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Sailboat Cruising Can Be a Breeze
Volumes II, III, & IV of the Adventurous Four-Summer Trip
By Frederick B. Cooley
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 Frederick B. Cooley
All rights reserved.
Sailboat Cruising Can Be a Breeze (Cooley, 2010), the first volume sparked by this voyage, described
a) how we got into cruising relatively late in life, and
b) some of the wondrous adventures experienced, as well as painful lessons learned.
That first volume was based on our first sail on the boat new to us (Sept. 2010). We departed from Shelter Island, at the eastern end of Long Island, without the owner and his wife (my sister) aboard as had been planned. The first journey ended up about 500 miles and 16 ports later - cooling weather and health issues at home with my mother-in-law led us to put the boat up for the winter at Point Bay Marina on the east coast of Lake Champlain, south of Burlington. We'd departed Shelter Island going west on Long Island Sound, had a glorious trip around the bottom of Manhattan, then up the Hudson River to Lake Champlain. The mast had been stepped at a marina near Kingston with the unlikely name of Hop-O-Nose.
In the off-season, skippers tend to reflect on the previous year's fun (summer 2010), as well as discuss them endlessly with other sailors. And those discussions help crystallize some wisdom gained, or lessons learned.
For example, at the very beginning of the journey, leaving Shelter Island, we were telling ourselves, OK, we can do this, we've cruised a fair amount on the Great Lakes and a few shorter saltwater voyages. And,
- we're only going up a river for most of the trip
- we'll never be more than a half mile to shore on one side or the other
- it's difficult to get lost on a river, so we don't need an expensive set of individual charts.
And we did get to Lake Champlain with a minimum of difficulties, despite grounding a few times, either in front of the supermarket with a dock on the Hudson River or in wide parts of lower Champlain, which is more a continuation of the Hudson than it is a lake. We avoided rocks, fortunately. It is quite odd seeing a familiar store name from the river, tying up at their dock, and going in to shop from the sailboat. Disorienting is probably a better word, since we're used to doing that activity with an automobile, and rarely shopping by boat, unless it's a dinghy and we're going in for some supplies. We'd assumed we could find a marina that would haul out our boat and store it for the winter. The Canadian sailors reminded us we were going in the wrong direction, i.e., north, as they headed south to the Bahamas, Florida, or even Cuba to wait out the Canadian winter. We did find a marina, but hadn't arranged it ahead of time. We didn't even know which ones to call, and the only name we had was the one at the northern end that is quite a distance and expensive, since it is the first stop for Canadians coming south from the St. Lawrence River.
When the boat was left at Point Bay, a display of immense trust with a heavy dollop of naivete, we told them we'd come back for the dinghy, which was to be replaced (the sailboat would be picked up in late spring after repairs specified on the work order had been completed). The "dinghy" my brother-in-law said came with the sailboat turned out to be a heavy, 16 ft. deluxe RBI with a 50 HP Honda, electric starting, center console, etc. We'd decided it was too big for us sailors to tow out the St. Lawrence so we'd sell it back in Buffalo, using the proceeds for a smaller new RBI with a smaller motor.
Then a neighboring sailor in the marina gave us a ride to Burlington, since we had no auto, and we caught the ferry across the lake to New York State. The ferry dock turned out to be within 100 yards of the Amtrak station, making for a non-eventful return to our Buffalo home with one transfer at Albany to an east-west train from the north-south train. All way too easy, and it gave us a sense of security based on a distorted view of our competence and the ease of travelling with little planning, much less finding someone to care for the boat over the winter. We figured Point Bay would fix the misbehaving instruments and other problems. We got the replacement Avon dinghy at a discount boat store (Defender Industries, Conn.), put the carton with the dinghy on the roof (no rack, no cover) of our small Buick, the 9.8 HP Tohatsu motor in the trunk, and drove in the rain to Point Bay, Vt., hoping the carton wouldn't disintegrate too fast and drop parts all over the highway. Still too easy.
And, as we will see, the assumptions based on this first portion of the journey, as well as previous cruising experience, were neither 100% explicit nor necessarily correct. They weren't even always conscious – note the AA saying, "I didn't know that I didn't know." That's usually sufficient for
- day sailing,
- within sight of shore, and
- in good weather, and
- in a properly maintained sailboat.
B. The Plan
We have learned later that what we hoped to do is called by some "the Down East cruise", or reverse big loop – up the Hudson, out the St. Lawrence River, through the Maritime provinces of northeast Canada, and down the Atlantic Coast back to our starting point, the eastern end of Long Island. Our deceptively easy first trip encouraged us to think big as we went up the Hudson– "hey, let's go around all the land on our right." Looking at a map or chart, that would include all states east of New York (Vermont, New Hampshire, Mass., Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) plus all provinces north and east of New York - Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia. We hadn't decided if Newfoundland was in our commitment.
