Most people familiar with CLEARWATER know the sloop was the brainchild of the late American folk legend and activist Pete Seeger. Pete was an idealist and an optimist. He once wrote, “There is a little Don Quixote in all of us.” You couldn’t tell him something couldn’t be done. But when you take a closer look at CLEARWATER’s story, it’s a miracle the boat was ever built at all.
At the time CLEARWATER was built, the “tall ship revival” was still a decade or two away. Yes, the first Operation Sail brought tall ships from around the world to New York Harbor in 1964, but no one was building new tall ships with one or two exceptions. There were vessels built that were replicas of specific ships, such as the MAYFLOWER II, launched in 1956, and the HMS BOUNTY, launched in 1962 and built specifically for the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty. But to form a new not-for-profit to build a replica of a type of ship -- not even a famous historic ship? Nobody was doing that. Seeger and the fledgling Clearwater organization were ahead of the curve.
When Pete got interested in sailing and subsequently in Hudson River sloops -- the traditional cargo-carrying sailing vessels of the Hudson -- he got an idea. Maybe you could build a vessel that was so grand, so extraordinary, and one that had not sailed the river in a very long time, and maybe you could draw people down to the banks of a river that had long ago been forsaken. Pete saw potential where others did not and believed that if CLEARWATER could bring people to the river, then maybe it could help people to “love their river again.”
The challenges that the Clearwater organization faced were many. First and foremast, perhaps, was the fact that it was the 1960s. Pete Seeger had been blacklisted, and the Vietnam War was raging and becoming increasingly unpopular. So unpopular that President Lyndon B. Johnson declared in a nationally televised address in March 1968 that he would not run for re-election. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of that year, sparking riots in over 100 American cities. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June. In August, there were violent clashes between police and protesters in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.
Years later, in recounting the early days of the sloop project, Pete would write:
It really seemed a frivolous idea. The world was full of agony; the Vietnam War was heating up. Money was needed for all sorts of life-and-death matters, and here we were raising money to build a sailboat.
It wasn’t just a turbulent civil and political climate, however, that made building CLEARWATER a challenge. There hadn’t been a Hudson River sloop built in over 100 years, and there were none left afloat.
Pete’s inspiration for building a Hudson River sloop came in 1963 after his friend Vic Schwarz loaned him a copy of the 1908 book Sloops of the Hudson, written by William Verplanck and Moses Collyer, two retired sloop captains. He read it through in one night. Some time elapsed before Pete wrote his friend a five-page letter, which started:
"One way to see if a pipe dream has any practicality is to get it down on paper. So I’m writing you now with the most grandiose and ambitious plan. It will make our wives groan. It will probably never get beyond the paper stage, but here goes:"
He wrote the letter and then forgot about it. It was September 1965. Vic did not forget the letter and began chatting up fellow commuters on the train to New York. That fall, Vic called up Pete and asked, “When are we going to start building that sloop?” Pete answered, “You must be kidding!”
Much of what we know about how the rest of the story unfolded is because in the 1960s people actually wrote letters and saved them. They also often saved carbon copies. Postage was inexpensive and long distance phone calls were most definitely not. After making a foray into the library at Mystic Seaport, Pete wrote a letter that December to Joel White, a boat designer and builder.
Joel was the son of the writer E. B. White and had a boatyard in Brooklin, Maine. White wrote back, telling Pete his shop was too small to build a boat that big, and he was too busy to do any design work. He did recommend naval architect Cyrus Hamlin of Southwest Harbor, Maine. “He is a fine architect, and I am sure you would like him,” Joel wrote.
The following month -- January 1966 -- Pete and Vic met with Cyrus Hamlin at the National Boat Show in New York City. Pete and Cy hit it off. Cy sent a formal letter to Pete in February, outlining his estimate for the cost of construction and a quotation for his design fee based on the estimate. In April, Pete wrote Cy a $500 personal check to cover the naval architect’s “advance research” on the Hudson River sloop.
Pete’s initial vision, as outlined in his letter to Vic, was for the sloop to be something like a floating timeshare. Off the top of his head, he estimated that a 55-foot sloop might cost $100,000 to build. That was more money than he and Vic could scrape together, so he suggested that they try to form “Hudson River Sloop Clubs” up and down the river. If there were 10 clubs, then each would have to raise $10,000 to build the vessel, and each club could sail the sloop for a week at a time.
