Captain's Log | July & August
by Roger Taylor
The Lois McClure was moored at her berth at Perkins Pier, Burlington, for a week, starting on July 6th. It is wonderful to take the schooner on the trips of her ancestors, to New York City, Montreal, and Buffalo, but we also take great pleasure in making her available to the citizens of her homeport, the city that has done much to support her.
We were to get underway on the 14th for Vergennes, but there was a problem. The tug Churchill's Ford Lehman diesel had blown a gasket and would need the ministrations of an expert mechanic to calm it down again. Point Bay Marina to the rescue! Steve Gutowski and his crew arrived with two towboats, the Lancer to tow the schooner to Vergennes and the Tow and Go to tow the Churchill to the marina for repairs. And these guys were good boatmen. They fit right into our slow and easy way of doing things, and the towing operations that day went as smoothly as a small line through a big block.
The Tow and Go offering a helpful hand to get the Churchill to the marina for repairs. All photos by Kerry Batdorf.
First, we eased ahead out of our berth and across to the fuel dock. We needed to pump out our sanitary tanks. (You can imagine the inevitable, crude jokes that are grinned when a sailing vessel arrives at a fuel dock, not to take on fuel, but to discharge "black water.") That chore accomplished, we backed out into the harbor and turned around, with the Lancer on the starboard hip, the Tow and Go pulling on the stern, and the Oocher keeping the bow lined up. The new team worked as if its members had been practicing all week.
The Tow and Go went in to pick up the Churchill, and we in the schooner headed up the Lake with the Lancer on the hip. We found that the Lancer could tow us nearly as fast as the Churchill's 5 knots, but that with her smaller propeller, the Lancer ran comfortably at 2,300 rpm, compared to the Churchill's 1,400. Entering Otter Creek to go up to Vergennes, we slowed to 1,500 rpm, for there are some sharp bends in this lovely waterway. Great blue herons, kingfishers, and muskrats were on hand to witness our passage, but we didn't see an otter.
The highlight of our stay in Vergennes was the French Heritage Festival, July 18th. Folks were attracted by many activities up in the city (smallest in the US!) and down in the left-bank park where the Lois McClure was berthed. We welcomed 400 citizens on board that day.
One of the minor activities up in the city was an auction. What was being auctioned off were three elegant, picnic lunches, provided by the Three Squares restaurant, each coming with a luncheon companion. The companions were Samuel de Champlain, himself; the Compte de Vergennes, himself; and me, myself, you know, the famous Captain of the Lois McClure. Mercy! The culprit was Erick Tichonuk, who, besides being First Mate of the Lois McClure (just one of many hats he wears) is involved in planning shore-side events on the schooner's travels. When the powers-that-be were seeking a third lunch-companion, Erick quickly volunteered me. Lest you might think he is unkind, I must quickly report that he not only showed up at said auction to lend moral support, but also actually put in a bid, which fortunately for him turned out to be the next-to-last bid, not the winner. My rescuer was Dr. Melvin Simmons, a local optometrist, who is a delightful luncheon companion. It was a good lunch, and he certainly entertained me more than I entertained him.
By July 20th, when we were to move the schooner home to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum at Basin Harbor, we had the Churchill back in commission. Point Bay Marina had replaced the head gasket on the engine, and Art Cohn and Kerry Batdorf had brought her up Otter Creek and put her on the schooner's port hip, where she belongs. We're so used to seeing her there that while she was gone, it seemed as though a part of the schooner was missing. The short trip to the Museum was uneventful, as was the complex mooring required at North Cove, thanks to a flat calm. Just as we adjusted the last mooring lines a little after 1 p.m., a sharp north breeze blew into the Cove. Thank you, Wind Gods.
Most days, summer visitors to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum can see a fine exhibit of life on board the old canal schooners that used to ply the Lake, but they don't get to see an actual replica of one of these vessels, because that replica is out plying the Lake, or one or another of its connecting waterways, tending to the edification of other, more far-flung visitors. But this year, from July 21st through the 30th, visitors to the Museum got the whole show: the Lois McClure was right down the hill at North Harbor.
