When the canal schooner Lois McClure, towed by the C. L. Churchill, assisted by the inflatable boat Oocher, did head back out of North Cove into the maelstrom of New York City’s busy harbor on August 26th, she waited until 10:00 o’clock, in order to avoid the intensity of rush hour. The water was still rough with water-taxi wakes, but the seas, running in all directions, were not as high and frequent as they had been on our run down to the Cove from Pier 25. We did notice, however, that a small leak developed halfway down the schooner’s starboard side just above the chine, and about a foot underwater, probably due to the unusual motion to which the vessel had been subjected.
With a strong flood tide in the Hudson River, we made short miles of it back up to Yonkers and were moored to the big-steel-float-with-the-ready-bow-and-stern-lines by early afternoon. Volunteer Don Dewees, who has been involved with the Lois McClure project from its inception, “paid off,” and volunteers Jeff Gorss, our enthusiastic rigger, and Rosemary Zamore joined ship. Kathleen Carney, who keeps the crew fed, had jumped ship in New York, seeking inspiration in the desert (of New Mexico), and Rosemary had gallantly agreed to assume Kathleen’s role.
Next day, we continued upstream, making the most of the flood. We met the tug Amberjack, pushing her barge, the Pacific (appropriate name for a towed barge when you think about it), and since she apparently has a milk run up and down the river, we would meet her again and exchange “intentions” with her “Cap.” On another day, the Amerjack would overtake us, and Channel 13 on the VHF radio would crackle with “What are your intentions, Cap?” He wanted to be sure that as the overtaken vessel with the right of way, we would hold our course and speed, and agree to let him pass us on the side he proposed. “I’m staying well over on the east side of the channel,” I assured him. We also met the tug, Buchanan 12, pushing no fewer than nine barges, in a 3 x 3 formation, all loaded deeply with gravel.
When we arrived at our destination, West Point, the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, Pete Seeger’s inspiration that is still patrolling the river she helped clean up, was on the dock, so we landed across the river at Constitution Island to await her departure.
And when we went back over to West Point, we could see her, having picked up the first of the ebb to help her to windward, tacking back and forth from bank to bank, heading slowly downstream. We were jealous of her less-distance-oriented goals than ours and, as always, admiring of the great work she has accomplished and is still accomplishing after half a century.
I always breathe an involuntary sigh of relief when we leave West Point after another successful visit of sharing maritime history with the Army. As a former destroyer and submarine person, I feel as if I’ve been dropped behind enemy lines when visiting the great citadel; everyone is perfectly friendly, but there are all those big “Beat Navy!” signs. (Somehow, we acquired a couple of folding chairs on the McClure that are marked “Army.” In mild retaliation, I took a marker and wrote “Beat” just ahead of the brand. These chairs, always stowed away, of course, when we convert the schooner into a museum of 1862, remained especially well hidden at West Point.)
August 29th was a lay day for the Lois McClure, and we had the great privilege of spending it back at Constitution Island. That evening, its longtime caretakers, Rod and Deb MacLeod, came on board for supper, and regaled us with the history of the place. The 250-acre island, beautifully wooded, with high, rock outcroppings, was donated to the United States government in 1908 by Mrs. Russell Sage and Miss Anna Bartlett Warner “for the use forever of the United States Military Academy at West Point.” During the American Revolution, Continental Army soldiers built fortifications on the island, as part of their fighting for their rights under the British Constitution. After the war, Constitution Island became a family residence. By 1850, the residents were Anna Warner and her sister, Susan, poverty stricken by the Panic of 1837. They turned to writing novels and before long were known as the Bronte sisters of America. Susan’s The Wide, Wide World sold more than a million copies. Together, they published more than 100 books, but copyright meant little in those days, and most of their readers held pirated editions of their work, so the best-selling authors never got rich. Well, not rich in money, but rich in friendships. Cadets used to row across the river to have tea with the Warner sisters, and some of them were still corresponding with their hostesses as generals. Next day, we had plenty to think about as we explored the island, walking trails through sun-dappled woods, climbing a high rock here and there at a ruined redoubt for a fine view of West Point across the Hudson.