Eventually, as we know, a non-profit formed. The Hudson River Sloop Restoration incorporated in September 1966. Interestingly enough, nowhere in the Articles of Incorporation is there any mention of the organization having an environmental purpose. Instead, the document states the purpose as:
"To acquaint people with matters relating to our cultural heritage; and to maintain and promote interest in the history of the Hudson River both as a commercial and pleasure artery; and in connection therewith to build, own, operate and exhibit replicas of the great sloops which once freely navigated the river, thereby generating a greater interest in our cultural heritage and an understanding of the contributions made to our culture and commerce by the river and the sloops which sailed it."
Also interesting is that multiple sloops are suggested and that there is no mention of actually sailing with passengers.
Whether or not the sloop could be classified as a “yacht” or would have to be classified as a “passenger-carrying vessel,” making it subject to United States Coast Guard regulations and inspection, was an important determination that had to be made. Having to comply with USCG regulations would make the sloop more expensive to build and operate. It would also mean that it could not be an historically accurate replica, and perhaps not even a very good-looking one.
At issue was the tragic sinking of the Brigantine ALBATROSS in 1961. A “school ship” carrying 13 American teenagers and five crew members went down in a sudden squall in the Gulf of Mexico. Six lives were lost, including four of the students. Although the ship was Panamanian registered, the USCG investigated the accident. Additional analysis resulted in the publication of On the Stability of Sailing Vessels by USCG officers John G. Beebe-Center and Richard B. Brooks in 1966. This work questioned the reliability of traditional stability assessment techniques for sailing vessels and would result in the adoption of more stringent USCG stability criteria.
While the Maine fleet of “windjammer” schooners had been grandfathered when it came to stability requirements, new vessels would now come under additional scrutiny because of the ALBATROSS, even those built prior to the publication of the Beebe-Center & Brooks paper. The schooner MARY DAY, built for the charter trade by Harvey Gamage and launched in 1962, somehow sailed beneath the Coast Guard’s radar. This was not the case for the topsail schooner SHENANDOAH, also built for the charter trade by Gamage and launched in 1964. Because SHENANDOAH did not satisfy the Coast Guard’s stability requirements, the schooner’s owner was not allowed to charge his passengers any fee for its entire first season. The following year, Capt. Bob Douglas was able to obtain a conditional stability letter.
Cy retained a Boston-based attorney in the spring of 1966 on behalf of Pete and the “sloop committee” to help facilitate a dialogue with the Coast Guard and explore various possibilities for the future vessel’s operation. Not coincidentally, Douglas had used this same attorney for his legal troubles. One option that was explored was to form a cooperative, wherein all the members of the cooperative would be considered “shareholders” and thereby owners of the vessel. The Coast Guard rejected this approach. Ultimately, Cy convinced HRSR to build their sloop to meet Coast Guard regulations, very likely the very first sailing vessel built to meet the new, more onerous stability requirements. This was not until as late as May or June of 1968, and there was still no plan to actually carry paying passengers.
When, exactly, Pete realized that the sloop could be a tool to help clean up the river, we don’t know. However, in a New York Times article written following the organization’s first major fundraiser on October 2, 1966, he is quoted as follows:
"Some people might think it’s the most frivolous thing in the world to raise money for a sailboat. But we want people to love the Hudson, not think of it as a convenient sewer."
Despite Pete’s “green” inclinations, clearly many people within the organization were solely interested in maritime history and had no interest in being standard-bearers for the environmental movement. This is reflected in the results of a membership vote to name the sloop in March of 1969. There were 44 names nominated. Some of them were pretty silly, such as GREASY LUCK and SEWER RAT. In the end, the name CLEARWATER narrowly edged out HERITAGE, with HOPE OF THE HUDSON placing third.
While there may not have been existing Hudson River sloops for Cy to study, he was able to research the vessel through builders’ half-hull models, periodicals and reference works, including John W. Griffith’s Treatise on Marine and Naval Architecture, published in 1850, and Lauchlan McKay’s The Practical Shipbuilder, published in 1839. He gleaned information about rigging details through paintings, period photographs and even a placemat or two that he discovered in a gift shop. He also had access to photos and drawings from Howard Chapelle, the great American naval architect and maritime historian, who was then a senior historian at the Smithsonian Institution. “Chap” provided Cy with the lines of the 1848 sloop VICTORINE and two others.
