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Section 6

Lake Ontario and the Welland Canal

(June 20 - 23, 1999)

Sitting, as we are, just yards from the first of the five Great Lakes, Jan and Bill are at a special moment in time.  We've grown up around the Great Lakes.  As kids we played in the sand on the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Huron.  We knew those areas well.  But the Great Lakes themselves, remained a mystery--water without end, water to the horizon.  Now, armed with a magnificent yacht capable of sailing these five seas, we are ready to enter a new relationship with the lakes, and to take enough time to get to know them a bit.  So much history is here, the Westward expansion, industrialization, a common border with a nation with whom we share so much.  Friends and family are spread around these lakes, so this is in some important way like coming home...

Sunday, June 20, 1999. Today, we start early and leave the protection of  the Oswego River and head into Lake Ontario. We are underway before 7:00am. What excitement to have finally reached the Great Lakes—a goal of both of us for a long time. And Lake Ontario is a proper lady—smooth water and calm seas. We head west and run a few miles off shore.  We cover the 55 miles to Rochester in about 5 hours and pulled into the Shumway Marine Center on the Genesee River about 11:30am.

We walked to a West Marine for supplies and then ate a quick bite, waiting for a taxi to take us to the George Eastman Estate and the Kodak International Photographic Museum. It was well worth the effort. The mansion is beautiful and parts of it are restored very well. The photographic museum is also interesting. I guess it dates me, but the model of Hasselblad Camera that I still use (and I still consider new!!) has a prominent position in the museum!

Late in the afternoon we changed our plans for tomorrow, and decided to head to Toronto instead of further down the southern shore of Lake Ontario.  It is about 90 miles across Lake Ontario. The weather forecast is very positive, and the Toronoto location is great since it will leave us only about 30 miles from Port Weller (also in Ontario) which is our launch position to transverse the Welland Canal. Not a bad strategy.

Monday, June 21, 1999.  We get a very early start since we have more than 90 miles of open water to cover.  The day begins (and ends) almost completely calm. We leave Rochester via the Genesee River and run parallel to the U.S. coast for several hours before the natural shape of Lake Ontario takes us across into Canadian waters and eventually to Toronto.  We cross into Canadian waters at 10:30 am and arrive in Toronto about noon. 

First order of business is to pass Canadian Customs.  Canada makes this easy.   We prepared in advance a list of our four names (Bob and Trish Birkenstock are with us), places of birth, and birth dates, then called the 800 number of Canadian Customs.  They took the information over the phone, gave us a report number, and that was all there was to it.  Very classy.

Toronto is a very impressive city to approach from the water and has an incredibly busy harbor.   We find our way to the West Quay Marina without problem, and tie up behind a brand new 85 foot Burger yacht.  This yacht is on its way to NYC but rather than retrace our route through the Canal--she is going by way of the St. Lawrence Seaway.  This yacht is too tall for the Erie Canal.  We are docked adjacent to a beautiful park in the center of the tourist area and the water is so clear you can easily see 10 feet to the bottom.  One problem, there is much grass and seaweed growth in the area, and it may have clogged one of our air conditioning sea strainers.  We may have to deal with that by diving under the boat and cleaning out the grass if we're unable to clear it from inside the bilge at the strainer itself.

The weather is perfect with the high predicted to be 66 to 70 and sunny.

We take a double-deck sightseeing bus around Toronto to get the lay of the land.   Toronto is big city size with a large degree of approachableness...don't know exactly how to explain it, except that it is clean and neat, people are friendly and polite, and there is vegetation and parks seemingly everywhere.  We get off the sightseeing bus to visit the famous castle of Casa Loma, the home of the Toronto industrialist Sir Henry Mill Pellatt.  The castle is immense, to say the least.  See the pictures in the photo gallery.  The story of the builder and owner is a sad one, but the landmark is worth a visit and tour.

We wanted to make the most of our visit, and Bill fondly remembered a wonderful meal at the Four Seasons Hotel.  But that was too many years ago to be a reliable referal, so we called former Toronto resident, Judy van Zandt, in Tampa, and asked for dinner recommendations.  She gave us two, with a recommendation we try Scaramouche.  It was a short taxi ride, and proved to be an excellent choice.  We had a wonderful meal and a memorable view of the city.  Highly recommended.  We returned by taxi, and as we entered the taxi, the driver said "whither thou goest, I will go..." -- Pure class, and a pretty good narrative on the city on the return, too.

Tuesday, June 22, 1999.  Jan and Trish spent the morning shopping at a gourmet farmer's market (are they in paradise, or what???).  Bob and Bill changed primary engine fuel filters and the "B" secondary Racor filters. 

We departed at 2:00 PM for Port Weller on the south side of Lake Ontario and St. Catherine's Marina.  This location had been chosen because it was very near the head-end of the Welland Canal, and we had been told that our best chance to get through the canal quickly was to be at the entrance by 7:00 am.  The trip across Lake Ontario was uneventful, as our excellent weather produced light winds and calm seas.  We could see the CN tower in Toronto virtually the whole time we were heading to St. Catherine's.

