(a note for our regular readers: I am adding the earlier issues of the blog from 2018 and 2017 that were published elsewhere. Apologies for the blog now being somewhat out of order!)
We are now about 2 and a half weeks into our summer 2017 voyage.
We left Wexford on June 1st, with Tucker on board and looked forward to our first night out at anchor in a creek just north of Beaufort. There was a small setback when we discovered that our chosen creek was silted up and no longer accessible, so after a slightly frantic search of our two guides, Waterway Guide and Skipper Bob’s, we chose an alternative slightly farther north and the rest of the evening was uneventful. The next day we travelled through Charleston, towards a planned anchorage north of the city, and “enjoyed” a two hour unplanned excursion up one of the rivers when the helmsman failed to notice the location of the magenta line on the chart.
What is this magenta line? It is the centre-line on the chart of the Intracoastal Waterway, and is a big help in staying on course. The boat has an electronic chartplotter, so we mostly don’t use the big paper charts. We use autopilot, but the helm chair is never empty and it is important to remember that the actual markers in the channel are always to be followed when they disagree with the magenta line!
After Charleston we carried on north, staying with our planned itinerary and stops until we got to our first weather delay. High winds and thunderstorms were forecast, so we extended our stay in Southport, North Carolina to 3 nights. The thunderstorms never materialized, but it was very windy the first evening and I would not have wanted to anchor in that wind.
The next and possibly most valuable lesson was two days later. We set off across the Neuse River, and after his miscalculation in Charleston Harbor, Dick was determined to stick with the magenta line. Well, we headed straight up the centre of the very wide river, and conditions got worse and worse. The boat pounded into the waves, stuff fell down inside, and Tucker was terrified. I had to bring him up into the cockpit and hold him on my lap. The dinghy jumped off its support and hung in the davits (fortunately it stayed there), and Dick’s bicycle looked as though it was about to flip over the front rail at any minute. We later discovered that most of our fresh water tank had emptied out of the overflow valves it was so rough. There was a certain amount of language from me, and Tucker said some very rude words in Cat, but to give credit where it is due, Dick remained calm and handled the rough seas very well, and eventually we were able to make our way into a wonderfully quiet river and anchor for the night. Two lessons were learned. One, be sure of your actual destination, and two, when it starts to get rough, and you can see it will only get worse, turn around while you still can and find a place to wait out the weather.
This lesson stood us in very good stead on the Chesapeake.
However, before the Chesapeake, we spent a nice evening in a very small marina on Alligator Creek. Just five boats were in, and amazingly, three of them were Endeavour TrawlerCats. The other two were the newer style with the high bridge, a 48 and a 40. There are very few of these compared to other manufacturers, so to see three at once was most unusual. A very pleasant evening was spent in the large upper lounge of the 48 chatting with the other owners and comparing experiences. Two days later, we came out of our anchorage to find both of them just behind us, so we led a parade of Endeavours through several bridges and a lock before we all went our separate ways.
Our trip through Norfolk was fascinating. Seeing all the navy ships was interesting in itself, but the town also has a dock with a number of tall ships. That day there was a special event of skipjack (working fishing boat) races, so the town harbour was full of hundreds of spectator boats of all sizes, some anchored, some cruising around, and it was quite a challenge to make our way through them all.
We stayed two nights at Hampton Yacht Club, and were delighted to welcome our friends Marilynn and Winkie on board for drinks and a pasta supper. Our first dinner party on board! I used to work with Marilynn many years ago at Brookhaven Lab.
The day we came out of Hampton we were just ahead of a warship. It was fascinating to listen to the radio communication between that ship, another warship that was already out to sea, and a tanker with a tug that was waiting to enter Hampton Roads. Later that day there was more interesting communication as NASA required all vessels to observe a ten mile exclusion zone where a rocket was scheduled to plunge into the sea. One owner of a pleasure yacht was most annoyed to be told to take a specific heading, not where he planned to go, and stay on it for 8 miles!
From Hampton we began our journey through the Chesapeake. The first night was at the quaint fishing village of Tangier Island, all crab huts and working fishing boats. Dick made me laugh. He read in the guidebook that due to a strong Methodist influence, the island is dry. He interpreted that to mean that there was a water shortage on the island. He was quite surprised when I explained that there would be no beer or wine with dinner that evening! The next day the Chesapeake lived up to its reputation for misery and a gale blew up not long after we set off. We had to travel well south before we could get close enough to the western shore to gain some protection, and it took a long time to make our way to Solomon’s Island. There we waited out the weather again, for two nights this time. The third morning was clear and the bay was (relatively) smooth, and we were able to get as far north as Rock Hall. From there we passed under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and then into the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
The C&D Canal is the busiest in the nation. It was first built in the 19th century and widened and modernized in the 20th. It saves 300 miles in travel between Philadelphia and Baltimore, and it is used by enormous cargo and tanker traffic. We were very fortunate that in the 12 mile length we met only one tanker, just as we were exiting the canal. They create huge wakes that reflect off the canal sides and make for an uncomfortable ride.
