Saturday, July 27, 2019

A very long day in Canada to climb 325'

I am typing under way across Lake Erie, bound for Dunkirk, New York, with Port Colborne, Ontario receding behind us. I started this post yesterday morning in Port Weller, thinking it would be no problem to wrap it up after arriving at Port Colborne, but it was not to be: we arrived, exhausted, at 10:30pm.

A glassy stretch of the Welland Canal near Port Robinson, just before sunset.

Monday afternoon we arrived at Point Breeze inlet a little after 4pm. There's no place for us to anchor in Oak Orchard Creek, so our options were to try to find a marina that was far enough above water to take us, or else anchor in the lake. Point Breeze is really a small-boat harbor; only a couple of spots in the whole harbor could even fit us. Fortunately, the swell was minor, with no chop, so we tucked in around the leeward jetty and dropped the hook in Lake Ontario (map).

Vector anchored near the Point Breeze jetties, as seen from the park.

We splashed the tender at dinner time and headed in the inlet and a short ways up the creek to the nice dock at the county park (plenty big for Vector, but no overnight docking) next to the boat ramp. At the end of the park near the east jetty is a replica of the historic lighthouse, not open for tours during our visit. We walked just a few feet to the Black North Inn for dinner.

I ordered a sandwich that looked good, listed as "roast beef, warmed in au jus, on a Kimmelweck roll," but I had to ask just exactly what kind of roll that was. (It turns out to be a kaiser roll with salt and caraway seeds on top.) Only later did I learn that this combination is a regional "thing" in western New York, locally known as "beef on weck." It was very good, as was Louise's locally caught perch.

Coming back down Oak Orchard Creek through the yacht clubs. Parkway overpass is ahead.

After dinner we took a dinghy ride up Oak Orchard Creek, past the Lake Ontario Parkway bridge. The river is lined with "yacht clubs" like the Oak Orchard Yacht Club and the Point Breeze Yacht Club, which are basically marinas for seasonal tenants with limited facilities. Many docks are underwater. The creek itself was quite scenic.

We decked the tender as soon as we got home, for an early start on the next leg, to Youngstown. I'm glad we did, because the wind shifted overnight, and what had been the leeward side of the jetties was now getting some swell off the lake. We weighed anchor after our first cup of coffee. The stabilizers made life much better, and by the time we were approaching the Niagara River, the lake had settled quite a bit as well.

Fort Niagara on the US side of the Niagara River. USCG station at right.

As we approached the mouth of the Niagara we had the historic Fort Niagara to port, and in the distance to starboard we could see the Toronto skyline. We turned toward the river and weaved and dodged our way through -- you guessed it -- sailing school. The Youngstown Yacht Club had one mooring left that could accommodate us, a 2,200-lb concrete block. The river is 50' deep here, so anchoring would not be our first choice. Our mooring was directly across the river from the historic Fort George, and we heard drumming every morning and canon fire in the afternoon.

The yacht club has a launch, but we splashed the tender anyway, because we wanted to visit the much larger and more interesting town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, across the river in Canada. No moorings on that side, nor any docks open for Vector. The CBSA web site said the clearance port of entry was at the Sailing Club there, and that's where we headed.

The yacht club uses these halved railroad axles as mushroom moorings. We had something a bit heavier.

We could see dozens of boats docked at the club's docks, and a few on moorings; nevertheless as we approached we spotted large, hand-written signs saying the facility was closed, no docking, and no dinghy tie-up. We motored over to an occupied boat that turned out to be one of the proprietors and they allowed as there was too much liability attached to having non-members walk across the property after so much flooding. They suggested the Smuggler's Cove Boat Club, two klicks upriver.

That was not listed as a PoE, but we motored up there to see if we could do it anyway. It took me a while to find someone for permission to tie up; club member Jeff was very pleasant and accommodating and not only gave us permission, but also let me use the land line to call CBSA, as neither of us had a working cell signal. (Our AT&T hot spot had likewise stopped working as we approached the border.) CBSA had no problem clearing us here, and immediately recognized the name of the marina.

The Youngstown anchorage as seen from the park. Niagara-on-the-lake and its shuttered Sailing Club in the background.

After clearing in we called an Uber to get to town. It would have been an easy walk from the closed Sailing Club, and by myself I could have picked up one of the community rental bikes from a rack at the park next to  Smuggler's Cove for a relatively short bike ride. Our Uber driver was very informative, told us a bit about the town, and dropped us in the center of everything.

