Long Island Sound to Canada, Single-handed (Well Almost)
via the East and Hudson Rivers and Erie Canal
by Ian Dunn
Through the International Alberg 37 Owners Association, I discovered that even though the Whitby Boatworks went out of business in the 80s, one of its employees, Alex Mignone, had taken over some of the space and established a successful business doing both interior and exterior refurbishments of Alberg 37s and other boats. Alex emigrated to Canada from Italy in 1967 and as a cabinet maker spent his entire professional career, prior to founding his current business, installing interiors in Alberg 37s. It sounded like something to check out.
Many benefits to CanadaOn a business trip to Toronto, I visited Whitby and spent a couple of hours with Alex talking about some of the things I had in mind. He also showed me some of the work he had recently completed and I was impressed not only with the quality of his work, but that we shared an appreciation for Alberg 37s. The decision was made. I would take Vectis to Canada, have some work done over the winter, and bring her back in the spring. What I would save in NYC area yard bills would pay for a not-insignificant part of the work I was to have completed. There seemed to be several choices for getting Vectis from Rye to Whitby: on a truck (boring); sail east and then down the St Lawrence (too far and too much up-stream); up the Hudson River, through the Erie and Oswego Canals, and then across Lake Ontario; or have someone deliver it. The more I thought about it the only solution was up the Hudson. How could I let such an adventure slip by?
Sailing in the shadow of the Palisades
For those of you who have never seen the Hudson River Valley from the water, you have missed a jewel sitting right on your doorstep! I now understand why the Hudson inspired the many schools of landscape painters over the last century. My goal was to reach Catskill, NY where I had arranged to have my mast pulled. However, I ran out of daylight and on the recommendation of the Cruising Guide to the New England Coast, I pulled into Saugerties, an original Dutch Settlement in the 17th Century -- a perfect, but small harbor. I was invited to raft with Bill and Vivian Wood from Charleston, SC, who were completing a "Great Loop" (more on that in a subsequent article) and who also invited me for dinner.
The Erie Canal wends its way through the Mohawk Valley, sometimes it is the Mohawk River and sometimes it's just the canal. Although this does not match the majesty of the Hudson, it has its own beauty and all kinds of wildlife. Unexpected sightings included a bald eagle, several kingfishers, ospreys, and an otter. I won't go into all the details but during the next two days I negotiated 24 more locks, went 15 miles across Lake Oneida and passed through Amsterdam, Utica, Rome, and the outskirts of Syracuse. Don't ever stop at Canajoharie, NY. The NYCC Terminal there is 50 yards from the NY Thruway, 50 yards from the railroad and adjacent to a bridge joining this "charming" village to the equally exciting village of Palatine Bridge. Despite advertising two interesting restaurants, they were both closed by 1800 and I dined at Mickey D's. I had a second disturbed night in which the constant train whistles were augmented by the sounds of trucks using their engine brakes. I woke to thick fog and ice on my dodger. Thank goodness for thick sleeping bags and radar!
Tuesday afternoon brought me to Three Rivers where the Oneida River meets the Oswego River. There is a sign there showing Buffalo 192 miles to the left and Oswego 24 miles to the right. I had by now started downhill (the first 22 locks take you up) and arrived in Fulton, NY, at 1630. The locks only operate between 0700 and 1700 so there seemed little point in proceeding further that day. Fulton offered both a brew pub (out of business!) and the Lock III restaurant, where I had a surprisingly good meal.
An early start on Wednesday, October 6, got me to my destination, Oswego Marina, on the shores of Lake Ontario. By 1100, Vectis was a sailboat again. I spent a couple of hours cleaning up the boat (and myself: Do you know how good a shower is, after a week?) and was on a bus to Syracuse where I hooked up with Amtrak back to the Big Apple.
Vectis spent two weeks in the Oswego marina waiting for my return whilst I waited for a weather window. The prevailing winds are from the west, which can make for a slow and uncomfortable slog up the lake. On Thursday, October 21, I drove back to Oswego on a dull and chilly day wondering if the forecast for a bright and sunny Friday, with wind out of the southeast, would come to pass. Well, for once the weatherman got it right. The low that had created the drizzle was pushed offshore leaving clear skies and a 10-15 knot easterly breeze.
I spent most of Friday getting the boat ready for the crossing. I drove down to Syracuse and picked up Chris Punter from the train. Chris is one of the regular Allegra Bermuda Race crew and lives in Toronto. He seemed like a perfect choice to join me to sail across the lake. Not only does he know Lake Ontario well, he is an experienced sailor and good company. After a good meal in a local restaurant, we departed Oswego at 2100 hrs on Friday. It was a perfectly clear night with a half-moon. Our course was approximately 300 degrees magnetic and the GPS showed our destination to be 104 nautical miles. With the wind almost due east we were able to broad reach almost the whole way. We tacked down wind to keep the wind a little further forward and were thus able to keep boat speed above 6 knots most of the time. (Vectis is only 26 feet on the waterline). Interestingly, speed over the ground was often above 7 knots, indicating a favorable current. As there is no tide in Lake Ontario, the currents must be purely wind driven. We agreed to stand 2hr. watches and I promptly hit my bunk at 10 PM. I relieved Chris at midnight, but let him to sleep until 4 AM. I had managed to get 12 hrs the night before (there isn’t much to do in Oswego!) and the sailing was so perfect, I did not want to disturb the somber tones of deep-sleep emanating from below. Once we lost the shoreline lights (8-10 miles out) we had the most spectacular view of the heavens and watched with awe as the moon set in the west and Venus and (we think) Mars rose behind Sirius and Orion’s Belt in the east.
We arrived at our destination, Whitby, Ontario at 14:30 on Saturday afternoon, 17 hours later giving us an average speed of 6.1 knots. By that time, the wind had risen to 20-25 knots and seas had slowly built to 5-6 feet as we moved west down the lake. Although it was late October, it was surprisingly warm at night. It did not go below 50 F and I attribute this to the fact that the lake temperature was still in the mid 50s.
Running aground in Whitby
We managed to run aground on entering Whitby harbor. The Canadian Coast Guard had put the buoys in the wrong place! We were helped afloat by a passing powerboat and after docking at the marina, invited ourselves to a party that was beginning in the clubhouse. Clearing customs would have been simple (a mere telephone call) had I not been leaving the boat in Canada for the winter. I had to go to the customs office in person and of course it was not open on the weekend! When I did visit, they were very courteous and helpful, and gave me information about how to claim back GST and PST on the work I was about to have done on the boat.
Tuesday morning saw me on the train from Toronto to Syracuse, and then by bus to Oswego to pick up my car. I arrived home at around 1 AM - exhausted. Nevertheless I am looking forward to the return trip in the spring. I am deliberating whether to go east down the St Lawrence and return via the Richelieu River/canal and Lake Champlain into the Hudson River at Troy. I do know I will take some very large fenders and will not be single-handing again through the locks (with a new paint job).
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