An armada of PDQ's power cats tackles high winds and rough seas on Lake Ontario, 33 locks on New York's canal system and the mighty Hudson River.
Every once in awhile I get an invitation that is simply too much fun to pass up. I've crossed oceans, made countless coastal passages and done my share of ugly deliveries in awful weather. But I relish going to new places aboard different boats, and even the nastiest trips leave me with the warm glow of satisfaction in hindsight.
So when PDQ's Rob Poirer invited me to join the crew of six boats headed south, I jumped at the chance. By all accounts it's been a hard winter for all, and the Canadian boat builder had six new boats ready for delivery once the New York canal system opened for the season. Sunsail, the worldwide charter company, owns three of the boats, destined for charter service in Annapolis during the summer and Ft. Myers, Florida in the winter. The other three boats are privately owned.
As Rob explained it the trip would last a week and take us from Whitby, Ontario, home of PDQ, across Lake Ontario to Oswego, New York. Once in the Empire State we would enter the New York Canal System and transit 33 locks on our way to the Hudson River, traveling south past New York City to cruise down the coast of New Jersey to reach Delaware and Chesapeake bays.
To begin this most excellent adventure I had to fly to Toronto during the SARS "epidemic," and there were fewer than 20 people on Continental's shiny Boeing 737. The medical crisis has since been contained, we're told, but the airlines continue to suffer from this and other crises. Flying is just not the mass transit option it once was, as the entire process of commercial travel is just too much effort for average folks. I've had to modify my own travel style as a result of the new security programs, leaving out items I once considered vital, such as the ever-useful multitool. But checking bags full of expensive camera gear is no longer an option; so it's strictly carry on for me.
But that's life in this new world order.
INTUITION AND EXPERIENCE
Rob picked me up at the airport and sped off to Whitby, about an hour away. In business since 1987, PDQ has flourished and now encompasses the facility that once built the famed Whitby 42, a popular ketch that remains a trusted friend to many cruisers.
PDQ started as a yacht builder obsessed with cruising catamaran sailboats, although today it builds three power cats for every sailing cat. The market for sailboats is just not there these days, so the company management focuses considerable energy on developing a quality powerboat using the catamaran platform. As I reported in PMM Feb. '01, the original effort was a 32-footer based on their sailboat hulls. The boat caught the eye of couples looking for something different and was an immediate success.
But the folks at PDQ are keen to evolve the concept much farther and have made a number of changes to improve the already good performance and livability of the boat. The latest version of the boat is essentially a new design, with longer and deeper hulls, a sharper bow section and a refined interior.
Ted Clements, chief engineer at PDQ, feels the men and women of PDQ have a good sense of what makes a cat successful. "The goal is to prove our intuition about what makes sense on this boat," Ted told me. "Most of the traditional engineering about stability, roll period and other factors is simply irrelevant on a catamaran."
Most buyers of the 32- and 34-footers are first-time boat owners who plan the grand American adventure, the Great Circle Route that circumnavigates the North American East Coast. Literally dozens of boats have been purchased with that precise aim, so much so that PDQ is comfortable about its own little niche in the market. As everyone at PDQ quickly points out, all of the features that make it so splendid for the Great Circle inland adventure also make the boat perfect for Bahamas cruising, the Inside Passage to Alaska, and cruising Mexico. It is a lot of boat for a couple, and one can purchase a fully outfitted cat, complete with electronics, for about $250,000.
As I walked through the buildings where cats were being assembled in various stages of construction, I found extensive use of cored materials in the decking, bulkhead and overhead structures. The Corecell material is super lightweight yet strong, and helps keep unnecessary weight out of the boat. Interior furniture is all crafted from honeycombed cherry, also a lightweight solution. Both Ted and Rob agree that saving weight in the boat means there is more weight available for comfort systems and other gear.
