The Story Of Venture I - Part Nine
Even though Venture had negotiated the deep fjords and tricky currents of the Inside Passage, cruised well offshore along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America, toured the Galapagos Islands, transited the Panama Canal, picked her way through the brackish waters of the Intracoastal Waterway, forged up the Hudson and negotiated the scenic byways of the Erie and Oswego canals with their thirty fresh water locks, Lake Ontario marked the start of yet another new and different aspect of cruising. Although it was one of the smallest of the Great Lakes, Ontario was more than large enough to become extremely rough and dangerous in bad weather but, once again, we were lucky and the weather was calm with only a light mist obscuring the horizon. The water in the canals had been the color of green tea but out on the lake, our wake sparkled with a life that differed from the frothy foam of seawater. It took me a while to realise that I could wash the bugs and grass off the boat using the seawater pump!
The lake meets the St Lawrence Seaway in an area known as the Thousand Islands. In fact the actual number is closer to 1,800 which vary in size from little more than rocky outcrops to several acres. Many are privately owned and home to a single magnificent house. The most famous of these is Boldt Castle on Heart Island on which work was started in 1900 and was abruptly halted four years later when the wife of William Boldt died of consumption. Abandoned until 1977 the property was taken over by the Seaway Bridge Commission and has been largely restored which is a remarkable undertaking bearing in mind that this area is bleak and ferociously cold during the winter months when the Seaway is closed.
Venture was a relatively large vessel for the local marinas either because of her length, beam or draft - she draws 5' 4" - so that we had to pick and choose our mooring spots. We were lucky to find a berth over the weekend at the Riveredge Resort in Alexandria Bay. From here, we took a tour boat to cruise between the islands which freed us from having to concentrate on the sometimes tricky navigation and gave us the opportunity to learn about the history of this area where the US/Canadian border winds its seemingly random way between the islands.
As scenic as it was, this was our entry point into the Great St Lawrence Seaway opened as recently as 1959 as a joint venture between the Canadian and US governments. This whole project, which includes the Welland Canal, allows ocean going ships access from the sea to as far inland as Chicago at the southern end of Lake Michigan.
Between Lake Ontario and Montreal there are seven major locks controlled either by the Canadians or by the United States. The locks are considered as a kind of no mans land because, even though you may have crossed the border - at this point nothing more than a line on the map in the middle of the seaway - and entered a Canadian lock you are not allowed off the boat and you have not officially entered Canada.
The Canadian controlled Iriquois lock was the first we encountered. This is a flood control lock with a change in level of less than 2 ft so we did not even need to tie up to the lock walls. After this first lock, we hoisted our faded Canadian courtesy flag (last raised in Vancouver 10 months ago) and headed for the Chrysler Park Marina on the Canadian side of the border where we officially entered Canada and were visited by customs and immigration officials. We were allotted a berth adjacent to a delightful French Canadian couple cruising in a sailboat with their young son whom we had met while waiting for the lock. They made recommendations for the next night's marina and the gentleman in the yacht ahead of us gave us his name card and strongly suggested that we visit the Royal St Lawrence Yacht Club for the night after that.
It came as a surprise to realise that the seaway is a series of large lakes joined by sections of river. The buoyed channel does not follow a straight line across each lake but meanders back and forth and it is essential to keep within the red and green markers as the depth can be less than one metre outside the channel. In places, the port and starboard markers can be as little as 450 yards apart in the middle of a lake several miles wide.
We crossed the large Lac Saint Francois and negotiated the tricky entrance into Valleyfield Marina where, after leaving the main channel, the colors of the markers were reversed with green now being left to port. The French Canadian couple were waiting on the dock to receive our lines. This was their home port and they even drove us to the local supermarket for provisioning. Without their advice we would surely never have considered or found this nice marina.
The next day we passed through the American-run Eisenhower and Snell locks. These had ingenious floating bollards set into deep slots in the lock walls so it was only necessary to loop short lines on the bollards which floated up and down with the water level. We had been warned that we might have a long wait at these locks but we were very lucky to have a fast transit even though there was a commercial ship waiting for uplift as we came out of the lock.
Very understandably, commercial traffic has priority over pleasure craft and it is possible that you could have to wait for as long as four hours at each lock but the longest we had to wait at any of the big locks was only ten minutes. We usually had a lock to ourselves which was a sobering thought considering that each lock discharges 24,000,000 gals of water per transit.
In a parallel situation to Panama, specialized vessels have been built to fit the locks. These are approximately 75' wide by 400' long. These "Lakers" can perhaps best be visualized by imagining a ship around half the width and twice the length of a football field. We watched one such vessel enter a lock and, with only inches to spare on either side, she had to use considerable power to force her way into the chamber in order to displace the water trapped ahead of her - like trying to ram a cork into a full bottle.
AIS is of tremendous help when navigating the seaway. Not only can ships be identified several miles away, both ahead and astern, but knowing the name, dimensions and speed of the vessel spares you any nasty surprises around the next bend and you can see which vessels are in the locks well ahead of time.
