Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Erie Canal Transit - Reflections

Erie Canal Transit – August 2009 – Reflections


We transited the Erie Canal from Tonawanda (Buffalo) to Troy (Hudson River) in Reboot, a Catalina 42 Mark II Wing Keel sailboat.  We were 60 feet overall with mast down, 14 foot beam, 5 foot draft.  We had a total of two people on board.


Reflections, in no particular order of importance:

  1. No matter what the tour guides say this is a transit, not a cruise.  You motor 337 miles along a river that is almost uniformly covered on either bank by trees.  There is little or nothing unique to look at.  We hand steered the entire way, if your autopilot is on the blink I strongly suggest you get it fixed before entering the canal.  This transit challenges watching grass grow or paint dry for excitement.
  2. Crew:  You can do the transit with two people but three will reduce the tension level in the locks.  The best setup in the locks is for someone fending the bow, someone fending the stern, and a third person grabbing and/or rigging the ropes/cables.  There is little or no need for anyone at the helm once the boat is stopped in the locks.  Actually, bring as many people as you can for entertainment – see #1 above.
  3. The Niagara River from Buffalo to Tonawanda is a trip in its own right.  There are substantial currents toward Niagara Falls (North.)  Coming westbound expect to be fighting your way up the River.
  4. In Tonawanda there are two places to take your mast down – Smith Brothers and Wardell’s Boatyard.  We took ours down at Wardell’s as the Smith Brothers crane was broken.  The going rate is $6.00 per foot.  You will also be charged transient berthing while you work on the boat.  The $6.00 per foot buys you the crane operation.  All de-rigging, building mast supports, etc. are not provided by the yard as part of the $6.00 per foot fee.
  5. Dennis Wardell runs Wardell’s.  He took over from his father who we also met.  He was very helpful.  He showed us a pile of previous supports.  We chose to adapt them rather than make from scratch even though we had brought the parts to make our own.  BTW, we brought 2x6’s and lag bolts.  In the future we would bring nails.
  6. Build your mast support high so that the mast is out of your way.  You do not want to be climbing over it for the 3 to 7 days it will take you to transit.  Also, make sure it is out of the way so you can work the sides of the boat.  You need to be able to go forward and aft quickly as you enter a lock.  Also, tie the bottom ends of the shrouds and stays to the bottom of the mast.  They are a very natural place to grab when walking fore and aft.  Ours were tied to the mast but not tied down.  As a consequence if you pulled on them they would simply come to you and provide no support whatsoever.  We left our spreaders in, we did not, but should have secured them to prevent the mast from rotating in the supports.  They were just too handy to grab and again provided no support, the mast just rotated.  Also, we purchased some equipment tie down straps at the local auto parts store.  They came in very handy holding the mast down to the boat.
  7. Locking thru equipment:  You should have enough fenders to line the side of the boat from bow to stern and two sturdy boat hooks and two sturdy poles (we used 2x2’s about 8 feet long.  The boat hooks are to grab either the cables or lines that run down the inside of the locks.  The poles are to push you off the sides of the lock.
  8. Locking thru:  Even though it was mid-August we saw very few other boats and only shared a lock three times.  Under these conditions the lock tenders let you pick your spot and side in the locks.  For a single screw sailboat I would recommend port side.  There is always a current pushing you toward the lock exit as you enter the lock so you will use the engine to back down.  On Reboot this throws the stern to port. So with a port tie the bow person can grab a line, the helm/stern person backs down, and the stern of the boat comes right against the side of the lock.  You will quickly discover that the most important thing is keeping the boat parallel to the wall so that the mast does not strike the wall.  Also, consider the strength of the people on your boat.  With an 11 ton sailboat it was a good thing that we had two strong men to get the boat positioned in the locks.  We were blessed with good weather and light winds.  It would have been more of a struggle in heavy winds.  Beyond that, you will figure out what works for you in the lock after a couple of locks.
  9. Locking thru – Federal Locks:  The first and last locks of the canal – Black Rock and Troy depending on your direction – are not run by the NYS Canal Corporation.  We found nothing to tie on to in the approach wall of the Black Rock lock.  The Troy lock has no ropes, cables that prevent all but the largest of boats from using more than one cable, and very nasty currents.
  10. Speed:  The speed limits in the canal are 5, 10 and 30 mph.  In other words, 4 knots, 8ish knots and faster than Reboot can go surfing down the back side of an ocean wave.  Distances that seem short on the charts (for example 10 miles) take a long time to transit.  Even with a fast boat you will find yourself constrained by the speed limit to long slow passages.
  11. Think camping:  The route passes thru rural countryside and a large marsh.  You will need to be prepared for the mosquitoes and other bugs that will try and drive you nuts.
  12. Weather:  In August it was sunny, very hot and very muggy or overcast and/or rain.  We preferred the overcast days by a long shot.
  13. Charts and guides:  The must have is the New York State Canal Corporation Cruising Guide to the New York State Canal System.  The NOAA charts do not cover a large part of the canal and were of no use as the Canal Corporation guide was so much better.  We had a copy of Dozier’s Waterway Guide.  It also stayed on the shelf as it was no where detailed enough.
  14. “Legs:” Make sure that your boat has the “legs” for the trip.  Much to our surprise getting diesel fuel was not easy.  There are long stretches without marinas and many of the marinas either do not have fuel or only have gas.  We also spent most nights without electricity.  Plot out your refueling strategy and remember how slowly you will be transiting.  The towns are quite a bit further apart than we expected and not all have good places to tie up.
  15. Operating:  The Canal operates from 7 AM to 10:30 PM (the hours vary by season and also we understand year to year.)  You do not want to try and navigate at night!  The marks are unlighted and steering by following a canal bank might easily run you over a shoal.  After storms the Canal is filled with natural debris, tree limbs, branches, etc.  You need to be able to see where you are going at all times.  Even so, expect that you will most likely hit a submerged something somewhere along the trip.  We stopped early in the evening after our one experience of trying to make the next town by dark.
  16. Dockage:  By far the cheapest and easiest is at the approach walls to the locks.  The lock tenders are very friendly.  We understand that some lock tenders will let you use the showers that are in the tender’s support building.  The next step up are those towns that provide free or cheap (e.g. $5.00 per night, $11.00 per night) transient dockage.  Usually these towns also provide electricity and showers.  The marinas are all listed in the Cruising Guide.  Be aware that some of the items listed on the guide are not very suitable.  For example, as we came into Schenectady NY there were floating docks indicated on the charts.  One was unreachable due to shallow water, the other did not look strong enough to hold our 11 tom sailboat.
  17. Local Knowledge:  Beyond a shadow of a doubt the lock tenders have it nailed.  Ask about anything – where to tie up, where to eat, etc. and they will know.  Part of the locking thru procedure puts you in face to face contact.  Be polite, ask your questions and expect a high quality of answers.  The restaurant recommendations we were given were great, as were the answers to the “how far you can we get today” and “where should we tie up tonight” recommendations.  The lock tenders are in constant touch with each other by telephone.  Tell each lock your intentions for the next lock and you will find it (at least most of the time) with the green light beckoning you in.


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