St. Albans Bay | June 19
by Erick Tichonuk, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
FRIDAY, JUNE 19, 2009
Twenty four years ago I sat in a one room stone school house, the sole interpreter for the newly formed Basin Harbor Maritime Museum. We only had about a thousand visitors that first season, providing me with valuable time to delve into the rich history of the Champlain Valley. Book after book I absorbed and became enthralled with the amazing stories that I've now had the privilege to share with countless thousands. That first year I read about the ventures of the intrepid explorer Samuel de Champlain, and how three hundred years later in 1909 celebrations were held up and down the lake to commemorate his arrival here. The great side-wheel steamers took dignitaries, including President Taft, from venue to venue to reflect upon our past and future.
(left) the Hon. Joseph Sibley welcomes President Taft aboard the Ferry Valcour at the Hotel Champlain, 1909
I paused in my studies to ponder the next great commemoration of that event. It would be 2009, four hundred years after Champlain's arrival. At that point I had no idea that it's called a "quadricentennial." How would we commemorate the event? Would the Basin Harbor Maritime Museum still be here and what would it be like?
Over the ensuing years the museum quickly morphed into the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum as energy built and the programs expanded. New buildings were erected, replicas were built, world-class underwater archaeology was conducted, and education programs were developed. We knew that the Quadricentennial would be a ready-made opportunity to advance our mission of preserving and sharing the maritime heritage of the region's waterways. From the very formation of the Vermont Quadricentennial Commission the Maritime Museum attended meetings and participated in strategic planning. In 2007 we initiated our first "Quad" project with the construction of a birch bark canoe of the type we believe carried Samuel de Champlain up the lake with his native allies in 1609. Plans continued for the publication of books and creation of special exhibits, most of which are coming to fruition.
The Lois McClure was designated official flagship of the Vermont Quadricentennial. Her first mission as flagship was to be an ambassador to Quebec in 2008 in honor of the 400th celebration of Champlain's founding of Quebec City. This duty was carried out with overwhelming success as readers of last year's logs can testify. Returning from the success of the 2008 "Our Shared Heritage Tour" we immediately went to work planning for Lake Champlain's own celebrations. As the tour schedule for 2009 was being formulated the daunting task of seeking funds became increasingly difficult as the economic climate worsened. We all struggled and strategized about ways to support a justifiably robust tour for the coming season. As the economic realities set in we began to strategically scale back plans which had originally included a return to Quebec and New York City. We're extremely pleased to announce a base line of funding through the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency that will allow us to visit some twenty ports throughout Lake Champlain, the Champlain Canal, and the northern Hudson. None of this would have been possible without the support of the Lake Champlain Basin Program Despite these economically difficult times our old friends, the farm families who own Cabot Creameries, came through for us again. These sponsors and many more now allow us to bring the Lois McClure to communities celebrating Champlain, some of whom we've never visited before.
Our spring season was spent at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum campus at Basin Harbor hosting hundreds of students. As tour time approached more of the core crew returned. We're honored and privileged to see the return of veteran captain Roger Taylor and Kathleen Carney, taking a break from their life on the canals of France. Recent college graduate Tom Larsen also rejoins us along with NPS ranger Zach Ralph. No tour would be the same without veteran bosun Len Ruth. We're pleased to announce that seasoned volunteer Jeff Hindes will be joining the crew part-time as second mate. Elisa Nelson returns as logistical support and interpreter. Barbara Batdorf is back aboard to manage the Ships' Store, joining Kerry Batdorf who once again serves as Ship's Carpenter having already commissioned the boats for the season. In late April when we were commissioning the vessels for the season we still had intentions to return to the Richelieu corridor of Quebec, which would necessitate having our rig down. With the modifications to the newly dubbed "Discover 1609 Tour" the Franco-American Festival in St. Albans became the first venue in the tour. This meant a detour into Burlington on our way north to visit our good friends and sponsors at the Lake Champlain Transportation Company to get a serious helping hand from their crane in raising the masts.
After two days of raising masts, bending sails, tuning the rig, and celebrating our bosun's birthday we were ready to head to St. Albans. All predictions for the Wednesday sail looked promising with winds south at 10 - 20 knots. Oh, doggy. We were skunked all 10 days underway with rig on the St. Lawrence last year due to contrary weather. Could it actually be? Would the wind gods be in our favor? We hadn't sailed since July 1, 2007 on Cayuga Lake, and that was a humdinger. Please, oh please, oh please...
