Welcome to Sail Freighter Fridays! This article is part of a series linked to our new exhibit: "A New Age Of Sail: The History And Future Of Sail Freight In The Hudson Valley," and tells the stories of sailing cargo ships both modern and historical, on the Hudson River and around the world. Anyone interested in how to support Sail Freight should also check out the Conference in November, and the International Windship Association's Decade of Wind Propulsion.
The Schooner John F Leavitt was built at the Newbert & Wallace shipyard from 1976-1979, and launched in October of '79 in Thomlinson Maine. Built and financed by Ned Ackerman, a former teacher and schooner enthusiast, she was the first engineless cargo vessel built in the US since 1938. She was an 83 ton vessel with two masts, designed primarily for coastal trade between shallow water ports in the Northeast.
Ackerman was the sole investor in the schooner, and the project was propelled by the ongoing oil crises of the 1970s (which our current energy situation parallels). Ackerman was not a professional sailor, nor were most of his crew. The initial voyage in ballast from Thomlinson Maine to Quincy Massachusetts started poorly by running aground on the way out of harbor, and she did not arrive in Quincy until November. She waited there for a time to receive her first cargo, which consisted of lumber and industrial chemicals bound for Haiti.
One of the experienced crew was injured loading the cargo, and did not go with the ship when she left Quincy for Haiti, leaving the entire crew as amateurs on the North Atlantic in winter. After rounding Cape Cod and sailing south of Long Island, she encountered a Nor'Easter, which quickly overwhelmed the crew. Due to poor stowage, the chemicals leaked, meaning the small motor which ran pumps and winches could not be turned on without a high risk of igniting the cargo. After several days, the crew made a mayday call and were picked up by New York Air National Guard rescue helicopters. The Leavitt sank in heavy seas, and while the crew survived, replacing the vessel was financially impossible, estimated at a cost of around $500,000 (about $2 million today). It has been widely opined that the Leavitt was capable of surviving the incident, if better crewed (see pp 40-41 here).
The documentary film "Coaster" was made from the footage available of the Leavitt's construction and voyage. The film met with high ratings and was received well when it was released in 1983. However, the very public failure of the Leavitt meant that the idea of sail freight suffered a crushing defeat just before the price of oil crashed a few years later. While a good attempt was made, the shortcomings and over ambition of the project ultimately led to her demise. While the idea of Sail Freight has been revived, the Leavitt's fate is still remembered in coastal Maine and New England's windjammer community.
Steven Woods is the Solaris and Education coordinator at HRMM. He earned his Master's degree in Resilient and Sustainable Communities at Prescott College, and wrote his thesis on the revival of Sail Freight for supplying the New York Metro Area's food needs. Steven has worked in Museums for over 20 years.
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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