The canal schooner Lois McClure needed to get an early start from Troy, New York, on August 4th. We were headed only a few miles down the Hudson River to Albany, but our masts had been stepped in Troy, and we needed to slip under the lift bridge just downstream of our berth at low tide in order to take advantage of an extra five feet of clearance. “Time and tide wait for no man,” as the politically incorrect saying goes. Low tide was 6:40 a.m., so we cast off at 6:15 and by 7:45, we were moored at New York State’s capital city.
Our visitors in Albany that day included Brian Stratton, Director of the New York Canal Corporation. The “Canal Corp,” as we call it, has been like a father to the McClure ever since she was launched ten years ago. We have received financial help and all sorts of special favors from this wonderful waterway system, and we do our best to express our gratitude by promoting New York’s canals all we can. The best thing we can do is simply tie up in a canal town and attract its citizens to their own waterfront. It’s amazing how many people we have surprised: “I didn’t know we had this great asset in our backyard!” is a typical comment we hear up and down our deck.
On the 5th, we towed 30 miles down the river to Catskill. What little breeze there was came from the south, the direction we were headed, so no sailing today. We were soon past the last 60-foot bridge. Vertical bridge clearances would now be well over 100 feet, so we would be seeing big, ocean-going cargo vessels. Sure enough, right in the Port of Albany, just downstream from the city, we passed the Kong Qiang of Hong Kong, unloading thousands of tons of scrap. We were reminded that canal boats, like ours, sometimes used to transfer their localized loads to ships that would deliver them to ports round the world. In our hold is a box from Lyons, New York, on the Erie Canal, that once contained bottles of peppermint oil that won the First Prize Medal at the Great Paris Exposition of 1867. We also passed, at the Scarano shipyard, the replica of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon, hauled out for maintenance. And were reminded of the exploits of mariners before us who had sailed these waters making their own charts. Mercy.
At Catskill, we tried, unsuccessfully, to hire Pat Austin. It was evident, from the number of Catskillians who came on board, that she had done a superb job of promoting our visit, so we thought maybe she’d like a job. Unfortunately, she has other plans. Late in the day, an unusual vessel came up the river, a Thames barge. This was the nearest boat-type to the Lois McClure in England. In 1862, the year that marks the McClure’s design, there were plenty of Thames barges carrying cargoes, not in England’s narrow canals, but rather along her coasts and up her rivers and creeks. These vessels have a hull shape similar to that of a canal schooner, but with more beam (since squeezing into a canal lock was not a requirement) and sharper ends. Instead of a centerboard they have leeboards, perhaps copied from the Dutch. The rig is single-masted, with a huge spritsail, shaped like a gaff sail, but whose peak is held aloft by a standing spar, the sprit. A big, triangular topsail is set above the spritsail, and she has a long, folding bowsprit and three headsails. There is often a tiny sail on the stern, the mizzen. This complicated rig (compared to that of the canal schooner) nevertheless can be lowered in a short time using gear on board. The mast is counter-weighted below deck and can be pivoted on its tabernacle. This arrangement is a distinct advantage over that of the canal schooner, which depends on a shore crane and must dismantle her rigging whenever she raises or lowers her masts. The Thames barges ran until World War II, although by then their ranks were thin. A few still float, as evidenced by our sighting today.
On August 7th, we towed down to Kingston in a flat calm. And met another reminder of world seaborne trade, the big freighter Lady Serra of Istanbul, coming upstream to pick up a cargo at Albany. Kingston is on Rondout Creek, where the canal that connected the Hudson and Delaware Rivers terminated. The town used to be a major center for the distribution of coal, with plenty of boats like the McClure coming and going. With the D & H Canal shut and mostly filled in since 1898, the marine business in Rondout Creek now centers around pleasure boats. Sure enough, as we approached our berth at the Hudson River Museum in Kingston, out came a pleasure boat all right, the Belle Aventure, the second-most beautiful yacht in the world. She is a ketch of about the same length as the McClure, but with much more draft and sail area for fast sailing, designed and built by William Fife at Fairlie, Scotland, in 1929. The shape of her hull would stand out in any museum of sculpture. She has been kept in impeccable condition, a real gem.
