The Erie Canal

Notes on the Erie Canal

This is more technical description of our trip through the Erie Canal, intended to help others on their first time through.  A few caveats - this is our only trip through these locks - I'm sure there are some differing opinions on technique. Also, this is written from memory, so there could be some misinformation, and things may have changed in the last couple of years. There are pictures, a map, and a less technical description on the Delivery page of the web site. This was written with the new PDQ Catamaran owner in mind, but it might be useful for anyone transiting the canal.

First of all, let me say that bringing a PDQ from Whitby to NYC is an easy trip, and a great introduction to your new boat. We had tried to find a delivery captain to save vacation days, but with hindsight, I wish we had spent more time on this trip.

What to bring
Two people, maybe three or more. I can't imagine single handing through the locks. Two people is adequate, but the first few locks will be a bit hectic. Three will reduce the stress level a lot. We had two of us, plus our four year daughter, who, frankly, was a negative asset in the locks!
Two boathooks - I'd get one long extending boat hook, and one solid.
Cheap "garden gloves," preferably leather, for everyone, plus a spare. Its icky work.
The deck will get slimed, so a bucket and brush are handy. (By the way, I recommend the deck washdown option from PDQ - ours gets a lot of use!) Make sure you have a jacket and pants that you don't mind getting slimed.
PDQ provided two dock lines. You'll want at least two more (not for the locks, just for docking). Also, PDQ gives four fenders, the minimum required. A few spares would be nice. PDQ provides two fender boards. One should be enough, but it takes a beating so the spare is handy. (Required, really, since you wouldn't want to take your new boat through without one!) These were "rough" boards; expect to have a fair amount rubbed off on the lock walls!
A handheld VHF. Although you normally don't need to radio the lock masters, there are times you'll want to consult before going through. Remember, your mast will be down, so you won't have that 50 foot antennae mount! If the antennae is mounted on deck, make sure that its vertical because it just doesn't work at a steep angle (radiation patterns and all that...ours was useless - the reason hit me when we were raising the mast). A suction cup emergency antennae on the hard top might be better. A cell phone is handy, but consult with your carrier to make sure you're setup with the preferred "A-line/B-line" settings. This might be a time to convert to a "one-rate" plan. (We had a $300 bill for May and June!) Our "bag-phone" worked in the middle of the lake, about 30 miles from the nearest cell.

Basic Tools and Engine Spares
Remember, any faulty equipment will fail on this trip (if you're lucky - better here than offshore!) so be prepared for at least one problem. Ours was clogged anti-syphon valves on the fuel tank. (I'd remove them if you have diesel, carry spares for gas.) Make sure you have all the manuals before you leave. You'll want shop manuals eventually, might as well get them now. You'll be due for the initial oil change within a few weeks, so you should start with spare filters, etc.

Its really hard to get lost on this trip! From Whitby to Oswego is a straight shot, about 110 nm. There are no hazards on the lake. We saw no signs of life. Assuming you go straight to Oswego, you don't really need a chart (I can't believe I'm saying this!) , though copying a few guidebook pages would be handy. The landmarks in Oswego are confusing till you get close so an aerial picture would be nice. GPS is very handy for this leg, since you'll be monitoring your ETA in Oswego closely.
In the locks you'll want The Red Book - "Recreational Chart 14786 - New York State Barge Canal System." This is not to find your way - that's easy - it for details like which side of the dam the locks are on. Also, you'll want to identify features like "Guard Gates" (a giant valve to isolate sections of the canal) and various dams, highway bridges, etc. The one thing we would have liked is a concise listing of all the locks, with the rise/fall and the distances. ("Next lock is about five miles down, it's an 8 foot fall, with another a few miles further ..."). Although I haven't seen it, I've heard there is a "Skipper Bob" book about the Canal - I would buy that sight unseen! See
On the Hudson, we used a one sheet "waterproof" chart that took us all the way down. My primary nav tool was the latitude from the GPS.
We didn't find a good guide book - I was disappointed with the expensive hardcover (by Rumsey) we had.

The Locks
There are 29 locks on the part of the canal we were using, plus one on the Hudson. The first nine are up, the next 21 are down. Each lock is 42 feet wide by 300 long, the "lift" varies from 8 feet to 41 feet. The boat should be prepared with four large fenders on the Starboard side, plus a 2x4 fender board over the middle fenders that rubs against the wall. Have docklines attached, but they usually aren't used, unless you use the "pipes."

You can radio ahead on VHF 13 - "Lock 20, Lock 20, this is the catamaran Loki, Eastbound, about 1/2 mile from the lock." Half the time they won't answer, but they probably already know you're there. The may come back with "The gate is open for you" or "There are several boats Westbound coming out in 10 minutes." As you approach a lock, you'll see a red or green "traffic light." Don't get too close until you can see inside the lock - there could be a barge coming out! Since your mast is down on the port side, you'll always go to the starboard side. In the Spring there is very little weekday traffic; we didn't share a lock for three days. Most of the traffic is returning snowbirds going the other way. For the ascending locks try to get towards the front, where the turbulence is reduced. You'll find that after a few locks, you can glide in a few inches from the wall and stop just where you want it.

