Leaving Riverview Marina with our mast and all it’s accoutrements strapped down on Strathspey‘s deck, we gingerly pulled out into the main channel of the Hudson River and turned north. We swung in behind a big tug and barge and initially couldn’t tell if Strathspey‘s sluggish response to turns of the wheel were due to the whirling eddies kicked up by the tug or because she was unbalanced. Strathspey quickly settled into her normal rhythm and we motored north all day, very aware that if we had any engine trouble, we definitely could not simply pull out the sail while we troubleshooted any problems. All was well though and our first big test of how we’d handle big waves came almost immediately as a large sportfish boat roared by and kicked up a good wake. It was good to find out so soon in the day how that sort of annoyance would affect our steering and whether Strathspey would bob like a cork from side to side. Despite our strange configuration, Strathspey motored well and handled motor boat wake with ease.
That day we motored 40 miles north on the Hudson River, through the first lock at Troy and then turned left to enter the Erie Canal at the small town of Waterford. The Troy lock was our first experience of transiting a lock with our mast on the roof; an interesting experience at that. We’re especially glad that we positioned the mast so the top hangs out over Strathspey‘s stern rather than her bow. At the top of Strathspey‘s mast, we have a few expensive instruments that we’re partial to and would definitely miss if anything happened to them: wind anemometer (speed and direction), VHF antenna and mast head light. Over the years, we’d read all sorts of horror stories of people losing all their instruments because the mast was unstepped with the instruments hanging out, unprotected, 10 feet over the boat’s bow. Their instruments had suffered blows on various hard surfaces either while pulling into locks or when docking. While in the locks, as we rose up and the water rushed in, Strathspey inevitably did a sort of sideways teeter-totter with her midship as the fulcrum. The bow rode in close to the concrete lock wall and then the motion shifted enough to swing the bow out towards the middle of the lock while her stern rocked in close. The first time this happened, it caught us by surprise and the bottom of our mast gently kissed the lock wall before I was able to push off. Both of us realized that if the top of the mast had been hanging over the bow, all the instruments would have taken a good scraping. Over the past four days, we developed a good system to ride the locks and all was under control.
As soon as we left Waterford, we climbed the Flight of Five; a set of locks that lifts you up 165 feet through five locks all within 1.5 miles. We barely had time to relax and motor out of one lock before we had to pull into the next one. The locking in and out wasn’t awful but it sure felt like I was practicing for some sort of imminent exam. The drill was to motor into the lock and stop Strathspey so Blair, who stood midship, could grab one of the long lines that hang down from the top of the locks. The lines are spaced out so theoretically you can hold one from the bow and one from the stern. So as soon as Blair had his line, I motored slowly forward til the bow was close to the next line, stopped Strathspey and then scooted forward to grab the forward line while Blair used his strength to hold us in place.
After our first day on the Erie Canal, we realized that it’s not a canal like Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. It’s more like a mini-ICW but without the skinny spots. This canal is made up of the Mohawk, Oneida and Oswego Rivers. Periodically, in fast flowing and shallow areas, the route was diverted through an honest-to-goodness canal for a short distance and then our path would join up with the rivers once more. There was only one section about 20 miles long that was a canal in the true sense of the word. The scenery is easy on the eyes – rural, with the occasional burst of wind blowing through your brain as freight trains roar past or when the canal swings closer to I90. But for the most part, it was pretty quiet.
It felt like we followed spring north because even here on this waterway the lilacs, columbines and Lily of the Valley bloomed right down to the water’s edge. We know that all the towns enroute like our business by the way the lockmasters were upbeat and friendly, the way each small town along the way offered inexpensive dockage to entice you in for an evening and most especially by the way that the entire canal system was buoyed for dummies; if one buoy will do the job, they’ve installed three!
That first day, we covered 11 locks and traveled all the way to Fonda. I know that seems like a lot of locks but we were the only boat on the canal that day and as we arrived at each lock, it was sitting open for us. We felt pretty special as the previous locktender would have called ahead to say we were on our way. We’d simply motor into the lock and before we’d even grab one of the lines hanging over the edge to stabilize ourselves, the lock doors were shutting. Each lock-through took no more than about 15 minutes; mere hiccups in our day rather than events that slowed us down measurably. When we arrived at Fonda, there was no available dockspace and because at this time of year the locks shut down at 5 pm, we didn’t have time to get to the next good dock. We were just really bold and tied alongside a barge, empty and parked for the weekend. We had a quiet night in this out of the way spot but it was definitely a first for Strathspey.
Our second day, we’d covered six locks and 40 miles when we came upon the Ilion Marina. We stopped here for diesel and a pumpout and at $1/foot dockage with hot showers and laundry, we decided we’d gone as far as we wanted and tied up to their concrete wall. Concrete walls are your typical dockage spots here on the Erie Canal and if you find a spot with showers and actual power outlets, you count yourself lucky. The Ilion Marina was a good stop late on this Saturday night and likely an even better stop during the week when the Remington Rifle Company factory and museum are open for tours.
We took four days to travel from the beginning of the canal at Waterford to Oswego, NY. The trip was uneventful, even across Lake Oneida, the spot that’s flagged in everyone’s book to watch out for because on this shallow lake, high winds can whip up waves that wreck havoc on those unstable sailboats with horizontal masts. We can see that this would be a popular route in the height of summer, with all the free docks and well-maintained locks. We wondered at the lack of spiffy uniforms as each lockmaster greeted us wearing an assortment of what looked to be their change-the-oil clothes. Chatting with one of the lockmasters, we discovered that they are responsible for all aspects of their lock; maintaining the lock gears right down to cutting the grass and painting the gates their bright blue and yellow signature colours. This early in the season, these guys (and one woman on Oswego Lock#7) are in maintenance mode hence their apparel.
Right now, 160 miles and 30 locks later, we’re in Oswego, NY, a stone’s throw from Lake Ontario and Strathspey‘s home waters. We’ve traveled far and fast since leaving that remote island of Andros at the end of March. We had a few things egging us onward and northward; We wanted to be home to see our son off on his own adventure on the west coast of Canada. As well, for insurance purposes, we wanted to be home so our house wouldn’t stand empty. And, because this was a one year sabbatical only, we had to be home to take our place in the working world once again on June 1st.
It feels good to be back here on Lake Ontario again. This is one of the best sailing areas in North America with wonderful anchorages and clean, clear water for swimming. Tomorrow Strathspey‘s mast will be vertical once more and we will set our sails for Trident Yacht Club and home.