Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Solenoid Blues

Slow Moving vehicle
Slow-moving vehicle

Uncle Mark asks:  “Whatever happened with the solenoid?”

(For non-gearheads: The solenoid is an essential part of the system that starts the engine.)

When you last saw our intrepid captain, the engine was NOT starting, and he was combing the local auto parts stores for a replacement solenoid.

No solenoid to be had. After much clanging and banging in the engine room--but with the engine still dead in the water—the Captain told the crew “cast off!” and we departed Campbellford under electric power, only to run out of juice four miles upstream.  

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Where the Lawnmower Has Four Legs

The Trent-Severn Waterway wanders through a number of long, narrow lakes. Last week we cruised the length of Rice Lake, named for the wild rice that used to grow there.

We’ve been looking for businesses that make creative use of sustainable technologies, and we happened to pick up a local magazine that mentioned an “eco-destination” on Grasshopper Island, in the middle of Rice Lake.  We were intrigued.  So, as we cruised by, we shouted, “Ahoy the Island.”

The proprietor, Trudy Jo Chernuck, invited us ashore.  She's a tall, vivacious woman who literally bounds across the landscape, she's so excited about her new project. Formerly the co-owner and manager of one of Canada’s largest (conventional) lakeside resorts, she's pursuing a new business niche.  Her retreat, “Island Spirit” is completely off the grid.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


In a crowded marina, it’s easy to find your boat.
Duck among swans
Our boat IS distinctive looking. It attracts attention wherever we go.  Most people are friendly and nice. They’re interested in sustainable technology. Or the idea of a year-long boat trip captures their imagination.

People staring at boats
Once in a while, we meet someone not so nice.  Terry Darlington has a word for that: Gongoozlers, or “people who stare at boats.”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Off the Grid

One part of our quest on this trip is to find businesses and individuals who are doing innovative things with sustainable technologies.  On Rice Lake, we visited Trudy Jo Chernuck, who operates a retreat, Island Spirits, that's completely off the grid.  One of the amenities visitors enjoy is this cypress grotto fitted with a state of the art, Chinese-manufactured solar shower.  Though it had been cloudy and raining for 24 hours, the water in the shower was still steaming hot.

Legendary Service

Lock tender at work

The place where I work trains employees to provide “legendary service.”  Parks Canada must do the same with lock tenders, because each one we’ve met has gone above the call of duty 

At last report we'd limped to a mooring at a lock a few miles above Trenton. The diesel engine refused to start, and our solar system was essentially out of juice.  The forecast for the next day: “rain.” 

Lock 8 is in the wilderness, at the edge of a lake, accessible by a narrow road paved with gravel that runs past derelict farm fields. No town of any size for miles. Coyotes howl at night.

Quite early the next morning, the Captain descended into the engine room.  Loud clanking sounds and loud, frustrated muttering ensued.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

She Tows!

Every big boat has a dinghy. 

This is a proper dinghy, here on the left.  It’s small.   You can tow it.  Or you can stow it, either on the bow of your boat, or hanging from davits off the stern.

Dragonfly does NOT have a proper dinghy.  She’s an unusual boat, and she has an unusual dinghy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Evil Weed

Among the Top Ten Reasons to Own a Canal Boat? It's really, really easy to follow the traffic rules! (see photo at right)

On Friday we left the port of Trenton and entered the Trent-Severn Waterway. We couldn't help comparing it to the Erie Canal. Both canal systems aimed to give commercial boats a shortcut to and from the Great Lakes. Work on the Trent started around the same time the Erie was completed. But though the Erie opened in 1825, it took 87 years to finish the Trent-Severn--by which time it wasn't much needed, what with trains and trucks and all.

In Lieu of BoatCam

People have lots of questions about our boat.  While we docked in Trenton, Bill painted the words "solar hybrid" above our insignia that reads "electric."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Surrender to the Crown

The ferry at Glenora is part of the national highway system

Canada’s Prince Edward County, around which we cruised on Tuesday and Wednesday, is a large peninsula with lots of bays.  

