Riding The Rideau: The Oldest Hand-Operated Canal System in North America

Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0

Last year, PDQ Yachts took a flotilla of six boats from its yard in Whitby, Ontario, to Annapolis, Maryland, and it was an eyeopening experience for everyone involved. Initially a boatbuilder's effort to deliver six new catamarans south after the ice and snow of winter cleared, it took on all the characteristics of a major sponsored adventure. Those who took part did it all-crossing the open water of Lake Ontario, locking through New York's Erie Canal system, and running down the Hudson River and the New Jersey coast with occasional heavy pleasure boat and commercial traffic.

The trip was a success and proved an outstanding introduction to cruising for the new boat owners, with sufficient company support and the friendly fellowship of other like-minded boaters. At its conclusion, the sharp managers at PDQ Yachts saw something they weren't expecting-that it was within their ability to ease new owners into the cruising dream, preparing couples for a future of successful and safe cruising.

This year, the company repeated the springtime flotilla to Annapolis, and eight boats joined the 11-day, 715-mile trip. It was also the introduction of a two-day PDQ University, with demonstrations and seminars to explain maintenance, address any questions and concerns, and empower new owners before they jump off on their first major trip on their new boats. (For more information on PDQ U, see the News & Notes section of this issue.)

With this trend showing such promise, it was no surprise when PDQ's vice president of sales and marketing, Rob Poirier, called this spring to discuss another event they had in mind. This time, it would be closer to home, and Rob got me really excited as he walked through the plan of a five-day journey up and learn their boats within a historic and wonderfully picturesque waterway that runs from Kingston, Ontario, to Canada's capital city, Ottawa. Maintained and operated by Parks Canada, the Rideau waterway is a popular side trip for those doing the fascinating Great Circle Route that circumnavigates the eastern third of North America.

I was eager to join this flotilla of four cats as crew, as it would be an ideal way to see an area I plan to visit one day on my own boat. Rob's enthusiasm is particularly infectious, as he is from Ottawa and loves to share his native region's history, beauty and charm.

On the three-hour drive from Toronto to Kingston, Salwa Farah, a sharp lady who does much of PDQ's creative work and photography, explained how the company staff finds it very satisfying to host these trips, helping even timid new owners to become successful veterans as a result. Salwa told me a highlight of PDQ University was the womenonly boat-handling training.

We quickly found the four new PDQ MV/34s at the outer slips when we drove into Kingston's waterfront that evening. The crews had scattered for the evening, but we caught up with Rob and PDQ boss man Simon Slater at the nearby yacht club, watching the tail end of a hockey game in which Tampa Bay trounced Calgary, to no one's delight.

Stepping aboard Tumbleweed II, the cat on which I would spend the week, I was reminded how much I like the boarding access on these cats. Recessed steps in each stern make it a breeze, even with luggage and camera gear, or a dog or groceries. Limited boarding access is a pet peeve of mine, and the PDQ cat gets high marks in this respect.

The boat is owned by a delightful Ottawa couple, Roger Boe and Erika Boukamp Bosch, ex-sailors who discovered the benefits of powerboating after a recent experience with a 28-foot Carver. The PDQ fits their needs perfectly. Ottawa residents, Roger and Erika were to be our Rideau veteran guides, as they'd been cruising this waterway for years. They had just taken delivery of Tumbleweed II and were looking forward to making the trip on the power cat.

The other boats included Kama Kat, owned by Frank Farago and Dianne MacDonald, whose home port is Cobourg, Ontario. This is their first powerboat; in fact, their only previous boating experience was on a small sailboat. Dianne quickly became an accomplished skipper, running the boat from the flybridge for most of the Rideau trip. Frank handled the lines and did the mechanical checks.

Migration's owners, Bill and Jennifer Evans, live in Calgary, Alberta. It's a long way from Ontario, and so for them, this trip begins a summer-long adventure of cruising before they head south for Florida and the Bahamas. This also is their first powerboat, their previous experience having been on a 36-foot sailboat. Eventually, the couple will take the cat to Ft. Lauderdale, where it will go aboard a yacht transport to make the passage to Vancouver, British Columbia. Bill and Jennifer intend to keep the boat in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

The only American in the fleet, besides me, was Gene Winchester, aboard his new Folly. Gene lives in Put-In-Bay, Ohio, although Folly's hailing port is his other residence in Holladay, Utah. Rob Poirier crewed with Gene, although Gene's single-handing ability was evident from the beginning.