It was a very pretty town, reminding us a lot of many waterfront tourist towns on the east coast, such as Greenport, NY. A well-kept main street, Queen Street, is lined with shops and restaurants, and we had a pleasant dinner at Bistro 61. We strolled a bit after dinner, stopping in at the nicely restored Prince of Wales Hotel before calling another Uber to take us back to the park, uphill from the marina.

Memorial Clock Tower with the old courthouse in the background, near where our Uber dropped us.

Clearing back in to the US was painless using CBP's ROAM app on my phone, which has all the details of both boats as well as our passport information and "known traveler" numbers. It was a very nice evening, and we're glad we made the trip across the river.

Wednesday was something of a project day around the boat. We had to get everything in order for clearing the boat into Canada, including having Angel's records available, and making an extensive list of all the alcohol on board, something I've never done before. You might be amused, or appalled, to know we have 17 liters of wine, three liters of spirits (across six open bottles), and 10 liters (and dwindling) of beer.

Vector on her mooring at the Youngstown Yacht Club.

The other arrangement I needed to make was for a third crewman for the transit of the Welland Canal to Lake Erie. The Seaway requires a minimum of three crew -- skipper and two line handlers -- for upbound transits, while two suffices for downbound. While I had teed up a possible volunteer in Buffalo and also had offers from some friends and family, we were recommended to hire Roger St. Amand at Port Weller. Roger retired from Seaway canal operations, so knows all the ins and outs.

Roger was not available Friday but had an assistant who was. The fee was US$225, and we certainly could not have transported any friends or family here for that amount. Even the more local volunteer would have been close to that by the time we figured Uber rides in both directions and two or three days of meals. Hiring Roger paid immediate dividends, as he was able to assure us we could spend the night at the waiting docks at either end of the canal, notwithstanding printed guidance from Seaway and our cruising guides to the contrary.

Wading fountain and playground in Youngstown.

I did take a break in the middle of the day to go into Youngstown and walk the town, tying up at the public dock in a little park. It was a short walk, as the town is really just just four blocks long. An interesting bar in town inhabits a historic stone building, and it's known locally as The Stone Jug. There's a diner, a nice park with a wading fountain, a Rite-Aid, and a couple of small shops. I did stop in to the Sunoco station to pick up a gallon of gas for the tender.

The Stone Jug, actually named "Ontario House."

The late afternoon was a somewhat less pleasant project. The bow thruster has been getting weaker and weaker and not sounding right. In the past, that's been a sign of impending failure of the drive leg, but we've been in so many tall weeds lately that we thought, just maybe, the thruster had ingested some and become occluded or jammed with them. With the water in the Niagra being very clear and the temperature finally moving into the upper 70s, I donned wet suit and mask and went down to have a look. The tunnel was completely clear and I was able to turn the propeller by hand without any play or grinding; not good news.

We went ashore for dinner at the Yacht Club, which had a nice bar and restaurant. This is yet another club where we have reciprocity courtesy of our membership in MTOA, which has been very valuable. They gave us the mooring for free (but insisted we had to be off by Friday morning due to a scheduled influx for a sailing race) and we were happy to spend some money with them.

Sunset over the mouth of the Niagara.

Thursday we cast off the mooring and proceeded just ten miles to Port Weller, where we tied up at the canal waiting dock (map).  That cut two hours off yesterday's cruise and gave us the chance to clear in with Border Services without rushing.

I docked without using the thruster, both because it was mostly ineffective now but also to minimize any further damage to the drive leg, coupler, or motor. We cleared in by phone on arrival, then used the special phone on the dock to report in with Seaway Control. Shortly after we tied up, Roger, who had been  watching us on AIS, arrived to chat. He told us his associate, Bob, would be here at 7 the next morning.

The sum total of facilities at the pleasure craft waiting dock. The "phone booth" has a flashing blue light on top, a la K-Mart. Or maybe Dr. Who's tardis.

I walked a mile or so to the nearby marina store and picked up a Canadian courtesy flag, which somehow we did not have on board, while Louise squared away her quilting studio so I could get under the berth and look at the thruster. That's a fussy proposition, because the thruster bay is covered in fine graphite dust. Not only is it very slippery, it also gets in all my clothes, hair, etc. and I have to strip out of my clothes before coming out in order not to get it all over the house. Louise hands me tools as needed, like a scrub nurse in an OR.

