Captain's Log | Midway-- Part 1
by Roger Taylor
"Fight Complacency!" These were the watchwords as we started out on June 14th in the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum's replica canal schooner Lois McClure to "Discover 1609." Our show-and-tell with the McClure has high historical objectives, but for us crew members, the foremost concern on a daily and minute-by-minute basis has to be the safety of the thousands of visitors we invite on board, the safety of ourselves, and the safety of the vessels in our charge.
In this sixth year of operating the schooner, her towboat the C. L. Churchill, and the Oocher, her inflatable Honda-outboard-powered tender, we were conscious of a feeling of "been there, done that" which could be dangerous. We would be following Samuel de Champlain on a lake that we knew well; we would be traveling in the familiar canal of his name heading south from the head of the Lake; and many of our ports of call would be familiar to us. Moreover, we would have the luxury of returning shipmates. Our crew would all be used to sailing together, would know what to expect from each other. As First Mate Erick Tichonuk likes to say when he wants to sound the alert, "What could possibly go wrong?" Well, you see our situation, hence, "Fight Complacency!"
Our first run, from the Museum at Basin Harbor to the schooner's home berth at Perkins Pier, Burlington, towing with the Churchill on the hip (the rig was down, stowed on board on its trestles) couldn't have been more pleasant and easy. Even the daily thunder squall stayed over the Adirondacks.
The next day, we shifted to the Lake Champlain Transportation Company's maintenance wharf to step the masts. Where would we be without the help of the LCT people? They are plenty busy keeping their own fleet of ferries on schedule, yet always seem to be able to fit us in to help us keep our schedule. Then back to Perkins Pier for another day of bending sail and getting all the running rigging (sheets, halyards, topping lifts, etc.) rove off, belayed, and coiled down. By sunset on the 16th we were ready to set sail.
Captain Roger Taylor taking time to talk with crew members. All photos by Kathleen Carney.
As I looked her over, admiring yet again the sturdy schooner rig, I reflected on last summer's sailing opportunities. We had ten days underway on the St. Lawrence River with the rig up, and we never took the stops off the sails! The Wind Gods (or maybe it was just Aeolus himself) conspired to either hold their collective breath or blow, sometimes mightily, precisely from our destination, whether it was up or down stream. Surely our uncomplaining acceptance of having to keep our sails furled for ten days in a row had earned us some favor for this year?
Well, apparently it did! On June 17th, we were bound north for St.Albans Bay. Looking out at the broad lake from Perkins Pier that morning, there was no mistaking the spreading whitecaps of a building breeze-from the South! Crew members, regulars and volunteers alike plied their nimble fingers to tie in the 25 reef points of the first reef in the mainsail. I knew we'd have to jibe the big sail at least once going down the Lake and thought it would be just as well if the sail had less than its full 1,300 square feet as the wind caught its lee side and snapped it across the stern during the jibe to come. And so, when the tug rounded the schooner into the wind outside the Burlington breakwater, we set the single-reefed mainsail and the foresail. Cast off the tug and fill her away. Ahh. Now the loudest sound came from the bow wave of the inflatable, towing astern of the schooner as rescue boat for a person overboard. We added the jib and had a nice broad reach, with the wind coming over the port quarter, down past Colchester Reef. And then we could lay off further, dead before it, and wing out the foresail so that we were sailing wing-and-wing. The time to jibe the mainsail came as we drew abeam of the north end of Valcour Island.
Sailing wing-and-wing bound for St. Albans.
The big main boom came across the stern with plenty of force, but Erick and Second Mate Jeff Hindes kept it under control with the main sheet and eased the sail out on the new tack. Now the wind was on the starboard quarter, and it had indeed increased during the day to a fresh breeze of perhaps 20 knots. The reef paid off for safety of crew and vessel, and even under somewhat reduced sail, the Lois McClure seemed to be sliding along over the two-foot waves with alacrity. Certainly the Churchill, keeping station astern, had a bone in her teeth. Seeing that big bow wave, I called over on the radio to Art Cohn, who directs the Churchill (as well as the Museum), to ask what speed his GPS showed. His answer came back: "Eight to eight-and-a-half knots!" Mercy. That's the fastest the schooner has gone, so far, under sail. What a thrill! Thank you, Wind Gods (and that includes you, Aeolus).
We next had to go through the narrow opening into The Gut and through the Grand Isle drawbridge. We had the perfect breeze to negotiate both these obstacles under sail, a chance that might never repeat itself in the life of the McClure. For a moment, I was actually tempted to try it (I bet Captain Theodore Bartley would have seized such a chance to save time.) But immediately reason prevailed: oh yes, safety. And the pesky facts came to mind that the bridge only opens on the hour and half hour, so timing might be a problem, and that while there's plenty of room for the schooner's bare masts to go through the bridge opening, with sails set it might get a bit crowded up there.
