One Week Sailing on the Hudson

This post was written by Lilly Stewart. 

One of the great things about my internship with the SCA Hudson Valley Corps is the opportunity to work with other organizations, learn new things and take part in exciting programs like the Clearwater. For one fantastic week I got to be a sailor and teach environmental programs while sailing up and down the Hudson River.

The Clearwater Program was started by Pete Seeger in the 1960’s as an effort to foster a connection with the Hudson River and encourage people to take an interest in cleaning up the river. Today, students groups from Troy to Manhattan go on educational sails to learn about the history and environmental issues of the Hudson River Estuary. I got to be a part of this program for one week as a volunteer educator on the Clearwater’s sister ship, the Mystic Whaler. In addition to teaching, we helped sail the ship, prepare meals and help with deck chores. As a farm girl from Ohio, whose seafaring experience was pretty much limited to the occasional canoe trip, I had a lot to learn.

On the first day I was amazed by the crew’s patience as they taught us how to lead the groups through the educational sails, assist with sailing and all other functions aboard a tall ship. Our days began at 7 and did not stop until after dinner was cleaned up and all the sails were furled. We had two groups of students on 3 hours sails each day. We would meet the students on the dock and after a brief introduction, usher them onto the boat. Captain John would introduce himself and go over the rules as we motored away from the dock. If the conditions were right, we would go fishing with a trawl net. While I was on board we caught several fish, a blue crab, some eels and a few rocks.

Shannon teaching sea shanties to a group of students while under sail.

Once we were out in the middle of the river it was time to set sails. On the captain’s command the kids eagerly hauled on the lines and lifted the huge, billowing, white sails. Having an entire class hauling on the lines made the enormous sails feel light. When the sails were set the crew and volunteers scurried around on the deck getting everything back in place and ready for the students to move around the boat.

Some of the crew and volunteers dressed up for a skit about the history of the Hudson Valley.

As a volunteer, I lead the groups to the different stations and taught brief lessons on water chemistry, aquatic life, navigation and history. The first few groups were stressful but I quickly gained confidence in my ability to teach these lessons. One on the highlights of the sails was always the moment of silence when we got the kids back together to pause and take in the beauty of the river and the experience of sailing. The moment of silence was then broken by music and the students were taught a sea shanty or two. We would then continue to the other stations, furl the sails sing another shanty and send the kids off to the buses.

One brave student holds a blue crab that we caught in the trawl net.

After a quick lunch, we got ready to do it all again for an afternoon sail. Then we did some evening chores and enjoyed a sit down dinner with the captain, the whole crew and candle light. Every day was packed full of activity from sunrise to sunset and before I knew it, the week was over.

Kailey, Page, and Jim furling sails after a storm.

The whole experience was magical. I knew nothing about sailing when I stepped onboard and I was just beginning to feel comfortable with the sailing lingo when I left. Waking up on a tall ship docked on the Hudson was amazing, watching little kids raising the sails while singing timeless sea shanties was like nothing I have experienced. While I spend most of my internship planting trees up in the Catskill Mountains, this was a great opportunity to connect with the greater context of the history and the future of the environmental movement in the Hudson Valley and now I know I definitely want to be a pirate when I grow up.

For more information on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, educational and volunteer programs, check out www.clearwater.org.