One by one, four boats cruised into Lock 11 in Amsterdam on Friday morning, taking advantage of a brief re-opening on the Erie Canal that’s been plagued with closures this year.
The canal system, particularly in the Capital Region, has undergone intermittent shutdowns because of severe weather at the start of the navigation season, during the middle of the season and then most recently when a massive hole was discovered beneath the center pier of Lock 13, requiring weeks of repairs that remain ongoing.
Boaters like Alexandra and Rowland Harrison on Thursday night were concerned about the delay this late in the season.
The couple left their boat, the TOSCA II, tied up in the Hudson River after they learned their passage to the west was blocked off in September.
They are among numerous mariners taking the Great Loop passage around the eastern portion of the U.S. It’s a trip of about 6,500 miles, from Alabama into the Gulf of Mexico, through or around Florida and up the East Coast.
The trip leads to New York City harbor, then up the Hudson River and into the Erie Canal, through Lake Erie and then around Michigan, into Illinois, straddling Missouri, then to Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. Another route goes to Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, then to the Gulf of Mexico.
For the Harrisons, who live in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, the brief re-opening of the Erie Canal will enable them to get their boat to safe winter harbor in Brewerton, near Syracuse.
“Since we knew the Erie Canal system is critical for us to get to our winter storage location in Brewerton, N.Y., we kept a close watch on the notice to mariners from the Canal Corporation,” Alex Harrison said in an email she wrote after passing through Lock 15 Friday morning.
The alternative, she said, would be taking the route to the Great Lakes via the Champlain Canal, which adds “a couple of hundred miles of travel” to the trip.
Without the brief re-opening, they might not have made it to Brewerton on time before the winter set in.
Great Loop mariners follow blogs and websites to get real-time information about the canals — and many skipped the Erie Canal altogether this season because of the closures.
“They didn’t know if they should continue on the Champlain, go back, or take their boat out of the water,” said Jim Favors, a member of the American Great Loop Cruisers Association who writes a blog titled “favorsventures.com.”
Cruisers who took the loop early in the season are heading to a rendezvous in Alabama next week, and the status of the Erie Canal will likely be a big topic of discussion, Favors said.
According to Mike Ahart, editor at “The Waterway Guide,” a canal cruiser’s bible, several boaters decided to skip the Erie Canal this season.
“A lot of people have done that this year because of the extended closures this summer. Others got trapped in the lock system for a while,” said Ahart, who said he heard a convoy of boats is hurriedly cruising through the Erie Canal to get out during the brief re-opening.
“People are pouring through. The people have been stuck now, I think some of them as much as two weeks. This worries people a little bit when you’re talking late in the season like this,” Ahart said Friday.
This weekend’s brief re-opening, he said, is of huge importance to those cruising westward on the canal.
Without it, “they weren’t going to make it to their winter cruising grounds.”
“They’re trying to get south, and if they get stuck up in the canal system then they’ve got a lot less time to get out of the cold weather. It could take them easily a month or more to get down into Florida. It’s October 4,” Ahart said.
The possibility of closures on the Erie Canal is “something that’s always on cruisers’ minds,” said Ahart, who provides periodic updates on numerous cruise paths on the Internet site waterwayguide.com
“I don’t think the delays themselves are an issue as much as people worrying maintenance is going to go by the wayside,” he said.
People hear about funding cuts — like those applied to New York’s Thruway Authority and subsidiary Canal Corp. — so there’s question among cruisers whether periodic closures are a result of disasters or lack of maintenance.
The closure in late June this year, which followed deadly flash flooding that claimed the life of a Fort Plain woman, is understandable, Ahart said.
“That’s going to happen. It’s a different assumption to say the reason there’s so much damage is because they haven’t been maintaining them, I don’t have the answer to that,” Ahart said.
With current discussions focusing on the federal government shutdown, Ahart said he and others are concerned about the chance of a long-term closure as governments struggle to find money.
“There’s definitely always a concern in people’s minds, when push comes to shove, what’s going to be gone,” Ahart said.
Boaters early in the season and again late last week described a wonderful trip and, after learning they were able to get where they were going, were put at ease.
But there’s always room for improvement, and communication is one element that could use a little work, said Glen Moore of Florida, who is traveling the Great Loop with his wife, Jill.
The Moores are heading to Brewerton to winter their boat, M/V Last Dance.
“When they closed earlier in the year, a lot of people had to change their plans because they couldn’t get as far as they wanted,” Moore said. Some boaters can’t take the Champlain Canal because their boats are too tall — the Erie Canal is the only path on the Great Loop that can accommodate boats over 15 feet tall, he said.
Moore said he understands repairs on an aged system are unavoidable.
“They’re dealing with a very old system and it’s tough. This summer’s rain they couldn’t help. The thing they could do better is to communicate with us,” he said.
Moore got stuck at Amsterdam’s Riverlink Park Thursday night. He had expected the system to have re-opened, based on the Canal Corp.’s notice to mariners that said the canal would open around noon on Thursday. That didn’t happen.
“One of the people in one of the locks told us it was a rumor the locks were going to open at 12. When things changed, they didn’t say things changed,” Moore said.
Still, Moore said closures and changes are understandable.
“These locks are old and the thing that happened to [Lock] 13 wasn’t anything they could’ve predicted and they’re trying to fix it. They’re doing the best they can,” Moore said.
The Erie Canal is old, but it’s not the oldest North American mariners make use of.
Moore said the Rideau Canal in Canada was built in the 1830s and still makes use of hand-cranked locks.
And there’s a newer system, the Tombigbee Waterway on the Tennessee River, which was opened in the mid-1980s, he said.
Canal Corp. spokesman Shane Mahar said the agency has been facing a bitter battle with nature in recent years.
“The one thing that we can’t control is Mother Nature,” Mahar said. “We can harness it as best as we can and adapt to it. But if Mother Nature wants to dump 7 inches of rain, she’s going to do that.”
The closures this year, he said, all were about safety. He said he’s unaware of any major projects planned that might impact next year’s navigational season.
During the winter, work will continue strengthening the dams under a FEMA-funded storm resistance upgrade project.
The Canal Corp.’s temporary re-opening is expected to end today at 8 p.m., and it’s unclear precisely when the segment will re-open, but work will resume at Lock 13 for an additional two to three weeks,” according to the Canal Corp.