Four boats, eight hulls. And best of all, we had no real deadline or schedule. This was to be not a diehard delivery, but a leisurely cruise, mixing wilderness camping with small town exploration, on a canal waterway that has been open since 1832. It is a recreational wonderland enjoyed by thousands of boaters.

Unfortunately, I had little time to explore Kingston, as we planned to depart the next morning. Last-minute engine maintenance on one of the cats gave me a two-hour window to walk the streets of downtown Kingston with Salwa. I was impressed with the limestone architecture and the interesting mix of old and new. The city is the largest of the Thousand Islands region, according to the Rideau Boating and Road Guide, a book I bought when I first learned of this upcoming adventure. (Unfortunately, I did not find the book very helpful along the trip-maybe it was because the order of the information wasn't the same as our route.) Kingston has enough museums, shops and restaurants, plus an interesting market area, to keep my interest, so I plan to return.

LET THE LOCKING BEGIN

As we got under way and past the icebreaker Alexander Henry, now a popular bed & breakfast and museum, we had only a short distance to Kingston Mills Locks, our first four of the 49 locks that connect the canals, rivers and lakes that comprise the Rideau waterway. Traveling upstream from Kingston to Newboro is about 39 miles, and the navigation is the conventional red, right, returning. At Newboro, the navigation aids reverse, as Newboro is the highest point of the system, and it is therefore considered downstream from Newboro to Ottawa, which explains the change.

The Rideau Canal was designed to accommodate watercraft up to 90 feet LOA with a maximum beam of 28 feet, a draft of 5 feet and a fixed air draft of about 20 feet. It is ideal for motorboat travel, and just about any vessel can explore its length in comfort and safety.

Unlike the larger locks in the Erie Canal system, we found the Rideau locks able to fit only two of the 17-foot-wide PDQs at a time, so our lock transit was done in pairs. As lead boat, Tumbleweed II entered first, going to the port side of the lock, while Kama Kat locked in behind us on the starboard side of the lock. Migration and Folly locked through after us. Although this may sound somewhat timeconsuming, it really wasn't, as there are frequently several locks in succession, and the entire process doesn't take very long.

I noted one fantastic element of the Rideau immediately, when I pulled out the work gloves I'd brought from Annapolis to handle the lock lines. Along the Erie Canal last year, I grew tired of handling yucky, filthy lines and cables with cotton gardening gloves, so this time I came armed with rubber-lined gloves that promised to keep my hands dry and clean. When I pulled the gloves out, however, Erika began to laugh at the silly American. She told me the water of the Rideau system, including the lock walls and cables, is clean and fresh and I would never need to use gloves. She was correct, as the new, white lines aboard Tumbleweed II remained white and clean after 41 locks. I never did use my rubber gloves!

Locking through the four locks brought us into Colonel By Lake, named after British engineer John By, who surveyed and directed the canal's construction in the early 1800s. Out now on open water, I noted once again the minimal wake produced by these power cats at speed. The hull shape just does not create disturbance, and although we observed the often-posted speed limits of 10kph, it was hardly necessary, as even four cats in close proximity don't ruffle anyone's feathers.

The important thing about traveling the Rideau is that it is not about the boat. Sure, a catamaran, with its wide footprint and wonderful handling ease owing to its two widely-spaced propellers, is a joy, but anyone can do this trip on a motorboat of any type. It's all about fun and adventure in a protected, well maintained setting, and cruising's typical wildcards, the ones that remain out of our control, are notched down considerably. Weather, navigation, commercial traffic, rogue waves, redundant systems for failsafe operation-all are gone from the equation.

Which is precisely the point of why PDQ is doing these events.

"Of course, I'm selling product," Rob Poirier told me over a beer that first evening. "But with the experience of the last two events, what I've come to see is that I'm really marketing and selling cruising under power." It's all about setting realistic goals and undertaking the kind of adventure on a boat that people can afford and handle. Most women, especially, tend to want their adventure in comfort and smaller doses.

I saw proof of that claim on the first day, when I observed three cats with the wives at the helm and handling the locks with care and confidence. As if to highlight the purposeful, low-stress character of this kind of cruising, Simon Slater would end each day by declaring loudly that death had been cheated for another day. (This was usually announced after a beer at a local pub, all crews relaxed and happy from another great day on the water in nice weather.)

The lack of underway pressure on the Rideau waterway was further exemplified as we passed from one end of Colonel By Lake into River Styx, where the four boats had to slow down so that a large group of Canada geese and their young could paddle right across the narrow channel. The lack of tidal flow-or current of any consequence-accounts for the calm waters, so even goose bow waves are visible from some distance.

