Trailerboat Cruising On The Erie Canal

Story And Photos By Marty Richardson

Downsizing by 24 feet proved no trouble for this couple with wanderlust. They discovered that size is no impediment to cruising.

Photo of boats at Spencerport, NYBoats at Spencerport, New York.

For snowbirds like my husband, Jerry, and me, late September is too cold up north at our summer place, about 200 miles north of Toronto near Tobermory, in Ontario, and too hot in Florida. So our solution last year was to trailer our 28-foot Pursuit, Night Heron, to the west end of the Erie Canal for a 10-day fall cruise. We hooked our Chevy Silverado pickup, which we call Big Red, to our triple-axle trailer and started our adventure. We'd done this stretch of the Erie twice on our 52-foot trawler, Monarch, and looked forward to seeing the sights again from a new, smaller-boat perspective.

Photo of the Eagle Harbor LiftbridgeEagle Harbor Lift Bridge.

Opened in 1825, the Erie Canal was the first transportation system between the Atlantic Ocean, via the Hudson River, and the Great Lakes, and it established settlement and commerce patterns in the Northeast and Midwest. Today, barges are few, but it's part of more than 500 miles of interconnected canals, rivers, and lakes that make up the New York Canal System. From May through mid-November each year, the waterway is plied mostly by recreational cruisers on private vessels, tour boats, chartered canal boats, kayaks, and canoes. Even landlubbers enjoy the canal as they cycle, jog, and hike along the 365-mile Erie Canalway Trail, formerly the towpath for mules that pulled the canal's barges.

Photo of Skaneatles, a typical canal boat for charterSkaneatles, a typical canal boat for charter.

Crossing into the United States at Buffalo, we started our cruise at Amherst. Although there's a launch ramp nearby, it was almost dusk, so we chose to put in at Amherst Marine Center's travel lift and leave our truck there. Canal cruising here affords a nice opportunity to slow down, literally, with a 10-mph speed limit for the first 124 miles. We weren't in any hurry, and we typically cruise for three to five hours per day, allowing plenty of time for exploring the charming canal-side towns. Once thriving centers of canal commerce, they now open their docks to boaters to encourage tourism and support often-struggling area businesses. Dockage, Wi-Fi, power, and shower facilities are usually free to boaters or come at very reasonable rates.

The weather gods had smiled on us with warmer temperatures than we'd seen all summer, and we pulled into historic Albion's docks for our second night. Here, the old-fashioned Family True Value Hardware store is useful if you need anything and it's just a block from the docks. Farther up Main Street, we found free Wi-Fi at the new library. In the morning, I tried out my new electric hotplate — there's no stove in Night Heron's small galley — to prepare a delicious one-pan bacon, onion, potato, and cheese omelet, with a side of Texas toast. Then Jerry turned his skills to washing dishes in the aft fish-baiting station, rinsing them with the sprayer held overboard without losing a single piece of silverware.

Next up, the village of Spencerport is billed as "someplace special," and it is. Just 12 land miles from Rochester, this quiet country town features free concerts on the canal every Sunday afternoon from June through August. Just bring your blanket or lawn chairs. Nearby, the Book Centre is a huge used bookstore with over 100,000 volumes and a proprietor who knows the exact location of anything you're seeking. At the nearby 1827 Adams Basin Inn, enjoy a B&B with the only intact original tavern room on the canal.

Fairport To Seneca Falls

One of our favorite stops on the Erie was the front-porch-friendly village of Fairport. The straw-stuffed decorations festooning the town in anticipation of its October Scarecrow Fall Festival complemented the bountiful harvest at the Saturday Farmers Market. The tour boat, the Colonial Belle, provides relaxing day cruises on the canal, transiting under the Fairport Lift Bridge. Not only is it an irregular decagon, a ten-sided structure, with the south end higher than the north end, but it's the only bridge in the world built on a bias, crossing the canal at a 32-degree angle. It also just celebrated its 100th birthday. If you've got time, check out the Fairport Historical Museum for canal-development exhibits, and don't miss the Tool Thrift Shop's collection of gently used tools, just steps from the dock at Fairport Village Landing.