Not as roomy as a tardis. Yellow phone to call Seaway Traffic, and a ticket dispenser, which charges 20% more than the online (via PayPal) price.

Given that circumstance, it's not surprising that when I removed the motor housing I found the brush area packed with carbon. There was lots of arcing when the motor was test-run. We got out the HEPA vacuum and I got as much dust out as I could, then followed up with a soft brush and finally some canned air. That improved things a bit, but still not up to snuff. In the meantime, I ended up with a snout full of carbon dust; thankfully, humans are mostly made of it.

Vector at the waiting dock, while two enormous ships cross paths behind us, one exiting and one entering Lock 1. The ship coming out also has the pilot boat alongside, to take off the canal pilot.

Other than the aforementioned marina store, there is nothing really in walking distance of the waiting dock. We enjoyed a nice dinner on board, then took a pleasant walk around the neighborhood. While many of the houses we've seen near the lake in New York are seasonal, in Canada this is one of the garden spots and all the homes are year-round. A short while later, around 8:30 or so, five downbound pleasure craft, whom we'd been hearing about on the radio all day, arrived. A couple tied up with us for the night, and gave us a bit of insight about their transit. They were headed to Youngstown for the race.

We turned in early for the 7am start. We were up at 6:30 and Bob showed up right on time; I picked up the Seaway phone and called the control center right after the 7am shift change to get a start time. They did not have good news: likely after 10am. Bob went back home after a short chat, agreeing to return when Seaway gave us a start time.

Hired crewman Bob, tending the forward line in Lock 3. This gives you an idea of what's involved in trying to keep position using lines secured some 50' above the water. Louise was doing the same thing at the stern, where I can't see her from the bridge.

That turned out to actually be 11:30. In the meantime, CBSA police showed up to conduct an inspection. They spent about ten minutes aboard, sending us to the dock. Video playback reveals they spent more time going through my toolbag than anything else on the boat, and they also petted the cat, who came to investigate. We were glad to have taken the time to get our ducks in a row before departing the US. They also boarded the Azimut up the dock from us; he was also waiting for upbound transit, but lacking crew, would need to wait until Sunday.

Visitor gallery, only at Lock 3. Bob let me know I had to be perfect here. You can see Vector's reflection in the visitor center windows. Taken after we finished the lift.

A little before 11, Seaway called to say we would be locking up with the "tall ship" Pathfinder, behind the freighter Tecumseh. We would be the only pleasure craft. I was expecting Pathfinder to be large and well-kept, however, it turned out to be just 72' long and in rather dilapidated condition (says the guy with rust stains everywhere), with a green crew.

Pathfinder behind us in Lock 4, with her yardarms askew to clear the walls. They did not have nearly enough fenders, nor the right type, for the task, and here the whole crew is trying to fend off the wall by hand. There is a lot of turbulence in the locks.

We were very happy to have Bob aboard, because he knew all the procedures for the canal and exactly where we needed to position ourselves in each lock. It was smooth going for the first two locks, but as we approached Lock 3, they held Tecumseh in the lock and directed us and Pathfinder to tie up to the downstream approach dock. We waited here (map) for a little more than an hour for downbound traffic to clear around Tecumseh and the upbound vessel ahead of her. We'd been noticing some clunking in reverse, so while stopped I went down and tightened up the shaft coupler nuts, which had been working their way loose.

Approaching Lock 3. Tecumseh is already lifted to the top. We tied to the wall at right; Bob had to jump off and run lines to big pins.

It was after 3pm by the time we got back under way, and we'd only come five miles through two locks. Only a short distance after Lock 3 is the "flight" of three twin locks, 4, 5, and 6. The upstream gate of Lock 4 is the downstream gate of Lock 5, and the same between 5 and 6. They are imposing, and there is a virtual waterfall over the lower sills.

Leakage cascading over the sills as Bob grabs the forward lock line.

