The penultimate leg of this Great Loop odyssey sees Elliott Maurice heading for the Great Lakes where a collision threatens to throw him off course…
This is Part Five in Elliott’s Great Loop adventure. Make sure to read Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four first.
Our four-day stopover in New York proves to be every bit as fabulous as hoped. Our mooring at Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City, provides us with an outstanding vista across the Hudson to Manhattan.
The ferry is only 5 minutes’ walk away and Jersey Landing has a lively boardwalk with several bars and restaurants to choose from.
A post-Covid New York is much quieter and less hectic than normal. So much so that Alan, Jude and I grab a Lyft rental bicycle each at the Freedom Towers and cycle the six miles to the Empire State building, almost without stopping. A trip up the Art Deco landmark is followed by cocktails overlooking the East River.
With local friends and family keen to join in the fun, we take Privilege for a sightseeing cruise up the East River to take in the Manhattan and Brooklyn shoreline.
Unfortunately, a pending storm forces us to turn around before Roosevelt Island but there is so much to see that I wish I’d allowed for a full week here.
Leaving the Big Apple
With most of the crew now departing, co-skipper Alan and I prepare the boat for departure, provisioning, cleaning and fixing a few minor things now the boat is clear.
The 170nm trip up the Hudson should be easy with the wide, deep river making navigation simple. We plan to spend the first night in Kingston, some 70 miles north of New York City, where we have booked a berth at the Hudson Maritime Museum.
I pull Privilege out of Liberty Landing just after 11am and turn north up the Hudson. Once clear of any restrictions I hand over the helm to Alan and we power up to 24 knots.
It is an unusual feeling to be cruising along at a similar pace to the road traffic only 100 yards from shore. Gradually the skyscrapers drop away as we speed past the Upper West Side, allowing us occasional glimpses of Central Park down the east-facing Avenues.
Within an hour, Manhattan is just a speck in the distance and once past New Jersey the Hudson widens and the buildings give way to open countryside reminiscent of the home counties around London – no wonder it’s called New England.
Occasionally, we pass a huge barge or glide under an enormous steel bridge. These structures date back to the early 20th century and would once have been the lifeblood for freight trains and traffic shuttling between the coast and America’s industrial heartland.
These days they are lightly used but still serve as a fascinating reminder of how Andrew Carnegie’s steel changed the way America lived and grew through the industrial era.
Further up river, the wooded banks change to steep-sided granite hills which merge into the Catskill mountains. It reminds me of the Scottish Lochs and I find it intoxicating.
Before long West Point Academy emerges up ahead. Built by George Washington in 1779 as his military headquarters, it gave him total control over the river, imposed with the aid of a 150-ton iron chain strung across the river and a fortress bristling with cannons.
These days the vast fortress looks like a militarised version of Hogwarts and since 1817 has been the US Army’s most prestigious training academy. At the time of our visit it is closed to visitors due to Covid restrictions but even from a distance, it is a spectacular sight.
Travelling further north past Poughkeepsie, the land flattens out and the wide river is home to some fabulous classic sailing yachts.
Progress is satisfyingly swift. Privilege seems to be relishing the fresh water and Alan and I take 45-minute shifts, enjoying our time at the helm with nothing to worry about other than transiting northward. At this speed, we reach Kingston by 3pm.
Pulling into the estuary, we are greeted by an American version of Henley Royal Regatta. Ivy League rowers are sculling back and forth to the sound of “pull, pull”. We ease our way down on one engine, trying not to cause a ripple.
Our berth for the night is on a pontoon in front of a 19th-century steamer (Rip Van Winkle II) and under a Victorian rail bridge – the perfect period setting.
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The Maritime Museum’s waterside is dominated by a large tugboat with its side removed and glazed to show off her engineering.
Powered by steam, she would have had to stop her engine and reverse its cycle to change direction – a far cry from Privilege with her fly-by-wire throttles and hydraulic steering.
The museum is also closed due to Covid-19 but a friendly curator agrees to a private viewing. My personal highlight is an ice yacht built in 1886 with a revolutionary lateen rig that was timed at speeds over 100mph, making it the fastest vehicle in the world of its era.
Its 40ft-long bladed mahogany hull and outrigger must have been quite the handful as it skated over the ice at three-figure speeds.