The standard Big Loop ("non-reverse", and far more common) is mostly power boaters who go up the Hudson River from New York City, turn left at Troy, and transit the Erie Canal to Buffalo, coming up the Niagara River from the western canal exit and turning west on Lake Erie. Or alternatively, they go up to Oswego through Oneida Lake and transit Lake Ontario, go south through the Welland Canal to avoid Niagara Falls, and end up in Lake Erie (350' higher) at Pt. Colbourne, about 16 miles west of the folks that went through the Erie Canal to Buffalo. From there, the boats travel west to the other end of Lake Erie, past Cleveland, and turn right to transit the Detroit River and shallow Lake Claire (past Detroit), entering Lake Huron and travelling north until it's time to make a U-turn between the two parts of Michigan (lower and upper peninsula1), past Mackinac Island, and head south on Lake Michigan, past Chicago, and connecting with the upper reaches of the Ohio River and then the Mississippi. From there, it's a long and wonderful trip south to New Orleans, at which point the boater either travels through the Gulf of Mexico east, going around Key West, or stays in the Inland Waterway as much as possible until cutting through Florida via Lake Okechobee. Either way, the cruisers arrive on the east coast of Florida and then head north on the Inland Waterway to complete the Great Loop in New York City.
Our plan was to go north through the Chambly canal and Richilieu River, from the northern end of Lake Champlain, and join the St. Lawrence River at Sorel, Quebec, considerably downstream (northeast) of Montreal. Do we speak French well enough to be understood yet? Despite Rosetta Stone, Non! We'd been married long enough so we knew ahead of time that my musician wife would be able to understand and speak the language much quicker than I, while I'd be studying the structure of the verbs and nouns, vocabulary, and all that good stuff, but my trying to speak it would elicit hysterical laughter: "Fred, the word "peu" is NOT pronounced as in "dog poo".
C. Leaving Point Bay on Lake Champlain, early summer 2011
As the reader will see, the second summer, 2011, was even more adventurous, not always by design. The record-breaking rains left such high water in Lake Champlain that the northern end of the lake was closed to boat travel: 1) the water was flooding areas of Quebec, and they had to close the canals; 2) the water was so high that even if one got through the canals, the water height kept most larger sailboats from going under the bridges, even with the mast down and sitting in a cradle. Our temporary cradle, for example, held the mast horizontally about 6' over the deck, to clear the cabin house and allow us to move about as we motored. With the deck already 6-7' above the water, the total height of 13' would normally be fine, but not this year, with river and lake levels anywhere from 7 to 15 feet above normal highs, at record levels.
So we plan to head for the Erie Canal, meaning we have to reverse the previous fall trip from Albany/Troy up into Lake Champlain. "Clinton's Ditch", as it was known in the 1800s (not Bill but DeWitt) runs from Troy NY on the Hudson River to Buffalo NY on the west end. The plan for us was south to Troy, west on the Erie Canal, motor to Oneida Lake, northwest through it to the connecting channels and rivers, and turning north up to Oswego, north of Syracuse. There, the expert mast raisers ("stepping" the mast) could make us a sailboat again, albeit at a location quite a few hundred miles (and thousands of islands) west of where we thought our journey would lead us. From there, we would sail on Lake Ontario through the Thousand Islands which marks the eastern end of Lake Ontario and the beginning of the St. Lawrence River, an awesome large river that was opened to commercial traffic with some huge locks, spelling the end of Buffalo's heyday as the transshipment point for grain and iron ore from the Midwest via the Erie Canal to the ocean port of NYC. The St. Lawrence runs almost one thousand miles to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, part of the Atlantic Ocean.
D. The reality
Two pieces of folk wisdom are in order:
1. If you want to make God laugh, try planning your life;
2. an office worker who had too much time on his or her hands coined the phrase, "Careful – if you assume, you can make an ass out of u and me." Oh yes, did it ever!
We had made two critical assumptions (details to follow), which interacted to put both us and the boat in considerable danger. The learning occurred after the events, changing future assumptions! The first critical assumption is elaborated below:
Most Americans have a bit of a love-hate relationship with their auto dealers. We may love our autos, but we have learned to be wary of auto salesmen and repair shops. Usually, a bad outcome is costly in dollars or emotions, although rarely in terms of safety. Even safety issues can be handled most often by stopping, not fun on vacation with a car full of kids and luggage, but life goes on.
Assumption #1: We may be less wary with boat dealers because the marina often looks large and substantial, and because it feels like we need their help more urgently. It is not as easy to pull your relatively big and expensive boat, especially a sailboat (as compared to power), into the dealer's repair shop when there is an operating problem. We also don't have much experience with boat dealers, since buying and selling boats is not as much a commodity process as with autos.
