Sailing With Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, who died Monday at the age of 94, was not just an iconic folksinger whose songs, including "If I Had a Hammer," ''Turn, Turn, Turn," and ''Where Have All the Flowers Gone," have for generations led a rallying cry against war, racism and injustice – he was a champion conservationist dedicated to protecting his beloved Hudson River and other waterways from sea to shining sea.

As a reporter I met Seeger and spend a memorable day sailing aboard the sloop Clearwater whose construction and mission he inspired, when the boat sailed into Mystic years ago.

It was a blustery, raw, overcast autumn morning when we boarded the 106-foot wooden vessel at Mystic Seaport Museum, and by the time we cleared Noank at the mouth of the Mystic River and headed out into Fishers Island Sound, rain pelted the deck.

Most of the crew and passengers scrambled below, but Seeger – or simply Pete, as he insisted everyone call him – donned a yellow slicker and remained at the helm. I joined him.

"Getting nasty," I said.

"But it's always good to be out on the water," he replied.

"Amen."

I pointed out local landmarks – Ram Island, Mouse Island, Fishers Island, Groton Long Point, Palmer Cove, Mumford Cove …

"What's that piece of land?" Pete asked, pointing to an expanse of beach and forest, resplendent in fall colors.

"Bluff Point," I said, and then rather immodestly described my own modest role in protecting the 800-acre peninsula, having served on a state-appointed committee that helped draft legislation to create the state's first and only coastal preserve. That impressed him, and he went on to talk about the Clearwater, built by volunteers in 1969 to serve as a floating classroom and to spread his message of environmental activism.

On that fall day the Clearwater also carried a huge load of pumpkins.

"We sell them whenever we pull into port to raise money for the movement," Pete explained.

By this time the squall had passed and a few passengers and crew members – mostly young volunteers – climbed back up on deck.

"Most of these kids work for nothing or for room and board," Pete said, shaking his head. Then he chuckled.

"When I think of all those union songs I've sung …"

At this point someone – I can't recall if it was a crew member or a passenger – decided to climb up the gaff-rigged Clearwater's 108-foot-tall topmast. About halfway up he had a change of heart and clung to a spar.

The boat pitched and yawed, but we couldn't come about or jibe without knocking the climber off with the boom. Soon we were "in irons," or blown backwards.

A handful of other crew members assembled below and began shouting instructions and encouragement to the wayward climber. Eventually he made it back down, a bit sheepishly, and the Clearwater's sails luffed in a steady breeze.

All too soon we were scudding back up the river.

Pete and I shook hands, and he thanked my for serving as his tour guide.

I thanked him for allowing me aboard, and for his passionate dedication to so many causes I embrace.

Bon voyage, Pete. The Clearwater, and your voice, sail on.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

Rocks In My Head, Part 37,482

Descending New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in a blizzard some time ago, a friend and I briefly strayed from the ice-encrusted Lion Head Trail – not all that surprising considering wind-whipped snow reduced our visibility to...

Hey, Unless Your Head Is Made Of Cement, Wear A Bike Helmet!

Last Saturday was glorious, perhaps the last sunny, warm day of the season, so a couple friends and I set out for a 50-plus-mile ride on Rhode Island’s magnificent East Bay Bike Path, one of my favorite places to pedal.

How to freeze your - - - off in four easy steps

I know you’ll find this rather shocking, but all those white things in the new picture of me aren’t really snowflakes – they’re feathers from an old pillow, which we thought would be a clever way to illustrate a...

Hey, Unless Your Head Is Made Of Cement, Wear A Bike Helmet!

Last Saturday was glorious, perhaps the last sunny, warm day of the season, so a couple friends and I set out for a 50-plus-mile ride on Rhode Island’s magnificent East Bay Bike Path, one of my favorite places to pedal.

Forget San Juan Capistrano – If You Want to See Hundreds of Thousands of Swallows, Check Out the Lower Connecticut River

Like the first snowflakes of an approaching blizzard, a small flurry of tiny birds flitted across the slow-moving water of the Connecticut River earlier this week, just as the sun began to dip below the western bank in Old Saybrook.

Celebrating the Spirit of Johnny Kelley, as We Dedicate a Statue in His Memory

Participating in weekly runs with legendary marathon champion Johnny Kelley back in the 1970s was a lot like attending a religious service.

Pink Gloves Save The Day At The Josh Billings RunAground Triathlon

Paddling a tandem kayak in the second leg of the Josh Billings RunAground Triathlon in the Berkshires of Massachusetts is a lot like competing in a combined NASCAR, Formula One and Demolition Derby race, what with every manner of vessel...

A Three-peat Victory, Redemption and Inspiration at Norwalk’s Lighthouse to Lighthouse Race

As Ian Frenkel and I stealthily steered our 22-foot tandem kayak toward Greens Ledge Lighthouse on Long Island Sound off Norwalk Saturday, we closed in on our good friend and arch rival Phil Warner, who was racing in his 24-foot two-man...

The Elegance (and Pain) of a White Mountain Presidential Traverse

Most hikers traipsing among New Hampshire’s White Mountains consider peaks in the Presidential Range – Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower – a worthy day hike, and many break up ascents of the more...

Superior Kayaking in Minnesota

Over the years I’ve heard many sounds while kayaking – roaring rapids, crashing waves, rumbling thunder, whistling wind, pelting rain, quacking ducks, barking seals, crying loons, splashing whales, screeching eagles –...

You Can't Mess With Mother Nature (But That Doesn't Stop Me From Trying)

In his book "The Control of Nature" John McPhee chronicles such futile human efforts as spraying fire hoses on a volcanic lava flow that threatened an Icelandic fishing village, building dikes along the flood-prone...

For the Ultra Athlete, Nothing Succeeds Like Excess

At 5:40 Thursday morning the sun had yet to poke above the horizon, but Laura Ely of Stonington and Pam Dolan of Mystic already had begun a 20-mile cycle through the hills of southeastern Connecticut.

A Fox in the Blueberries and Other Garden Surprises

    When my wife returned from the garden the other day, somewhat breathless and empty-handed, she announced, "You’ll never believe what’s trapped in the blueberry enclosure."

At Last, Kayaks Overpower Jet Skis

While launching my kayak on Maine’s Rangeley Lake the other day I took a short detour to avoid a particularly annoying personal watercraft rider who had been buzzing around in circles, seemingly oblivious to loons, humans and other...