It’s October first and still raining. Captain Nick had hoped to reach Port Colborne by tomorrow. But he hit some bad weather out of Lake Erie and has been waiting it out before he crosses the lake. Because of that, we have some extra time to spend along the Welland Canal. My wife Judy, daughter Wendy, and I have traveled here from Bloomer, to meet Nick. I’ll join him as he begins to travel through the Welland Canal and go as far as the city of Quebec. Judy and Wendy will return home to Bloomer.
Luckily, our hotel is right across the street from the first canal lock and we have a perfect view of the activity. It’s exciting to be amongst all of it. Despite the wet weather, I found myself wandering along the canal “inspecting” boats that are tied up waiting their turns through the lock. I’ve always enjoyed just hanging around boats no matter where they are.
We weren’t sure when to expect Nick since weather conditions were unstable. Fortunately, we were located in an area with a lot of interesting things to do. Judy and I took a ride all-along the Welland Canal to give me an idea of what to expect when Nick and I did take the boat through its locks. I knew it was going to be an experience I’d not forget.
October 3 brought with it a message from Nick that he was crossing Lake Erie from the USA side and hoped to be in Port Colborne that afternoon. Since we had already checked out the marina where he planned to tie up, we suggested that instead, he come all the way into the canal and tie up right near the entry to the first lock and across from our hotel. Good idea.
Sure enough, after a text from Nick that he was re-fueling at the marina, we saw his little green boat approaching the docks across the street. We couldn’t miss the big smile on his face as he strode up the dock.
First on his agenda was to contact the canal office to get assigned to his time to enter the locks. This isn’t something that you just sail up to and wait for someone to open the gate.
Every boat is assigned a time to start the canal journey. And Nick was hoping for an early morning time. The canal master assured him he’d be on the next day’s docket but exact time wasn’t set yet. There are eight sets of locks on this canal and once you begin, there is no stopping until you have gone through the last lock. It can take up to twelve hours to complete the journey. Fortunately for Nick, a next-day departure would give him time to do some minor repairs and cleaning on the boat; after a real shower. It was a good time for him to rest after his stormy runs across Lakes Huron and Erie, too. Later, I loaded my bags and gear onto the boat so that come morning, we’d be all set to go when the time came.
On Oct. 4 I met Nick at the boat early, ready to begin the first adventure of the trip, traversing the Welland Canal. Our estimated time for departure was 3 p.m. Judy and Wendy were somewhat disappointed since they’d hoped to watch us go through the first set of locks. But they needed to get on their way home so Wendy could get back to work in Eau Claire. We said our good-byes with promises to stay in touch. Then Nick and I busied ourselves checking charts and familiarizing ourselves with what was to come ahead. 3 p.m. came and went but we were still waiting for permission to enter the lock. Two other pleasure boats were going to travel through the canal with us and they hadn’t arrived yet. By 4 p.m. we saw them approaching, but then we had to wait for the last ship to clear the lift bridge at the end of the canal.
I can’t say that I was really nervous but I’d never been on a canal, least of all one with locks. This would be a totally new experience for me and I hadn’t had a chance to acquire my “sea legs” yet so I guess you might say I was a little anxious and excited.
Finally, we were given the “go-ahead” around 5:30 and were in Lock #8 by 6 p.m.
Lock #8 controls the level of Lake Erie, so the drop was only a few feet. Pretty easy for the first round. Once through that lock, we motored along with the other two BIG pleasure boats for about three hours. At lock #7 boats drop about forty feet. Keep in mind that this whole system of locks allows boats to drop the height of Niagara falls in order to go from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.
Since I’d never done this before, and was still working on my “land legs,” I carefully worked my way forward (hanging on to anything stable so as not to fall overboard) Until I reached the front of the boat. The big pleasure boats ahead of us were instructed to “raft up” which meant one boat had to off the other side by side. They strongly protested for a reason I didn’t understand. The lock tender strongly informed them that if they didn’t comply, they would not be continuing through the canal.