We are now at Delaware City, a very picturesque old town that was once an important port between Philadelphia and Baltimore at the mouth of the canal. The marina is on the only remaining piece of the original canal. The old canal was dug by hand by free blacks and Irish immigrants who were paid 75 cents a week. It was (is) 100 feet wide and 10 feet deep. We visited Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island, an important fort that was used to house hundreds of confederate prisoners during the civil war, and was again used for prisoners of war during world war two. It is gradually being restored, and is staffed by volunteers in period costume who take on the characters of the civil war occupants of the fort.
The marina manager gives an evening briefing for the transit of Delaware Bay. We were already aware of a small craft warning, but the briefing was very interesting. We learned how to interpret the symbols in the NOAA wind and current databases and how wind, fetch, and current combine to make huge waves. We are delayed again by high winds in opposition to a fast current, and expect to be here at least another night if not two. Apparently it is very late in the season for this strength of wind opposing the currents. Interestingly, there are 5 other “looper” boats (boats, like us, doing the Great Loop), here in the marina with us, so in spite of our late start compared to most of the pack, we are by no means the last ones heading north. I expect there may be some docktails and trading stories in the next couple of days while we wait for calmer waters in the Delaware Bay.
One of the more interesting boaters awaiting calmer seas is a man in a rowboat. Granted, this is not your father’s rowboat, it is a modern looking skiff style. He started his trip in Miami and is heading for New York City. He expects the whole trip to take him just 55 days. He says he usually travels 50 miles in a day. Amazing, comparing that to our usual 50 to 80 miles a day. I am not sure where he sleeps, but his boat is full of plastic bags with all his stuff. Needless to say, not the sort of adventure that would interest me!
Before I begin telling you about our spring voyage, I should start with a brief summary of the winter projects.
Dick was quite busy on Nine Lives this winter, working through a list of general maintenance and specific issues. Initially this involved various electrical systems. Hurricane Irma last fall fried the power cords and affected some of the systems, so a boat electrical specialist was called in and worked with Dick to sort out the issues. While working on that, they discovered that the solar panels were not charging the batteries, because the connections had been damaged by a lightning strike way back before we collected the boat in St Petersburg! The panel connections were repaired, the stereo was replaced, and a few other issues were also resolved. We had some concerns over one of the fridges not keeping cold enough for safe storage of food. Dick realized that the enclosure is too tight to allow proper air circulation, so he installed two small computer fans at the back. Those, together with a small battery operated fan inside the fridge, seem to help.
Some of the other projects included installing a CO2 detector and a battery monitor, changing the oil in both engines and the generator, changing zincs and filters, purchasing new dock lines and all sorts of esoteric boating tools, replacing the grill with a new infrared grill, and removing the diving compressor from the front storage locker, thus freeing up lots of space. Oh yes, replacing the “joker” valves on both toilets, an unpleasant job that Dick said was not quite as awful as expected.
Fresh water tank newly sanitized and filled, and a final thorough cleaning of the interior by our ever helpful Kathy, together with cleaning and waxing the exterior by a local specialist and bottom cleaning by the diver, we were ready to embark!
We left just after 10am on April 11th, and headed to one of our favourite anchorages at Tom Point Creek, north of Beaufort SC for the first night. Upon arrival we celebrated the start of the 2018 voyaging with a special bottle of Moet champagne that is intended to be served over ice, perfect for boating! We chased the spring north, and the different greens and almost autumnal colours of the new leaves on the trees was very pretty. Some nights were quite chilly, but for the most part the weather was perfect and there were few insects about.