Photo of the Fairport, NY bias-built lift bridgeFairport's bias-built bridge lifts for the Colonial Belle.

The village of Newark, our next stop, offers boaters a beautiful park with wall murals depicting historic canal scenes — plus free laundry facilities at the docks. Visit the clock museum in the library, the Historical Society Museum, or enjoy canalside music on the Erie every Friday evening from late June through August.

From there it was on to Seneca Falls and its twin claims to fame. First, it's considered the birthplace of women's rights in America. The National Park Service operates the Women's Rights National Historical Park at the original site of the 1848 First Women's Rights Convention, and it offers tours of the home of abolitionist and voting-rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. There's also a private National Women's Hall of Fame that showcases great and inspirational women throughout the ages. Seneca Falls' other claim to fame is that it's the likely fictional Bedford Falls in Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life". The town capitalizes on that with a museum of related memorabilia and a festival in December. Finally, check out the free Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry at the Seneca Falls visitor center, which celebrates the history of the town.

Photo of the Night Heron at Miles Winery dock on Seneca Lake, NYNight Heron at the Miles Winery dock on Seneca Lake.

New York's Wineries

Next up for us was New York's Finger Lakes Region, not only a beautiful cruising ground, but also home to a budding microbrewing industry and more than 100 wineries, at least 13 of which are accessible by boat on Seneca and Cayuga lakes. In Seneca Lake, which boasts more wineries than any of the other lakes, we pulled into the dock at Miles Wine Cellers. This is a willow-surrounded Greek-revival mansion with an inn, café, and tasting room. National Geographic Travel calls it the "most serenely gorgeous setting" of any winery in the region. We bought a bottle of Cabernet Franc and one of the signature Ghost wines. The story goes that the ghosts of a young couple who may have died tragically at the site many years ago haunt the winery. The woman's ghost and an image of the house are etched on each bottle of this light white wine.

Just 16 miles east of Miles Wine Cellars, via the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, is Cayuga Lake, where we stopped at Goose Watch Winery and picked up bottles of Cabernet and Traminette. At Cayuga Lake's southern end, we pulled into the dock at Ithaca's Allan H. Treman State Marine Park, New York's largest inland marina with 399 slips.

Photo of launch ramps at marina in Ithaca, NYAt the launch ramp at the Allan H. Treman State Marine Park in Ithaca, New York.

Ithaca has lots to offer boaters, and the annual Apple Harvest Festival was in full swing as we arrived. This street fair features local artists, live music and entertainment, international foods, local beer and wine tastings, farmers markets, and events for kids. It also coincides with the monthly 20-venue First Friday Gallery Night, making for an action-packed evening.

Photo of the Ithaca, NY Apple FestivalThe Apple Festival in Ithaca, New York.

When you vacation by trailerboat and the weather forecast no longer looks good, you can bring your cruise to a quick end. Once our weather started deteriorating, we retraced our 10-day cruise in just four hours in a rental car, picked up our rig, and returned to Ithaca. The State Marine Park's spacious launch ramps, with long approaches and concrete ramps extending deep into the water, made retrieving Night Heron easy. The accommodating park ranger even allowed us to put our rig overnight in the parking lot so we could get an early morning start on our long drive back to Ontario. We slept aboard on the trailer that night, pulling up our stepladder before tucking into bed. While we missed the gentle lapping of the water on the hull, this was a fitting conclusion to our first trailer-enabled Erie cruise — just one of many trailer trips we hope to take in the future. 

Marty and Jerry Richardson have logged more than 25,000 nautical miles and seven years of cruising on their 52-foot trawler, Monarch. They've completed the Great Loop twice and have cruised on all five Great Lakes, as well as the Bahamas, Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

— Published: August/September 2015

Lake Erie map

Fun Eats On The Erie


Village House Restaurant, a quick walk up the hill from the docks, serves up a delicious mixed grill — more than enough for two.

