There are easier ways to get from Vermont to New York City, but sailing a 39-foot boat down the Hudson River does have its appeals. It’s quiet, there’s little pollution, and not much chance of being pulled over by the cops. What’s more, you’re proving that another sort of distribution is possible for local goods, albeit only if the wind is blowing the right way.
Erik Andrus, a Vermont rice farmer, recently captained Ceres, a wind-powered ship he built from scratch, from Ferrisburgh in Vermont’s Lake Champlain Valley to the New York Harbor. The journey took about three weeks, including stops along the way to sell his cargo: many tons of dry and semi-perishable goods from both Vermont and upstate New York.
The Vermont Sail Freight Project is part environmental demonstration and part business venture. Andrus wanted to show that producers don’t need carbon-intensive transport to get their goods to market. But the project is also a business, and Ceres is a good marketing draw. People in towns along the Hudson turned out in sufficient numbers for the crew to sell about $60,000 worth of stuff, including flour and grains, and vegetables like winter squash and carrots. Andrus also had plenty of pickles, canned goods, and jars of hearty salsa to sell.
The voyage was both a nostalgic throwback to the 19th century when the Hudson was a still mainstay for wind-propelled freight. But it’s also meant to point to the future, too. Andrus sees the project as symbolic of the renewal of local agriculture and the working waterways, which tended to be undervalued as the 20th century went on. Next year, he’s planning another trip along the same route.
“The river is manifestation of a connection between producers and consumers that predates the roads by several hundred years,” he says. “There’s a depth to that type of connection through the historical landscape that people understand on a gut level.”
Andrus has a background in household carpentry and designed the boat himself. Friends gathered to construct the vessel this summer, working with plywood, scrap lumber, epoxy glue and fiber glass. For several weeks it leaked, until finally it became river-worthy in late summer. Andrus was only really ready to sail a week before departure date in October, and he says the final preparations were pretty chaotic.
Ceres, complete with hand-made pulleys, canvas sails, and all old-fashioned fittings, looks pretty elegant. But Andrus isn’t overstating its boxy looks. “It’s an amateur-friendly design,” he says. “If you were a boat builder who built really elegant boats, you would disparagingly say Ceres is a boat that a house carpenter would build.”
The aim, though, is form before beauty, and to have something that other sail-enthusiasts might want to replicate. Andrus bigger ambition is to spur a whole fleet of clippers riding down the Hudson with local goods on-board.
Still, the bigger aim is more than designer lines. “The whole point is to benefit the farmers,” Andrus says. “We want it above all to do a job of carrying cargo, though it should also evoke, uplift, and inspire as much it can.”