Our first bit of excitement occurred just as we were approaching Charleston. The area is busy and quite complicated to travel through, with close attention needed to both the charts and the numbers and shape of the markers. Shortly before we arrived in the harbor, the chart plotter (the electronic version of the charts that we see on the screen in front of the helm, and that we use to see where we are and where we need to go) suddenly switched from the correct detailed chart to something like a broad diagram, completely unusable. The usual measures such as turning off and on had no effect, so Dick had to quickly switch to using the tiny chart he had downloaded on his iPhone. Fortunately I also had a book
of paper charts to follow along, so we were not entirely travelling by the seat of our pants! It was somewhat disturbing though, to watch Dick, the driver, who is far sighted, at exactly the moment when the most attention needed to be paid to the waters ahead, suddenly whip off his sunglasses and peer down at the tiny screen on his phone! Fortunately we managed, and continued to manage for the 3 days it took to resolve the issue! We did not repeat last year’s two hour detour up the wrong channel in Charleston’s vast and complex harbor, and arrived without incident at our second night’s anchorage in Graham Creek, south of McClellanville SC. We have stopped there twice before, but this time was considerably less enjoyable due to the continuous and dramatic swinging from side to side as the wind and the tide worked in conflicting directions. I enjoyed watching oystercatchers on a temporarily uncovered shoal.
Day 3 took us to Bucksport on the Waccamaw River, one of the prettiest sections of the South Carolina ICW. It is something of a red-neck destination, with bikers, a large RV camp and the docks, and a bar that can get very lively on the weekends. We stayed there two nights, to avoid thunderstorms and high winds in the weather forecast. We were not the only boats taking precautions, as we saw few northbound travelers the second day, and very few of the smaller pleasure boats that are usually out and about on a Sunday afternoon.
Monday morning we headed towards Myrtle Beach, arriving early afternoon at the marina at Myrtle Beach Yacht Club, which is confusingly located in Little River, well north of the city it is named for! There we met and chatted with our first Loopers of the trip. To remind you, “Loopers” are boaters who are either in progress or have completed America’s Great Loop, the 6,000+ mile navigation of the east coast, the great lakes, the central rivers, and Florida that is our 5-year planned voyage. These Loopers we met are rather special, in that they have come all the way from Adelaide Australia to make this voyage. They bought a boat in Florida and began the trip this spring. They plan to complete the loop in about 1 year, a not uncommon practice, and then sell the boat at the end of their journey. We enjoyed meeting them again at the Rendezvous in Norfolk, after leapfrogging their boat “Someday” several times on the voyage north.
From Little River to Southport, and then on to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, we enjoyed an uneventful voyage. For a change, this part of the Intracoastal Waterway has been recently dredged, so we mostly had at least 12 feet of water under the boat and few nerve racking moments when the water shoals unexpectedly. Last year we touched bottom several times in this stretch.
Wrightsville Beach looks very pretty from the water, and is quite a lively stop for boaters, but there is very little there apart from the marinas. I enjoyed watching several floating condos (large, 70 ft+ cruising yachts) dock on the other side of the river while trying to avoid being run into by yahoos in speedboats and the occasional kayaker. It is one of the challenges of being on the water. Kayaks and paddleboards technically have the right of way over motor driven boats, as do boats under sail, but the jokingly called “law of gross tonnage” means that the bigger the motor vessel, the longer the stopping distance and the less maneuverable it is. Unfortunately kayakers and paddleboarders often fail to comprehend this simple fact of physics, and one has to keep a sharp eye out and be ready when they suddenly decide to cross directly in front of your boat! Speedboats are a different challenge, seldom
having a radio on board, so you cannot contact them (not that any transmission would actually change their behavior), and thinking that because they get a great thrill out of bouncing over a big wake, so will you. So the sensible rule of “one hand for the boat at all times” needs to be followed when these idiots I mean fellow boaters are out and about.
Leaving Wrightsville Beach we were stopped for a couple of hours by the closure of the Surf City Swing Bridge, which only opens once an hour, and does not open at all when the winds gust to more than 30 knots. Our destination that night was the anchorage in Mile Hammock Bay, which is located in the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejune. The protected anchorage can get quite interesting. For some hours after we anchored a large military helicopter crossed back and forth just north of our location, and the next morning we could see a lot of trucks and men in uniform on the shore. A number of them embarked on dinghies and set off south, followed closely by a Coast Guard RIB. We could hear over the radio that both the Surf City Bridge, and the Onslow Beach Swing Bridge were closed due to high winds, so we were lucky to have passed through Surf City during one of their few openings earlier. Fortunately the winds subsided enough that we were able to pass Onslow Beach Bridge the next morning. It is possible that we could have slipped under those bridges at absolute low tide, but I was glad we didn’t have to try!
