For many people, the words “middle school” bring up memories of awkwardness and questionable fashion choices, but for me, I think of two life changing decisions: joining marching band, which led me down the path to my career as a music teacher, and a field trip in eighth grade when our school’s environmental club went sailing on the Sloop Clearwater.
The club had just formed, and I always enjoyed being by the water, so I got the permission slip signed. After my first magical moment of silence, I knew that it would not be my last time sailing, but I didn’t realize how often I would come back to the good sloop! When I came back halfway through the day, my classmates were jealous that I got to miss school, but I was still caught up in the absolute perfection that came with enjoying the river on a beautiful spring day with students and adults alike that shared the same values as me. With the newfound knowledge of the environmental impact of a granola bar and a crew member’s rendition of Blackbird still echoing in my head, I replayed those 3 hours for the rest of the day. That field trip took place 12 years ago, and I haven’t been able to stay away.
In 2014, I volunteered during the Young Women at the Helm Youth Empowerment Program. I remember applying as soon as I found out about it and talking everyone’s ear off about my return to such a magical vessel! I remember how quickly the participants bonded over rewriting song lyrics to reflect our experiences over the 3 days – including the lack of shower access. But, I also remember learning the first of many valuable life lessons from the sloop crew that I continue to follow today: peanut butter and/or Sriracha can enhance ANY meal. My main task as part of the Maritime Watch was tending to dock line 2, and the feeling of pride as I executed a perfect throw on our final docking carried me through the next three years I spent away from the sloop due to busy school schedules and the beginning of college.
In 2017, I found myself with an unusually free month and I immediately went on the Clearwater website to figure out how I could get back on board. There is certainly quite a difference between being a passenger and being crew, as I was about to learn. The next thing I knew, I was a sail trainee and in four short weeks, I developed such deep relationships with the boat and her crew that upon my departure, I sobbed for an hour straight saying goodbye to everyone.
It is difficult to describe what it’s like living in such a communal environment. The crew is constantly changing and it always takes a bit to adjust, especially to someone like me who is naturally introverted and spends a long time observing and analyzing social situations. However, it always clicks, and you can go from an outsider to finding your place within the span of a few hours once it all comes together. The relationships build in the little moments, like going on a head bucket run and leaving the utility bucket behind in the middle of the road after one of the buckets falls out of the truck, or emptying 16 head buckets fire line style with the whole crew from the boat to the sewer and timing how long it takes. Any shared experience with a head bucket will bring you much closer together.
Even with long days and the many curveballs that get thrown at you, coming together with a common goal of protecting our environment – continuing Pete Seeger’s dream and Clearwater’s mission – was always worth it. I had much more meaningful experiences with music listening to and singing songs with my shipmates after chores than I did performing classically in my ensembles at college. Constantly being out of my comfort zone led to an acceptance of my lack of knowledge and often failures that humbled me more than any other experience. I came back to volunteer for two weeks the following year, and volunteered at the Clearwater festival the year after that, and every time, even with familiar faces in new positions, even with different crews and different environments, I always left with my soul recharged yet knowing there was still so much to learn.
When I applied to be an educator deckhand for the 2020 season, never did I think my time on board would be spent planning Facebook lives instead of planning stations and that working late hours wouldn’t just be boat maintenance but also editing videos and creating digital content. However, the Our River Connects Us journey gave the crew and the organization such unique opportunities. While nothing compares to having students on board and running our live programming, the messages we were receiving over social media and the people coming to visit us at each dock really made me feel how far the reach of Clearwater spreads.
The generous donations and offers of help along with the company of visitors on the docks sharing their stories was the living definition of community. The voices and stories the organization was able to amplify along the way demonstrated our role in an even larger community. It all being documented along the way made a lasting impact. Two years later, at my school’s spring concert, my fifth graders sang “Pat Works on the Railway” after watching it in action with the crew hauling up the sail on an ORCU video.
In terms of life on board, there is something to be said about the feeling of accomplishment of setting the sails with a smaller crew every day, sometimes twice a day. Unsurprisingly, my favorite times were always “band practice,” when the crew worked on the songs we’d be breaking silence with during the next Facebook Live. Our rendition of “Mingulay Boat Song”, which I believe you can still watch, will always give me the warm and fuzzies. One of the most memorable days of the whole trip was the final day of the ORCU journey. With spirits high, our banners hanging on the mainsail and the goal of sailing past the Verrazano, we took off from Yonkers. Sailing into the city, we were met with pelting rain, thunder that shook the boat, and lightning flashes that caused Captains Nick and Amy to send the crew down below while they navigated us out of harm’s way. As if that weren’t enough, when the storm blew over and we forged on, the traffic and construction in the harbor made it impossible to navigate past the Verrazano, and after a long day, our docking at South Street Seaport took over two hours, with all fenders on board in use due to the constant wakes from water taxis and ferries. We made sure to celebrate our accomplishments extra hard that night!
I plan to keep coming back to Clearwater for as long as I can haul on a line, and even knowing that I’ll feel like I’m starting over every single time I return, I now realize that it’s not just about being an amazing sailor and knowing everything there is to know (though I am still certainly in awe of every single crew member I’ve had the pleasure of learning from!). The magic of Clearwater comes in so many different forms, from an ethereal breezy day on the Hudson to the impact that comes from uniting for a common cause. The various ways people can experience Clearwater is essential to the mission and just goes to show how incredibly important the organization is to the Hudson Valley and beyond.
The memories in the Generations Story Archive share why grassroots generosity and community action are powerful forces for good. We need your help to create lasting memories like these