With the rowers now coming in, the coach takes us for a quick spin on the club’s centre console down the small river before we retire to Privilege for the night. We prepare a charcuterie board of cold meats and cheeses and settle in for an evening of cocktails, cigars and snacks in this corner of a bygone era. It couldn’t be any more peaceful.
A sensible departure schedule allows time for a hearty cooked breakfast before nosing out of the estuary bound for New Baltimore and the renowned Donovan’s Shady Harbour.
The 60-mile passage takes us through some of the oldest settled landscapes in the US. In these remote areas it’s not hard to imagine the badger pelt hunters of 200 years ago taking care not to let their wooden rafts drift too close to shore where Mohawk arrows or black bears might lie in wait.
Preparing for the Erie Canal
After three hours we arrive at Shady Harbour. This family owned marina is Brian Donovan’s idea of what a Great Loop marina should be, using his own experience of shuttling his 80ft Hatteras to and from Florida for the winter to inform his thinking.
Needless to say it is an excellent facility with fuel, a maintenance yard and a well-stocked ships store, along with a loan car and excellent restaurant and bar. Two nights here is the perfect prelude to venturing into the Erie Canal.
The next day we head out on a five-hour drive to Rhode Island to see my co-skipper Alan’s new Regulator 34ft centre console, which he had bought unseen just before our trip.
Powered by triple 300hp Mercury outboards this 50-knot powerhouse looks fantastic and the time is well spent making a snagging list of tweaks before delivery to his home on Lake Erie.
Our next leg of the journey takes us into canal country. Fortunately, our land-based skipper, Jill, has transited the Erie canal many times and provides a valuable list of tips for the 37 locks ahead.
Foremost among these is to run at all times with fenders dog-eared just below the rub rail on both sides. Wrapped in heavy builder’s bags that you discard at the end of the canal, it saves hours of rigging and cleaning while protecting the boat.
The locks all have drop lines, which are often muddy and covered in debris, so rigger’s gloves are recommended for deck hands too.
As this is the opening day of the canal season, we leave our berth at 8am instead of the recommended 6am in the hopes of avoiding any unnecessary vying for position at the entrance to the first lock.
Having kept a boat in Port Solent and experienced the national sport that is “lock ogling”. I am more than prepared for the hustle and bustle of lock transiting.
As expected, the Grand Banks Eastbay we had moored opposite is only a few boats ahead of us in the queue, despite having left two hours earlier. As the doors open to reveal the 250ft interior, it looks like we are going to get the final slot.
Alan nonchalantly assures me “we have plenty of room, let’s do it!”, but it’s only once the lock gates have started to close that it becomes clear there isn’t enough space to tie up alongside.
Our only option is to free-float the rising water in the centre of the lock. Using both bow and stern thrusters we hold our position and with a little shimmying we are through and moving with the pack towards the next flight of five locks.
Built in 1907, these interlinked locks climb 165ft over just one mile. It is the greatest rise in the shortest distance of any canal system in the world. If we weren’t competent by the end of this, we never would be.
As we progress, we get into an easy rhythm. I pilot the entry then hand the controls to Alan who thrusts out or in to keep us away from the lock wall while Mikey and I handle the lines.
We are advised on entry that 200 miles ahead the canal is devoid of water due to lack of rain and we may need to divert into Canada via the Oswego River to reach the Great Lakes.
There isn’t really an alternative for us so we press onwards up a very pleasant stretch of river with tow paths on either side, not dissimilar to a rural section of the Thames.
However, thanks to its greater width you are free to cruise at up to 25mph other than when passing marinas or boat docks. Taking full advantage, we power up the river making a significant dent in this 250-mile leg.
With most of the other boats being slow-moving trawler yachts or sailing boats with masts lashed to the decks, we rapidly make our way through the fleet, reaching lock number eight well ahead of schedule at the head of the group.
Now with only four boats close behind us and a huge lock ahead, our morning strategy has proved the right one. I ease gently into the lock, cutting power as we enter the wind shadow, allowing Mikey to retrieve a drop line 15ft from the exit gates. Safely in place, I watch as the following vessels stream in behind.
At the back I spot a Sea Ray flybridge making a rather scrappy attempt at picking up the drop lines on the other side of the lock. Noticing the captain’s inexperience, I ask Alan to keep an eye on him.