Ultimately, Pete and company decided their sloop should measure approximately 75 feet long as this would allow for more headroom below decks. Cy presented preliminary drawings at the organization’s annual membership meeting on November 5, 1967.
By late January of 1968, Cy had performed the necessary work to put the sloop project out to bid. He sent bidding documents to at least three yards in Maine and three in New York, including Rondout Marine. Cy also inquired with at least two yards overseas – one in Spain and another in Yugoslavia – where he had connections. Soliciting a bid from a foreign yard was not his idea. The organization thought that a foreign-built vessel might be less expensive. So Cy also agreed to look into shipyards in Nova Scotia. It was his opinion however that “the desirability of a yard is probably inversely proportional to the distance from the United States.” In the end, Harvey F. Gamage, Shipbuilder, Inc. of South Bristol, Maine came in with the lowest bid of those yards that submitted bids -- there is no evidence that any foreign yard did -- and was awarded the contract.
Construction of the sloop began in August 1968. There was a keel-laying ceremony at the shipyard on October 18 attended by about 50 HRSR members. Toshi Seeger anointed the length of the sloop’s keel with Hudson River water, and Pete led everyone in song. After two-years of recruiting new members and vigorous fundraising, there was finally something concrete to celebrate. Over the next several months, however, a lot more money still needed to be raised. Approximately 200 guests attended a special fundraiser hosted by Mr. & Mrs. Steven Rockefeller at the Rockefeller Farm Barn at Pocantico Hills in November. There were informational meetings and slide show presentations at rotary clubs, libraries and coffee houses. Numerous concerts were held, including a sold out performance at Carnegie Hall in April 1969.
Three larger gifts -- $10,000 each -- came from the Boscobel Restoration, Inc., the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund, and the Rockefeller Family Fund.
On May 17, a crowd of about 2,500 gathered at the shipyard. People packed inside the boatshed to hear speeches and celebrate the occasion with song. At approximately 12:30 PM -- high tide -- Clearwater slid down the marine railway and into the waters of a quiet cove alongside the Damariscotta River. The schooner BOWDOIN was in attendance, as was Maine’s governor, Kenneth Curtis. It was a belated birthday present for Pete, who had turned 50 precisely two weeks earlier.
Over the course of the next six weeks, the ship’s crew got busy rigging, fitting out, and provisioning the vessel. There were sea trials and Coast Guard inspections. But before the sloop could leave South Bristol, the shipbuilder needed to be paid in full. In the days before the sloop set sail, Toshi Seeger frantically called up a number of friends -- people she and Pete knew from the folk music world -- to secure personal loans to pay the bill. The Newport Folk Festival loaned the organization $10,000. The Seegers chipped in another $7,000.
Finally, on June 27, the sloop set sail for Portland, the first stop on its journey. One of the plans to raise money was to give a series of concerts at various ports-of-call between Maine and New York on the sloop’s maiden voyage. To this end, most of the sailing crew was made up of musician friends of Pete’s. Billed as the “Hudson River Sloop Singers,” the group included Pete, Capt. Allan Aunapu, Louis Killen, Gordon Bok, Don McLean, Jimmy Collier, Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others. They made about 20 appearances including at The Fens in Boston and the Newport Folk Festival. The money raised made it possible to begin to repay those loans.
On August 1, 1969, CLEARWATER tied up at South Street Seaport to much fanfare and with New York City Mayor John Lindsay onboard. What had started as a “pipe dream” nearly four years earlier was now a reality. A Hudson River sloop would be sailing the river once again.
Fifty years later, CLEARWATER is still sailing. From on board, hundreds of thousands of school children -- and group sail participants of all ages -- have experienced the beauty and wonder of the Hudson River ecosystem. CLEARWATER’S award-winning education program has provided a model for organizations around the country, and the sloop remains a powerful symbol in the fight for clean water and a healthier, greener planet.
Betsy Garthwaite is a former captain of the sloop CLEARWATER. She first stepped on board the sloop in 1983 as a volunteer with no previous sailing experience. She resides in Kingston and works at the Ulster Performing Arts Center.
This article was originally published in the 2019 issue of the Pilot Log. If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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