2014 Captain’s Log, Part 5

Once we had the C. L. Churchill’s Tug-of-the-Year gold cup on board, she was ready to tow the Lois McClure from Waterford, where the 2014 Tugboat Roundup was winding down, up the canalized Hudson River. We left at about 4:30 on September 7th in the midst of the closing ceremony, but we had explained that we wanted to get up to Mechanicville before dark, and tugboat people know all about operating schedules.

Art Cohn posing with the Tugboat of the Year trophy on the C.L. Churchill (photo: Tom Larsen)
Art Cohn posing with the Tugboat of the Year trophy on the C.L. Churchill (photo: Tom Larsen)

A canalized river has dams to create navigable pools and locks to get up over the dams. When I had asked John Callaghan of the Canal Corps about locking upstream late in the day, he said, “No problem. The locks won’t close down for the night until right after you go through them.” That’s the sort of help we get from the New York State Canal Corporation. As it turned out, we weren’t bucking much current in the river, so the keeper of the second of the two locks we went through had to stay late only a half hour. And we moored to the long wall at Mechanicville a half hour before sundown.

You’re not supposed to tie up right in front of a pump-out station, but we did at that relatively late hour, knowing that we would be using it early next morning. Which happened, making that satisfying trade of the contents of sanitary tanks for fresh water (in different tanks!).

Then it was on upstream, negotiating the great, Hudson River, clean-up, dredging operation, with its many barges being pushed by tugs. Occasionally, this navigation does require actual negotiating. The tugs pushing big barges, whether loaded or light, negotiate from a position of power, because they are more challenged than smaller vessels, like our 88-foot schooner with her 34-foot tug, when making a corner or passing in a narrow canal. The Rules of the Road require agreement of maneuver from both captains when two vessels meet.

But when the tug Bass met us in mid-afternoon, his radio transmission was so garbled that we couldn’t understand it even after he had repeated it. He seemed to want “our” righthand side of the channel, so we went left. There was a simple reliability in the whistle signals of pre-radio days, which is what we both should have reverted to. Later, after we had passed Lock 7 and left the river to enter the dug Champlain Canal itself, we met another tug-and-barge. On the radio, he asked us to give him as much room as possible as we passed. Such negotiations are quickly concluded: we agreed. And went close enough to the canal bank at dead slow so that the Churchill’s tall stack brushed a few overhanging tree branches, leaving a good six feet (that looked like less, of course) between vessels. By the end of the day, we were through Lock 8 and tied up for the night on its upper approach wall. The dredging operation was astern.

Fogbound, lock C8 (photo: Tom Larsen)

Next morning, we awakened to thick ground fog. You could just barely see a shadow marking the other side of the canal. But then the sun began burning it off, and just at the time we were ready to get underway to go up the canal to Whitehall, the visibility suddenly improved to navigational status. As we arrived at Whitehall in the early afternoon, First Mate Tom Larsen and I (he at the wheel; me, breaking the rule of Don’t Talk to the Helmsman), were in such an involved discussion of desirable qualities of a ship captain that when we started paying more than peripheral attention to navigation, we found that the schooner was already passing the mooring wall. I stopped talking to Tom, and he made a fine recovery, taking way off and landing with a stern approach.

On September 10th, we left the north end of the Champlain Canal at Whitehall and started down Lake Champlain, bound for Crown Point. After descending through Lock 12, the last lock, we approached a narrow turn called The Elbow, where is the home of the late Cora Archambault, the canal-boater whom we honor with a long blast from the tug’s horn as we pass. On this day, Cora got two blasts. A small boat containing two fishermen was anchored in the middle of the narrows. I told Art Cohn, at the Churchill’s wheel (and horn lanyard) that we’d hold up on Cora’s memorial whistle so as not to embarrass the fishermen with what they would take as an unnecessary warning. But they didn’t seem to notice a large vessel bearing down on them, so we did give them a blast. No reaction. We slowed almost to a stop and gave them a second blast. Slowly, they pulled up their anchor, and then fumbled with their outboard motor, as if they’d never seen one before. Finally, they managed to move their boat, just enough so that we could creep by. Now you know, patient reader, why Cora got that extra signal.

Traveling through the southern lake (photo: Tom Larsen)

As we went up the Lake to Crown Point, the south wind increased. By the time we approached the dock at the end of the afternoon, it was blowing fresh. The Crown Point dock is well located to provide good protection from a southerly, but, perhaps because it is built on openwork, it has always seemed ornery to approach with the wind in that quarter. You come in alongside, and the breeze whistles out from under the dock and blows the boat away. This day was no exception; it took two tries, one from the east and one from the west, before we could get the schooner moored.

