Great Lakes Summer Trip 2006

Motoring Across Lake Ontario

The past few days have been very busy on the Picton Castle as we have passed through the locks on the St. Lawrence River. We reached the anchorage area east of Montreal around 1000 on Friday, passed the required inspection before transiting the locks, and were heading across the Montreal harbour towards the first lock by 1600. Maneuvering the ship through the locks is tricky business, it requires the crew to respond quickly. Andrea Deyling is our number one helmsman and she steered us safely through all seven locks. The captain depends on her excellent helmsmanship as he pilots the Picton Castle in and out of the locks. The lock operators call the ship into the lock and tell us where they want us to stop. Because we are heading upriver the lock is always at its lowest water level when we enter. Once the ship is in position the line handlers ashore throw us a heaving line, we attach it to our hawsers and they pull the hawsers up and make them fast ashore. Before the lock starts to fill we take the slack out of the lines and make them fast, then as the water rises we continue to take out slack. Most locks give us a rise of 15 meters. After about 10 minutes the water level in the lock is even with the river above, the big steel gates open and we continue on.

Opened in 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway extends from Montreal to Lake Erie including the Welland Canal. Some of the locks are Canadian, some are American and there seems to be quite a lot of cooperation between the two. Most of the ships that use the Seaway carry cargo such as wheat and other grains, iron ore, chemicals, oil, and manufactured goods in containers. These ships have been designed to just fit in the locks with little room to spare. The maximum size of a laker (as these ships are called) is 740 feet long with a beam (width) of 78 feet. To compare, the Picton Castle‘s sparred length is 179 feet with a beam of 24 feet. Being smaller doesn’t actually help, as it means our ship can bang around; if we filled up the lock we couldn’t. We have had some large ships pass us going the other direction, follow us, or overtake us between locks. Sometimes we have the whole lock to ourselves; sometimes we have to share with another ship. Coordinating vessel traffic in the Seaway is a large task, but they do it well. As we leave a lock the local traffic station will tell us about other ships in the area including their names, direction of travel, and approximate location. There are a number of designated reporting stations, and as we pass we radio in to them and let them know where we are. It would be nice to anchor at night but we are steaming flat out to make sure we get to Cleveland on time. It’s all very interesting but very different from sailing the South Pacific.

The distance from the first lock (St. Lambert) to the last lock before Lake Ontario (Iroquois) is 95 nautical miles, with some locks right next to each other and others up to 44 nautical miles away. We passed through the Iroquois lock at 1430 on Saturday, so our transit of those seven locks took almost 24 hours. Throughout the Seaway we are using the Scandinavian watch system, with two watches instead of our usual three. Today the Port watch is on deck from 0400 to 0800, and 1300 to 1900. The Starboard watch has the deck from 0000 to 0400, 0800 to 1300 and 1900 to 0000. Tomorrow each watch will have the opposite schedule, and so it cycles around. This is a more demanding watch schedule than we usually keep on the Picton Castle but it actually allows for more sleep because otherwise we would have to call all hands to pass through every lock.

We took a short but well-earned rest last evening as we made a stop in Ogdensburg, New York. With the town dock right on the river, it made sense for us to stop there and clear in through US customs and immigration. We must have been quite an event in town, based on the number of visitors who drove past to check out our beautiful barque. We still have all of our Seaway modifications in place—yards cock-billed and greasy fenders all over—so we don’t look quite our usual best, but they didn’t seem to mind. Crew were let loose for a few hours each, long enough to play a game of rugby in the park across from the town dock, stock up on potato chips and maybe find a cold drink. We got a very early start this morning at 0300, leaving the dock and getting underway again. It would have been nice to stay a bit longer, but we must press on. So we have locks day and night. It’s quite something.

Because of our stop in Ogdensburg we were able to pass through the Thousand Islands in the daylight. I don’t think anyone bothered to count, but there certainly are a lot of islands. One of the smallest ones we saw is only about 20 feet by 20 feet with a house covering almost the entire island. The inhabitants could barely take two steps out their front door before going for a swim. On the opposite end of the size spectrum is Boldt Castle, the vacation home built about 100 years ago by the guy who owned the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. It looks like a real fairy-tale palace. There are lots of cottages and summer homes in the area and we were checked out by a number of powerboats and jet skis out for a Saturday morning ride.

At Cape Vincent, where the river opens up into Lake Ontario, we said goodbye to Don Metzger, a Seaway pilot and friend of the ship. Don had joined us at the Snell lock in Massena, New York, and he was a huge help. Like all pilots in the Seaway, he specializes in one area, and he covers the river upwards from Massena and all of Lake Ontario (seems like a VERY large area to me). He regularly guides ships in and out of ports on both the Canadian and American sides. Don was great to us, sharing all sorts of knowledge about the area and making sure the helmsman was informed and comfortable.

Currently we are motoring across Lake Ontario, heading for Port Weller where the Welland Canal begins, which goes around Niagara Falls. We hope to go through the canal in the daylight hours on Monday, and the total transit time should be somewhere between 8 and 12 hours. Then we are headed on to Erie, home of the US Brig Niagara, a ship on which the Captain worked for some time. It is 2nd Mate Greg Bailey’s home town, too.