Life was about to get very busy. So busy that we forgot to take our usual photos – so I hope some word pictures will do instead.
We woke early to a change in wind and bumpy water. By the time it was daylight we were ready to leave. We were not far from the next lock, the Lower Beauharnois, and we motor-sailed then motored there. It didn’t take long.
As we approached we scanned the lock wall, looking for the pleasure craft dock. Thanks to the Pleasure Craft Guide to the St. Lawrence Seaway you always have an idea of where the docks are (or almost always, but that’s another story), but actually seeing them is something altogether different. They are low to the water – often the thing you see first is the ramp from the dock to the phone you use to let lock officials know you are there.
We spotted it, approached slowly so we could see what it was actually like, circled and tied up. We let them know we were there. Then we sat and waited for an hour or so while they did lock maintenance. Even then we were the only pleasure craft – in fact the only vessel – there, so we were directed right to the far end of the lock close to the lip in front of the gate.
The Beauharnois locks are deep, so deep that instead of the linesmen throwing the lines down to you they let them down the walls and shake them. We saw them moving against the walls as we went into and along the lock. The damp, grey concrete walls towered high above us. And the ropes, more than long enough in the last two locks, did not reach the water.
We got to the end of the lock, where the ropes hung waiting. We reached for the ropes; I sat on the foredeck and twisted mine around the nearest cleat. As soon as we were ready the lock began to fill. We went up quickly and steadily, pulling in the ropes as steadily, sometimes fending off to keep the boat in a good position, paying attention. Once up we waited for the gates to open, handed over our payment receipts (did we mention that there is a cost for each lock, and that you can pay ahead of time on the internet?), handed off our ropes and motored off into the pool between the Lower and Upper Beauharnois locks.
The pool was a calm, pleasantly current-less patch. We were expected to keep moving so we didn’t interfere with other traffic, and we kept our speed up going through it. By now you can probably guess one of the consequences – we sacrificed power in our batteries that we might need later.
The upper lock was much like the lower – deep, walls towering over us as we came in. Again the ropes waited for us at the far end of the lock. We went up once more, holding in with the ropes and fending off with boathooks. By the time we motored through the gates we were tired but otherwise in good shape, though our batteries were not. As soon as we were well clear of the lock Richard fired up the generator.
Much though we wished for it, there was not enough wind to sail, not really enough even to motor-sail. But we did our best, unfurling the jib whenever we could. Still the batteries kept giving up more than we could put in. Richard nursed the batteries and adjusted our speed. We needed to keep going.
There were two lift bridges ahead of us, and no good place to anchor till we were past them. We made reasonably good time to the first lift bridge, and went briskly under it. As we approached the second lift bridge, going past the Port de Valleyfield, the current began to run strongly against us. It was frustrating – we could see the bridge in front of us but it took us a very long time to get there. By the time we got close to it our batteries were seriously low. We went under more slowly than we wanted to, conscious of our lack of speed. Past it there was more space to sail, so we tried pulling out the jib as soon as we were well clear and reduced the engine power. But the currents were still strong. They pushed us around and backward.
We pressed on, and finally our persistence paid off. The wind came up, the current grew less, and we made it to a place where there was enough space beside the channel to sail more easily. At last we could turn off the motor while we still had a tiny bit of battery left. None too soon; by then it was getting dark, and we needed to find a good place to anchor for the night. Because of the wind it had to be on the north side, where there was not enough fetch to create waves, have a sand or mud bottom and be shallow enough for the anchor to set at a good angle.
Not much to ask? We found a spot that looked good on the chart, and used the chartplotter to sail most of the way in through the darkness. Then we used the motor briefly to the put ourselves where x marked the spot (literally after we dropped anchor, since Richard put an x on the chartplotter to do exactly that). Then we set the generator going, plugged in the batteries, picked up the ropes and made supper – in that order.
That night we charged the batteries all night and into the morning. Since our generator can only charge one bank at a time Richard woke up every hour to swap plugs. And slept very soundly in between. But they still weren’t fully charged by the time we needed to leave in the morning. In front of us was Lac Saint-François; we hoped for a lot of sailing.
It started that way. We had a good crossing, sailing most of the way, fast enough to turn the prop so that it generated more charge for our batteries. There were all kinds of structures in this lake as well, and this time we saw all kinds of small powerboats running around, in and outside the ship channel. Many were occupied by fishermen (and women). We watched them race to a seemingly random point in the lake, stop and cast their lines, pause a while, then repeat the whole exercise. A fishing competition, maybe? Other small boats just ran around, going somewhere unknown to us (and perhaps them). One boater seemed to find it exciting to jump the wake of a large ship as it passed in the ship channel.
Our prop gave us some regeneration, but by the time we needed to use the motor our batteries still weren’t fully charged. Our plan had been to anchor after going to a marina in Cornwall where we could get the gas we needed to keep the generator running and the batteries charging. But there wasn’t enough in our batteries to get there. A Catch 22 situation: we needed to get to the marina to get gas to keep recharging our batteries, and we needed more charge in our batteries to get to the marina…
We were going more and more slowly. With no wind to help and the current against us, we needed to drop anchor and hope that we could do it in a place where we could get to shore and find gas. We ended up dropping anchor twice – the first time we anchored off houses, and then looking down found we were in weeds. Weeds are not good for anchor holding. Nor as it turned out, for our prop. They tangled themselves around it. Then we had to use some of our precious power to go backwards and forwards to clear it.
We got most of the weeds off. Then we tried to get closer to the marina, but there just wasn’t enough power to go very far. The second time we dropped anchor off a restaurant which had a dock area – very shallow, but fine for the dinghy. We weren’t sure what the bottom was, but at least there didn’t seem to be weeds. And we weren’t going to be able to go anywhere anyway.
We didn’t have enough power to fight the current. The batteries were way down, only about 10% remaining. Not enough to give us the power to overcome the current. And this meant the batteries were down further than was good for them – lead-acid batteries shouldn’t be run down past 20%. Running them down increases the risk of early sulfation (the collection of sulfa on the plates inside the battery that eventually ends the useful life of any lead-acid battery). Lifeline said we could run the ones we have down to 20% on occasion without serious harm to cycle life. Now we had run them down further.
What has been done cannot be undone, but you can find ways to deal with the situation you find yourself in. Richard put the dinghy together and headed for the restaurant dock. The license plates on the trucks and cars reminded us that we were now in Ontario! He asked and found out that there was a gas station about ten minutes walk away. It wasn’t dark yet, the gas station was open, so off he went. A brisk walk there, a brisk walk back and an energetic row back to the boat, and we had gas on board again. Finally there we sat with the generator running, bringing the batteries back up to power.
We relaxed a little, went through our usual evening routine. Then Richard checked our course from there and looked at the distance to the next two locks. The American locks.
The next day we would make it through them – barely.
Written by Margaret Mair
Photos by Margaret Mair