There and Back Again
On July 6th the lock above us on the Erie Canal finally reopened and we were able to leave Utica and head for Oswego. The waters of the canal still looked like extra thick mushroom soup, and we had to keep a careful watch for floating logs, some of them whole trees that were partially submerged. We passed dredgers working on silted up areas, and other barges with workmen still gathering and cutting up debris.
Oneida Lake has a reputation for building up waves when the wind is from the west, and we wanted no further delays so we ran wide open (that means pushing the engines to just below their top speed, which gives us about 18 knots, as opposed to our normal travelling speed of 7 knots) and cut the journey time in half. Brewerton is on the northern shore of the lake and was our next stop. There is an attractive town dock, but we wanted to stop at one particular marina that Dick is planning to leave the boat with at the end of next season. They have heated indoor storage, so you don’t need to go through the rigmarole of winterizing. They also have excellent fuel prices, so we made a point of filling up!
North of Brewerton we passed a number of very nice cottages and full-time homes on the side of the canal before arriving at Three Rivers, the junction of the Erie and the Oswego Canals. The Oswego Canal was completed 3 years after the Erie Canal opened, and allows boats to travel directly north into Lake Ontario. 8 locks later we arrived in Oswego. Interestingly, the last two locks are right in the centre of town, and as you walk over the bridges you can see how the canal and the river have been kept separate.
Oswego is another old town that was once wealthy and has now lost much of its industry. In addition to being an important freshwater port it was also a railway hub. There were grain elevators and mills, the Kingsford starch factory, and textile mills. Today there is still a cement depot in the harbour, but most of the mills and factories are gone. We tied up at the Oswego marina, and prepared to leave the next morning for Kingston, Ontario.
There is a historic fort at Oswego that we did not explore on this visit, but there is also a marine museum, where we saw one of the tugs that was built for Operation Overlord in WWII. It was used to tow barges of ammunition and supplies in convoys across the English Channel to the Normandy beaches in 1944. After the war, she continued to work as a harbour tug for more than 40 years. We also went for a harbour ride on a solar powered wooden boat. This was an interesting experience, the boat was quite dreadful, all plywood, and extremely basic. The captain and his wife are very enthusiastic about their various projects, this one being their second solar powered boat, and a third is currently being built in a shed at Kingston (NY) harbor. We had seen the project when we stayed at the museum on our outbound journey. Dick was fascinated by the technology, whereas I was amazed at the complete lack of any safety briefing or life jackets on board when they are taking out members of the public. The liability issues are staggering. However, it is certainly a good cause. The boats are built by middle school students, closely supervised of course. It is often the first time any of these young people have ever picked up a hammer and nails.
Our original plans were to explore the Thousand Islands as far as Cornwall, and then work our way west towards Hamilton, eventually circumnavigating Lake Ontario before heading south towards home. Alas, the many weather delays changed these plans, but we were still expecting to cross Lake Ontario to Kingston and have time to visit Trenton, and friends and family further west. For once the weather was in our favour, and at 8am Dick turned on the chartplotter to plan the route to Kingston. At one mile outside Oswego Harbor, all the chart detail stopped. It wasn’t quite “Here Be Dragons” but close! When we bought the boat, everything had been equipped to such a high spec that it never occurred to Dick that the previous owner would not have bought the complete North America charts. With no paper charts for Canada either, we were not going to proceed, so Dick got busy and placed the order for the updated and complete charts, paying extra for “overnight” delivery. Nothing on the Navionics website suggested that they only process orders Mon-Fri (and this was a Saturday). Dick waited in vain on Sunday for the new charts. Then we gave it some more thought and realized that even if we did get another weather window we would risk getting stopped more times while travelling around Lake Ontario, and with a deadline for being back in Hilton Head we decided that Oswego would be our turnaround this year. Dick rented a car and visited his Mum while I stayed to keep an eye on the boat and Mr Tucker.
