August 13 The Erie Canal

The Erie Canal cuts off about 1,500 nautical miles of sailing up around Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but it exacts a cost of its own. The 130 mile run up the Hudson River to the beginning of the Erie Canal is a beautiful waterway and not at all what we expected. First, it is an estuary, not a river. Which means saltwater all the way up to Albany, where they have a four foot tide over 100 miles from the ocean.

Now, we assumed that it was going to be a lazy, even tedious, six days motoring across upper New York State. Not entirely the case. Day 1 was a little intense just because we ran through five locks in the first two miles and passed through a dozen locks total. Here’s the first locks that we passed through, called the Waterford Flight.

The Erie Canal in its original form was only 40 feet wide and 4 foot deep. It was later enlarged and rerouted to accommodate much larger vessels. Today it promises a nominal 14 foot depth unless noted otherwise. And there are hundreds of “otherwises” listed in a table that tracks the depths of the canal along its entire 340 mile length. We had the opportunity to discover many of them for ourselves.

On Wednesday we were just entering Lock E15 when the bow thruster started sounding like a garbage disposal. Which, in reality, it was. It caught some floating debris and the prop came loose when the shear pins sheared. No bow thruster for the rest of the canal! It made maneuvering in tight quarters (like lock chambers) much more interesting. Later the same day, while passing through a canal guard gate, we ran over a log floating just below the surface, taking out the Garmin sonar transducer underneath the hull. In itself, not terrible, although expensive. But, with the mysteries of marine electronics, it also fouled up the autopilot, steering the boat hard to the right and nearly into the canal bank. We stopped, drifting around in the canal until we drifted out towards the middle and dropped anchor. There was no one… no boats, no homes, no nothing in sight for a mile in either direction. Just the canal, trees, and Celtic Cross floating in the middle of the canal. Day 2 was not going all that well. With the rudder stuck hard to starboard, we thought debris had caught in the rudder and needed to be cleared. Diving on the rudder, we found nothing! A call to Bill Rouse (my Amel mentor in Houston, TX) helped immensely. He suggested that it sounded like the autopilot had gone haywire. How he drew that conclusion I have no idea, but he was right! Turn off the electronics and all of a sudden the helm worked once again and we were on our way.

Day 3 began at Lock E18. After passing through the lock it looked like an easy 12 mile run up to the next lock. Then we felt the keel bump the bottom of the canal! Not good. The conventional wisdom is when you run aground… STOP! Don’t dig your self in deeper! However, Steve, John, and I all recognized the same consequence almost immediately. What were we going to do? Back up?!? And do what? Going back the way we came only added… oh… 1,200 miles to the trip. THAT wasn’t even an option. For the next 2 or 3 miles, we bumped along the bottom of the canal with our seven foot keel, never getting stuck, but just waiting for the time when we would grind to a halt. Definitely need some dredging along that stretch. We crossed Lake Oneida later that day and spent the night tied up at the free dock in Bremerton. We were greeted almost immediately by a local family, with Genesee Beers in hand, shouting that our Celtic Cross was “a sign” because we showed up on their Irish father’s 90th birthday. Well, they had beer, so who were we to argue? At least they didn’t expect us to drive the snakes out of Ireland, or Bremerton, or their back yard. They took some photos, offered us beer, and sat and chatted for a while.

As we were approaching Rochester on Day 5, the Lockmaster at Lock 33 asked what we drew. When we said seven feet he told us we would likely run aground when crossing the Genessee River a few mile ahead. More than that, an earlier sailboat drawing a few inches more go stuck and had to be towed off the sand bar with a tugboat. Well… shoot. In fact, his area supervisor was so certain we would get stuck that he offered to get one of his tugboats heading there because it takes them around 90 minutes to reach the river/canal crossing. Well, since we knew we were going to run aground, we could at least videotape it! Here it is.

We were nearly stopped in the center of the river, but thanks to the advice of the area supervisor, we knew where the best possible course was across the river intersection. Quite satisfying to call him back, thank him for the advice, and tell him his tug could turn around and go home. That night we finally tied up in Lockport at about 8:30PM. The following day, we ran the last 30 miles of the canal through North Tonawanda and coming out into the Niagara River, about 12 miles upstream from Niagara Falls. The current in the Niagara River is pretty impressive, going from about 4 knots at Lake Erie to over 40 knots just before the Falls. Now, the maximum motoring speed of Celtic Cross is just over 10 knots at full throttle. Where we entered the river the current was flowing at 5-6 knots. We had to go downstream a short distance to get to the marina where we could put the masts back up. Going downstream is easy. But… if you go too far downstream, a boat such as Celtic Cross cannot motor back against the current so we were rather cautious about watching where we were. Not a huge issue, but we were not about to be taking any sightseeing tours up and down the Niagara River! We were quite pleased with ourselves when we finally tied up at the end of the Erie Canal.

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2 Responses to August 13 The Erie Canal

  1. Leo & Thuy says:

    Dave, Thuy and I send our best wishes and congratulations… BHAG in hand, exceeding expectations! A great post, on what looked like an awesome adventure… offloading and onloading two complete mast assemblies in the middle of all this must have added to the excitement (perhaps not excitement).

    Like anything in life you do… commitment is never in doubt… not that she is on Lake St. Clair, we look forward to the next installment(s)… never waste a day – get out there and have fun “Captain” :). All the best!

  2. Jim Best says:

    Loved the video. We will be making the trip in the spring.

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