Friday, June 29, 2018

Thousand Islands June 16 - The Welland Canal and Beyond

All of the research I did before embarking on this trip suggested that boats need to be well protected when going through the Welland. And what protects boats are fenders. Now I suppose "fender" is a nautical term, except that most powerboaters call them bumpers, but these refer to the same thing – a large object you hang off the side of the boat to absorb impact with other objects. Most fenders are made of hard rubber and are inflatable, but they could also be wooden boards, thick pool noodles, or anything else you care about a lot less than your boat. One style of fender that is said to work particularly well in the Welland is guinea sacks filled with straw. I expect the reason is because the materials are cheap and you can throw them away when you are finished with them, as opposed to buying large fenders which are over a hundred bucks each and are not particularly fun to clean after a messy canal passage.

Dad traveled to Ontario a week before the start of the voyage, which gave us ample time to tie up all the loose ends, including the loose ends of burlap bags filled with straw. Dad, Magnus and I went down to my buddy Tony's shop as he had secured two bales of straw from a farmer buddy and we had bought the burlap bags from the Lens Mill store in Port Dover the previous weekend (it is a lot harder to find burlap bags than one might expect..). We tested several different configurations of straw packing technique, fender inserts, ropes, stick anchors, tie wraps, and super knots and settled on the best design and then made six of them – three for Tony's boat and three for Bella Blue. Tony and his wife Angela are joining us on the Thousand Island trip and their boat is already in Kingston so they will only need to do the return trip through the Welland.

We left the burlap fenders there for Tony to transport, but he ended up liking them so much he started hanging them off his truck in parking lots to fend off unwanted door strikes from careless fellow shoppers. An excellent use for our product – might be a market opportunity here to exploit. Sure, I will admit it doesn't look too cool, but you know what really doesn't look cool? Scratches in your friggin car door – that's what.

Well the boys had expertly rigged up the straw fenders around the boat and as I drove Bella Blue into the first lock (which was actually lock 8 as the numbering starts from the Lake Ontario side), I was feeling confident and protected, just like in the maxi-pad commercials. Lock 8 is the longest in the world at nearly 1,400 feet, but has the shortest gain/drop at only about 4 feet and is known as a control lock as it's there to maintain a constant water level in the canal despite the large variations in water levels that happen in Lake Erie.

We enter the lock and motor right to the end where a man carrying an incredibly long net passed over a form we had to complete, and then did the same for the other seven boats. He returns and we pass back the form plus the paper receipt from the lock passage payment I had made the week before. He also told us that at the next lock he wanted us to go on the wall and the other two sailboats would raft onto us. Each lock can only handle three sets of boats so if there are more than three boats you have to link up.

Before we know it, we can see the water beginning to drain silently. We slowly drop four feet and then the gate in front of us opens and we motor out of the canal. Wow, this is going to be easy, I'm thinking.

The next challenge will be staying awake for the 25 kilometers run to Lock 7. Dad and Curtis head down for a nap while Marty and I take turns at the wheel. The beauty of the night is mesmerizing and hypnotic. The channel is well lit, well-marked and incredibly, is consistently 27 feet deep, even close to the edges, which I approach several times as I’m dozing off while standing at the wheel. Marty performs a saving moving and cranks up the Death Metal setlist he's been waiting to unleash, so that puts a bit of life back in the helmsman. 

After what seems like all night, we arrive at Lock 7 and wait just outside the gate waiting for the lights to change from red to green. When they do, we inch in slowly and notice these giant suction cups on either side of the lock which we learn later are used for the giant lake freighters and are equipped with web cameras and are remote controlled by an off-site operator. Once the freighter is in place, the suction cups move out on an arm, make contact with the ship, and then decompress to make an incredibly tight bond which holds the entire ship in place for the downward or upward repositioning.

We motor to the end of the lock where there are three men waiting with ropes. I ease Bella Blue up to the wall on the starboard (right) side and the crew (including Dad and Curt who are back in action) grab the ropes and adjust the fenders. One of the other sailboats is a big, bulky 43' Benneteau and he pulls up to us and we catch him and latch him onto our boat. They have six people on board, all of whom are wearing matching foul weather gear and expensive inflatable PFDs and appear to be quite ready for action. The other sailboat is being driven by whom would be soon known as "Captain Dipshit" (thanks Marty!). I don’t if this is his first boat, or an unfamiliar boat, or if he just doesn't know what he's doing, but he was simply out of control. The Beneteau team eventually wrangle him in and raft him up to their port side. There is current in the lock so Curtis and Marty have to keep the ropes tight while Dad stands at the ready with a boat hook or 2x4 to keep us pushed off the wall.