We had another flat calm on the last day of July, when we untangled the schooner from her mooring web to get underway for Essex, New York. So, while we waited for the Oocher to reconnect our mooring lines back to the floating dock and the Philadelphia, we could just let the schooner, tug on hip, drift harmlessly among the yachts on moorings in North Harbor. I did tease Barb Batdorf, who operates the roving fender at the bow (as well as the Ship's Store) that the green boat moored just ahead of us happened to belong to a Museum board member. With the Oocher back on the schooner's bow and the Churchill kicking ahead a little, we eased out through the small fleet unscathed. Not that there was any danger to the wooden schooner, but we are always glad to leave shiny, uncrushed fiberglass astern.
August 1st was Essex Day, with plenty of street vendors. I couldn't resist acquiring another book, naturally about wooden boats. On the Lois McClure, we had 470 curious visitors. Satisfying human curiosity is a great privilege. And we hoisted the church flag and held divine worship under the forward awning for a 'midships deckful of celebrants.
Hospitality flowed aplenty in Essex. To mention just one of the many meals to which the crew was treated, we dined elegantly in the remarkable house on Willsboro Point of Darcey and Bruce Hale. The property includes the sites of the old Clarke family's many enterprises: the quarry, shipyard, the ice business. When the Hales bought the place, they found moldering in the tumbledown icehouse an immense collection of written records covering many decades of the Clarkes' businesses. Darcey, who is a board member at the Museum, is embarked on a huge, exciting project of conserving and organizing all this material, including thousands of photographs, so that it may be made available to researchers and, hopefully, to the public.
My "official log" for August 3rd says that First Mate Erick Tichonuk sprang the schooner's stern off the Essex Shipyard dock with the tug and backed her out in a circle. (Sometimes the Lois McClure tells you in no uncertain terms which way she wants to turn today.) And that Second Mate Jeff Hindes steered the schooner up the shore from Split Rock Point to the Palisades, giving us a tour of what is perhaps the most spectacular scenery on Lake Champlain. There's a spot between Grog Harbor and Snake Den Harbor where within a mile the height of land is 1,000 feet and the depth of the Lake is 300 feet. (And just off Grog Harbor, there are pockets in the lake bottom more than 400 feet deep.) I love these little coves in the cliffs, Barn Rock Harbor, Rock Harbor, Partridge Harbor, and Hunter Bay, even though they are hard to anchor in, being so deep right up to the shore.
We were bound for Port Henry, where canal schooners like the Lois McClure used to load iron ore whose purity was so high you had to go to Sweden (it was said) to find better. We lay on the south side of the big New York Canal Corporation pier, built for the McClure's much larger successors. We were double-fendered so as to stay clear of the pesky, underwater pilings that are an unfortunate feature of this fine facility.
The schooner has been voyaging long enough now so that we are calling at some ports for the second or third time. It was good to be welcomed back to Port Henry by a number of visitors who remembered our being there in September, 2004. One gentleman even turned out to be a member of the small group that saluted us with their car horns when we sailed off the Port Henry pier on September 29th. I'm always looking for chances to sail off docks or even make landings at docks under sail, but, so far, we've only sailed off twice, and we've yet to sail onto a dock. Captain Bartley used to do both, but he also used to be prevented from such maneuvering by the vagaries of the wind. At least he didn't have to deal with crushable fiberglass.
The Wind Gods provided a rising northwester on August 7th as we headed north towards Westport. The pages of the old, standard ships' logbooks were always headed "From" and "Towards," rather than "From" and "To," for their publishers had been to sea and knew the dangers of making assumptions on a voyage. But we did make it to Westport, helped by seeking more quiet water along the New York shore of the Lake.
When we tied up in the friendly confines of the Westport Marina, we not only pumped sanitaries, but also filled the Churchill's fuel tank and the Oocher's gas cans. Then we backed around the corner to a nice outside berth leaving the fuel dock free for other customers. Of which there were plenty, because August 8th was the day of the Antique and Classic Boat Show at the Westport Heritage Festival. I've never seen so many exquisitely varnished mahogany runabouts in one place. But the queen of the show (at least she got my vote) was the Mashnee, a 47-foot racing sloop designed and built by Nathanael G. Herreshoff at Bristol, R. I. in 1902 and recently totally rebuilt by the George Darling shop in Charlotte for her owner Jan Rosendaal.