(left) the LoisMcClure sailing wing-and-wing
Yes! The day dawned as the National Weather Service had promised with partly cloudy skies. I had called my high school buddy Jim Putnam who is now working on Burton Island State Park in St. Albans Bay. I was looking for local knowledge as to any changes in navigation we should be aware of, and I was also looking for a seasoned hand. Since we hadn't sailed in a while, and things looked good for just that, the extra help would be welcome. Jim arrived that morning with three seasoned crew from the Vermont State Parks in the area, all of them with captain's licenses. They, along with our crew and some experienced regular volunteers, were in for a fantastic day.
After the usual "meeting on deck" to review safety protocols, emergency procedures, and logistical information we prepared to get underway. Excitement was running high with a nice 10 knot wind that was increasing. We slipped around the north end of the Burlington breakwater with Churchill chugging along at an idle to keep us pointed into the wind. Roger had us put in the first reef in the mainsail. Reefing is a way to shorten a sail, making it smaller, so when the wind is stronger it doesn't overpower the vessel. Although it might not have seemed completely necessary at the outset, time would prove this to be a good decision.
We cast off the gaskets that keep the furled sail tied to the boom (the big stick at the base of the sail), eased the sheet (a line that controls the end of the boom), and prepared to hoist the sail. With so many crew members we had the luxury of three people each on the throat and peak halyards. These halyards raise the gaff (the smaller stick at the top of the sail). It sets best if the gaff is kept level, so periodically I call to have the throat or peak stop in order for the other to catch up. Occasionally the gaff can get hung up on another line such as the topping lift (which holds up the end of the boom) and I must stop the process altogether while I use a vang (a line attached to the end of the gaff) to free the offending parties. The throat always stops first having reached its maximum height on the mast and the peak continues on, eventually giving the Lois her classic gaff-rig silhouette. When it seems there's no way it can go any further I urge the crew on for a couple more pulls. This is often good for a couple groans amidst the straining. One of the three people on the halyard keeps a turn on the cleat. This person holds the weight of the gaff and sail with the aid of friction, while the other two people reposition their hands for another pull. At this stage they are "sweating the line," pulling out forcefully, then down towards the cleat. When they can go no further they switch to a jig tackle. This smaller block and tackle is at the opposite end of the halyard and adds additional mechanical advantage. This will put the final touches on setting the sail.
The process is repeated for the foresail. The jib, the small triangular sail at the bow, is set last. Under full sail we cast off Churchill. The gentle drone of her diesel slowly fades away and it becomes nearly silent except for the water along the hull and the excited voices coming out of smiling faces. We tweak lines and lay our course, the sails fill. The wind is ideal. With the breeze on our port quarter we take off past Lone Rock Point. For the remainder of our sail we will alternate between an occasional jibe to a different tack and sailing wing-and-wing. The latter is done when sailing dead down wind and is absolutely beautiful with the mainsail off one side of the boat and the fore on the opposite. Roger sometimes refers to this as "reading both pages" because it resembles holding out a newspaper fully spread.
As we approach the Grand Isle ferry crossing we call our friends at the Lake Champlain Basin Program offices. They abandon their desks for an ice cream break to watch us cruise by at what may be our all time maximum speed of just over 8 knots. As I speak to them on the cell phone and they describe the scene I realize I've never seen Lois sail. Or perhaps more accurately, I've always been on her while she's sailing, never having been on shore or another vessel. I guess that makes me pretty fortunate.
The Lois McClure under sail near the Grand Isle ferry crossing. Photo by Kris Jarrett
We round up into a small bay just before the entrance to the Gut to take in our sails. The Gut is a narrow passage created by a former railroad causeway at the west end and a drawbridge on Route 2 that connects Grand Isle and North Hero on the east end. Churchill once again comes alongside to keep us into the wind while we douse the sails and quickly furl them. Once through the Gut we use Churchill to bring us the final leg into St. Albans Bay, our thirst for sailing having been satiated for the day. Our berth at the head of the bay awaits us. I always love coming to St. Albans since it's the home of my family. Bringing this slice of history to my home town means the Quad has begun for me.
Hannaford Supermarket, South Burlington