Notes from the Captain’s Log: Part Two

On July 31st, the Lois McClure entered the Erie Canal at its eastern terminus at Waterford. Each day, before we get underway, we remind ourselves that: a) our big objective is Safety, and that: b) the key to Safety is Slowing Down. One of the interesting things about canal travel is that it has quite a few ways of making the Slowing-Down reminder unnecessary. For example, canal locks are one-way in both directions. Sometimes, when you want to go up, you have to wait for another vessel, who got there first, to come down. Such was the case on July 31st.

Road sign for the water
Road sign for the water (photo: Kerry Batdorf)

We were all ready to cast off from the Waterford wall, day’s briefing completed, lifejackets on, tugboat Churchill’s diesel engine ticking over, all warmed up, crew excited to be starting a big leg of our voyage. The Erie! Then the lock keeper in the first lock, 100 yards away, Lock 2 (for some reason, the “Federal Lock” just downstream on the Hudson at Troy is considered the first lock in the Erie system), responded to our radio request for a westbound passage with, “We have a boat coming down from Lock 3. As soon as he’s through, we’ll give you a green light.” Well, okay.

We all stood by for about twenty minutes. We stared at the bottom of the lock gate, looking for the bursting white water that would show that the lock was at last being drained down to our level, so that this pesky boat, whoever he was, could come out and we could go in. It was like watching for steam from the kettle. At last! In we went, behind a motor cruiser whose vacationing couple had also been waiting.

Erie Locks 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, at Waterford, are deep locks, close together. At one time, they provided the highest lift in the shortest distance of any canal locks in the world. (That claim has been overtaken by huge, single-lift machines in Europe, which, in turn, will be overtaken by an even bigger lift machine in China.) As we went from Lock 2 to 3, and 3 to 4, our lock mates in the motor cruiser zipped out and raced to the next lock, only to have to wait for the Lois, creeping out under tow, easing along to the next lock, and slowly working into it. At Lock 4, the frustrated motor-cruiser skipper got on the radio to the lock keeper: “Isn’t there any way I can get ahead of this big, old boat?” (I suppose he would have been surprised to learn that his shiny cruiser was older than the slowpoke that was wrecking his timetable.) The lock keeper didn’t deign to reply to this request. Well, by Lock 5, our neighbors finally began to take some interest in our strange-looking craft. Curious glances began to replace frowning stares. By Lock 6, the vacationers actually seemed to be having fun. Now, they were smiling and called over to us, had to know all about the Lois McClure. What a remarkable vessel we have! She can slow people down and change frowns to smiles.

By the end of the day, we were tied up at the Schenectady Yacht Club, courtesy of member John Jermano, who wouldn’t let us pay a cent for amenities. And he shared freely with us, too, his fund of local historical knowledge about the Old Erie Canal and its relationship to the New York State Barge Canal that we were traveling. This eastern part of the Barge Canal (it’s still referred to as the Erie Canal) follows the Mohawk River, as pretty a stream as I’ve ever seen. The locks and dams put into the Mohawk during World War I raised the level of the river by some ten feet. That made it navigable by big tugs and heavily loaded barges, with a controlling depth of 12 feet.

Erie Canal looking east from Rexford
Erie Canal looking east from Rexford

At first glance, it seems strange that the builders of the original Erie didn’t use the riverbed, which would have saved a lot of digging. Instead, they dug a new route, following the river valley, but keeping the canal well above the river itself. The reasons were not only to avoid damage to the canal by floods, but also because in the 1820s, ditch-digging technology was ahead of dam-building technology. As we travel the Barge Canal, we are always interested to try to spot vestiges of the Old Erie, such as stonework along the riverbank that indicates the position of an old lock. John Jermano told us about plenty of such reminders on his part of the Mohawk.

One of the objectives of this year’s trip out the Erie is to call at towns that we had to bypass when the Lois went west in 2007. The first one was Fort Plain. Our mooring was in a small slip, just above Lock 15. We used the Oocher to help make the 90-degree pivot into our berth. When we got all tied up, the stern of the schooner stuck out into the river about ten feet. The lock keeper loaned us a pair of green lights to show on the transom at night, because our wooden stern would be taking the place of the stone wall as the marked corner for the approach to the lock. Hmmm. Not to worry. Nighttime traffic on the canal is rare nowadays.

