By Vladimir Brezina
A week ago, over the Columbus Day weekend, we were kayak-camping at Stockport Middle Ground, one of my favorite places along the Hudson River, to paddle among the Fall colors (story and photos forthcoming!).
So on Monday a week ago, I paddled out onto the still river, shrouded in fog, as the first colors of dawn softened the sky. Honking geese flew overhead.
But what was that strange buzzing sound, and that strange object emerging from the fog upriver, gradually growing bigger?
It was Ceres!
Ceres is the resurrection of a once-ubiquitous but now long-vanished Hudson River craft—a sailing produce barge. The brainchild of Vermont farmer Erik Andrus and his Vermont Sail Freight Project, she was built this past summer and is now on her maiden voyage down the Hudson. In Vermont, she loaded local produce, passed through Lake Champlain and the Champlain Canal, and is now distributing the produce to farmers’ markets and individual customers who have pre-ordered it at various Hudson River towns, with a final stop, a few days from now, in New York City.
Ceres is a shallow-bottomed, boxy little barge. She is 39 feet long, 10 feet wide, yet able to load up to 12 tons of cargo, and fully loaded, drawing only a foot and a half of water—perfect for the shallow waterways she will encounter and for running practically up onto the beach to load and unload cargo. Given that she has no refrigeration on board, the cargo is non-perishable: apples, pears, garlic, carrots, potatoes, winter squash, cider, syrup and honey, baby ginger, dried beans, flour, rice, herbs, preserves and handcrafted soaps. For propulsion, Ceres has a sail rig adapted from that of the traditional Thames sailing barge (with leeboards to preserve the shallow draft), oars for sculling, and if all else fails, an outboard motor. All were on display when I met her, although, sadly, the motor was doing all the work…
In keeping with the retro-romance of traditional human power and sail as well as the modern romance of a lighter carbon footprint, once unloaded the produce is delivered to the customers, ideally, by bicycle.
Here’s the entire vision:
But it’s no Luddite project. Ceres has on board modern office technology to keep track of orders. Customers order online, and learn when their orders are approaching by cell phone, text, or email. There is a project website and a blog that is being updated daily with posts beautifully written by Andrus himself as Ceres makes her way down the Hudson. A fruitful marriage of old and new!
At present, Ceres is just a single barge making a trial voyage. But looking to the future, Andrus puts forward an ambitious socio-economic vision for the overall project: nothing less than “the rebirth of working sailing craft, which accomplishes services helping people live with a lighter footprint. We know this is possible because it existed for years. Water transport works. If we can find a way to separate ourselves from the preoccupation with speed, all kinds of openings for alternative approaches to satisfying human needs become viable.”
“Our 2013 voyage is a pilot project, a first step towards a trading system that has potential to be economically viable as well as being ecologically sustainable and socially just. Over time we hope to transition this model from a volunteer-driven project of a non-profit to a for-profit farmer-owned shipping and marketing co-op.”
“In many ways we have our work cut out for us. The [super]market is always able to provide the lowest common denominator food from somewhere inexpensively. We have to tell the story why our neighbors ought to support local agriculture instead of just buying from the cheapest possible source.”
“Nay-sayers say this will never be viable because the labor costs will torpedo the savings in fuel consumption; but maybe not. We’re not really competing head-to-head with the trucking industry. We’re transporters, but also petty merchants. Most truckers are not operating a general store out of the back of their truck. We’re performing two services at once, plus selling the intangibles of the project.”
Here is Andrus presenting his vision, in a video made when the project was still in infancy (you may need to right-click on the video to control it):
Andrus hopes that the Vermont Sail Freight Project will be self-sustaining in two years. In the meantime, “Spending time on a slow-moving boat on the river is inherently enriching and fun and soothing and good for the soul, in the way driving a semi on the Interstate is not.”
Will the project succeed? Andrus is clearly a visionary. Yet in his vision he has managed to creatively combine ideas that will appeal to diverse constituencies, to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the project through a Kickstarter campaign and elsewhere, to recruit hundreds of volunteers, to build the barge, to load produce, to find customers, and to actually set sail, all more or less on time and on budget. So who knows?
Some contradictions in the vision have already been exposed, however. Andrus claimed that “we can transport 12 to 13 tons of goods — without consuming a drop of gasoline — 300 miles, from farm to plate, if you will.” But when I saw her, Ceres was motoring along (making quite a racket for an eco-friendly boat!), and had not yet been able to raise sail, it would seem from others’ reports, in the entire hundred miles since leaving Vermont. The first time Ceres was seen sailing was apparently only much farther down the river, with much of the voyage already over. In his blog post of today, October 21st, Andrus acknowledges the difficulty:
“This same weather that has been so kind to us in terms of markets — the beautiful days just go on and on — is not so great for sailing towards the south. Day after day we have the wind right on the nose. This has made for less sailing than I had hoped. This being the first time out, our schedule was laid in pretty far in advance. Schedules and sailing vessels are really a poor match and we’ve done the best we can to balance between being on time so that our land-based partners can plan for our arrival and maximizing sail. Hopefully in the future we’ll be able to develop a more flexible schedule that will have fewer distance imperatives built into it. But for the time being we have the schedule we have and the weather we have, and all together we have a lot to be thankful for as the voyage has gone quite well so far.”
He’s learning the patience, the fatalism, of a sailor…
Ceres is scheduled to arrive in NYC—hopefully in all her sailing glory—in a few days, on October 25 or thereabouts. (The original schedule is here, and a recently updated list of events is here, in the post of October 18.)
Whether by kayak or on land, she’s worth turning out for!
Further articles and photos (and sources for the quotes by Andrus):
-  Hudson Valley Almanac Weekly
-  Kickstarter: The Vermont Sail Freight Project
-  CNBC
- New York City Atlas
- Addison County Independent
- The Middlebury Campus
- Yale Environment 360
- Working Harbor Committee (photos)
- Tugster (photos here, here, and here)
- …but the best photos are in Ceres‘ own blog!
Update October 27, 2013: Ceres has arrived in NYC, more or less on schedule, and is distributing produce! Tugster has some nice photos here.