The Great Loop – America: 2

Mariah II Branches Out Part 2 of 3

(You can listen to this via podcast here)

Noel throws me a look as my loud sneeze bounces off the vast pink, glimmering rocks, the alien noise echoes around in our secluded, staggeringly quiet anchorage.  We would not be at all surprised if a salivating T-Rex crashes through the profusion of trees that are begging for the company of ramblers.  This was just one of our countless, superb anchorages we found within our expedition around The Great Loop.  We are nearing the end of this fascinating journey and are preparing to say our farewells to a remarkable, everchanging country.  Last spring we took the Intracoastal Waterway to New York.  Then we turned west to a brand new voyage.

Happy in the Hudson River

From New York we putter along the Hudson River housing an exotic cocktail of anxiousness and intrigue, wondering what adventures inland America and Canada holds for us.  Planning here is critical.  Tidal waters creating sturdy currents can make the difference between a stressful battle and a peaceful glide.  Wide, green and deep the Hudson is easy to navigate, leaving ample time to view the manicured lawns, tree-covered banks and tumbling castle ruins.  It all seems effortless and if you take a peek at dawn the hills cloaked in opaque mist transports you to the eerie Highlands of Scotland.

DIY Mast Stepping

The unshakable boatie grape vine assured us that mast stepping is easy and cheap, it is the “DIY” bit that worried me.  Castleton-on-Hudson is friendly, funky and frequently made us feel like movie stars as the locals became intrigued with ‘the funny sounding foreigners’.  It is here that we are turning Mariah II into a motorboat.  The next part of the trip squeezes us under low bridges and up and down hills via large formidable locks.  After one days’ preparation, early the next day Mariah and crew are the “Guinea Pigs”.  A French Canadian couple will be next to take down their mast, a single-hander (American) wants to put his back up.  We all agree to help each other.  As the crane takes the weight, our mast is perfectly balanced.  Ready with wooden cradles for support, we ease the heavy lump of timber and its metal limbs along the length of Mariah.  When the mast is secure, we are ready to tackle the next boat.  Backs are aching and tempers fray as the unbalanced mast catches in uncompromising positions.  Lastly, we all help the American put his mast up.  Unfortunately, as the mast reaches its vertical limits, we see that the rigging is fixed around the mast with the crane’s straps.  As lunchtime slinks up on us, we tighten the last shackle and sit in comfortable companionship, sipping cool beers.  Our new friends, work colleagues and fellow travellers give credit to Noel, his planning and forethought made us look like professionals.  Boaties are wonderful breed, it is the most inclusive club we’ve belonged to.

Battle of the Locks – France vs America – a clear winner emerges

We approach our first lock in the New York Canal system (the Erie Canal).  Casting our minds back to our France experience, when we could not figure out whether the doors are open or closed, we are pleased that the locks here are clearer and cleaner.  In France, the lock doors are a lovely shade of black to match the decor within.  This of course made it a trifle difficult to distinguish any difference in door opening and door shut.  Feeling more at ease in the States, we tentatively coax Mariah into the dungeon.  Our full keel means little steerage when we slow down, with powerful currents carrying us along it makes somewhat of a stressful situation.  The locks are a little like puttering into a horror movie.  They are a large, creaking chamber.  There is the sound of dripping water, the groaning of some internal machinations and the occasional screech of a buzzer to summon the spectators.  The lock keepers are friendly and helpful, but can only watch as we enter and frantically try to identify something, besides each other, to tie onto.  The tumultuous locks in France taught us that you can never have enough fenders.  Mariah looks like an inflatable boat, covered completely in plastic and timber boards.  The huge door grinds shut and the water starts rising.  The water swirls and bubbles, the chamber creaks, groans, and we stare up at the green slimy walls.  The lockmaster suggests we remove a few of the planks of wood that rest on the fenders, “as they’ll just get in the way”.  Our France experience suggests they may not be enough.  But after rising up hundreds of metres and descending back down again through a plethora of locks of varying heights, we realise the US knows what it is doing.  The locks are mild, painless and really quite enjoyable.  It is astonishing to think we are hill climbing on our boat.  At either side of the locks, or in an accommodating town, free, clean tie-up places are provided.  It is here we meet locals interested in our voyage, I interview people for my writing, they interview us, for their local papers.  We are the furthest travelled, foreign, sailing boat most people have seen and we feel a little humbled at all the attention we receive.

Locking through in The Great Loop
Locking through in The Great Loop

As the northern evening arrives and the unique light to these latitudes softens the view, the mouth-watering smell of BBQs smothers the fragrance of freshly cut grass.  For us it is time to stop for the night, relax and study the charts for tomorrow, our trip across the border to Canada.

Canadian Custom

We are inland in Canada, on our boat that is our home and yes, we cannot quite believe it too.  The Great Lakes are just that – great, vast expanses of water that are really “inland seas”.  We are unsure what to expect, entering Canada.  We know that they charge for “locking through” and for mooring up at the locks.  (However, if you are over 77 years of age and are operating a vessel under 18 ft you get a free lockage pass!).  The pilot information explained that leaving the main channel for anchoring can be dangerous with shoaling and debris.  Preferring to anchor we decide to take a punt and cautiously pick our way off the channel and found that we had not one problem.  In fact, we had no need to hand over any of our hard-earned cash to Canadian officials for moorings throughout the whole of Canada.

Great Lakes, great waves and rock and roll.

