by Roger Taylor
We celebrated the 4th of July quietly in Canada by dropping down the Richelieu River a few miles from Beloeil to St. Denis in the morning and hosting a group of 75 visitors on board in the afternoon, folks who were meeting in St. Denis to discuss the promotion of tourism in the area. Well, one of the things the Lois McClure does is draw people out. You could say that she is a sight worth seeing, wherever she is tied up. Have schooner, will travel.
I say “dropping down,” because we were running with the river current. The Churchill tows the McClure at 5 knots through the water. The current in the Richelieu was moving at 1-2 knots. Thus, our speed over the bottom, as we say, was 6-7 knots instead of 5. It doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but when you glance over the side at the water running by the boat at its usual speed, and then look at the river bank sliding by, you’re always surprised at how fast the landscape seems to speeding along.
Next morning, we went down to and through the lock at St. Ours and tied up just below the lock. We had the afternoon and the whole next day off, and enjoyed fine weather and the nice park that surrounds the lock. What with moving our vessels safely from place to place, converting our home afloat into a museum when we get there, and acting as museum docents to our many hundreds of visitors, our crew works hard. A lay day here and there is mighty welcome.
On July 7th at St. Ours, we talked history with almost 200 visitors. While we’re always glad to be swamped with people on board the Lois McClure, a smaller gathering, as at St. Ours, gives us the opportunity to have unhurried discussions with visitors. We can explore the geography of the comings and goings of the old canal boats with their multifarious cargoes. We can get into the fine points of how the schooner’s rig works and how she handles under sail. We can examine just what life was like for a family living and working in a canal boat. And, in this bicentennial of the War of 1812, we can exchange ideas about how that conflict changed the lives of people living near the Canadian–United States border that we recently crossed. And, say, who won that war anyway? Well, in a way, maybe both sides won. After all, the nations involved haven’t fought since.
Next day, we continued down the Richelieu to its mouth at Sorel, where the river joins the St. Lawrence. On the way, we stopped at the Marina Belle Rive to take on fuel and water and pump out sanitary tanks. Ahhh. Making the landing at the marina’s fuel dock, we turned to head up into the current, my favorite set-up for bringing the schooner alongside. The opposing current gives you a whole ‘nother tool for maneuvering. You come in a little wide with a little extra headway and then angle in toward the dock, watching how much the current is pushing you sideways toward it. The current, slanting against the off-dock side of the boat, is just like another tug shoving you right in where you want to go and slowing you to a stop at the same time. Some fun!
At Sorel, we moored out on the St. Lawrence River on the downstream side of the huge commercial pier that includes the cross-river ferry terminal. This was an ideal spot for stepping the masts on July 9th. Plenty of room on the pier for the crane and plenty of space to lay out the spars while we took down and disassembled the T-braces that had been cradling them up off the deck. Well, it was almost ideal. A potential hazard was that our berth was wide open to wakes from ships and boats passing on the river. In my new role as supervisor-without-hardhat, all I really had to do was keep a lookout riverward and warn the crew of any dangerous-looking wakes. It wouldn’t do for the vessel to start rolling and pitching just as the crane was easing a mast, inch by inch, precisely vertical, down into a tabernacle. Luckily, I needed to issue no warnings, and all went smoothly, for Erick Tichonuk again came on board for the day to run the operation in his make-it-look-easy way.
On July 10th, we started up the river toward Montreal. The distance is 40 miles, and now we had the current against us. The water was going by at its usual 5 knots, but landmarks on the distant shoreline of the wide St. Lawrence seemed to take forever to move astern. We crept upstream at less than 4 knots.
So, we broke the trip in half and anchored for the night at the Iles-aux-Prunes. It’s a small island in the river halfway to Montreal with a fairly deep channel behind it. We had the place to ourselves and were protected from the ship wakes coming from the main channel of the river. At sunset, we watched a big container ship churning her way upstream, her hull invisible as she passed our island, but her high stacks of multi-colored containers reflecting their hues in the water alongside.
