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The Best Laid Plans

[This piece appeared in the August 2015 issue of Port Tacks, the newsletter of the Finger Lakes Yacht Club. ©2015 by Thomas Alley, all rights reserved.]

By the time this issue gets out, I’m sure everyone in the marina will have heard about our Not-Quite-Lake-Ontario Cruise from their dock neighbor, but I’ll re-tell the story nonetheless.

Our original plans, which we had been scheming since mid-winter, were to leave Watkins Glen on the weekend of June 27th and head north to Lake Ontario via the NY Canal system. We had planned approximately two days to transit the canals, a day to re-step the mast, and then a cruise that would include Sodus Bay, Heart Island (near Alexandria Bay), Chaumont Bay, and then a return to the Finger Lakes via the canals once more. All in all, a two-week exercise. Mike Crouse was to have joined us with his crew aboard Seek Ye 1st and we were actively seeking any other boats that wanted to come with us. We also had plans to include some of the more advanced participants from the Seneca Junior Sailing program to give them an opportunity to experience some “big water” sailing and navigation.
As was quickly reinforced (…then emphasized, and then pounded into our thick skulls), the two biggest enemies for cruisers are:

Mike and I both got involved in projects aboard our boats. Unfortunately, while I was crossing things off of my to-do list, Mike’s was getting longer. It’s the age-old nightmare of scope creep when you find yourself saying, “As long as I’m doing A, I might as well do B and/or C while I have everything taken apart.” As it happened, a week before our scheduled departure Mike’s boat was still on the hard in a profoundly disassembled state. Two days before our departure, it was apparent we were going to make the trip alone.

At the same time, the new prop we had installed on our boat was giving us fits. After upgrading from a 2-bladed prop to a 3-bladed model, the extra torque required to turn it kept causing failures with our shaft coupler. We eventually got things figured out, but it was only a matter of days before our planned departure before we had sufficient confidence in the repairs to proceed with our plans.

Throughout the weeks leading up to our departure date, it rained. And rained. And then rained some more. All in all, nearly 10 inches of rain fell during June. (The average in this area is 3.1 inches.) Normally, this precipitation will drain through the Oswego River watershed. Unfortunately, the geography of this area is relatively flat, meaning that the water will tend to accumulate and drain off very slowly. On June 10th, closures began in sections of the canal system we needed to traverse.

I started to follow the various Internet sites that track water levels and tried to correlate precipitation and the rate at which water levels would recede. It appeared the canals would re-open a few days before our departure if we got less than ½ to 1 inch of rain in days prior. Our preparations continued.

On Thursday, June 25th, I called the offices of the New York Canal Corporation and was told that all of the canals were open. On Saturday, June 27th, we got another 2 inches of rain. Thinking the worst, I called the offices again on Monday morning, June 29th, and the cheerful canal representative told me everything was open and that there were no restrictions on travel, though water levels were still on the high side in places.


Katie and Maggie help with securing the mast and other items in preparation for departure.

By 15:30 that afternoon, the boat was provisioned, our crew of three had their gear stowed, and our mast was down. Everything was secured for a long voyage and we departed Watkins Glen around 18:00 for Geneva.

Accompanying me aboard Tomfoolery were my daughter, Katie, and her good friend, Maggie, both second-year participants in Seneca Junior Sailing and veterans of several Geneva Barge Race trips. (All of them in bad weather!)

We cooked dinner while underway, enjoyed a beautiful red sunset (sailor’s delight, right?), and then arrived in Geneva shortly before midnight. Given the cloudy skies, we elected to stay at the Seneca Yacht Club dock and get up when there was sufficient light to navigate the canal so that we could arrive at the first lock by the time they opened at 07:00. (The girls want me to point out that getting up that early was my idea and not theirs!)


Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Sunset on Seneca Lake as we head toward Geneva, NY.