The six boats in our fleet are clear evidence of the ongoing evolution of the MV/34 Passagemaker. All were built over the winter, but the newest boats now have separate showers in the head, rather than the combined head/shower of the original design. I'm told the 34 is still a work in progress and will continue to be refined for the next several years. In a refreshing show of corporate self-awareness, the top people at PDQ are much more intent on developing this boat to perfection rather than getting it out the door and beginning work on a larger model, unlike countless other boat builders. According to Simon Slater, a principal of the company, PDQ is so aware of the boat's niche and owner demographics that they will entertain no interest in introducing other models until this boat is fully developed. And Simon told me they don't feel close to completing the tweaking of this boat.
We planned to cross Lake Ontario the next day, but the weather that morning was frightful, with winds gusting over 50 knots, creating rolling breaking waves inside the small harbor of Whitby's marina. It would be madness to entertain a crossing in such conditions, so Rob took me to Canadian Tire (a local everything store) to pick up a few items that I wanted for the trip. I bought a sleeping bag and pillow, as well as a Leatherman Wave, a new multitool to join my collection from travels over the years with today's security restrictions. (I have one of each brand by now, and the Leatherman Wave perhaps completes my collection.)
The winds howled all day, stretching docklines to their limits, and by late afternoon the rains joined us as well. With reverse cycle air conditioning making for a warm interior, I spent the day talking to Capt. John Johnson, the delivery captain hired by the owner of On Call, our boat for the trip. The owner hoped to join the cat in New York City for the ride south to Chesapeake Bay. Johnson and I hit it off from the start, and agreed that like most delivery trips, timing and weather don't communicate very well.
That evening, five of us from three of the boats took a cab to a local sports bar for Buffalo wings and a chance to get away from the incessant winds and bouncing boats. The cats rode out the jostling waves much better than the monohull sailboats around us, which rolled from gunwale to gunwale without mercy.
Well into the night a violent thunderstorm descended on Whitby Marina, and torrential rains and lightning gave us some diversion from the mechanical bull action in the small harbor. By 3 a.m. it passed and with it the winds-or at least they shifted direction while decreasing in fury. It had been almost dangerous to walk the floating docks back to the boats that evening, the slippery docks almost submerged by breaking waves every few seconds, while each gust filled out clothing like a gale threatening to blow out a jib.
At 4 a.m., John Johnson decided the winds had abated enough to begin our journey; the weather forecast predicting reduced winds throughout the day. By the time we crossed half the distance across Lake Ontario, we'd be in great shape. So a bit of lumpy weather at the beginning was considered acceptable.
We had a crew meeting at 5 a.m. at the marina clubhouse to review flotilla rules and the overall plan for the 100-mile crossing. Johnson was mother goose of this six boat, 20-person group, and most of the crews-a mix of Canadians, Americans, French and Englishmen-were inexperienced. But being together offered much comfort, not to mention the fact that James Power, one of PDQ's mechanics, would accompany the six boats to take care of any issues that might develop in boats with just a few hours on them.
Just before 6 a.m., we united our lines, one at a time, leaving the security of Whitby harbor as we slowly motored out into Lake Ontario in the early dawn. Visibility was much reduced from a fog that existed despite the winds from the day before and the wave action didn't seem so bad once we got into it. The next several hours were spent running the boats at 13 knots, each cat's bridgedeck slammed regularly from head seas as the cats crossed the waves. The slamming action was unsettling at first, but after several hours one gets used to the noise and motion. Compared to a monohull powerboat, which would have been rolling around as it moved into the head seas at reduced speed, the cat's motion was relatively benign, except for the sound underneath the bridgedeck, like the crack of a bullwhip. I was impressed that we could maintain such speed in these conditions.
The long day passed, and we arrived in Oswego, New York at 3 p.m., in warm weather, a light breeze and a log of 108 nautical miles. The last hour of the crossing was delightful, with ideal conditions for the PDQ-flat water with no chop. The cats cruised at 16 knots at 3,000 revolutions per minute on the twin Yanmars. On Call was the only cat in the fleet with 100 horsepower engines; the rest had 75hp Yanmar diesels. We could cruise above 20 knots, but we held back to keep watch over the other boats.