Nick and I each had our specified positions on the boat as we went through each lock. From now on, my place was at the bow of the boat and his was at the stern. The procedure would be the same through the rest of the locks. Rope tenders on shore would throw each of us a rope. As the lock was drained, we loosely held onto those ropes and the boat lowered with the water. This was to control the boat as the water drained out. It took about ten minutes. As the downstream gate opened, the rope tenders retrieved the ropes to the top and left them for the next set of boats to come through. The same rope tenders followed us through to the end at lock #1.
As we approached lock#6 we had to wait in the canal while a 700 ft. cargo vessel, traveling upstream, came out of the lock. This was a big boat and obviously our responsibility was to stay clear of it. One of the large pleasure boats ahead of us seemed oblivious to his responsibilities as he began to pass the cargo ship. With plenty of room for the pleasure boat to pass with a wider berth, its captain continued to “take his half out of the middle” angering the captain of the cargo ship. And rightly so. Those big ships can’t stop on a dime. Since it’s customary to continually monitor the radio as your vessel is underway, Nick reported to me that) the captain of the cargo ship had just yelled to the pleasure boat to “Get the f#%* out of my way!” Pleasure boat moved over a bit only to have cargo ship respond with “That’s not far enough! Move over!” Finally pleasure boat got the message.
The rest of the trip through the canal was rather uneventful but quite fast. We reached the end of the canal and left lock #1 at 1:10am; had traveled 27 miles and dropped 326 feet from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario by-passing Niagara Falls and the Niagara River. We had finished the first leg of our adventure. We thought.
Our intent was to tie up to an area just out of the canal where we could catch some sleep before we actually entered Lake Ontario to find a snug marina to layover for another day. Thanks to our pleasure boat friends who docked themselves in such a way that we couldn’t fit in the space with them, we thought about tying up to a concrete wall beyond them. That was too dangerous because the pounding waves from Lake Ontario would have pounded the boat apart. Our only choice was to head out into the Lake and try to head to a small harbor in St. Catherines. First we had to head out between two break-waters into the Lake. The wind had been blowing and churning the water for two days so it was rough going even between the break-waters. The swells were huge! As long as we headed into them it was just a “rough ride.” But once we had to change course, it got worse. In all of my years of sailing, I’ve never been in such conditions. The boat rolled and pitched, sometimes with the back of the boat dropping five feet. I had total confidence in Nick’s ability to handle the situation while I meekly anchored myself tight .against the back of the cockpit and held on tight.
Eventually, we came upon a small marina where we could take shelter. As we headed into it, we ran aground. We were tired and hungry and just wanted to be safe in a snug little harbor. But since we were stuck in mud, Nick managed to power us through it and by 2:55 am we were tied up and safe. At 3:10 am we broke out the bottle and congratulated ourselves that we had “made it.” For me, the challenge of the Welland Canal had been a great experience.
After a short sleep on Oct. 5, we met a friend of Nick’s who owned a grape vineyard. Nick had previously arranged to visit with him so the fellow picked us up at the boat and drove us to his vineyard. It was along Lake Ontario, warmer than along Lake Erie, and conducive to growing grapes. He had thirty-five acres of grapes which he harvested by machine. Those grapes he sold to a local winery.
The rest of his grapes he pressed to sell the juice for Ice Wine. Those grapes are left on the vines until they freeze. Then he harvests and crushes them for the juice. The water in the grapes freezes but the sugar doesn’t, allowing for very sweet juice which results in a sweet after-dinner wine. We found the tour interesting and a nice break after our strenuous work out just a few hours before and looked forward to staying at the marina that night before we took on Lake Ontario the next morning.
On the morning of Oct. 6, we were eager to get underway so quickly took on gas and water and pumped out the holding tank. As we left the harbor, we ran aground again but this time the attendant hopped into his boat and towed us through the mud. Then, we found ourselves out on Lake Ontario.
I had never experienced crossing a lake this large. All of my sailing experience had been in site of land. We planned to head straight for the Canadian side of the lake to avoid going in and out of American Customs. With a strong wind coming out of the northeast for several days the lake was still really rough and we were heading in that direction. Nick and I decided that we would take turns at the wheel switching every hour because of the situation and steering in those conditions was tiring.
