July 3, 2007

Lois McClure
Ship's Log


Hilton, who grew up in Vermont, is a renewable energy consultant in Middlesex, VT. He has worked with LCMM in many capacities over the years including exhibit designer and blacksmith on both the Philadelphia and Schooner Lois McClure projects. He joins the crew this week as a volunteer."

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Wednesday morning we woke up in the air- conditioned conference room of the canal maintenance facility in Lysander, NY. This was a stark contrast to the hot, muggy, mosquito plagued confines of the Lois the previous two nights. Our hosts, the Canal Corporation and its maintenance workers, had generously opened their facility to us - kitchen, showers, lounge, and conference room. The building has a huge shop space filled with large tools for working in metal and wood, as well as an area for working on boats.

What impressed me about the Canal Corporation personnel, even aside from their friendliness and hospitality, was that they "get it." Our replica canal boat isn't some kind of exotic, remotely historical museum piece to them. They understand that they work on a functional and historic piece of technology - the canal and its many locks. I got that sense of continuity from 30-year veterans and young men new to the canal who were just learning the ropes.

As we were getting ready to leave on Thursday morning we were discussing the need for a couple of blunt poles (the proverbial ten-foot pole) for shoving off as we leave locks. Kerry Batdorf, our ship's carpenter, asked a couple of the Lysander workers whether they had some scrap 2 x 2 around. In response, they fired up their antique but highly serviceable sawmill and milled us out two lengths of ash. Not content to deliver rough wood, they then planed and chamfered the poles. Such service! Once we were under way, Len Ruth and I made four decorative tack knots in some scrap mooring line and bound the baseball-sized knots on the pole ends. We now have the finest padded push poles on the canal.

We docked Thursday night in Weedsport, in front of a restaurant called Devaney's. They were setting up for their weekly "Jambake," an outdoor clambake with a band. It was coming up on Kathleen Carney's birthday, so we decided to have dinner there in her honor. A good-humored waitress named Sandy arranged for a cake and transportation to the nearby village for ice. Another Devaney's employee named Kim drove Tom Larson and me to the local convenience store where we picked up 20 bags of cubes for our icebox and various coolers. Part of the Lois McClure experience is the constant searching for, purchasing, and carrying of bags of ice.

This section of the canal is surrounded mostly by woods and swamps. We saw great blue herons every few miles, and scores of smaller birds. The hazy heat gave the view the aspect of a Hudson River School painting. Along the way we saw the crumbling, tree- dotted remains of a stone aqueduct from the old Erie Canal. Not having the means to control the Seneca River, the original builders created a stone arched bridge that brought the canal across it.

Friday found us in the midst of the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, an 8,000- acre area of wetlands just north of Cayuga Lake. There we saw great blue herons alternating with mallard ducks and Canada geese. We even saw a few bald eagles. All through this section of the canal there were huge carp jumping from the water. An odd part of the experience was the strange low groaning or grunting noise we heard through the hull in certain parts of the canal. I did some research later and found that it was the sound of a fish called the Freshwater Drum, the only freshwater fish that can actually make noise.

All this swampland was a source of beauty and interest to us, aside from the nuisance of mosquitoes at night, but it was those mosquitoes that carried the fevers that killed off thousands of the workers building the canal back in the 1820's.

We docked just south of Lock #1 in the Cayuga- Seneca canal Friday afternoon. We enjoyed the view of a nesting pair of bald eagles, across the canal on top of a power pole. The lock operators told us that a pair of ospreys had built the nest and then battled the eagles for it over a few years, the eagles eventually taking possession.

At Lock #1 we met Bernie, the section supervisor, who gave us a tour of the lock. The lock mechanism and electrical system were original equipment built in 1915 and beautifully maintained by the Canal Corporation personnel since then. Bernie opened up one of the four foot square riveted iron enclosures to reveal polished brass and copper components in a glass-fronted wooden case, iron gears, levers and shafts, and polished brass cams that ran the whole mechanism like some huge music box. We watched as the operator cycled the lock, with the cams smoothly turning, the contactors clicking and sparking, and the greased gears meshing.

The system takes advantage of the water pressure. The gates at either end of the lock swing towards the higher water level so that the pressure of the water seals them shut. To fill the lock, the operator simply opens a valve that lets water from the higher level flow in. The valve is a big slab of steel that slides up and down in front of the tunnel that leads to the lock - the water pressure keeps it sealed as well. When the water has reached the upper level the pressure on the upper gates is equalized and they can swing open and closed easily. A boat goes in, the upper gates close, and the lower valve is opened, allowing the water to drain out. Then the lower gates are free to swing open, and the boat goes on its way. For a boat going "uphill" the process is reversed.

While at Lock #1 we were starting to clean up the Lois for its first public appearance in Ithaca. Nathan Cohn and I were polishing the Churchill's brass air horns, and a lock tender named Harry loaned us a bottle of brass polish he assured us was the best stuff. He stopped back later to see how we were doing and I allowed as how the horns really needed the touch of a powered buffing wheel. Harry didn't hesitate, but invited us to use the buffer in their shop. The horns ended up gleaming.

We turned out early on Saturday morning for a trip under the railroad bridge at the head of Cayuga Lake. We followed the crane barge Wards Island provided by the Canal Corporation to a crumbling concrete dock and tied up alongside. We spent the rest of the day working with the crew of the Wards Island, putting up the masts and rigging the sails. The Wards Island crew had obviously moved a lot of heavy, ungainly objects before and the stepping of the masts went smoothly.

A few people from the nearby marina stopped by and invited us to join them for a chicken barbecue. We gratefully accepted. After a day of wrestling with the rigging we walked over to the Beacon Bay Marina and enjoyed conversation and good food with the local boaters. The marina is located in what was an old sugar processing plant. The huge buildings now house boat storage, a custom canvas shop, and a boat repair shop.

Sunday morning we set out for Ithaca with a brisk 18 knot breeze from the north. We set the sails wing and wing (one set either side) or "reading both pages," as they used to say. We shot down the lake at a good clip, kicking up spray at the bow. We had allowed the whole day to make our five o'clock entrance to Ithaca, but at our rate of sailing we would have gotten there at two. After a number of cellphone calls back and forth with the event organizers, Erick Tichonuk, our first mate, and Roger Taylor, our captain, conferred. Roger decided to heave to.

This means that we turned up into the wind, set the main and fore sails to one side and the jib the other side, and cranked the rudder all the way over. This way we skidded sideways across the lake like a big chalkboard eraser at a leisurely 1 ½ knots. We did this for a few hours, tacking back and forth, and finally turned and ran south. We made over 7 knots at one point, which is good for a boxy cargo boat. Handling the sails was aerobic exercise and in the high wind the jib seemed to have taken boxing lessons. We got it under control and kept it there, but it looked like raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

When we got down near Ithaca there were planes flying overhead with camera crews and a press boat full of reporters, plus dozens of small boats all zigging and zagging and apparently trying their best to get run over by us. We had a big reception in Ithaca with people lining the shore for a half mile and fire trucks spraying an arch of water across the channel. We docked at the point where Sixmile Creek enters Cayuga Lake. There was a crowd of people waiting. The mayor, the local assemblywoman and the district congressman gave speeches, as well as the local national parks representative and our own Art Cohn. It was an impressive amount of hoopla for our boat and us.

We ended the day with a buffet of gourmet food from the Boat Yard Grill. Then the blessed miracle of hot showers and the sound sleep of tired sailors.

Phone: 802-475-2022