A Unique Trip to College

posted Oct 4, 2012, 10:39 AM by News & Citizen

by Diana Osborn

As summer ends, students everywhere return to school. Some go by school bus, others by car, plane or even train. Sam Osborn, chose a most unique and daring method. He returned to college in a sailing canoe. He is starting his third year at Bard College in Annandale, NY, right on the Hudson River. His home is in Johnson, VT, about a mile from the Lamoille River. Between these two rivers is Lake Champlain. This is where his trip back to school started and continued down the 60 mile Champlain Canal, finishing on the mighty Hudson River. Sam says, "Of all of the pleasures the trip brought, the most pertinent was my ability to connect the distance between two discreet points in such a tangible way. It was also bloody hard. I averaged 10 hour days, some were over 12. I did, on average, 20 miles in a day, but one day I spent 11 hours to go about 8 miles. Wind was the defining agent. I paddled only when there was a south wind (10 days in tandem), and thus paddled exclusively into the wind. On the hardest days, I struggled to keep my small boat upright in 5 foot waves, much less make forward progress. At my best, I could do 2 miles an hour against a headwind and the Hudson tide. When the tide changed, its current would push against the wind producing the largest waves. No paddling on the tidal Hudson was easy. I stopped infrequently, once for lunch, and at night to sleep. At times the river or lake forced me to eat adrift." 

  Sometimes people tackle a challenging adventure to see if they can do it. In Sam's case, he knew he could do it, so he felt confident taking on the challenge. It was an opportunity to study the subtle changes in the river/lake ecosystem. Sam describes the journey like this, "Seeing the creeping evolution of topography, geography, and culture as I lost latitude was fantastic. Each day, each place, had characters, creatures, and weather different from the last, but not distinctly so. It was only when I reviewed my journal in my tent at night that I was able to acknowledge the changes of the lake, canal, and river on a large scale. It is marvelous to observe the barely detectable transformation of an area so vast as a watershed. It allows for a sort of slowness and solemness that exists within a person for a longtime afterward."

  The adventure began last summer with the purchase of a $50 canoe on Craigslist. It was the only canoe within Sam's budget. It turns out the seller was willing to sell at this low price to a kindred spirit, another adventurer with dreams of sailing a canoe on long distance voyages. He had already made some preliminary modifications and included a mast that was formerly part of a hang glider. Sam fixed up the boat and learned how to paddle, but there was no time to get it rigged for sailing. 

  Already an experienced backpacker, climber, and explorer he decided to take the new boat down the Lamoille River, from Johnson to its end, in Lake Champlain. This trip involved several difficult portages, but was a good introduction to canoe travel. He was hooked. Once Sam made it down the Lamoille River to Lake Champlain, it didn't take him long to realize that he could actually continue southward, maybe even to New York City, or at least to Bard. But could a personal craft use the locks on the New York State Canal System? Sam was relieved to find out that canoes could not only use the system, but there was no charge. The system is at least partially financed by tolls that cars pay on the New York Thruway. The canal system was established in the early 1800s for transporting cargo. It was modified in the the early 1900s. By the 2000s, its value was mainly historic and recreational rather than commercial. The lock operators were highly supportive of his trip. Other boaters were also intrigued. "As I traveled south and began meeting distinct characters along the river, it was clear that others seemingly overestimated the vastness and courage of the trip. They were all incredibly hospitable, sometimes concerned, and eager to exchange stories for refreshment. An offer I gladly took up! It was in these surprise breaks from the routine of the trip, the random late night with kind strangers, who, in the morning, were good friends, that gave the entire expedition a personality of its own."

  What is a sailing canoe anyway? For thousands of  years, boats that could be paddled and/or sailed and/or carried existed around the world. James MacGregor, of Scotland, popularized sailing canoes in the 1860s with his book 1000 Miles in a Rob Roy Canoe. He said "in walking you are bounded by every sea and river, and in a common sailing-boat you are bounded by every shallow and shore; whereas, ...a canoe [can] be paddled or sailed, or hauled, or carried over land or water." While canoes are small enough to haul, and easy to paddle, modifying one to sail is a bit of a project. The sail must be easily put up and taken down by one person, when underway. The type and number of masts, lines, and booms that work on a traditional sailboat aren't suited to a canoe. After researching historic and modern alternatives, Sam decided on a spritsail design. Instead of tying lines to the boats, he held the sail in a gloved hand. The sail, or sheet, was made from strong, lightweight, water resistant green poly tarp, nylon cord and duct tape. With a large sail above, something must also be done below the canoe to keep it balanced and steerable. The canoe must be kept from blowing over, or away, without permanently changing the hull shape. If something large hangs down into the water below the boat, it becomes very stable but no longer able to go in shallow water. Instead, stability in a sailing canoe, comes from 1 or 2 pivotable leeboards on the side of the craft. When the sail is raised, a line is released from a cleat, and the leeboard drops into the water, acting sort of like a removable keel. Making leeboards ended up being a month-long project and lesson in fiberglassing. Learning to control the sail required practice trips on Lake Eden and Green River Reservoir. "Sailing was more demanding than paddling. Holding the sheet in my hand, as was my design, meant wrapping it around my hand in high winds to prevent it from slipping. To steer in wind, I adjusted the amount of wind the sail caught by ever so slightly pulling in or letting out my arm. This meant, to prevent a capsizing, I had to hold the entire force of the wind in the sail at a fixed point relative to my body with a bent arm. If the wind became too strong, or were I to make a mistake, I could simply drop the sheet, and the boat would right itself. This happened often.

  In a time where people worry about the youth of today, and their preoccupation with technology, it is reassuring that at least one young man is willing to travel simply and rekindle skills lost to time.