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New York's Erie Canal by boat

From their chartered Lockmaster boat, two couples leisurely explore the western end of the canal. It's a week of locks, bucolic scenery and small-town America.

January 23, 2011|By Karl Zimmermann | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • In a rush? There's no such thing as you cruise along the Erie Canal under the lift bridge at Fairport, N.Y. The canal, which dates to 1825, runs from Buffalo to Albany, N.Y.
In a rush? There's no such thing as you cruise along the Erie Canal under… (Karl Zimmerman )

Reporting from the Erie Canal, N.Y. — "Now I know what's meant by 'steering committee,'" the lock tender said with a laugh as the water, rushing through the sluice gates of Erie Canal Lock 32, raised us to his level.

Karin was at the tiller of Seneca, our 42-foot charter boat, and I had my hand on the controls of that loveliest of maneuvering cheats: the bow thruster, which effortlessly moved the bow to port or starboard.

Chuck and Karin Gedge and my wife, Laurel, and I were on our first full day of a weeklong voyage in July on the western end of New York's historic Erie Canal. During our trip, we would cover 90 miles of water through varied and mostly bucolic landscape, all seen in slow motion at about 6 mph. We would visit 10 canal towns, each with something to offer: a museum, a good meal, some historic architecture or simply the embrace of small-town America. And our boat was a self-contained mobile home, offering everything we needed.

By the time we reached Lock 32, we were getting comfortable with Seneca, one of 10 Lockmaster boats offered for charter by Mid-Lakes Navigation Co. We'd picked it up the afternoon before at Mid-Lakes' Macedon Landing, about 20 miles southeast of Rochester, N.Y.

After we stowed our gear and groceries (plenty of space for everything), we explored our compact yet comfortable home, its interior paneled in knotty pine. Each couple had a double-berth cabin with a head (one had a shower) and basin.



From LAX, Delta, American, United, US Airways, AirTran and Continental offer connecting service (change of planes) to Rochester. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $268.

Mid-Lakes Navigation Co., 11 Jordan St., Skaneateles, N.Y., (800) 545-4318,, offers Lockmaster charter boats in three sizes and configurations for hire for full or partial weeks. The Seneca, the largest size, costs $2,975 for the week, which includes fuel and canal tolls.


Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor,

The spacious kitchen area had a dinette table. Fore and aft cockpits were roofed in canvas against rain or sun, and the forward one was screened. Low and long, the Lockmasters are reminiscent of the packet boats that once carried passengers on the Erie Canal and are akin to the recreational narrowboats that proliferate along thousands of miles of canals in Britain.

Once we settled in, Libby of Mid-Lakes boarded to give us a thorough orientation — two hours' worth — on navigation, maneuvering and the boat's systems. She explained the console (home of the thruster control and throttle) and the procedure for hooking up to shore power.

"Push the tiller in the direction you want the stern to go" was her single most important bit of advice. It's somewhat counterintuitive for those of us used to steering a car (or even a boat) with a wheel. This simple mantra stood us in good stead whenever we found ourselves in a tight spot.

With Libby aboard and me as guinea pig at the tiller, we motored from the dock and headed for Lock 30, just to the east of Macedon Landing, as a trial run. After I "locked" through successfully, made a midstream U-turn and then went back through the lock, Libby pronounced us canal-worthy and hopped off. It was about 6 p.m. when we finally headed west.

We made Fairport, a charming canal village, just in time for cocktails in the aft cockpit and an excellent dinner at Joey B's: rack of lamb with scalloped potatoes for some, veal medallions or sea scallops in a Parmesan cream sauce for others, eaten on a deck overlooking the canal. Like all the villages where we tied up, Fairport has amenities for boaters, in this case water, electric hook-ups, showers and toilets. There was an $11 dockage fee, but the facilities were complimentary elsewhere.

The next morning, we had a leisurely departure just after 9 and immediately encountered a lift bridge, with the span at an angle lower at the northern end than at the southern end.

"It may look like you can get under it," Libby had warned us, "but trust me, you can't."

"Bates Road bridge tender. Bates Road bridge tender," I intoned into the marine radio's handset, feeling rather professional. "This is boat Seneca requesting westbound passage."

"OK, captain," crackled the reply. "Stand by and I'll get the bridge out of your way." Captain! I confess to a frisson of self-important excitement. Bells rang, the bridge raised majestically, the mid-canal light flipped from red to green, and we were on our way west. By late morning, we reached Pittsford for brunch on the patio of the Village Coal Tower Restaurant, an eatery wrapped around a coal-storage silo from earlier canal and railroad days. Before casting off, we wandered through Pittsford's prosperous downtown, admiring the period architecture.

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