The next day we followed the Beauharnois canal which had two vertical lift bridges where we had a short wait at each before we passed through the Canadian-run pair of locks with the same name. Here the technique was quite different as the lock staff handed us thin polypropylene lines which the crew on Venture fed out through the closed chocks during the 45' drop in level.
We sailed across Lac Saint-Louis being sure to stay within the channel which wandered back and forth across the open waters of this large lake. Still well out from the shore, we turned off the main channel to pick our way between the red and green buoys marking the tortuous route to the Royal St Lawrence Yacht Club. Once again the colours of the markers were reversed - and reversed again - as the route zigged and zagged in strange directions. It was Wednesday and a flock of sabot-sized dinghies was milling about the constricted entrance in 20 kts of wind as Venture, which appeared to be the size of a battleship, arrived on the scene. Fortunately a yacht club tender appeared from the melee and directed us to the service dock. We would never have had the temerity to visit this club had we not had the personal invitation from a fellow yachtsman but it turned out that they did accept transient yachts.
We further lucked out because Wednesday night was BBQ night and we were invited to participate. It turned out that many of the members were familiar with the Fleming brand and I gave several tours of the boat and we all enjoyed a most convivial evening and we received much good advice re approaches to Montreal and Quebec.
The following day we followed the curved Canal de la Rive Sud which terminated in the locks of Saint Catherine Lock and Saint-Lambert lock where we were also lucky not to have to wait. After leaving the last lock it was necessary to take a sharp turn and proceed up stream against a seven knot current to reach the marina in the old port. For Venture this was presented no problem with her twin screws and ample power but for a smaller or less powerful, single screw boat this could present a much more challenging situation because, not only is the current against you, but it is also setting you sideways.
We were allocated a good slip in the Marina Port d'Escale in Jacques Cartier Basin in the old port of Montreal where we spent two nights. It was Friday night and the area around the port buzzed with activity. Crowds of people strolled the waterfront while artists offered instant caricatures and portraits of passers by. Boats of all sizes and types came and went; some offering dinner cruises. Horse-drawn fiacres plodded up and down the crowded streets of the old town which is very French in character while buskers and street performers kept the crowds entertained.
We spent two nights in Montreal before heading down river to Trois Rivieres, so called because the St Lawrence river splits into three channels. The major locks and lift bridges were now all behind us and we stripped the fenders of their protective garbage bags. We were again fortunate to get a good slip for our overnight stop. The current now starts to become a factor for the first time. For our speed of boat, the guide book recommended leaving three rivers five hours before low water in Quebec. The tidal range in Trois Rivieres is three feet but in Quebec, 67 miles downstream, it can reach as much as 18 ft.
We timed our departure for 1130 and with the current behind us we reached speeds as high as 14 kts at only 1100 rpm. Anyone contemplating incorporating the St Lawrence in any part of their route should endeavour to do so traveling downstream or they will find themselves fighting a significant adverse current. There is a really excellent Atlas of Tidal Currents published by the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans Canada who can be contacted at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. The first is in Ottawa and the second in Sidney, BC.
Two impressive bridges mark the approaches into Quebec and here the river and the channel narrow with consequent increase in current. High bluffs on the port side, crowned by the ancient Citadel, mark the location of the battle in 1759 between the British and the French which changed the history of this part of Canada.
The entrance to the old port of Quebec lies downstream of this point just before a prominent line of massive grain silos. Actually the entrance is a fairly narrow slot in the seawall which, with a three knot current sweeping past, had to be entered without prevarication. Once again, Venture's power and responsiveness was a great advantage. This entrance just got us into the outer basin but, mindful of the great tidal range, it was still necessary to pass through a lock to reach the inner basin. Lock control told us that the gates would open in about 10 minutes and we milled around in the outer basin along with eight other yachts. It did not seem possible that we would all fit in the one lock and we were quite prepared to wait but they packed us all in with Venture, once again, towering over everything else. We must have appeared very intimidating to the smaller boats as we maneuvered our flared bow into the crowded lock in the stiff breeze. However, with twin engines and twin thrusters, Venture is an easy boat to control although I try to use the thrusters as little as possible.
Having retired early on the first night we were awoken at 10 pm by a barrage of strange sounds to find that the huge wall of silos bordering one side of the inner and outer harbours were acting as gigantic movie screen, accompanied by surround sound on a massive scale, to depict the history of the Quebec. This brilliantly conceived and executed show is one of the most remarkable man-made sights I have ever seen. It is shown every night from June 20th to August 24th as part of the 400th anniversary of the city.
The following day we walked through the old town and toured the Citadel from which there are magnificent views over the city and up and down the St Lawrence River. Although almost everyone we met spoke good English, French is the universal language here - so much so that it is hard to believe that you not in France. If you always wanted to take your boat to France but balked at the cost and effort of crossing the Atlantic, take a trip to Quebec.
We will be spending one week in this charming and historic city before continuing down the St Lawrence River and back into the North Atlantic en route to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.
Venture has now carried us well over 17,000 miles with more than 7,500 of those miles since we left the La Paz area on April 12th.
Keep a look out for part 2 of the article by George Sass of our visit to the Galapagos in the August issue of Yachting magazine.