Nick gave me a compass course to follow which was a new experience for me. It looked like we were going to motor most of the way. I had to learn the response of the helm and the power of the waves we were running into. At first, I over-steered but once I got the feel of the helm I was able to turn into the biggest wave so that the boat didn’t roll and pitch so much. Eventually, I got the hang of it but an hour of this was exhausting and I welcomed Nick taking over the helm when it was his turn.
The day was overcast; gloomy but not too cold. We motored all day until we reached sight of land east of Toronto. As we approached land, the waves diminished and we headed for Oshawa Harbor. Nick surveyed the anchorage area and we dropped anchor by dusk, 7 p.m. My muscles were sore and I still hadn’t really gotten my sea legs so I was still hanging on to something pretty solid as I moved around the boat.
Once we’d dropped anchor we were both ready for dinner. Nick, being a great cook, did most of the meal preparations and they were great. That night we had scrumptious BLT sandwiches with tomatoes from our garden and home-smoked bacon from our local meat market in Bloomer. Pretty good eating, if I do say so myself. Usually, our lunches were sandwiches or something quick; not just a couple of pieces of bread with a chunk of meat slapped between them though. Nick’s sandwiches included tomatoes and lettuce with meat and cheese, sometimes accompanied by Canada’s best...Lay’s Ketchup Chips. Dinners were a little more involved and cooked on the two-burner propane stove which we acquired from a good friend on Madeline Island just days before Nick had started his journey. It worked great. I can honestly say that with Captain Nick, I was never hungry.
Sunday, Oct. 7 started like most other days. Nick was up by 6 a.m. After the long tough day before, I had slept like a log. I love sleeping on a boat as it gently rocks back and forth. The first thing I noticed was the aroma of fresh coffee. Nick loves coffee and he drinks it all day, hot or cold. As on most days that we were anchored, we had a light breakfast before we pulled the anchor and tried to be on our way by 7 a.m.
With the wind coming from the direction we were headed, we set sail. Tacking back and forth with strong winds we sailed for about five hours. The boat heeled so much I couldn’t stand up below deck. I was yet to get my sea legs and was still hanging on for dear life as I maneuvered around the boat. It was an exciting ride as we heeled so far, the edge of the jib got wet.
It was about then that we decided to motor the rest of the way. The Atomic Four Gas Engine moved the boat along at about five knots. After a cool and cloudy day, we made our way into a fairly large harbor at Brighton. Trying to find a good place to anchor, we noticed the depth meter showed three feet, then six feet, then ten. Somewhat confused, we finally realized we were over a weed bed. But to be sure we stayed out of the shipping lanes, we chose to anchor there around 8:40 p.m. Having traveled sixty-nine miles that day we were pooped.
Next morning, Oct. 8, when we hauled the anchor at 7:15 a.m. it took longer than usual. As Nick pulled on the anchor, he’d call back to me on what to do and I’d run the boat. After the anchor was finally secured Nick came back to tell me our problem was caused by the anchor being packed with all those weeds. And then we were off for the day.
With the wind still out of the north east, we set sail on our south east course to Point Petre. It’s at the end of a peninsula that juts out into Lake Ontario and we had to get around that peninsula. When we cleared that point we knew we would be heading straight back into the wind again. After seven and a half hours of sailing and four hours of motoring, we had gone fifty-six and a half miles to anchor in the dark in Prince Edward Bay. It was after 8 p.m. By then I could count on my sea legs and we were both anticipating what tomorrow would bring. It would be our first day on The Saint Lawrence River and we were looking forward to it.
To be continued.
Point Of Interest:
The Welland Canal is part of the Saint Lawrence River Seaway. It extends from Port Colborne, Ontario to Montreal, Quebec. It’s length is 370 miles with fifteen locks The maximum boat length to fit the locks is 740 feet with the maximum boat beam being 78 feet. This size boat was established by the size of the locks during the building of the fourth version of the canal during the 1930s. The Saint Lawrence River Seaway on the Saint Lawrence River was built during 1954 with the first boats through the canal in 1959. This was a joint venture between the USA and Canada. The lock size was established as the same as on the Welland Canal.