The year 2014 includes the Lois McClure’s tenth birthday and the C. L. Churchill’s fiftieth birthday. Mercy. Where does the time go?
In her ten years of replicating the voyages of her ancestors, the Lois McClure has traveled 3,000 miles on the lakes, rivers, and canals of Vermont, New York, Quebec, and Ontario; she has called at 200 ports; she has presented her history lesson to 200,000 visitors. During the past ten years of the tug Churchill’s life—previously, she has been steam yacht, diesel towboat for movie-star vessels, Maine coast cruiser, and boatyard workboat—she has towed the canal schooner for many of those 3,000 miles, enabling our floating museum to maintain an ambitious schedule and to maneuver into and out of tight berths and to enter and exit canal locks with as much grace as the schooner’s shiphandlers could muster.
Before Kathleen Carney and I joined the crew this year, Captain Erick Tichonuk and First Mate Tom Larsen, with a crew that included Art Cohn running the Churchill, took the McClure from her homeport of Burlington to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, at North Harbor. This was a calm tow, on the hawser, on May 24th. (North Harbor, at the Basin Harbor Club, is the location of the main campus of the Museum, the organization that, with the help of many sponsors and volunteers, starting with Lois McClure herself, performed the underwater research on two sailing canal boat wrecks necessary to establish the schooner’s design; built the vessel; maintained her; and sent her off on ten voyages.)
When the same crew moved the Lois McClure from North Harbor to the Point Bay Marina, at Charlotte, on June 27th, the Lake was again calm, so that the tow could be made with the tug on the hip.
Captain Tichonuk’s desk job (something about being the Museum’s Executive Director) kept him ashore the next day, so Tom Larsen, who has his Captain’s license, stepped to the schooner’s wheel for the run across the Lake to Westport, New York. Again, the wind was gentle, the waves mere ripples.
Tom was also at the conn on June 30th, when the schooner returned to her berth at Burlington, but this time a flukey southeast breeze presented more of a challenge for the landing. Tom got what we call a “mooring breeze,” a nasty gust that comes up just at the most awkward moment in a mooring maneuver. The wind wasn’t calm, but Tom was, and he worked his way into the berth between wharf and pilings, with plenty of help from the C. L. Churchill.
And help from a brand new Oocher! An inflatable boat has a shorter lifespan than a wooden boat; our trusty Oocher was simply worn out after eight years of good service. For 2014 and beyond, we have a duplicate boat, the 17-foot Achilles model. Our 50-h.p. Honda four-stroke outboard is still humming quietly but powerfully.
When Kathleen and I came on board the Lois McClure on the Fourth of July, the first thing we noticed was that the schooner was in the process of being painted a different color. Instead of the flat-white topsides to go with her forest green trim on the wales, considerable acreage of a cream color greeted our eyes. The new paint gives the canal schooner a softer, gentler look. All the crew love it. But is it correct, ask the purist historians. Yes, because the new paint is available and cheap, exactly the sort of paint that any canal boat captain would have been looking for.
Kathleen and I spent the next three days moving on board for the summer, working our way around nearly 500 Burlingtonians who were soaking up the story of the waterways with the help of Elisa Nelson and her corps of Museum volunteer interpreters. Other crew members were doing the same, and it was great to have a reunion with our Lois McClure family. Call us crazy, but the same cast of characters seems to gravitate back on board every early summer when Art Cohn, who directs theLois McClure project (as well as running the C. L. Churchill), sings his siren song.
The first thing I always do when I come on board is make sure that our ten chunks of quarry stone weighing eleven tons (they are ballast as well as a sample of one cargo that these boats used to carry, as we will explain perhaps 20,000 times this summer) are chained securely in place in the cargo hold. And as part of my general inspection, I always particularly enjoy making sure we have on board all the charts we need for the voyage: this year on Lake Champlain, down the Hudson River to New York City, and back north to Chambly, Quebec, before returning to Burlington. There was a brand new set of Hudson River charts, rolled up tightly in a tube. But you can’t chart a course on a paper that’s trying its best to curl up around your ruler. So, extract them by tightening the roll from the inside and slipping the whole business out of the tube; re-roll the whole batch in the opposite direction to flatten them; quarter-fold each chart, navigation side out, with the title showing. Ahhh. Now, they’re ready. We’re historically correct to use paper charts, when the nautical world seems to be shifting to electronics. Yet Captain Bartley, whose journals have been published asLife on a Canal Boat, doesn’t have much to say about charts; he probably knew more rocks and shoals than they showed.
