Photo by Duncan Hay
Wing And Wing
We started the Grand Canal Journey on June 18th. Not being superstitious, we were willing to get underway even though there were thirteen of us at our first crew muster. As has become the custom on the Lois McClure, we agreed that our three objectives for the Journey would be: first, Safety; second, Safety; and third, Safety. Sounds silly when I write it (and when I preach it to the choir every day), but we are determined to do whatever it takes to prevent injury to any of us in the crew or to any of the 14,000-plus visitors (!) who have come on board the schooner so far on this trip.
It took time to free the Lois from the spiderweb of lines to anchors and trees that holds her secure in North Harbor, but the many Museum staff members who came down to see us off never wavered in their patience; the canal boat is well known for her bouyancy (for every three tons of load, she goes all of one inch deeper in the water), but it struck me (and I told them) that their send-off gave us a feeling of bouyancy.
We maneuvered out of the harbor with the C. L. Churchill, our faithful towboat, on the hip and the Oocher, our equally faithful inflatable with the big Honda outboard, made up to the bow as a second tug. Once out in the open, we dropped the Oocher (did you remember she is so named because she ooches the bow or stern of the schooner this way or that?) back to tow astern of the Churchill. Then, up the Lake we went, on a calm, bright, sunny day. Who wouldn't sell the farm and go to sea? We passed under the Champlain Bridge in mid-afternoon-and there was a group of Museum staff folks waving us along from the Crown Point pier! Hmmm, are they really that glad to see us go?
We spent our first night on board at anchor off Fort Ticonderoga; every other night we have been tied up to the land. To many sailors, being moored represents freedom; you can come and go from the boat as you will, just by stepping ashore. To others (including me), being anchored represents freedom; the boat swings free to her anchor, and the cares of the land are far away.
Next day, passing The Elbow, a narrow spot in the Lake just outside Whitehall, we sounded the Churchill's whistle to salute Cora Archambault, born to a canal boat family 103 years ago. Wonderful lady! We trust that when she hears and sees us go by in the canal boat Lois McClure, she feels that sense of bouyancy.
We tied up in Whitehall, June 19th, and John Callaghan was there to meet us. John is Special Assistant to the Director of the New York State Canal Corporation, the organization that is responsible for the operation of the canals that we would be traveling: the Champlain, Erie, Cayuga-Seneca and Oswego. I have failed to count how many times he has met us to make sure that there was nothing we needed that he hadn't already provided in the way of facilities, transportation, materials, or detailed, heads-up information about navigating the stretch of canal ahead. He seemed to pop up everywhere between Whitehall and Buffalo. I know he must have taken hundreds of photos of the Lois McClure; on our first days of traveling on his canals, he was on every bridge or other vantage point, taking pictures as we went by.
Heading south on the Champlain Canal, we had a chance to brush up on our somewhat rusty procedure for locking through. Entering the lock chamber isn't the problem; as long as we go slowly and compensate by heading up a bit into any cross- current, we can slide in nicely. When I do it, I say it's like watching grass grow. When first mate Erick Tichonuk does it, he says it's like watching paint dry.
Coming out of the lock was where we needed the brushing up. With the Churchill on the hip, when we first kick ahead, the tug pushes the schooner sideways and away from her, almost as much as ahead. We can only gain headway at the expense of scraping the side of the schooner along the lock wall, with fenders rolling and sometimes popping right out. Not good. So, we remembered to push her off the wall, at both bow and stern, before we kicked ahead with the tug. That worked better, but still required extra- careful steering from the tug to keep that precious distance off the lock wall. To achieve that, we changed over to conning from the tug, instead of from the schooner. We solved the problem of not being able to see over the schooner's high hull from the tug's wheel by reporting the distance off the lock wall of the bow and stern in a steady stream of numbers on our little hand-held radios. For instance, if I was steering the tug, I'd hear from Erick, "Bow coming off six feet, stern holding at two feet; bow closing slowly to four feet, stern almost touching." So I'd know I had to swing her further away from the wall. This has worked well, but we haven't had a chance as yet to try it in a strong wind, which was our nemesis on June 22nd, coming out of Lock 4, our second day on the Erie. The high bow of the Lois McClure simply kept blowing from side to side in the lock as we crept out against the wind. Handling a canal boat light (we carry only eleven tons of stone for ballast) is always more of a challenge, in terms of the wind taking charge of the boat, than handling a boat with a good load of cargo. Sometimes we wish we were hauling 100 tons.
The Erie Canal boats, built strictly for being towed and without sailing rigs, still had centerboards that could be manipulated into position beneath the keel so that they could avoid being blown into the lee canal bank in a strong cross wind. They were effective enough to be commonly used, but even with a centerboard, a canal boat would sometimes simply have to wait for the wind to go down before she could proceed. The Lois McClure, being a sailing canal boat, has a permanently installed centerboard, and, when we are being towed by the Churchill, we keep the board partway down, emulating the old Erie boats.
