“If there are locks at the Pearly Gates, we’re not going!”
That was our Declaration of Sentiment after passing through CS-2&3, the double lock that relayed our canal boat toward Seneca Falls. Cruising the Erie and Cayuga-Seneca canals in New York for three days last summer was relaxing but, yes, we three canawlers—Georgia, Janet and Erica—could have used some help getting through the locks.
Locks are big tanks that either fill with water or drain water to take a boat from low places to high places, and vice versa, on a canal or river.
Having enjoyed easy passage through several locks on our cruise from Seneca Falls, we were befuddled by our fumbling on the return trip. In our first attempt, we ended up perpendicular to the side (i.e., facing the cement wall) in Lock E-26 and had to be hauled around with a boat hook by the not-amused lockmaster.
“Will you call ahead to the next lock for us?” I asked as we drifted out of his domain. “I certainly will,” he replied. We ended up not putting on a show at E-25, even though that lockmaster obviously called in reinforcements and provided a seating gallery.
CS-1, where the Erie blends with Cayuga Lake and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, was a snap. A tiny boat imprudently beat us into the lock but survived our entry and departure. I was at the helm and visualized our boat a loaf of bread overtaking a mini-marshmallow.
Not yet finished being foolish, we ended up backwards with our boat’s stern facing the exit gates in Lock CS-2. When I radioed the lockmaster—“How do I get out of here?”—he calmly replied, “You’ll turn the boat around. You can do it. I’ll wait for you.”
Wait for me? What happens if you don’t wait for me?
I took courage from his unruffled demeanor, cranked the wheel, pushed the right bow thruster and with the throttle in neutral, turned that boat around. I swear there wasn’t more than an inch available at bow and stern to make the turn. Janet and Erica (whose arms are 4 inches longer from holding on to a 22-ton boat) were visibly relieved. And the lockmaster smiled on our way out.
I credit our lock faux pas to inexperience, wind and a finicky left bow thruster. But mostly inexperience.
Our boat was a replica of the packets that once plied the Erie and Cayuga-Seneca canals. At 42 feet, Fantessy was outfitted with conveniences unimaginable in the mid-1800s when canals were king.
The main character in my books, Tess Riley, whose name so shockingly appeared in our boat’s moniker FanTESSy, could not have fathomed air conditioning, a refrigerator, a microwave and flush toilets. Besides those conveniences, we enjoyed private berths and a boat as stable as a king-size bed (only bigger).
Canal cruising is one of the most pleasant, peaceful modes of travel by water. Among the few boats we encountered were fellow packets from the same cruise line. We seemed to be gliding through wilderness, but the busy 21st century was only a hedgerow away. The New York Thruway and the canals’ nemesis—freight trains—zipped alongside carrying cargo once transported by water.
Today the old towpaths are overgrown with trees. We started the boat with a key, not by shouting, “Hey, hoggee! Hurry up those mules!”
Still, we three canawlers truly enjoyed—as the cruise line labels it—life in the past lane.