On the morning of July 25th, at the Larrabee’s Point Wharf, Shoreham, the Lake Champlain Canal Schooner Lois McClure was canal-ready, with her masts, booms, gaffs, and their sails stowed horizontally atop the heavy, gray, wooden T-braces that keep the rig up off the deck and out of the way. The schooner, lightly loaded with her ballast stone, has a height above the water of a little less than 15 feet when carrying her rig this way, just matching the funnel height of the C. L. Churchill,with her own masts down on top of her cabin house. Thus the two vessels can squeeze under a “Low bridge—everybody down!” of the canal.
Art Cohn and Jean Belisle on the tug got their anti-thunder-squall anchors on board and stood by to come alongside the schooner and into towing position on the hip, as soon as the Fort Ti ferry left her landing alongside our berth and moved off, dropping back down to the bottom the cables she runs on. We’d have to be well out of our berth before the ferry came back, so Art brought theChurchill in smartly, her four lines were made fast and adjusted for good balance underway, and we backed away from the dock, the Oocher holding the tug, and hence the schooner’s stern, up against the south breeze. Once clear, the Oocher shifted to the schooner’s bow and turned her round to head south. And we accomplished this before the ferry started her return run. Good, good.
The south end of Lake Champlain, more like a river than a lake, lived up to its reputation as perhaps the loveliest part of this lovely body of water, on this summer afternoon. According to the writer Henry James, those words, “summer afternoon,” are the two most beautiful words in the English language. He wouldn’t have found any argument from our crew.
As we approached Whitehall and passed the former home of the late Cora Archambault, she who grew up on a boat like the McClure, we saluted her memory with a long blast of the Churchill’swhistle. Then we slipped into Lock 12, the northernmost lock of the Champlain Canal leading to the Hudson River, were lifted up to the first level of the canal, and tied up to the wall at Whitehall, right near the Skenesboro Museum.
The vessels of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum have a longstanding friendship with Whitehall. In 1991, we brought to Whitehall the Museum’s replica of the Revolutionary Warship Philadelphia,one of the gunboats Benedict Arnold built at Whitehall (then Skenesboro). Those boats delayed the British coming south past Lake Champlain for a full year, thus facilitating the key American victory at the Battle of Saratoga—and giving Whitehall the basis for her claim to be the birthplace of the United States Navy.
After a day of celebrating our friendship with Whitehallians, we pushed on along the Champlain Canal through four more locks and one thunder squall that produced nothing more disturbing than rain. Over the summit of the canal and going back down at Lock 7 (in case you’re doing the math, there is, unaccountably, no Lock 10), at Fort Edward, we found a barge locking down ahead of us. This was part of the huge dredging operation that has been going on for years and will continue in order to remove PCB-laden sludge from the Hudson River. We rested against the lock approach wall for half an hour, waiting our turn. Once through, we Oochered through a 180-degree, tight turn into the Roger’s Island east creek of the Hudson, leading up to the Fort Edward Yacht Basin. There is also a tight S-turn just beyond the highway bridge to the island, a turn that we can just negotiate at slow speed with alternating “Right Full Rudder” and then left, on both schooner and tug. Any tighter, and we’d have to almost stop and bring the Oocher into play.
At Fort Edward, we enjoyed a visit from the town’s mayor, as well as many of his citizens; had a firefighting training session put on by Art Cohn, who is a member of the fire department in Ferrisburgh, Vermont; and ate a hearty lunch from the Train Station Restaurant courtesy of the Fort Edward Chamber of Commerce.
Volunteer Steve Pfanenstiel joined the crew in Fort Edward. Cruises in the Lois McClure would be all but impossible without the fresh energy (and new sea stories) of volunteers. Steve gets special credit, because he is way over six feet tall, and none of our sleeping accommodations, whether it be a barely-over-six-foot bunk, a cot in the cargo hold of a similar dimension, or a long, flat, slab of limestone ballast—he’s tried them all— are comfortable for him.
On July 29th, we S-turned our way back out of Fort Edward and entered the Hudson River. This is where the Champlain Canal waterway begins to use the river, canalized with dams and locks to make it navigable. We dropped downstream with the current, maneuvered through Lock 6, and tied up at Lock 5 in Schuylerville.
