by Roger Taylor
Captain Erick Tichonuk was kind enough to invite my wife, Kathleen, and me, two retired crew members of the Lois McClure, to join the vessel as volunteers for the last trip of the season, from North Harbor to Crown Point, and back to Burlington. We accepted really fast. The short voyage was planned so that the schooner would be the centerpiece for the celebration of the opening of the new Champlain Bridge, but building a bridge across Lake Champlain is apparently no more predictable than sailing a Lake Champlain canal schooner, so the celebration turned out to be a test run for the real thing next spring.
When we went on board on October 13th (Thursday, not Friday), North Harbor looked, well, under water. Certainly the concrete pier that normally provides access to the floating dock system was nowhere to be seen. But the web of lines that had to be cast off before the schooner could move looked familiar.
And so were the happy faces of the great crew of the Lois McClure. Erick was there, of course, ready to execute his plan for letting go the lines in an order that would allow us to move the schooner, under control, out to her mooring, where Art Cohn could bring the C. L. Churchill onto the starboard hip for towing. The rig was down, so no sailing today, but the sails would have hung lifeless anyway, for it was as calm as a clock. Art was comfortably ensconced in his wheelhouse, maneuvering his vessel with serene certainty. He looked as relaxed as a clam at high tide (even on the Lake, it seemed like high tide). Len Ruth, the Boatswain, said he’d had a good summer with the vessel, but that now he was looking forward to living on board in the quiet of winter, when he’d have time to take apart, refurbish, and reassemble the schooner’s thirty-five blocks, the wood-encased wheels that form the keys to the block-and-tackle machines which enable us weak humans to hoist and trim those big, heavy sails. Kerry Batdorf, the Carpenter, had been busy working on the vessel since spring. Among many other completed jobs, he showed me spots in the deck where he’d removed rotten wood and replaced it with new, including a patch over Kathleen’s and my old bunk. “You mean it doesn’t leak anymore?” “Nope.” “What about your side?” “I did that too!” I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more rot in that vulnerable, pine deck, but the Lois McClure was well-built and has been well cared for. Tom Larsen, Able Seaman, greeted us. It’s always good to have Tom on board. There is no grey in his beard, he’s as strong as an ox, will tackle anything, and is wicked smart. And Samantha Williams had somehow convinced Museum authority that she deserved to be sprung loose from her duties as an Educator for a day out on the water. It was our gain as well as hers; her laugh is infectious. As Kerry said, “We’ve got a crew!”
The uneventful tow up the Lake was punctuated with an exclamation point, at least for Kathleen and me, for this was our first sight of the new bridge, apparently needing only its final accoutrements to be ready for traffic. We pronounced it wonderful, resembling the old, beloved bridge just enough, but definitely looking like 2011. And Erick let me make the landing at the dock. We had the whole face of it to ourselves, but were to leave space for the later arrival of the tugboat, Urger. I saw that as an advantage, because it would prevent option paralysis, which I find sometimes sets in when the landing space is too big. It went fine, and it felt really good to be back conning the schooner-tug-Oocher combination.
We were back on Saturday the 15th as interpreters. There was rain, and the bridge event wouldn’t be until next day, so things were quiet on board. That was all right with us; it gave us a chance to re-enter slowly the role of explaining a replica canal schooner to visitors, with time to think. Let’s see, what did these vessels carry? Oh yes, everything. What are the rocks for? Even I will never forget their dual purpose. By Sunday, when there was a steady stream of citizens fascinated with the Lois McClure, whether on their first or fourth visit, Kathleen and I were a bit better prepared. Once again, we were rewarded by nods of understanding and broad smiles.
Erick decided not to take the schooner back down the Lake on Monday; the forecast was for plenty of wind out of the southwest, a favoring wind for the tow, but why tow on a rough Lake when the weatherman said that on Tuesday the breeze would be merely moderate? Actually, it was less than moderate on Tuesday, at least until we approached Burlington. Then, of course, it breezed on some, what I call a “mooring breeze,” the one that comes up just when you don’t want it to. I was remembering some times coming in to tie up at Burlington’s Perkins Pier when it was blowing hard out of the southwest, and how tricky it was to get the schooner’s bow into the slot between the pier and the pilings placed just a bit more than the vessel’s beam out from its face. I was thinking how glad I was that I had passed on the responsibility for getting her in there in one piece to Captain Tichonuk. Then Erick asked if I wanted to take her in. And explained that he had found that in these conditions, the “sling-shot” method would probably work better than the poke-her-nose-in-the-slot method. With the “sling-shot,” you came in to leeward of the off-the-pier pilings and put the bow up against the far side of the inner one. Then get lines ashore and with them and the Oocher pivot the vessel around the piling and work her into the berth, bow-out. Well, of course, I couldn’t resist. And was relieved to find that I could slip back into the maneuvering rhythm with these great boats.
Oh my, but it was good for Kathleen and me to be back. Thanks, Erick and Art, for the reprise.