On Sunday, August 23, at 5 p.m. the "Harvey Gamage," a 19th-century replica schooner, will arrive at North Haven for a “ceremonial loading” of one ton of food from local farms. (Photo Courtesy Maine Sail Freight)
On Sunday, August 23, at 5 p.m. the "Harvey Gamage," a 19th-century replica schooner, will arrive at North Haven for a “ceremonial loading” of one ton of food from local farms. (Photo Courtesy Maine Sail Freight)
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Update to the story below: The Harvey Gamage was originally going to be the ship involved in this project, but the schooner Adventure, out of Gloucester, Mass., was used instead. It’s been about a hundred years since cargo schooners sailed the waters of Penobscot Bay with any regularity, but this Sunday, August 23, the two-masted Harvey Gamage will set off from the Fox Islands Thorofare at North Haven, loaded up with a ton of locally produced food.

The 19th-century replica schooner will make a stop in Portland for a dinner party, where it will load another 10 tons of cargo on August 27 before making its final stop at Long Wharf in Boston Harbor on August 29. From there, the Maine-made products will be distributed around Boston and Cambridge on a fleet of “trailer bicycles” to local farmers’ markets, restaurants and other customers. All told, the crew hopes to unload $70,000 worth of goods

The voyage, described by its organizers as a “summer-long pageant celebrating our regional food economy,” is spearheaded by the New York-based Greenhorns, an activist group dedicated to supporting young farmers through a variety of mediums including films, music, books and in-person networking. The group’s director, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, describes the Maine Sail Freight project as “whimsical,” but says it’s also meant to provoke a discussion about trade policy and injustices in the centralized industrial food system.  

“Consolidation of food distribution means fewer and fewer national and international companies coordinate trade in this country,” wrote the group in a statement. “Transparency and integrity lose out as 18-wheelers criss-cross the continent delivering mass-produced commodities in lock-step schedule, centralizing control, privileging specialization and monopoly. But there are many reasons to veer away from the status quo, and truck traffic isn’t the least of it. We’re hoisting our sail to celebrate the new regional economy’s many benefits — and to protest the impact on young farmer livelihoods caused by  concentration of power and poor labor conditions, which characterize our current global food system.”

Right now, 90 percent of the food consumed by New England’s 14.5 million residents comes from somewhere else, according to a report by Food Solutions New England. While Maine was known as the food basket for New England in the 19th century, by World War I farmers began to abandon much of their land and focused more on high-value products like milk, poultry and produce. By that time, schooners had been replaced by steamboats, which left the midcoast once a day in the late afternoon carrying goods like strawberries, apples and other food products on the 12-hour trip to Boston. While some cargo schooners carried food in their heyday, most food was consumed locally and sail freight was confined to items like lumber, lime and granite. But as trucking took off in the 1930s, even the steamboat became obsolete, as the last Boston-bound ship ran in 1935. Aside from an failed attempt in 1979, the last commercial cargo schooner was built in 1938. 

Still, Fleming says she believes sail freight has a future. In 2013, the Greenhorns assisted the group Vermont Sail Freight in making a 360-mile voyage from Vermont through Lake Champlain and down the Hudson to deliver 13 tons of goods from 37 local farms to several locations along the route to New York City. Fleming said that group managed to sell $9,000 worth of food in one day in Brooklyn largely because so many New Yorkers are enamored of Vermont’s “brand,” and since Maine has a similar regional brand, it makes this trip a good marketing opportunity for local farmers. She said her Greenhorns group chose Maine because, like the Hudson-Champlain region, Maine has a strong young farmer movement, with one of the highest percentages of new young farmers in the country. She added that Maine is also well situated to take advantage of the new Boston Public Market, which features only New England-sourced food. 