The 49 locks in the Rideau do not lend themselves to fender boards, and one would be wise to leave them at home. Fender boards will catch the inset cables that stream down each lock wall. It is a much better choice to have lots of big fenders on both sides, especially if boats must raft together in the heavier traffic during the summer season. For us, it was still early in the year, so we met few other boats. We had the waterway mostly to ourselves, which imparted a special feeling to our passage. We stayed together and were always expected as we approached each new lock, as the lockmasters talk frequently to each other.

At Jones Falls locks, our lead two boats were able to make it through the five locks before the lock closed for the day, but the other two boats had to tie up to the "blue line" dock, so painted to offer a temporary dock for vessels wanting to enter the lock. Thus, we had two cats on each end of Jones Falls, and soon Simon and Rob set up the barbecue and cooked a marvelous dinner of marinated steaks with roasted potatoes and onions. Each boat contributed something to drink, and we had a grand time in the parklike setting. Salwa surprised us by producing Bombay Sapphire martinis, complete with a shaker and martini glasses. It was a special evening in what turned out to be my favorite set of locks in the most beautiful of settings.

Parks Canada maintains washrooms with showers at each lock station, and although there is no shorepower on the docks, motorboats have generators and self-sufficient systems, so the minimalist camping factor is low.

There were two small boats along with our flotilla, and none of us were in any hurry to leave or disturb the evening peace of the wilderness, so the sounds of the woods prevailed. No screeching boomboxes for miles. After dinner, Erika walked us over to the 1831-vintage retaining wall erected as part of the canal project. The Rideau is truly an amazing feat of engineering.

Returning to the lead cats at the upper end of Jones Falls, Erika, Frank, Roger and I donned swimsuits and jumped into very cold, fresh water. Erika lasted the longest, swimming around the boats for almost 20 minutes. After climbing out of the water, Roger, Frank and I sat on the stern of the cat, watching Erika do laps in the dark waters of the lock entrance in the fading light. Our body temperatures lowered and all the mental and physical soils of the day rinsed clean. It was a delicious moment captured by Salwa on her digital camera from the foredeck of Kama Kat.

"Canals are a way of working into the heartland," Frank commented to Roger, observing the magic of Canada's water resources. It is the same in our country, as much of civilization's history weaves its threads through the waters of a nation. To enjoy it on one's own boat is indeed very special.

Hotel Kenney, which proudly proclaims being open since 1877, is at the bottom of the Jones Falls, so the four crews met there for breakfast before getting under way. As cruising goes, we retired early but were up at dawn, so even with the delays of a short-handed kitchen staff unprepared for the breakfast requirements of four boatloads of hungry sailors, we helped Migration and Folly enter the locks when the Parks Canada lock staff opened at 0830.

TIME SLOWS DOWN

Our day was to be a light run, with only four single locks to our planned destination. As all boats reunited at the upper end of the locks, a thunderstorm arrived in advance of a new front. Temperatures quickly dropped, creating a fog-like haze low into the forest-lined shoreline. As we slowly poked our way through the Narrows, the combination of a narrow channel and eerie weather lent a spooky, magical tone to the scene. Photos couldn't quite capture the moment.

Later that morning, we cleared the Davis Lock (No. 38). When the rain showers returned, the setting was again very hushed, interrupted only by the lockmaster's golden retriever barking support for each boat as it made its way through the lock. This is, indeed, why we call this pleasure boating.

On Roger's recommendation, we stopped to visit Westport, on the western shore of Upper Rideau Lake. It is a sleepy little town with a municipal dock large enough for all four boats. Roger told us it would be the most civilization we'd see between Kingston and Ottawa, and perhaps we might explore it for a bit before heading on to Portland for the night. As so often happens, four sets of independent people immediately scattered in all directions, looking for photo opportunities, ice cream cones, cold beer or a chance to stretch legs. Soon, there weren't enough bodies on hand to decide whether we should just stay in Westport or proceed on to Portland. It is a classic situation when buddy boating.

Our fleet's indecision proved a good thing and served as a reminder to me to stay flexible when cruising. The fact that we remained in Westport by default meant we were safely tied to the dock when the culmination of the day's weather system, a horrific thunderstorm, came down on top of us, with 40-knot winds, hail and torrential rain. Had we gone on to Portland, we would have been caught out during this awful event. Instead, all boats and crews were safely tucked in for the evening. Those on the boats when it hit felt very happy to be inside...at the dock. Sometimes you just luck out that way. But the fact that we couldn't decide what to do probably meant we needed to stay put until clear decision making prevailed. It's another element of Condition Yellow that I've mentioned before, keeping that sixth sense turned on.

