Smooth sailing

Burchenal Green steps out of her Peekskill office to have her photograph taken.

A brisk wind whips off the Hudson River just steps away, creating what most would consider troublesome conditions.

But as Green playfully reminds, “Blowing hair is good. It’s very nautical.”

And Green would certainly know.

The lifelong sailing enthusiast has been president of the National Maritime Historical Society since 1995.

“I came here for a year and now it’s been 20 years — but don’t say that because I tell people I’m 29,” she says with a winning smile.

Many might be surprised to hear this nonprofit organization with an international presence — England’s Princess Anne was set to be honored Oct. 29 at its annual awards dinner at the New York Yacht Club — is headquartered in charming-if-humble offices tucked within the industrial park area surrounding the Charles Point Marina.

As its website states, “Our mission is to preserve and perpetuate the maritime history of the United States and to invite all Americans to share in the challenging heritage of seafaring.”

The way Green sees it, the society’s work is vital.

“We have a huge mission with a national voice. Our mission is to keep alive the stories. America was founded by ships coming over. Except for Native Americans, we are a culture founded by people coming over on ships.”

THE SOCIETY

The society attracts membership of those affiliated with the U.S. Navy, yachting enthusiasts and history buffs alike. It was formed in 1963 in reaction to an unsuccessful effort to save the 19th-century ship Kaiulani, the last American-made square-rigger to round Cape Horn.

“It was a wake-up call that America needs to preserve our heritage and we need to preserve these ships,” Green says.

The society works to accomplish its goals through publications (its quarterly Sea History magazine has just begun worldwide newsstand sales), educational programs for all ages, the preservation of historic ships, sail training and maritime conferences, partnerships, events and awards that celebrate contributions to this field.

Through its Charles Point Council, the society offers monthly lectures and field trips, as well as opportunities to board historic ships.

After all, Green says, there is nothing like “when you get to walk on these ships, when you get a real idea of the dedication and the hardships.”

On a recent morning, Green has settled into the society’s library, where a staggering display keeps the eyes darting among titles from “Tales of Maritime Maine” to “Wind and Salt Spray” to “The Story of American Yachting.”

“We have a library of about 8,000 books,” Green says, with fundraising under way to help modernize. “We would like the library assessed and digitized. It’s a wonderful asset.”

The conversation is far-reaching, from historic ships and preservation efforts to ideal ways to engage today’s students. Along the way, she’ll touch on pirates, shipwrecks, maritime law, economics, historic artifacts and introducing maritime careers to a new generation.

“In the founding of this country, a maritime career was so well known,” she says. “It was a lively profession, and it still is.”

Even though, she admits, it’s not in the spotlight.

“It’s become so efficient so it’s become invisible.”

A REAL WATER BABY

Green’s love affair with all things nautical comes naturally.

The daughter of a newspaperman, she was born in New Jersey but the family lived in various places throughout the country.

Her family, though, has islands in Pointe-au-Baril in Georgian Bay of Lake Huron and she grew up spending summers there with family members taking wooden boats from island to island.

She carried on the sailing tradition when she moved to the Hudson Valley, taking her two sons out on the river.

Until joining the society, though, her sailing life was not a professional endeavor.

Green has her bachelor’s degree from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and earned the first master’s in computing in education from Columbia University. She taught English and reading in New York City schools, was managing editor of Creative Computing for five years and was co-editor on two publications before a stint as partner at Hudson Valley Crafts, a cottage industry that developed specialized products.

Earlier, she also was involved in archaeology, working on projects in England, Holland and other sites around the world.

The society, she says, gave her a chance to work with a national organization near her home. That its focus was a topic dear to her heart was a bonus, says the longtime Cortlandt Manor resident, who just happens to live on a lake.

At home, she’s fond of observing the pileated woodpeckers and blue herons.

“It’s just wonderful. Then I come here and we’ve got the eagles and the sea gulls,” she says of her riverside office.

For Green, work at the society has had many highlights.

In 1998, she helped bring the only parade of tall ships up the Hudson River in the 20th century — and served as the assistant parade marshal in the event that recognized the bicentennial of Rockland County.

“There are perks to this job,” she affirms. “They have sent me sailing in Tahiti.”

And this month, Green will again head overseas when the society joins with maritime museum representatives from around the world in Hong Kong for the 17th International Congress of Maritime Museums conference.

“We are going over to Hong Kong because we are the national maritime society, but we’re living in a global network.”

Maritime history, she says, has had a real effect on the world — “A lot of maritime battles have changed the course of history” — and can continue to do so.

The spirit of early explorers and the tenacity of sailors through the ages share “that character that we’re going to need to explore space.”

These days, though, Green’s thoughts are more on these shores, particularly the society’s offices, which house a hodgepodge of maritime memorabilia.

“It’s not a destination,” she says. “We really have a few wonderful things, but we’re not a museum.”

Creating one, however, is a thought.

“We have a project that we have been talking about since 1999,” she says. It is to build an interpretative maritime center on the Hudson River, ideally in Peekskill, “… like Mystic for Connecticut. It would be so wonderful for the river,  for America. It’s sort of back on the table now.”

It’s a project, she says, that certainly has merit, if not funding.

“You can’t keep our maritime heritage alive without support.”

Schoolchildren, she says, would benefit immeasurably.

“Do you know how many kids who live in the Hudson Valley have never been out on the Hudson?”

In talking about her own family trips on the river — and times on other waters around the world — there is a constant that clearly keeps Green enthusiastically helming the society’s ship ever forward.

“The absolute happiest times of my life have been on boats.”

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