Onward, continuing north to our next multi-day stop at the very pretty and boater friendly Beaufort, North Carolina. Just south of Morehead City we passed through a shallow area, and suddenly the water was literally boiling with triangular fins of hundreds of manta rays. I can’t find anything on google to explain the behavior, other than the statement that they occasionally breach like whales for unknown reasons. They eat zooplankton, so they were not feeding on a school of fish. We could hear them thumping and bumping on the hulls. The thrashing lasted for about 20 yards, and then all was calm again.
At Beaufort we enjoyed a great meal in a restaurant we went to last summer, and met quite a few Loopers docked in the marina. The City Docks are perfectly positioned to enjoy the waterfront restaurants and shops, with the added bonus of tokens for free drinks at one of the establishments. On Saturday we walked over to the local farmer’s market. As often happens these days, there are few stalls selling actual produce, and more selling crafts, but we enjoyed it anyway. I found a great hand woven basket set on a lazy susan. It is perfect for holding all the various bottles such as olive oil, vinegars, sauces, vanilla, etc etc, that must be secured even inside a cupboard so that they don’t fall over and leak when the speedboaters I was telling you about get too close and create wakes big enough to knock over anything unsecured. I also found a very cute stuffed toy lion made of alpaca, to add to the collection on the bed, much to Dick’s disgust.
North of Beaufort begins the first of the sections of the trip that I worry about, being very unhappy when the waters get even a little bit “lumpy”. As a former sailor you would think I would be used to big waves, but I never was and am unlikely to ever enjoy such conditions. The first challenge was the Neuse River. Last year, due to a lack of experience and understanding of wind and wave forecasts, plus a mistake on the part of the helmsman in following the chartplotter, we were really beaten up on this very wide and shallow river that empties into Pamlico Sound. This year we were well prepared, had followed
the forecasts, and knew exactly where we needed to go. We have also learned that when crossing “big” water, Nine Lives rides a lot smoother if we go on wide open throttle (pretty much as fast as the engines will take us at about 18 knots) than if we go at our usual 7 knots trawler speed. Of course this uses a lot more fuel, but the comfort and the ability to skip across potentially rough water is priceless. So we skimmed across most of the Neuse, and ducked into the very protected harbor at River Dunes, a boaters resort and housing estate north of Oriental, NC. In addition to the sheltered harbor, the resort offers a nice lounge and restaurant to boaters, plus a small general store and the loan of a courtesy car if you need to pick up groceries. At River Dunes we found 7 other Looper boats, with another arriving the next morning, so there was much enjoyment of docktails and convivial meals in the restaurant. A difficult decision was made (on our part) to wait out a predicted storm for 3 nights at River Dunes, instead of trying to make it further north to Belhaven the next morning. As I said to Dick, “Eight other Loopers are unlikely to be wrong!” We had a great time, especially the second night which happened to be my birthday. We invited all the Loopers to join us on board Nine Lives for Prosecco and nibbles. The weather being somewhat rainy and cold, everyone was inside, either in the salon or the cockpit, and we discovered that 16 on board is friendly but quite doable! All gathered during a break in the rain for a picture on the dock. I thought it was one of the best birthdays, and certainly the biggest party I have had since I was a teenager!
Tucker spent the time staying at his other home with Shel and Sherry. They are delighted to have him for much of this year, and he is delighted not to have to join us on the hated boat. However, perhaps he missed us a little, Sherry sent a picture of him trying out boxes to see if he could mail himself to join us…
During the downtime at River Dunes Dick took the opportunity to launch the dinghy and start the outboard motor. Unfortunately, after much coaxing, all that was achieved was a vague Eh Eh ah ah, followed by nothing, so rather than completely drain the battery, Dick gave up and added that to the ever-growing list of things to sort out at the boatyard this month.
From River Dunes we chose to run as fast as possible and make a 90 mile trip up the rest of the Neuse River, the Pungo River, and the Alligator River to the marina at the mouth of Albemarle Sound. This allowed us to catch up some of the time we had lost, and by giving Elizabeth City a miss the next day we were back on schedule. We set off across the Albemarle Sound (the second of the potentially very wind tossed big bodies of water) early in the morning at absolute mirror flat calm. By the time we had crossed the sound the wind and waves were already coming up, and I was very glad we had decided to start early and run fast. We took an alternate route north this year, opting to go through the Great Dismal Swamp (yes, it really is called that), a large protected wetland south of Norfolk, Virginia. The Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest continually operating canal in the United States, opening in 1805, and never closed until 2016, when Hurricane Matthew did so much damage that the canal was impassable for a year. The original canal was dug completely by hand. George Washington was one of the early investors in the Canal Company, and helped to manage some of the building of the canal before he became disillusioned with the project and sold his shares.
