September 25, 2007

Captain's Log - Buffalo to North Harbor


The captain of Lois McClure, Roger Taylor comes to us as a twenty-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, former Editorial Director of the U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, MD, and founder of the International Marine Publishing Co. in Camden, ME. He is the author of seven books and many articles on boat design and seamanship. In 1991 he skippered the museum's first large replica, the Revolutionary War Gunboat Philadelphia II, and was captain of Lois McClure on her Inaugural Journey in 2004 and on her trip to New York in 2005. He now resides with his wife Kathleen on their other canal boat Water Lily in Paris, France.

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Photo by Barbara Batdorf
Niagra Falls from Goat Island

July 30, 2007 - Buffalo
Leaving Buffalo on July 30th (having safely delivered Medina's sandstone birthday card to the mayor), we had a quick trip down the Niagara River, aided by a two-knot current. Managed the sharp turn into Tonawanda Creek and the Erie Canal with never a thought of being swept over the fall. (This despite having had from shore a good view of the barge that years ago fetched up on rocks in the rapids a mere quarter mile above the Falls, giving her crew an awful night before they could be rescued. Mercy.)

The Erie Canal divides Tonawanda from North Tonawanda. There is a bridge, but it seems there is a friendly competition between the two cities. At any rate, nothing would do but that we spend August 1st in Tonawanda and then shift our berth across the 150- foot-wide basin to spend August 2nd in North Tonawanda. When we first arrived, each city had its premier fire engine out, spraying an arch over the canal, half Tonawanda City Water and half North Tonawanda City Water. As we went under, North Tonawanda mercifully shut its valve, but Tonawanda generously gave us a free shower bath. Crew voting on which Tonawanda was "better" seemed to depend on whether or not the crew member happened, at that moment, to have shelter from an awning on the schooner or a pilot house on the tug. Anyway, the Tonawandas matched each other in good hospitality, and both gave us keys to their cities.

Photo by Kathleen Carney
Tonawanda Shower

We had 2,300 people on board on August 4th and 5th at the relatively small town of Brockport. Enough citizens wanted the town to do an about-face and turn towards the Canal, instead of giving it the cold shoulder, so that a fine mooring wall and canal park has been built, complete with attractive visitor center. The arrival of the Lois McClure was the catalyst for the first major gathering of Brockportians canal- side. What could possibly be more satisfying for our crew?

Palmyra was another outstanding stop at a smallish town, on August 11th and 12th. My log claims that Palmyra beat Brockport by 300 people, not that that matters. It was the generosity of the Palmyrans that was overwhelming. We had so many gift certificates it was impossible for the crew to spend a nickel in the town. We also got behind-the-scenes tours in local museums, including the old Phelps store. It was kind of embarrassing for me to be the only one old enough to remember some of the products that had been on sale back on that day in the Thirties when the owners had decided to walk out and lock the door behind them.

"Where are the masts?" people would ask in the western part of the Canal. You'll remember that we left them in Lyons on a wharf belonging to the New York Canal Corporation, operator of the state's canal system. On August 13th, we loaded the six spars that make up the rig of the schooner, together with standing and running rigging and sails, back on board. The view forward from the wheel became more obstructed, but it was worth it; the vessel feels more like herself with the rig on board, even when it's all laid down on the trestle trees.

We squeezed a real lay-day out of the schedule on August 15th. Stayed tied up at Baldwinsville and caught up on a few ship's chores. Any vessel that goes through canal locks needs mud scrubbed off the topsides and a little touch of fresh paint here and there. In Captain Theodore Bartley's journal, there is much mention of such doings. Any boat, but particularly a canal boat, is a work-in-progress. Our reward for taking care of business was being on the receiving end of a steady stream of baked delicacies from a local home-kitchen priestess who was even willing to share the recipes for her magic. Somehow our hit-or-miss laundering seemed to be shrinking the clothes, particularly the waistbands.

Photo by Gary Fischer
Syracuse Railroad Bridge

On our trip along the canal, we'd had the odd situation where we'd had to stop short for a bridge we thought was about to open but didn't, or where we'd had to haul off a canal approach wall that a cross- wind had plastered us against, but by far our best chance to damage the schooner came on August 16th, when, fresh paint and all, we went through the narrow cut under the railroad bridge, leaving Onondaga Lake and entering the channel to Syracuse. We had a fresh breeze on the beam, so in the confines between pilings on one side and buoys on the other, we were crabbing up into the wind, with enough revolutions from the tug's propeller to give her good steerage way. But when the bow got into the lee of the bridge, the wind blew the stern right round. Despite full rudder from both tug and schooner, the canal boat's bow gave the bridge abutment a glancing blow. First mate Erick Tichonuk was, of course, right on the job and directed Steve Hays, a volunteer picked up ("off the streets," as we told him) in Palmyra, to insert a fender at the point of impact, which he certainly did. The bridge held. Whew! Some boat! Her massive bow, built for protecting 100 tons of cargo from every danger, emitted neither creak nor groan, and, thanks to Steve's fender, even the paint wasn't scratched. We came back out in a flat calm on the 19th, and even at that, it was a tricky business.

