When we were kids, my dad had a boat. Not the kind of boat that we currently reside on but a cabin cruiser where we spent many memorable summer days soaking up the sun. One summer we transited the Fox River in North East Wisconsin to get to the coast in Door County. We went through the locks on the Fox river and this was my first experience with them. I have some vague memories of the trip but the general rules still apply, keep the boat off the wall and don’t let go of the ropes.
Four decades later, after crossing Lake Erie, we began our transit of the Erie Canal. Our first lock wasn’t officially part of the canal system but one that raises us from Lake Erie in Buffalo, NY to the Niagra River. All went as planned as Shane pulled up to the wall like a champ and Angie and I grabbed our very first set of slimy canal lines. There was a great energy that day as several boats were excitedly beginning their journey as well. There was chatter back and forth with the crew from the other boats and smiles on every face as we all turned to photograph one another and document the experience.
To get through the Erie Canal, you not only go through several locks but also under a number of bridges where the clearance height is much lower than a sailboat with it’s mast up (around 60 ft). Most sailors choose to “cradle” their mast on the deck of their boat and when we first started to plan this journey, we intended to do the same. With our late season departure, we weren’t able to take the time we’d wanted to prepare for the journey and as a result, the cost to have someone else build the cradle system for the boat (combined with the fact that our mast would extend forward and aft of the vessel by 10 ft each way) left us deciding to have our mast trucked to the end of the canal in Catskill, NY which would cost a bit more but we decided that the price was worth the time and trouble. We ended up settling in at Smith Boys Marina up river in North Tonawonda, NY. They cater to the power boat crowd but were incredibly welcoming to us sailors and treated us very well! They even lent us a company pick-up truck on our last day which we excitedly filled with groceries and supplies for the canal transit. By this point, I’d learned my lesson that the likelihood of finding a grocery store remotely close to a marina is slim to none so we stocked up for the apocalypse.
After two days at Smith Boys and a quick stop for fuel, we almost missed the underwhelming entrance for the canal. I’m not entirely sure what we were expecting but the tiny sign that marked the entrance was not much larger than a door mat and if you happened to blink, you’d have missed it all together. But we were in. We were on our way and even with the mid-day start, we’d planned to travel through two locks and motor 18 miles to our first destination in Lockport, NY. The Erie Canal is marked for a transit from East to West so as we go, we are working our way down from lock 35 to 2 (lock 1 isn’t actually part of this system… long story).
After that lock in Buffalo, we were feeling confident in our skills, maybe too confident. Lock 34/35 are connected so you go from one right into the next and step your way down to the canal on the other side. Lock 35 went just fine and we went right into lock 34 where a wind tunnel swept us away from the wall while the lock was emptying it’s contents. Luckily Angie was still holding her line at the time and we quickly learned that line handling isn’t as easy as it looks! I have a mad respect for the folks that take this trip solo (note: Jim from SV Grace Abounds)!!
That night, 18 miles up river in Lockport, we met Jeff and Tricia on ElixirV and had our first official “come aboard” moment. We enjoyed an evening with this young Canadian couple who were on their 10 month honeymoon heading for the Bahamas. They were clearly smarter than us!
Our goal was to travel about 40ish miles each day as long as Shane wasn’t stuck in a meeting that couldn’t be taken while underway although that didn’t always stop us and he found very creative places to conduct business while we moved on.
The next morning we left early from Lockport to head for Brockport, NY. Brockport was sweet little college town and ended up to be one of our favorites along the canal. We settled in earlier than we thought and made our way to the bar, which was about 50 steps from our boat. As we enjoyed our second evening on the canal, we watched the bridge rise and our new friends come drifting up to the wall behind our boat! Jeff and Tricia made it just in time for an evening drink and dinner.
There are some folks that transit the Erie Canal over and over. It’s a vacation destination and there are outfits that rent canal boats so that people can just cruise up and down the canal visiting these quaint towns and have the full “canal” experience. Angie and I were invited onboard one of the canal boats for a tour by another couple that had rented one for the week. I swear, it is my dream mini house!!! They are so charming! It was like a little cabin inside with the tongue and groove wood all over the walls and the perfect size for two. It’s now on my bucket list of things to do in the future! (photo on the right was lifted from the company website at midlakesnav.com)
The towns along the canal are set up with public walls where you can tie up your boat and hop off to explore what each village has to offer. It’s generally free or a small donation/fee and you have an option to pay for services such as power, water and restrooms if needed. We generally opted for the extra services as we left before our boat was really ready to fully service three of us comfortably (ie: hot water, adequate holding tank, water maker etc…). Being able to just hop off the boat and take a few steps to a pub or coffee shop was such a spectacular perk on the trip!