On June 26th, we stopped at Sylvan Beach, where the Erie Canal goes into the east end of Oneida Lake, 25 miles long. When I refer to the Erie Canal, I am of course referring to the present canal, which is the waterway that came into being in 1915 as the New York State Barge Canal, much enlarged and following a different route, compared to the original Erie Canal of 1825 and its enlargement of 1862. The original Erie was built well above nearby rivers to avoid their inevitable floods, but the Barge Canal was routed lower, to take advantage of the Mohawk River and Oneida Lake. The trade-off meant less digging, but more risk of flood damage, a risk that proved all too real in 2006. We saw evidence of considerable damage that had been repaired in the eastern section of the canal, and were grateful to be making our journey in 2007.
Next day, we were underway by 6:15AM, for we had stopped at Sylvan Beach in order to cross the 25-mile length of Oneida Lake early in the day. That's when it's likely to be calmer; Oneida has a reputation for kicking up its heels in a breeze. The lake is no more than forty feet deep anywhere, and much of it is less than twenty feet. A strong breeze, blowing across miles of shallow water, will quickly raise a nasty, steep sea, and the waves will be close together. Any boat caught out will take a battering. The strategy worked on June 27th; we were off the lake by 10:00, having experienced a mere gentle breeze, and that from astern.
We ran through the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, and, on June 30th, went into the north end of Cayuga Lake. We tied up to a former New York Harbor ferry, the Wards Island, now converted to a self-propelled, derrick barge, serving the canal. With eleven "picks," or lifts, from the derrick (take the four spars off the schooner and put them on the barge; ditto for the three T-shaped braces that hold the lowered rig up off the schooner's deck; step the two masts; put the two booms-gaffs-and- sails in place), the rig was up in four hours, and the schooner looked like a schooner. Ahhh. After another five hours of sorting out lines and setting up deadeyes and lanyards, we were ready to go sailing.
We had hardly dared anticipate sailing the Lois McClure on the Grand Canal Journey. We would have just two chances, going to and coming from Ithaca: south for 35 miles on Cayuga Lake on July 1st, and back north on July 4th. To sail and keep to the schedule, we would need a fresh north wind on July 1st and a fresh south wind on July 4th. What were the chances of that? Well, we got 'em both! The south wind was not strong enough to use just sail alone; we had to push with the Churchill, too. But the north wind sure was strong enough. We pushed out with the tug, rounded up into the breeze, and set the big mainsail (1,309 square feet). Headed off before it and set the foresail and jib. Gentle at first, the breeze soon increased to moderate, so we cast off the tug. Before long, it was blowing fresh, and we were off on a sleigh ride, wing-and-wing, mainsail out on one side and foresail on the other, just "readin' both pages."
The Finger Lakes are so named because they look like straight digits, but, in fact, the shores curve considerably. Following the curves, we had to change tacks. I didn't like the idea of jibing that mainsail in the increasing wind, so we brought her up and tacked, bringing her bow through the wind, instead of the stern. It breezed on more, a strong breeze on the Beaufort scale (up to 23 knots we heard later). The Lois McClure was running at more than seven knots. Exciting, but also time to ease back a little. We "scandalized" the mainsail, dropping the peak about four feet. This let the sail belly out in an imperfect but less powerful set, so that the boat would heel less and there would be less strain on the rig. The tactic worked well for us, but I do apologize to the many photographers who came out to meet us in their boats for our being a bit less photogenic.
We had fretted needlessly ("Worry is the misuse of imagination") that we might be late to meet a press boat coming out of Ithaca at the south end of the lake at 4:30 p.m. As it turned out, the schooner was thundering down to the rendezvous by 1:00 p.m. What to do for three and a half hours? It was the perfect chance to practice heaving to, setting the sails and rudder in such a way that the vessel moves sideways across the wind with neither strain nor any need for steering. We brought her up close-hauled and then eased the main sheet out some and hauled the jib over to windward. With the mainsail luffing and so not pushing ahead so hard, and the jib trying to push her backwards and to leeward, she lost headway. As she slowed down, we put the helm hard alee and lashed the wheel to turn her into the wind. But the backed jib wouldn't let her turn that way, and she ended up in balance, heading about 45 degrees off the wind, and making as much leeway as headway, drifitng across the lake sideways, just about holding her own against the wind. Every half hour or so, approaching the shore, we had to let draw the jib, head off, get her going fast, and then go about onto the other tack. Then we'd heave to again and slowly make our way back across the lake the other way.