But Kingston harbor is not all fancy yachts: we counted six former working tugboats moored along Rondout’s left bank. And, hauled out at the Museum is the Mathilda, a riveted-iron, steam tug of 1898. Looking into her huge engine room through a viewing window in her hull and sizing up her mammoth propeller, you realize that here is a workboat. Our replica canal schooner from Lake Champlain was an added attraction to the displays at the Museum and along the Creek, and, over our two-day stay, nearly 600 Hudson River valley people experienced maritime history with us.
There was a north breeze on August 10th as we headed south on the River toward Poughkeepsie, but it didn’t have the strength to push us against the flood tide, so, once again, our sails stayed furled in deference to the schedule we keep. At Poughkeepsie’s Waryas Park, we moored across a narrow T on the end of a wooden wharf, with bow and stern overlapping the T. To keep the vessel from swinging around in the current and on boat wakes, we ran long lines from bow and stern all the way in to the shore end of the dock. This worked well, because the lines were long enough so that they didn’t need tending as the tide rose and fell.
Rise and fall it certainly did, with a range of about four feet, since it was spring tide time. The full moon rose and by 4:00 a.m., when a couple of us happened to be up on deck, it was exactly over the spectacular, curving lights of the Mid-Hudson suspension bridge, just downstream. This was perhaps the best exhibition of “harbor lights” that we’ve seen from the schooner. Poughkeepsie (other than New York City) is perhaps the most diversely populated town that we visit. On August 12th, 402 of its citizens came on board, representing a great many societal groups and levels of nautical experience. It is a pleasure both to swap sea stories with veteran sailors and to show greenhorns their first boat.
Next day, we towed down to Newbergh. Getting underway, we let the ebb current swing the stern out away from the dock, with the bow held by a long spring line led round a cleat so it could be retrieved as we backed away. And which got itself jammed between two dock pilings. So theOocher left the schooner’s bow and went back to free the line. While the current set us down toward the Mid-Hudson Bridge pylon. Which we avoided by backing with the tug, bringing theOocher back to push on the schooner’s bow, and chugging upstream a ways before turning to go down under the bridge with the current. There’s always something.
But if the ebb current was working against us at the Mid-Hudson Bridge, the flood that started as we approached Newbergh worked in our favor. We moored to the south side of a floating dock perpendicular to the river bank, with the schooner’s bow pointing out. This meant a 270-degree turn. With the Oocher on the bow, we pivoted the McClure through 180 degreees and put the bow on the end of the dock. Then the current simply swung the stern in to the dock, completing the 270 degrees. Fun.
The people of Newbergh sure know how to have fun. They do not advertise their harbor as a quiet place. After we shared our cargo of history with a good many Newberghians, we found that we had a front row seat for Newbergh music. It was Wednesday night, karaoke night. ‘Nuff said.
We had another head wind on August 15th for the short trip down to Cold Spring, but at least the ebb tide helped the C. L. Churchill take us along. Our berth at the town park was one of the prettiest we’ve had. This is Hudson Highland country, and we were looking across the river at the Crow’s Nest, just over 1,400 feet high and its near neighbor, Storm King Mountain. With Bull Hill, at 1,425 feet, on our side of the river, we were in one of two fjords on the U. S. East Coast, not that a Norwegian would be impressed. (The other one is, of course in Maine. And, all right, the most beautiful yacht in the world was designed by L. Francis Herreshoff.) What would have impressed just about anyone is that in two days at the small town of Cold Spring, about 1,500 people trod up our gangway to be welcomed aboard.
At Cold Spring, our crew suffered departures and enjoyed arrivals. “Paying off” were Barb Batdorf and Carolyn Kennedy, who had been on since the start of the cruise, as well as volunteers Leo Straight and Ian Montgomery. Joining ship were Len Ruth (our longtime marlinespike seaman was actually re-joining); Barbara Bartley, descendant of our mentor-by-journal, Captain Theodore Bartley; and volunteers Don Dewees and Sal Larsen, mother of First mate Tom, from whom he gets his infallible good cheer.