We roused ourselves at 05:30 and were underway by 06:00, tied up along the wall at Cayuga-Seneca Lock 4 by 06:50. Skies were overcaset and getting lower. The lockmaster arrived at 07:00 and, after giving him a few minutes to get settled, we went ashore to purchase our pass for the canal. At this point we were informed that water levels were again high, but that all boats already on the canal would be allowed to lock through to their destination and that the canals north of Lock CS-1 would close that evening for a minimum of two weeks. In other words, we could probably get to Oswego, but we would not be able to come home within our vacation window.

While pondering what to do, some further encouragement came in the form of a soaking downpour that lasted nearly 2 hours. At that time, I made the command decision that we would proceed to Cayuga Lake and we would explore our nearest eastern neighbor for a few days before coming back home. It was very disappointing. Shortly after making that decision, the rain stopped and the skies began to lighten somewhat, as if to tell us we had made the correct choice.

Rationalizing things a bit, the Seneca Squadron has been asked to host the 2016 USPS District 6 Rendezvous. A possible activity of this event would be to duplicate a cruise from Watkins Glen to Ithaca as we had done in the early 2000’s when we last hosted this event. Being on Cayuga Lake would provide Tomfoolery’s crew with some first hand experience that would allow us to make recommendations for the event should we elect to organize it. Suddenly, our voyage had a purpose again.

Lock CS-4 dropped us about 15 feet into the middle third of the Cayuga-Seneca canal. About 5 miles further east, we arrived in Seneca Falls where we went through Locks CS-3 and CS-2 to drop approximately 50 feet to the level of Cayuga Lake.


Down-bound in Lock CS-3 at Seneca Falls, NY.

Less than an hour later we were in the northern end of Cayuga Lake and were navigating a narrow (and shallow) channel. A little over 30 minutes later we found ourselves in deeper (12 ft) waters that extended more than just a couple boat lengths in either direction.

Consulting the chart books we had aboard, we tried to find a marina where we could get our mast stepped and once more behave as a proper sailboat. Hibiscus Harbor claimed to have a crane of sufficient size as well as “20 feet of water at the dock.” Finding the harbor entrance, however, eluded us we wound up pulling into Frontinac Marina a mile or so south of where the chart said Hibiscus was located.

While Frontinac did have a gin pole for stepping masts, it was far too small for ours. We got directions from the dock master and headed back for Hibiscus, where we promptly ran aground in the very shallow harbor entrance. After a phone call with some suggestions from the marina operator on where the deepest part of the entrance could be found, we again ran aground in about the same location. We rocked ourselves out of the mud and retreated to deeper waters where we anchored for lunch.

With no protected anchorage available to us in the north, we elected to proceed south to Ithaca around 15:00.

One of this spring’s projects was to replace the corroding stove in the galley with an upgraded model that included an oven. The crew, knowing about the new oven, had brought along cookie dough to try it out. The scent of fresh chocolate chip cookies filled the cabin on the way down the lake. Unfortunately, only six cookies were baked. The reast of the dough was eaten by the cooks during preparation.

About five miles north of Ithaca the sky turned increadibly dark and thunder could be heard in the distance. Any light winds that had been wafting around earlier had disappeared and the air was very still. A quick check of the weather radar app on the ship’s smartphone confirmed that a fairly substantial thunderstorm cell was heading our way. We broke out foul weather gear and started to batten down hatches and switched on our running lights as the day got darker and darker.

At 20:00 a wind line was observed on the surface of the water a short distance to the south of us. Moments later a 30-knot blast of air rolled over us from the south-southwest. This was soon followed by a wall of heavy rain that reduced visibility to about a quarter of a mile. More thunder followed, but fortunately we couldn’t see the lightning causing it.

After a thorough power-washing for about 15 minutes, the storm passed and we were back in the clear. At 21:00 we pulled into Treman State Marina after navigating the narrow channel through the shallows at the southern end of Cayuga Lake. We cooked ourselves a hearty dinner of baked ziti, turned in, and allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping in the next day.

Wednesday, July 1st, was warm and sunny and the crew and I loitered around the boat, taking it easy. With the mast down I attended to a few projects that included fixing the spreader lights (which hadn’t worked since the mast had been stepped in 2011) and re-running the wiring for the horn I had installed on the spreaders at about the same time. (I had to cut the wires when the mast was last stepped because they did not fit through the opening in the bottom of the mast with the existing wiring harnass.)