We arrived at St. Catherine's Marina at 4:30, and were instructed to: "pass the breakwater, make a sharp left, go to the end, make a second sharp left, and dock in the corner".  Sure..... in a 70' boat.  This was a fairly large marina, but with very narrow waterways and the spot they intended for us would have been OK in our 22' Cobia, tough in our 50' Tradewinds, but a real challenge in the Interlude.  We made it, slowly but surely, and spent the night on board.  Trish and Jan fixed a superb meal of grilled steaks, French bread, and Cesar salad, thanks to the gourmet market. Bob had bought a bottle of Crozes Hermitage, an excellent Coate du Rhone wine, at the wine shop in Troy, and it suited the feast perfectly.

Wednesday, June 23, 1999.  Welland Canal day.  We've been warned about the Welland Canal, every book, pamphlet, travel guide, and mariner who's traversed it have warned us that it's a rough day and that the canal is designed for commercial use.  They don't like pleasure boats and let you know it. But, what choice do we have.  This is the only way a boat the size of Interlude can enter the remaining four Great Lakes since water is too shallow in the Trent-Severn waterway.  We're off at 6:30 am and tied up at the pleasure boat dock at 7:00 am.  We're instructed to use the dedicated phone and call the lockmaster.   We make the call to the dockmaster.  They ask our size, destination, weight, horsepower, number of people aboard, etc.  As it turns out, we were lucky to have Bob and Trish aboard, because we are required to have at least three people aboard for a boat our size.  Once we had given them this information, they told us to sit tight and wait until 8:00 am to see if any other pleasure boats would arrive and we would be handled in one group.

By 8:00 am two additional yachts had joined us, a 58' Mckinna which is being delivered from Florida to Michigan, and a 110' Star Wars looking charter yacht.  This latter boat is a catamaran,  waterjet driven, and rumored to be piloted by Mel Gibson.  The women's hearts went pitter-patter!  The boat appeared to have a crew of at least a half dozen, and had a canal pilot aboard since it weighed over 300 tons (more than four times the weight of Interlude). The air is alive with rumors.

The Welland Canal is an awesome set of locks which lifts watercraft almost 300 feet from the level of Lake Ontario to the level of Lake Erie. Further it is a lot more fun than trying to swim up Niagara Falls.   The last lock, number eight, is used only to correct the water level in the pool to the current level of Lake Erie, and in our case, was only about two feet.  This means that the other seven locks averaged more than a 40 foot lift, each! 

We entered the first lock with the big Star Wars yacht going in first, then Interlude, then the McKinna.  The lockmaster asked the McKinna to raft off of Interlude, so in addition to securing our own lines, we had to secure McKinna to us.  Fenders on both sides.

The Star Wars yacht proved to be a dog.  The pilot was so conservative that he required the lock crew to drop four lines to the boat, then haul up four 1-1/2 inch dock lines to secure the boat to the lock wall.  This was a very slow process, and delayed the transit through the lock by 15 minutes, or more each. 

The Welland Canal locks are the first locks we've encountered which are intended for ocean-going ships.  Thus they are very large--760 feet long, 80 feet wide, and, at high pool, more than 80 feet deep.  These locks are fed by gravity through large penstocks (pipes) that allow water to rise in the center of the locks. The turbulence is really something to behold as the water floods into the chamber.  We all struggled to keep the boats in position as the water rises.  The Star Wars yacht had requested a "slow fill" to minimize turbulence, but this could only be done on some of the locks, and then it didn't seem to make much difference.

Locks four, five and six consist of a flight.  That is, you enter the first lock, are raised, then exiting the first lock takes you immediately into the second lock, and so forth.  As a result, the high pool door was also the low pool door for the next lock.  This made the high pool doors more than 60 feet high. Awesome, to say the least.

Fortunately, the locks and bridges are run as a system, and for the most part, the locks were ready for us upon our arrival.  In the case of the flight, there were parallel sets of locks, so northbound and southbound ships have their own lock set.  In the other cases, we used the same lock alternating occupancy.  In only two cases did we need to stop and wait on a lock, and each wait was well less than an hour.  At lock seven, we watched a ship come out of the lock heading north.  it appeared that the lock was giving birth, because the ship was 75' wide and 740' long, and it was sheathed into a lock 80' wide and 760' long.  What a sight.  And, from an engineering point of view, a challenge.  On the low pool side, the ship displaces almost all of the water in the lock, so as it moves out,  a very strong current develops tearing by the boat trying to fill the void left behind  the departing ship.  Thus it takes tremendous horsepower to move one of these ships from the lock.  Wally (see below) said they often run at near full thrust to inch their way out of the locks.

About Wally.  Wally, probably about 65,  is one of those "rent a crew" who are available to pleasure craft operators who don't have enough people on board to meet Canal requirements for locking through.  The Mckinna had rented Wally for the trip through the locks.  He's done this before, in fact he has competed more than 300 trips through the canal.  Wally ended up on the bow of the Mckinna as a line handler, so we had several hours to talk with him between our other chores.  He was a wealth of information about the locks, their history (this is the fourth set of locks since the early nineteenth century when the canal was first opened), and operating safety in the locks.  We were fortunate to have him nearby, as he made our job easier and he helped us anticipate problems.

Upon exiting the Welland Canal, we had a short passage to the open waters of Lake Erie that were clear and blue after the muddy canal. As in the case of Lake Ontario, we were blessed with calm seas as we made the last run of the day from the end of the Canal to Buffalo,  NY, and the Erie Basin Marina.   We were exhausted--it was 8:30 PM, and we had been about 12 in the process, and much of it at hard labor.  But, it was an adventure, and we were all glad to have the opportunity to do it -- once!