On September 7th, the morning after our arrival at Salaberry de Valleyfield, we awoke to a strong southwest breeze. We had intended to squeeze through a narrow bridge, with the tug towing ahead, since she wouldn’t fit through on the hip, and move up the old canal at Salaberry to moor right in the center of town for receiving visitors. But with that much wind on the schooner’s quarter, there would be no way to control such a tight maneuver.
Plan B was to leave our berth and go round a point to docks at Parc Delpha-Sauve that were not far from our original intended mooring. Even to do that was a bit tricky. We backed away from the dock with the Churchill on the windward quarter and the Oocher pulling for all she was worth on the tug’s stern to hold her up to windward. First Mate Tom Larsen controlled a long line to the dock to keep the bow from blowing off. There was an empty dock to leeward that we could use to hold the bow after Tom had to have his bow line cast off. Whew! It worked. The rest of the move was easy.
Salaberry de Valleyfield was one busy place. There was another “tall ship” in port, the Roter Sand, a big, rugged, steel ketch of shallow draft whose bottom was said to have been fashioned from part of the hull of a German U-boat! With plating nearly an inch thick, she was designed to be able to take the bottom without damage to the vessel. With that characteristic and her name, I was sure that she had a connection to the maritime spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands, but it turned out that she was merely named after a Dutch lighthouse.
And in the Parc was a car show whose theme was the Chevrolet Corvette. It seemed that you could oggle every possible year and variation of the popular sports car, along with many other exceptional vehicles.
In two days, we entertained nearly 2,000 boat and car enthusiasts. Fortunately, Jean Belisle, our historian from Montreal, was able to recruit his friends and family to help provide French interpretation.
On September 9th, we were to start back up the St. Lawrence River against the current to visit towns that our much-revised (by the circumstances of weather) schedule had caused us to bypass. Well, that day proved to be another circumstance of weather. The forecast was again for a strong southwest wind. Bucking such a breeze against the current to cross Lac St. Francois would be like rolling a heavy stone uphill. Where the river widens into lakes, there is still a surprising amount of current, sometimes up to 2 knots. We decided to hold in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield and wait for the wind to lessen.
The next day was much more reasonable, with a moderate breeze on the beam. Still, it took us about eight hours to tow upstream, back to an anchorage at the mouth of the Raquette River. This time, we went in closer to shore and found a mud bottom for the Schenectady-Dali anchor.
The trip up to Morrisburg on the following day would entail negotiating the strong current that swirls in where the river rejoins the ship channel just below Snell Lock. When Matthew Trego, of the St. Lawrence Seaway, had inspected the McClure and the Churchill and given us permission to navigate on his waterway, he had expressed particular concern about that section of the river and had told us a horror story about a tug (with a lot more horsepower than the Churchill has) that had lost control right there. Now, after further consideration of our maneuvering capability, he reported that the powers that be required that we hire an assist tug to ensure that we could make it through all right.
In Clayton, we had met Dick Withington and knew that his sons operated a towing business. Matt recommended them. We were lucky that Dewitt Withington, with his father as deckhand, could come down river next day on such short notice with his 265-h.p. workboat, the Calypso, to provide us with extra towing power.
While waiting at anchor for the Calyspo’s arrival, we had the pleasure of watching the Pride of Baltimore II go down by, with her square fore topsail set to help her diesel engine shove her along.
Soon, with the Calypso towing ahead and the Churchill towing on the hip, we made it handsomely not only through the section of heavy current, but also all the way up to Morrisburg in the excellent time of five hours. And that included breaking the extra tow twice to go through the Snell and Eisenhower Locks.
As we approached the entrance channel at Morrisburg, the squall that had been threatening for an hour burst upon us. The big freighter we had seen coming downstream disappeared in a welter of rain. Dewitt, in the Calypso, radioed that he’d keep us “treading water” until things improved. By the time the freighter rumbled past, we could read her name: Atlantic Huron. Then we cast off the extra tow and went in to tie up at the Morrisburg marina.
That evening we were treated to the most spectacular lightning show that any of us had ever seen. Huge, bulbous clouds would suddenly be backlighted, the sort of single phenomenon that would bring excited oohs and aahs. But the extravaganza repeated itself over and over for half an hour, all in dead silence. Awesome.