Note: Maple Leaf in top position

We stopped Tuesday night in Picton, a classic harbor town long on nautical atmosphere—rickety wooden wharfs, waterweed tossing in the swell, gulls soaring overhead. It was a little disorienting to NOT smell the salty tang of sea air.

By docking in Picton we were setting foot on Canadian soil, and the first order of business was to clear customs.

Steering in Super Slo-Mo

On Tuesday we crossed the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, in the northeast corner of Lake Ontario, and officially entered Canada. 
The sky was pale blue, feathered with high cirrus clouds.  Our route took us past two large islands, Wolfe Island and Amherst Island, and we saw more enormous tankers on the horizon.
I’m getting the hang of our nautical GPS system.  It’s like playing a video game in, of course, super slo-mo.  You place the cursor on some intermediate destination—say, the tip of a peninsula at the end of a bay—and click a button to insert a “waypoint.”  On the screen, you see a tiny boat cruising down what looks like a little roadway leading to the waypoint.  You try to steer the boat so it stays on the dotted line in the middle of the roadway.
It sounds easy in theory—especially since our usual cruising speed is about 4 mph.  But here’s how you steer:  if you want the nose of the boat to move right, you push the tiller to the left.  If you want to move left, push right.  Meanwhile, the little boat on the screen might be pointing in any direction—right, left, up, or down.  So if you veer off course, your brain cranks overtime figuring out which way to push the darn tiller.
Also, when you steer, there’s a lag between when you make your move and when the screen shows your course correction.  So you PUUSSSSH the tiller WAAAAY over, and by the time the screen shows you to be on course, you are actually WAAAAY off course, in the other direction.  
Then there’s the wind, which can push around even our 14-ton vessel.  And then there’s the waves.  And then there's the current.
Bottom line: It’s ridiculously easy to oversteer and end up tracing a crazy zigzag course. That wastes time and fuel.
What IS helpful is the sailor’s old-fashioned method of “coastal navigation," which is:  Find a landmark that lines up with your desired compass bearing (which the GPS tells you)--say, a water tower, a conspicuous building, a tree that sticks up above the treeline--and point the bow at the landmark.  Try to hold ‘er steady. That’s it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

We Ain't No Farmers

We’ve said this is a “voyage of sustainability,” and one thing we want to seek out as we travel is examples of sustainable agriculture.

Meanwhile, back on the boat, we are embracing a longstanding tradition of British Canal boaters: we have a big pot full of flowers and a couple window boxes where we are growing herbs. We also grew one salad’s worth of lettuce.

It’s not exactly local farming, but it’s quite a treat to cook a spaghetti dinner and liven things up with a little fresh basil and oregano. 

Come Aboard!

From Chapman's Boating Etiquette, I learned that you never step onto someone's boat unless you are invited.
We've definitely noticed this.  The other boaters we meet are extremely careful not to lift a foot from the dock until you say, "Come aboard."

Would you like to see what our boat looks like on the inside? Come aboard!

Napoleon Never Slept Here

On Monday I flew the redeye back from Portland. Bill met me at the public dock in Sackets Harbor, New York; then we set out onto Lake Ontario, headed north for Cape Vincent.

The day was overcast and gray, but the forecast was for light winds and low waves, and we found calm conditions on the lake.  About an hour from our destination, we noticed a chunk of shoreline that seemed to be drifting.  Closer examination revealed a container ship roughly the size of the Titanic. 

Sunday, June 13, 2010

We Interrupt this Blog . . .

For a short side trip.

If you're wondering where the Dragonfly is, she is docked in Henderson Harbor, on the east shore of Lake Ontario. Bill is wrestling manfully with the electrical system.

Meanwhile I am in Portland, Oregon, to attend the college graduation of my "emergency back-up daughter," Kathryn Johnston.