Before we got underway on August 30th to continue up the great river, we sent the Oocher round to Cold Spring to pick up First Mate Tom Larsen, who had been ashore for a couple of days on urgent land business. This was a day of a moderate southerly breeze, fair for us, and the whitecaps had Tom and me looking at each other with one thought in mind: we should be sailing! Alas, we had a good many miles to go to Poughkeepsie. If we rounded up into the wind to make sail, we’d lose time. If the breeze went fitful on us, we’d lose more time, recalling the Churchill alongside and taking in sail. With reluctance, Tom and I reminded each other that our mission is to get our floating museum efficiently from venue to venue, not to maximize our fun on the water. Anyway, we were lucky: the breeze did go fitful on us.
It was another long run from Poughkeepsie up to Catskill, so we got an early start. I had just taken over the wheel from Tom at 9:00, when the first wafts came up from the galley. Yes, it was true: Len Ruth, world’s champion bacon fryer was at work, and Rosemary was scrambling the eggs for a second breakfast! It used to be said of certain naval vessels: “She may not be much of a steamer, but she sure is a feeder.” The Lois McClure is both: we cover the miles and we eat well.
Why, on the run from Catskill to Troy that also required getting underway early, the second breakfast was pancakes! Sights along the river on this day included: a distant view of that Thames barge we had seen coming upstream, now moored in Athens; a most handsome, narrow-straked dory on a mooring; an ancient launch towing five kayaks, escorted by two canoes; and boys swinging out into the river on a long rope suspended from the raised ladder of a fire engine. Mercy.
After we moored to the long wall in Troy, Art Cohn went into the water with his Scuba gear and made an underwater inspection of both the schooner and the tug. We were particularly interested to see if there was any apparent cause of the leak on the starboard side. Nothing obvious, but evidence in one long, horizontal, planking seam and its adjacent, short, vertical seams where the ends of planks butted together that the watertight compound that had covered the caulking was missing, perhaps pulled out by Burlington Harbor ice over the winter. Just for due diligence (Art has “lawyer” on his extensive resume), he put some underwater compound in the butt seam nearest the position of the leak inside the boat. It’s early days, but as I write this, two days later, the leak has stopped! Every boat should have the luxury of a diver in the crew.
On September 2nd, the Canal Corps’ wonderful, old, ex-Army truck-crane arrived early, up on the high wall opposite the McClure. We were to head up into canal country, with its low bridges. The combined crews of schooner and crane made smooth work of lifting sails and spars ashore, setting up the T-braces, and carefully laying the various parts of the rig back on board, the masts now horizontal atop the braces. The exact athwartships position of each of the four crane picks (mainmast, foremast, mainsail with its boom and gaff, and foresail with its boom and gaff), is crucial. We wouldn’t want the vessel to end up with a list.
In the afternoon, we went up through the Troy Lock and entered Waterford harbor. We would be in Waterford for several days, culminating in the annual Tugboat Roundup. Apparently the rumor that the C. L. Churchill was to be named Tug of the Year at the Roundup was true. At least Art Cohn and Jean Belisle believed it, judging by the way they were cleaning and polishing their beloved, 34-foot towboat.
The Lois McClure’s berth would be up through Lock 2, the beginning of the Erie Canal, and round the sharp corner into the small part of the old Champlain Canal that is still navigable. When we came to the sharp corner, we saw, right in the exact center of the narrow bend, a buoy marked “HAZARD.” Its purpose, I suppose, is to discourage small craft from entering a waterway that soon turns into a dead end. The buoy didn’t quite keep us from getting to our berth. We did have to use the Tug- of-the-Year-elect, well fendered by Jean, as a fulcrum against the wall, with the Oocher on the opposite bow, in order to squeeze around the corner without dislodging the buoy. After that, the only hazard, really just a mental one, was to slip past the upper lip of the spillway that sends excess water down the old canal staircase of locks. The reward is that we get to listen to the pleasant plash through the schooner’s stern windows.
We started our sojourn in Waterford with a couple of lay days. Sal Larsen, Rosemary Zamore, and Jeff Gorss left the crew; volunteers Chris McClain and Doug Riley joined ship. Mike Brazinski, whose backyard faces the old Champlain Canal, let us plug in our power cord on his porch. Random acts of kindness are our common experience.
