Princess V48 owner Elliott Maurice tackles storm surges, broken lock gates and submerged logs to complete his epic journey from Miami to the Great Lakes.
After nearly three weeks at home waiting for news on the broken lock gate that has thwarted our progress through the Erie Canal, I finally hear that lock 17 is open again. A huge mobile crane has arrived to raise and lower the 150-tonne door until they can sort out a permanent fix, and thanks to a series of powerful storms passing through the area, water levels have risen to a passable depth too. It’s time to get back to Privilege and cover the remaining 550 miles to our destination at the far end of Lake Erie.
It’s not all good news though, the storms have caused a phenomenon known as a Seiche, when strong winds blow the water from one end of Lake Erie to the other causing a 5ft tidal surge that has left some boats stranded on the mud at the New York end of the lake and sunk some of those at the Ohio end.
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They have also blown huge amounts of debris into the lake, which the returning water has drawn back across the lake, clogging up the western end of the canal. Our hope is the worst of it will clear before we reach this section.
Trial by guillotine
After flying into Cleveland and driving the 450 miles to Mohawk Marina in our rental car, Alan, Doug and I are relieved to find that Privilege has weathered the storms well. Her engines fire up first time and all that’s needed is a wash down prior to departure.
The damage caused to her hull and sterngear by an errant boat in a previous locking incident hasn’t been repaired yet but at least we’ve had it checked by a diver and received clearance to proceed from our insurers.
We are on our way by 1000hrs the next morning. Despite our bent propeller blade, progress is excellent. There’s a minor issue with the starboard throttle sticking in neutral and the bow thruster is running poorly but we still manage to tick off seven locks in the first day, reaching St Johnsville, NY just before lock 16.
We stop for the night in the pleasant little marina and wander across the bridge in search of somewhere to eat. Unfortunately, the town itself is not the picture postcard place we were hoping for. The first thing we come to is the rusting hulk of a former factory. With its main source of employment now closed, the town is eerily devoid of people and with nothing open, we head back to the boat for dinner.
The following morning we manage to find cooked breakfast at a local diner as well as a store selling vintage knick-knacks. The owner, who drives a 1950s prison van, lets us peruse his fascinating inventory of old hand tools, household goods and books from a bygone era.
Back on the canal, we are swiftly through lock 16 and heading for the dreaded lock 17. As it comes into view, Alan and I glance uneasily at each other. Looking like the gates of hell, this 200-year-old contraption with its vast guillotine door over 40ft high bears more than a passing resemblance to the French execution device. Should the crane’s cable fail, the door would cut Privilege in two.
Nervously, we edge forward under the door and into the giant lock. The door closes ominously behind us, accompanied by loud mechanical clangs. With its 60-foot high algae-clad walls, the lock feels like it has been designed by Dr Frankenstein himself.
With Doug on the forward line and me on the stern line, we hold the boat steady as water surges in, lifting us 40 feet to the next step of the canal. Unscathed, we edge out into open water and breathe a mutual sigh of relief.
We settle into a 14-knot cruise up the widening Mohawk River, staying just below the speed at which our bent propeller starts to vibrate. Signs of civilisation are few and far between and we’re just starting to enjoy our surroundings when a loud thump rouses us from our reverie. We have hit a submerged tree lurking just below the surface.
Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to have damaged the rudders but our one slightly bent prop has now been joined by a second. This slows our progress to 10mph and forces us to deploy a log-spotter on the bow.
With last light falling and no wish to risk more unseen obstacles, we stop at a waterside restaurant with overnight dockage in a place called Utica. A quick internet search for Volvo dealers pulls up Winter Harbor six hours further up the canal in Brewerton.
The next morning, as soon as the yard opens, I call ahead and book a lift out. We cover the three locks and 20 miles of Lake Oneida to Brewerton in no time, arriving just past midday. With its New England-style lake homes perched over manicured lawns, this is clearly an affluent part of the world. As promised the boat yard’s sling is waiting for us down a narrow canal lined with boats.