I flew out of Watertown, NY. We had checked the local maps, and from our "slow boat" perspective, we were rather worried about how I would get to the airport from the dock. By OUR measure of travel, the distance seemed quite far!

Bill figured it might be possible to motor up a creek and dock at a campground about a mile from the airport. Then, he would put me ashore and I'd just hike it!

But I didn't have to do that. Imagine our perspective shift when we learned a cab ride to the airport would take about 10 minutes and cost a few bucks.

The hop from Watertown to Albany was great, by the way, and a fascinating contrast to slow-boatin'.

I flew in a 9-seater Cessna (air speed 20 times faster than our boat), low enough for wonderful views of Lake Ontario on take-off and the Adirondack Mountains as we landed. The pilot sat an arm's length away, sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup in a cupholder on the dashboard: a 30-something woman with streaked-blond hair, a nose piercing, and a supremely confident air, revving the engine with great authority as she casually opened the window to listen to the engines.

(Her landing was perfect.)

We'll return you to your regularly scheduled cruise blog postings on Monday.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Nina, the Pinta, and the Dragonfly

When we completed our first crossing on Lake Ontario two days ago--plunging through the two-foot waves stirred up by a 15-mph wind--we felt like true adventurers.

Back in Oswego, though, we made a sighting that really puts our voyage on perspective.

There's a little footbridge that takes you high above the canal. I was crossing at dusk and looked down to see what I thought, at first, were two enormous wooden canal boats.  I guessed they might be reconstructions, museum-bound. Through binoculars, though, I could see these were actually wooden sailing ships, with their masts stepped (lowered and tied on deck).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

In Lieu of BoatCam

I promised you BoatCam! Daily videotapes, shot from our stern, showing you our travels.

Surfin' USA

Today we crossed a bay on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, traveling from Mexico, NY, to Sacket's Harbor.

Yesterday, while we were docked in Mexico, NY, we met Fran Talaber of Oswego. He's done lots of boating and (Brotherhood of the Boaters) gave us loads of information about the next stage of our trip (up the Trent-Severn Waterway) and a bit of good advice: “Get going early.”

We’re talkin’ 5:30 AM here. The water is almost always calm then, Fran said. Leave early, and get where you are going before the weather changes, which it often does later in the day.

It’s possible that the first mate had previously suggested this strategy to the skipper! . . . but no doubt, independent confirmation was a useful thing.

We left Mexico at 0600 today. (We are far enough north now that the sun had been up for half an hour already). As we cruised up the calm bends of the Little Salmon River, the sky looked threatening.
The forecast was for favorable winds (out of the south, pushing us toward our destination) and just small waves early, then showers and thunderstorms with bigger wind and waves. Out on the lake we could see lighter skies ahead, but a dark storm cloud boiled just above our heads. I kept watching it as we went, trying to estimate which of us was traveling the faster.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Big Water

Today we left the canal system for our first real passage on big water--crossing Lake Ontario, one of the Great Lakes. As we left the harbor at Oswego, NY, we waved to the Emita, a packet boat operated by our home marina, Mid-Lakes Navigation, that takes passengers on overnight canal trips. It was nice to see a friendly face, so to speak, as we set out on a new stage of our trip. At the edge of the harbor we passed the Oswego West Pierhouse Lighthouse, a local landmark.

The forecast was for waves from one to three feet and winds up to 15 knots--which we have now concluded is about the limit of Dragonfly's seaworthiness. But she shouldered the swells aside gamely, and we worked our way along the coast sailboat-style, by "tacking"--by which I mean, a straight-line course would have put us sideways into the waves, so we took a zig-zag course, first running up into the waves and then turning to run with them on our beam.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Tale of Two Batteries

It’s Monday, June 7, and we have been docked in Owsego, NY, since Saturday afternoon. How we got here on Saturday is a tale of two batteries.

(WARNING: This is a long post, with lots of technicalities. If you are a boat person, or an engineering person, or Cap’n Bill and you see that I got something wrong here, please let me know!)