As we passed the breakwater into Oswego, the sun came out and the temperature shot up 20 degrees. We went from dismal gray conditions to summer time sun in the blink of an eye, noteworthy evidence of the fickle weather of Great Lakes boating. We had a prearranged customs appointment at 4 p.m., and the six boats just made it in time for the clearing-in process.
The evening would be a short one, as the 20 of us were tired from lack of sleep in the previous days, and the crossing had been arduous if not eventful. Everyone turned in early because we needed to be at the first lock in the Oswego canal system at 7 a.m., as instructed by our experienced mother goose.
When I reflected on the boat during the crossing I noticed a lack of handholds in the boat and commented to Rob Poirer, who crewed on another boat, that they might be a worthy addition. The snare drum ride, dancing among the tops of the wave, reminded me to keep one hand on the ship at all times. Rob agreed.
LET THE LOCKING BEGIN
Each cat had at least four fenders aboard, but Johnson explained that the locking process demanded further protection. So each boat carried two 6-foot 2-by-4s, drilled at each end for lines, which could be hung outboard of the fenders to hold us off the slimy walls of a lock. We put these together in the early morning.
As is typical with groups of new boats, morning checks brought to light a small hydraulic leak here, some low oil in one engine there, and the ensuing mini-projects guaranteed a later start despite the best of intentions. James, the PDQ tech, was working on five things at once among the fleet, somewhat overwhelmed by new owners who had not yet stepped up to doing their own maintenance. We even needed a quick dash to the local auto parts store for ATF fluid. Anyone who has ever purchased a new boat can understand the process of untangling the myriad of parts that make up a modern cruising boat. Thankfully, the PDQ cat is a decidedly simple boat in this respect, with little complexity to exaggerate the situation.
No sooner did we leave the security of the Oswego seawall when a thick fog descended on us. Our six boats maneuvered in place trying to avoid hitting each other while waiting for the northbound boats to leave the Oswego lock.
The day sped quickly by as the six boats passed through one lock after another. By the time we arrived at the last of eight locks of the Oswego River Canal in Phoenix, we were old hands at performing the locking through routine. On the New York system, fixed lines hang down the sides of each lock, and two crewmembers at the bow and stern managed the lines as we rose or descended in each lock. To fit all six cats in the locks, three of the boats were set up with fender boards on the starboard side while the other three set up to lock through on the port side. With the occasional additional boat joining us in a lock, the six boats were able to transit the entire system together.
Phoenix, New York is a pleasant little town struggling to survive, and we walked through the town during a lunch break, wondering when and if it would get back its vibrancy as a healthy community. It was a story told over and over during our travels through upstate New York, where major businesses have long-since moved away or been rendered obsolete by technology, and the local community has lost its youth and future.
Another observation was the terrible damage from a severe ice storm that hit the area this past winter. Residents told us they had no power for a week or more, and the felled trees and broken branches littered the shores all along the waterway. It would be quite a while before the shoreline returned to its natural beauty.
From Phoenix we left the Oswego system and entered the Oneida Lake system. The Oneida River joins the Oswego just south of Phoenix, and it is a short distance to Brewerton, the west end of Oneida Lake. Brewerton is a happening place, with lots of marine facilities and homes along the shores. We filled up our tanks, and I was surprised that we took on just 63 gallons of diesel, after running two full days at double-digit speed. The Yanmars are very efficient, and the economy of these cats is a big advantage.
We also stopped for the night at Brewerton, as the lock on the east side of the lake closed at 5 p.m., so we tied up in a line on the municipal floating dock. Our flotilla was quite the curiosity for the locals, dozens of whom came down to the docks to see six identical cats and find out what we were up to. Several impromptu tours were given as crews cleaned up and prepared to walk into town for dinner. It was a scene that would be repeated wherever we went. The six boats attracted lots of attention.
Anyone planning to do such a trip should consider buying some waterproof gloves to handle the grungy lines in the lock systems. We had leather-palmed garden gloves, and they remained wet and clammy for the duration. Some rubber waterproof gloves might be a better bet. But the canal system is set up for inexperienced boaters, and it is an easy proposition, as long as one is moving at slow speed and watching any wakes entering the locks. Two people can easily handle the locking process.
