Caring for your Canal Schooner in the Winter (and sometimes during a pandemic)

By Evan Wing, Replica Fleet Coordinator

Winter, 1870, Whitehall, New York: you rise early to bank up the fire in your stove and help your mother set the small table for breakfast. Five of you share the same living space: a small, single-room cabin maybe eighty to a hundred feet square. Your parents are afforded the luxury of a bed of their own; you, however, must share yours with your two younger (and very squirmy) siblings. You quickly race through your morning chores, eager to get out of the cabin and away from the smoke and the noise; you are finally old enough to have secured a job in town, working in the same shipyard your father frequents during the cold off-season. The days are long and backbreaking, but you take a certain degree of pride in earning your own keep and helping provide for your family. Slinging a sack with your tools and your lunch over your shoulder, you scale the ladder and throw open the hatchway, stepping out onto the deck of your family’s ship.

Your family, after all, doesn’t live in any ordinary house – they live on a canal schooner, and Whitehall is where you and several hundred of your neighbors have chosen to “freeze in” for the winter. In lieu of sailing to a saltwater port, your family’s ship collaborates with their neighboring vessels, rafting up close together behind a barrier of derelict hulls, keeping ice buildup around their hulls to a minimum.

Painting of the General Butler, a sailing canal boat, by Ernie Haas

Lois McClure, our own replica 1862-class sailing canal boat, likewise “freezes in” when the fall days grow short and the ice begins to thicken on Lake Champlain. With the canals closed and most docks and other waterfront infrastructure pulled wholesale onto dry land, modern vessels on the lake are confined to much the same schedule as the freighters of the 1800s – if they were lucky, early May to late October. For the remainder of the year, Lois sits easy at the dock in Basin Harbor, just a few hundred yards from the museum campus – and even during a pandemic, must be cared for.

Left: The Lois McClure heading to its winter berth in Basin Harbor
Right: Lois all tucked into Basin Harbor

The chief enemies of any boat are time and the elements; in Vermont’s harsh winters, both conspire against Lois’ wooden hull, when the boat stays in the same place for months at a time surrounded by ice. In the days when a family stayed aboard year-round, the hull might have been allowed to “freeze in” entirely. While Lois could survive such treatment, the introduction of modern bubblers which break up the surrounding ice takes considerable stress off the frame and planking, extending the ship’s service life far beyond that of its predecessors. Meanwhile, while a family would have swept any snowdrifts off the exposed deck as part of the daily rotation of chores, Lois’ deck is entirely sheltered from the elements under a greenhouse-like plastic canopy.

So, in the middle of a nationwide shutdown, what work is done to Lois? What work can be done, in the absence of our customary teams of volunteers and full-time staff? In spite of all the sudden changes to the museum’s schedule in recent weeks, the ship is still preparing for its sixteenth summer as a floating exhibit. As the weather warms, the deck is being prepared for routine maintenance and a new coat of paint; the hull will follow, with any scuffed or worn spots touched up with new paint as well. Below-decks, the floorboards are reinstalled, and Lois’ ballast containers will be filled with about twelve tons of water in preparation for the ship’s departure from Basin Harbor.

The Lois McClure all wrapped up at the winter dock in Basin Harbor

The needs of a big ship don’t change for a virus – and Lois McClure’s various needs continue to be met during this challenging time. While the museum’s programming is on pause for now, preparations continue, ensuring Lois is ready for when we can welcome visitors across our deck again.