By Ann Dermody
Seeger's Sloop; A Passion For Motors; Cruising Authors; And A Teen Idol
Pete Seeger — A River Runs Through This Folk-Music Icon
Interview By Tim Murphy
Published: February/March 2011
For two-thirds of his 91 years, the treasured American folk-music star Pete Seeger has led a turbulent public life at the confluence of music and politics. Last year, when a sold-out crowd of 20,000 fans gathered to celebrate his 90th birthday at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Seeger sent the proceeds to the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. The river and the sloop constitute the one labor of love to which Seeger has dedicated most of the second half of his life. Last summer we spoke with Pete Seeger about his devotion to the river that flows past his home.
How did you get interested in boating?I had a job in Cape Cod about 1959. And a teenager took me out at midnight and showed me what fun it was to sail. It's not how fast you go; it's the fact that you move at all! And if you're clever enough with your game with the wind and the waves, you can use the very power of the wind against you to sail against the wind. That's good politics, too. Martin Luther King used the forces against him to zigzag ahead.
What led you to build the Clearwater?After I got back from Cape Cod, I persuaded my wife to let me buy a little plastic bathtub of a boat. However, when I was learning to sail on the Hudson, I went out by myself and found myself sailing through lumps of this and that along with the toilet paper. I had enough money to buy a boat, but I was sailing through toilet waste.
How did you get from a plastic sailboat to building a 100-foot Hudson River sloop?A friend of mine loaned me a book written in 1907, right in my hometown, called Sloops of the Hudson, and I read it over and over. It wasn't great literature, but it was full of love. And I wrote a letter to Vic Schwarz, the man who loaned me the book, and said, "Why don't we get a gang of people together and see if we can raise some money to build a life-size replica?" It was a very impractical scheme.
But you got it built?I'd forgotten about my letter. A few months later, Vic met me on the railroad platform and said, "When are we going to get started on that boat?" And I said, "What boat?" He said, "I've passed your letter up and down the commuter train, and I've got a couple dozen people who want to get started." And I scratched my head and said, "Well, if there's enough crazy people, we might do it." We didn't know how to start, exactly, until this businessman, Alexander Saunders, wanted me to give a fund-raising concert for the "Scenic Hudson" organization. But down in New York, they said, "Mr. Saunders, don't even think of that. Don't touch Seeger with a 10-foot pole. If we have anything to do with him, we'll be tarred with the same brush." It was only six years after I was condemned to jail for not cooperating with the Un-American Activities Committee. Well, Saunders came back and said, "Vic, they've turned me down, but I'd like to hear some music. Maybe you can raise money for something else." And Vic says, "Well, Pete and I have been talking about raising money to build a Hudson River sloop." And two months later I'm singing for 150 people on Alexander Saunders's lawn. And during the intermission, 15 or 20 met in his living room. And Saunders's widow, Risi Saunders, is proud that it was in her living room that the Clearwater was born. Those 15 people voted to start a nonprofit organization called the "Hudson River Sloop Restoration Incorporated."
Did you have accurate plans or models to work from?I sent a letter to the New York Historical Society and to the Smithsonian and the library in Mystic, Connecticut, asking where we could find out about these old boats. I got a very nice letter from a young man working at the library in Mystic, saying: "We've got pictures of the old ones, and blueprints of how they were made, and I think we could help find you an architect who could transfer them to modern times." And they did. Cyrus Hamlin in Kennebunk, Maine, did a job most people would have charged $50,000 for. He charged us $6,000. He found a painting by James E. Buttersworth of a sloop in a high wind, and every single block and tackle was clearly shown.
Cy found a builder. Down in New York, they wanted $300,000 to build it. But old Harvey Gamage said he'd build it for $120,000. And so the keel was laid in October '68. My wife christened it. And we poured a little Hudson water on the keel. And eight months later it was launched, May 17, 1969.
Did the Clearwater project do what you'd hoped it would on the Hudson?Well, I'd say it's been slower than we hoped. But nevertheless, the reason we can now swim in the river is because it started off the cleaning up of the river. However, we weren't the only ones; Scenic Hudson and a group called the River Keeper were very important.
How do you think boating has informed your music?For a while, while I was sailing with the Clearwater, I was writing one sailing song after another. And a lot of other people were, too. So there are dozens of songs in the Clearwater.
Do you feel as though these advocacy projects you've been part of on the local level are models for these larger global issues that you're talking about now?I'm a longtime believer in the power of beauty. And the compound curves of a sailboat are supremely beautiful. I think the powers-that-be have got so much money that they can co-opt any big thing they want. But what are they going to do about the millions of small things? We can control those, and inspire people, and then, who knows what can happen?
For more on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater program, including their annual music festival, visit www.clearwater.org
Vintage Man, Bob Grubb
Bob Grubb grew up around motors. He went to work for Grubb Marine right after high school, fixing Mercury outboards for customers, and eventually took over the business from his father before retiring in 2008. A shop tends to accumulate extra stuff, and when he went to his first meeting of the Antique Outboard Motor Club in New Jersey, it was with an eye toward unloading some of the spare parts that were cluttering the place. Grubb Marine has closed its doors, but that trip to the swap meet started a hobby, and when he wasn't working on customers' motors, he found himself working on his own.