We cooked ourselves another nice dinner that night since we weren’t underway and had a stable platform on which to work, took a short trip (about 50 yards) to the pumpout dock to empty our holding tank, and then noticed that there was a lot of activity in the marina. Turns out that Ithaca was having a fireworks show that evening and we had front row seats from our slip. I’m pleased to report that the show was very well done and that we thoroughly enjoyed it before turning in for the night.

The next day (Thursday, July 2nd) was when we had planned to begin our return trip home. Katie and Maggie had been given instructions that they would be responsible for running the boat, so we spent some time figuring out when we would have to leave in order to make Geneva by a reasonable hour. Without any drama, we figured the trip would take about 10 hours, so we added a couple more hours for contingencies, potential foul currents in the canal, and planned stops (fuel and canal pass) and planned to leave around 08:00 so as to arrive in Geneva by 20:00 (while it was still light).

After a quick breakfast we got out of the marina around 08:15 and into the channel heading north. Just after we passed the inner marker to the channel approach, there was a loud “bump” and the vessel lifed a couple of inches beneath us. Despite being in the channel with a charted depth of 12 feet (and the depth sounder registering 9 ft), we had managed to find some sort of obstruction. Fortunately, it was relatively soft (i.e., not mud, but also not a rock) and did not cause any damage. With our full keel and some pretty good forward momentum at the time, we rode right over the obstruction and kept on going.

And to think, this was during “high water” on the Finger Lakes. Makes me wonder if we can even get into this marina during a “normal” year.

Once out of the channel, I turned the boat over to the girls and let them take it from there. The sun did come out and the temperatures eventually warmed and it turned into a nice day for a boat ride. The girls did utilize the autopilot and spelled each other periodically in order to maintain a deck watch. For lunch Maggie made some pizza for the crew in the ship’s new oven.

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Left: Maggie on galley duty preparing pizza from the ship’s oven. Right: Gotta include at least one selfie.

Around 13:00 we were once again navigating through the channel at the north end of the lake. The difference today was that there was considerably more boat traffic on account of the impending holiday weekend. We stopped at Lock CS-1 to purchase our canal pass and then proceeded west on the canal toward Seneca Falls.


Katie at the helm heading north on Cayuga Lake.

We had some more excitement in Seneca Falls when the shift linkage became detached just as we were attempting to leave Lock CS-3. With Katie at the helm, I went below to shift gears from the engine compartment as she steered the boat out of the lock. We stopped at the public docks in Seneca Falls where we used some spare parts on board to secure the linkage in place and then proceed on our way.

Currents in the canal were not as strong as we had expected, so we made better time than anticipated and arrived at Stiver’s Marina in Geneva around 18:45 and secured a place on their gas dock. There we were treated to some live music at the small Tiki Bar at the marina as we prepared our dinner on board.

On Friday morning we stepped our mast once more so that we would look like a proper sailboat for our homecoming. The weather was cooperative (for mast-stepping; no wind or waves) and we were able to complete the task in under 30 minutes. At this point we confirmed that the horn and spreader lights all worked, and I even remembered to put the replacement Windex on the masthead prior to raising the mast! (…after sailing without one for several years. That’s a story for another article.)

Once the sails were back on and all of the lines were back in their proper place, we set out for Watkins Glen on a beautiful, warm day. The only thing lacking was wind, but by then the diesel engine I installed last year had earned our trust. Along the way we stopped at Maggie’s parents’ cabin for a brief visit and then arrived in Watkins Glen around 17:20.

While it was disappointing to miss out on some Great Lakes sailing and cruising, we still had an adventure and were able to prove out some of the improvements and upgrades made to our sloop over the past 18 months. If anything, our crew now has an increased confidence level for another attempt at navigating Lake Ontario at some future date, perhaps even later this summer.

The important lesson? Cruisers need to come to terms with the fact that itineraries and schedules are guidelines and one must stay open to alternatives.