Sunday afternoon, John Bruno cast off the heavy mooring lines and throttled up his 48 foot Sea Ray from Lock 12 of the Erie Canal out into the open Mohawk River.
It was cold and windy and spitting rain, but a day of motion on the water was a victory for Bruno and his wife, Carol; for the last nine days, the newly retired Buffalo couple were stalled in Brewerton.
“We’re on our way to Florida,” he said. “We’re going to spend the winter down there in the warmth.”
But their plans were stymied by emergency repairs to the movable dam at Lock 13.
Contractors have been working on the dam off and on for three years. Back in September, crews noticed water coming through the temporary coffer dam, which kept the Mohawk River back from the work site. The water blew out a portion of the coffer dam before a diver went underwater and found a 13-foot-wide void beneath the dam’s center pier.
The damage forced the closure of Lock 13, as well as locks 12 and 14 to the east and west, respectively.
Contractors from Tioga Construction have been hard at work repairing the damage ever since. State Canal Corp. officials planned to open the locks from Nov. 12 through Dec. 2, but that plan changed last week after water again erupted into the work site.
“We had to move the whole thing up,” said Canal Corp. spokesman Shane Mahar, “We need to let our contractors get down to business.”
All three locks opened at 10 a.m. Sunday and will remain open through 5 p.m. Wednesday, then they’ll be closed until next season.
The change actually worked out for Bruno. He was in Brewerton at the time, only a few days’ trip from the troubled locks, but any boats waiting out the closure back in Buffalo, he said, would be out of luck.
“It’s like they don’t plan this stuff out,” he said. “It’s like they’re just going by the seat of the pants.”
According to Mahar, the shortened window was actually a strategic move.
“You can’t just trailer these boats,” he said. “Some of them are from Canada. We had to give them a window to get home.”
The issue, he said, was creating that window. With the Lock 13 dam basically out of commission, engineers had to get enough water flowing between locks 12 and 14 to float boats. They tried it in mid-October, but Mahar said the water was too shallow.
They boosted flow to 7 feet deep Sunday by dumping water from reservoirs in the southern Adirondacks. It worked, but Mahar said such demands can only be met for a few days.
Once the locks close again Wednesday, crews will resume work immediately and continue well into December. The whole canal system will shut down for the winter Friday.
Sunday was a success, at least, with six boats making it through the locks. Mahar expects more to go through today and a total of 20 by closure. He said all the stranded boats, including the Grande Mariner, a 184-foot, 88-passenger cruise ship, will be on their way by mid-week.
There is just one other issue with the closures. November, according to Bruno, is a pretty cold time to be in the water.
“Carol does the bow when we go through the locks,” he said. “Today, she had on four layers, not counting the raincoat and rain hat.”
In all, though, he said things could have been worse. Brewerton is a nice town. They rented a car and drove around. The Sea Ray has a heated bridge for those cold November breezes, and the Brunos found a solid place to dock Sunday night at Amsterdam’s Riverlink Park.
“There’s even electricity here,” he said.
By the time truly cold weather arrives, the Brunos will be in Florida, while contractors still labor away at Lock 13.