26 July 2013

Taking the Long Way Home

Once again I need to apologize for the lack of updates.  Chaos erupted on our way home.

My last blog update ended with us heading to Rhode Island for the weekend and us hoping that the Erie Canal would be open again the following Monday.  Well, that didn't happen.  Or, the Monday after that.  Or, on the Monday after that.  It closed on June 13th and did not reopen again until July 17th.

We spent 15 days in Troy, NY.  Here is why...
Major flooding.
Major damage.
The State of New York received near record rain fall in the month of June.  A couple of times it was large amounts in a very short period of time.  Most afternoons looked like this.

We waited patiently, constantly monitoring the Canal website hoping for a ray of sunshine.  Once, there appeared to be a break in the insanity.  On a Thursday afternoon we got word that water levels were down and repairs would be completed and the Canal would be opened to mariners Friday morning at 8am.  But, that was short lived.  Not more than a couple hours later a new Notice to Mariners was put out notifying all mariners that, not only will the locks not reopen, but they would be opening flood gates in advance of a predicted 5" of rain over the Mohawk river drainage basin.  This would happen regularly.

Rumours flew around everywhere.  Everybody knew somebody that had a story, an inside piece of information.  Lock 12 is busted.  Lock 9 is busted.  I would try calling the Canal System directly, but they seemed disinterested in providing us with a straight answer.  Finally, I could take no more.  We are taking the long way home.
Home for 15 days
July 1st... new plan.  We would head north up Lake Champlain, come out on the St. Lawrence river north-east of Montreal and then travel upstream back to Lake Ontario.  Because we are now running low on time, the cheaper Trent-Severn route is no longer an option.  We will continue through Lake Ontario to the Welland Canal.  Then run Lake Erie, on up the Detroit and St. Clair rivers.  Finally onto Lake Huron, up and around the Bruce Peninsula arriving at our final destination, Wiarton Marina.  On the way down, Troy, NY was mile 550.  On our new way home, we still had 1100nm to go.

Why did it take us so long to commit to the Lake Champlain option, you ask?  The distance was only a part of it.  The other issue was their 17ft fixed bridge heights at normal water levels.  Water levels had been anything but normal.  But, on my last phone call to the Canal System 800 number and only after one request to talk to a supervisor, I was assured that the Champlain lock operators had been able to maintain their waterway at normal water levels for the last couple days.  We had to give it a try.

Our previous lowest bridge that we had passed under was a little bit outside of Baltimore, 17' 7".  That was exciting and now we need to go 7" lower.  I got to work at lowering every piece on the boat that would move.  Our highest point was now our radar.  I estimate our air draft at about exactly 17', but had no way of measuring it down to the inch.  Our first bridge of the day is a 21 footer.  We have been under plenty of those, hardly even worth talking about.  Except for the fact that two of our fishing rods touched the bridge and we had no choice, but to totally drag our outriggers all the way under.  WTF?!?!?  A little perplexed, we continue up to Champlain Lock #1 and kindly ask, "what gives, buddy?"  He explains that we had just been in the convergence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers.  The Mohawk still has too much water and that was not under his control.  He guaranteed all the following pools to be at normal water level and that 17' bridges would be 17' bridges.

