800 miles (1287 km), 100+ locks, in 5 weeks: Erie Canal, Oswego Canal, Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River, Thousand Islands, Rideau Canal, Ottawa River, Lachine Canal, St. Lawrence, Richelieu River, Lake Champlain, Champlain Canal Erie Canal.
When I decided to try sailing in 1977 it was Carl that took me under his wing and helped me choose a first boat (a 1975 Venture 25) and then learn how to sail her. We taught at the same school and subsequently spent many summer vacations sailing Galveston Bay and numerous lakes in Texas. One July we even trailered our boats to the Florida Keys for a stormy, bug filled two weeks that we pledge to do again some day, but this time in the winter when the thunderstorms are gone and the bugs are on vacation elsewhere.
We often talked about making longer trips than we could fit into my wife Sarah's short vacation. So when Sarah's retirement finally drew near, Carl and Sue suggested a trip through the New York and Canadian canal system and the scheming began.
Carl had books and I lurked the Internet newsgroups and bugged people for any info that I could get. We ordered information from any source that we could find, bought charts and planned and planned.
We finally decided on the following route. Trailer to Waterford N.Y and launch at Lock 6 in the Erie Canal, then travel the Erie Canal to the Oswego Canal, on to Oswego, across Lake Ontario, down the St. Lawrence to Alexandria Bay, across to enter Canada at Rockport, through the Thousand Islands to Kingston, the Rideau Canal to Ottawa, the Ottawa River to Montreal, the Lachine Canal back to the St. Lawrence and then on to the Richelieu River at Sorel, down the Richelieu to Lake Champlain, Lake Champlain to the Champlain Canal and finally back into the Erie at Waterford to take the boats out at the same boat launch that we'd used 5 weeks before. Over 100 locks and 800+ miles!
Carl had just bought an O'Day 26 that he intended to take but our current boat, a Paceship 23, was just too small. I considered buying an O'Day like Carl's. But as the time for the trip loomed near and no reasonable boat came on the market, we decided to resurrect our old Venture 25 from a field where it had sat unused and unloved since 1985. It was a mess, but two weeks of cleaning and refitting made her at least acceptable...
The last week in June we left Texas with the "renewed" AdVenture in tow behind our motor home and with Sarah pulling two small trailers behind our van, we headed to Arkansas to Carl and Sue's home to drop off one trailer and continue the planning.
Next we traveled to Lake Summersville in W.Va. for ten days of camping and boating with our family. This was a great "shakedown cruise" mainly to see how all of our "stuff" were going to fit in the boat and if she still floated on her lines.
We spent another week of final fitting in W.Va. where we made screens to close the cabin completely with the pop-top up, to make the cabin bug free and airy, which made for cool, comfortable sleeping. We also made a 10'x 8' sunbrella shade that stretched over the cabin from the mast step to the bimini, which kept us in the shade. These two items made a huge difference between being really comfortable and my wife getting a flight home after the first week.
Finally we headed north to meet Carl and Sue at Lock 6 in Waterford, N.Y. After the boats were launched and completely loaded Carl and I headed to town to buy some final items and left Sarah and Sue to arrange the interior of the boats to their liking. During our absence an unexpected storm blew in with high winds and torrential rains. Our boat leaked in numerous places and just finding a dry place to sleep that night was a real challenge. We were demoralized during the night but next morning dawned clear and warm and a few days of finding and fixing leaks as we traveled gave us a dry boat for the remainder of the trip.
We found the lock personnel on both the U.S. and Canadian sides to be friendly and helpful beyond what you would generally expect to find when dealing with government employees. The hand operated locks on the Rideau were primarily manned by young Canadians working there as a summer job. They were energetic, friendly, talkative and refreshingly wholesome in demeanor. We often visited with lockmasters and workers after the locks closed and found them to be a willing source of information on everything from lock construction and history to where to buy fresh produce or where to find the best places to eat. While there were a few lock docking walls where the walls were high and the views Spartan, most were scenic and often downright gorgeous with a comfortable "I could stay here a few days" atmosphere.
We kept a daily journal of our trip but there are many guides available that are a much better source of navigation information, places to go and things to do than our journal.
While we were in the canals our normal routine was to get up with the sun, have a leisurely, robust breakfast and plan our day so that we would get to the lock where we planned to spend the night in time to lock through. This would allow us to start off each morning without waiting for the lock to open. Many towns had free docks or walls where we could spend the night or several days if we wanted to tarry.
We'd often stop to shop and find a reason to stay. If it were rainy (rarely) we'd just snuggle below in cool comfort and snooze or read. We hiked and bicycled and shopped and cooked fine meals with fresh vegetables and drank good rum when the sun went over the yardarm and tried to never get in a hurry. We all agreed that the soft ice cream and fresh corn in Scotia, NY was the best we've ever had - only to find that it was mighty good in Canada as well. We ate out a few times when we found it convenient but watched no TV, listened to very little news other than the weather report and had no idea what the stock market was doing. ( I expected withdrawal symptoms on this one but they never materialized)
It would take pages to list all of the great times we had but a few of the hi-lights were:
It was a nearly ideal lifestyle with just a few exceptions. There are few showers to be had along the way so we mainly bathed in the cockpit. For a Texan used to 80+ degree water, bathing in the cool waters this far north was often an ordeal.