However, there are a lot of challenges to this mode of transport. According to the Vermont Sail Freight project’s blog, the group has ceased operations due to problems with the ship’s design, high insurance costs, lack of land-based dock infrastructure, inadequate marketing and distribution plans, and inexperienced boat personnel. Fleming said she learned a lot from the Vermont experience, which is why Maine Sail Freight has chartered a boat with professional sailors and simplified the cargo by putting it into bundled gift samplers of various products rather than trying to sell food and produce separately.  

The big question is whether sail freight can work economically in the era of cheap fossil fuel, containerized shipping, and super-efficient supply chains. Fleming said in order to offset the $3,000-a-day cost of the charter, the group decided to focus on selling higher-value products like jams, honey, maple syrup candy, seaweed, baking mixes, wool, goat milk, and tanned hides of sheep and cashmere goats. The bundles, which range in price from $35 to $275, also include a sampling of the Greenhorns’ “yeoman punk” material — a collection of essays and illustrations by young farmers,  a vinyl record compilation of 19th-century Granger songs and a cassette collaboration with Landworkers Alliance, an English farmers association. 

“It’s the same as the bootleggers down in Kentucky know, the best way to move your product is as moonshine,” said Fleming. “You want to add value, you want it to be non-perishable and in units that can be sold retail, and you want your maximum brand impact.”

Crown o’ Maine Organic Cooperative and Fiddlers Green Farm owner Marada Cook, who is assisting with the cargo loading and distribution, estimates that the Harvey Gamage can hold about as much product as a typical Crown of Maine truck. While a truck generally carries around $30,000 of lower-value products like produce, Cook says 11 tons of maple syrup can generate $27,500 net before expenses. Therefore, as long as a schooner carries pricier value-added products, the economics can work.

“I would say that there are many ways to make money,” wrote Cook in an email. “When folks say ‘the economics can’t possibly work,’ they usually mean ‘when compared to the current model of distributing food, the cost per pound or unit will be much higher.’ With sailing freight, you should think of the business model more along the lines of food businesses that ADD value — restaurants, food trucks, mail-order, gift shops, specialty shops.”  

Nevertheless, many midcoast residents can’t help associating schooner freight schemes with the ill-fated voyage of the John F. Leavitt, which was depicted in the 1982 documentary film “Coaster: The Adventure of the John F. Leavitt.” It was at the height of the oil crisis and Ned Ackerman, a former English teacher, believed that sail-powered schooners would eventually be able to compete with trucks, trains and cargo ships. After three years and an estimated $300,000 investment, the two-masted 97-foot sailing vessel launched from Thomaston on August 9, 1979, to great fanfare with a crowd of 1,500 and a marching band. Ackerman named the ship after the famed shipbuilder and naval historian who wrote a book about the last wooden whaling vessel, the Charles W. Morgan. At the time, the Leavitt was the first cargo-carrying schooner built in over 40 years, but Ackerman believed that the 150-ton-capacity cargo ship — the equivalent of  five semitrailer truckloads — could jump-start the dawning of a new era of sail freight. 

“Everybody told me I was crazy when I started this,” Ackerman told the AP at the time. “But I think I’m crazy like a fox. The price of fuel is not going down. And if we have a complete crunch, I may be the only kind of transportation you can buy.”

Four months later, while en route with a load of lumber and tanning chemicals bound for Haiti, the vessel ran into 20-foot waves and began taking on water. It foundered 187 miles off the coast of Long Island on December 29 and the nine aboard were rescued by helicopter. 

Fleming says she is often met with snickers from those who remember. 

“My retort to the old salts who are pointing to Ned Ackerman is, that was one dude in the ’70s and it’s 35 years later,” she said. “And there’s a lot of interesting examples around the world that are making it work through exploiting niche marketing opportunities.”

Whether the sail freight model ever gains momentum or is simply another passing fad remains to be seen, but Fleming says she hopes it will start a conversation. 

“We’re not proposing that using the boat is ethical,” she said, “but it is proposing a question about what would be a more ethical way to approach these problems.”