As you approach Montreal, the river narrows and so the current increases – to 5 knots! Groupe Ocean kindly sent their Service Boat No. 1, a fine towboat, out to help us. She took our towline, and up we went at a steady 7 knots through the water. It’s a bit surreal to be rumbling along at a great rate through the swirls of water coming down over Lachine Rapids, crawling past the big roller coaster at the site of the 1967 World’s Fair with its screaming customers, to finally arrive in the quiet water of the Vieux Port of Montreal. We tied up with our stern right under the bowsprit of the Empire Sandy, a big vessel that started life as a British ocean salvage tug and has been converted to a three-masted schooner. At this time, she’s running three trips per day with paying passengers down through all that current and back.
Our schooner was open for one evening and three days in Montreal. We welcomed on board nearly 1,400 citizens. Jean Belisle recruited friends and family to help out with our interpretation of the vessel, en Français. Did I say “help out?” Our crew worked hard, but would have been swamped indeed without Team Belisle.
On July 16th, there was another great filling and emptying of the appropriate tanks, with the crew at the Vieux Port helping us in outstanding fashion. Then we put the Churchill on the schooner’s hip and set off back down through the 5-knot swirls. Art Cohn, reading true speed off the GPS in the tug’s wheelhouse, reported we were passing the roller coaster at better than 9 knots. Of course, we never allow screaming on the boat, but we were pretty excited.
We were headed for a berth at Lachine, just outside Lock 5 at the west end of the Lachine Canal. The east end of the canal is right at the Vieux Port, but the ten-mile-long Lachine canal has fixed bridges at 12 feet above the water and our height with masts down on both schooner and tug is 15 feet. So, to get to the other end of the Lachine Canal, we had to go 24 miles round through the Canal de Rive Sud, which is the east end of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
By 11:15, we were jilling around off Lock St. Lambert, the first lock in the Seaway, with a small fleet of pleasure craft waiting for a big freighter to lock down. These big vessels have to move very slowly entering and leaving the locks. They are so heavy that any collision with, say, a lock gate, would shut down the Seaway for quite awhile. We hemmed and hawed outside the lock for an hour, then eased in ourselves, astern of the other boats, and were soon lifted to the next level. There was no traffic at Lock Ste. Catharine, so we were green-lighted right through. That brought us up to the level of the next part of the Seaway, Lac Louis.
Lac Louis has a lot of shoals all over the place and a healthy current running. There are channels marked by red and green buoys leading to the different harbors on the lake. Tricky navigation for the uninitiated. So, the good folks at Lachine sent out a Coast Guard Auxiliary boat to meet us and guide us into their harbor.
We stopped at the big public dock before trying to negotiate a narrow channel leading past a marina loaded with boats to our final berth at Lock 5 and sent First Mate Tom Larsen with the Oocher crew up that channel to scout it out. They returned with much useful information, such as a yellow 5-gallon fuel jug marking a cement block placed in the channel with four feet of water over it (the Churchill draws 4 ½ feet), and the confirmation of the suspected fact that the channel was too narrow for us to tow through with the tug on the hip.
Armed with such intelligence, we took a short towline from the Churchill, cast off from the pier, and commenced towing toward a narrow slot between two breakwaters at the entrance to the channel. Moving slowly, the tug eased in between the breakwaters and started up the channel, red buoys to port (though we were entering, this was downstream) yellow fuel jug and fiberglass yachts, most with amazed owners on board, to starboard. As in the Chambly Canal, we had the Oocher made off on the schooner’s stern to use as a brake or to hold the schooner’s stern up to windward a bit should she start to blow down toward any of the vulnerable spectators. Made it through without touching anything. Whew! And landed on a long floating dock using the Oocher and a stern line to bring the schooner to a stop. We then hauled her by hand into a spot where there was minimum interference between her masts and the overhanging trees.
It had been a long, interesting day on the water. And here we were in a tightly landlocked berth at the end of it. I repeated to Art a saying of a friend in a similar situation, who looked round his vessel and opined, “Why, we’re as safe as in God’s pocket!”