North of Elizabeth City we joined the Pasquotank River, a beautiful waterway between treed banks with occasional well kept homes and cottages. At one point Dick’s attention was caught by a stick floating on
the water that seemed to move oddly. Rushing to the door we could see that it was in fact a large water snake swimming across the river. Gradually the river narrowed until we reached the South Mills lock. It was fortunate there was no southbound traffic coming out of the lock, because there was no room for another boat to pass us! This lock is the first that many Loopers encounter, and the lockkeeper takes great care to ensure that everyone is properly secured and fully understands the operation of the lock before he begins the 8 foot lift. Instead of 8 feet, this should definitely be referred to as 96 inches, it took 45 minutes to pass through this lock and the immediately following swing bridge!
Partway through the Dismal Swamp Canal is a stopping point with a 150 ft dock, a visitor centre, and a picnic area and rest rooms. On our arrival we could see that the dock was already full, with 2 sailboats and a large trawler, but fortunately it is common practice to “raft up” when the dock is filled. This meant we tied up our boat to the already docked boat “Exhale” a beautiful new North Pacific Trawler, and met the very nice Loopers who own it. Rick and Mary made us welcome and invited us for drinks aboard their boat. Trying hard not to be too envious of their large salon with two extremely comfortable recliner chairs, we enjoyed a convivial evening! The next morning we all set off in convoy through the rest of the canal towards our destination of Norfolk Virginia and the Looper’s Rendezvous. As the boats waited for the lock at the top of the canal and exited into the Deep River, we took pictures of each other and exchanged them by text messages. What a difference mobile phones make to all our lives!
Initially we found the much touted Great Dismal Swamp, well, dismal. For much of its length there is only a narrow strip of trees between the canal and a busy four lane highway. On the other side, again screened by a narrow line of trees, are farms and large fields, so I was doubtful (correctly) that we would see any sort of wildlife. As the clouds cleared the next morning and the sun came out the scenery also improved, the four lane highway gave way to a bike path, and the absolutely still water created gorgeous mirror image reflections of the vegetation on the banks.
A short trip up the Elizabeth River and we were at last in Norfolk. Mary from Exhale reports that the Blue Angels flew overhead to celebrate our arrival at Waterside, although I was busy helping with the docking and did not see them. However the next day Nine Lives was welcomed to Norfolk by a wonderful parade with representatives and floats from almost all the NATO countries plus marching bands from high schools and colleges around the country. I am certain our arrival was the reason for the celebration, surely it could not have just been the annual NATO Day Parade?
Not long after we docked our attention was drawn to a visitor on the finger pier right beside our slip. An otter came out onto the pier and proceeded to roll and wriggle on its back to dry its fur. Wonderful to watch, I have never seen an otter “in the wild” this close. I did not dare take time to drag out my big camera, so only phone pictures are available. After all the wriggling and rubbing, the otter went over and rearranged our neatly coiled dock line. “Awww,” I thought, “he is going to go to sleep on it!” Wrong. After disarranging it to his satisfaction, the little blighter first thoroughly peed on the line and then shat on it! Dick was, to put it mildly, not best pleased. After cleaning it off later, we discovered the next morning that the otter had returned in the night and decorated the line again. At that point we
changed the lines and secured them back to the boat. Apparently we were not the only boat in the harbor that was so blessed.
While we cleaned and polished the boat and prepared for the Rendezvous we were joined for dinner by friends Marilynn and Winkie. This was their second visit to Nine Lives, as we entertained them last year when we were at Hampton Yacht Club. It is always a great pleasure to meet and spend time with friends from the past. Marilynn and I worked at Brookhaven National Lab together many years ago.
The Rendezvous is a gathering of Loopers, future Loopers, and past Loopers and sponsors that takes place twice a year. There were 300 attendees, and 50 boats filled the Waterside Marina for the conference. Each day there were seminars on topics of interest, including slide show presentations on the route ahead, tips and tricks for choosing and buying the right boat, insuring it, maintenance, and even clearing US and Canadian customs. For 3 of the afternoons there is a “Boat Crawl”. Anyone who wishes to participate will open their boat for conference attendees to come aboard, see how we live on board, and ask questions. This is particularly valuable for people who are planning to do the Loop, but have not yet chosen their boat. Because we are somewhat unique, not many catamarans on the Loop, and we were the only Endeavour catamaran in the marina, we opened all three of the days. This meant that we didn’t get a chance to see the other boats, but we certainly enjoyed meeting all the people who came aboard. The conference finished with a Pub Crawl through four different nearby pubs. It was a very interesting and rewarding experience, and as we make our way around the Great Loop we will certainly attend future events.