Of course, when we left the dock on September 12th, having, the day before, given the locals the experience of exploring a canal schooner of long ago, the wind was blowing smartly from the north. No matter. We rigged the big, blue, towing hawser at the dock, stoppered it off on the side of the schooner, and then towed her bodily off the dock against the wind with the C. L. Churchill’s 120 h.p. diesel. Once clear, we let go the stopper and towed from the bow as usual. We were off, punching into it on a long tow to Plattsburgh, 45 miles down the Lake.

We spent four days at Plattsburgh, which was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the dual battle that took place on its shores and in its bay on September 11, 1814, a battle that stopped the British advance from Canada, thus providing a key to ending the War of 1812. On Saturday, September 13th, both the land and sea battles were reenacted where they had occurred. No warship, the Lois McClure remained in her berth during the reenactment.

One of the replica bateau, the Dark and Stormy at the Battle of Plattsburgh reenactment (photo: Tom Larsen)

For the last three years, the McClure has been “Commemorating the War of 1812 and Celebrating the Peace,” as we say in the brochure that we hand to every person who comes up our gangway. She has been travelling the canals that, in part, were born of the war. Both countries, concerned that the conflict might be renewed, built canals so that military forces and supplies could be transported east and west at a safe distance behind their border. Many of the spectators of the “battle” of 2014 celebrated the peace by coming on board our canal schooner and learning that the military reason for building the great canals was secondary to the commercial reason. As we explain to our visitors, canals cut transportation costs by 90 per cent!

At our mooring on a narrow, floating dock at Plattsburgh, we used a tactic of seamanship and battle that Commodore Thomas McDonough had employed on September 11, 1814: we put a spring on our anchor cable. McDonough had anchored in Cumberland Bay, off Plattsburgh, and then attached long lines, spring lines, from his anchor cable to his bow and stern. That gave him a quick and reliable way to turn his vessels, while at anchor, to bring his guns to bear in any direction. We set an anchor out abeam with the cable leading to the bow, then put a spring line on the cable and led it to the stern, so that we could take pressure off the float with the ability to adjust the pressure on both bow and stern. Part of the fun of seamanship is recognizing the long heritage of its elements.

Well, actually, we set what I call a tandem anchor. Experience has shown that two small anchors, set in tandem, will hold as much or more than one big one and are easier to handle. So, from theOocher, there went overboard a small Danforth anchor with a short chain to the ring of a small fisherman anchor, the symbol-of-hope kind. If the fisherman should drag, it would pull on the Danforth, but the Danforth would have “infinite” scope, since its tether would be pulling right along the bottom. And that’s just where the Danforth excels; it will hold a lot with good scope. When we broke out the tandem on September 17th, after two lay days, to head on north to Rouses Point, we found that the fisherman had held; there had been no strain on the Danforth. Belt and suspenders.

It was in Plattsburgh that Blake Grindon joined the crew as a volunteer. She had proved her worth as both deckhand and interpreter on a previous cruise, and this trip proved to be a lucky one for her, because she got word that her application to work at the Brooklyn Historical Society was approved.

The weather forecast indicated only a moderate breeze from the south for September 17th, so we hoped to be able to tow with the tug on the hip. But as we got out into Cumberland Bay, on the way to Rouses Point, we found more than a moderate breeze, and the tug, on the windward hip, began to dance a jig, so we headed up into the waves, rigged the long hawser, and started towing with theChurchill ahead. By the time we rounded the breakwater at Rouses Point, everything had quieted down, so getting the tug back on the hip was simple. Then we threaded our way up into the narrow confines of the Gaines Marina, where Joe Treadwell and his trusty crew met our every need.

After sharing more history of war and peace with the citizens of Rouses Point, we had to thread our way back out of the labyrinth of large, expensive yachts to the freedom of the north end of Lake Champlain. I thought if we pulled the boats back along the dock by hand that there would then be just room to turn them round with the Oocher. Halfway through the turning maneuver, it became obvious that there wasn’t just room. Luckily (so important), it was dead calm, so we had plenty of time to stop, shift the Oocher from the bow of the schooner to the stern of the tug, and begin a long, slow, backwards tow out through the opening between the docked boats. Towing like this, with theOocher pulling on the stern of the tug, gives better directional control than backing with the tug, for the tug on the hip always backs the schooner’s stern away.