So, we gathered caution back from the winds, got into the quiet of the cove outside The Gut, let the sails all the way out and steered up close enough to the wind to shut them down as propulsive force. When the schooner stopped, she lay still. We brought the Churchill alongside on the windward hip, towed slowly into the wind, and lowered the sails. Into The Gut, towed across, and just did make the 2 p.m. bridge opening. In another two hours, we were moored at the St. Albans Bay dock.
We talk often about the many cargoes carried by the McClure's ancestors, samples of which the McClure carries. We are usually thinking of tangibles: raw materials, farm products, finished goods. But the Lois McClure also carries intangible cargoes. Certainly she carries a huge tonnage of history. And for those of us who are privileged to sail the schooner, her hold is filling with memories. One of the best, for me, will be of that famous shove from Burlington to The Gut on June 17, 2009.
We were part of the St. Albans Franco-American celebration and had more than 1,000 interested and interesting visitors on board during the three days we were in port. We would have had even more if we could have enticed some of the local citizenry who were fishing off the pier to come on board, but they were true fisherpersons and could spare only the occasional glance at our vessel lest they miss some clue to their trade in the water. Fishing demands concentration, as any child raised on a canal boat could tell you.
Our trip north from St. Albans Bay to Rouses Point, up near the Canadian border on the New York side of the Lake, was marked by a small adventure. A fresh northerly (the Wind Gods evidently figured they had given us enough for the time being) had raised a bit of sea between Burton Island and North Hero so that we were towing on the hawser, with the schooner 200 feet astern of the tug (we didn't want her banging away at the schooner's hip in the waves). It was back through the drawbridge.
We were shooting for the 11:30 opening. To gain maneuverability for going through the bridge, we shortened the hawser to 100 feet. Even at that, this rig is not highly maneuverable. The set-up depends on continued headway to be maneuverable at all. Now, the bridge attendant, in charge of opening or not opening, works for the highway department. She is far more concerned about and familiar with the maneuverability of a trailer truck than that of an 1862 model canal boat under tow. Our first radio contact revealed that we were three minutes late and would have to wait for the noon opening. "But, but...," we spluttered. "Rules are rules," she said. It was only when we applied the persuasiveness of our Executive Director, Mr. Cohn, to the situation that she began to understand our predicament and agreed to place a telephone call to her boss in order to seek advice. That news gave us a ray of hope, but not an open bridge, and we had to keep kicking ahead a little to keep the schooner more or less astern of the tug. We were fast approaching the point of no return, where we would have to make a sharp turn into the wind before we ran out of room. And if we did that, we would take ten or fifteen minutes to maneuver around back to another approach to the bridge. Such shenanigans undoubtedly were covered by another rule.
Anyway, I was just about to put the tug's wheel hard over and bail out, when the radio crackled with the report that the boss had given way and decreed that the tender could, under these apparently unusual circumstances, open the bridge at an otherwise unauthorized time. I decided to hold on. The bridge tender put the phone away (we had to visualize this) and emerged from her building to start the walk out to her bridge controls. We continued to kick ahead just enough to keep things lined up. I could only imagine what was going through Erick's mind, back at the schooner's wheel, as his Captain towed him slowly but inexorably toward a closed bridge. Reaching the controls at last (her brisk walk of course looked slow to us), she carefully eyed the traffic seeking a safe gap where she could lower the road gates. I had to kick ahead a little. But the gates were going down! Our quick minds knew that meant the bridge would soon be going up! Which it did, but it sure didn't seem soon.
Tight squeeze through the Grand Isle drawbridge.
I never noticed on previous passages of the Grand Isle drawbridge how slowly it opens and how one side, the north, stops halfway up as if that's as far as it's going to go, hesitates, and moves upward again at an even more deliberate pace. But I had plenty of time to notice all these things this time through. Well, there was the bridge fully open, and we had just room to give her a shot of speed so Erick would have the steerage way to put the schooner right in the middle of the opening. As we went through, we gave the bridge tender a loud and heartfelt thank you for bending the highway rules in order to prevent a collision at sea.
Stay tuned for Part 2...
At Rouses Point, we tied up at Gaines Marina, now run by Joe Treadwell. Kathleen and I felt right at home, because Joe is from Swan's Island, Maine where he was a lobster fisherman. He's a typical Mainer, talks like a Mainer with a rapid-fire, no-nonsense delivery, does everything he can to help you out, is right down to earth. It's as if he's transported a little piece of the Maine Coast right over here to Lake Champlain. And in two days we had about 750 Rouses Pointers, as well as folks from away, on board. Some people hear about the Lois McClure's visits and drive for many miles for the chance to come on board to see how families lived the canal boat life.