In any case, reveling in the success of our indecision, our mood grew light, and the rest of the day, as it became evening, was a blend of swapping boat stories and talking politics, finally ending in a multi-hour appetizer extravaganza as crew members drifted into Remy's Pub. By now, the four sets of PDQ owners had become friends and were able to converse about their boats and experiences with each other. Gone was the trepidation and newness of Kingston, and Simon later commented to Rob, Salwa and me that the relationship "mood" had indeed shifted from "customer and builder" to "boat owner and boat owner." The owners now had things in common, as experienced boat owners and cruisers with miles under their keels on the Rideau waterway. Simon, Rob, Salwa and I were now just along for the ride. Perfect-and precisely the point.

Anyone planning this trip would be wise to consider taking more than five days, as it would have been great to break up the trip with some rest days to explore the local scene, or even to sit idle on the boat and read a good book. We were now above the Newboro lock, heading steadily downstream to Ottawa, but the pace, as relaxed as it was, was still tiring, and I would have preferred to slow the pace to savor the experience. I suppose a couple of weeks or a month would be ideal, as there is so much to see, do and experience. The fishing is reportedly legendary in the larger lakes. We saw lots of fish in the clear water.

BIG RIDEAU LAKE

The daily engine checks are surprisingly simple on the PDQ, with no need to disassemble the berth over top of the engine. Just remove the step up to the berth, and all visual and fluid checks, including the raw-water strainer, are right there, with full standing headroom. It is very civilized and a snap to do each day before starting out.

As Tumbleweed II circled, waiting for Migration and Folly on the Ottawa side of the Narrows Lock (No. 35), which separates Upper Rideau Lake and Big Rideau Lake, Roger told me the area is notorious for high winds. Soberly, we recalled that this is precisely where we would have been approaching when the previous day's storm swept into our lives. As we spun lazy circles in the clear water, I went down and sat at the lower helm in the saloon, enjoying the great view from the comfort of the expansive saloon. Large windows and a sliding door offer outstanding visibility, and I think running the boat from the lower helm is great and feels protected.

Our track across Big Rideau Lake followed its north shore, and as we motored along, Erika and Roger spoke of the diverse and interesting cruising in these waters. Gunkholing possibilities are endless. Numerous islands in the lake break up the scenery, and even with dozens of boats around, it never gets crowded.

We ran the twin, never-say-die Yanmar diesels at 3000 rpm, and the combined 150hp gave us 11.5 knots into head winds across the lake in flat water. The reliable Yanmar engines really push the light cat along, and we quickly passed the few displacement boats we saw. There is a huge difference between making 6 knots and this cat's speed potential in an enclosed waterway.

The most tedious locks on our trip occurred at Smith Falls, where there are several locks (the final one dropped us 26 feet). We stopped downtown traffic with a swing bridge, all the while smelling the intoxicating chocolate aroma from the nearby Hershey Chocolate factory. It took some time to get through, but Roger told the other skippers that after Smith Falls, we would be in river country until we reached Ottawa. Our miles of open water on the lakes were behind us.

We hoped to reach Merrickville by late afternoon. The town was named Canada's Prettiest Village some years back, worth a visit for sure. When we arrived, we had no trouble finding slips for four catamarans in the heart of the downtown area. After getting lines secured, most crews walked through the town, getting a feel for what it must have been like living in this industrial center from the 1800s, now a popular shopping center and festival location.

Our group travels would soon reach a conclusion, and in Ottawa, Kama Kat would depart, while the remaining three cats would continue on down the Ottawa River to Montreal or head on to the Trent- Severn Waterway.

ON TO OTTAWA

We got through the three locks in Merrickville midmorning, and the lead boats went on to the remaining locks downstream, while Migration and Folly followed as they could. At Burritt's Rapids Lock (No. 17), our last lock before a 30-plus mile run downriver, we saw the Canadian flag at half mast, in memory of the recent passing of Ronald Reagan. It was a sign that we were coming back into civilization and the rest of the world.