It was a short run to the Canadian border, where we anchored off the Customs dock and brought an agent out on board to match passport photos with faces. Thankfully, Elisa Nelson had driven to the border that morning to administer all the necessary paperwork. We were soon in Canadian waters, heading down the Richelieu River for Isle aux Noix, flying the red-and-white Mapleleaf from the starboard side of the Churchill’s smokestack, since we were mastless on the schooner.

Isle aux Noix was a major staging point for the British attempt at invading south in 1814. For two days we reminded Quebecois (and in French, thanks to our volunteer, the intrepid, retired history professor from Montreal, Jean Belisle) of their maritime history, military and commercial. Then, on September 22nd, it was on down the Richelieu to St Jean. The wind was blowing a gale out of the west, which put it on the beam. It seemed strange to be “on a reach” in all that wind but be going only five knots. Had we been sailing, with, say, foresail and three-reefed mainsail, the schooner would have been going almost twice as fast.

The west wind had blown us right off the dock as we got underway from Isle aux Noix, and I worried (G. K. Chesterton said, “Worry is the misuse of imagination”) that when we got to St Jean, it would blow us right off that dock, too, as we tried to land. But by that time, the breeze had eased a little and we were able to work up under the lee of some St. Jean buildings and hug right in to the dock. (Chesterton, as usual, was right.)

Next day, we were to transit the Chambly Canal, twelve miles and six locks, circumventing the Richelieu’s rapids, and call at the town of Chambly itself. As readers of previous Logs may remember, locking through the Chambly takes us back to 1862, for her locks were never enlarged like those of the Champlain and Erie. The Lois McClure can barely squeeze into a Chambly lock, just as we like to describe her ancestors’ maneuvers on all the canals. The Churchill locks through first, while the McClure is held in place just outside. We do have the great convenience of having theOocher to keep the schooner’s stern from swinging, an advantage that would have been much appreciated by a canal boat skipper of the 19th century.

A view from the top of the flight of locks in Chambly (photo: Tom Larsen)
A view from the top of the flight of locks in Chambly (photo: Tom Larsen)

For this trip through the Chambly, we needed another experienced hand on the schooner’s bow to judge when to drop the towline as we approached the lock and to make sure the two bow lines got made fast ashore to hold the bow in place. Erick Tichonuk came up from the Museum, trading a mere shore job for a day of “messing around in boats.” From my spot on the Churchill, I saw that he was grinning all the time. With the rest of our experienced crew, the double-locking procedure went smoothly. And we even got a lunch break, for we discovered that Parcs Canada, the outfit that runs the canal, has adopted the French system of closing down the operation for an hour’s midday meal. Very civilized.

Here’s how I described the landing at Chambly in my log book. (We were towing the schooner on a short hawser astern of the tug, going toward the mooring wall into the wind.) “Gauged the wind wrong, and the schooner didn’t have enough headway to reach the wall. But we got a bow line on from the tug and pulled and Ooched the schooner in. Then pulled her along the wall by hand.” The maneuver would have been familiar to Captain Bartley, except for the Ooching.

Docked in Chambly (photo: Tom Larsen)

We had a good crowd of learners about the canal life at Chambly. To help with interpretation in French, Richard Lemay joined ship. He is Volunteer Jean Belisle’s brother-in-law, also from Montreal, and he was complimented by one visitor who told him that he had pretty good French for an American. So as not to break the spell, Richard said, “Thank you,” in his best English.

That evening, I had the vessel all to myself. Jean invited the crew to a gala dinner at his house, as he does whenever the McClure is within striking distance of Montreal. There was even a cake that modeled every detail of the C. L. Churchill, Tugboat of the Year. I was the designated shipkeeper, so I could do as I pleased on board. What I did mostly was sit on deck so as to be able to answer the questions of evening strollers. Our unique boats attract attention, and people want to know what they are, where they have been, and when is the next time they will be open so that they can come on board and inspect them.

Tugboat crew, trophy, and cake (photo: Tom Larsen)
Tugboat crew, trophy, and cake (photo: Tom Larsen)

On September 25th, we headed back through the Chambly Canal to St. Jean. Now we were truly homeward bound. Erick Tichonuk had had so much fun with the bow lines on the trip down the canal, that he couldn’t resist rejoining us to lock back up. The day before, when I came up on deck in the morning, I looked around the small basin at Chambly to think how we would turn the schooner around to head south in the canal. Suddenly, the place looked too small. Well, what had we done before? Hang on, we’ve never had to turn around in here before. It dawned on me that on all our previous visits to Chambly, we had been passing through in one direction or the other. Turning around in Chambly would be a new experience. In order to solve this problem, the builders of the canal had dug out a turning basin a quarter of a mile back from the Chambly mooring wall. So, we headed for it, with the schooner going backwards propelled by the tug on the starboard bow instead of on the hip, at the stern. In the old, politically incorrect days, this hook-up used to be known as Chinese fashion. Like Irish pendants, the Chinese hook-up is history. Once we reached the turning basin, we turned in it, shoving the bow round with the Oocher. The rest of the trip to St Jean was merely the mirror image of our recent trip through the Chambly Canal.

