Sloop Clearwater Volunteer: Neil R. Gordon

In this Q & A with Clearwater Education Coordinator Isaac Santner, volunteer Neil R. Gordon, who hails from Brookline, MA, (where he is president of a company that bears his name), describes his experience volunteering on board the sloop.

Neil R. Gordon

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Neil Gordon, in costume, as a volunteer during the Halloween sail.

How did you find out about the ClearwaterI’ve known of Clearwater pretty much from the time it was launched, and first stepped on board in the early ‘70s during a visit to South Street Seaport. From then until just a few years ago, life got in the way and I watched Clearwater from a distance. But with more free time and significantly more flexibility, when I got to the page on the Clearwater website that said, “volunteer,” I did!

Could you describe your volunteer week? I’m losing track of how many volunteer weeks I’ve done. Six or seven? I’ll give you a composite answer.

What did you eat? As is standard on tall ships, you never ask the cook, “What’s cooking?” It’s not that it’s bad luck or anything, but if everyone asks, every meal, that’s something like 350 asks a week. On Clearwater, as crew or as a volunteer (I find it difficult to notice the difference, more on that later), you can order anything you want, but you pretty much get what the cook decides you get. I don’t have any allergies or any strong negative preferences, so I’m cool with whatever is served. Breakfast might be eggs, pancakes, French toast, or the like. There’s always cereal and milk. Lunch tends to be quick – soup and salad or soup and sandwiches, often including ingredients recognizable as part of last night’s dinner. Dinner can be just about anything. Budget limits and crew preferences limit the amount of animal protein that’s served on board but even as a carnivore I have no complaints.

Who else was on-board?  There’s sailing crew and education crew on board, plus a handful of volunteers. The distinction’s blurry because everyone (honest – EVERYONE!) both works the ship and teaches. Crew and volunteers have ranged in age, as I like to say, from 17 to me.

What was the weather like? Warm, cool, dry, wet, sometimes one of those for a whole week, sometimes all four in one day.

What was the crew like? In one word, “welcoming.” First day, first time, in any new place with new faces, you can feel like an outsider. On Clearwater, that feeling doesn’t last long. I often quote Capt. Bob Leverone, former executive officer of the ship I served on, who said, “Shipmate is a word only understood by someone who has been one. When I’m on board Clearwater, we’re shipmates, whether we’re there for the season or there for the week.

What is a memorable moment from your week volunteering on-board?  You mean just one? Yikes! The last day of the sailing season for Clearwater is October 31, coincidentally the end of my last volunteer week, as well. For Halloween, the crew spends the day in costume, which was great fun. We ended the day with a traditional Halloween party on board, trick-or-treating cabin to cabin and bunk to bunk, carving pumpkins, and the like. There are any number of memorable students (all positive memories), as well as a number of very special teachers.

What kind of impact do you think Clearwater has on participants? A few weeks after a spring volunteer week, I was dog-walking in a local (Brookline, MA) park, and wearing my Clearwater volunteer shirt. I was stopped by a young man, in his early 30s I would guess, who told me that he had grown up in New York and that his class did a Clearwater sail. Curious about how the program might have evolved, I asked him what he remembered from 20 years or so ago. He said, “I don’t remember the details. All I remember is that it’s important to keep the river clean.”

Do you ever use the things you learned on board in your day-to-day life? I sail a 28-foot sloop and have picked up lots of pointers from my time on a tall ship. We cut corners off sponges now at home, too. (I’ve found this is common among Clearwater volunteers.) Clearwater is always part of my day-to-day life.

Would you come back to the Clearwater as a volunteer? I’m on the books for a week on the (sister ship) Mystic Whaler in May, and if all goes well I’ll be back again to end the sailing season.


Each year, we take thousands of students and adults out on the Clearwater. We have a tireless crew, great interns, knowledgeable educators, and a well-respected program. None of it would be possible without the volunteers who each give a week of their time to come on board to teach, sail, learn, and live with the crew on the sloop. This year, we have a great need for more volunteers. (Click here to apply.

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