The compressed, intense nature of this five-day passage, while low key at so many levels, definitely put skills and judgment constantly to the test-the best way, I believe, to achieve competence in short order. The couples who went on their own after Ottawa would continue to refine their boating skills better and faster than would someone who simply picks up a new boat, then putters about on the water during the season. There is a big difference between being in local waters and participating in extended cruising in new, unknown areas, and the satisfaction of doing just that is priceless. Those who sit at the dock will never know that sense of well-being.

The numbered buoys were now in the 100s, as we entered a developed area of waterfront homes, tennis courts and swimming pools. I knew that the wilderness swimming memory of Jones Falls was a long way away.

At Black Rapids Lock (No. 13), we saw ShoeBox, a liveaboard cruising boat that had been trucked up from Ft. Lauderdale to explore this area. Owners Janet and Bob Bunnell have been out cruising for many years and are still having a great time. They are PMM readers really out there doing it. It was fun talking to them while we waited for the lock to open in our direction.

As we then entered the lock, a family of ducks paddled in with the two boats. The lockmaster must have seen the concern in my face, because he told me they go up and down all the time-apparently, it is a duck form of extreme adventure, locking up and down. It was very cute, and we all got a laugh from them.

We made it to Ottawa by early evening, and Roger and Erika kept up a nonstop commentary of every building, structure and road we passed. The couple is quite proud of their capital city. As we tied up at Dow's Lake Pavilion for the night, I felt content, but at the same time, experienced a twinge of end-ofthe- trip letdown. Yes, I was away from home and missed my life in Annapolis, but I had just had a marvelous time with some great people doing something we all loved. The Rideau Canal is one of the better places I've been to, and I thoroughly recommend it.

As for touring Ottawa, let me say that it is an impressive city that seems almost empty. It is Canada's fourth largest city, yet the 1.1 million people who call it home get swallowed up in its vast real estate. I never got a sense of crowds, almost as if some official declared a holiday and everyone left the city, such as happens in Barcelona, Spain, at Christmas.

Ottawa is green and lush, with rich architecture, and the Rideau waterway goes right through its heart. The city seems more like a park than a country's center. I hope to return soon for a longer visit.

If you want to make this trip, by all means, fire up your diesel and get going. Let me tell you, it is easily within your grasp. Bring lots of fenders, and don't use fender boards. Bring two 20-foot lines for locking. Locking is easy: Just do everything slow, slow, slow.

The two excellent Canadian charts you'll need are 1512 (Ottawa to Smith Falls) and 1513 (Smith Falls to Kingston). Provisioning is not a big issue, but expect a balance between in-town dining and barbecues at the locks or at anchor. Plan for picnics, and take advantage of the manicured lawns and picnic areas at the locks, most of which are close to small towns or villages within walking distance. Diesel fuel is not as available as gasoline, but there are least five marinas where it is available along the 125-mile canal waterway, so with any range, you'll not have a problem. Because of the PDQ cat's miserly fuel consumption, we never needed fuel.

Deeper water is generally present earlier in the season, so deeper-draft boats should plan to visit at the start of the season. Passes for using the Parks Canada system for a 34-footer are about $220 for the season. Daily and weekly passes are available also, but don't rush the trip. Chill out and enjoy it.

If you want to take it slow, bring books and enjoy. The parks allow you to stay overnight for a minimal fee. Plan to be self-sufficient. All lock stations have washrooms, so even couples in canoes can do the trip.

The PDQ MV/34 is a great inland waterway boat, and my experience always leaves me feeling happy to be aboard. There a couple of nits I have with the boat, such as its lack of a serious rubrail, which always seems to be the case on catamarans. A slotted toerail is no substitute for a big, beefy rubber rail.

I would also like to replace the portside settee that is opposite from the lower helm with some kind of sit-down chart table or desk. Perhaps if the saloon seating were raised up a bit to allow better visibility under way, that could work instead, and that option would increase storage under the seating as well.

But overall, this power cat works exceedingly well and inspires confidence.

PDQ-PUSHING DREAMS WITH QUALITY

I've got to hand it to PDQ Yachts. I am impressed with a company that really loves its boats and enjoys showing new owners how to do more with them. With Simon Slater at the helm, this builder really gets what it takes to move people into their dream...affordably, realistically and safely. It is a business model for others to emulate, and I hope PDQ's example inspires more builders to do the same. Teaching people how to have fun has its rewards on several levels.

PDQ Yachts is all about empowering nice people to shape a dream and make it come true. The company plans a Bahamas adventure next year, and the future looks bright on all fronts. There's even talk of a larger sistership.

Plan your own adventure today, perhaps with a little help from PDQ Yachts. They know how to have fun.