Next to the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston, alongside the Rondout Creek, sits the sloop Clearwater, within a tent of white plastic, some of her ribs showing where outer and inner planks have been removed. Master shipwright Jim Kricker lets me poke my head between two ribs, or “frames,” into the interior of the ship and points out the “trunk,” or centerboard casing, one of the elements his crew is replacing as they work on the iconic sloop.
Launched by Pete Seeger in 1969, the Clearwater has been an instrument of environmental activism that led to the cleanup of the Hudson River, among other initiatives, and still sails to educate and inspire people to protect natural resources. “This boat has worked pretty hard all its life,” said Kricker. “Almost 45 years — that’s a long life for a wooden boat.”
The ship is a replica of the sloops that sailed the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries. Normally they were scrapped after 15 years of commercial use, but today materials and labor are more scarce and more expensive than they were in the past, so restoration is a more realistic option. The Clearwater’s planks are embedded with iron and steel fasteners, which degrade from contact with salt water brought upriver on the tide. The rotting metal breaks down the wood around it, threatening the structural integrity of the boat. Five years ago, Kricker and his crew rebuilt the bow, replacing 19 frames and some of the associated planks, along with metal fittings. Two years ago, the stern received the same treatment, with 20 to 30 frames replaced. This winter, the crew is working amidships, making new frames and planks and a new trunk.
Kricker explains that the trunk keeps water from entering the boat during lowering and raising of the centerboard, which descends beneath the hull to help keep the ship on course in the wind. The 4000-pound centerboard, six inches thick and 22 feet long, is in decent shape, lying on the ground near the dock, where it was laid by a forklift. However, the trunk, also made of wood, has deteriorated.
Within the plastic sheeting, the temperature around the ship does not feel higher than the 23 degrees outside on this February afternoon. The work crew, wearing many layers of clothing, consists largely of bearded men, but there are a few women, including Clearwater captain Annika Savio. Among the workers are Kricker and five other professional shipwrights employed by the Maritime Museum, plus the Clearwater’s winter maintenance crew. Volunteers from the community also lend a hand.
Savio is standing outside next to a small sawmill, helping to adjust the mechanism to pare down a slab of wood that will become a new frame. The frames are curved, corresponding to the bulge of the hull, and each frame has a slightly different shape, reproduced by means of patterns taken from the existing frames. “I’m here to make sure we’re using the right people and the right materials,” says Savio. “I participate in decision-making, like deciding what has to be replaced and what has to wait.” The rebuilding began in late October and has to be completed by May, when the ship resumes a heavy schedule of educational programs, private charters, and public sails. Although the boat sails under wind power whenever possible, there’s an engine onboard to make sure she makes all her appointments in a timely fashion.
Next to the ship is a cavernous workshop, where it’s only slightly warmer among the stacks of wood and arrays of chisels, planes, and handsaws that are used along with power tools to work on the Clearwater. Kricker points across the room to a massive cast iron mount rearing over a waist-high platform. “That’s a 100-year-old boat saw,” he says. “It was designed and built to work on boats of this size and construction. It’s the most important old power tool we use.” The hand tools, he observes, are no different from those used in the 1860s.
ricker grew up in Bearsville and learned carpentry in the workshops of his father and grandfather. His attraction to boats arose when he was doing carpentry work with several friends in the 1970s. After repairing a rowboat that had been damaged in a storm on the Ashokan Reservoir, they took the boat out on the reservoir for a test run. “It was a choppy, windy day,” recalls Kricker. “On the way back, I stood up and opened my coat in the wind.” The old rowboat became a sailboat, and he was hooked on the sensation of being blown across the water.
As his skills expanded, working on boats and historic buildings became Kricker’s specialty. On his father’s Bearsville property, he helped build the sloop Woody Guthrie, constructed ten years after the Clearwater to support Seeger’s work on behalf of the Hudson. Kricker has worked on barns, lighthouses, and replicas of a Revolutionary War submarine, an 1843 Daguerreotype camera, and several trebuchets (Medieval siege catapults). He’s also restored at least 30 vintage gristmills and sawmills, from the Hudson Valley to Florida and the Midwest.
“It’s a great feeling to walk into a building that is regarded as being past the end of its useful life,” he said, “and to make something of it. When you start working on the same stuff as builders before you, you see the mark of their hand. With a mill, I also work on the machinery. I see how people did things, the problems they solved, and the ones they created. It’s a time travel experience.”
He also appreciates the workmanship of the past. “Today buildings are constructed just for profit,” he said. “Back then they built for profit too, but the work was done with great care, even lovingly. Whether they felt that, I don’t know, but that’s how it feels to me when I see what they did.”
The $850,000 renovation of the Clearwater is being funded by a grant from the New York State Department of Historic Preservation, but the grant only covers about half the cost. The rest comes from donations, which may be made through https://www.clearwater.org. For more information on Jim Kricker’s work, see https://www.rondoutwoodworking.com.