After our second day running, having gone some 140 nm, all agreed that compared to the crossing of Lake Ontario, this day had been fantastic. And to get off the boat at the end of the day in some little scenic town was simply wonderful. I can fully understand the lure of the Great Circle Route, of which this is one leg. Cruising close to home is both familiar and foreign, and an attractive alternative to always being offshore.
Handling the PDQ is child's play, even without thrusters. The wide beam of the cat puts two engines far apart, and one can spin the boat in a circle within its own length. This makes for extraordinary maneuverability and puts a new owner at ease almost immediately.
The next morning was another early one, as we rose at 5 a.m. to cross Oneida Lake before dawn. As the wave of white cats spread out across the flat lake in hopes of reaching the first lock on the far side by 7 a.m., I reflected on the previous night's conversation. The new owners were becoming increasingly comfortable with their boats, and the mood was relaxed, as if we'd been cruising together for weeks. I also enjoyed hearing about the French crew's introduction to Jell-O gelatin, a dessert that baffled and amused them. They videotaped each other holding bowls of the stuff, jiggling it while laughing at the absurdly funny American food. They wanted proof to show their friends back in Paris. These Frenchmen were certainly on vacation and having a ball.
Our goal this third day was to make some 70 miles to Little Falls, where another PDQ mechanic, Ed Wilson, had driven down in his battlewagon Cadillac with some parts that James needed to complete some minor repairs. The plan was for the two techs to run through their punch lists while still in New York, so the boats would be free of any issues once they got to their homeports. Again, none of the work was major stuff, just a leaking stuffing box on one boat, some electrical work on another. The boats proved remarkably trouble free.
Crossing the lake was photogenic, and the cats spread out in a big wave across the water. I took lots of photos, as did Salwa Farah, PDQ's newly hired photographer and writer. She had not spent much time on boats before, so she traveled with John and me aboard On Call and shared photo duties with me.
The first lock on the east side of Oneida Lake, Lock 22, was a few miles in from Sylvan Beach on the east side. The dank, dark smell of the concrete lock was so primordial that I conjured up images of dinosaurs and primitive rain forests. The sensory images were very strong, but, surprisingly, as the boats rose to the level of the surroundings, the prehistoric aroma was replaced by an overpowering sweet smell of the thick surrounding forest, with honeysuckle the predominant fragrance. (In contrast, locks built of steel are completely different, and one's impression is that of coming alongside a big ship, with small blotches of rust still smooth along the vast wall of gray. The smell is more industrial than Paleolithic.)
In some of the shorter locks, there were not enough fixed lines in place for the six boats, so as lead boat, I stood at the bow and ran a dockline around a ladder recessed in the side of the lock wall. I then moved the line by hand from rung to rung as we locked through.
For a change in my experience, navigation duties were not high on the priority list, as it was somewhat difficult to get lost in such a waterway. The route is clearly marked and the maps and booklets provided when each skipper obtains the state pass to use the system (available at certain locks, $15 for a two-day pass) is helpful to follow one's progress.
Small communities and waterfront homes and cabins only occasionally interrupted the wilderness along the banks of Oneida County, and the scenic passage put me in a reflective mood. With an occasional speed limit of 10 miles per hour, under way was a relaxing sojourn uniquely different from coastal cruising. I would often find each of us in a sort of trance, a state of euphoria from fresh air and healthy well being. The dreamlike miles rolled by.
The PDQ 34 is not a particularly quiet boat under way, and I measured 83dB(A) in the saloon and lower helm as we cruised at 16 knots. Readings of 85 decibels in the galley and 89 decibels in the aft cabin confirm that the boat represents the inevitable compromise between extensive sound deadening and lightweight construction. I did not find it objectionable living on the boat under way-the noise seemed a natural part of the experience.
I can also report the cat does not change trim angle much while running at various speeds. It is easy to move about the boat at any speed, and the wide side decks add much to the enjoyable movement around the boat. It is never more than two steps up or down to move around the boat.
