Once our mast was down at Oswego and tightly strapped to the deck, it was time to head through the first lock and into the canals. Since we’d done the whole ‘locking’ thing before on the French canals, we thought we knew what we were doing… Boy, were we wrong – it was a total #^&@ show. I can’t believe what BUFFOONS we looked like! We were sure the lock keeper had never seen anything like it. With the mast hanging out in front of the bow we both quickly realized that I could not handle the lines on my own amidships as I did in France. Tim was going to have to handle the lines at the stern and I was going to have to be at the bow fending off the wall and protecting the mast. As Tim was grabbing the lines I had dropped while racing to the bow to prevent disaster, I noticed we were ‘drifting’ backwards… very quickly! Tim had accidentally left the boat in reverse after stopping the boat along the wall and we were headed for the closing lock gates! Thankfully we did not hit the gates, the walls or damage anything – we just looked like fools. When the water had floated us to the top, the lock master started making excuses for us saying ‘the locks work differently in Canada’ and ‘we’ll get used to it’ etc… He was very kind and said he’d seen worse. I really can’t imagine how.
(Sorry no photos of this escapade!)
It took five days for us to travel from Oswego to Waterford and negotiate a total of 30 locks. We quickly had a routine and never again had the heart pumping experience of that first lock! Tim would pull the boat along side the wall of the lock and stop the boat. I would be at the bow ready to grab onto one of the lines hanging down the side of the wall while Tim (leaving the boat in neutral) would jump out of the cockpit and grab a line at the back of the boat. You hold onto these lines and keep the boat from moving around in the lock as you ride it up or downstream – it really wasn’t complicated and actually easier than what we did in France.
We tried not to rush through the canals, but since we were trying to hook up with friends on the Hudson River at a particular time and date, we did not take the time to really explore the historic area surrounding the canal. I could easily spend a month cruising the Erie, Oswego, Cayuga-Seneca and Champlain canals. New York makes it shockingly easy and cheap to spend time on these canals. For example, a season pass for the NY canals costs $75 for a boat our size. That same pass for cruising the Trent in Canada is $700! Now, I’ve never traveled the Trent, so maybe it’s worth it? Here in New York State each lock has a public wall near the lock where you can tie up FREE for 48 hours. Almost every town has the same thing, a free wall where boaters can tie up for 48 hours (some even have FREE power and water). The lock keepers are happy to give you advice about where you can find grocery shopping, laundry, restaurants or beer nearby!
Most of the locks have a pretty modest drop in elevation with two exceptions along our route. Lock 17 has the largest drop on the Erie Canal at 40 feet. This is the highest lift in the world for the shortest distance navigated. Other locks in the US and around the world have lifts of 85 ft to 100, but cover much larger distances. Peterborough on the Trent has a lift of 65 ft.! Since we were coming ‘down’ in that lock, it didn’t look too intimidating as we drove in, but once you are at the bottom and looking at the huge wall ahead of you, it’s a bit unsettling! This is the only lock that has an overhead door that lifts up instead of swinging open. This means as you drive out of the lock, you get a shower coming from overhead. The other big drop was the Flight of Five at Waterford. This is a series of five locks that must be completed together (no stopping allowed in between) and takes approx. an hour and a half. The five locks drop you a total of 150 feet and the view is stunning.
The canal is not very busy at this time of year and along the way we only saw three other sailboats headed our way and one Erie Canal Tour boat. One of the sailboats was a Catamaran from the Multihull club right across from our marina in Toronto! Not only was that surprising, but it turns out we have met the owner a couple of times at World Cruising Club lectures at the Ashbridges Bay Yacht Club. I love the chance encounters that happen when you least expect them.
While we were sharing a lock with the Tour Boat, I had the chance to listen to the commentary that was being broadcast to the guests on the boat. I learned quite a bit about how the locks operate and the procedure involved. The most surprising thing I learned was that the mitred lock doors that are used on the Erie Canal and all over the world were designed by Leonardo Da Vinci around 1480 and have stood the test of time – no one has improved on this design in over 500 years!
Thanks to all the lock keepers!