Sail On Sailors

By Mike Jurkovic

boat school.jpg

I should start at the beginning. My good friend Bob Torsello gave me the idea for this story about the restoration of the ferry sloop Woody Guthrie while hanging at the Towne Crier. And I thought, “Hey yea, thanks Bob,” figuring I’d concentrate on the Woody and the Sloop Club, take some pictures and have a cool story.

                                                       Woody

                                                      Woody

Then I imbibed a Newburgh Brown Ale with Jim Birmingham, who, like Bob, is one of the many steadfast and stalwart volunteers at the Beacon Sloop Club. Jim gave me the basics: How the Woody was undergoing major renovation for the first time since 1978. That the organization was tight on funds and most of the work, shaping the ribs, restoring metal-work while on a cold river in the Kingston Rondout was being done by those same volunteers. That the restoration was being overseen by shipwright Jim Kricker, who, along with Dan Taube (Dan later worked as a shipwright at the South Street Seaport) was among those who built the Woody in the first place. He explained how salt water corrodes metal and fresh water causes wood to rot, split, warp, and that because our beloved river, the Muhheakantuck, is by nature tidal from the south and fresh from the north, the Woody’s repairs were going to be extensive, and therefore, expensive (approximately 400K.)

Then news broke of the Clearwater organization cancelling their fiftieth festival and that they were behind on their Coast Guard mandated restoration(costing 850K, being done simultaneously on the Roundout) and wouldn’t sail before June. Then their Executive Director resigned. I got in touch with the Hudson River Maritime Museum because someone suggested I do and Lana Chassman, the museum’s PR director, kindly put me in touch with all the folks you’ll hear from throughout this story of dedication and community. Russ Lange, Executive Director at HRMM, who, through our discussion, especially helped me to finally get my head around the whole thing and realize I couldn’t tell one story without the others. He also put the sounds of Hudson River shipbuilding into my ears and imagination.

                                                                                                                        Clearwater

                                                                                                                       Clearwater

Like so many things we seem to be on the verge of losing or destroying or wantonly neglecting for the next shiny thing, hopefully a little history will pull us back from the brink. Here goes:  Today, the Clearwater is, and has long been, America’s Environmental Flagship. But in 1966 she was initially perceived by friends and foes alike as another of Pete’s crazy dreams. In those redeeming and triumphant fifty years (thirty five of which the HRMM has pursued its own educational mission, very often under the radar and underfunded) the great sloop has withstood not only numerous ideological and financial threats, but also looting, arson, and, of course, the Hudson itself.

As the 70’s unwound and the Clearwater was shining a glaring spotlight on the concentration of PCBs in the Hudson’s waters, Pete was imagining a little sister for the great sloop to be run and maintained by the local volunteer Beacon Sloop Club. As Alan Thomas, BSC’s press man relates, the Woody, built by the Bearsville Woodworking Collective (with initial costs taken from Pete and Toshi’s grandchildren’s college fund) splashed down in the historic Rondout Creek and set sail to provide free access to the river for all. 

But that’s recent history. We all know how far back the river reaches and are grateful for it.

But let’s be honest. Most, if not all of us not hands-on involved in the river’s stewardship, take it for granted and often cross its spans begrudgingly, thinking nothing of the Iroquios and Lenape who first peopled its shores or the19th Century ocean bound ships built in Newburgh or the lighthouses at Saugerties, Rondout, Tarrytown, and Stony Point. We think nothing of the constant repair of wooden ships and the hearty generations that maintained them. Nor do we think about the numerous sloop-wrecks on the river bottom, a fount of American history yet to be fully explored.

                                                                                                                    HRMM Exhibit

                                                                                                                   HRMM Exhibit

                                                    Jim Kricker

                                                   Jim Kricker

It is this, along with their unbounded environmental importance, that makes the HRMM and its newly opened Riverport Wooden Boat School and each past and future sail of Clearwater and Woody - with school kids, adults, apprentices - a democratic feat (some might dare say a socialist feat) with people from all walks of life making sure the river, and its deep heritage, remain vibrant and alive. 

                                                  Annica Savio

                                                 Annica Savio

“When one looks at a project like this it looks incredibly daunting. But you have to focus on individual tasks and that tends to make things, at least in my addled brain, more understandable to all,” Jim Kricker advises, in a calm, reassuring tone, as he and Clearwater captain Annika Savio show yours truly around the tent sheltered Clearwater on a recent biting and blustery river afternoon. “A wooden ship like this,” he says, part historian, part master craftsman, “is the result of a long evolutionary process of shipbuilding.”

“It’s never easy. But it is doable.” Annika quietly adds. And I must admit to them, you, and myself how they and the handful of volunteers and contractors bustling about the Clearwater’s broken hull stay so unruffled with so much at stake is a tutorial on patience to me.

“The challenge,” she continues, “is that while we’re fixing one section, we have to think about how we’ll work around the repaired section to fix another section in the future when we can afford to. We’re working below the water line now, but within five or six years we’ll need to do work above the waterline.”

“People shouldn’t think that once this restoration is finished we sail off happily into the sunset. It’s a wooden boat, built in layers out of traditional materials (domestic white oak and a dense, tropical wood from Guyana - Greenheart - for the foundation timbers.) They always need rebuil-ding.”