When, on July 7th, the schooner left her berth at Perkins Pier, backing out into a moderate southerly breeze with the tug on the hip, it didn’t take long to get into a shiphandling “situation.” Intending to go out the south entrance to the harbor, since we were bound up the Lake (south) to Essex, New York, we asked the Oocher to pull the schooner’s bow round into the wind. But, pulling as hard as she could, the 50-h.p. inflatable couldn’t turn the schooner. Oh yes, we happened to have the forward awning up, but the after one stowed. Too much windage up forward on the schooner. Luckily (luck is a powerful force in seamanship), Burlington Harbor has a north entrance as well as a south one, so we went with the flow. Well, we also could have shifted the Oocher from the weather bow to the lee bow, where she could have pushed ahead instead of pulling in reverse, for greater efficiency, but there is a rule in shiphandling that if your vessel won’t turn in one direction, she probably will in the other. Once again, the rule proved true.
Up under the lee of Shelburne Point, we shifted the Churchill from the hip to the hawser, to tow the schooner astern, then proceeded up and across Lake Champlain to Essex, and then went on into Whallen Bay to find a lee for the tug’s transfer back to the hip. And relearned the lesson that it is best to have the schooner running with the wind when bringing the tug back alongside. Otherwise, the flat-bottomed schooner makes a lot of leeway, even though we run with the centerboard down a couple of feet. As I brought the tug in on the schooner’s lee side, there was more of a bump than I wanted. But these are rugged workboats, not fancy yachts.
Whenever the Lois McClure is in Essex, the crew is treated luxuriously by Darcy Hale, who is the Chairwoman of the Board of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and lives in nearby Willsboro. Gourmet meals arrived on board. And, after a day of sharing canal stories with local citizens, we opened the boat to Darcy’s soiree, a fine, unofficial celebration of the start of the 2014 cruise. Darcy always makes us feel special.
The run from Essex to Vergennes, up Otter Creek, on the 9th was lovely. The breeze was fresh out of the south, but the Lake was smooth enough going up past Split Rock to tow with the tug on the hip. The curves of Otter Creek are always interesting. Around the bend we often surprise a great blue heron or a couple of kingfishers. We never know whether or not the turtles, basking in the sun on their logs, notice our passage. One group of five kayakers were startled to see such a big vessel suddenly appear and scattered, like big water beetles.
On July 11th, we shipped the main boom. Rot had been discovered about ten feet from its after end, and volunteer (longtime and faithful volunteer) Don Dewees and crewman Isaac Parker had repaired the spar with a new after section, scarphed on. The boom is heavy and nearly 50 feet long. The floating dock where we tie up on the left bank below the Falls at Vergennes is not accessible by crane-truck. So, we went back to 1862, rigged the fore gaff as a derrick, its fall powered by humans, and, admittedly with a certain amount of awkwardness and trial and error, did manage to swing the big boom into place on the mainmast. We guessed that Captain Bartley could have done it in half the time with a quarter the crew. In the afternoon, we dragged out the mainsail and bent it on. We didn’t trust the ten-year-old mast hoops, so we simply laced the luff of the sail to the mast. And were immodest enough to reckon that Captain Bartley might well have made the same use of materials at hand, and probably finished his task no faster. We hoisted the sail to make sure that all was well, lowered it, and furled it. Ahhh. Now all we need is a fair wind.
July 12th was French Heritage Day in Vergennes, and a good many of the Francophiles drawn to the “Smallest City” for the occasion also came on board the Lois McClure. Although English was the first language of most of them, a few did appreciate the opportunity to hear about the canal schooner in French from Carolyn Kennedy of Montreal, one of our bi-lingual crew members. Carolyn is working on a PhD in Nautical Archaeology, so she is an expert interpreter of all aspects of the McClure story.
We had two days to make the 55-mile run from Vergennes to St. Alban’s Bay, down the Lake to the north. July 14th came and went with hardly a breath of wind, and that breath came out of the northeast. Our sails stayed furled. We anchored in the south cove of Bow and Arrow, the harbor just west of The Gut, the waterway that separates the main part of the Lake from its east bay. Usually, we have this anchorage all to ourselves, but on this mid-summer evening, we found thirteen yachts (plus one late-comer) enjoying the place. No matter. There was plenty of space in the west side of the harbor for us, and we had an unobstructed view of a dramatic sunset.
On the 15th, we towed through the South Hero drawbridge into the east bay and found—could it be?—a light breeze making from the south! Holding our own collective breaths, we made sail, setting mainsail, foresail, and jib. And the breeze seemed to be growing. Sure enough, we cast off the tug, filled away on the starboard tack, and had a grand reach around Burton Island and up St. Albans Bay. Many of our sails in the schooner in the last ten years seem to have been in either very light airs or half a gale. This sail was just perfect. We slid along at 5 knots and then got a quarter of an hour of moderate breeze, whitecaps and all, and she accelerated easily to 7! Who wouldn’t sell the farm and go to sea?