From Lock 1 to Lock 5 we make great time.  Nobody is around, we have the place to ourselves.  By Lock 5 we catch up to a couple trawlers that have also had enough of waiting on the Erie Canal and are taking the long way around.  Being faster, in the lock I ask if we can pull out first.  Just around the corner from Lock 5 is our first test.  A true 17' bridge.  WOW!!!  Does that ever look low!  We approach ever so slowly.  Kerri climbs up and stands on the arm rests of my seat.  She sticks her head out the hatch on the hard top and tries to eyeball up the bridge and our radar.  "Back up, back up!!!", she says.  We angle over to another part of the bridge, no good.  Confused and a little embarrassed, we let the trawlers pass us by.  The second boat offers to spot for us from the other side of the bridge.  We try once more, this time the guy on the other side radios back and says he can see 6" of day light.  We should be good.  At the last minute, Kerri yells "back up, we are going to hit!!!"  Too late.  Our radar gets pinched under the bridge and I scratch it on the way back out.  Well, this is no fun.  We move way over by the rivers edge and try once more.  Kerri now has the radar angled to pass straight inline with the boat so that we can keep it in between the rivets.  That is how close we are... rivets.  This time we make it through.  Slightly shaken, but we are through.  And that is how the rest of our day went, 6 more bridges in the 17' range.  Each and every one was a nail biting affair, until the last one.  Crunch!!!  It felt as though the whole hardtop flexed with that hit.  I don't even ask Kerri how bad it was.  She assures me it was just another scratch. I am thinking scratches don't sound like that.  We try over and over, there is no way we are getting under this one.  I call the Lock Operator, "we are stuck".  She says "no problem, give me a minute and I will drop the water level for you."  After about 20 minutes though, she was losing her cool.  Sounded like she was breaking some rule.  "You let me know as soon as you are through", she says with a bit of tension.  Another 10 minutes go by and we finally make it under the bridge.  That is enough for one day.

Lake Champlain was a lot more pleasant, except for driving straight through one squall and dodging a couple different thunderstorms.  We make our final US port at Plattsburgh, NY.

Tomorrow, we will be back home in Canada.  Quebec actually.  The only charts that we have for the next few days are on the cell phone.  And our French, let's just say it has been a while since high school.

There is a Customs wharf immediately inside the Canadian border and things went smoothly.  We gave them a little money and they welcomed us home.  Oh, how we Canadians love our taxes.

Back out on the Riviere Richelieu and there are Fleur de Lys (Quebec's provincial flag) flying at almost every home.  All the VHF radio traffic is now 'en francais' and Kerri and I are wondering what our next few days might be like.  Rightly or wrongly I often associate the Fleur de Lys with the Separatist Movement and I am feeling like I am right in the middle of it.  Our day ends with a small canal system that parallels the Richelieu river called Chambly.  The locks are very well run by very pleasant bilingual  staff, but I am still not convinced.  They are government workers, they are hired because they are bilingual.  The true test will be Chambly Marina.  The dockmaster's English is very poor, almost as bad as our French.  We quickly give up on the VHF and resort to hand gestures.  But, once we are along dockside she has a couple resident boaters helping her out and their English is very strong.  In fact, the one guy takes a shine to Macara and politely asks if she can come with him to feed the fish behind his boat.  Kerri checks in with the marina and I get the shore power hooked up and then we join them for a couple beers.  Luke has Macara on their swim platform and they are hand feeding Carp pieces of bread.  Once back on our boat and preparing dinner, Kerri and I both comment on how we wish our French was stronger, because once again some of our favourite people on this trip have turned out to be French.
Chambly Canal
Chambly is essentially a suburb of Montreal, only 40km by car.  But, we still have 36nm to travel north to Sorel, QC on the St. Lawrence river and 34nm SW back upstream to Montreal.  Oh, and one more lock.  Half an hour by car, or 7 hours by boat.

Montreal is a great city, not one that can be truly appreciated in just one night.  Unfortunately, we are behind schedule and want to keep moving.  Our marina choice for the night was Marina la Ronde.  Right by the old fairgrounds from Expo '67 there was roller coaster traffic right on into the evening.  Then after dark, we got to experience the Chinese entry into some sort of world fireworks competition.  Having been on the State side on July 1st and the Canadian side on July 4th, any fireworks would be appreciated.  And one final congratulations to Marina la Ronde, at $1.50/litre ($5.70/ US gallon) you had the highest fuel price of anywhere on this trip, Bahamas included.