Seeing Privilege lifted brings relief and curiosity in equal measure. Almost immediately I can spot a bent blade on the starboard propeller and further investigation reveals a folded end on the port one too. There are some scrapes along the chines too but it could be worse. Within minutes the props are removed and gauges attached to the shafts to check alignment.
Both are slightly out but not enough to require immediate replacement. The yard’s owner says he can get the props reshaped over the weekend and can also arrange for the boat to be repainted over winter if required.
Whilst we’re here I also take the opportunity to sort out some of the other jobs on my to-do list. After 14 years of regular use, the electronic throttle head needs replacing, the bow thruster is barely functioning despite removing a handful of fishing line and we still haven’t had a chance to fit the new autopilot pump we’ve been carrying with us for weeks. I even fix a lazy shower sump pump after finding a replacement in the well-stocked ship’s store.
Sleepless in Skaneateles
Sunday dawns bright and clear, giving us the chance to head to the nearby town of Skaneateles, pronounced Skinny Alice. It’s a beautiful old town with immaculate brick and weatherboard homes.
We stop for an excellent lunch in the 200-year-old oak- paneled Sherwood Inn and after a walk through this vestige of old American wealth, our journey home takes us past Anyela’s Vineyard where we sample the local vintage. An excellent day and one we would have missed if it weren’t for hitting that submerged tree – sometimes it really is about the journey.
As promised, our props arrive on Monday morning looking as good as new and by 10am they are back on their shafts, the new throttle head has been fitted, the scratched chines have been touched up with antifouling and the zinc saltwater anodes replaced with freshwater magnesium ones. The only thing we can’t fix is the bow thruster motor, which judging from the metal filings we found in the casing is gradually destroying itself. We will have to cope without it and replace it when we get to Ohio.
With Privilege now back in the water, the difference is astonishing. The new throttles give fingertip precision, allowing me to back out down the narrow canal with ease. While I carry out a final sea trial and throttle calibration, Alan heads to the office with my credit card to settle the not so small bill.
At last Privilege is back up to full fighting fitness, admittedly without a bow thruster, but armed with a functioning autopilot and razor-sharp throttle responses. Fuel and water tanks brimmed for the days ahead, we leave Winter Harbor with a renewed sense of optimism.
In theory the canal now has enough water upstream for us to pass but it will be tight. This is our last chance to divert onto the Oswego River and hire a captain to take Privilege through Canada as a commercial vessel (we aren’t allowed to enter Canada as a pleasure craft). We ignore the option and press on.
We stick to displacement speed and keep a constant look out for leaves on the surface that might indicate a submerged log below. By keeping up this slow but steady progress until last light, we finally make it through lock 33 to Rochester and tie to a wall, noting a number of trawler yachts on both sides of the canal.
The lock keeper tells us a telegraph pole came down earlier in the day and is now blocking the route ahead. A clearance crew will be on it first thing but this is as far as we can go for now. So much for my assumption that the Erie Canal would be the easy part of the journey, it’s proving to be the biggest challenge of all. Still, dinner and a few beers with the guys isn’t exactly a hardship.
As planned, we leave at first light with the canal still shrouded in mist. Idling upriver we soon spot the maintenance barge dealing with the telegraph pole, which tells us we are safe to pass. With only 50 miles of canal left to transit, we’re hoping to push through to Lake Erie tomorrow.
By mid afternoon we reach lock 34 and explain to the lock keeper we are planning to reach North Tonawanda tonight. He says he will do his best but warns us that our 4ft draught will be a tight squeeze and hands me two satellite images with sonar plots coloured to show the only route through this shallow section of canal. With no reference points, I grab my iPad and pull up a satellite view on Navionics. The track is very narrow with a dog leg and a number of swings through the channel. The lock keeper bids us safe travels.
Holy crap, it’s shallow. Markings on the canal walls show at least 5ft less water than usual and although we’re not stirring up any mud I’m aware we are in a rough, stony bottomed canal with only inches of water below our recently refurbished props. Keeping a close eye on the sonar, chartplotter and satellite imagery, I call out depths as Alan sticks tightly to the prescribed course using just one engine.
