Octogenarian Odyssey Part I

Wanda White Stovall

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After many years spent boating on lakes near our Fort Worth, Texas, home, my husband, David, and I sold our 1979 44-foot Trojan and purchased a 1986 58-foot Hatteras in Florida. Like our previous boat, it bore the name The Bottom Line (David is a CPA), which epitomized our boating philosophy.

Spacious, comfortable, and heavy at 70,000 pounds, our new boat had powerful twin 650-HP diesel Detroit engines that could withstand severe weather if needed. We happily spent the summer months cruising the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic coast.

Four years later, we wanted to make a long-distance cruise to celebrate both of us turning 80 and our 60th wedding anniversary. Although the Great American Loop Route looked appealing, our boat was too high to clear some of the bridges. After briefly considering trips across the Atlantic (too adventurous) or through the Panama Canal (too far), we decided the Down East Circle Route would be perfect. The journey would take more than 2,000 miles from New York Harbor through the Erie Canal and the St. Lawrence River, around Nova Scotia, and down the New England coast to end back in New York Harbor.

We made extensive preparations, relying heavily on information contained in Cheryl Barr’s book, “A Complete Cruising Guide to the Down East Circle Route,” “Maptech Embassy Cruising Guide: New England” and “Cruising Guide to the New York State Canal System.” We purchased charts and GPS software for the journey. As we intended to experience the sights on land along the way, we purchased several travel books that proved to be helpful. Except for brief visits by our son, we made the trip alone.

Part I: Jersey City, N.J., to Brewerton, N.Y.

June 9–15: Jersey City, New Jersey

Liberty Landing Marina

Waving goodbye from the deck of The Bottom Line, we left our friends at Henderson Wharf Marina in Baltimore, Maryland, and began our long-planned journey toward New York Harbor, the beginning of the Down East Circle Route.

After brief stops at Cape May and Manasquan, New Jersey, we passed under the magnificent Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and entered New York Harbor. Traffic rapidly increased with Staten Island ferries, Statue of Liberty cruise boats, and personal boats darting back and forth. We docked easily at Liberty Landing Marina, adjacent to Liberty State Park, with its incredible view of the Statue of Liberty and the new Freedom Tower, built on the site of the fallen World Trade Center twin towers. Although across the Hudson River from Manhattan, a protective breakwater shields the harbor, so slips don’t receive chop from the waves at Liberty Landing Marina. Adjacent to the marina, ferry service to Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood is frequent, inexpensive, and reliable.

In Liberty Landing State Park, two long stainless-steel clad granite structures inscribed with almost a thousand names of the New Jersey residents killed in the Sept. 11 attacks stand parallel on the lawn, creating a moving and emotional tribute.

Our 56-year-old son Dave, who holds a captain’s license for 200-plus-ton vessels, arrived to accompany us on our journey through the Erie Canal. Although we were confident in our decision to make the trip, our son wanted to personally “vouch” for our navigational abilities.

West Point Military Academy

June 16: Kingston, New York

Shortly after 8 on a glorious sunny morning, we departed Liberty Landing Marina excited to pass under the George Washington Bridge, leave the city behind, and begin our long-awaited journey. Small villages bordered the Hudson River above Manhattan, belying the heavily populated areas beyond hidden by dense trees.

We enjoyed a pleasant cruise with little commercial traffic, minimal wind and smooth water despite the considerable current. An impressive sight, the massive fortress-like structure of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point covers a huge expanse of the riverbank and looks like a medieval-era building. It’s a great example of architecture that exemplifies power and military might. Civilian docking is not permitted.

As we advanced up the river, we had to dodge considerable debris. At the helm for most of the day, Dave skillfully dodged the tree trunks and branches floating toward us. After an eight-hour cruise, we docked at Kingston City Marina. Hanging baskets, beds of flowering plants, and statuary honoring those lost at sea bedecked the town area adjacent to the dock. We dined at Ship to Shore, a recommended casual restaurant with excellent food, and toasted the end of a great day on the water.

