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.

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