We left Fulton, NY, on Saturday under lightly cloudy but bright skies with a light wind. Our solar system had still not fully recharged, so we were running on diesel.

The fun began at Lock 6 on the Oswego Canal. Lock are described in terms of their “lift,” or how high the waters will lift a boat going upstream, and this lock is very deep (for the Erie system!), with a lift of 18 feet.

We were going down, not up. It was awe-inspiring down at the bottom of the lock—we were BELOW the level of the lock gates, which are enormous in their own right. (See photo above.) It was also was extremely windy at the bottom of the lock. We were having a hard time holding the boat to the wall, so, as soon as Bill saw the lock doors start to open, he cast off.

But—just like Thursday on Onandaga Lake--the diesel did not start. And still not enough juice to run on electric.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Canal Boat Design

As we've mentioned, Dragonfly was formerly the Honeyoe, one of a fleet of "hire boats" (hire boats being boats you can rent and pilot yourself) operated by Mid-Lakes Navigation in Macedon, NY. Here are some interesting aspects of our boat's design.

Look at the tiller (photo at right, the wooden thingy that you use to steer). The boat-builder, Peter Wiles, Sr., specifically designed the tiller to be high enough to clear a beer can left on the seat. Spilled beer, would, of course, be wasteful.

Also, notice that though the steersman sits under a canvas canopy, there is NO windscreen. If it's raining, or cold and windy, there you are, out in the elements. Again, this was deliberate design. Peter Wiles said, "If the weather is bad, I want my boats tied up at the dock!" (Not out on the water with an inexperienced captain.

Some folks have been expressing concern about the sea-worthiness of Dragonfly . . . to which we can only say, we promise to follow the good advice of an expert boat-builder and stay in port in bad weather.

(Not to mention, we only drink beer on the stern when we are in dock.)

Boating Etiquette

One of the books in our boat library is Chapman's Boating Etiquette.

If you know a bit about boating, you may know of Chapman's Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling, the "nautical Bible" (first published in 1917 and now in its 65th edition!)  We don't have THAT book on board (it's enormous: 928 pages plus 1,500 full-color illustrations), but for some reason we DO have Chapman's Etiquette, a slim volume in a water-resistant blue plastic cover.

In my rare free time I've been been perusing its pages, trying to make sure we don't inadvertently commit any major boating social gaffes.

For example: We are instructed to fly our American flag at the stern, unfurling it ("smartly") at each morning at 0800 hours and bringing it in ("with ceremony") at 2000 hours. So far so good. We only left our flag out overnite once.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Adventures in Slowness

We have left the Erie Canal for a side branch. On Friday we travelled from Phoenix to Fulton on the Owsego Canal.

One theme of our journey is to learn about environmental issues wherever we are. We got a graphic demonstration when our propeller became fouled with water milfoil, an introduced and highly invasive species, just after we cleared the lock in Phoenix. We cut the engine and Bill pulled great clots of trailing, feathery, dark green weeds from the propeller, and from the cage-like housing that protects it.

From Phoenix to Fulton is 10 miles and we estimated that we had enough solar power to get there. However, just outside Fulton, the meter dropped from 70% to near zero. Bill shut down the electric system and we drifted, watching the meter as the panels slowly soaked up a bit more sun.

By goosing the motor and shutting down, goosing the motor and shutting down, we limped to the lock just below Fulton.

A boat was already in the lock, and when we hailed the locktender, he said he'd wait for us. But I'm sure he was rather surprised by how long it took us to traverse the last hundred yards and finally tie up.

We apologized profusely--and also to the waiting boat. But the captain was quite cheery. "No worries," he said. "I was picking up a friend who was in town, mowing grass--had to wait for him anyway."

No Brats in Sight

We docked Thursday night on the Oswego Canal in Phoenix, NY—home of the famous “Bridgehouse Brats.” This is a club for local teens who give boaters a warm welcome.

