Lots of Locks
June 29, 2006
Eileen does not like docking. In fact, the very first song on her latest CD is titled, "Don't Make Me Dock". Part of Eileen's aversion to docking might have to do with the fact that her primary role in the procedure is to fend off as David steers the boat alongside the dock. In other words, she is expected to thrust her body between 20,000 pounds of moving boat and a decidedly nonmoving structure built of concrete, steel, wood or a similar unforgiving material. Her only assurance that she won't be reduced to a large lump of pulverized hamburger is a blind faith in David's helmsmanship skills -- skills that have, on occasion, been found wanting, as evidenced by various gouges in our topsides.
Now the obvious cure to Eileen's docking neurosis is for her to steer the boat while David handles the lines and risks personal maiming. After all, she takes the helm when we're anchoring. But meandering about in an unobstructed anchorage is entirely different from maneuvering the boat in close quarters. As the boat approaches anything solid, Eileen's knuckles involuntarily whiten on the wheel and she has flashbacks to when she was learning to drive a car. The one and only time she successfully parallel parked a vehicle was on her driver's exam. She was so traumatized by that experience that, to this day, she will park a car in a corn field and walk three miles into town rather than to try to fit into a parking space on a crowded street. Similarly, Eileen would rather swim to shore through shark-infested waters than steer the boat to a dock.
Fortunately, for the past dozen years we've managed to shun docks, largely because going alongside usually entails spending money -- whether that's for fuel, a pumpout, or an overnight stay -- and we don't like spending money if we can avoid it. And we probably could have continued avoiding docks indefinitely if it weren't for our desire to return to our home waters for the summer. Ever since we left Lake Ontario in 1994, Little Gidding has been mostly floating around in the sea, which by definition is located at sea level. Lake Ontario is located approximately 243 feet above sea level, plus or minus a few feet depending on the season. Try as we could, we failed to find a route that would elevate us those 243 feet that didn't involve taking Little Gidding through a bunch of locks. For all intents and purposes, locking is the same as docking, only worse.
Locks are more complicated than docks for a number of reasons. To begin with, to transit a canal system such as the one in upper state New York, sailboaters must unstep their masts so they'll clear all the low fixed bridges. With our mast on our deck and overhanging the bow and stern, we suddenly went from being 36 feet long to being 52 feet long. That's a lot of extra boat to worry about. Then there's the problem of the lock chamber walls. With docks, you just have to be concerned about a structure sticking three or four feet out of the water that's essentially stationary. In a lock, you position your boat alongside a wall and move vertically against it as water is either let in or let out of the lock chamber. The New York canal system has locks as high as 40 feet, meaning your boat has up to 40 feet of concrete and metal along which it can scrape and bump. If you're lucky, it's only your fenders that are shredded, not your gelcoat. Finally, all this letting in and letting out of water creates currents and eddies that conspire to dislodge your boat from the dock wall to which you're literally hanging, your hands clutching a slimy rope or cable. Breaking loose and bouncing off the walls and the other boats inside the lock is not a good way to make friends.
The route we chose to return to Lake Ontario was the reverse of the one we took when we first headed down to saltwater: from New York harbour up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal at Troy; along the Erie Canal to its intersection with the Oswego Canal west of Oneida Lake; down the Oswego Canal to Lake Ontario at Oswego. That stretch between the Hudson River and Lake Ontario involves 184 miles of canals and 30 locks -- in Eileen's mind, 30 opportunities for serious injury and destruction.
Our locking experience began inauspiciously. The first lock at Troy -- called the Federal Lock because it's not officially part of the New York state system, which commences a few miles further along at Waterford -- has vertical pipes recessed into the chamber wall around which you're intended to loop a line to hold your boat in place. We did not know this. We expected there to be lines or cables dangling down the face of the wall that we could grab, ideally one near the bow and one near the stern. We were in the lock with the gate closing behind us before we realized there was nothing to grab. A handful of tourists stared down at us from above. It was like witnessing your own burial from inside a roofless crypt. With much revving of the engine and reversing of gears we managed to coax the boat close enough to one of the mysterious pipes that Eileen could snag it with the boat hook. David then came forward with a line and together we pulled the boat up against the wall. The colour began to return to the face of the trawler owner ahead of us, who had been watching intently as our mast oscillated perilously close to his transom.
After we were expelled from the Federal Lock, we decided we needed to study up on our technique before attempting the remaining 29 locks. Waterford proved to be the perfect place to recover. The town provides free transient dockage next to its waterfront visitors' centre; Internet access, showers, water, and electrical hookups are all gratis. Waterford's main street is three short blocks from the docks and is lined with historic buildings housing several friendly pubs and shops. A major supermarket is located a few blocks further along, across the bridge that spans the waterway. We quickly determined that we required enough remedial locking prep to justify staying two nights.
Within sight of the Waterford public docks is the first of a series of five locks known collectively as the Waterford Flight. It's a brutal introduction to the New York canal system, raising your boat 169 feet in less than two miles. Apparently, this is the highest set of lift locks in the world -- just what you want to know after you've managed to botch your first relatively modest lock. We walked up to the lock and watched the boats enter and leave. "We can do this," David assured Eileen. "They're not having any problems and they don't appear to be any different from us."
"Except they're not yelling at each other," Eileen said.
We studied where the lines and cables were located on the chamber walls. We arranged our fenders and added one or two extra just to be sure. We coiled and cleated lines, got out some heavy work gloves, and placed the boat hook on the side deck. We promised not to yell at each other.
We decided that the most important part of our locking strategy was to go slow, very slow. Almost as soon as we pulled away from the dock and headed towards the open lock, David put the engine in neutral. With a couple of hundred yards to go, we were drifting ahead at a speed of about one knot. "You're going too fast," Eileen called from the foredeck.
"If we go any slower we'll be ticketed by the marine patrol for being a navigational obstruction," David muttered.
We inched into the lock chamber and edged up against the wall. There were no pipes to worry about. We each grabbed a line. The gate closed behind us, the water started to pour in, and we slowly rose 34 feet straight up. Piece of cake. Nothing broke and no one yelled.
Not all of our subsequent lock encounters were without incident, but none was even close to being disastrous. Some of the locks were trickier than others to enter and leave because of current from nearby spillways. Most of the lock walls were in reasonable shape, but a few had chunks taken out of them, leaving holes big enough to swallow a wayward tender. The other boaters cooperated in ensuring there was enough room for everyone to fit comfortably along the walls. The lock attendants were universally helpful and friendly.
We gradually stopped being obsessed with meeting our demise in a lock and began enjoying the route we were following. Much of the canal system passes through wooded or pastoral land, interrupted every few miles by a sleepy little town. Many towns provide free dockage in park-like settings, sometimes with electrical hookups and other shore facilities thrown in at no charge. We stayed an extra day at Canajoharie's free dock so we could buy groceries, catch up on e-mail at the local library, and check out the picturesque river gorge from which the town's name is derived.
It took us a less than a week to reach Oswego. As we passed through the last lock and descended to lake level, David said, "That wasn't so bad. The next trip we'll have to allow for more time to sightsee."
A boat was waiting to enter the lock going the other way. A somewhat distraught woman was on its foredeck, anxiously grasping a boat hook.
"Don't worry," Eileen called out. "After the first dozen locks, it's all downhill."