The company selling the boat may do very little service, the boat may be miles from the place of purchase, and there just aren't that many big boats, far less than number of autos or even homes. And the ones manufactured in another country, most likely Europe, are stranger still. For example, all the labels on our nav station electronics panel are in German only. So is the Owner's Manual. All this going on, and we've been on the newly-acquired boat for our first trip for a total of ten days, on our own....
And, clearly, the marina crew is going to favor their steady customers, the ones that rent a slip and pay for haul out and splash each winter, drinking with the owner at the clubhouse. So while I may pull into Point Bay marina, for example, relieved at docking and looking forward to solving all my mechanical and electronic problems at an approved dealer for Volvo repairs (we have a Volvo engine and instruments), they see a transient sailor who unrealistically wants good service quickly and cost-effectively and possibly does not want to hear that the eleven-year old instruments are shot, the wiring degraded by salt water boat usage; they don't want to tell me that service will be costly, probably slow, and possibly not fully correct. And I can't easily return to the complaint department if I'm 200 miles downstream. Uh-oh.
Despite their general appearance of helpfulness and good service, there were clues that someone wasn't well-trained, whether the answers to my questions – are you sure you can saw off part of the new fuel gauge sensor and it will still read accurately? – or leaving very expensive tools on the dock after the work. The foreman was upset when I returned them to the office, especially since most mechanics own their own tools and are very careful to recover them.
When the depth meter began misfiring not two hours south of Point Bay, and the fuel gauge swinging from zero to one-half, I convinced my bride that returning had few prospects of turning out well. After all, they had replaced the entire Volvo engine instrument panel, made sure the depth meter worked, and overhauled the knotmeter, assuring me the paddle in the water was now reading the speed properly.
#2: One reason we continued was my second crucial assumption: the lake is at a historic high water level, 5-12', so much so we couldn't continue north, as described. Therefore (uh-oh), the water should be much deeper over any obstacles in the river and we already came north the previous fall with hardly any problem. And since we're on a river from the lake to the Erie Canal, we are near the shore and can't get in too much trouble. Wrong, wrong, wrong. What an assumption, based on my ignorance of flooding effects, even while I was taking pictures of the flooded riverfront cabins, parks, etc. And we had been warned about the amount of deadwood floating in the water.
I can now offer the reader 3-4 lessons about recently flooded lakes and rivers:
1. the high water flushes years of accumulated deadwood, including whole trees, out of every creek and off every beach, and they are floating low in the water because, of course, they are waterlogged;
2. the flooding moves some buoys so the channel may not be accurately marked;
3. worse, the flooding moves sand and mud so the bottom has changed, and sandbars in different places. Not good with erratic depth and knotmeter, to say the least.
4. and least expected: the lock officials release or hold back water to keep the water at the safest level OR to flood particular areas so a state workboat which has run aground can float free again. Or to lower water to help work crews. The locks are run by the NYS Thruway Authority, who are not the most experienced maritime experts, nor the most highly motivated. Fishermen on the canals say, "Oh there's plenty of water – 2-3'." They are standing on a flat bottomed aluminum skiff drawing 6" of water as they tell me this. My shoal keel (short one) is a modest, to me, 5'2".
5. Stupid move #5: we didn't have official government paper charts since they cost $20 or more each and you use one every 15-20 miles. The book with lots of charts worked coming up, why not down? Later, I noticed the book has a warning: do not use for navigation (then why did they publish it?) Presumably on their lawyer's advice. No one looks at a series of grey pages to guide their sightseeing.
6. Local towns aren't keen to mark the dangerous spots if the river authorities don't. Their shops do well repairing hulls, replacing bent propellers, etc. One local said, oh yeah, there's an accident there almost every week during the summer. You have to leave that red mark on your port, angle across to the green on your starboard, then head back to the next red. If you go from red to red (as buoy systems are designed), you'll run aground on rocks.
Do we even have to tell you the outcome? Anyone could predict it having read the preceding few pages. Old Skipper Dumbbutt was going to go down the river with not much to rely on other than eyesight, and that was often distracted by photography. Looking at the sky the night before would confuse any weather forecaster!
However, (Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey theme song please), the Point Bay crew was willing to launch the boat the next day, and we didn't know when we would get back in the queue if we said no. It was dicey because the Travellift tracks (two I-beams on their sides) on the shallow lake edge were under a lot of water, and going off the track would be a major disruption of operations.
Excerpted from Sailboat Cruising Can Be a Breeze by Frederick B. Cooley. Copyright © 2016 Frederick B. Cooley. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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