“It’s unusual and disconcerting to see each boat out of the water with their bellies open,” Lisa Cline, HRMM’s chief operations officer, warns me before I tour the boats with Russ. 

It certainly is.

“The history of wooden shipbuilding in this area goes back two hundred and fifty years, right up to the Korean War,” Russ Lange begins, pestered by a lingering post-flu cough. “ Wooden ships don’t set off magnetically triggered mines and torpedoes.”

I learned quickly that Russ loves to talk about the Hudson, the HRMM, and working riverfront cities, and it was my unbounded pleasure to let him roll. “About three years ago we partnered separately with the folks from Clearwater and the Sloop Club to do the restorations here. Jim led the way with the initial restoration plans and we began to think of ourselves as more than a museum but as a Riverport for shipbuilding and education and as a boater’s welcome center for day trippers and the cruise ships that sail up and down the river.”

“We have romantic visions of sloops now, but back in the 19th century they were equivalent to tractor trailers.” He informs. “It eventually became cheaper to build new ones than repair the old. So they were scuttled and sunk.”

“Three things needed to come together for all this to happen and fortunately for all they did,” he explains. “First was the restoration of the Woody and Clearwater. Second was Jim Kricker’s interest in becoming a part of the Riverport and third was transforming his business into a working, educational vehicle while creating a working waterfront.”

Since this whole journey started with the Woody, I had to get back to it. And as a spectacular Hudson Valley sunset tinted Beacon harbor, I met up with Don Raskopf.

“It’s like Pete always said, ‘It’s the little things,’ ” Don emphasizes, as this Clearwater and Sloop Club board member/volunteer stokes the fireplaces at the Sloop Club Clubhouse in preparation of a presentation and discussion by Russ Lange about creating a sustainable, human economy for our riverfront cities through a network of partnered non-profit organizations.

                                                                                                                       Clearwater

                                                                                                                      Clearwater

If you haven’t caught on by now, for all these folks it’s more than the river. More than the environment. It’s about the community and what we can all do to make that community larger than the Hudson Valley. Larger than ourselves.

“It would have cost less to build a new boat.” Don emphasizes, echoing the same sentiments Russ Lange mentioned earlier. “And we had a vigorous, nearly two year discussion - democracy/and anarchy in action you might say. One faction wanted to rebuild and restore. The other wanted to go with a new boat.”

“We got a price to build a new replica, but it was, I think, Tinya (Pete’s daughter) who turned the tide. She couldn’t recall the exact Japanese term Toshi taught her, but she told us of the conceptthat an object, over time, gets worn but takes on the soul of the user. It wasn’t so much her parents on the Woody, she said. But every time she saw the boat she could see Don Taube’s work.”

“Then the young daughter of one of folks I sail with said her dad had been taking her and her sister out on the Woody since she was three and she wanted to take her kids out on the same boat someday and well, that turned it by a 2-1 vote for restoration.”

The little things.

“After several estimates and bids, what we had hoped would happen, happened. Jim Kricker gave us a rough estimate of which we had about half the finances raised. We then worked out a deal with the HR Maritime Museum who built the Ralph Allen Riverport Boat Shed to house the Woody for us.”

“The shed was built almost entirely by Jack Weeks (Project Supervisor & HRMM Board member) and Ralph Allen (HRMM volunteer) both of whom are in their 70’s and 80’s respectively.” (As an aside, Don tells me that Cyrus Hamlin, architect of both sloops, is 95. Obviously working on boats must hold a secret to longevity we both muse!) “The oaks used were from Jack’s land and milled in his barn.”

“Once we got the Woody up there last September, Jim and his crew got started right away. But when the Clearwater got there, work shifted to her needs simply because if the Woody doesn’t sail this year it’s very disappointing. If Clearwater doesn’t, it’s a catastrophe. We lose $25,000 a month on school-related sails alone. So it’s been volunteer work on the Woody since then.”

Clearwater and the BSC are sisters with the same parents but different personalities,” Alan Thomas clarifies. “Clearwater is professional, structured. BSC is slightly anarchistic and grassroots to the core.”

“Everyone contributes time to both organizations,” he continues, “but no one worked harder than Pete,” he warmly recalls of his thirty-eight year association. “That we are all able to learn skills outside our comfort zones, be partners with HRMM, and be part of a living exhibit while preserving Pete’s legacy is hard to put a price on.”

  • A series of small concerts and open boat/Potluck Days are planned for Clearwater. The next OpenBoat/Potluck Days are Saturday, March 19, 4-8 pm and Saturday, April 23 12-4 pm at the Hudson River Maritime Museum on the Kingston Rondout. For more information on membership or donating to Clearwater, please visit www.clearwater.org
  • The Beacon Sloop Club meets every first Friday at 7:30 pm with a potluck at 6:30. For more information on membership or donating to BSC, please visit www.beaconsloop.org
  • The annual BSC Strawberry Festival is Sunday, June 12, 2016 12-5 
  • The Hudson River Maritime Museum is open in March Thursday - Friday 11:00 - 4:00 pm HRMM will close from March 26 - April for exhibit installation and re-opens April 30 for the 2016 season. Open daily 11:00 am - 5:00 pm. For information on membership or donating or volunteering at HRMM, please visit www.hrmm.org      

(Photos by Mike Jurkovic)