by Roger Taylor
Kathleen and I rejoined the Lois McClure on June 18th at St. Albans just in time to get underway for Rouses Point. It was blowing a strong breeze out of the South, and, by the time we were ready to cast off at about 11:00, it had backed just enough toward the East to let us ease the vessel out from behind the T of the St. Albans dock on just a long bow line without fouling the small-boat floats. Then we let the bow line go, swung the schooner’s bow out from the lee of the dock into the breeze with the Oocher, and asked the tug, C. L. Churchill, made up on the starboard hip, to start pushing her to windward.
We sought and found a lee under the eastern shore of St. Albans Bay, calm water where we could shift the tug to towing ahead on a hawser. And what a hawser! Bob Dollar, a long time volunteer with the huge rope expertise (and who works for R&W Rope), had helped us get a brand new one, since eight years of towing seemed to be enough for the original. Boatswain Len Ruth belayed the bitter end of the new line to one of the forward bitts, and Captain Art Cohn eased the Churchill slowly ahead to shift 200 feet of spandy, light blue (!) towline off his stern into the water. Seeing that heavy, new line connecting us to our source of power represents security.
We just did make the 1:30 opening of the Grand Isle Bridge, and the helpful bridge mistress agreed to keep the span open for a little longer than usual to make sure our masts got through all right. By 4:30, we were off the Rouses Point breakwater. We ducked in behind it to shift the tug onto the port hip for towing into Gaines Marina.
It turned out that we needed help getting into the marina. The wind was still strong out of the South, and the passage in to our berth inside the docks was narrow, bending, and lined with large, expensive, fiberglass yachts. When we tried it on our own, the wind took charge of the schooner’s high, shallow bow, despite the best efforts of the Churchill and Oocher. We managed to back clear, leaving fiberglass unscathed. Joe Treadwell, the marina’s owner and manager, with his upbringing as a Maine Coast lobster fisherman, was quick to see our dilemma and came to the rescue with his lobster boat, the Prince of Peace II. He towed us in just as nice as you please.
Next day, we hosted over a hundred smiling visitors, the smiles being wrought by this remarkable vessel and her remarkable crew. And a good many of these visitors hosted the crew that evening at a fine dinner that they cooked and served. We always say, “Welcome aboard!” when a visitor steps from our gangway to the deck; the citizens of Rouses Point certainly made us feel most welcome in return.
On June 20th, we struck the rig. We were heading North to go through the Chambly Canal, which allows a maximum height of 29 feet; our mainmast stands 65 feet above the water. With my senior-citizen status, I decided it was time to remove myself from the six-man hard-hat crew and “supervise” from outside the circle of possible falling objects. As good luck would have it, the previous evening I had been reading one of Robert Benchley’s humorous yarns, which began with one of my favorite Benchley lines, simple words that proved perfect for my announcement of my new status to the other hard-hat wearers: “There were six of us, five counting the Captain.” Anyway, the work went smoothly with former First Mate, turned Co-Director, Erick Tichonuk trading his Museum desk for a hard hat for the day to run things, and with Joe and his crew bringing into play at least three of their major “toys”: boom truck, mini excavator, and a high-reaching heavy duty fork lift.
That same day, who should arrive on board but faithful volunteer Hilton Dier, with, in the back of his pick-up, a new refrigerator of his design and build to add to our arsenal of shipboard conveniences. It is an icebox that, once its compressor is delivered and installed, will also run on 12 volts. Of course there were no such conveniences in 1862, so Hilton built the thing to look like a box of cargo.
On the 21st, Joe Treadwell put the Prince of Peace II back to work and towed us safely out past his customers’ craft, stern-first. Heading North, we crossed the border into Canada at 10:30 and soon thereafter anchored off the Canadian Customs Station. In three hours, with the help of the customs officers on duty, every detail of an entering museum vessel with a small ship’s store on board had been ironed out, and we were free to visit our northern neighbors.
Our first stop was at Ile-aux-Noix. We went down the Richelieu River and on past the island itself, guarded by Fort Lennox, choosing the larger, northern channel in to the town behind it. We shared the town dock with the ferry that carries passengers over to visit the Fort. After we had tied up and tidied away everything not reminiscent of 1862, we opened the boat to local dignitaries and to the press. We were delighted to see their illustrated stories in the local papers starting the next day.
It was at Ile-aux-Noix where Jean Belisle joined the crew. Jean is a renowned professor of history from Montreal, recently retired. A good friend of Art Cohn’s, with whom he shares many interests in history, Jean has agreed to volunteer in our crew for the entire time we are in Canada. He has quickly proved his great value, both in terms of interpreting the Lois McClure in unfractured French and in being our liaison with French-speaking officials in our ports-of-call.
After sharing our history with more than 400 visitors at Ile-aux-Noix, we got underway for St. Jean-sur-Richelieu on June 25th. At St. Jean, we found that Denis Couture, dive shop entrepreneur and history buff, couldn’t do enough for us. He not only help arrange for rooms and breakfast for the crew at the Royal Military College nearby, but also drove us anywhere we needed to go for ship’s errands and treated us to elegant hors d’oeuvres and dessert at supper one evening on board. His friendship, which began with our trip to St. Jean in 2008, is special to us.
On the 28th, we started through the Chambly Canal, which circumvents the twelve miles of rapids in the Richelieu River below St. Jean. Unlike the Champlain and Erie Canals, the Chambly was never enlarged, so the Lois McClure takes up all the space in each of its nine locks. Well, not quite all the space; we can just squeeze the Oocher in with the schooner. But the Churchill has to lock through separately. She tows the McClure up to a lock; we drop her towline and put two bow lines over. Then, while the tug is locking down, we hold the schooner in place just outside the lock with these bow lines and the Oocher, pulling gently on the stern, guided by Kerry Batdorf, who puts down his hammer and saw as Ship’s Carpenter to run the Oocher’s 50-h.p. Honda outboard. Gently, that is, unless there is a strong crosswind, when he may have to go up to 50% of available power to hold the schooner’s stern up to windward.
