The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater is America’s Environmental Flagship, and this summer I got to spend a week as a volunteer helping it run smoothly.
By Natalie Amstutz
The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater is America’s Environmental Flagship, and this summer I got to spend a week as a volunteer helping it run smoothly. Founded by the legendary folk singer-songwriter Pete Seeger, the boat was created to spread environmental awareness and activism in the Hudson River Valley and beyond, and was one of the first sailboats in the United States to hold environmental education programs. Operated by dedicated crewmembers and volunteers, Clearwater sails up and down the Hudson River teaching communities the importance of preserving our river.
Spring marks the start of sailing season, and the boat generally leaves harbor for two three-hour sails every day, with one day of rest to train new volunteers for the rest of the week. During this season, Clearwater hosts educational programs for schools, public sails that are free of cost and open to all, and private charters that can be booked for anything from a birthday party to a fundraising event. These activities continue through the summer, when the crew also prepares for multiday programs such as Young Women At the Helm and River U, the latter a program for college students and professors. In autumn, the boat returns to the spring schedule of mostly educational sails, and by December the sloop is permanently docked for repairs and winter maintenance.
The three-day overnight programs, Young Women At the Helm and Young Men At the Helm (YWAH and YMAH), are “the crowning jewel of our summer programs,” says Jacinta Early, On-Board Educator, who alternates a week on and off the boat with her counterpart Isaac Santner. On a recent week, Early coordinated the educational components of the YWAH program and helped to train volunteers, while Santner worked from the organization’s offices in Beacon recruiting future volunteers, organizing sails and planning curriculum. The next week, after discussing their progress and goals, they’ll switch.
For YWAH, which I helped crew as a volunteer, the organization recruits girls aged 15-18 from all over the Hudson Valley to spend three days aboard the boat. During the course of the program, the boat travels to different locations and crewmembers teach the participants about sailing and the environment. By the last day, the girls run everything: setting the sail, steering, navigating, and docking. In shifts throughout the day, participants are taught science as it relates to ecosystems in and around the Hudson, and at night activities and camping are held on-shore.
YWAH and YMAH are both completely scholarship-funded programs, giving teens from all backgrounds the chance to sail on this historic boat. Many return as volunteers, interns and apprentices. Lyndsey Cooper, an Apprentice aboard Clearwater for one month this summer, was a participant in the program three years ago. She found out about YWAH from a Clearwater employee who spoke at her school about the organization, and after she completed the program, came back the next two years as a volunteer. She serves as a “temporary crew member,” helping out with sailing, docking, and chores, as well as tours, training new volunteers, and education programs. As she explains, “It’s great to use this job as a leadership opportunity to sharpen skills I might need in the future, and it’s also a lot of fun! I’m glad I can step up and carry out a new role at Clearwater.”
Through programs like YWAH, educational outreach and public sails, Clearwater protects the Hudson River and the environment at large by fostering an interest in environmental science and conservation. As Captain Annika Savio explains, “We introduce scientific concepts related to the environment to guests on board, and try to spread an appreciation for the river and the environment in that way”. In a technological age, “bringing young people outside and letting them see the natural world is one of the most important things we do.”
As I observed during my week aboard the boat, there seems to be a special atmosphere surrounding the boat and the people around it. Lyndsey Cooper said the best part about working on Clearwater is “definitely the people. Everyone has the same mission, but we all come from different places and backgrounds. We’re together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but somehow we manage not to drive each other completely crazy!” Captain Savio agrees: “There are so many amazing people in the Clearwater community.”
As for myself, I had an incredible time working and learning aboard the boat, and I hope to return as an apprentice or intern next year.