The evening before, we had one of the best get-togethers of the trip. We had enjoyed docktails with a group of Loopers earlier on the Erie Canal. The rest of that group got stuck in Ilion, two locks south of where we were in Utica, but once the canal reopened we all met again in Oswego. We gathered at a local restaurant and enjoyed a very pleasant evening of chat and consultation. One of the group is solo on a sailboat, he is Australian and has been planning to do the loop for nearly 15 years. He had spent time in Long Island Sound, and is now making his way around the loop with the rest of the pack. It was a great evening. The next morning, I stood on the stern of our docked boat and waved goodbye to all our new friends as they headed out across Lake Ontario and onwards.
Dick enjoyed visiting his Mom, and made a detour on the way back to shop at Wegmans, once our favourite supermarket when we lived in NY State. Then we waited some more for the not-even-close to overnight delivery of those pesky charts. They finally arrived at noon on Wednesday, and we decided we were quite tired of Oswego and ready to move on immediately!
On our return journey we are planning a combination of repeat visits to places we enjoyed, and new stops just to make things different. One new stop was Amsterdam on the Erie Canal. Another once wealthy town, but they have made major efforts to make it an attractive destination for boaters. There is a beautiful park on the river, with a bandshell and concerts weekly through the summer. You can tie up on the wall right in the park. Downtown has nicely restored buildings, but there is the usual sad problem that they are unable to attract a good mix of shopping and residential, so many of the shops are empty and those few that are open are a strange mix of tattoo parlours and wedding shops. East of Amsterdam we stayed overnight at the Schenectady Yacht Club, probably the prettiest location on the Erie Canal as the canal/river cuts through a gorge. After locking down through the final 6 lock flight we stopped again at Waterford. This is another village that has made efforts to attract boaters to the waterfront and the historic downtown. By this time, I was quite glad to get out of the Erie Canal and back into the Hudson River, with only one last lock to transit.
As we approached the lock above Albany, we watched replicas of the Nina and the Pinta travelling upstream on their way to Oswego and parts west. They looked quite strange with all their masts and rigging stepped and piled up on the decks. The authenticity stops at propulsion… they both have efficient modern motors to supplement their sails.
Our air conditioning pump was unreliable, so we stopped for an extra couple of nights at Shady Harbour in New Baltimore on the Hudson. The mechanic was able to get a replacement quickly. We certainly did not want to be travelling south into even greater heat and humidity without working air conditioning! That said, the other day this area had higher temperatures than Hilton Head, and the humidity was over 90%. I used the time to scrub the fenders with soapy water to get off most of the crud from the Erie Canal, and then Dick gave the boat a good wash as well.
I like the Hudson River. There is so much history and it is both beautiful and interesting with all the commercial traffic. One morning the river was completely covered in fog, and a big tanker passed, blowing its whistle every few minutes to warn oncoming traffic. We later read about the requirement for all cargo vessels to take on board a Hudson River pilot. He climbs up the side of the moving vessel in New York Harbour, and takes the ship up to Hyde Park, where another pilot takes over so they are always fully rested. Most of these ships have foreign crews, and many have never been through New York or on the Hudson before. The pilot must know how to navigate every kind of vessel, and these ships are huge! They run right through the winter, sometimes travelling in convoys because of ice.
We stopped again in Kingston, having enjoyed the Marine Museum and waterfront so much earlier. This time we tried the other restaurant we had noticed, and had the best meal so far on the trip. I had lobster ravioli that I will dream about for some time!
Our transit of New York Harbor was uneventful, if lumpy. This time most of the ferries and all of the NYFD vessels that had created such huge wakes on our outbound journey were not there, but there were a lot of sailboats enjoying the brisk winds. They all have the right of way when they are under sail, so we had to keep a sharp lookout and try to anticipate where they might be going. There was also very confusing chatter on the radios, with crackle, jargon, and add strong New York accents into the mix and it was impossible to work out what was going on and what we should be looking out for. After we had passed under the Verrazano Narrows bridge and were heading west along Staten Island I looked back and could see what we missed. There was a huge autocarrier that came out just behind us, followed by another big tanker. Timing is everything, it would have been nasty to try to get out of their way in the busy harbour!