On our last day we backtracked a little to Great Bridge, where Nine Lives is resting at Atlantic Yacht Basin. She will get a haul out and refurbishment of bottom paint, plus the list of projects that Dick either didn’t get to or could not reasonably do himself. Dick expects the work to be mostly complete by about the 24th of May, so he will return and stay onboard for a week or so then. He will re-provision, and also visit some of the Norfolk attractions we didn’t have time for. I am looking forward to a week on my own here in Hilton Head. Some time around June 1st, weather permitting, we will return to the boat and begin our summer voyage up the Chesapeake and onward to the Hudson River, Lake Champlain, Montreal, the Rideau and Trent Severn Canals, and then we will leave the Looper pack and head south to Lake Erie and the western end of the Erie Canal. Around September 1st we are booked at a marina in Brewerton, NY, for heated indoor storage for Nine Lives while we return home for the winter.
Our second day in Cleveland was spend exploring the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We both enjoyed the experience, although we were most interested in the songs and artists of our own generation. I expect some people could spend days there, looking at memorabilia. I found the clothes fascinating, it was hard to believe the performers were so small. There were dresses belonging to Diana Ross and the Supremes, and they were tiny! The clothes worn by the giants of rock and roll, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and many more recent rockers, show that these men had to be well under 6 feet tall, and extremely thin by today’s standards. There was an excellent film with clips of Elvis Presley, and we also loved a 30 minute film of Dick Clark and American Bandstand. In the evening we walked a little further into town for an outstanding meal at Blue Point Grille.
From Cleveland it was a long day, 100 miles, to Erie, Pennsylvania. This year we made a conscious effort to reduce the distances we travelled each day, so a normal day has been 30 to 40 miles. The weather was glorious, although hot, with a bright blue sky and a good forecast for wind and waves. With no rain in the forecast we replaced the side doors with the screens, which involves two large stiff zippers each side and one on top. Just after lunch the clouds started to build up and the sky got dark. We were caught in an afternoon thunderstorm with accompanying squall out on the water. The rain lashed the boat from the side (of course it was the side I sit on) and the cushions, carpet, and my chair with me in it, got absolutely soaked. Eventually I managed to undo the top zipper and secure my door at the top, but with the strong wind the only way it could even partly reduce the amount of rain coming in was for me to stand with my back to it and hold on. Drenched doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. Dick, from his dry seat at the helm, was highly amused. The rain, low visibility, and choppy water were not the only matters for concern. We had heard a securite announcement from a tow that he was headed into port with 3 loaded barges. We could see his position on the chartplotter, but he didn’t seem to be moving, and we were headed directly for him. Dick went well out into the lake to make sure we gave him plenty of room. We were able to see through gaps in the rain as we passed that he was indeed stopped, repositioning the tow from the front of the barge train (pulling) to the rear (pushing it into port). In due course the rain stopped, the waves settled down, and the sky was blue again. The carpet took a while to dry though, and it was surprising how very dirty that rain was.
Erie is the fourth largest city in Pennsylvania, and its only major port on the Great Lakes. As heavy industry and shipping have declined, health care, plastics, tourism, and service industries have taken their place. The harbour was interesting, divided into several parts, with the one we were visiting requiring passage under an elevated walkway that connects the Sheraton Hotel with the Bayfront Convention Center. Unfortunately, the harbour itself is still something of a work in progress, but in a few years it could be very pleasant. There is a large maritime museum and library, and a 187 foot Bicentennial Tower along the waterfront.
Our next stop was Buffalo and a grateful goodbye to “big water” for this year. We stayed at the marina that is closest to downtown, and once again were pleasantly surprised by the waterfront parks and development of what was once a very unattractive industrial port. The marina is situated on a spit of land that also includes a waterfront park with attractive gardens, a lookout tower, and two restaurants. From the marina it was easy access to an extensive network of cycle paths. We rode our bikes through what looked to be a very interesting naval museum, the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park. There are a number of decommissioned ships, including a submarine, a cruiser, and a destroyer. Further along the Buffalo River is the oldest active fireboat in the world. The Edward M Cotter was built in 1900 and rebuilt in 1953. In addition to being a fireboat, she is used as an icebreaker on the Buffalo River in winter. She has a colourful history, including being burnt out in 1928 while fighting a fire on a barge carrying 5,000 barrels of crude oil. Rebuilt, she continued in service, and crossed Lake Erie in 1960 to help put out a fire in grain elevators in Port Colborne, Canada. We only saw her at dock, but I gather she is a regular sight in Buffalo Harbor.