On September 12th, while towing upstream to Ogdensburg, we met the Norwegian fully rigged ship Sorlandet coming down. I had last seen her under full sail (in 1964!) off Bermuda. On this day, she looked very different with her yards all a’cockbill. She was ready to go through the locks, so, rather than have her yards squared at horizontal, they had to be slanted up to near vertical to keep the yardarms from hitting the sides of the locks as they let the vessel down.
We did miss the Calypso that afternoon, as we crept up over the strong current at Cardinal and passed slowly under the high International Bridge. It turned put to be a ten-hour tow up to Ogdensburg, but it was not yet dark when we made the sharp turn around the stern of the cruise boat Grande Caribe and bumped our way into the narrow entrance to the marina across the current. Yes, we did leave a small paint mark behind as a record of an extremely rare miscommunication on our radios between schooner, tug, and inflatable.
On the morning of the 14th, the town officials of Ogdensburg gave the crew a coffee party in their handsome, waterfront reception center. It’s always fun to trade yarns with new friends. And the fun continued as we greeted 400 visitors on board.
An afternoon run next day took us up to Morristown. It breezed up again from the southwest, and we were able to gain a little lee by leaving the ship channel and working our way along the south shore of the river. At one point (literally), I got a bit too ambitious about seeking a lee and got us into shoal water. No matter: we run with the schooner’s centerboard down 2 feet below the flat keel, which not only keeps the vessel from side-slipping, but also serves as the most effective warning device there is that the bottom is near.
Morristown boasts a handsome, little, natural harbor, and we were glad to get off the boisterous river and into its quiet water. As is usual when we pull into a port, before we can get tied up, we find ourselves answering questions from interested observers of our docking. “What is this boat, anyway?” “When was she built?” How long is she?”
When one Morristown lady got her answers, she said, “This is wonderful. I’m going to have to tell the school about this.” Thus it was that excited students were among the more than 300 visitors next morning. And the students kept coming back, dragging parents, siblings, and friends along. We half expected a few of these worthies to try to stow away.
On September 17th, just before we got underway to cross the river to Brockville, we experienced one of those amazing, random acts of kindness that the Lois McClure attracts. Scott Ouderkirk arrived on the dock with a gift for the vessel. He had heard on Friday the 13th that the Lois McClure was coming to town. Scott is an artist who specializes in applying his paintings to glassware.He has developed his own method of transferring delicate artwork to glass in such a way that its bond is permanent. He went to work and in four days produced an exquisite rendering of the Lois McClure under full sail on a liquor bottle. And this beautiful piece came with its own mahogany cradle that Scott had fashioned from wood from his retired Luhrs 32-foot powerboat. Mercy. As we got underway, we thanked Scott as best we could, but, really, we felt speechless.
In Brockville, we exchanged history lessons with plenty of teacher-students, and found more kindness headed our way. The Chamber of Commerce treated the crew to an elegant dinner at the Mill restaurant, in a handsome, old stone building that had served as a mill and for many other purposes over the centuries.
When we left Brockville on the 18th, we were happy to be heading back down the river with the current. Funny how the same number of hours underway seem a lot easier when you’re whipping downstream at 7 knots, instead of struggling up at 3. We added an hour to this day’s trip at the level Iroquois Lock due to a traffic jam. While we jilled around out of the way, first the Andean, a big freighter that had overtaken and passed us, had to go through the lock. This takes time, even in a lock with no lift.
The big vessels can just squeeze in, and they have to go really slowly, for if they touch a lock gate, say, the heavy behemoths have so much momentum that…well, you get the picture. Then a big tanker came up through with her dangerous cargo and huge “NO SMOKING” sign painted all across the forward side of her superstructure. Finally, we went in astern of the tug John Spence pushing a big barge and eased through the lock with both gates open (the big freighters aren’t allowed to do this). Then we towed on downstream back to our berth in Morrisburg, this time to be open to visitors.
The Morrisburg citizens who trod the deck of the canal schooner designed in 1862 included staff members from Upper Canada Village, a nearby, wonderful recreation of a working town of, well, about 1862. Their museum includes its own small canal and horse-drawn canal boat, so they were glad to experience the sort of vessel that would have been used on the larger canals. Kathleen and I had time to return the favor, walking over to the Village and getting a ride on their canal boat and experiencing large, water-powered machinery in operation, among many other land-based activities contemporary with the Lois McClure.