We are now in Great Kills, New Jersey, again waiting for a weather window. It is incredible how weather dependent we are. We knew intellectually that we would experience delays, but actually living it has been a big surprise to both of us. It is not rain we worry about, it is winds and currents, as well as fog and thunderstorms. The winds and currents must both be in our favour before we can set off. We already know how unpleasant (and scary) it gets if we are caught in unexpected conditions. Even when everything is “perfect” it can be very bouncy at certain times such as when we came through New York Harbor with the tide behind us, the wind in front of us, and the East River outlet on our beam! We arrived here on Saturday and don’t expect the conditions to be acceptable until at least Thursday. Of course, you have to keep checking, the forecasts change continually. I have three different weather apps on my phone, and Dick has at least two others, and we look at all of them two or three times a day.
So, what is a typical day on our boat? Well, of course it depends on whether we are staying in port or planning to get underway. I tend to get up pretty early, usually between 5:30 and 6:00. I make a pot of coffee and wash up any dishes from the previous day. We both like our quiet mornings, sitting in the cockpit with coffee and watching the world wake up. Dick gets out his laptop and catches up with news and weather, and we both read the daily digest of the Great Loop forum. If we are heading out we try to go sometime between 8 and 9am, but this might also be dependent on the tide. If the tide is against us we will take longer and use more fuel to arrive at our destination, so some days it is better to wait until it has turned. When the time comes the engines are started, various lines and fenders reorganized, Tucker gets his harness put on, and the gate at the top of the steps is put up. Once we are underway we can close up the cockpit and take away the gate so Tucker can come up and enjoy the wind and be with his people. Unfortunately, if it is a day on a canal with locks, Tucker has to stay below because we need to be able to step in and out through the doors. It takes two of us to hold the boat in position in a lock. I bring the boat in, and Dick catches the lock-side ropes or wraps a line around the pipe that goes down the side of the lock. Then I can shut off the engines and get out and hold the stern rope to keep us in place. When the lock doors open I start the engines and drive the boat out.
Most of the time Dick does the driving. The seat is too far back for me to really see well, so I have to stand to drive, which gets tiring very quickly. I also prefer Dick to take the helm in tricky winds or currents. He is calmer than I am, not to mention if somebody is going to bump hard into the dock because of winds or currents I would much rather it was him! Instead I stand at the rail and throw the lines to the waiting dockhand, or make my best rope-toss over a cleat if there is no help available. We have headsets that are appropriately called “marriage-savers” by other cruisers in the know. It means we can talk to each other through the various manoeuvers calmly instead of having to shout or make easily misunderstood gestures.
Days spent in port begin the same way, but after breakfast there are usually necessary chores to be done. I am lucky to have a washer-dryer on the boat, but it uses a lot of water and power, so we have to have access to dockside services. Dick vacuums thoroughly once a week, and every other week there is a proper cleaning to be done, just as at home. Sheets get changed, bathrooms are cleaned, the kitchen gets a deep clean, and the rooms are dusted and the wood polished. Dick also gives the outside of the boat a good wash.
We usually alternate dinners out with cooking on board. Mostly the restaurants that are walking distance from the boat are not exactly fine dining, but we have had some very good burgers and steaks. I try to plan ahead for about 7 or 8 meals to be cooked on board. When we are in a port Dick gets his bicycle off the front rail and heads out with saddle bags and a shopping list. We have enjoyed most of the meals that have been chosen from a fairly extensive collection of on-board cookbooks left by the previous owner, plus my own cookbook. Last night I made chicken breasts in a wine sauce with cheese and bread stuffing topping. Other successful meals have included cooking a whole chicken in the pressure cooker, various beef or pork stews, plus we have the grill and Dick will do pork or lamb chops as well as steaks. We have tried pizza on the grill, so far not very successful, but we will keep trying!
Our next couple of weeks are likely to be spent mostly in port waiting for weather. We will first have the trip “outside” down the coast to Atlantic City and Cape May. Then there will need to be suitable wind and wave conditions on Delaware Bay, followed by the several days of good weather we need to transit the Chesapeake. South of Norfolk we must again cross Albemarle Sound and the (dreaded) Neuse River. After that we are at last back in the ICW and can expect mostly smooth traveling through North and South Carolina to get home.