It was a little after 7pm by the time we cleared Lock 7, the last of the main lifts. We dropped Bob off just 1,000' from the lock. We were glad to have him, but unfamiliar crew aboard in the boatswain's department means Louise has to both feed and manage them. At Lock 7 we also said goodbye to the canal line-handling crew, consisting of coeds from a nearby college on summer break. The ships require no line-handlers (it's automated using giant suction cups), so this crew followed us up the whole canal from Lock 1 to Lock 7 in a truck. We had to wait for them to arrive at Lock 4.

The upstream Lock 4 gates which are also the downstream lock 5 gates. More than half its height is submerged.

We arrived at Lock 8, 14 miles later, a good 20 minutes ahead of the slower Pathfinder, and we tied up at the approach dock. I'd done all the locks without the thruster, using it sparingly only when we tied up at the two approaches. But here it finally failed altogether. I'm sure the fuse is blown. Next chance I get, I will swap in the (less powerful) spare motor, and this one will have to go to a motor shop for service.

Lock 8 is an "equalizing" lock, keeping the upper stretch of canal from being affected by wind-driven lake level changes on Lake Erie. It's only a short lift, done without lines by "hovering" in the lock. But here is also where they collect your registration form and CDN$200 toll receipt, which they do by extending a basket on a pole, reminiscent of taking up the collection in certain churches. It was too dark, and we were too tired, for me to get a photo of the process.

Some Seaway maintenance guy with a sense of humor. Lock 4 west upper gate.

We exited the lock, cleared under the final lift bridge, and immediately tied up at the wall in Port Colborne (map), in the dark and with no thruster. Engines were stopped at 10:17, the latest we've ever done so on a day trip. We ended the day at 573' above sea level, 325' above where we started. Louise fell right into bed, and I took an 11pm stroll around town, where, had we gotten an earlier start time, we might have had dinner. The bar near the canal that was packed and had live music as we passed at 10pm was closed down by 11, along with most businesses other than the brew pub.

Vector tied up in Port Colborne. A Canadian Steamer Lines (CSL) ship is docked across the canal.

This morning, well rested and fortified with coffee, we could finally concentrate on the logistics of cruising Lake Erie. Our original plan had been to make Buffalo after entering the lake. We could spend perhaps two interesting days there, and even cruise a bit into the other end of the Niagara River (it's navigable to just shy of the falls). But Lake Erie weather is a formidable challenge; windows for westing are short, few, and far between. Today's window, for example, slams shut tonight, and we'll be able to move again, for just one day, maybe two days hence.

All of that might make two days in Buffalo cost us a week or more in westerly progress, and we opted to skip it and head due south instead. We should be in Dunkirk harbor this afternoon, and will likely be pinned down there tomorrow as well, which will give me a chance to work on the thruster. There's an easily accessible grocery store there, giving us an opportunity to restock after our pre-Canada purge (we literally ate all our remaining eggs the morning we crossed over). In a couple of days we we be headed west toward Cleveland, via Erie and Geneva.

This morning we were passed by another CSL, with an enormous painting on its superstructure in honor of the sesquicentential. Pathfinder is docked ahead of us, squaring up her yardarms.

Update: We are anchored in Dunkirk harbor, in ten feet of weeds (map), and have cleared back into the US via ROAM. It's busy here on a summer weekend, and we are being buzzed by jet skis. I finished typing still in the lake, but it took a while to prep the photos. DropBox, in its infinite wisdom, would not upload them while I was roaming in Canada, with no way to override this. My T-Mobile phone was the only Internet access we had in Canada.

Shortly after leaving the dock this morning, we passed another milestone: 25,000 nautical miles cruised since we started on Vector six years ago. And this morning I had an email from Marine Traffic; apparently someone snapped and uploaded several photos of us between locks 2 and 3. I need to get permission to re-post them here.


  1. The Weeland was an interesting but tough passage. Glad to hear all went well. Lake levels are very high still. We had expected them to drop considerably by now, but incessant spring rains and even many summer thunderstorms have kept them high. Many marinas and homeowners are grappling with the affects. I hope you enjoy our Great Lakes. Our ports are small; but friendly.

  2. Great post. Why do critical components like a bow thrusters always fail at the worst possible time?

    Glad you made it though the Wellland unscathed, but it sounds like it was almost an ordeal. Hope the rest of Lake Erie goes well.

    When you traverse the Detroit River, there is a very hospitable yacht club near Gross Point. It's a relic from Detroit's glory years and they may have a slip big enough for Odyssey. Really nice people, and the club has a good restaurant.


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