At the next lock, the group has shrunk to three boats with the aforementioned Sea Ray flailing around at the back. Entering first, we repeat our chosen procedure and nudge gently into place 60ft behind the forward lock doors.
With the wind picking up, I don the gloves and hold on to the forward drop line. Watching astern, I spot the Sea Ray powering in towards the opposite wall far too quickly.
The crew don’t stand a chance of catching a drop line let alone stopping the 20-ton vessel and sure enough he crunches into the wall and careers off it in our direction. “Power down!”, I yell as the captain panics and adds more throttle. As if in slow motion, the Sea Ray hits us amidships with a gut-wrenching crack. Privilege heels to port as we’re pushed against the lock wall.
Expletives fly through my mind, as I watch the captain add yet more power, driving us higher against the lock wall as his bathing platform scrapes along our exposed flank before colliding with the lock wall and coming to a halt.
I turn to Mikey, clinging to his line as doggedly as if it were a pint from the bar, thinking did that just happen? Nearly 1,500 miles without a scratch and we have just been poleaxed in the middle of nowhere.
The captain and crew of the Sea Ray look utterly panic stricken and without wishing to add to their anxiety, I radio the captain to check on his wellbeing. “I’m insured”, is his immediate response. I suggest he ties up on the wall once safely out of the lock so that we can swap insurance information there.
A costly prang
His exit proves equally calamitous as his bow swings 90 degrees in the whirlpool current, this time through insufficient application of power. I decide to stay well clear of this calamitous captain and ask Alan to take his information over VHF instead.
Moving upstream, damage unchecked, I power Privilege up onto the plane, immediately noticing a vibration though the boat – at the very least we must have bent a propeller blade when pushed up against the wall.
Bringing the revs back down stills the vibration and allows us to maintain efficient progress at 15mph. With three hours of open locks available to us, we decide to push on regardless.
By 7pm the sun is starting to sink below the horizon so we decide to head back downstream to the Mohawk Welcome Centre we passed earlier, which appears to have a quay wall with accessible cleats, toilets and vending machines. With Privilege safely tied portside to, I have no way of assessing the damage to her hull.
I can see that the rub rail has impact damage at several points but thankfully there is no sign of joint separation between the hull and deck. The starboard side has some large gouges above the rub rail and the rail itself is bent but I will have to wait to inspect the hull fully. We settle in for the night and enjoy a serene evening in the middle of nowhere.
The next day, Alan walks down to the lock to glean more information on conditions up ahead and returns a short time later with a big beam on his face and the lock-keeper in tow. “I have some good news and some bad news,” he explains. “Bad first,” I grimace.
The lock-keeper proceeds to explain that lock 17, approximately a day up ahead, is broken. It is the largest lock on the canal system and has a solid concrete guillotine door, the mechanism of which has failed. “And the good news?” I ask. “I drove the lock” replies Alan with a childish smile.
It turns out he managed to sweet talk his way into operating this 120-year-old engineering marvel. Not quite what I was hoping for but I have to admire his undimmed sense of humour. Our only option is to find a more civilised base with diesel, water and shore power where we can wait out the lock repairs.
Five locks back we passed Mohawk Marina, which has restaurants, a casino and supplies. We retrace our previous day’s steps and turn into the almost empty marina only to be greeted by the very same Brian Donovan from Shady Harbour.
After explaining the previous day’s collision, he gives me the details of a local diver to inspect our hull and updates us on Lock 17. It turns out that a vast 8ft gear has thrown a couple of teeth and cannot be rectified by a trip to the local hardware store. In the meantime the Erie Canal corporation is trying to find a crane to lift the 150 ton door.
The following morning, we decide to leave the boat here, fly home and resume the trip in a couple of weeks. Our businesses need attention after a month away. In the meantime, I secure a police report on the accident and arrange for the diver to inspect our hull and stern gear.
We can already see that the port side of Privilege is riddled with scratches and gouges from the impact and at the very least will require a full repaint. The delay may also deliver the rain we need to raise water levels in the dry section of the canal. With any luck by the time we return we will be able to complete the final leg of our journey to the Great Lakes.
Read more: The sixth and final part of Elliott Maurice’s epic journey from Miami to the Great Lakes in his valiant Princess V48…
First published in the December 2021 issue of MBY.
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