After a two night stop in Buffalo it was time to make our way into the Western Erie Canal. We had planned our usual 9am start, but we were delayed somewhat at the pump out dock by a very slow pump. As it happened, that delay didn’t matter, because of limited service at the lock on the Black Rock Channel. This three and a half mile channel parallels the Niagara River, and allows boats to avoid the strong current and rough waters of the river. It was built as part of the Erie Canal, but somehow it is no longer part of the Canal and the lock is a Federally operated lock. It is in need of refurbishing, so the operators have decided to limit openings, and while two different phone numbers are provided to call to get the schedule, neither of the lines are manned. On arrival at the lock we found a sign that told us the first opening would be 11am, so we had to tie up and wait for over an hour. As is his wont when there is any expected delay, Dick set off along the lock wall to investigate. On his return, he met the lock keeper arriving for work, a surly individual who was not at all impressed with Dick’s friendly smile and told him in no uncertain terms that he was forbidden to be on the dock and to get back on that boat and stay there!
After exiting the Black Rock Channel, we were into the Niagara River, which was unpleasantly choppy until we turned into Tonawanda River. Not the most attractive waterway we have been on, and even after making the turn into the Erie Canal proper, it was somewhat unprepossessing until we had passed through the double lock at Lockport. The stretch between Lockport and Rochester is very pleasant, with small towns that are making the most of their waterfront and the opportunities for tourism. There are many lift bridges, all freshly painted in soft green with contrasting bright yellow trim. Most of the towns have free docking at the town walls, and many have installed power pedestals and shower facilities. One of the lock keepers told Dick that she is employed full time, all year round. During the winter when the canal is closed, they take apart and refurbish all the lock and bridge mechanisms. She said her winters are spent “up to the elbows in grease!” At each lock we were asked how far we planned to go that day, and the keepers called the next lock to tell them to expect us.
In Middleport we were joined for the evening by Wade Aiken, a talented photographer I met when we lived in Olean some years ago. It was nice to catch up and hear about his extensive world travels and his photography. The next day we travelled to Spencerport where we were met by another friend from the Olean Camera Club. Barbara was not able to stop for a meal, but we had time for a chat and a cup of tea and hope for a longer visit, perhaps next year when we are in the Finger Lakes.
A frequent sight on the Erie Canal is English-inspired canal boats that appear to be a popular vacation. The boats are a little wider than UK narrowboats, and generally shorter at a maximum of 43 feet, but they are driven by a traditional tiller at the stern, and they all look very clean and in good condition. You can rent them from Midlakes Navigation, and they offer 3, 4, and 7 day rentals. We do not wish to be disloyal to Nine Lives, but we were intrigued by the possibilities!
Rochester is another city with an attractive downtown. We turned off the Canal into the Genesee River, navigable almost to the city center. We tied up at a good dock in Corn Hill Landing, a revitalized historic neighbourhood. The waterfront complex of rental apartments includes several restaurants, one of them is a very pleasant wine bar. We walked over and each ordered a flight, sparkling for Dick, and rose for me. To accompany we had a meat and cheese board, with fresh French bread, local honey, and grainy mustard. It was a delightful way to spend an hour in the afternoon, particularly as we were planning an “eating up” evening of leftovers on the boat!
The next day Dick rode his bike through downtown to Lake Ontario. He reports that Rochester is a very clean city with lots of parks and waterfront paths. It is strange that a canal has never been cut to bypass the waterfalls in the river and allow access between the Erie Canal and Lake Ontario. Apparently, it has been proposed many times, but so far nobody has found the money.
In the afternoon we took a rental car to Ithaca, and after a very nice meal in a French restaurant we went to a concert by Joan Baez. What a remarkable woman she is. She played straight through without an intermission (or a chair), and returned to sing three more songs for an encore. It was a mix of old favourites and new material from her latest album. Although she can no long sustain the high notes, at 77 years old, she is still an amazing performer, and we were very glad we were able to take the time to see her on what is expected to be her last tour. The theatre is also of historic and architectural interest. The building, originally constructed in 1915, began as a garage and Studebaker showroom. In 1926 it was transformed into a cinema and vaudeville palace. The extravagant combination of Moorish and Gothic architecture is striking. After struggling for many years as a movie theatre that closed in the 1980’s, the building was condemned in 1997 and slated for demolition. It was saved by strong community support and fundraising from both municipal and private donors, and has been operating as a concert theatre since 2001.