When you dock at the Phoenix marina, Brats will offer to wash your boat, take out your trash, pump your fuel, fill your water tank, pump out the holding tank, watch your boat while you go off sightseeing . . . and all of these services, amazingly, are free. (Just one example of the powerful "Brotherhood of Boaters." More on that later.) Alas, when we arrived, school was still in session. No brats in sight.

The Oswego canal’s Lock #1 is right in the heart of Phoenix and the marina is at the entrance to the lock. On Friday morning we woke to bustling activity on the far side of the lock.

It was “Canal Day” for local schoolchildren. One of the canal’s adorable blue tugboats had been brought in, and interpreters in period costumes (overalls and straw hats for the men, long calico dresses for the women) circulated among the crowds of kids.

An event organizer told us they were glad we showed up when we did, to insert an actual canal boat into the scene.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Slowboat Power System 101

By request, here are photos from the helm, showing the boat's original controls for the diesel engine at right, and the new controls for the electric motor at left.

When you buy a powerboat, one choice you have to make is “single engine or twin engine?” The advantage of twin engines is that, when you’re out on the high seas and one engine dies, you still have a second engine. The disadvantage of twin engines is that they’re more expensive than a single engine--and there’s twice as much engine to break down, which boat engines often do.

Our boat is twin-engine . . . in a way. The original engine is a 60-HP Yanmar diesel. That’s a very common boat engine, so parts are easy to get. And Yanmars have a reputation for lasting a long time.

Listen to the Dragonfly cruise

Sea trial by WPSU.
The black box with the labeled switches controls
the electric motor

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Signs of the Times

As we passed through the town of Newark, NY, we noticed this striking mural under a bridge. It's part of a public park and boat dock in this small town.

In the early 1990s, many towns developed parks like this along the Erie Canal, in part to preserve history and in part to promote tourism in the region.

Last night we stayed in Baldwinsville, a much larger town than Newark. Lock 24 is right in the center of town, and we ate at a lighthouse-shaped restaurant overlooking the lock. After dinner we went for a stroll and found an elaborate "riverwalk" or linear park along the canal. The gravel trail, neatly edged in red stone, had handsome iron railings and a nice view. We were the only people on the trail.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sailing Off the End of the Earth

Today we leave our known universe and motor into unknown waters. We had docked last night at Clyde, NY, which we had visited three weeks earlier, on our "shakedown" cruise. Today we continue east, and for the first time enter waters we have never seen before.

Of course it's hardly like the days of Magellan, or even Lewis and Clark. We have a GPS and marine charts and we're following a channel that has "daymarks" (the nautical equivalent of roadsigns) every few hundred yards. But it's still exciting to see new landscape.

Top Ten Reasons to Own a Canal Boat

With apologies to David Letterman:

10. Makes You Feel Special: Anyone can buy a flashy car. Canal boats not so easy to get.

9. Makes You Feel Macho: What man would NOT want to own 14 tons of steel?

8. Extremely Safe: Takes hours to sink (plenty of time to man the life raft).

7. Educational: Many things to fix (electrical system, plumbing, etc. etc.)

6. Lowers Blood Pressure: Travel at 4 MPH the ultimate zen experience.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Anchors Aweigh!

A champagne toast with our friends at Mid-Lakes before launch
The Dragonfly launched at 08:03 AM on Tuesday, June 1, 2010. We are running easily on electric power under gray skies and light rain.

Now heading east on the Erie Canal. Our destination tonite is Clyde, NY; some ports along the way include Palmyra, Newark, and Lyons.

We just passed through Lock 30, a mile outside Macedon; Bill maneuvered the Dragonfly to gently kiss the wall of the lock. He says it's actually easier to maneuver under electric power than it is under diesel--more fine control.

On Monday, Bill continued to work on the throttle mechanism for the electric motor while I did more "boat primping": painting our table in the bow and waterproofing the cushions. At the end of the day we gathered with the crew at Mid-Lakes Navigation (photo above) for a champagne toast to the voyage.