Photo by Gary Fischer

We stopped that night at Fulton, up the Oswego River, and had one of those great experiences that the Lois McClure provides. A local citizen named Bill Mason, age 94, walked down to see the canal boat that had tied up in his town. He told us of his great grandmother, who had grown up on one of the McClure's originals. Once, when her family's boat was wintering in New York City, she had gone to a torchlight parade that was part of the election campaign for the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Mason had been old enough to remember it when his great grandmother told him that story. It's not every day when you hear a once-removed story of Honest Abe.

Photo by Barbara Batdorf
Lake Ontario from Fort Oswego

Oswego has a big harbor, big enough for lake carriers and ocean-going freighters, protected from Lake Ontario by long breakwaters. From our berth where we tied up on August 20th, we had an unobstructed view to the north, out across the Lake. I never feel as if canal travel is claustrophobic, yet there was a certain sense of relief to have all that watery space around the vessel. Watery space? Just ahead of us was moored the Major Elisha K. Henson (LT- 5), an Army tug (did you know that the Army had more vessels than the Navy in World War II?) that towed two barges loaded with ammunition across the Atlantic Ocean! We are indeed fortunate in the Lois McClure to be reminded of so much extraordinary maritime heritage.

By September 2nd, we were back in the Erie, heading from Little Falls to Canajoharie. When we entered Lock 17, we learned that we were being overtaken (we make five knots with the Churchill's diesel at 1,400 rpms) by the tug Herbert P. Brake, pushing a construction barge from Buffalo to New York City, a rare example, these days, of the New York State Barge Canal of 1915 still being used for its designed purpose. Sure, we radioed to the lock keeper, we have no objection to this 200-foot-long rig coming into the lock with us. Why not? We had at least three feet of space between the schooner's bow and the lock sill, another three feet between our rudder and the barge's bow, and the skipper of the Brake reported still another three feet of clearance at his stern. After exiting the lock, we pulled over to the approach wall to let the Brake pass us. But on the way to Lock 16, the deep-draft tug had to do a little spur-of-the-moment "dredging," her big propeller churning up plenty of mud, and so by the time we got to the lock, we had caught up with her again. So, this time, we squeezed into the lock astern of her, rather than ahead. All nice and professional, not a scratch. Ahhh.

Photo by Elisa Nelson
Tight Fit in Lock 17

When we go into a lock, we put the schooner against the wall. But on September 5th, as we approached Lock 10 with the tug on the port side, the lock-keeper radioed asking us to tie up in the lock port- side-to, with the tug against the wall. The lock walls have squares of blue paint indicating the positions of bollards for tying up, sometimes out of sight from a boat low down in the lock. Today, the blue paint on the wall on our starboard side was wet, the lock keeper reported. So, even though First Mate Erick Tichonuk says we enter locks so slowly that paint has plenty of time to dry, we shied away from the fresh blue and put her in tug-to-wall. Different, but no problem, as it turned out.

We were in Waterford from September 6th to 10th for the Tugboat Roundup. The C. L. Churchill won a gold cup (!) for the best classic tug. How 'bout that? But before she won the cup, she had to push the schooner into a tricky berth in the cut into the old Champlain Canal. It involves passing close aboard a spillway and tying up with the stern just a few feet from it. The spillway is more a psychological hazard than anything else; it's a bit unnerving to be maneuvering around just above a waterfall. It's no Niagara, but it does make noise. And after the tug got her cup, she had to back the schooner out past the spillway again. With her head in the clouds (or was it mine?), she insisted on swerving over toward the spillway. We had to kick away from it, stop, and go to Plan B. It was the Oocher that pulled us out backwards, tug and all. Good old Oocher.

Photo by Kerry Batdorf
Old Canal above Lock 2 at Waterford

Leaving the Erie Canal and entering the Champlain Canal, we turned south for calls at Troy and Albany before heading for home. Sixty fourth- graders came on board in Albany on September 11th, in the midst of heavy rain showers. We all huddled below in the cargo hold (it turns out that the rocks are not only sample cargo and ballast, but also seats for school children), stayed dry, and told canal boat stories. It was a great scene.

By September 23rd, we had made calls at Mechanicville, Schuylerville, Fort Edward, and Whitehall, and were truly homeward bound. The passage down the head of Lake Champlain from Whitehall to our anchorage for the night at Crown Point is one of the most beautiful there is, and we had a perfect, brilliant day for it. We had spent the first night of the Grand Canal Journey at anchor, and so we spent the last night. The Lake, all round the boat, was glossy black, without a ripple, reflecting the moon to perfection. We had enjoyed reflected harbor lights for many weeks, but no electric light comes close to moonbeams.

Photo by Barbara Batdorf
Back at North Harbor

The next day was our last, yet another day of fine weather. By the time we got the Lois McClure moored in her complicated web at North Harbor, we had all, I think, run the gamut of the emotions that come with the end of a cruise. Happiness at being home; pride (and relief) at completing a long voyage without serious mishap; good memories of many people and places; gratitude for one another's friendship; sadness at parting; maybe some anxiety, as this close-knit crew belays all and coils down, and then we head off, no longer on the same course, but each one guided by his or her own compass. Shipmates, may we sail together again?

Phone: 802-475-2022