From Montreal to Kingston is the St. Lawrence Seaway, 7 locks on the Canadian side and 2 locks in the USA.  These locks are huge, not like anything on the Trent-Severn or Erie Canals.  They are capable of handling Lake Freighters up to 740ft in length and having a 78ft beam.  Commercial traffic is their priority.  Recreational windows are scheduled, generally with only a couple times per day.  The Seaway employs a technique that we hadn't used yet, group mooring or rafting.  Smaller vessels raft up and larger vessels raft together.  I have to admit that our group cheated.  He had a bow thruster and we left our main engines running.  Based on my previous experience in the Welland Canal I was sceptical, but the group method worked just fine.
Kerri in her locking position

Rise and shine the next morning.  They post the recreational boating schedule at 7:30am... nothing.  Well that sucks!!!  Oh well, stuck in Montreal.  That is a pleasant change.  We have a relaxing breakfast and start thinking about what to do for the day.  On a whim, Kerri checks the Seaway website one more time.  There has been a change, there is a recreational opening at 1pm.  Strange time to start the day, but we will take anything.  And with nothing to do and being a little unsure how things will go, I see no harm on being there an hour early.  Good thing too, because something changed again.  We arrived at the lock only to find the other boaters untying their lines.  We are going straight in.  We didn't even have time to buy a ticket, we had to pay in the lock.  All in all, a little good fortune makes for a relaxing day.

We clear St. Lambert's lock (actually two locks) and and then St. Catherine's lock and patiently waited for buoy A13 out in Lake St. Louis so we could put the throttles down for a bit.  We start to accelerate and then nothing???  The starboard engine will not rise much above 1200rpm.  Humm???  Do we have turbo problems?  It was working earlier today and now nothing.  Not good!  Combine engine problems and not being sure if they will take us at the Lower Beauharnois lock and a group of 100-150 boats anchored by an island look pretty inviting.  We turn around and drop a hook in the group.  Not an hour passes and all the boats start lifting anchor.  And I mean all of them, all but one.  We woke up the next morning with one other boat.  When that many boats leave, you have to wonder if there is something that they know and you don't.  We had a great night.

The next morning we had to wait for a few freighters to lock through and then we made our way up the Beauharnois locks.  But, our black smoke/lack of power issue has not gone away.  We pull into Creg Quay Marina (Lancaster, ON), we need help.  As always, every mechanical failure happens on a Sunday; the mechanic will be by first thing tomorrow morning.  Archie shows up bright and early and without turning a wrench declares the issue to be turbo problem.  He will work on finding us a new turbo.  Not entirely satisfied, I call my contact at Caterpillar.  The Cat guy says it is likely a dirty turbo boost sensor telling the engine to over fuel.  Barely even sure what the turbo boost sensor looks like, I begin to inspect and swap the two engines sensors.  All the while, Kerri is pouring over our diesel handbook (Marine Diesel Engines: Maintenance, Troubleshooting and Repair by Nigel Calder).  She has declared our problem a dirty air intake filter.  Interesting, but a sudden failure?  It worked earlier in the day and then not later.  Feels more mechanical to me.  Archie hasn't given up either, he comes back knocks off the air intake filter and gives the turbo a peek and then turns it by hand.  Now, he is no longer convinced it's a turbo problem.  That's a relief, that was one of the most expensive fixes.  Now it is a good thing I am not paying shop rates for my services, it took me the better part of all day to become certain what sensor I was looking at and then swap them.  It's time for a test drive.  If I have a bad sensor, that problem will follow itself over to the port engine.  To keep Kerri happy, I pull the air intake filter off the starboard engine.  Off we go.  It's marine mechanic vs. Caterpillar rep vs. Kerri and her handbook... there will be no living with her after this.  The boat jumped up on plane as good as the day we bought her.  Quick, back to the dock.  We need to order some new filters.  While Archie and I are chatting, Kerri already has the Parts Manual out and has located the part number.  Soon after Archie returns, "you are not going to believe this.  Two or three days for delivery.", he says.  Not thrilled with the delivery time, but relieved that I am not out thousands of dollars; we settle in and wait.  Creg Quay is a nice marina, it has a pool and the people seem friendly.  Lancaster is just inside the Ontario boarder and most of the boaters here are actually from Quebec.  Once again, we find ourselves surrounded by mostly french speaking people with passable english.  Macara is having fun in the pool and with the fish in the marina.  There are a few kids around and language is not getting in the way of their good time.  Day 2 quickly passes, no parts.  Day 3 is dragging on and our parts arrive at 6pm.  For some strange reason, they call me up to the office to make sure the parts are correct.  OMG!!! They sent the wrong filters.  I am crushed, but somehow not surprised.  The marina manager is equally upset, if not more so.  She starts calling in all her connections.  Somehow, the proper part gets identified and it will be in Cornwall at 8am the next morning.  9am arrives and I have 2 brand new filters sitting on the back of my boat.  The best explanation that could be offered was that I have the parts manual for the original 3196 engines.  My boat has the 4th generation turbos that comes with a different air intake filter.  We are back in business!!!  One final note regarding our time at Creg Quay and our positive experiences with the french as a whole.  Macara had been playing with a boy about her age, his dad stops by and says "if the right part does not arrive first thing tomorrow, you take my truck to Montreal and get the right part."  At that point, I did not even know the guys name.  Good people, very generous.  I just wish I could speak their language.