The Chambly has not only small locks, but also narrow lift bridges. Their width does not allow us to tow with the tug on the schooner’s hip for best maneuverability; we tow ahead with a short hawser; the schooner follows the tug through the bridges. For brakes in case a bridge cannot open when we arrive, we have the Oocher towing on the schooner’s stern, ready to back her down. And, for suspenders to go with this belt, we have a stern anchor ready to let go.
The 28th would not only begin our transit of the Chambly Canal, but also would mark one of the most interesting events of the 2012 trip: the schooner would be towed by animals for just the third time. As our transit of the Chambly began, the Churchill pulled the schooner through the first two opened bridges and up to a floating dock just above the canal’s first lock, Lock 9, where we tied up for 45 minutes to allow the press to board the schooner, take pictures and interview the crew. For this day’s trip, we were delighted to have on board Darcy and Bruce Hale. Darcy is chairwoman of the Museum’s Board of Directors and has always had a great interest in the Lois McClure. We were also delighted that Co-Director Tichonuk could be back on board, wearing his old First Mate’s hat to strengthen our crew.
Before locking the two vessels down through Lock 9, we rigged a 300-foot towline from the far end of the lock to the towpath, ahead on the canal’s right bank. Yves Boulais had trucked Jim and Nick, mighty Percheron horses, from their stable at Mont St. Gregoire, and they seemed eager to take the schooner’s towline. As we pulled the McClure out of the lock, we picked up the long line and made it fast on the starboard side, with a spring line round it to the bow to control its angle of pull. Then we gave the word to Jean Belisle, on a radio next to Monsieur Boulais, and it was “Allez!” For the next few minutes, we experienced— and the crowd of a thousand fans watched— the very best way there is to move a canal boat. Smooth, powerful acceleration, and absolute silence. That sense of perfection makes us realize that while it is fine to tow the Lois McClure with the Churchill or to sail her, she was really developed as a boat type to be pulled slowly and quietly by animals. After the best part of a kilometer, the canal narrowed, and we traded the long line to the Percherons for a short one to our waiting tug.
We towed on down the canal through the narrow bridge openings and just did manage to hold our three vessels off the lee bank in a fresh crosswind as we waited for Bridge 4 to open. By mid-afternoon, we were ready to call a halt and tied up just above Lock 8, near Chambly.
That crosswind continued to challenge the crew next day, as we went through the next five locks on the Chambly canal. The breeze kept us busy holding the schooner in position while the tug locked through and then hauling the schooner out of the lock with the tug, starting without steerage way. Our fenders, particularly the “rovers” manipulated by Barb Batdorf and Kathleen Carney, saved some paint that day. The final challenge was to tow the schooner up to a mooring at the canal wall at Chambly with the fresh breeze trying to blow her off it. Once we got bow lines from tug and schooner safely secured to bollards, it was just a matter of shoving with the Oocher, getting more lines over, and hauling her in alongside.
The weekend of June 30th and July 1st was the celebration of Canada Day. We opened our gangway to the holiday crowds and explained not only how canal boats contributed to the economy in 1862, but also how the War of 1812 affected citizens on both sides of the border along the waterways. More than 1,100 visitors listened and contributed to the dialogue—and were carried back in time by the experience of treading the deck of a historic canal boat.
When we took the Lois McClure down the Richelieu River in 2008, the seminal experience was surviving the “Bridge of Death.” The moniker for this railway bridge across the river comes from a long-ago, horrendous accident involving an inexperienced crew running a train filled with immigrants across the bridge when the span was open for a string of canal boats. It was merely the unexpected narrowness of the span for boats that nearly did us in four years ago. Knowing what to expect when we went down through the current-ridden slot on July 2nd, we had no difficulty. The Churchill towed ahead, rather than on the hip, sacrificing maneuverability for reduced beam. We lengthened the towline to gain back some independent maneuverability for the schooner, so she could be steered through without her bow being pulled sideways by the hawser as the tug herself maneuvered through. We sent the Oocher ahead to report on the condition of the current and, hopefully, to stop traffic that might be approaching the bridge at the same time as the tug and schooner. I even broadcast a “Securitay! Securitay!” announcement, warning anyone who might be listening on Channel 16 that we were coming and requesting no traffic through the bridge until we had passed. Having taken those precautions, we naturally had the place all to ourselves. It still required some bold steering on both tug and schooner to keep from letting the current set the vessels across into the jagged steel just below the surface that is one of the nastier features of the “Bridge of Death”.
Having survived again, we let the schooner drift downstream with the current while we put the tug back on the hip to land the schooner on the public dock at Beloeil. That afternoon, we welcomed the town’s mayor and her entourage on board and were blessed by a wonderful Native American ceremony. We are blessed indeed to be able to experience a variety of customs as we travel these North American waterways. And blessed again to receive 350 visitors in Beloeil.
It was in Beloeil that we received sad news. One of our greatest sources of first-hand information about life on a canal boat has been the detailed memories of Cora Archambault. Cora, born in 1904, spent her childhood living on board a canal boat with her family, and she has gladly shared her recollections of what was for her a happy and fascinating time. Art Cohn listened to her stories and became her good friend. When he learned of her passing, he gave a heartfelt eulogy to the crew of the Lois McClure. We always used to slow and sound the Churchill’s whistle as we towed past Cora’s house at Fiddler’s Elbow, near Whitehall, and we always will.