June 17: Waterford, New York

Studying our charts, we realized we would encounter many low bridges. In preparation, we took down the radar arch, the canvas over the bridge helm area, and the antennas. When planning our Down East Circle Route cruise, we measured our boat from the waterline to the top of the windshield on the bridge. To safely clear the bridges, we had to be below 20 feet.

We measured 18 feet 6 inches. With our equipment lying on deck, we anticipated not having television or GPS until everything was replaced. To our surprise, the GPS continued to function despite the lowered antennas.

After a five-hour journey, we passed through Albany. Seeing the massive state buildings made us regret not having time to stop in New York’s capital. Here we encountered our first low bridge, one of many. I nervously stood on the bow to see if we could pass under the bridge without slamming into the girders. Despite a tense moment as we began to glide forward, we cleared with ample space to spare.

Within minutes, we reached Troy, which is almost a suburb of Albany. To our dismay, the Troy Marina listed in our guidebook was no longer open. Here we had planned to secure the required canal permit and add extra fuel in our tanks to lower the boat for better clearance under the bridges.

Looking upriver, we saw a massive outpouring of water from the dam crossing the river. All three of us studied the chart and consulted the GPS as we anxiously tried to locate the lock we knew was there. Hidden by trees on a small island protruding into the river, the lock remained invisible until we were within several hundred yards of its gigantic doors adjacent to the dam.

Troy Lock on the Erie Canal

Troy Lock, Erie Canal Lock #1, is a federal lock while the others are owned and operated by the state of New York. Dave, who had never been in a lock, was awed by the experience of being inside a huge concrete box as massive torrents of water poured in. Unlike the many locks we had encountered in Europe, the sides of Troy Lock were devoid of layers of green, slimy moss. Although clean, the rough surface proved hazardous to fenders as they rubbed against the sides.

Almost as soon as we exited the lock, we saw a large blue sign with arrows pointing right to the Champlain Canal and left to the Erie Canal. Although a more direct route to the St. Lawrence Seaway than the Erie Canal, the Champlain Canal tends to be narrow and shallow in many areas. The Bottom Line wouldn’t be able to navigate that route. We turned left and saw the small docking area at Waterford.

Near Waterford’s small downtown area, we found an impressive visitor center and several well-recommended restaurants. Rather inexpensive, overnight docking with electricity cost $1 per foot of boat length.

June 18: Amsterdam, New York

Before leaving the next morning, Dave and I trekked up the hill about two blocks away to the office of the lockmaster to buy our canal permit. Valid for 10 days, the permit cost $55 and allowed us to use all four New York canal systems—an amazing bargain.

Dave has the inquisitiveness of a 10-year-old. Realizing he had an appreciative audience, the lockmaster gave us an extensive tour of the lock controls and mechanisms. Although much of the equipment was more than 100 years old, it was clean and either painted or polished regularly to look like new. The pristine offices, grounds and work areas impressed us by the obvious pride the employees showed in their jobs.

We went through Lock #2 with some friends from the Waterford dock but passed them soon after exiting. For a long distance, we cruised along the Mohawk River. More than 200 yards wide in spots, the river winds through communities bearing the names of Revolutionary War heroes. Using our charts, we monitored distances between locks and the heights of bridges and surge gates crossing the river.

Alone in many locks, we usually entered without waiting and found the lockmasters to be courteous and helpful. The challenge was readying the fenders and moving them into the correct positions as the water came in and the boat rose. When caught in the current, the stern would move toward the lock wall. Even when accompanied by other vessels, we weren’t crowded in the large locks. To our surprise, we encountered only recreational boats. We saw no barges, tugs, or freighters in this area of the canal.
After exiting Lock #10, we stopped at Amsterdam, New York, where we saw some of our new friends from Waterford. Despite all the boats being tied to a terminal wall, exiting wasn’t difficult. The beautifully maintained area had ample space to walk. We enjoyed the easy camaraderie of fellow boaters and the amazing $1 per foot dockage fee.

June 19: Little Falls, New York

The weather gods were with us. We awakened to a beautiful, sunny day with little wind. With some of the other boaters, we left Amsterdam and headed toward Lock #11, hoping to make Ilion our final destination for the day. As the locks closed at 6 p.m., we were on a tight schedule as we detoured at Canajoharie to see the Arkell Museum.

