The Captain’s Log, Part 2

The last Captain’s Log ended on June 12th, when we had been delayed for two days in Waterford at the east end of the Erie Canal due to high water. Well, here it is July 8th, and we are still delayed in Waterford due to high water, or, at least, the effects of high water. It rained and rained (we’ve heard all too many Noah’s Ark jokes on board the Lois McClure  in the last month), and two floods, literally one right on top of the other, have damaged Erie Canal lock gates and dams to the point where New York Canal Corporation work crews have been struggling round the clock making repairs. There is an end in sight—light at the end of the Canal, so to speak—but it is still a couple of weeks away. Mercy. If John Callaghan, the Canal’s number two man, who makes sure the schooner is safe and well cared for while she is in his domain, had hair long enough to tear out…. No, that’s not an accurate picture: John, good seaman that he is, somehow remains calm, cool, and collected through every emergency.

The LOIS MCCLURE docked next to the remains of the Rexford Aqueduct (photo: Tom Larsen)
The LOIS MCCLURE docked next to the remains of the Rexford Aqueduct in Schenectady (photo: Tom Larsen)

We have actually moved the schooner during this sojourn, and we have opened our floating museum to more than 1,500 visitors in Waterford. On June 24th, in hopes the Canal could reopen to the west, we went up through the flight of five locks and one lock more and tied up to the long floating dock at the Schenectady Yacht Club. Its members have been most welcoming to the schooner and her tug on more than one occasion, but on this visit, they and the operators of the marina at Rexford, downstream and across the Mohawk from the city of Schenectady, where the Club makes its headquarters, outdid themselves. They gave us an anchor!

We don’t anchor the schooner often, but readers of past logs may recall the use of anchors, sometimes of many anchors, to hold the vessel in position without putting pressure on lightweight floats giving access to the shore. We have, on the schooner, a big, modern, Danforth anchor and three old-fashioned, fisherman anchors, one of which stays on the stern as an emergency brake. On the tug, we have two additional Danforths. When we anchor the schooner out in the stream or lake, we use the big Danforth on a heavy chain.

I have to admit to being prejudiced against the Danforth anchor. I was brought up to respect and admire the old-fashioned, symbol-of-hope anchor. And I am old enough that I had depended on that sort of anchor in many boats in many situations by the time the Danforth received its patent and came into general use. The big claim for the Danforth was that it could achieve greater holding power per pound than the old-fashioned anchor. You could handle, raise, and stow a lighter anchor on your boat if you used a Danforth. But it turns out that this was true only if the anchoring conditions were ideal: good holding ground, enough swinging room to be able to veer plenty of scope, and no pesky, big wind shifts to give major changes of direction of pull. Also, making an object lighter that you must depend on to dig into the bottom and hold your boat through thick and thin defies common sense. I could tell you a horror story or two about being on a boat that had only Danforth anchors. Furthermore, our Danforth anchor (through no fault of its own) looks out of place resting on the bow of our replica of an 1862-class canal boat.

So, I have always been on the lookout for an old-fashioned, fisherman anchor to replace it. My heart rate went up when I saw a real beauty leaning up against the back of the Schenectady Yacht Clubhouse on June 25th. I made bold to ask Clark Farnsworth, longtime owner and operator of the marina, the status of this heart-throb anchor. He said its status is vague!! I go up to my target heart rate. And before I get halfway through my psychopathic tale of anchors and schooners, Mr. Farnsworth says, “Just take it.” Of course we checked with Dick Mason, the Commodore of the Yacht Club, who checked with many of its senior members. With the result that a handful of said members loaded a 75-pound, genuine Wilcox and Crittenden “Yachtsman” model fisherman anchor into a pickup truck and delivered it dockside!

New anchor on the rearranged foredeck (photo: Tom Larsen)
New anchor on the foredeck (photo: Tom Larsen)

All it needed was a new key to lock the stock in position; Ship’s Carpenter Kerry Batdorf designed one, and, back at the Museum, Blacksmith Dale Henry made one. The new anchor is in position on the schooner’s bow, where it is anchor number one, our Starboard Bower. The big Danforth has a new position, stowed atop the C. L. Churchill’s deckhouse, and a new job description that fits its design perfectly. If the schooner is ever in a hard-chance situation where she needs that “anchor to windward,” the tug will take the Danforth out and drop it with a long scope and a predictable direction of pull, and it will perform admirably.