The citizens of St. Albans Bay may be divided into two groups: schooner people and fisher people. Many St. Albanians come down to their fine pier either to visit the Lois McClure when she is in port or to fish, but not to do both. We have never yet been able to entice a fisher person on board, although this year I did catch one fisherwoman sneaking a look at the attractive panels that we always set up to help tell our story. We’ll just have to keep working on it.
On July 17th, Erick, Sarah, and Meg Tichonuk, and Meg’s friend, Sandy James, joined the crew. As did, in an important way, the late, great John Tichonuk. We were bound for Isle La Motte, and on the way, we would commit some of John’s ashes, as he had requested, into Lake Champlain. Erick chose a spot in the lee of Hathaway Point in St. Alban’s Bay, a place where he and his father had often fished together. We shut down the engine in the tug and simply let the wind take the schooner where it would. There was peace, quiet, and a few heartfelt remarks, some of them humorous, about John’s many connections with the Lois McClure and her crew. John was an invaluable crewman, volunteering often at the wheel, both underway and in port, tirelessly explaining the vessel to one and all. He was an outstanding interpreter, always fully engaged with his circle of visitors, always fully sensitive to their personalities. Bon voyage, John.
After another calm tow to Isle La Motte, we moored at Fisk Point. This was the exact berth where canal schooners used to load stone from the Fisk Quarry, the exact berth from which the General Butler left on December 9, 1876 with a load of marble for Burlington. In a surprise blizzard, she made it as far as the Burlington breakwater, but no further. Vessel and cargo lie on the Lake bottom near her destination; this marble was never delivered. The General Butler, however, is one of the two shipwrecks on which the Lois McClure is based, so she has indeed delivered.
We can moor in this historic location thanks to the great generosity of Steve Zonies, who graciously (I use the word with specific intention, for Steve is full of grace) opens the gates of his home, not only welcoming the schooner to his floating dock, but also welcoming the schooner’s visitors to the beauties of Fisk Point so that they can gain access to our deck. The access takes some doing on our part, too: we ended up with two anchors and five additional lines in place to hold the vessel stationary alongside the tree-lined point and just barely up against Steve’s float. After we were all tied up, the locals put on a great barbecue dinner for the crew.
In the next two days, nearly 600 curious people took advantage of our arrangements and did indeed tread our deck. Many of these Isle La Motters are boat people. I found myself discussing some of the fine points of naval architecture and even touching on the name Herreshoff. Selby Turner produced a complete register of the owners of every Herreshoff 12 1/2 –footer, nearly 400 of them! Such knowledgeable folk appreciate the genius in the design of a Lake Champlain Canal Schooner, different though she may be from Nathanael G. Herreshoff’s Buzzards Bay Boys Boat.
On July 20th, we were well fortified for the task of retrieving all our shore lines and weighing our two anchors, because Steve Zonies brought on board huge trays of pancakes, eggs, bacon, and sausage that he had purchased for us at Isle La Motte’s famous Sunday morning, all-you-can-eat, charity breakfast. We towed back to Burlington, on the way to our next “public stop” at Shoreham, on the hawser into a moderate southerly. It being Sunday, and a perfect summer sailing day (unless you happened to be in a canal schooner that had to click off plenty of miles to windward to keep on schedule), there were hundreds of sailing boats out enjoying the breeze. Every one of them had the right of way over our tug and tow. And every one of the dozen or so sloops that were on a collision course saw that we would be inconvenienced by having to slow down or change course to avoid collision and bore off early enough so that we could maintain our course and speed. It was enough to restore one’s faith in humanity!
The southerly wind continued next day, so again we towed on the hawser, to Crown Point. As we passed Barber’s Point the breeze died, so the rest of the trip was made in a slick calm. The only advantage to the same breeze on the 22nd was that it blew us nicely off the dock when we got underway for Shoreham. And right onto the south side of Paul Sanger’s wharf at Larrabee’s Point, Shoreham, when we had to squeeze the schooner-and-tug in between the dock and the Ticonderoga cable ferry landing, and, quick, cast off the tug and move her round to the north side of the dock so the ferry wouldn’t hit her as it came in from across the Lake.
Next day, our Shoreham visitors were treated to a squall on board at the end of the afternoon. Then the wind shifted around into the north and blew some. We had put out a couple of anchors to the north to hold the tug off the dock, so the weather change didn’t inconvenience us.
Not until the following morning, when the north wind really blew. This was our day to strike the rig in preparation for ducking under the bridges of the Champlain Canal, on our way down to the Hudson River. Could we do it in a 25-knot breeze? Well, between Brown’s (outstanding) Crane Service from Bristol, Vermont, and First Mate Tom Larsen’s excellent handling of his first foreman’s job on this complicated rigging task, yes we could. We do indeed have a talented, resourceful crew!