At Canajoharie, we pulled into an empty space at a small riverside park. Dave jumped to the dock, secured the lines and within minutes we were walking two blocks into town. As in other small New England towns, many large businesses had closed or left Canajoharie. Beech-Nut Industries, most famous for its chewing gum, once occupied an impressive industrial plant near the center of town, which now sits vacant and in need of maintenance. The town presented a brave, confident face with baskets of lovely flowers hanging from posts and pristine sidewalks fronting the few open stores and restaurants.

The Arkell Museum was a gift from the Arkell family, who once owned Beech-Nut Industries and were pillars of Canajoharie for several generations. Housed in a lovely, modern building adjacent to the library, the museum’s permanent collection was small but noteworthy. One gallery presented a pictorial history of the Arkell family and Beech-Nut.

Back on the boat, we resumed cruising with some of our friends from previous dockings at Waterford and Amsterdam. As we exited Lock #14, we saw a beautiful 52-foot trawler with a blue hull we had admired in Waterford pulled to the side. Its throttle had reportedly jammed, and the captain had been unable to stop the boat, which raced past other boats in the lock and slammed into the forward doors, sustaining significant hull damage.

Canal authority boat

After barely making it to Lock #17 before it closed for the day, we were awed when its massive doors opened, revealing a cavernous interior. Lock #17 has a higher lift than any others in the United States—more than 40 feet. The tremendous amount of water pouring into the closed space creates turbulence that requires careful attention to lines and fenders to prevent the boat from being tossed against the lock walls. Making sure that did not happen to The Bottom Line, Dave and I anticipated possible problems and quickly adjusted fenders.

We watched in horror as two children, approximately 10 and 12 years old, scrambled on the bow of a small 21-footer, which bounced up and down with the force of the incoming flow. If either had fallen into the lock’s murky water, they could have been swept beneath the boat or crushed between the boat and the lock wall. Their life jackets would have been useless in the turbulence. Fortunately, they survived.
Unable to make it to Ilion before closing, we docked at the lovely Little Falls municipal marina and enjoyed another opportunity to visit with our boating friends.

June 20–22: Brewerton, New York

Beautiful, sunny weather graced us once more. After refueling, we left Little Falls early and reached the next lock before opening time. Our fuel consumption had been much less than anticipated. At $4 per gallon, diesel was a major expense as our tanks held more than 1,000 gallons.

Each lock required new fender and line adjustments. With turbulence pushing the stern toward the wall, David constantly employed the bow thruster to protect the front of the boat, while Dave and I worked to keep everything safe.

Locks #21 and #22 were down locking instead of up locking: The water in the lock goes out rather than coming in. With much less turbulence, the boat was easier to handle. Leaving Lock #22, we entered Oneida Lake, approximately 20 miles across and 4 miles wide. Despite its small size, the lake catches crosswinds that make for choppy water. Miles of white caps welcomed our approach, but Dave insisted they were no problem for a boat the size and weight of The Bottom Line. He was correct.

We exited the lake at Brewerton, a small no-frills fishing/summer resort. Brewerton Marina had limited space for large vessels, so we were docked next to the fuel dock. We had a great view of the river and its constant activity. A rustic facility, the marina had a beautiful green lawn with blooming plants and a pleasant and helpful dockmaster/owner. Best of all, they had a courtesy car we used to go to dinner that evening and take Dave to the airport the following morning.

Leaving the boat securely docked, we drove about 10 miles to a local seafood restaurant for a delicious farewell dinner. On Saturday morning, we left the boat at 7:15 a.m. We drove to the Syracuse Hancock International Airport only minutes away, said goodbye to Dave, and left the airport grounds by 7:43 a.m. Dave was reluctant to leave, and we hated to see him go.

The journey resumes in Oswego, New York, in Part II of the “Octogenarian Odyssey,” out in Fall 2022.

Wanda White Stovall

Wanda and David Stovall live in Fort Worth, Texas. She is a retired speech pathologist, and he is a semi-retired certified public accountant. Their boat remains at a lovely marina near Wickford, Rhode Island, where they spend five months of the year enjoying delicious seafood and great boating experiences in this beautiful area.

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