On September 20th, we towed back down to Salaberry de Valleyfield. There were traffic jams of big ships at both Eisenhower and Snell Locks exacerbated by one vessel discovering, while in the lock, a long, heavy wire hanging overboard that had to be removed by a huge crane! We tied up to the locks’ approach walls to wait our turn. Though we had started soon after first light, it was nearly dark by the time we found our way through the channel back into Salaberry.
On the way from Salaberry to LaChine on September 21st, we went down through the Beauharnois Canal, again waiting out turn for big freighters to go through two locks and under two railroad lift bridges. Once these obstacles were astern, we headed across Lac St. Louis. It looked threatening in the northwest, and the lake has plenty of fetch so that if it comes on to blow, the waves will “run high and fas’,” in the words of the poem, “The Wreck of the Julie Plante,” so we decided to tow ahead on the long hawser, instead of on the hip. That ensured a calm passage, and the lack of wind even made it convenient to tow the schooner right onto the dock at LaChine without taking the time to put the tug back on the hip. The only casualty was a dock fisherman’s line caught across the stem of the tug. Since we came in at about the same speed as grass grows, I didn’t feel too badly that he hadn’t reeled his line in.
To many of our visitors, the very concept of a canal schooner is oxymoronic. One of the most frequent questions we get about the McClure is: “Do you ever actually sail this boat?” The simple answer is “Yes.” We sail her as often as we can, but sailing a boat and keeping to a schedule planned in an office months before it is to be carried out are often incompatible. When we agree to call at a port on a specific future date, we always add the words, “weather permitting.” (Readers of this year’s Log will remember that flood damage to the Erie Canal put a five-week crimp in our plans.) But we don’t think it fair to say to a welcoming committee, “Sorry we didn’t make the reception-with-band that you had ready for us, but we were having such a nice sail in yesterday’s light breeze that we didn’t want to spoil it by towing.” And, of course, much of our travel is by canal or river with low bridges.
Once again, as in past years, the St. Lawrence River, with its high bridges, still thwarted any idea we had of sailing. We needed to cover distance on each underway day, and river current, headwinds, and Seaway locks conspired to block that objective under sail.
On the 22nd, we left LaChine bucking a fresh breeze and a couple of knots of current out across Lac St. Louis. And when we turned east into the Seaway’s ship channel, now with a fair wind and current, we had a vivid demonstration of why sailing is not allowed in the narrower parts of the Seaway. In the approach to the Canal de Rive Sud, between islands, we saw a freighter overtaking us in the distance. The Seaway radio crackled with a request to let him pass us before we got into the Canal. Even at slow speed, we would have beaten him to the Canal, so we turned back and headed up into the wind and current to let him pass. The maneuver was tricky enough in the breeze, now strong, under tow; it would not have been possible under sail.
The Kaministiqua, with whose pilot we had coordinated our meeting, went on by. Out in the open, at the schooner’s wheel, we always wave up to the skilled professional, high inside his big wheelhouse, and, if he isn’t too busy, he may pop out on the bridge wing to give a hearty wave back.
At Cote-St-Catherine Lock, we tied up to the approach wall while waiting for the Kaministiqua to go down through (commercial vessels always have the right of way at locks). And did the same at St. Lambert Lock, this time waiting an extra hour, because a train was stuck on the bridge across the lock! Between wires hanging overboard and stopped trains, we were starting to feel like lock Jonahs. It was a relief to hurtle down the River below Montreal with the strong current, slide into the placid, little harbor formed between the Isle aux Prunes and its much bigger neighbors, the Iles de Vercheres, and come to anchor. This delightful haven makes an ideal stopping place between Montreal and Sorel, yet we have never had to share it with another vessel. The anchorage seemed lovelier than ever on this evening, with one of those 360-degree sunsets.
The next morning, we dropped down the river to Sorel, entered the Richelieu River and moored at the commercial dock just ahead of the Phoenix Sun, a big freighter made huge by being apparently completely empty. Her bow was as high as our masts, its thruster a good ten feet out of water.
On the 24th, we took down the schooner’s masts and stowed them above the deck on their support braces. We were ready to go up the Richelieu and bypass its rapids on the Chambly Canal.