Our next stop on the canal was Fairport, NY. It was an admittedly spectacular waterfront filled with the usual amenities and an exuberant dock master named “Dockmaster Dre” who flagged us in to a nice spot along the wall, filled us in on the location of the coveted restrooms and collected $30 for our overnight stay. It was unseasonably hot that afternoon so we spent most of that evening coming up with ways to stay cool such as hanging towels around the cockpit for shade and consuming copious amounts of ice in our drinks.
The next day we took off for our next stop which was undetermined at this point. It was a Saturday so we could make some miles but the bridges and locks don’t open until 7am so at about 6:55 we’d hear a mass of engines starting up to make the first bridge of the day. If you travel with this group, you will all be puddled up at the entrances of the locks and sharing them with several other boaters. If you wait until a half hour later, you get most of the locks all to yourself (wink, wink). So you guessed it, that’s how we roll. It makes for a peaceful trip in the canal and it seems as if you have the place all to yourself as you cruise past the tree lined shore with only an occasional person there to wave to you as you pass. We stopped briefly in Newark, NY to grab some engine parts and stretch our legs. The town is known for their wall murals and they were definitely worth the stop!
Random scenes from the canal…
We settled on our next stop at lock #25 which we transited three times. Let me explain. We’d planned to go through the lock and tie up to the wall on the far side so that we could get an early start the next day. We went through the lock and on the other side, the walls were about 8 plus feet high. To tie up to these walls, Shane had to come along side the wall next to an imbedded ladder so I could jump to the ladder, climb up with a long line and tie to a bollard on the shore. A bollard which we were told by the unenthusiastic lock master #25 was freshly painted that afternoon “so be aware”. I did hop off, run to the bollard while Shane managed the boat and Angie fended us off the wall. I ran to the dripping wet bollard and while trying to tie up to it, ended up tripping on the surrounding cement and taking an embarrassing tumble. One that would come back to haunt me later that evening and I’m still suffering from today. Grumpy from the fall and not interested in climbing up and down that ladder all evening, I insisted that we go back up through the lock and tie up to the shorter wall on the other side which was about the same height as our side decks. We hailed the grumpy lock master who said he’d accommodate us “soon” as we were delaying his painting job and his timely exit for the day. We did end up back on the short wall and settled in where I started on our evening meal.
Not long after we arrived, another boat pulled in behind us to tie up on the wall for the night. To our surprise and joy, it was another Morgan 38 called “Mischief Managed” carrying the incredibly sweet crew of Justin and Casey (and their three cats!). They wandered over (just Casey and Justin) and we ended up spending the better part of the evening chatting and enjoying some home made soup. For a couple of home bodies such as ourselves, this new cruising life was quite a change and we were having the best time with the impromptu gatherings in the cockpit! We were also surprised at just how many young couples had wised up early in life and taken the plunge to simply sail away. Note: the bollard, the one that I tripped over is shown below and though it looks small, it’s about 20 inches in diameter… I hate those things!
The next morning the fog was so dense that we could barely see the lock in front of us so we delayed our start to Brewerton, NY by just a bit. That had us leaving at the same time as our new friends who managed to catch some fun shots of us leaving in the fog (thanks Casey)!
I’m going to take a moment to mention how quickly our priorities in life changed when we embarked on this journey. A good shower became something we no longer took for granted. Shower shoes (flip flops) are my coveted friend and a shower that provided unlimited amounts of hot water coming from a fitting with serious water pressure became a regular topic of conversation with the crew. Some of the showers that we came across were laughable so finding the good ones were something that we grew to truly appreciate.
Anyway, on to our next day on the canal. We were able to make it to Brewerton, NY which was the last stop before entering Lake Oneida. We stopped to fill up on diesel and get some ice and ended up staying for the night at the Winter Harbor Marina. It is worth mentioning that they had the cleanest bathrooms and very nice showers!!!
After Shane’s Monday morning meetings, we set out to cross lake Oneida. As we were heading into the lake, we saw our friends from ElixirV returning to Brewerton. The waves were far too choppy to navigate with their mast cradled on the deck so they were returning to wait it out until the lake calmed down the next day. Very smart decision as many masts were laid to rest at the bottom of that lake by less fortunate decision making. We made it to the other side of the lake in just a few hours but Shane was called into meetings for the rest of the day. He immediately exited the boat once we pulled up to the city wall in Sylvan Beach in search of some wifi. When he returned, unsuccessful, Angie and I climbed off and started to explore the town’s unique feature, a lakeside amusement park. It was closed for the season but still fun to wander through none the less. As Shane’s meetings continued, Angie and I enjoyed a great meal at restaurant just outside our boat. Overnight, the wind changed direction and it started to rain… hard
What I remember about the next day was that it was wet, and cold and that when we finally made it to Utica, NY, we were a little shocked that the city wall would cost us $30 a night for just power (and maybe water) but no restrooms… no shower, no toilet, nothing. That’s a lot to pay for water and electric for the night. So we basically just picked that spot so we wouldn’t have to travel late into the evening.
