Roger Taylor, Captain
Having navigated to the south in 2005 and to the west in 2007, the Lois McClure, with her consorts, the tug C. L. Churchill and the utility inflatable boat Oocher, headed north and east when she got underway on June 17, 2008. We cast off the web of lines that hold the schooner in place in North Harbor, said au revoir (we were, after all, voyaging toward Quebec) to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum staff folks who had come down the wooded path to the cove to see us off, and asked the Oocher to live up to her name and shove the bow around so it was pointing down the Lake towards Canada. Going foreign always adds an extra air of adventure to a cruise.
The media, even to the international Associated Press, took notice: we had two AP men on board, and the ever-faithful Oocher
delivered them, together with our representatives, Museum Executive Director Art Cohn and a crewman loaned by the National Park Service, Zack Ralph, to a press conference held on Perkins Pier in Burlington. At just the right moment (the Lois McClure
is a lucky ship), we paraded through Burlington Harbor, swinging past the assembled dignitaries and journalists, giving them little choice but to applaud.
By late afternoon, we had dropped anchor outside The Gut, the narrow passage between North and South Hero Islands. There are two coves, one giving protection from the north, the other from the south. In 2004, on the Grand Journey of the Lake, we had lain in the north cove; this time we chose the south. After a day of threatening weather, the berth was quiet and peaceful. Disconnected (physically, if not electronically) from the shore, the crew relaxed, a welcome change from the frenetic pace of last-minute preparations for getting underway for two months. We sat on deck, the beauty of the sunset bringing us to silence.
At noon next day, we crossed the border into Canada. We anchored off the Customs Wharf, and Erick Tichonuk, the First Mate, and I Oocher
ed (yes, we've made it a verb) in to be interviewed by officialdom. The interface between sailors and bureaucrats the world over is as interesting and unpredictable as the weather itself. On this day, the meeting was as calm as a clock. The fact that crewperson Elisa Nelson had provided us with written reports covering every possible contingency didn't hurt.
This late afternoon found us moored to a wall in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, just outside the first lock of the Chambly Canal. To reach this berth, we had to squeeze through two low bridges opened by Parcs Canada people who stayed late to help us. Even with the schooner's rig down, the spars stowed on their trestle trees, our little squadron was too tall, the Churchill
's masts being highest, to avoid opening a good many bridges along the Chambly. And the openings in these first two were just barely wide enough for our 25-foot beam with the tug on the schooner's hip. That was the good news; the bad news was that we knew that bridges over the Chambly Canal that we would be going through next day were even narrower, as were the canal locks and even the unwidened parts of the canal itself. And the locks were only long enough for the schooner and the inflatable to squeeze in; the tug would have to lock through separately, leaving the schooner to get herself into the lock as best she could. Mercy! This would surely take us back to 1862. Well, we did have the Oocher
By 8 a.m. on June 19th, when we got underway, I had figured out that my proposed system for the schooner to negotiate the Chambly locks wouldn't work. We had had good luck, in a couple of other situations, towing the schooner slowly in a given direction with the Oocher
backing down on a short hawser given a precise direction of pull with a simple hand signal. So, I thought, we'll use that tried-and-true method of pulling her into the lock, and, once in, control her headway with lines to bollards ashore. But then I realized that if we didn't have her lined up just right going in, there would be no way to stop her. Hmmm. Erick had suggested simply putting out long bow lines and pulling her into the lock by hand. Ah yes, good historian that he is, Erick had gone back to 1862. That ought to work, and we would have the Oocher
to act as escort tug on the stern, pulling her one way or the other to line up with the lock and controlling her headway if necessary. How Captain Theodore Bartley would have loved the Oocher
During the next 8 ½ hours, Erick's system worked well, even on those locks where there was no wall for mooring the schooner while the tug locked through, and we had to keep her in place with just the bow lines and the escort tug Oocher
. We negotiated the Chambly's nine locks and twelve miles without incident, towing through the narrow waterway with the tug ahead on a short hawser, rather than on the hip. It was a little unnerving towing through the first narrow bridge opening this way, but we soon gained confidence in the good control we had towing the schooner astern on a short hawser. Creating this confidence at the tug's helm were Art Cohn, who is as good at a wheel as he is at a boardroom table, and Second Mate Scudder Kelvie, who has had a long love affair with towboats.
By 6 p.m., we had been underway for ten extra-challenging hours and were approaching our day's destination, Mont-Saint-Hilaire. Ah, but the day had one last challenge for us, and it turned out to be a challenge capable, indeed, of producing finality. My knees still shake when I think of it.