One of the staff asks us if we are ready and then says the water's going out. A giant mechanical arm drops down in front of us and latches onto a thick metal cable crossing the lock, and then picks it up and out of the way. The water then starts to flow, and we sit and look around as we drop further, and further, and further. This is a big lock and as we drop it seems as if the brown concrete walls are closing in on us. The men above continue feeding out the rope as Curt and Marty hold tight and try to keep the boat steady. All of the boats are running their engines and the smell of gas and diesel vapour is sickening. The water finally levels off and the giant gate slowly opens. The ropes are lifted back up by the staff and we until the boats from each other, straighten out and then slowly motor into the next lock, which we can see directly ahead of us.

We repeat the same routine, except that this time as the Benneteau approaches the current pushes him away and one of the crew reaches across to Curtis with a boat hook, which he grabs, and then they engage in what would be a hilarious game of tug of war, except that if one of them fell in, they would probably get mashed up by the boat and current. The hardest working crew on the Benneteau are two women, who we find out are German, which comes as no surprise, as they prefer to keep the Canadian men in the cockpit where they can do less damage.

Captain Dipshit again has a tough time getting his boat into rafting position and is saved by the Germans. The lock worker tells us that this is the start of three locks in a row and often boats will actually stay rafted and motor together as a group to the next lock, which saves the trouble of having to re-raft all the boats again. Seems like a great idea.

We drop down again and eventually reach the bottom, struggling to keep all the boats in position. We ask the other boats if they want to try staying rafted and we agree that I will use my boat's motor and the others can help as required. We let loose and start moving ahead, but there is a much stronger current this time that is both pushing the boats forward but also twisting them clockwise. I turn to port and give it a bit of throttle to try and straighten out, but all that does is increase our speed and we inch closer and closer to the wall on the right. I'm starting to panic now as I can see us approaching the wall way too fast so I yell at Captain Dipshit to hammer it in reverse to try and slow us down and straighten us out. But we're too late and the full weight of all three vessels mashes the starboard side of Bella Blue into the concrete wall and I can hear a sickening crunch as I watch two of the burlap fenders get ripped right off the boat. Everybody on board is pushing against the wall with all our strength and we do manage to get some clearance. I'm scared to look at the side of the boat, but I can't anyway because I’m trying to straighten this mess of boats out and get into position. As I'm doing that Marty somehow manages to fish the lost fenders out of the churning waters with the boat hook and the crew somehow get them patched up and retied before we reach the end.

We get into position and start to drop. In anguish, I peek over the side of the boat to survey the damage, but to my amazement I can't see any damage beyond some scratches on the rub rail. I simply cannot believe it. We agree with the other vessels that we will not attempt that maneuver a second time.

For the next lock we untie the boats and continue on, but find the current is insanely fast here and is causing all three of the sailboats to do loop-de-loops as it's impossible to keep straight. The powerboats are okay as they all have twin engines which make it much easier to control, but with sailboats you're limited to a single prop and a large rudder that doesn't always respond very well. After a very long time circling around we finally get all the boats into position and rafted and continue down to the bottom of the last of the three linked locks. I look back to see a giant wall of steel behind us, rising up nearly 150 feet. It is an awe-inspiring engineering marvel and something that cannot be easily described. At this moment, I feel exhausted and spent, but yet there is also a feeling of exhilaration at being able to experience such an amazing thing, that so few people in the world will get to do.

The final three locks go well and the three sailboats are now functioning expertly as a single unit. We will probably never see these people again in our lives, yet I feel a strong bond has developed between us as we've worked with each other to get through safely. The sun is fully up in the sky as we exit the final lock and Bella Blue gets her first taste of Lake Ontario.

It feels like it should be the end of the day and time to celebrate the passage so we crack beers and say cheers at 8 am! What an epic overnighter. But alas, there is no time to rest, as we have to motor over to the St. Catherine's marina to meet up with Tim, who is the father of my cousin Megan's partner Adam, and has volunteered to pick up our burlap fenders and 2x4's. We motor into dock and Tim is there to meet up, all smiles, and we quickly unload the fenders, pack them back into garbage bags, load them in his car, and he's gone. After a quick break to fill up the boat's water tank and empty the holding tank, we are back on the water, pointed directly into the middle of Lake Ontario.

Curt finds the Iceland soccer game on the radio so fires that up while we motor across the glass-like surface of the lake. There is not a breath of wind, nor a ripple on the water, nor scarcely a boat in sight. We decide it's time to freshen up so we stop the boat, get the swimsuits on, and dive off the metal cockpit arch into the icy cold water which ignites the nerves and sends the testicles burrowing for cover. The bottle of shampoo is passed around and we enjoy the first (and only) bath of the trip in the crystal clear, and mighty chilly waters of this fine, fine lake.

The auto pilot is set to the appropriate heading so the only job is to watch the depth gauge (which flaked out at 575 feet) and keep an eye out for boats which is easy to do with clear visibility and four crew members. We take turns grabbing naps throughout the day and by late afternoon we are feasting together on a piping hot lasagna, washed down with two bottles of my father-in-law's homemade red wine. Being together with my brothers and dad is simply the greatest and moments like these are ones I think back to often. Many families, for many different reasons, are not able to do this, so I feel very fortunate that we can.

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