On the way up to Mount St. Hilaire, we stopped, as we often do when passing this way, at the Parc Bellerive marina to fill fuel and water tanks and pump out sanitaries. That chore done, we put the boats through Lock St. Ours and went on up to the dock at Mount St. Hilaire, where we found new volunteer crew members Sal Larsen (First Mate Tom’s mother, one able deckhand) and Laura Hollowell (who would be joining Kerry Batdorf as bow person in the Oocher). They had been driven north in the Museum’s van by Elisa Nelson, who is our indispensable shoreside logistics person.
On the morning of the 26th, we had to wait an hour for the “vapor” to burn off before we could get underway. At least that’s what we call it in Maine, when air just above the warm water surface gets thoroughly chilled and condenses the moisture in the air into an opaqueness that’s thicker than mere fog. When we could see where we were going, the Churchill towed the schooner right off the dock and up the river to the Pont Beloeil. That’s the railroad bridge where the horizontal opening is so narrow that we have to tow ahead through it and where the opening is out of sight for boats coming downstream until they are upon it. We send the Oocher out ahead to warn boats coming down that we will soon be filling the bridge opening right up! On this day, there were no boats coming down for the Oocher to warn, although as soon as we were clear of the opening a guy came whipping up through from astern.
The locktender at Chambly warned us on the radio that boats were coming down the flight of three into the Chambly Basin, so we killed some time by crossing that body of water at a crawl. Then we tied up to the dock just below the flight to wait our turn.
Readers may remember that the Chambly Canal was never enlarged, as were the Champlain and Erie Canals, so we have to lock the tug and schooner through separately. The Churchill climbed up the flight first, and then stood by to pull the schooner to the dock above, after that vessel had gone up the staircase, being pulled into each lock by hand. This operation is a good historical exercise for us, for this is how it was done in 1862, with the substitution of mules in the days before small steam tugs that could work the canals were available.
Chambly is a place where we often meet Lois McClure veterans coming up the gangway, folks who have trod her decks before and already know the ropes. We show them our new bunkroom, disguised from the cargo hold to look like stacked lumber, and we point out the new starboard bower anchor and tell how its artistic shape was created. There are people who simply won’t miss a chance to come on board an authentic replica of a Lake Champlain canal schooner.
On September 28th, we locked through the upper six of the Chambly Canal. Again, it was practicing history, as we held the Lois McClure outside the lock gates while the tug went through, and then pulled the schooner in by hauling on two long bow lines. Well, we did cheat a bit by using the Oocher to hold the schooner’s stern in position while the Churchill was locking through. How Captain Theodore Bartley would have loved the Oocher!
It was nearly dark by the time the tug pulled the schooner out of the last lock, eased her through a couple of open bridges, and landed her on the dock at St. Jean. Whew! That was not only the last lock of the Chambly, but also the last of more than 100 locks for the Lois McClure in 2013.
The next day, the final one on this cruise of welcoming people aboard to tour the schooner, we welcomed about 600 inspectors. The last one was Captain Guy, who arrived, singlehanded, in command of his own vessel. The Cachalot was Guy’s invention. She had a long, narrow hull, with surfboard sponsons that could slide athwartships as they might be needed to aid stability. The rig was that of a three-masted yawl! She had a powerful, four-sided, lug-rigged mainsail, a tiny triangular mizzen at the stern, and just forward of that a sort of mizzen staysail with its own mast and well-lifted boom. Mercy.
Captain Guy joined our reception on board, with a fine spread provided by Denis Couture, who never can do enough for us when we are in St. Jean. It is through his auspices and the kindness of the staff, including his son Major Francois Couture, at the Royal Military College, St. Jean that we crew members get to experience life in the school’s quarters and mess hall, a welcome break ashore for us sailors.
On September 30th, we continued our homeward-bound passage with a tow up the Richelieu into our home waters: Lake Champlain. We tied up at the U. S. Customs dock at the border, presented our passports, and lined up at the rail to be matched with their photos. It seems amazing that we are all still recognizable after four months of adventuring in the Lois McClure. And tied up again at the end of the day on the big dock at Plattsburgh, a familiar berth.
On the last day of this cruise of 2013, we proceeded up Lake Champlain to our home port of Burlington. We have had beautiful, clear, calm days for our travels lately, and October 1st was no exception, except that it did breeze up to moderate out of the south (enough to make us tow ahead with the tug). The Lake just reminding us that it was still boss. But by the time we landed at Perkins Pier in the early afternoon, the water was a mirror. It is always a relief to me to tie up at the end of the trip with our crew intact and our three vessels still floating high.