I had read in a cruising guide of the dangers of the passage under the Beloil railroad bridge. And, as we approached it, Bernard Halle, a Parcs Canada historian who had joined our crew, asked me, "Are you ready to go rafting?" I knew from the chart that the bridge had enough vertical clearance for us, 27 feet. I expected the dog-leg that prevents an advance look at the situation, and I expected the four-knot current that would hurry us through. What I didn't expect was how narrow the bridge opening was. And hurry us through the current did with a rapid series of rudder orders to the tug including some hard-over shifts carried out by Scudder Kelvie. Whew! Only after we had shot through without touching did it register that:
1) the port side of the schooner had been right over against a channel buoy
2) the starboard side of the tug had missed-by six inches-a ragged, slightly submerged edge of steel bulkheading that easily could have become a Titanic iceberg
3) the Oocher
towing slightly out beyond the starboard side of the tug would certainly have been ripped to shreds by the steel had not Art Cohn grabbed her painter and yanked her to safety.
When anybody asks me why I like my job on the Lois McClure
so much, I say it's because of the crew. Anyway, turning into the Richelieu's current and putting the schooner on the face of the old pier used by so many of her ancestors at Mont-Saint-Hilaire seemed like child's play after the day we'd had. Our reward was the wonderful, warm welcome given us by so many local citizens who had waited on the dock for our arrival. We had wondered if any reception of the Lois McClure
could equal our positive experience on the Erie Canal last year. We had our answer right off the bat when we tied up at Mont-Saint-Hilaire. We needn't have wondered.
On June 24th, we proceeded on down the Richelieu River to Sorel. This was one of those uneventful days we like. The big lock at St. Ours was especially easy, with its mooring pontoon to tie to, so that we didn't even have to tend lines as the lock lowered the schooner. We landed at a long, marina float right out on the river at Parc Bellerive to empty sanitary tanks and fill water, diesel fuel, and gas tanks. It's always a good feeling to have the tanks we don't want to fill up be empty, and the tanks we don't want to be empty be full. And it felt like a milestone to reach Sorel, look out over the stern, and see the St. Lawrence River. We watched quite a few big freighters slide by past the mouth of the Richelieu, and we noticed they were moving right along. Soon, we'd be out there among 'em. But first, there were two more milestones: stepping the masts next day and, the day after, bending the sails. Now, we looked like a schooner.
Our first day of navigating the St. Lawrence with its considerable commercial shipping was June 27th. A place that looks narrow on the chart usually turns out to have a lot more room than you think. The deep channel in the St. Lawrence (unlike the Beloil railroad bridge!) followed this rule; there was plenty of room for us and the big ships we met or that overtook us (at our five-knot towing speed, we don't do the overtaking), despite the skinny-looking channel shown on the chart of the broad river. On the St. Lawrence, the shoal flats extend far out from shore in many places, but the channel is well marked with buoys. And the big ships, with their experienced pilots, are careful and courteous. We hugged the righthand side of the road, as was our duty, and they steered well clear of us. Some of the pilots talked to us on the radio as they overtook us (we mostly one-language Americans are lucky that the common language required at sea is English, though we heard plenty of French between compatriots), making sure we were alert to the situation. They were obviously interested in a vessel from another century and would usually end with a cheery, "Bon voyage!"
This day's journey took us across Lac St. Pierre, a miles-wide-and-long bulge in the river made famous by the poem, "The Wreck of the Julie Plante
." On our day to cross, the Lac was flat calm, and it was hard to imagine the weather in the poem: "De win' she blow lak hurrican'; bimeby she blow some more." But, outside the channel, the lake is shallow, so if it does blow "lak hurrican'," there is no doubt "de wave run high and fas'." We gave a thought of sympathy to the crew of the old wood-scow lost that "wan dark night." Our dark night was spent moored securely to the long wall at Trois Rivieres, where we faced a different danger than had the Julie Plante
: daring (and foolish) drivers of speedboats coming by close aboard at forty knots. Mercy.
Next day, we rode the strong river current, aided now by the ebb tide, for the river is tidal below Trois Rivieres, down to Portneuf. The wind was blowing fresh out of the east, against the current. In this combination, the current pushes the waves closer together and makes them steeper. It was too rough to tow with the tug on the hip, so we rigged the long hawser and towed with the schooner astern. The tug was pitching into it, and our speed through the water was down to about 3 knots. But the current and tide combined to give us a famous shove. In some sections of the river, the GPS on the Churchill
showed us making 8 knots over the bottom. When we got to the Richelieu Rapids, in the lee of the river bank and therefore calm as to waves, our speed through the water went up to our normal 5 knots, and we shot down the slot at 10.5 knots, so far certainly the fastest the Lois McClure
has ever gone. Fun.
