Ever since I decided to bring “Nor’easter” home via the fabled Eric Canal, I haven’t been able to get that song I learned in grade school, “Sixteen Miles on the Erie Canal,” out of my head! After our experience this past week, it’ll be with me for life,
We are currently docked at the historic Schenectady Yacht Club, which is built on the site of the original Canal. It even has one of the original locks restored as a well for their travel lift. Our blog followers may wonder if we were, in fact, being pulled along by Sal sixteen miles per day, since instead of being in Buffalo today as planned (where our mast was delivered last week), we are just 30 miles west of the Canal’s Albany entrance. Here’s our story.
We arrived safely at Riverview Marina and Boatyard in Catskill NY July 24, where the mast was pulled by a highly competent crew, making a normally scary procedure look routine. I spent two full days preparing the mast for shipping, which included stripping all the rigging from the spar, bubble-wrapping the headfoil, and tying everything together so it wouldn’t flop around going down the highway and chafe against the mast. Fortunately, the weather was cool and dry, and there were plenty of great hiking trails to entertain Jamie while I slaved away in the boatyard. After each day’s work, we tried local restaurants, both excellent, including “Ports of Call” just a few blocks from the boat yard, where we each enjoyed a huge lobster feast for $34 including corn, clams, mussels, potatoes, and 1.25 lb. lobsters cooked perfectly.
Departing Catskill without our mast, we motored just 26 NM to overnight ar the Albany Yacht Club, which was closed that day, then entered the first Erie Canal lock at Troy, just a few miles up the Hudson from Albany.
We faced our first lock with some trepidation, as my only previous experience was entering a marina through a small lock in Darwin, Australia last year, but the Canal lock masters are courteous, and the process is simple. Depending on whether you are going uphill or down, the lock chamber is either drained (uphill) or filled (downhill), the gate on the entering side is opened, and boats move in and the crew (2 people) grab lines fore and aft, which hang at regular intervals from the top of the canal. The canal walls are nasty with slime and grit, so big fenders are required to keep one’s hull unscathed. Once boats are inside, the gate closes and valves are opened to let upstream water flood the chamber. It takes about 10 minutes, amazingly fast since the lock can be 300’ long and up to 40’ deep. It’s an engineering marvel, considering it was first built in the early 1800’s.
Going through 6 locks in rapid succession, we travelled 34 NM to Arrowhead RV Park and Marina, which was a scenic spot along the Canal, but remote from anydining establishments, so we had dinner on board.
Since we had an August 4 date to restep our mast in Buffalo, we had to keep an aggressive transit schedule, starting each morning before 0700, when the locks first open, and running until 1900, when most, but not all, normally close. We hoped to make Little Falls Marina, 45 NM up the Canal, after Arrowhead, but when we arrived 1730 at the lock just east of town, the lock master failed to answer our repeated calls. Another yacht tied to the wall near the canal kindly informed us that this particular lock closes at 1700, so we joined our fellow cruisers along the wall and enjoyed another quiet dinner aboard.
We had met a Canadian couple on a 40’ sailboat at Riverview Marina, and they were a day ahead of us during our transit, regularly communicating conditions along the way. We knew from our research that there were some shallow spots, much less than the “guaranteed” 12’ throughout the canal system, and we had an online canal depth table showing trouble spots. I spent 3 hours during our night in Little Falls marking my electronic charts with the deepest routes through potential shoals. Our Canadian friends had warned us of a spot under 7’ they found just past Lock 19, and since we draw 7.2’, we were concerned. Excessive rainfall this summer has washed lots of mud from creek banks into the canal, and a particularly large creek has a confluence with the Canal just past Lock 19. We were ready for trouble, and found it.
Immediately after transiting the lock, about 5 hours past Little Falls, I slowed the boat to a crawl and gently probed the shoal, seeing 6.9’ on my depth sounder and felt the boat start to drag on mud. I backed off, tried another route, got the same result with 6.6’. On my third attempt more to the north, I tried to power through the obstruction and got stuck. No amount of RPM’s in reverse would free us, so I called Boats US, which provides free towing to members, and was told a boat would be dispatched, but was 4 hours away.
