Busman’s Holiday

The Waterford, N.Y., Harbor Visitor Center, at the junction of the Hudson River and Erie Canal. Photo by Dick Allen

By Captain Dick Allen
For Points East

After years of commercial fishing, and running both a pilot boat and a tour boat, I still love being on the water. But nowadays, once I’m afloat I simply want to enjoy.

This all became clear to me in 2005, when my wife Beverly and I and two friends delivered our tour boat, the Night Heron, from Point Judith, R.I., to a buyer in the Thousand Islands region of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. It was a great 10-day trip, and it suggested to us that inland cruising might please us more than coastal trips.

I found my 32-foot Seaquest trawler, Weak Moment, in Cundy Harbor, Maine, in 2015. I spent 2016 outfitting the boat to my satisfaction. On June 25, 2017, friend Lou “Socko” Horton and I left Westerly, R.I., headed for Oswego, N.Y., via Long Island Sound, the Hudson River, and the Erie and Oswego canals. At Oswego, Bev would join me for the rest of the so-called Triangle Loop, while Lou and his wife, Anne Lariviere, would drive home.

Leaving Westerly, our cruise began poorly. Bev had to bring paper charts for Long Island Sound, which I’d neglected to stow, to the boat in nearby Stonington, Conn. Then she delivered a much-needed oil filter to us in Niantic, Conn., after the pressure gauge on my Perkins 6.354 diesel dropped dangerously. With a new oil filter and paper charts, Lou and I got under way for good, spending the first night anchored in the Connecticut River off Old Saybrook. The current was strong, but the holding was good.

Northport, N.Y., was our next anchorage. There, Lou discovered that the board holding the steering ram was cracked, and the ram could move before it moved the rudder arm. He also determined that the ram was fastened to the wrong hole in the rudder arm, which applied excessive pressure when the rudder was hard over. We braced the bracket and moved the steering ram to the outer hole, which greatly improved our steering.

From Northport we cruised along Long Island’s north shore to the East River, through Hell Gate, and past Manhattan to the Statue of Liberty. Behind Lady Liberty is an excellent anchorage to spend the night and wait for a favorable current up the Hudson River. Unfortunately, I had not concerned myself with the current, and we spent the first hours of our fourth day doing four to five knots against an ebb tide.

New York Harbor is an experience: Ships, barges, tugboats and fast ferries zig-zag across the harbor, creating a mixing bowl of boats and wakes. When one boat operator complained over the radio to another captain, “You won’t be making any friends dragging that wake,” I thought, Who could he be talking to? Every boat out here is dragging a huge wake!

The sight of the New York skyline from the Hudson River is amazing. The Freedom Tower now dominates the space where the World Trade Center once stood. You’d think New York City would be pretty much built out, but new buildings were going up all over the place. Radical new designs contrasted with staid, old buildings with water tanks on their roofs.

After passing under the George Washington Bridge, the bleak bluffs of the Palisades line the western bank of the Hudson, while the city skyline slowly steps down on the eastern bank. Soon the New Tappan Zee Bridge comes into view, along with remnants of the old span.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, standing like a fortress on the west bank of the river, is a highlight of the Hudson River passage. Beyond West Point, Storm King Mountain and granite cliffs drop majestically into the river on both sides. As the river widens, Pollepel Island and Bannerman’s Castle come into view. As the story goes, Bannerman was an arms merchant in the late 1800s and built a castle-like arsenal on Pollepel Island to store his weapons. Now the island is a state park, accessible only to guided tours.

The narrow strip of deep water along the eastern shore of the river, just south of Pollepel Island, provides a good, if somewhat noisy, anchorage. Both sides of the Hudson River are lined with railroad tracks, with the east side carrying mostly passenger trains and the west side hauling freight. Southbound trains lay on their whistles just before entering a tunnel south of the island, likely annoying light sleepers.

Saugerties was our next stop, and we anchored close to the docks on the south shore of the creek. Apparently, another anchorage is farther up the creek, and I would try it if I went into Saugerties again. Oceangoing ships travel up the river as far as Albany, effectively the end of tidal influence. We found it strange to be dealing with tidal waters more than 100 miles from the ocean.