Our berth was at Hudson Crossing Park, on a floating dock across from the lock approach wall. The place takes its name from the location of a bridge of boats that British General Burgoyne used to cross the Hudson in his unsuccessful attempt to defeat the American Revolutionary Army at Saratoga. The people of Schuylerville have made the area into a lovely park. A few years ago it was a dump. Teenagers played there and decided they’d clean it up. Their action sparked a major effort by volunteers of all ages. Today, Hudson Crossing has lovely trails through the woods with river viewpoints; signs and audio-boxes that explain its wildlife and history; spectacular flower gardens; a picnic pavilion; and a walking bridge across the river at the site of Burgoyne’s bridge of boats. And, as has happened each time we’ve visited Schuylerville, the Hudson Crossing folks treated our crew to an elegant, cook-out dinner at the park’s pavilion.
On the run from Schuylerville to Mechanicville on the last day of July, we shared the waterway with the tugs-and-barges of the dredging operation. They were hauling sludge from the bottom of the river north to be dumped ashore for transportation elsewhere, and hauling dirt and gravel south to cap the areas where the contaminated river silt was too deep for complete removal. Most of the barges had a small, square, but powerful tug at each end for good maneuverability. We enjoyed watching these pros handle their charges with aplomb, whether they were light or deeply loaded. We didn’t quite escape the deluge from a black squall that poured down before we could finish tying up to the wall at Mechanicville.
Besides sharing history with the people of Mechanicville, we took advantage of the town’s excellent facilities: pumped out sanitary tanks, filled water tanks, and made good use of the town’s wonderful showers, installed in a new building right on the waterfront. After closing our floating museum in the afternoon, we towed on down to Waterford, where we ate another great cook-out dinner at the home of John Callaghan. John is the Deputy Director of the New York Canal Corporation and is a great fan of the Lois McClure. He is as knowledgeable as anyone about the history—and, of course, the present operation—of the canal system. Over the years, he has smoothed our way with countless helpful actions.
An early start on August 2nd brought us through the Federal Lock at Troy and down to a berth on the long wall that forms the city’s waterfront. Waiting to take our lines was Erick Tichonuk, our Museum’s Executive Director, who sometimes leaves his desk behind and comes on board the schooner to keep his considerable practical maritime skills well honed. Volunteer Jeff Gorss, also joined us, as this day was rigging day, and Jeff loves to get involved with stepping the masts and getting the schooner all ready to go sailing.
The New York Canal Corporation provided a mobile crane complete with skilled crew, which, combined with our own skilled crew, made short, safe work of lifting the schooner’s heavy masts into place, followed by the mainsail, furled between its boom and gaff, and the foresail, similarly confined. By 1 p.m., we were ready to cast off and go back upstream a couple of hundred yards to a berth at the Troy Downtown Marina’s floating dock.
This move involved passing under a lift bridge that when raised has a vertical clearance of 55 feet at high tide (yes, the Hudson is tidal all the way up to Troy). We stepped the mainmast without its flagstaff on top, thus reducing its height above the water from 65 feet to 55 feet, 7 1/2 inches. (The foremast, even with its flagstaff, stands only 53 feet, 5 inches above the water.) At low tide, the bridge’s clearance would be about 60 feet. So, up we went toward the bridge. As you approach a bridge, looking up at its underside from the deck of a boat, it almost never looks as if you’ll clear. It certainly didn’t look so this time. We stopped with our masts not quite under. Luckily, on this bridge, the tender goes up with the span, so I radioed him and asked, “How do we look?” “Plenty of room, Cap, c’mon through.” From the deck, as we passed under, it looked as if the top of the mainmast came no closer to the bridge than 4 feet. Phew!
Later in the day, I thought to go round checking the shrouds, the wire standing rigging that supports the masts athwartships. The lower end of each shroud is secured to a fitting on the hull with a pair of deadeyes and a lanyard to connect them. The deadeyes are made of dense wood and are drilled with three holes to take three turns of the lanyard. You want the shrouds to be set up as taut as possible, so the trick is to heave on each part of the lanyard, in succession, just as tight as you can. In 1862, this was done with aid of block and tackle, but today we use a “come-along,” a mechanical device that has a lever and gearing so you can pull really hard with it. Still, the result is usually a bit disappointing; the shrouds still have more slack in them than you hoped they would. When I pulled sideways on the shrouds on this day, I found them tighter than ever. When I complimented First Mate Tom Larsen on how well he and his rigging crew had done, he said just two words: “Jeff Gorss.” We were ready to go sailing all right.
Roger C. Taylor
Captain, Lois McClure