"There's a simplicity and a charm, I think, to the older motors, once you get familiar with them, that the newer stuff kind of loses," he says. "I developed an appreciation for the old engineering, and some of the neat ideas that they tried. Some were successful, some weren't."
Grubb's collection of antique outboards has grown to the point where he's building a separate structure to contain it — almost 300 strong, starting with a 1907 Waterman Porto. He has pictures of his collection on his web page (www.Mercguy.com) and wants the general public to be able to see them (arrange a visit by contacting him at the website), but the best way to display a boat motor is, well, on a boat. "They were meant to be run," he says, "and as long as someone exercises reasonable caution to lubricate them and look over them mechanically, I don't have any worries about running the only known example of a particular motor."
Grubb had a fairly complete collection of Mercury motors — as a former dealer, he says it's expected of him. But his real passion is for the rarities, the evolutionary dead ends of the outboard world. "I'm particularly attracted to the really early outboard motors, going to the extremes of the unusual," he says. A 1920 Amphion motor, for example: "It's just an unusual brand, produced in very small quantities back in the early days of outboard motors. It's not the only one, there are others, but I think it's safe to say it's the only one that's regularly in service. I try to walk the walk," he continues. "I encourage people that there's more to the hobby than stockpiling old engines and saying 'there they are.' Or worse yet, saying 'I've got them and you can't look at them.' I don't understand that mentality."
Mark and Diana Doyle — A Marriage Made On Water
Boating and the water have flowed through Diana and Mark Doyle's lives. After meeting a decade ago at a marina in Portsmouth, New Hampshire — where Diana was temporarily keeping her sailboat, and Mark was outfitting his C&C to go cruising — Cupid's arrow struck. A year later, the pair had sold their boats and bought a PDQ 36 catamaran to set off on a two-year cruise with Diana's young son, Morgan, in tow. The trio took in Canada, the Great Lakes, Maine, the Bahamas, the Dry Tortugas, and everywhere else in between. While using several cruising guides, they noted a few omissions. "Many had been written more like prose and that didn't work," says Diana. "We started to think about what information people really needed right at the helm. And maybe it was having a child onboard, but we also wanted to know things like how a place had gotten its unusual name." Those thoughts eventually became their first book, Managing the Waterway: Hampton Roads, VA to Biscayne Bay, FL (ICW), published in 2005.
The Doyles were certainly qualified to launch the new guides. Mark had recently retired from high tech, specializing in color digital imaging, and also had a 100-ton USCG Master's License. Diana, a former university professor with a Ph.D. from Yale, holds a 50-ton USCG Master's License. Their guides and electronic charting series have led them all over the country. They've just finished their fourth publication, An Illustrated Cruising Guide to the Great Loop Inland Waterway: Chicago to Mobile (Volume 1: Chicago, IL to Paducah, KY).
They recently sold the catamaran and invested in a trailerable 22-foot C-Dory Pilothouse workboat that's become their home away from home. Unlike other cruising writers, the Doyles' smaller boat means they can go into every anchorage, which they do, without fear of running aground. "We're writing for larger boats but we can gunkhole everywhere," Diana says. www.managingthewaterway.com
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High-Sailor Zac Efron
He's a teen heartthrob who made his name in the all-singing, all-dancing "High School Musical" movies, but now thanks to his first leading-man role, Zac Efron has added sailing to his skill set. The 22-year-old actor says he was fated to play the part of Charlie in the big-screen adaptation of Ben Sherwood's acclaimed second book, Charlie St. Cloud. Unaware that the movie centered on sailing, he read the script by chance while spending the night on a sailboat with his dad.
"I brought one script to read and it just happened to be "Charlie St. Cloud." It was surreal. As I read the racing scenes, the wind started to pick up, and the boat started to rock, and I was like, 'Wow, this is ... very obvious.' It felt right."
The movie is about a talented boy in a small coastal town who receives a sailing scholarship to Stanford. Just before he leaves, he's involved in a car accident that kills his little brother, and sends him off the rails. He's only redeemed five years later when he falls in love with a girl planning a solo round-the-world sail.
Efron says he'd admired the beauty of sailing but this was his first introduction to trying it. "I was in Vancouver two weeks prior to filming and we sailed more or less every day. Initially, it was difficult! There are so many factors that go into it. It's not just wind blowing into a sail and propelling your boat. It's incredibly precise. One mistake, one lapse in judgment on a small boat, and you can very quickly capsize. On the first day of sailing lessons, my instructor made a point of capsizing. I was scared, but I also got it out of my system." According to his instructor, Efron took to the sport, and plans to stick with it. "I'd like to do some long-distance sailing. That would be really fun." Charlie St. Cloud is now available on DVD. — A.D.