Six days brought us to our first lock at Troy, N.Y., operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Just north of the Troy (or Federal) Lock is Waterford, N.Y., and the junction of the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. From Troy/Waterford, the Erie Canal heads west while the Hudson River continues north to the Champlain Canal, Lake Champlain, the Chambly and St.-Ours canals, the Richelieu River, and the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

The Waterford Harbor Visitor Center, which hosts many waterfront events, is popular with cruisers. When we arrived on July 1, the Steamboat Regatta was in full swing, and all the floating docks were reserved for steam launches that were on display and puffing around the canal. Waterford has 600 feet of bulkhead, in addition to 1,000 feet of floating docks, so finding a berth was not a problem. Dockside venders offered the usual crafts and some good barbecued ribs.

Waterford is the first of the free docks along the New York State Canal System when you are doing the Triangle Loop clockwise. Stays are limited to 48 hours in most cases, but ours was extended because of torrential rain the next day. Electricity is $10 for your entire stay, and there’s fresh water and a do-it-yourself, coin-operated pump-out. Restrooms and showers are in the Visitor Center. The quality and upkeep of the restrooms along the canal vary from town to town.

Supermarkets are about a half-mile from the Visitor Center, across the Hudson River Bridge in Troy. The supermarkets make things easy for boaters by letting them take shopping carts back to the Visitor Center and leave them there.

About that downpour: As evening approached on July 1, rain dampened the steamboat celebration, but fireworks lit the sky, and the view from the fly-bridge was impressive. But the fireworks must have opened a hole in the sky, because the rain fell all night. What a surprise we had the next morning! Our fenders were over the top of the cement wall, when they were three feet below the top of the wall the evening before.

There is no tide in Waterford, so it was the overnight rainfall that raised the water level at Waterford four feet between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. The National Weather Service recorded 3.5 to 4.5 inches of precipitation in the region that night.

The heavy rainfall had caused swift flooding of the streams and rivers in upstate New York, sending debris down the Erie and Champlain canals. Huge fallen trees were washed off the banks and swept downstream. Logs and other debris got caught in the lock gates, preventing them from opening and closing. Thus, correct water levels could not be maintained in the various pools of the canal system.

The entire eastern end of the Erie Canal and the entire Champlain Canal had to be closed to boat traffic on July 2, leaving Weak Moment marooned at the Waterford Harbor Visitor Center.

Being stuck in Waterford was no hardship. The waterfront was pleasant, and conducive to foot traffic. A laundromat was within three short blocks of the docks, a great breakfast place (Don and Paul’s) was about four blocks away, and a restaurant recommended by the locals (McGreivey’s) was close by.

Peebles Island sits in the middle of the Mohawk River at Waterford and is a pleasant walk from the Visitor Center. Trails that crisscross the island provide great views of Cohoes Falls and rapids on all sides. After the flooding, the sight of the water rushing over dams and rapids was impressive. Lou and I saw five deer on our walk around the island, and other hikers reported spotting a bald eagle.

The island was also the site of Cluett Peabody and Co., one of the largest shirt factories in the U.S. during the early to mid-1900s. Cluett Peabody made the famous Arrow brand collars, and created the marketing for the image of the Arrow Collar Man. Waterford was my first exposure to the amazing history of industrial development that abounds along the Erie Canal.

We were pleased to discover that the New York State Canal Corporation (www.canals.ny.gov) maintains an email Notice to Mariners system that provides updates on canal conditions on all of the state’s canals. This was helpful during the flooding closure, but – with a problem as complex as the flooding and clearing of at least 100 locks, dams and floodgates – confusion still existed. As usual in such situations, rumors were flying about when and where the canal would open again.

After some false starts based on misinformation, I learned that Locks 2 through 8 would be open as of 1 p.m. on July 5. By 1:20, Weak Moment was under way. By 3:50, we were clear of the Flight of Five locks in Lockport. This sequence of locks is said to be the largest lift in the shortest distance of any system in the world: 169 feet of lift in only one and a half miles. By 6 p.m., we were secured to the shore side of the upper lock wall at Lock E-7, the only boat moored there that evening. There were no hook-ups, but we were self-sufficient and comfortable on a beautiful evening.

