At the end of September, Erik Andrus will take his handmade sailing barge on a 10-day journey down the Hudson River to deliver Vermont potatoes, apples, maple syrup and the like to hungry New Yorkers, an event that will be remarkable only because this is 2013.
Between the opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823 and the advent of the railroad in the late 1860s, sailing barges were a vital link between farmland up the Hudson Valley and the ever-growing population of New York City.
Today, fleets of trucks, not boats, make the same journey in six hours or less. But Andrus says speed isn’t everything.
“Moving cargo along the highways is notorious for being one of the worst jobs, and it burns 60 gallons of diesel per trip,” he says. “Being in communion with the working waterway and with natural forces looks a lot better to me. It’s kind of my belief that the future might look a lot like the past.”
His boat, Ceres, has a motor on hand for emergencies, but if all goes as planned it will be powered only by the crew, the wind and the tides.
What became the Vermont Sail Freight Project was originally just Andrus’s “crazy idea,” born of his love for farming, the water and building things out of wood. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s a rice farmer not a boat builder. But, then again, five years ago he wasn’t a rice farmer either: He was a wheat and barley farmer whose fields wouldn’t stop flooding. Apparently, for Andrus water equals opportunity of all kinds.
The project literally got off the ground with a successful Kickstarter campaign and some additional fund-raising (including an unsolicited $10,000 gift from the band Phish). Andrus then teamed up with the Willowell Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to environmental education and sought out boat-building experts to make sure the project wouldn’t sink. If all goes well, he hopes the venture will become self-sustaining, even profitable.
The barge can take on 15 tons of cargo at a time—“Everything from maple syrup to Christmas trees, depending on the season”—and he expects to make eight trips per year, selling mostly to individual customers who will pre-order through his website.
Andrus doesn’t plan to abandon farming for a life on the river, so he’s hoping an entrepreneuring young bargeman (or woman) will step up to the plate. It isn’t exactly a get-rich-quick scheme, but again, speed isn’t everything.
We caught up with the Ceres in Hudson and have the pictures to prove it.