On August 20th, we were ready to tackle Lake Ontario with the Lois McClure. I say tackle because Lake Ontario is Big Water, plenty big enough to get too rough for a vessel built to travel on quiet canals and rivers. To be sure, the schooner’s direct ancestors, the O. J. Walker and the General Butler, the vessels from which she was copied, had been overcome by storm waves merely on Lake Champlain, but we were well aware that just a fresh breeze on Lake Ontario could generate waves as troublesome as Lake Champlain’s worst.
It’s a matter of fetch, the distance over which waves have a chance to build up. A west wind of 20 knots, sweeping for 150 miles the length of Lake Ontario can make 8-foot waves; it would take a storm of 60 knots to make 8-foot waves over a 25-mile open stretch of Lake Champlain.
And once big waves build up, it takes time for them to go down. We read Captain Theodore Bartley’s 1886 account of being towed in his canal boat across Lake Ontario in calm weather and rolling so much that water came in through the scuppers, in first one rail, and then the other, because there was a left-over sea from strong winds of the previous days.
With these things in mind, Co-Director of the Museum Erick Tichonuk, when he made up the McClure’s schedule back in the spring, allowed five days to choose from for the one-day, 35-mile trip along the east shore of Lake Ontario from Kingston to Sackets Harbor and another five for the leg of the same distance across the Lake from Sackets Harbor to Oswego. With luck, that ever-present factor in seamanship, we could find days to make those trips when the waves on the Lake were small.
As it turned out, the very first of the five days scheduled to go to Sackets Harbor looked fine, so off we went on the 20th. We started early, as soon as there was enough daylight to see by, 5:45 a.m., to take advantage of the morning calm. Once you get past the objection to a rude awakening, it’s satisfying to be underway before sunrise. By the time the sun came up, we were well clear of Kingston Harbor heading west down the channel toward Amherst Island. As I looked back from the wheelhouse of the C. L. Churchill, towing ahead at a steady 5 knots on a 200-foot hawser, the schooner’s masts, in line astern, pointed exactly at the brilliant orb, just climbing out of bed.
When we rounded Melville Shoal and turned south toward Sackets Harbor, we were out in the open water of the Lake. It was as calm as the Lake ever is, I suspect, and it stayed that way, with light and flukey breezes, all the way down past Nine Mile Point, Long Point, Grenadier Island, and Point Peninsula. My log says, “Lake calm as a clock.” By 12:45 p.m., we had entered Black River Bay and were off the narrow entrance to Sackets Harbor, so we cast off the towline on the schooner, Art Cohn hauled it in onto the tug’s low stern, and we put her on the schooner’s starboard hip for docking.
Halfway to Sackets Harbor, New York, off the entrance of the St. Lawrence River, we had crossed the border, so before we could step ashore, the vessels had to be officially entered into the United States. We had given the U. S. Customs our estimated time of arrival, so there was a gentleman in uniform on the dock when we tied up. Each crew member presented her or his passport, and the official’s inspection of our vessels was satisfactory, so we were free to enjoy our country. We had liked very much our watery tour of Canada, but it is always good to be home.
We now had four laydays. The crew took advantage of the time by applying a good deal of paint to the schooner’s topsides and bulwarks. Ship’s Carpenter Kerry Batdorf, assisted by Jean Belisle, installed a compressor in Hilton Dyer’s refrigerator. We were now a little less dependent on a daily supply of ice. Kerry also enlisted Ian and together they got some of the pesky deck leaks caulked.
And we actually took a day or two off. Sackets Harbor has much to offer the visiting sailor. There’s a handsome park up on Navy Point, where we often walked after supper to watch the sun go back to bed in the Lake. Men from both sides of the border died on this land two hundred years ago when Canadians attacked, for Sackets Harbor was the site of the primary U. S. naval base and shipyard for building a squadron of warships to take control of Lake Ontario in the War of 1812. We toured the local museums and learned the story of Sackets Harbor in war and peace. We patronized restaurants, coffee shops, and, perhaps most often, a fine ice cream stand.
At Sackets Harbor, I ran across an episode that linked the town to my own family. In a picture history of the place, I chanced to see a photograph of a German submarine, U-97, that, having been taken as a spoil of World War I, had toured the Great Lakes and had ended up as an exhibit in Chicago. While on the tour, the U-boat had visited Sackets Harbor, hence her picture in the book. I was able to answer the battlefield museum curator’s query about how the U-97 had come to the U. S. She, and a few other captured U-boats, had been escorted—and at times towed—across the Atlantic in 1919 by the U. S. Navy’s submarine tender Bushnell. I knew this because the naval officer put in charge of that particular operation, the Commanding Officer of the Bushnell, was my father.
While all this was going on, the citizens of Sackets Harbor, seeing a strange vessel at their town dock, came down to see what was going on. At last, on August 25th and 26th, our advertised schedule allowed us to open the boat for their inspection. They came by the hundreds, seventeen hundreds over the two days. We were able to add a new and different feature to the historical exhibits at Sackets Harbor.
The five days allotted for the open-water trip to Oswego began on August 27th. The forecast for that day and the next called for the wind coming up to a moderate westerly breeze for that day and the next, with 2-foot to 4-foot seas. Not a good forecast for us. But the forecast for the 29th looked better, a light northerly becoming west a bit stronger in the afternoon, with 2-foot seas. Then moderate westerlies the next two days.
By break of day on the 29th, then, we cast off, swung the schooner’s bow round with the Oocher, and eased out of the protection of Sackets Harbor. By 7:50 a.m., we were 10 miles on our way, taking departure from Stony Point light, a mile away on the port beam. In the unlimited visibility from the Churchill’s wheelhouse, as we towed ahead on the long hawser, we could see just where we were bound: the tall, twin stacks of the Oswego power plant, right in line with the entrance between the breakwaters, 25 miles away. I was glad to see that when we headed for the stacks, we were on the compass course that I had laid down on the chart.
This was open water all right. The Lake resembled perhaps an irregularly tolling bell, rather than a quiet clock. There were only ripples from the light northeast breeze following us, but the westerlies of the previous two days, despite their moderation, had left a low, rolling swell from the west surmounted by a small chop angling in from the northwest. The tug rolled so that sitting on the steering stool you wanted both feet planted solidly on the deck. I called on the radio back to First Mate Tom Larsen, steering the schooner in the tug’s wake, to make sure that the swifters he had rigged were continually taken up taut, as the schooner’s roll stretched her rigging. For we knew that if she rolled much out on the Lake, the lanyards holding the shrouds supporting her masts would stretch under the extra strain, thus allowing the masts to start swaying. The swifters were lines across the vessel from shroud to corresponding shroud, sweated up tight to hold everything together. They worked.
By 12:45 p.m., we were moored to the big, western pier in Oswego Harbor, and at about 1:00 p.m., sure enough, the breeze came in a bit stronger out of the west. I, for one, was glad to have Lake Ontario astern. It blew fairly hard the next two days, but we cared not.
August 30th was another layday, and we were glad to see right on page one of that morning’s Syracuse Standard a nice photo of the Lois McClure entering Oswego Harbor. And that was before the next day’s press conference, in connection with a canal conference at Oswego, brought on board twenty-three ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate. The result of all this publicity was that over the next three days we had plenty of Oswegans on board, and we found that many of the inhabitants of this port city were knowledgable about all sorts of maritime affairs.
We were now at a turning point in the 2012 cruise. New Canadian cruising grounds, including Lake Ontario, were behind us. We were ready to re-enter familiar waterways: the Oswego River, the Erie Canal with its Oneida Lake, the Champlain Canal, and finally Lake Champlain itself. We were homeward bound.