While my first intellectual inspiration for environmental causes originated from the steps Bhutan, a small Himalayan nation, took to become carbon-negative, my initial exposure to environmental issues was through an after-school sailing program. Beyond that, I also learned practical skills, like tying knots and working with construction equipment and materials.
Once a week, rain or shine, I — as well as groups of students from 12 high schools on the lower west side of Manhattan — would spend three to four hours in a boathouse on Pier 66 at Hudson River Park. For the first 30 minutes students would catch up with fellow sailors and instructors before conducting various water quality tests. We would check the pH level, confirm change in temperature, and record the direction and speed of the current in order to prepare for a sail. Feeling the brisk and fresh air of the Hudson River shoot by you while sitting at the bow is a rush, not to mention the various other sailboats, tourist vessels, and barges trailing off the port and starboard sides we had to keep in mind!
These simple, yet impregnable, moments on and around the Hudson River, and the Long Island Sound in my third year, left a permanent, venerable impact on my relationship with the natural world. The combination of environmental and engineering sciences coupled with live experiences with nature and water systems in an urban setting established my passions for science communication, community activism, and environmental governance.
What is HRCS?
The sailing program I joined, Hudson River Community Sailing (HRCS), is an educational nonprofit that partnered with several high schools in lower Manhattan to teach sailing and maritime skills and offer for-credit classes.
To be honest, HRCS was one of the reasons why I went to my high school, Lab High School for Collaborative Studies. I had always struggled with math throughout my childhood even though I was very passionate about science and understanding the natural world. Even though other schools had better facilities or more class options, I wanted an interdisciplinary program that would foster a sense of community while encouraging an appreciation of STEM fields.
So when I learned that I had a chance to sail in my spare time while receiving academic support for math, I knew that this would be an incredible opportunity.
Skills and lessons
HRCS is structured in three stages: Sailing by Numbers, Ocean Literacy, and First Mates. As a first year, the course Sailing by Numbers delves into basic mathematical concepts in algebra and geometry while incorporating on-water sailing and boat-building components. The year ends with a sailing trip to Dyckman Marina, another HRCS port in Inwood Park. Students in this program earn 1 math credit and 1 gym credit.
As a second year, the course Ocean Literacy focuses on ecology, environmental science, and meteorology, while implementing this knowledge on the water through more advanced sailing navigation. At the end of the fall, students will sail past the Statue of Liberty. My trip to the Palisades was truly an eye-opening experience in that it made me realize the built environment (e.g., New York City) and the natural environment (e.g., the Palisades) were co-equal parts of the human experience. At the end of the spring, students sail to Palisades Park and engage in water quality testing. Running my fingers through the water while the sailboat maneuvered the Hudson River coast for other vessels and marine debris reinforced this notion that humans are just one part of the Earth, and yet our impact was far more intrusive and toxic than it should be. Picking up litter and trash throughout the Palisade trails while interacting with a baby raccoon, deer, and other wildlife convinced me of the direct, positive impact humanity can have with fellow lifeforms if we set the intention and take action.
For the remainder of their time at HRCS, students have the opportunity to choose a series of specialty tracks — Skipper, Exploring, Racing, and Building — in First Mates. During my two years as a first mate, I was a skipper, explorer and builder because I wanted to gain a broad understanding of what I could learn about environmental problems, solutions, and their impacts.
As a Skipper, most of the time is spent on nautical skills and operating various forms of on-water-vehicles, including catamarans, dinghies, J24s and J40s. J24s and J40s are classic sailing boats with one main hull/body, with the numbers referring to the length of the boats themselves. A catamaran is a boat with two parallel-sized hulls and a wide-beam connecting the two. Meanwhile, a dinghy is a small vessel that allows sailors to get to and from the docks and the sailboats. One of my favorite pastimes while on the water was practicing emergency maneuvers around a substantial piece of marine debris (e.g., car tires, rotten wood with nails or metal, plastic bins, etc.) because I knew that it would have a direct impact on the health of marine life, as well as prevent any unnecessary accidents for other vessels. In other words, the notion of the Gaia Hypothesis principle — living and non-living organisms interact in a symbiotic manner that perpetuates life as we know it — was instilled before I even learned about it in an academic setting.
The Explorers are responsible for understanding the logistics of sailing expeditions and carrying out one themselves. There are instructors present during the preparation of and the trips themselves, however it is the Explorers’ responsibility to know what supplies to pack, which courses to set, what the weather forecasts will be (in real time), among other things. During one of our trips into New York City, we split up into groups along the Gowanus canal in Brooklyn — one of New York State’s 87 Superfund sites — to conduct water quality tests and monitor oyster growth and health. Gowanus was marked as a site in 2008 and restoration began in 2013, approximately two years before we went on this trip. Even though the Gowanus canal was an environmental and public health disaster for a long time, it was inspiring to see the rejuvenation of wildlife and revitalization of the built environment around it.
Builders have plenty of creativity to utilize woodworking and engineering skills to build a myriad of projects. In the past, students have built dinghies of varying lengths and shapes as a way to supply more vessels for the program. I worked in a group that brainstormed and prepared a self-catching marine debris contraption that we planned to place in the Hudson River right next to the HRCS boathouse.
I had the incredible opportunity to explore my passion for social and environmental issues during my time at HRCS. More than that, I also learned practical skills while bonding with other high school students that I probably would not have met otherwise.
I had the opportunity to be a Skipper, Explorer and Builder during my four semesters in the First Mates program. As a Skipper, I gained my New York State Boat Operator’s License which gave me permission to operate any aquatic vehicle less than 65 feet in length. Moreover, I acquired plenty of experience on the water through hours of sailing, rigging, and derigging J24s.
As I mentioned earlier, as a Builder I worked with a team that designed a rudimentary, pulley system device, made of twine and PCP rods, that would hypothetically catch marine debris in a passive way. Even though it never made it further than various models, the combination of physically designing and creating these models coupled with determining an environmental impact assessment encouraged me to take on a holistic approach to multi-faceted problems such as marine-debris collection in an urban environment. As a city kid, it was incredibly profound to have constant interactions with wildlife because it instilled a kinship to the natural world which, I believe, mirrored that of transcendentalist thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The fluttering wings of geese and seagulls wavering over the mirage of blue and green waves on the Hudson reminds me of a quote by the former: “Every natural action is graceful.”