We tied up out at the end of the long, formerly commercial (cement was the cargo) pier at Portneuf and reported our arrival to Quebec Traffic on the radio. To my embarrassment, I learned today that when towing the schooner astern, our tow was long enough to require that we report in to the traffic control system in effect on the St. Lawrence River. A passing freighter had mentioned to Quebec Traffic that he had met a strange looking pair of vessels, a little tug named the C. L. Churchill
towing some sort of old sailing craft named the Lois McClure
. Unfortunately, it was news to Quebec Traffic that such a strange rig was out on their river. Uh-oh. Well, I've never been admonished more politely than by the traffic controller on duty at the moment. The C. L. Churchill
quickly became a full-fledged participant in this excellent system.
On June 29th, we went on down the river to Quebec. At the start, the weather conditions were the same as yesterday, only more so. Plenty of current shoving us downstream against the northeast wind, which had continued blowing fresh all night and increased to strong soon after we got underway. The resulting seas were higher, steeper, and closer together than ever. The Churchill
, towing the schooner astern, was gamely pitching into it. She'd stick her bow down into a wave, almost stop, raise up to try to get going again, only to have another trough open up right ahead and have to take another dive. John Gilbert, the Boston designer of so many fine commercial fishing vessels, got the high bow and low stern of the Churchill
exactly right. The stern seldom takes water on board and is handy for managing towing lines. And the bow, that high, handsome bow, is precisely high enough. This day's seas tested it to the utmost. The little tug (she's only 34 feet long with 120 h.p.) plunged into the oncoming waves and sank her bow just to the rail in the worst of them, but no more than spray came on board. Now, that's a "sea fendy" bow. It was a privilege to witness this performance of the C. L. Churchill
, keeping the canal schooner under good control with bare headway through the water, so the current could take her to her destination. We averaged about 5 knots over the bottom, and the speed increased to 7 knots as we approached the big highway bridge 6 miles above Quebec, got some lee from the south shore of the river to quiet the waves, and had the last of the ebb tide to help the current push us along.
The river was tame as we looked up at the Plains of Abraham, rounded the corner where the old section of Quebec City still stands, and looked for a quiet spot in the lee and away from the ship and ferry traffic of this busy port to break the tow and bring the Churchill
onto the schooner's hip for maneuvering through the lock into Bassin Louise. Yes, our assigned berth was smack in the middle of Espace 400, the center of all the elaborate celebrations of Samuel de Champlain's founding of Quebec (and Canada) in 1608. It was a distinct relief to go up to the head of a big slip that we had all to ourselves, a slip with nary a ripple in it, after the two-day battering given us by the St. Lawrence River. I think the River was just making sure of our respect before welcoming us to its inner sanctum.
Ah, the Quebec Quadricentennial! For us, it meant receiving 13,175 Québécois citizens on board in seven days, and explaining to them in as much French as we could muster all about the Lois McClure
. Fortunately, we had plenty of expert language help, For myself, I have just enough French from living in a boat in France to get into deep trouble fast, although I did manage to get through a radio interview en Francais. The Québécois (like the French) are tres gentil to anyone who attempts their language.
Leaving Quebec to go back up the river, we had to get an early start, both to catch the first of the flood tide to help us along and because the lock out of the basin would be closed for repairs after 5 a.m. So (alors), we gulped coffee and cast off our docklines at 4:15 a.m. It was worth it: a bright sunrise highlighted the Chateau Frontenac as we said goodbye to Champlain's birthplace of New France. Our return trip to Portneuf was pleasantly uneventful. We did notice that within five minutes of tying up, the head wind, which had been light, increased to fresh, and the tide, which had been fair, quickly turned to run downstream again with a vengeance. Yes, that early start had been fortunate.
On July 8th, we continued upriver, getting as much help as we could from the flood tide, but it wasn't much. Above Quebec, we found, the flood decreases rapidly and really does little more than slow or stop the river current for brief periods. By mid-afternoon, our usual headwind had increased to fresh and we were bucking two knots of current. At least the water was smooth. When the wind and current are going in the same direction, the current separates the waves and lengthens them with a flattening effect, just the welcome opposite to wind-against-current.
At buoy No. 62, we turned out of the channel and headed for the left bank (on our right, going up) where a slight opening in the shoreline indicated the mouth of a small river, tributary to the St. Lawrence, the Batiscan. We aimed for a narrow channel across the flats. In this case, "aiming for" consisted of steering well up (maybe 30 degrees) into the current and wind and watching the buoys both ahead and astern to see that we were actually moving in the right direction, never mind where the bow was pointing.
We entered the Batiscan River, which we had chosen as a quiet spot to spend a lay day and recover from the fast pace of Quebec City en fete. It proved a good choice. We anchored well out from the Batiscan Marina, but far enough into the river to have good protection from whatever might happen on the well-respected St. Lawrence. It was quiet, all right. We enjoyed the silence, resting our eyes on the brown river, the green, forested shores, and the blue sky. I felt as if I had entered one of Joseph Conrad's mysterious rivers in Malaya. Magic.