5 Questions: Betsy Garthwaite

betsy garthwaite

Betsy Garthwaite is a former captain of the sloop Clearwater and past president of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Inc., which is based in Beacon. At its most recent gala, she was presented with the Lifetime Contribution to Clearwater Award.

You started as a volunteer on the sloop despite having no sailing experience. How did that happen?
I had an older brother who was a Sea Scout [a Boy Scout program], and he applied to spend a week on board. So I knew it was this thing you could do. 

That first day we had an evening sail in New Rochelle. After that, we traveled late at night — we mostly motored — through the East River to dock at South Street Seaport. I remember thinking, “How in the heck does anybody tell the difference between traffic lights and marine navigation lights?” You’re in New York City, looking up the streets, between skyscrapers, and you see all these traffic lights when you’re looking for white and red and green lights coming from other vessels on the water. I can’t tell you how many times a new deckhand would point out a white light ahead that looked like a powerboat coming your way and it was a freight train. 

I had such a great time on the boat that I wanted to come back. I was accepted as an apprentice and, from there, worked on the winter maintenance crew. Then I held many positions, leading up to captain.

Betsy-Garthwaite-ClearwaterWhen you took over, was it unusual to have a female captain?
Not by that time. I was the fourth, and there have been many female captains since. I was not a trailblazer in that particular sense. The same executive director who hired me had hired the first female captain in 1980. 

How has the Hudson River changed in the years you’ve been sailing?
Because of the work of groups such as Clearwater, Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson, people are enjoying it again. You see people in boats all the time, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, windsurfing — you name it. There was a time when people wouldn’t want to get wet. Now waterfront dining is a thing and people are building homes again on the river, if they can afford it. The river has improved in quality, and people have responded.

Clearwater was founded in 1969. Where do you see it headed in the next 54 years?
The need to educate the next generation never goes away, but the issues have been changing with climate change. There’s no bigger issue now, and I doubt there ever will be. An organization like Clearwater has to be able to adapt and collaborate, such as the partnership we started with Outdoor Promise [for city youth]. If Clearwater can’t do projects in every community up and down the river, but we can support those projects, that’s fantastic. 

What differentiates Clearwater from other environmental groups?
The boat. [Folk singer and Clearwater founder] Pete Seeger’s idea was that it could bring people to the waterfront, and if you could give them a good experience with food and music and all this activity, they would think: “We should do a better job taking care of our river.” Also, our membership distinguishes Clearwater from other organizations. We want our members to participate in the workings of the organization; we want them to volunteer. We’re not just asking you to write a check once a year.

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