Most of the crews ran the cats exclusively from flybridges, although On Call's crew varied helm duties from both stations. The lower helm has fantastic visibility in all directions, and I preferred it to the flybridge, except in perfect conditions. There is simply no reason to be uncomfortable on this boat.
James Power, now our advance guard driving Ed's Cadillac, met us at one lock to report that Little Falls would not work because the seawall was all ripped up in construction. We decided to head to Amsterdam for the night if we could make it in time.
Which brings up a comment about the lock keepers: We found the New York lock keepers generally a nice lot, helpful and friendly, and most of them ride Harleys. They seemed to enjoy themselves and were quietly competent, meeting new people all day as vessels transited the canals in both directions. We met one sourpuss at Lock 13 who was unfriendly and operated intentionally at half-speed to slow us down, but he was the exception in our adventure.
In fact, the very next lock, Lock 12, was managed by a super young man, Walter Lewis, who helped us lock through quickly and even called ahead to the next lock to plead our case about accepting us in the lock after the closing time of 5 p.m. It was our good fortune that Cindy McFay, the lock supervisor for Lock 11, agreed to stay open for us past the closing time. We hurried as best we could to reach her lock, where she stood smiling and welcoming us into her care. She was friendly and helpful and professional, and everyone thanked her for the customer service. Walter and Cindy are a real credit to New York State, and they are role models worth emulating. They literally made our day.
Just as evening came upon us we docked at the new waterfront facility of Riverlink Park Public Dock in downtown Amsterdam. The nice facility begs the passing cruiser to stop, although we soon learned that the once-vibrant community of 35,000 has long since dropped to just 19,000 people and the mainstay businesses have closed. The historic location is now a shell of its former life, evidenced by a closed shopping mall next to the dock seawall. One must pass by the empty mall in search of a restaurant, and, without local transportation, there is only one choice-in the in-town Best Western hotel. All of us had expected to do some shopping and sightseeing here, by the looks of the brightly painted waterfront, but, sadly, there was nothing around.
We'd traveled 12 hours on this day, making it across Oneida Lake from Brewerton to Amsterdam, and locked through 12 locks. The log showed we'd gone 98 nm.
Despite John Johnson's provisioning efforts, the galley in the port hull was not used much for cooking, as I suspect the long days made nearby restaurants more appealing. Still, we each spent some time in the galley, and I found that Gene Kelly dance steps, left over right, were the easiest way to negotiate the two steps down into the hull- at least with my big feet. The interior of the cat proved to be very livable for three people under way, and we never seemed on top of each other.
The routine of getting an early start followed by long days, necessary on such a delivery, is not my suggestion for anyone planning this trip. In our case, it seemed everyone had somewhere to go and we needed to keep to a schedule. For those planning such a trip, I suggest leaving much more time for dawdling. And bring along a handheld VHF, as several of the boats experienced radio problems while our masts were laid down to clear fixed bridges. All canal discussion is on VHF Channel 13.
This was to be our last day in the canal system, as the next day we'd make the last miles through Schenectady and down the five locks at Waterford, where the canal joins the Hudson River.
As we motored past Schenectady, the geography changed from wooded wilderness to steep cliffs and hills that stood watch over us. Much industry had proudly dotted this landscape, as we passed old brick warehouses and factories that once provided a local economy. John Johnson told of one factory that used to manufacture men's collars for the businessmen of New York City, in the days before air conditioning. Seems men would routinely change their collars several times a day to keep looking smart. Millions of collars became a big cottage industry before "business casual" came into fashion.
The cliffs gave way to more woods, then lovely homes and summer estates, and we were soon at the last locks of the canal system, coming in rapid-fire succession. We passed a few sailboats and trawlers, all Canadians headed home after a winter in Florida and the Bahamas. We waved across the water as we motored past the sailboats with masts held horizontal in wood horses across the decks of each boat.