Since it was already noon, I didn’t want to sit there obstructing the lock’s exit all day, so I got busy. First I inflated our 9.5’ Achilles dinghy, then assembled our Fortress collapsible stern anchor, dug the 250’ spare anchor rode with 15’ chain attached from the bottom of our packed cockpit locker, had Jamie assist me in throwing the dinghy overboard, and loaded the anchor, chain, and rode ( what sailors call rope attached to anchors) into the dinghy. With the end of the rode attached to “Nor’easter’s” stern, I rowed downwind and down-current toward the lock, dropped the hook and pulled myself back to the boat on the attached line. I wrapped the anchor rode around one of our large winches and started grinding (this is called “kedging,” for our non-boating readers). I loaded up the tension enough to know I would probably never be able to free that anchor from the mud, but the boat didn’t seem to budge. With a stream of boats preparing to exit the lock, I didn’t want to leave our anchor tackle strung across their path, and to add to our predicament, there was also a severe thunderstorm approaching. I dragged myself along the rode back to the anchor, and tried unsuccessfully to pull it out of the mud. As predicted, it wouldn’t budge.
Back to the boat I went, and had Jamie grab my diving mask. I was going swimming in the dark, dank, muddy Mohawk River. The storm was starting and wind increasing as I blew back to the anchor’s spot, pulled as much chain into the dinghy as possible, and with a 1 knot current running, I made sure to tie the dinghy to the anchor chain. Taking several deep free-diving breaths, I slid overboard and followed the chain down to the anchor’s shaft, which was mostly buried along with the flukes in solid river mud. I was only in 7’ of water, but as I planted my feet on either side of the shaft and started lifting, I hoped that I, too, would not end up stuck to the bottom. I had visions of trying to haul myself up on the anchor chain above me and having it all cascade upon my head, pinning me to the river bottom. After safely traversing three oceans, it would’ve been an ignominious fate to drown 7′ deep in the Mohawk River. Fortunately, on my initial descent, fueled by adrenaline, I broke the hook free, hauled myself back into the inflatable, and raised the anchor. I was almost euphoric.
By now, the rain and wind were building, and a huge barge, carrying heavy timber they had pulled from the Canal, was coming our way. As I was nearing the Swan, dinghy full of anchor and rode, I noticed “Noreaster’s” bow was swinging downstream. The combination of my kedging efforts, the wind, and current had floated her free! I quickly lept aboard, Jamie secured the dinghy, and we got underway before drifting into the lock immediately behind us. As I slowly motored toward presumably deeper water near the lock, we got stuck again. The barge, which had a powerful engine, graciously towed us off the shoal.
We were still in a bit of a pickle, as the storm was intensifying, the lock was closed, I was facing downwind and down current with a barge to starboard and shallow water to port, with a solid wall 100’ ahead. The barge captain, highly competent, quickly maneuvered and secured his vessel to the south wall, giving me sea room to pivot my boat 180 degrees (without a bow thruster, I might add), back upwind to tie alongside the barge and ride out the storm.
Before our kedging exercise, Jamie and I rowed around in the dinghy using a 7’ boat hook to plumb the depths around our boat, finding nothing passable across the channel. Once we were safely secured with the barge, we decided we were done with the Erie Canal. Jamie had already started finding a boatyard in Albany that could haul out our boat, and I started talking to truckers to transport the boat to Buffalo.
For those of you who were culturally deprived by not learning the “Erie Canal Song” in grade school, here is the first verse:
I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal, sixteen miles on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal, Sixteen miles on the Erie Canal
We’ve hauled some barges in our day, filled with lumber coal and hay
And we know every inch of the way, from Albany to Buffalo, Loooo
Low bridge, everybody down, Low bridge ’cause we’re coming to a town
And you’ll always know your neighbor, always know your pal
If you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal.