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Father and son take a memorable voyage

Aboard a restored 1974 Dyer 29, a skipper heads north with his favorite first mate as his lone crew

Aboard a restored 1974 Dyer 29, a skipper heads north with his favorite first mate as his lone crew

Last year I found myself not working for the first time in 25 years due to a series of business changes not relevant to this story. My son, Henry, upon learning of this development and knowing of my long-stated desire to bring my boat back to Bristol condition, said, “Dad, soon we will have the best looking Dyer 29 on the East coast.”

Between sending résumés and networking, I set aside one day per week to recondition the boat I’ve named Thanks. My goal was to restore her to original condition but not, other than the new engine, to modernize the boat. I removed everything that I could (engine box, stern control pillar, hatches, window tracks, some of the teak) and either resurfaced or rebuilt each piece, using the original for a pattern.

As winter became spring, I began heat-stripping layers of old paint and then recoating the boat. Soon I had a new engine box, new lazarettes, various other items and a fresh coat of paint over wood that was in extraordinarily good condition after 30 years.

By early May, Thanks looked much like she did when Dyer delivered her to our neighbors in 1974, complete with the Formica counter in the galley, non-pressurized water, and vinyl cushions. While her only navigational instrument was her original compass, she was suitably equipped for a long journey on inland waters. She was ready for our second — and her first — trip north.

Since the prior trip up the Hudson, which I made with my son in 2003 aboard our Pompano 21 lobsterboat, I had gained more appreciation for the extraordinary importance of the Hudson River/Lake Champlain waterway to the intertwined histories of the United States and Canada.

The Hudson River system drains much of New YorkState, including the superior agricultural lands in the MohawkValley. And at the mouth of the Hudson lies one of the world’s best protected deepwater ports: New York. The St. Lawrence is even larger, draining eastern Canada and the northern tier of the United States. Much of the St. Lawrence basin is productive farmland given the rich soil deposited at the conclusion of the last ice age. That agricultural bounty, plus the basin’s iron ore deposits, timber and (in earlier times) furs, first became accessible to world markets through travel on the St. Lawrence waterway.

My son and I are both history buffs, so we savored the fact that our route north would be the same as that used by Henry Hudson, the various voyageurs attempting to develop the fur trade in the 1600s, Samuel de Champlain when he traveled south up the Richilieu River and discovered the large lake that now bears his name, and Gen. Richard Montgomery when he marched on Quebec during the American Revolution.

Getting under way

I decided to take Thanks up to Saratoga, N.Y., north of Albany, to save Henry the chore of retracing a substantial part of our earlier trip in the Pompano.

I left Jersey City, N.J., early one Saturday morning to ride the incoming tide north. I arrived in Albany at 5 p.m., having traveled 135 river miles in 10 hours and consumed 35 gallons of diesel fuel. The next day I transited the lower half of the ChamplainCanal and reached the SchuylerYachtBasin, east of Saratoga.

Henry joined me there and we headed farther north.

FortEdward was our first stop, having passed it by on the earlier trip. FortEdward, known by the American Indians as the “Great Carrying Place” because the falls mark the end of boat travel on the Hudson, was at the northern extreme of British influence during the French and Indian War. Given the frontier location, the British supported a large garrison there and also built a smallpox hospital on a nearby island; the Americans camped nearby. Henry wrote in his journal that night:

“…We stopped at FortEdward and checked out the town. I thought that it was very cool that we saw the predecessor to today’s Special Forces, Rogers’ Rangers. We had lunch at a local diner and went to a very old house. I thought it was cool because many famous people were there like General Gates, George Washington, James Monroe, General Burgoyne and Benjamin Franklin.”

Of course, 300 years later we traveled in a private yacht in relative luxury, not menaced by the Indians, the French, smallpox, nor by British airs of superiority.

We transited the “dug” part of the canal to Whitehall at the southern end of Lake Champlain. Whitehall claims to be the birthplace of the U.S. Navy because Benedict Arnold built his fleet of gunboats to stall the British invasion from the north at the Battle of Valcour Island in 1777. There is a municipal dock with ample deep water on the west shore, just a short walk from a new maritime museum that explains the historical importance of Whitehall and the Hudson/Lake Champlain transportation corridor. It is also a good stop for provisions for the boat and crew, before heading north into the relatively wild southern reaches of Lake Champlain.

The southern 22-mile stretch of Lake Champlain between Whitehall and FortTiconderoga is among the most beautiful navigable waterways in the United States. The area is completely wild, apart from a little-used rail freight line on the west shore. We saw several nesting pairs of osprey and numerous hawks. Forest-clad cliffs plunge to the water, giving the area the appearance of a fjord. We found an anchorage off the channel, dropped the hook, weathered a thunderstorm, and spent a comfortable evening nestled in the cuddy, playing Go Fish and backgammon.

Immersed in history

The next day we visited FortTiconderoga and later, Crown Point. Henry wrote:

“…I had another awesome day at FortTiconderoga and Crown Point. We began with one of Dad’s fabulous blueberry pancake breakfasts and continued our trip up beautiful Lake Champlain. We stopped at FortTiconderoga and saw all of the cool things such as rifles, cannon, and the like. I got a very good book, which I read while we rode up the lake. Then we stopped at Crown Point, which is an old British fort that is among many places that claim to have decided the fate of history. It was a pile of rubble. When we got to Westport, we had pizza. Dad had a whopping five slices. He’s the pizza beast!”

Westport, N.Y., has one of Lake Champlain’s best-equipped marinas; it is family run and the mechanical and refitting work look to be first rate. During July and August, the town provides many amenities, including terrific ice cream within walking distance of the Westport Marina and a summer stock playhouse.

The next day we headed across the lake to Vermont and the Lake ChamplainMaritimeMuseum, which happened to be hosting their annual pirate festival. A replica of a mid-19th-century sailing canal boat was tied up to their wharf. These flat-bottom, narrow-beam boats sailed south from Burlington to Whitehall, were pulled through the ChamplainCanal and then sailed south to New York, taking six weeks for a round trip. Henry wrote:

“I was a little old for the pirate festival at the MaritimeMuseum but completed the treasure hunt and won four hideous plastic rings. I did get another good book, which I read on the way to a little island off Burlington, where we climbed up an abandoned lighthouse and saw the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains. We skipped rocks, Dad went swimming in the freezing water, and then we went to Burlington for the night.”

To the border

The next morning I rose early and headed north to Canada while Henry slept. The route from Burlington north takes one past ValcourIsland, the site of the first battle involving the U.S. Navy. In 1777 the British were preparing to invade Lake Champlain from the north, thereby capturing the Hudson waterway and splitting the Colonies in two.

Benedict Arnold brought his gunboats north from Whitehall to FortTiconderoga for outfitting, and then sailed north to meet the British in October 1977. He hid the fleet behind ValcourIsland and then surprised the British fleet as it sailed down the main lake east of the island. While Arnold lost the battle and retreated south — with muffled oars, over several nights — he nonetheless forced the British to postpone their invasion for a year. This delay gave the Colonists more time to prepare to repel the British, ultimately leading to the American victory (also under Arnold) at Saratoga in 1778.

We passed into Canada at Rouses Point, and immediately benefited from the north-flowing RichilieuRiver as it drained Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence. Clearly we had traveled into a foreign land. The charts were in French, the people spoke only French; only the “red right returning” rule remained the same. We soon arrived at well-hidden FortLennox, built by the British after the American Revolution to repel an invasion from the south. The Canadian Parks Commission has restored the site and provides guided tours in English and French. Again, it is well worth the stop.

We arrived at the northern terminus of our boat trip — St. Jean sur Richilieu — at 9 p.m., but in full daylight given our high latitude and our arrival on the summer solstice. Running short of time and facing, for the first time, forecasts of unsettled weather, we rented a car and drove two hours to Quebec City. Henry, the historian, writes of Quebec:

“Vive le Quebec! I enjoyed this portion a lot. It was packed with history from start to finish. We had a really interesting guided tour with a really nice tour guide. He showed us the city walls, the Citadel, the Plains of Abraham, the Parliament building and a replica of the old city. I especially enjoyed the Plains of Abraham because it was the actual place where Wolfe and Montcalme fought. … We went back to our hotel and took a nap. Then we went on a ghost tour that was creepy and really cool. The next day we went to the Citadel, which was best because it is actually a live military base. We saw troops drilling. And then we drove back to the boat.”

Heading for home

For the first time in 10 days we turned so the compass pointed south. This time up the Richilieu to Rouses Point and back into the United States, where, despite the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the emphasis on secure borders, reporting to U.S. immigration remains voluntary when entering by private boat from Canada. Rather than being bored with a return trip with known landmarks and scenery, the return became all the more pleasant because the destination had been won.

We stopped in Plattsburgh after a morning’s travel south from St. Jean. Plattsburgh has a fine boat basin and waterfront dining. Its draw for me, however, was that it was Dad’s hometown in the early 1930s. We walked into town, passed by the abandoned passenger rail station and toured, very quickly, the U.S. Air Force base that gave the town a reason to exist throughout the Cold War. I can’t imagine what drew my father’s family there in the 1930s, but I know that it was not a prosperous time for them.

We made quick business of Lake Champlain and returned to the ChamplainCanal and, finally, the SchuylerYachtBasin in Saratoga.

To close, a perfect trip in the perfect boat at the perfect time in both my son’s life and my own. I am glad that boating allows someone of average ability to buy an old boat, fix it up, and take it to Canada. I am so grateful for the connection with my father and with my son.

Andrew Chapman, 51, is a utility executive in New York City. He keeps Thanks on New York’s ShelterIsland, where he cruises with his family to Connecticut, Block Island and Gardiner’s Bay.