By June 27th, it became apparent that the high-water conditions on the Erie Canal were going to get worse before they got better. It was time to retreat. We went back down to and through Lock 7 and moored to the approach wall. This downstream side of Lock 7 is well protected from the Mohawk River by a long breakwater wall. Turbulence from thousands of tons of water thundering over the dam beside the lock couldn’t reach the schooner.

Safely docked below E7 (photo: Tom Larsen)
Safely docked below E7 (photo: Tom Larsen)

But of course even in that snug harbor, the river level could rise. And it did. With the schooner safely moored, we had released several of the crew. On the 28th, Kathleen and I were driving south to Long Island for a visit with her family.

In this era of instant communication, we got a message that described the water coming up over the wall to which the boat was moored and the crew (Art Cohn, Carolyn Kennedy, and volunteer Jeff Gorss) laying out no less than three Danforth anchors from the tug and running a line across to the opposite wall to keep the schooner from drifting in over the mooring wall, on which she otherwise could have grounded when the water receded. The big Danforth, in its new role, was in the center position of the three anchors. The trio stood anchor watches that night, but their handling of the situation needed no further action. By the time the rest of the crew returned on July 1st, the river had gone back down, the trio had retrieved the Danforths, all the anchor lines were neatly coiled, and they had even washed away all the mud.

But the receding river level revealed more structural damage to lock gates and dams than was expected. Because water is fluid, rather than solid, it is sometimes hard to realize how much damage it can inflict when moving fast. At sea, a wave breaking over the side of a ship can bend heavy steel railings. On the canal, fast flowing river water can wreak havoc with heavy steel structures. Carry two large buckets of water and feel their weight. Multiply by, say, a million…. We would not be heading west on the Erie Canal toward Buffalo any time soon.

On July 3rd, we retreated further, back to the flight of five locks and down to Waterford. This was a fast trip, with from two to three knots of current helping us along. We passed plenty of cruising yachts moored in the basins between locks in the flight, sheltering from the potential violence of a Mohawk River in flood. On our approach to the last lock in the flight, we noticed that the yacht tied up closest to the lock gate made the approach channel quite narrow. It looked, though, as if we could just squeeze through. We coasted in at dead slow speed and just made it, the yacht’s and tug’s fenders just kissing. Whew!

Steam launches docked in Waterford (photo: Tom Larsen)
Steam launches docked in Waterford (photo: Tom Larsen)
Steam launch headed upriver (photo: Tom Larsen)
Steam launch headed upriver (photo: Tom Larsen)

For the next four days, we went into Museum mode, and our unscheduled stop at Waterford resulted in all those visitors. It didn’t hurt that we were open on the Fourth of July and that Saturday the 6th was the day of the annual steamboat meet. A dozen steam launches were the centerpieces of a real Waterford festival. It was great to see these lovely little vessels parading past, perfectly quiet except for their gentle huffs and puffs, until their skippers pulled their whistle cords.

Crowds at Waterford (photo: Tom Larsen)
Crowds at Waterford (photo: Tom Larsen)

It is now July 10th. We hope to resume our journey west on the Erie Canal in about ten days. But, in the meantime, the city of Troy wants to see us, so tomorrow, we will head down the Hudson River for a four-day visit in the town which used to see canal boats by the hundreds, bringing in the raw materials that the famous Troy factories converted into stoves, flat irons, and, yes, symbol- of-hope anchors.

Roger Taylor

3 thoughts on “The Captain’s Log, Part 2”

  1. Looking forward to meeting up with The Lois in August for my “rotation”, wherever that may be. I hope the schedule can resume somewhere along the route. Be safe!

  2. Captain Taylor manages a pen (more likely a key board, as well as he manages a a big, unpowered canal boat.

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