We have three more locks to go.  Two on the US side, which turned out to be our absolute favourite.  They had floating cleats to secure your boat to as the lock level changes.  Very nice.  And last the Canadian lock had almost no lift.  But, the downside was that even though we had made it through all the locks, this area was still considered St. Lawrence Seaway and as such was still subject to Seaway speed limits.  All the way from Montreal to Kingston they have all these obscure speed limits for vessels larger than 40ft.  I am used to 6knot limits in canals, but they had all these other limits.  10.5knots from here to here, then 16knots, down to 11knots up to 13knots, down to 8.5knots.  Well, you can image the size of wake that I pull doing 11 or 13knots.  And because it didn't make sense to me, that was exactly the speed I went.  Only pulling off as a courtesy to other boaters, which I would have done anyway.  Onward we went, slow and senseless.

One joy of our extended trip was some of the nice scenery that we got to see.  Lake Champlain is pretty  and the 1000 islands are also very nice.  No trip through the 1000 island area would be complete without a short side trip past Boldt Castle.  Call the guy a hopeless romantic, George Boldt (who was the general manager at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in NYC and the manager at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Pittsburgh) initiated the construction of his castle, one of the largest private homes in North America.  And then, with the death of his wife in 1904, all construction ceased.  Now restored to her original glory, she is quite a sight.

Finally, Lake Ontario.  No more speed limits and dead calm seas.  Look out MasterCard, we are going to burn some fuel.

A 14hr day saw us put out of Kingston, across Lake Ontario and through the Welland Canal.  The Welland Canal alone can often take that long when you consider the delays that recreational boats often encounter there.  We got lucky!  Many, many thanks to my parents for assisting us through the locks and you sure made Macara happy to be off the boat and rid of these long days on the water.

Lake Erie was also mirror flat.   A quick stop for lunch and fuel in Erie, PA.  We continued on to Put-In Bay off Sandusky, OH.  Put-In Bay is a very popular tourist destination.  We arrived at 9:30pm and took a mooring ball.  We never set foot on shore.  How boring?

The heat has been pretty intense lately.  The heat, together with the humidity combined to be hotter than anything that we saw down south.  This creates plenty of afternoon thunderstorm in the western Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair area.  We dodged our share.  It's a lot more fun with modern electronics.

Almost home and these unusually calm lakes keep driving us onward.  We arrive in Kincardine (our hometown) hoping to stay a couple days, but the weather says we can't.  Only one more good travel day and then it is supposed to blow right through the weekend.  Sorry guys, gotta run!

We arrived in our home port of Wiarton, ON, 362 days after we left.  Some 6531nm on the trip meter.  Three different countries... Ontario, Quebec, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virgina, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Bimini Islands, Berry Islands, New Providence, Exumas, Long Island, Eleuthera and the Abacos.

What a trip!!!  Oh, the memories!!!

I'd do it all again tomorrow, but we would need a sponsor.  It is time to go to work and pay some bills.


  1. What an adventure Ian! Glad you're safely back home! Let's get out and shoot one of these days!

  2. Welcome back! See you at work tomorrow?

  3. Yes Dave, I will be at work tomorrow. First stop will be BLC. We will see what their plans are for me after that.