Our trip from Utica to Ilion, NY was on a Wednesday. That’s one day of the week you either love or hate. It’s good or bad. Half empty or half full. Well, our experience on this particular Wednesday could also be seen the same way. As we rounded our first curve in the canal, we caught sight of the minefield of logs floating in the river and we could see a game of Frogger in our future. While Shane and I heatedly argued about how exactly to navigate through this minefield, Shane says “my steering went out, I’ve got nothin'”. Perspective kicked in, time to work together. It’s in those moments where I am completely useless and he shines as a captain. Angie jumped on deck with a boat hook and fended off the attacking logs while Shane dug our emergency tiller out of the depths of the cockpit locker and switched us from forward to reverse trying to keep us from drifting to shore. Within just minutes, we were back in business.
He had the tiller in place and the steering wheel off and now we were able to move freely trying to avoid the logs. That brings me back to the half empty/half full statement. One could say that this was a bad experience but I like to think of it this way. It could have happened at an even worse time (bad seas, in a lock, on a risky approach) so the fact that we were slowly moving down a river, albeit a log filled river, ended up being a good thing. I also remembered when Shane put the tiller in the cockpit locker. It had been inside the boat when we bought it. We had moved it from one place to another trying to find a good spot where it wasn’t in the way. I kept thinking “seriously, can’t this thing just go way down under the other stuff, out of the way?? When will we ever need it??” I’m glad he ignored me and put it right where he did. As we talked to other sailors along the way, we found out that their emergency tillers were either in far less accessible spots or left behind because they found them to be as much of a nuisance as I did. One other notable thing from this portion of the canal, we saw a swimming squirrel. It was the oddest thing. He was on a collision course with our boat trying to swim across the canal and we laughed at the fact that it doesn’t matter if you are on land or water, it seems like the squirrel will try to get somewhere just as you are arriving at that spot.
A glimpse of a lock passage… if you haven’t seen one
That night we docked in Ilion NY as did Jeff and Tricia from ElixirV. As Angie and I tackled the growing laundry situation and had, you guessed it, long hot showers, Shane went below to attack the broken steering cable and try to rig up a new one with some spare Dyneema we had on board. Shane’s “MacGyver” skills were coming in handy and he had a new cable attached in no time!
We left Ilion with a new steering cable and a full tank of diesel headed for Canajoharie, NY the next morning. We transited 5 locks that day and when we arrived at our destination we were excited to see our friends from Mischief Managed (the other Morgan 38) tied up and working on some boat projects of their own! Casey’s parents were driving over to have one last evening with them before they continued on to finish the canal and we were delighted to meet and join them for pizza at the park. To top things off, just as the lock was closing for the day, Jeff and Tricia arrived and made for a fun night with lots of friends!
The next leg brought us a short distance to Amsterdam, NY where we would be in a good position to start the last day of our trip. It was serendipitous that we were able to finish this part of the journey with the people who’d been such a big part of our good memories in the canal.
We left Amsterdam, NY early as this last day would include the “flight of 5” locks. You need to arrive early enough to transit all of them at once as they are stepped one into the next with no stopping in between. As we exited the last lock in Waterton, NY, there was Vince and Julie (and their international dog of intrigue, Scupper) from “Free Spirit” who we’d met in Ashtabula, NY near the end of our trip across Lake Erie! Julie had been sending us updates along the way through the canal as they were always a day or two ahead of us. And now here they were, waving us in to our final stop at the end of the canal. We opened a couple of bottles of champagne to celebrate the occasion and couldn’t have imagined a better group of people to celebrate with!
Everyone who transits the Erie Canal has a story to tell. It isn’t a place that you can experience without one. It’s why so many folks do it over and over. As we toasted the end of our journey, we went around the cockpit and told of our favorite memories. The personal connections that we made along the way were mentioned over and over again. I’m sure that will be the case as we continue to cruise but there is always something special about the first people you encounter when embarking on a new experience, when everything is new. Those people aren’t easily forgotten.
I also want to note our gratitude to our friend Angie who agreed to travel with us. She was told it would only be a couple of weeks and here we were, nearly a month later. She stuck it out with us. She was an awesome crew member and so much fun to have around! She isn’t pictured above as she was taking the shot but she was certainly a part of this group and our good memories. So thanks Angie! Your official crew hat will be on it’s way soon!