We had really underestimated the amount of time that we wanted to spend stopped along the way and ended the trip by spending a few days visiting friends and doing some touring on Lake Champlain and then motoring directly back to Waterford to Lock 6 to re-trailer the boats.
The only sailing that we did during the entire trip was the few days that we spent going between Oswego, up the St. Lawrence and then back to enter the Rideau at Kingston. We plan to go back to Lake Champlain this summer and do the sailing that we could not do last year.
Making a trip of this length on a 25' boat requires some real compromises that most couples would not accept. The boat was really packed but she floated on her lines and didn't feel overloaded. We carried the folding bicycles and generator up on deck. Every nook and cranny was filled and the front bunks were full. Sarah had a packing system and she alone knew where to find anything.
On reflection, there were very few items that we took that we could eliminate and I will add a few things that we found wanting. I will, however, make substantial changes to the interior of the Venture if we use it for this purpose again. The Bimini and large canopy made for a cool, comfortable cockpit but made the frequent trips to the foredeck for locking and docking difficult. The Venture did a good job but she is what she is and a long distance cruiser she isn't. We are actively seeking a bigger boat but it is a trade-off between space and ease of trailering and launching. The Nimble Kodiak would seem a good choice but they seem a little pricey to me.
Our expenditures for this trip were small indeed. The fees for the New York Lock System were less than $60 and allowed us to tie-up overnight at most locks. We bought the Canadian Transit Permit (includes an overnight mooring permit) at the pre season rate of @ $15 CAD per foot. The price has increased to @ $16.20 CAD per foot for the 2004 season for pre-season purchase or $17.10 after March 31. That was just over $330 USD for a 25' boat. Considering that this allowed us to transit more than 100 locks and stay overnight at locks and docks right throughout our five week journey, it is cheap!
Carl's 9HP diesel and my 6HP Yamaha 4 stroke just sipped fuel. I was getting an unbelievable 16 miles to the gallon and Carl was doing even better. The rum was definitely costing way more than fuel. Note to self: Listen to your wife and take all of the Mount Gay rum that will fit on the boat with you as you enter Canada or prepare to pay out the nose. I hate it when she is right! We would have spent far more money staying at home in Texas paying $300 per month electric bills and day-sailing Galveston Bay.
The trip was not completely trouble free. Carl's diesel was slightly over heating at first but this gradually fixed itself - we think thermostat. His Honda outboard was bulky as well, but a bit of tinkering fixed this also.
I broke a keel cable when I ran over an obstacle in an area that I should not have been in. This required many dives to unbolt, repair and re-bolt. But at least the water was clear and the right depth, unlike a similar repair that I had to make in the murky, choppy waters of Galveston Bay twenty-five years ago. I discovered that I can no longer hold my breath for two minutes.
There was a pesky leak while underway around the fitting where the keel cable passes through the hull, which was very hard to get at and required several attempts to repair. This was compounded by the Gusher diaphragm giving up the ghost. Sarah would hand bail several times each day until I found a replacement for the pump at the Clayton Boat Show flea market and then finally managing to repair the leak. I also had to re-bed almost every fitting and window on the boat - not unexpected on a boat that has been setting unused for 18 years.
Minor problems all.
We spent many hours planning this trip and in the process we found that a lot of help is available on the net. Pat Drummond's website "Boating in Canada" will point you to almost anything you need to know about boating in Canada. We downloaded Ken Watson's Guide to The Rideau. It is updated each year and is excellent. Parks Canada and the Friends of the Rideau sent us large packets of info. The newsgroup "can.rec.boating" was also an excellent resource. Boating laws in Canada related to alcohol, waste disposal and charts need to be well understood and are well explained on Pat's site. We also had various cruising guides for the entire trip. The New York Canal System also provides numerous helpful publications. We bought one set of charts to share between our boats and I also had the electronic charts on my computer and Carl had them on his GPS.
This is a great, great trip! The water is clean and the scenery is awesome. Because this route makes a complete circuit, it can start and end at any place along the circuit. Other than the open waters of Lake Ontario and maybe Lake Oneida or Champlain on a really bad day, there is very little rough water to contend with and there are lots of protected areas to hide in when the wind kicks up (Bear in mind that I don't usually consider it rough until it gets above 3 to 4 feet).
There is enough to do along the way that this could easily be a two month trip or more. As long as you don't need the comforts of a marina slip each night, it's cheap. The days are warm and the nights are cool. With our screened cabin, insects were not even an issue. After two weeks of "no-seeums" and daily thunderstorms while cruising the Florida Keys a few years ago, my wife was crying to go home At the end of our Small Circle, she was crying that she didn't want to stop. We'll be back to do the Trent-Severn Waterway soon - hopefully in a slightly more commodious boat.
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