Returning to the boat at midnight, we planned a slightly later than usual departure, but my Rochester experience was not yet complete. At just past 4am I became aware of footsteps and a slight rocking of the boat, as well as conversation from outside. I got up and shouted at Dick to wake up. No response. Shouted again as I opened the hatch and went up to the cockpit to find the absolute cliché of a black man in a hoodie sitting on the boat. I shouted at him “GET OFF”, and somewhat to my surprise, he did, with profuse apologies and compliments on the boat. He told me it was such a beautiful boat he just wanted to try to get a picture of himself sitting on it. His girlfriend on the dock also apologised and paid compliments. As this was happening, Dick finally woke up, just long enough to understand what had happened, to hear the apologies, and know that his intervention was not required. Then back to sleep he went, while I lay awake for hours getting over the shock! Thinking about the incident, I come away with a few thoughts. Given how well spoken and truly apologetic the man and his companion were, we are assuming they were simply walking to or from work, saw the boat and thought it was unoccupied and that they would not disturb anyone if they took a picture. It would have been very easy to over-react. By coincidence I have been reading in the AGLCA forum about several boats being boarded while tied up on the Illinois River. The boaters reported that they used wasp spray and other unspecified deterrents to get rid of the intruders. I know that many boaters (legally) carry firearms. In our case, while it was, for me, a disturbing experience, the trespassers were quite innocent, and over-reacting could have been disastrous. One thing we did agree on, in future we will make a point of connecting the lifelines and rail as well as bringing in the boarding ladder if we are using it. Just to make it a little less easy to get on board.
After Rochester we stopped at Newark, with a well maintained town wall, excellent shower facilities, and a nice little canal museum. From there the Canal became less scenic, and the towns not quite as pretty. There followed long stretches with no towns or signs of habitation. The next night we tied up below a lock, truly in the middle of nowhere (Tripadvisor reported the nearest restaurant was 4.5 miles away). It was an incredibly peaceful stop, almost like anchoring. We also noticed a somewhat different attitude on the part of the lock keepers (with the exception of the one we tied up at.) They seemed to be less likely to be paying attention to their radio when we called for a lock-through, requiring several calls before we could see any activity at the lock, and often no response on the radio at all. No longer interested in how far we would be travelling, and certainly not willing to call the next lock to let them know we were coming. The attitude seemed to fit with the general condition of the houses we saw along the canal in this stretch. Tumbledown shacks, yards full of junk, and lots of derelict docks.
Shortly before Baldwinsville we began to see an improvement. New homes and tidy cottages with well kept grounds and well maintained docks lined the Seneca River (the Canal becomes the river for much of this stretch). Baldwinsville is a very pleasant town of about 8,000. It is built on both sides of the canal, and includes an island between the canal lock and the dam. On the island is a large park with an amphitheatre, and we understand that concerts are held regularly through the summer months. The town wall has power and water, at $5 a night on the honour system. Here we met a couple of Loopers who have been spending summers on their boat for the past 8 years. They completed the loop in 2010-2011, and since then, they have been twice to Maine, spent two summers on Lake Michigan, and this summer they went to the north side of Lake Superior. Now me, I think of the Canadian side of Lake Superior as rocks, pine trees, and mosquitoes big enough to carry off your boat! However, Jill told me they loved it, anchoring most nights for nearly a month. The Lake was far more peaceful and the weather predictions more reliable than Lake Michigan, and as for mosquitoes, when they were there it was far too cold! It was certainly interesting chatting with them.
From Baldwinsville it was a short morning’s run to Brewerton, at the north end of Oneida Lake. At Winter Harbor, an aptly named marina where we will leave Nine Lives until next June, we found several other Looper boats in various stages of getting ready for winter storage. Nine Lives will be hauled out and stored in a huge heated and humidity controlled storage shed. While considerably more expensive than non-heated storage, there are a great many advantages, including being able to leave the water tanks full, most of the pantry food on board, and the security of knowing that damp will not be an issue. Since this is also a working boat yard, a quite long list of maintenance and repair items will be dealt with before launch next spring. Today is being spent packing up the clothes we will be taking home, doing a lot of cleaning, and generally getting Nine Lives ready for a long winter’s nap. We expect to leave tomorrow late morning, driving to Hagerstown, PA, and then get home early evening on Tuesday.
Look for the next instalment of the Nine Lives blog some time in June 2019.