The locks will have lines hanging down about every 20 feet. Some also have pipes or cables recessed into the walls. You don't tie onto the lines, you just hold on, paying out or taking in, as appropriate. For the pipes or cables, you loop a line around it, and hold on. There are two basic techniques: There is the "two hanging lines - bow and stern" technique (we used this for most locks) and the "loop a line around the recessed pipe amidships" technique, required on the Federal Lock on the Hudson River. More on this below. The basic approach is drive in so that someone on the bow can grab a line (use the solid boathook here, since you may have to fend off), and then someone at the stern grabs another line with the extending boathook. Have hand signals so that the bow person can indicate which rope they intend to take; and you may want to remove the Starboard side dodger to ease communication. There is no rush at all - you can go dead slow if you want to. When everyone is set in the locks, they open some valves, and the water goes up or down rather quickly. Going up, you tend to be pushed into the wall, and you have to fend off a bit. Keep and eye on the fenders, they tend to snag a bit. Going down, you're pulled away, so you just pay out, keeping enough tension on the lines to keep control. On the first several locks in Oswego, you mix one line and one pipe or cable, and have to fend off. After these, all the rest are easy!

By the way, there's a charge to use the canal. My memory is that it was $22 for a 2-day pass, and about $75 for a season. We figured about 3-4 days, so we got two 2-day passes. The second was undated, so we had a bit of freedom with the timing. You can buy the passes at the first lock in Oswego.

The Federal Lock on the Hudson River is a bit different. There are ten pipes, five on each side that are stations for ten boats. Even though the Erie was pretty much empty for us, there was a line waiting for the Federal Lock (perhaps it was because it was a Saturday!) so make sure you get in line. If your mast is to Port, request a Starboard tie on the radio. You'll need one dock line attached amidships to loop around your assigned pipe. Otherwise, its the same as the Canal locks. This "single pole" technique is used by smaller boats in the Canal locks, but because the walls can be very rough in the Canal, I don't recomend it for larger boats except in the Federal Lock.

Raising the Mast
The mast is usually raised in Catskill, NY, a small creek about 36 miles after the Federal Lock. There are two marinas there that can handle it. We used Riverview Marine, the first one on the right. Their crane is busy this time of year, so call ahead to get a time reserved. Plan on spending a day, since they'll need a high tide (or was that a low tide?), and it takes a few hours to get everything together. This is a good spot to gas up, go to a restaurant, switch crews, etc. Remember, this may the last time your mast is down for a few years: check it out carefully before it goes up.

Where to Shop & Stay
We rented a car in Whitby for all the last minute provisioning. There are supermarkets and a Wal-Mart within a few miles of PDQ. There's a chandlery a few blocks away, but they're expensive. We drove up a month earlier in a van filled with life cushions, anchors, etc.
In Oswego, the Oswego Marina (first thing on your left) has a gas dock, pumpout, ships store, and mechanics. You'll have to stop here to checkin with Immigration (the videophone is outside the office) but you may have to meet customs in Phoenix, about 4-5 hours away. As predicted, we got bad info about Customs from Immigration; the folks at PDQ will tell you how to handle things. Oswego is a good place to stop, but if you did an overnight passage on the lake, you may want to forge on to Phoenix right away. In Phoenix, you can tie up right in the town center, with a market and restaurants within a hundred yards. After that, you'll be in the boonies for a few days. If you aren't planning to sightsee along the way, this could be your last store before Catskill.

Most of the locks have docks before and after where you can tie up for the night. You should consult with the lockmasters, they will tell you if the kids hang out there til 3 in the morning, or the fishermen show up at 4. We stopped below lock 20 and above lock 8; both were in the "middle of nowhere."

We took on 27 gallons of diesel in Oswego, another 44 in Catskill. I'd guess that the outboards will need an extra stop along the way. There are a number of small marinas along the way, but early in the season its pretty sleepy.

New York City
Going down the Hudson the scenery varies a lot, but it gets more built up and there's plenty of places to stop. The wind, of course was always on the nose, so we only got a few hours under sail. Its 100 miles from Catskill to NYC, you'll probably want to plan a stop taking into account the tides on the river and beyond. After a rather gentle, mostly rural, trip the Big Apple will be a bit of a shock. The Hudson has a fair current and a lot of chop from the ferries. The ferries "take no prisoners" so give them a wide berth. Given the harsh realities of our "Post 9/11 World," you should check with the Coast Guard before transiting NY Harbor to see of there are any restrictions. If permitted, you probably want to check out the Statue of Liberty - there's even a anchorage nearby where you might be able to stay the night..

Points South
If you're headed South, you will be going out the main ship channel, through Verrazano Narrows, and towards Sandy Hook. Keep you eyes open for ship traffic, they seem to come from all directions here. A convenient place to stop is Atlantic Highlands, where the yachtclub usually has moorings available. There are also several anchorages behind Sandy Hook. Check the weather before going South - the inlets are marginal in heavy surf. The first stop down the NJ coast is Manisquan - about 25 miles past Sandy Hook. If you take the first left and go just past the CG Station, there's a free dock (rafting encouraged) at the Shrimp Box Restaurant. You just have to eat dinner there!

Headed North - Hell Gate
If you're headed to Long Island Sound, you turn left around the Battery and go North up the East River to Hell Gate, and on to Long Island Sound. Hell Gate can be about as nasty a passage as possible. It is strongly recommended that you go through at slack tide, or at least, with a following tide. Ideally, try to come down the Hudson on the ebb, hit Hell Gate at slack, and continue to the Sound on the flood. Make sure you're monitoring VHF channel 13 for the barge traffic. They don't use their horns, they ask permission to pass on the "1" side (normal passing, port to port, or overtaking a vessel on its starboard side) or the "2" side. Get in behind one, say "hello," and and don't try to pass until you're past the "Brothers." A few miles further you'll be in Long Island Sound, with City Island to Port, and King's Point to Starboard.

And Off Into the Sunset ...
Well, that's it. By now you're probably about half-way home, you've logged close to 500 miles, maybe 85 engine hours (don't forget that oil & fuel filter change!), you've docked the boat about 40 times. The boat is truly yours now, the mast is up, and you're anxious to start sailing!



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