El Gallo, a bargain-priced eatery just two blocks from the docks, features tacos, quesadillas, and huaraches.


Audubon Bar is a local spot known for its hot wings.


Mulconry Pub's dinner menu features "Irish Breakfast," a wonderful medley of Bangers (fat pork sausages) and Mash (mashed potatoes), black and white (blood and pale sausages), rasher (ham slices), two eggs over easy, and a pot of baked beans.

The Green Lantern Inn built in 1874 as a private home on Church Street, is one of the more elegant restaurants along this stretch of the Erie.

For dessert, check out the Affaire de Chocolat a few blocks away.


Boatyard Grill offers indoor and riverside outdoor dining with a view of the docks and the active crew boathouses of Cornell University and Ithaca College.


Canalview Family Restaurant, about four blocks from the docks, has family fare with a view of the canal.

Corner Tavern, only a block from the docks, serves a giant platter of ribs, enough for two, plus leftovers.

Seneca Falls

Red's Place features special nights where it serves up dollar tacos and cheap chicken wings.

Bulls Run has canalside seating on a waterfront deck and a wide selection of draft beer.


The Galley Restaurant features 25-cent wings and Karaoke Bingo on Thursdays, and canalside seating outdoors.


Boater Resources

New York State Canal Corporation's Boater Resources publication (usually available from the lockmaster of the first lock you transit)

The New York State Canal Corporation's 3rd Edition Official New York State Canal System Cruising Guide

Skipper Bob's Cruising the New York Canal System

Other online sources:


Select Erie Canal Events

All summer long: Canal Days are held at many towns along the canal to celebrate the history of the canal

June: Path Through History Weekends, a statewide celebration of heritage and culture at numerous canal locations

Mid-July: Cycle the Erie Canal with 500 riders on a 400 mile, 8 day adventure on the towpath

Early August: Canal Splash! Guided walks, rides, tours and canal-side events and festivals at numerous locations

Farmer's Markets are held spring through fall:
Baldwinsville: Wednesdays
Brockport: Sundays
Fairport: Saturdays
Ithaca: Saturdays & Sundays
Newark: Thursdays

For more information and monthly calendars of events, check these websites:


Launch and Retrieval Tips

  • Remember, not all launch ramps are created equal — many are small, with tight approaches, no pavement or short pavement where trailers might get hung up
  • Inspect all ramps on foot before attempting to launch or retrieve you boat
  • Pick a ramp that meets your equipment needs — some are fine for PWC but would not support a double or triple-axle trailer and heavy boat
  • Make arrangements to store your rig while you are boating — many government ramps don't allow overnight parking. Local marinas may be your best bet
  • Research ramps before your trip on these sites:
    Boat Ramp Locator
    NY State Parks Recreation & Historic Preservation


Locking Tips

Locking may seem daunting to the uninitiated. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Advise Lock Operators of your approach via VHF Channel 13 and note any instructions from Operator
  • Standby on red light (or no light)
  • Have fenders deployed prior to entering lock
  • Have lines ready — some locks have installed lines, in others, you will need your own lines. Have a boat hook handy to reach installed lines, if provided
  • If other vessels are locking through, wait your turn to enter lock — no barging!
  • On green light, proceed at reduced speed into lock
  • Six flashes of red or green light — stop and await further instructions
  • Position your vessel's side against chamber wall as directed by the Lock Operator. Do not tie lines; hold, loop and monitor lines throughout process
  • Notify Operator when you are in position
  • After gates close, monitor your vessel's position as lock fills or empties, and adjust lines accordingly
  • Fend off with a boat hook or wooden implement (I recommend a wooden closet rod) — do not use your hands, as injury can result
  • After exit gates are fully opened, cast off lines and exit at slow speed in the order in which your vessel entered
  • Notify the Operator when you are clear of the exit gates — and remember to say "thank you!"


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