As we locked through Waterford at noon on our third day, we entered Hudson River country, and then there was one final lock, a federal-maintained lock on the Hudson at Troy. Once past the Troy's huge, industrial-strength lock we were free on open water, six boats in a line, running south. We alternated high speed runs past stately homes and enormous lawns to slow speeds through swarms of small fishing boats, then we'd see miles of forest right up to the water's edge. Anyone who thinks of New York State as a huge metropolitan jumble of asphalt and concrete should spend some time on the Hudson. It is beautiful in its diversity.
The Catskill Mountains stood off to our right as we skimmed the water south. The Catskill area is the second largest state forest preserve in the United States and stretches for miles as far as one can see from the flybridge of a PDQ cat.
We arrived at Kingston, New York, at 5 p.m., with enough room at the municipal marina for all six cats. A PDQ 36 sailboat was already there and the owners marveled as six identical power cats surrounded them in a row. We backed stern to in the small facility, located downtown with people shopping and walking around. It was Friday evening and the locals were in party mode. It turned out to be a perfect place to stay after three days of pushing ourselves. Salwa and I walked up to the bridge overhead to view the line of cats from above, then a bunch of us later dined at a charming restaurant just yards from the line of boats.
At Kingston, the PDQ staff would leave us for home, and Rob Poirer, Salwa, Ed Wilson and our ever-present scout, James, loaded their tools and gear for the long ride back to Whitby in the Caddie. We were now on our own, although John Johnson remained leader of the pack, having made this trip dozens of time. He wanted to make it to New York City the next day, in time for his owner and friend to join OnCall for the remaining passage to Chesapeake Bay. He called ahead and arranged five slips at Liberty Marina in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the Hudson from downtown Manhattan. One of our flotilla would leave us for the Harlem River, a shortcut home to Westbury, Connecticut.
My last day aboard was delightful on a fascinating waterway. We saw barge traffic, sailboats, motor yachts and lush landscaping that alternated between cliffs overlooking the river. I really enjoyed running the boat from the inside helm and had ample time for taking in famous West Point, home of the U.S. Military Academy. Do I see a sign to Beat Navy? I don't think so, says this Annapolitan.
The trip was coming to a conclusion for me, I realized, as we passed underneath the Tappan Zee Bridge at noon in hazy conditions that couldn't seem to decide what they wanted to do. I would leave the cat at Liberty Marina, to give Capt. Johnson opportunity to introduce the owner to his new boat. I've found that trip dynamics change in such situations, and I didn't want to be in the way for the owner and his friend.
When we got to Liberty Marina, all five boats topped up their tanks. We took 93 gallons of fuel. Including the 81.6 nm since leaving Kingston, the total mileage so far was just 400 nm. We used 156 gallons of fuel for that distance, which is exceedingly economical for a 34-foot cruising boat. We'd gone 2.6 miles per gallon, even including the many hours of idling in each of the 33 locks.
As I shook hands with the other crewmembers, I saw that everyone had so much fun they would like to do it again next year. If my typical pattern of offshore adventures continues, I'll be ready for another round of lockwork next year.
If you are wondering what it is like to do the Great Circle Route, I can offer the following observations, having just done a portion of it. Having a moderately sized boat that is easy to handle by a couple makes a big difference in negotiating the waterways. It is helpful, if not strictly necessary, to be able to cruise at higher speed, as there are countless miles of sameness, and any encountered current really slows down an 8-knot boat. Speed is not all that important but is an added bonus for some stretches.
Provisioning a boat for this trip is simple, as we reaffirmed what everyone else finds on such travels-that cooking on the boat is not nearly as much fun as sampling the local fare. We could have done with far less food onboard.
Capt. Johnson tells me there are not many fuelserving marinas on the trip because it is just not financially viable for marinas to service the number of boats that make this trip. So a bit of planning is necessary, and setting fuel stops takes a bit more care than one might assume.
I can also say that PDQ's MV34 Passagemaker is a great boat for this trip, and I think it is a fine choice for couples that want a good boat and are not trapped in tradition. The cat is a good-looking boat and has a nice balance in its lines. I'd love to take her to the Bahamas or Alaska. What do you think Rob? Up for the next PDQ Flotilla to some far off adventure? Count me in.