Getting underway for Yonkers on August 19th, Tom did a good job of backing off the pier and turning the stern up into the ebb that was threatening to take the schooner down toward moored boats at the Cold Spring Boat Club. We were soon sliding downstream past the high, grey ramparts of West Point. The northerly breeze showed enough signs of strength to inviegle us into setting the foresail to help her along. With the tug on the hip, she is well clear of the foresail boom, so we can use the sail to motorsail. Well, it did give us maybe an extra half knot for a little while, but then the breeze petered out and never did make up its mind what to do next. So, the crew lowered the foresail, furled it neatly, and hoisted boom-sail-and-gaff back up enough to form a ridgepole for the forward awning.
At the Tappan Zee Bridge, we had a waterside, close-up view of the early stages of the construction of the new New York Bridge, being put in right alongside the old one. Plenty of tugs, floating cranes, and barges in action, with crew boats darting back and forth among them. Our mooring at Yonkers was a big steel floating dock with plenty of maneuvering room. Lovely. And when we tied up, we found a couple of heavy lines all rigged for the bow and stern just where we needed them. Such service!
We entertained nearly 500 Yonkersites on August 21st, explaining that 150 years ago our unique schooner would have been merely one of dozens in sight from their pier, coming and going with diverse cargoes on the Hudson water highway. And were entertained by serious boat people at a cook-out supper, the members of the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club. We had seen plenty of them wielding their paddles on the river as we passed their boathouse just upstream of our berth. Now we got to see into this delightful, old, wooden structure, dwarfed in size by surrounding modernity, but standing out in character. What we saw inside was dozens of kayaks and fast rowing craft, many of them built by their owners. What we smelled was the atmosphere of a home for boats. What we heard was the enthusiastic talk of proud and able boatbuilders and paddlers. What a privilege!
Next day, we set the foresail again, this time to an easterly breeze that really did help us south down the river to New York City. But again the wind didn’t last long, so we lowered away and furled up. By soon after noon, we were down past the George Washington Bridge, past the aircraft carrier,Intrepid, and mooring in Manhattan’s West Side, on the north side of Pier 25, out near the end beyond the old Coast Guard buoy tender, Lilac, and the big, harbor tug, Pagasus. It didn’t take long to figure out that this berth wouldn’t do for getting people on board the schooner. The wakes of New York harbor’s ubiquitous, fast, passenger ferries were rolling us mercilessly, and, anyway, our gangways wouldn’t reach up to this big-ship pier. So, we huddled and came up with Plan B. Luckily, the North Cove Yacht Harbor, a short distance downstream, where we had berthed in 2009, had an opening and would be glad to have us for the next three nights. Whew!
It was only a twenty-minute run down to North Cove. It was perhaps the roughest trip the schooner has made. By now, it was afternoon rush hour, and the water taxis seemed to be everywhere, slicing by close aboard and churning the harbor into a frenzy of steep cross-seas. Fortunately our tug hook-up on the hip stayed intact and the fenders between schooner and tug were up to their Herculean task. Mercy. We received the relative calm of the friendly confines of North Cove with gratitude.
We were now really in The Big Apple. Surrounded by tall buildings, really tall buildings, including the new Freedom Tower, which is impressive, despite the mere antenna structure that enables it to claim 1,776 feet. And by really tall motor yachts. I mean, we’re talking five storeys here on a little 100-footer! There were also sailing vessels in the Cove. The Arabella of Newport, R. I. a big, three-masted staysail schooner; the Shearwater, a two-masted staysail schooner; and the cutterVentura, built in 1922, and still retaining a few of the design attributes given her by Nathanael G. Herreshoff (father of L. Francis). Best of all, there were two dozen J-24s, nimble sloops perfectly suited for their role as schoolships for New Yorkers. Out they went to sail in those frightful waves and strong currents. The song, New York, New York, could just as well say, “If you can sail here, you can sail anywhere.” Over 600 New Yorkers left the city’s streets to take a walk on our wooden deck and “go below” to inspect our cargo hold and ship’s cabin. And these seen-it-all citizens did give us their full attention. Now we were to head back out into the maelstrom and steer north.
Roger C. Taylor
Captain, Lois McClure