It was a busy day for the crew of the Lois McClure. The evening before we had crossed the Lake to North Harbor in the Churchill and had towed back to Westport one of the Maritime Museum's long, narrow, rowing gigs. During the Boat Show, Matt Whitten would be taking out a half dozen groups of would-be rowers, giving them a free lesson at the oars. Early on the day of the Show, we went back in the Churchill to fetch the Philadelphia across. The tug made easy work of towing the replica of Benedict Arnold's gunboat of 1776 from Vermont to New York and landing her on the dock of the Westport Yacht Club restaurant. Then it was a third trip to bring across a crew of four: life-size puppets representing Samuel de Champlain and Henry Hudson, together with their creators. On the return leg, as you might expect, the best helmsman turned out to be Champlain. It was almost as if he had made the trip before. After a day of explaining both our historic replicas to 770 antique boat lovers, we made one last trip in the Churchill from Westport to North Harbor and back in order to return the Philadelphia and the gig to their home moorings. And then we all turned in to our bunks in the Lois McClure and the C. L. Churchill and slept the sleep of the grateful. We crew members do feel lucky in what we get to do.
Good weather allows crew members to slumber on deck, under the protective covering of mosquito nets of course.
As we got underway from Westport on August 10th to head north towards Plattsburgh, the Wind Gods were indecisive: light and variable. By the time we passed Split Rock, mid-morning, they were unanimous: a flukey northwester produced a few whitecaps. The schooner's sails stayed furled. I figured out the other day that between the decisions of the Wind Gods and the strictures of our operating schedule, we have been able to sail on only about 10 percent of our days underway since the Lois McClure began voyaging in 2004, about 20 days out of 200. Not enough to satisfy us greedy sailors who love "a taut sheet and a billowing sail," or however the poets describe the euphoria of a vessel moved quietly by the power of the wind, but enough to answer the common question of our visitors, "How does she sail?" She sails just like any other boat of good design, making to windward with sure tacks and picking up her skirts to run and reach with pleasing speed. She is not fast, as a yacht, pilot schooner, or fishing schooner is fast. She has a relatively small, simple rig, for, after all, it has to be lowered and raised many times at the ends of the canals.
We three commercial vessels occupied the three sides of the big Wilcox pier at Plattsburgh on August 11th and 12th. The advantage of multiple attractions soon became evident; in the two days, 1,675 people came to compare and contrast ships of differing types and eras, this despite a deluge on the afternoon of the 11th. The trio continued the gala back in Burlington from August 14th through the 17th, surrounding Perkins Pier with maritime history.
We were not the only historic vessel heading down the Lake that day. Well out ahead of us was a low, dark silhouette that we knew to be the Urger, the New York Canal Corporation's wonderful, ancient tug (she was built in 1901!) that shows the flag of the state's canal system from New York City to Buffalo. And beyond her was a flat, grey island of medium size, but it must have been a floating island, because it seemed to be moving! This distinctive shape we knew to be the Day Peckinpaugh, at 259 feet long, a huge descendant of the Lois McClure. Whereas the schooner is a replica of canal boats built to fit the new, enlarged canal locks of 1862, the Peckinpaugh is an actual canal boat built to fit the new enlarged New York State Barge Canal locks of 1918. She was built of steel in 1921, is self-propelled with diesel engines, and is big enough to deal with open water on the Great Lakes. Such was the advance in canal and vessel design and construction in sixty years that the Peckinpaugh can load the cargoes of a dozen Lois McClures.
The Day Peckinpaugh and the Urger docked in Plattsburgh.
We had completed two trips on the northern Lake, returning twice to the Lois McClure's homeport. Called at thirteen ports, including two calls at Burlington, been underway seventeen times, of which two were under sail, welcomed more than 10,000 visitors on board. Now, we were looking forward to striking the rig and heading south into the Champlain Canal.