There are alternative routes to choose to traverse The Great Loop.  The Great Lakes beckon with an ideal opportunity for some good sailing.  However, with time and budget against us, our mast stays prone.  Warily we approach open water.  Staggered at the might of the lakes, the inland seas, we select our weather judiciously.  The shallow, weightless freshwater allows hefty, cube like waves to build swiftly in a modest breeze.

Spectacular Trent Severn

The air smells different here, like home, it is fresh and inviting with the promise of adventure.  Not once do we tire of the endless pink and black glimmering rock formations that weave us through the shimmering water.  Here, inventive builders piece together esoteric houses on rocks that are scattered throughout the canals and hidden in picture book bays, nestled in with their own jetty it leaves you wondering which movie star may “hide” there.  We make plans to return someday.

The Trent Severn
The Trent Severn

It is here that we experience what it would be like to drive through treacle.  With numerous places to anchor, we guide Mariah from the main channel and the boat turns into a languid lump.  Suspiciously, we peer over the side and see that bushy weed just visible under the surface, has Mariah in its clutches.  Little by little, we extract ourselves from the embracing triffid back to the main channel, it is like working our way through a syrupy paste.  This, thankfully, was a one off phenomenon.  Night after night, alone, we revel in the serenity, our contentedness.  Looking east from the partly protected bay, the horizon is a tiny speck.  From our deserted surrounds we can see for miles.  Perhaps the world has ended and no one told us.  Ashore, we are acutely aware that this is bear, snake and spider country.  Stepping into the vibrant, forest we raise our voices to scare off any prowling bears.  Noel plans to play dead if approached by a large grizzly, I intend to look it in the eye and back off.  I feel at ease, if my plan fails, at least the bear will have had a hearty meal (Noel) before me!  We collect wood for our modest potbelly stove that keeps us snug onboard.  The nights are becoming chilly but the clear sparkle of the water still beckons us in each day.  On the shore, the pink, blue and quartz stones are like jewels, each one I lift for a closer inspection, houses a creepy, long-legged spider, that skitters in one direction, while I scurry in another.  Some of the rock formations stir our imagination, they are reportedly over one hundred million years old, I wonder what has trodden here before us.  If only they could whisper their secrets.

Bumping bottoms and alarmist’s pleasures

As we gather information on the Peterborough Hydraulic Lock, a stranger takes great pleasure enlightening us that farther along the Trent Severn the depth is down to 3 feet.  With our 5 foot draft, this caused some anxious creasing of the crew’s foreheads.  “The lockmasters will tell you, everyone is having problems,” he expounded.  The fearless Mariah II carried on in the face of adversity knowing that somewhere along the line, someone will tell us what to do – well, at least we hoped.  Twice we bumped our bottom, there was no damage and no water less than 5 feet.

The Peterborough Hydraulic Lift Lock
The Peterborough Hydraulic Lift Lock

Riding on a Train

The locals we meet along the Trent Severn Waterways are intrigued with our travels, (“you sailed all that way in that boat?”) but Mariah has her own exclusive claims to fame.  In England she’s been perched on the highest hill in Hertfordshire and sped along the M25 motorway; now we are going to put her in a large bathtub that shoots in the air and then on a railway track, quite a feat for an ocean going vessel.  Canada has two unique systems aside from the usual locks.  The first is a “Lift Lock”.  We drive into a large bathtub and a door rises out of the depths behind us to secure us in.  Another fool at the top does the same and his weight pushes water from somewhere below him into somewhere below us, he comes down, we go up.  Underneath us both is a large, hopefully strong, ram. The ride is speedy and smooth.  Peering over a 20-metre ledge in a boat is bizarre.  The second unique system is the “Marine Railway” or “The Big Chute”.  For economic reasons and as a barrier to prevent migration of the parasitic sea lamprey, a huge 100 tonne open carriage has been built over granite that separates, would be, converging waterways.  Riding on twin tracks it lifts boats out of the water, over the rock, to offload them into the river on the other side.  Mariah, held by slings, is over 17 metres high, looking out over a sheer drop of hard rock.  As she rattles in the air, our hearts rattle to the same rhythm.

The Great Chute

The Great ChuteAside from the fairground rides through Canada, the scenery is by far the most breathtaking we have seen, anywhere in the world.  In the translucent water, lilies do a Mexican wave in our soft wake.  Sentinel Silver Birches stand tall on pink granite next to proud Pines, that mix within a surplus of greens, tinged with an autumn flush.  Each night, swinging on our 360 degree panorama, we savour the views like a fine wine, trying to taste, absorb and never forget.

More information (2005)

Our Advice

  • Monitor the weather daily. Tornados are announced on radio stations.  Heavy rain hundreds of miles away can affect the river you are in.
  • Check requirements for Canadian visas (for British and Australian passports a visa is not needed) you MUST check in on arrival
  • Have two good anchors for strong tidal currents
  • Have a good night light, the huge barges need to know where you are
  • Do not be afraid to call the barges up to check you are out of there way.
  • Always check with the tug/barge drivers about their/your intentions, they are exceptionally helpful and very professional.
  • If you have the time and money, put your mast up for the great lakes (you would need to take it down to go through Chicago).
  • Purchase “The Great Circle Route” by Skipper Bob for $18. (717-244-0081 or email: SkipperBob@att.net (Http://SkipperBob.home.att.net) – This provides you with an overall picture of the Great Loop.  Once you have decided on your route, you can buy the appropriate guides.  (You still need to purchase charts too).

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