When we left Lock E-7 early on July 6, the canal was still closed west of Lock E-10. At 11 a.m. we secured at Riverbank Park in Amsterdam, N.Y., expecting to spend the night at this handsome location. However, after a quick walk to the hardware store, we heard that Locks E-11 and E-12 were open. By 4:25 we were through those locks and secured to the terminal wall in Fonda, N.Y. The terminals are essentially work yards for the Canal Corporation, and transients are welcome to tie to the bulkhead if there’s room, which there generally is. At Fonda, the wall filled up pretty fast with boats that couldn’t go any farther until the locks to the west were opened.

The Canal Corporation staff in Fonda was helpful, coming around with a water truck every morning, and even loaning one couple a Canal Corporation van to do their shopping. On Friday, our curiosity got the best of us, and Lou and I rented a car to see what was going on at the closed locks. At Lock E-14, a barge-mounted Canal Corporation crane was pulling logs and other debris out of the dam control gates and moving it to huge piles on shore. At Lock E-15, a private contractor was putting a crane on a barge to do the same. Being a small world, the supervisor for the private contractor was the son of folks I knew from my lobstering days out of Narragansett, R.I.

Saturday, July 8, turned out to be a highlight of our trip, despite our being marooned in the middle of nowhere. We learned that the Fonda Raceway is just across the street from the Fonda Terminal, and I went to my first dirt-track stock car race in probably 60 years. The dust and mud flew, and the noise was deafening, but what a kick it gave me!

On July 9 we were under way again, clearing six locks before tying up to the terminal wall in Herkimer, N.Y. This was the only time we experienced shallow water near a lock or terminal wall, touching soft bottom just as our fenders rubbed the wall.

On July 10 we made it from Herkimer to Brewerton, dodging debris most of the way. We fueled up at Ess-Kay Yards in Brewerton, where the fuel prices are the lowest on the Erie Canal. From there, we went across the creek to the free docks in front of the Waterfront Tavern, where we had a good meal overlooking the docks and the canal traffic.

On July 11, 16 days into our trip, we turned off the Erie Canal and into the Oswego River and Canal just west of Brewerton, a point known as Three Rivers because the Oneida, Seneca and Oswego rivers meet there. By 1 p.m. we were secured to the lock wall between Locks O-7 and O-8 in Oswego, N.Y. With the river rushing by on the other side of a low stone wall that forms the west side of the canal, this is an interesting experience. This popular docking spot is close to downtown Oswego, with a library and stores a short walk away.

Lou’s wife Annie and my wife Bev met us in Oswego, and Lou and Annie headed inland by car. On July 12, Bev and I headed across Lake Ontario to Kingston, Ontario. The forecast was for northeast winds increasing during the day to 20 to 25 knots. But we really lucked out. Motoring due north for 44 miles, that strong northeast wind would not have been pleasant. I’d plotted alternative courses to get us into the lee sooner, but we didn’t need them. We cleared Lock O-8 in Oswego at 7:15 to find Lake Ontario like a mirror. And it stayed that way until after noon, when we were getting into the lee of the northern shore of the lake. By 2:45 we were secured at the Confederation Basin Marina in Kingston, Ontario.

In Part 2, which will appear in the Midwinter issue, Weak Moment carries Bev and me along the Rideau Canal, the Ottawa River, the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the Richelieu River and the Chambly Canal, then into Lake Champlain, down the Champlain Canal, and eventually back to Waterford, N.Y. and home. Stay tuned.

Dick Allen’s boating career includes service on landing craft in Vietnam, on the first offshore lobster trap-fishing boat, and on the last Lampara herring seiner in San Francisco Bay. He operated inshore and offshore lobsterboats, ran the glass-bottom nature-cruise boat Night Heron on Point Judith Pond, and skippered the pilot boat Olympic out of Snug Harbor, R.I.