It’s a tense few minutes as we negotiate the lowest point of the canal but after what feels like an age, the depths start to creep up again. It’s not over yet, lock 35 has its doors open and it’s clear that there is hardly any water in it. Knowing the locks are deepest at the centre, I decide to free float it in the middle.
Without a bow thruster to hold us steady I have to edge forward and backwards the entire time to keep us safely in the middle. The strategy works and the lock keeper radios in to tell us that Lock Port, the final lock on the Erie Canal, is staying open until we’re through. It feels like a scene from Smokey and the Bandit as we battle our way west through ever more challenging obstacles.
Thankfully, the following miles pass by without any further drama and just before 1900hrs we make our way into the huge double lock marking the end of the canal. As we exit the lock and pass under the low bridge, I announce to the crew that we’re in Lake Erie water now.
Just one final section of canal to go flanked by steep granite walls on both sides. “Holy shit,” says Alan, “they blasted this out of solid rock.” He’s not wrong, in 1824 Irish labourers used nitroglycerin to blast their way through to the Niagara River. I set the throttles to 10mph for the last 20-mile stretch as daylight ebbs away.
“Nobody’s looking,” says Alan with a smile. “Well I know what you would do,” I reply, pushing forward on the throttles and bringing Privilege up to 22 knots. Our four-foot wake doesn’t even cause a splash over the walls as we run up the narrow waterway, carving gently through its sweeping turns.
Yet again this is proving to be one the best boating experiences of my life. As the sun finally sets, we drop back to idle and use Raymarine’s new Quantum Doppler radar to navigate our way along the river as clearly as if it were a chart.
It’s just past 2200hrs when we see the street lights of Tonawanda approaching and before long we arrive at our slip to be greeted by the dockmaster and her dog. A live rock concert is drawing to a close and the dock is full of lively fans.
Clearly the day is not yet done, so Alan mixes us some cocktails and we light up cigars to celebrate another epic day’s boating to stow away in my boating hall of fame. Tomorrow we will be on Lake Erie.
An 0900hrs start sees us heading for the Mentor Yacht Club some 80 miles away, taking care to pick up the left fork of the Niagara River, that runs through Buffalo into Lake Erie, rather than the right one, which leads to a sticky end off the Niagara Falls.
Exiting Buffalo affords a fabulous view of the Freedom Bridge spanning the Niagara River inlet with Canada on one side and the US on the other.
The currents can be vicious here, so we opt for a shoreline route passing through the tongue-twisting Black Rock Lock into the Black Rock Canal and out into Lake Erie itself. Once clear of the canal’s confines, I power up to Privilege’s maximum speed of just under 36 knots to check for any signs of vibration, there are none, before dropping back to a fast cruise of 30 knots all the way to Mentor Harbor.
On arrival at this lavish yacht club Mike Pettery, the commodore, greets us warmly before ushering us to the elegant patio bar where drinks are waiting. We feel distinctly underdressed for the occasion but are made to feel very welcome and end the evening onboard Privilege with Mike and a few of the club’s members.
Our final day requires another early start. The wind is picking up to 40mph by midday and blowing from the west. Although not an issue from this direction, Alan, who has 60 years’ experience on the lake, says that a shift of 90 degrees could turn it into a lethal boiling pot. Saying goodbye to our new friends, we set off on our final 70-mile leg, past Cleveland and into Sandusky Bay.
I have used the trip to raise money for a local children’s charity and with nearly $10,000 raised so far, they are holding a welcome party at the Barrel House Saloon to mark our arrival.
With the wind on our nose, Privilege hammers through the 2-3 foot chop like a knife through butter. Finally, with rain clouds gathering, we pass the Cedar Point roller-coaster park and slip under the bridge leading to our berth.
We have navigated 2,450 miles to get here through open ocean, along the mighty Hudson River, through the Erie Canal and across the lake itself to this narrow 40ft-wide gap under a road that leads to Castaway Bay Marina.
My wife and dog are already there to greet us at the start of a long evening of celebrations. This incredible journey is why I dreamed of owning a boat and invested decades of time, money and education in the passion that is boating. Thank you MBY for being part of this incredible voyage.
First published in the January 2022 issue of MBY.
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