is cruising at 10 knots, well shy of her 26-knot top speed. At about half speed, fuel consumption drops to 100-150 tons of fuel a day from 350 tons, saving as much as $5,000 an hour.

The German Preussen, the largest sailing ship ever built, was launched in 1902 andPreussen travelled mainly between Hamburg (Germany) and Iquique (Chile). It was rammed by a large steam vessel in 1910. A one way trip between Germany and Chile took the cargo vessel between 58 and 79 days. The best average speed over a one way trip was 13.7 knots. The lowest average speed was 10 knots.  Additionally, one giant container ship can emit almost the same amount of cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as 50 million cars.  It is time for a new age of sail.”

 Who is doing it Now?:

 The use of sailing vessels as transportation is nothing new.  Many coastal schooners and sailing vessels are still working in the trade between main ports and remote islands and harbors in Africa, Caribbean, South America, 

The Indian, Ocean and the Pacific.   From Northern Ireland to Fiji, freight carrying sailingPretty Kwai smaller ships are being planned, built, and sailing.  These first forays into what will become a huge post carbon enterprise are examples of how coastal short sea shipping along the North American coasts, bays, and rivers will be changing in the near and mid-term.    Some
operating and soon to be operating examples are, the SV Kwai, Tres Hombres Packet Company, Greenheart, and B9 Shipping.   These Ocean Going Ships Inspired HARVEST.

 The idea for a the Harbor and River Vessel Transport Company came from a discussion I had a few years ago with Christina Sun an artist who blogs about things maritime at Bowsprite, and Will Van Dorp who photographs everything about New York Harbor.  Will blogs at Tugster.  During those conversations and talking with others who love sailing vessels and would like to put them to work hauling farm goods and general cargo on the Hudson River, the Bays of New York Harbor, and Long Island Sound — the genesis on an idea for just such a venture started to come together.

B9 Ship Continue reading

Local Food and Urban Agriculture

The inevitable decreasing availability of cheap fossil fuel will eventually make the transportation of food over long distances economically unfeasible, and the phrase “local food” will acquire an urgent, vital meaning beyond the current limited lifestyle implications. Local food will become less about maintaining eco-correctness and more about whether we’re going to have enough to eat! Urban agriculture is one solution, as is a food security plan that includes low carbon transportation and a new relationship with city dwellers and the farmers in the food shed.  These are a few examples of working urban farms, and a proposal for a “foodshed” preservation plan similar to the watershed plan that NYC negotiated with upstate farmers to avoid the need for expensive filtration plants.  

One of the world leaders in urban agriculture and inner city food security is Will Allen’s Will AllenGrowing Power. “Growing Power is a national nonprofit organization and land trust supporting people from diverse backgrounds, and the environments in which they live, by helping to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities.  Growing Power implements this mission by providing hands-on training, on-the-ground demonstration, outreach and technical assistance through the development of Community Food Systems that help people grow, process, market and distribute food in a sustainable manner.”

bgfarm_notitleIn the NYC Bioregion one of the leaders in urban roof top agriculture is Brooklyn Grange Farms. “Brooklyn Grange is the leading rooftop farming and intensive green roofing business in the US. We operate the world’s largest rooftop soil farms, located on two roofs in New York City, and grow over 40,000 lbs of organically-cultivated produce per year. In addition to growing and distributing fresh local vegetables and herbs, Brooklyn Grange also provides urban farming and green roof consulting and installation services to clients worldwide, and we partner with numerous non-profit organizations throughout New York to promote healthy and strong local communities.”

Another start up is City Food, CityFood™ is a “triple bottom line” vertically integrated e8212c4f664f8425b4fdce2e17109768sustainable green business consulting firm and incubator focused on developing urban agricultural facilities, fostering  farm and  urban relationships and infrastructure and logistics for local food. 

Back Camera




“The greater Newark (NJ) Conservancy’s  1 acre urban farm on court street yielded almost 10,000 lbs of produce this year, and its 2.5 acre urban farm in the south ward will be coming online in the spring.  Their youth run farm stand has thrived as well.  Most of the produce we grew was sold through the farm stand to local residents.”

 The seminal question about food security for the NYC Bioregion is discussed in the “Take Action” page of this website and more specifically by slow moneySlow Money an organization  “advocating investing 50% of our money within 50 miles of our home, specifically in organic and sustainable  local food, farms, and processing.”



In order to get that locally grown food to market, there will have to be a low tech, low carbon, transportation system in place.  The Hudson River, the Bays and tributaries to New York/New Jersey Harbor, and the Long Island Sound are the “highways of the future” for sailing cargo vessels.  One such enterprise is the Vermont Sail Freight Project.cropped-crans21  

 A complementary proposal called HARVEST The Harbor and River Vessel Transport Company will be a short sea shipping business delivering local produce and seafood throughout the New York/New Jersey Harbor. HARVEST will be a “for benefit” company based on the Farm Boat concept in Seattle and the Island Market Boat in Maine.

old shoreline market

 Historically, thousands of vessels plied the waters to and from cities on the Harbor and the farming areas of New Jersey and the Hudson Valley delivering fresh local farm produce, fish, shellfish, and passengers to ports along the way. The Hudson River and the Harbor was once a bustling highway linking even the smallest communities into a web of regularly scheduled routes. Farmers, dairymen, and oystermen relied on this vibrant and diverse fleet of vessels to bring their goods to market and to receive supplies. The schooners, sloops, and steam boats provided a unique way of life for early inhabitants. For those who worked the inland waters of the Northeast, the romance of the sea was a common element in their lives.

Today, the water highways still exist and need to be reinvigorated.  Maintaining maritime trade routes is more than just a celebration of tradition. In a carbon constrained future sustainable water transport will be necessary and in the event of a regional disaster water-based community links can serve as vital infrastructure to the NY/NJ Harbor region.

NRDC’seat local Smarter Living site asks the question, “Like the idea of eating seasonal produce grown on regional farms but wonder what’s in season near you this week?”  And includes  search tools to find out where to get seasonal local foods and maps to nearby farmers’ markets and even includes directions by car, bike, walking and public transit. The site also has a smart phone application to help you locate what you are looking for.  .