On the wall above Lock 2, we had the chance to examine a miniature Thames sailing barge, theCeres, the vessel that is operated by Vermont Sail Freight, a fledgling organization trying to renew the concept of delivering produce and goods between Vermont and New York City on the water using the wind for at least part of her power, as did the Lake Champlain sailing canal boats that theLois McClure represents. She has a flat, scow hull (unlike the more shapely Thames barge) about 40 feet long, but the identical rig to the English type, which, at small size, is easy to raise and lower. So, if you have cargo to ship (note the term) between Vermont farm country and the Big Apple, or points in between, you know whom to contact.
The Tugboat Roundup went into full swing on the afternoon of September 5th, when the twenty participating towboats (a few were merely yachts) assembled at Albany and proceeded up through the Troy lock to parade into Waterford harbor at 5:00 p.m. The tugs were in the order in which they would dock, so since Tug-of-the-Year C. L. Churchill, run by Art Cohn, Jean Belisle, and Kerry Batdorf, would be docked front and center, their tug was in the middle of the fleet. It wasn’t long before all these handsome vessels were tied up, the small ones, like the Churchill, alongside the long, floating dock, and the big workhorses, like the Cornell, who brought up the rear, nosed in to the wall diagonally. There was plenty of horn-blowing and applause.
On the 6th, in a holiday atmosphere, all these vessels were open to the public. A citizen could not only inspect a variety of fascinating tugs, but also buy a wide variety of articles, including items unrelated to towing, a good many of which were edible. She or he could even go for a boat ride. The stern wheeler, Caldwell Belle, had come down from Schuylerville to sell tickets for cruises, and that “ancient launch” that we had seen in a towboat role for kayaks turned out to be a brand new boat built to an old design, the Sol, from Indian Lake, New York, demonstrating to her passengers silent, planet-friendly, solar-electric power. There was a film on the Witte shipyard on Staten Island, the place where old tugs, and many another vessel, go to die. We saw acres of ships that were mostly memories, waiting their turn for the cutting torch. That night, I watched the fireworks from the top of the east gate of Lock 2, a fine vantage point. It was a spectacular show, but I couldn’t help thinking of how people around the world just then were reacting with terror to very different explosions.
The Roundup continued on the 7th. The Churchill and McClure had to close up shop a bit early in order to keep on schedule, but, even so, the total visitor attendance for the two vessels was more than 2,000. In the early afternoon, the Churchill came up through Lock 2 and made up on the starboard quarter of the schooner, as usual. But our passage out of the narrow, old canal, past the spillway and avoiding damaging the “HAZARD” buoy, was not normal. There is not quite room in there to turn her around, so you just have to back out. We had managed the maneuver on an earlier cruise, and I wanted to try a repeat. So, we put the Oocher to pulling on the stern of the tug, the better to control (was the theory) the direction in which the schooner moved astern. The trick was to avoid the spillway and buoy on one side and the overhanging trees on the other. The method worked again (we intentionally brushed the side of the tug against the buoy to avoid the trees), with one correction of the movement by going ahead a little with the tug’s propeller. Whew! Besides Kerry Batdorf at the Oocher’s controls, we had two good people responding to helm orders, Art Cohn at the Churchill’s wheel, and who else but one Scudder Kelvey, sometime mate on the McClure, who had returned, along with Beth Fuehrer, for a short, nostalgic boat ride, at the schooner’s wheel.
Then, with the Oocher back in her normal place on the schooner’s bow ahead of the tug, we eased down through Lock 2 and went alongside the Canal Corps’ multi-purpose, self-propelled barge, theGrand Erie, to tie up for the closing ceremonies of the Roundup. It was important, of course, that our entire crew be present to see Art Cohn receive a large and heavy golden cup to go in the wheelhouse of the 2014 Tug of the Year, the C. L. Churchill. It never ceases to amaze me how Art, no matter the situation, always knows exactly what to say and how much to say. This occasion was another example: after threatening to speak for an hour and a half, he delivered brief, listener-friendly comments of appreciation for the award and pride in his favorite boat that were, as usual, perfectly matched to his audience.
With the great, gold cup safely on board the Churchill, we were ready to start north on the Champlain Canal, heading back toward our home waters.
Captain, Lois McClure