Our visit to Fort Plain on August 3rd was wonderful. A healthy percentage of the local citizens came on board to experience firsthand being on a canal boat like the ones that had passed through their town in thousands 150 years ago. And our crew was treated to a reciprocal tour of the Fort Plain Museum, which is way up there on the scale of excellence, when it comes to presenting local history. In Fort Plain, we were not allowed to prepare a single one of our own meals. What hospitality!

Perusing the museum-showroom of Remington Arms
Perusing the museum-showroom of Remington Arms (photo: Tom Larsen)

Our next stop, on August 5th, was Ilion, another town we’d had to skip in 2007. The Lois McClure again drew a significant portion of the inhabitants. Ilion provides a perfect example of how the Erie Canal built towns. The fledgling Remington arms factory moved to Ilion in 1825, because the new Canal, just opening for business, ran through the village. Suddenly, at Ilion, Remington had cheap transportation for its products and could reach markets anywhere. The company has never looked back. Our crew had its own tour of the Remington museum-showroom, attached to the now-huge factory.

Heading on west, we revisited Utica on August 7th and 8th, and crossed Oneida Lake on the 11th. This lake can get rough, so we like to traverse it early in the morning, when the wind is likely to be light. On this day, there wasn’t much wind at all, early or late, just the way we like it when our masts and sails are stowed away on their overhead racks.

Docked in Utica
Docked in Utica (photo: Kent Strobel)

In 2007, we had stopped overnight at Baldwinsville, but didn’t have time to open our museum ship to visitors. So, this year, we stayed over at “B’ville,” as we came to call the delightful town, imitating the locals, on August 13th and 14th. Erick Tichonuk, as Deputy  Director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, as well as First Mate of the schooner, makes up the schedule for our trips. It’s a complicated task with many criteria going into the decisions on where to go when. Now, I’m not really sure about this, because Erick seems to have missed out in the sweet-tooth department, but still, it may be possible that one factor leading to our two-day stop in B’ville was that Mickie, whose partner Gus has practically adopted us, can’t bake enough of her to-die-for blueberry and chocolate delights for us. Mercy, are they good! But who’s been cutting inches off my belt?

Rigging at Stivers Marine
Rigging at Stivers Marine (photo: Duncan Hay)

On August 16th, we passed under the last bridge on the Cayuga–Seneca Canal, a side waterway that leads from the Erie Canal to the Finger Lakes, and moored at Bob Stivers’ Seneca Marine, as squared-away a marina and boatyard as you’re likely to find. Next day, we stepped the schooner’s masts and rigged the vessel for sailing. The operation was a little different than usual, because the crane was high atop a rocky abutment, to the foot of which we tied the canal boat. But Erick found a spot up on the Lois’s cabin top where the crane operator could see his hand signals, and everything went smoothly. It’s now the end of the day, and we have towed across the north end of Seneca Lake and tied up at the town dock at Geneva.

Docked in Geneva
Docked in Geneva (photo: Duncan Hay)

Tomorrow, we get to go sailing!

Roger Taylor

4 thoughts on “Notes from the Captain’s Log: Part Two”

  1. Well written blog. This narrative made me feel as if I was actually going through the locks, visiting museums, and eating those delicious sounding meals and treats.

  2. Shouldn’t this boat be schooner rigged instead of sloop rigged ? Where are the gaffs ? Where is the bow spirit and the two head sails?

    Is this a rig specifically designed for the canal?

    1. Hi Joe, thanks for the comment. As for the rigging questions, there were examples of both sloop and schooner rigs on sailing canal boats. The sloop rig has much larger and heavier sails, which is more difficult to manage with a small crew. All of the rigs were designed to work within the confines presented by the canals – bowsprits take up space that could be utilized for cargo. The rig is as simple as possible for ease of stepping and unstepping. We chose to make the LOIS MCCLURE a schooner because the two shipwrecks that were studied, the OJ WALKER and the GENERAL BUTLER, were both schooners. Check out the final Captain’s Log from last year to see what we look like under sail.

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