Denis Coucher, of St. Jean, along with his son, Michel, had joined us at Lock 7 in the Chambly Canal to ride into their hometown in style. Denis does all sorts of favors for the McClure’s crew whenever the schooner calls at St, Jean. With the help of another son, Francois, we get to experience Canadian Army life at Fort St. Jean, and we have to admit that the soldiers of our ally across the northern border live better than we do on board a canal boat of 1862.

We gave our final history lessons of the 2014 tour in St. Jean. There were plenty of connections to be made to the war of 200 years ago, for St. Jean was an important staging area in support of the attempted British invasion down Lake Champlain. And at St. Jean, three new volunteer crew members joined the schooner. Bob Beach and his son, Dan, came on board. Bob is a co-founder (with Art Cohn) of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum and has been a board member throughout the Museum’s thirty-year history. Young Dan is a boat guy. Lea Coggio is always a welcome addition to the crew, for she is a licensed captain who runs ferries for the Lake Champlain Transportation Company.

September 27th was a perfect day for our 44-mile tow from St. Jean to Plattsburgh. It was also a nice day for dozens of sloops to be out on the Lake, their crews enjoying a rare, warm, sunny Saturday late in the season. But while we enjoyed the light and variable breezes and could tow on the hip in the flat water, they were a bit frustrated by the lack of a good sailing breeze.

Fall foliage and a calm morning on the Richelieu River (photo: Tom Larsen)

We got an early start and so, by noon, were waiting out turn to go alongside the U. S. Customs dock at the border, just north of Rouses Point. Our lucky crew of thirteen mustered on the bow for the usual match-up of passport mug shots to the grizzled faces of mariners who have been on deck for the last three months. Then we chugged on up the Lake and tied up at Wilcox dock in Plattsburgh by the end of the afternoon.

The next day was our last day underway on the cruise of 2014, our 40th. As we prepared to get underway, a wall of solid-looking fog blew north into Cumberland Bay. Never mind, the schooner has a good box-compass that we can line up, fore and aft, against the cabin companionway hatch, and almost any member of the crew can pull out a smart phone whose GPS screen will show us just where we are and just where the navigation buoys are. So, out we went into the thick wall of white gossamer, making our stately five knots and sounding our fog signals on the Churchill’s horn. And found our buoys and slid close along the east side of Valcour with just enough visibility to make out the shore line and the boats anchored in the island’s coves. Then, just as we left Valcour, the fog lifted suddenly to reveal the familiar lake shores and mountains. In eleven summers of operating theLois McClure, it was the first time we had run in thick o’ fog. It was a true Maine coast sort of fog, but not as dark a dungeon as can be found along the south shore of Nova Scotia.

By mid-afternoon, we were sliding into North Harbor, the schooner’s haven at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Erick Tichonuk handed up a long mooring line, which we eased off the stern as she coasted in to the Museum’s dock. It didn’t take long to pick up two additional mooring lines, run a stern line ashore with the Oocher, and get the gangway rigged. The old sea chantey, “Johnny, It’s Time To Leave Her,” was running through my head. But before we went ashore, we met briefly as a crew and as a family. Heartfelt thanks all around. Relief that crew, 17,000 visitors, and boats were all safe and sound. Volunteer Hilton Dier reminded us of three comparisons between the 19thcentury and the 21st: In the 19th, a Captain Theodore Bartley sailed in a canal schooner; in the 21st, our volunteer, Barbara Bartley, did the same. In the 19th, running a canal schooner was a financial challenge; so is running a replica canal schooner in the 21st. And in the 19th century, canal schooner crews were families; in the 21st, the crew of the Lois McClure has also been a family.

Ashore we filed and trooped up the hill to the Museum, where we found a giant tent set up and 200 friends of the Museum on hand to welcome us home; to honor co-founder Arthur B. Cohn, and confer upon him the status of Museum Director, Emeritas; to honor Bob Beach, co-founder and current board chairman; and to celebrate the 30th birthday of the Lake Champlain Museum. It was, indeed, a fine celebration.

Roger Taylor
Captain, Lois McClure