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Stairway to Heaven

Posted by Tall Ships America on July 6, 2013

4 July 2013 – Cleveland, Ohio
by Eliza

During a trivia game a few years ago, I was asked what waterway bypasses Niagara Falls. The answer is the Welland Canal, a twenty six mile channel that winds from Lake Ontario up to Lake Erie. I knew the answer right away, for an atypical reason – I’ve gone through it. And a few days ago, I went through it again.

If you’ve been around the maritime industry for a year or two, you’ve probably heard of the Welland Canal. A series of eight locks operate as a floating stairway to lift and lower vessels over three hundred feet. Cargo vessels built halfway around the world are constructed to the dimensions of the Welland Canal locks. It takes seven to seventeen hours to get through the locks, primarily based on traffic, and often requires all hands on deck to manipulate docklines and fenders.

On Monday morning, the crews of Unicorn and Pride of Baltimore II woke shortly after five and got underway for Port Welland. The other boats would follow later that day. We collected every fender on board and lashed them over the sides. They would absorb the shock and protect the boat if we made contact with the lock walls. We then lashed newly created “Welly-boards” outboard of the fenders. These sacrificial chunks of lumber slide up the lock walls as the boat rises. Some tall ships even add a second layer of sacrificial wood, nicknamed “spuds”. If there is still a great deal of friction as the vessel grinds up the lock wall, a crew member may be sent to take the cook’s container of Crisco and be told to slather grease all over the fenders. Having accomplished this duty for Lynx, a Crisco-covered crewmember earned the nickname Crisco Man!

We reached the first lock around 0800 and were lucky to find a green light, signaling us to enter.  The Captains took the helms and skillfully steered into a towering, cement box. One of the most remarkable features of the locks is their immense size. Only more remarkable is the size of the cargo vessels that traverse them. Lines were tossed down from the top of the lock wall, nearly forty feet above our heads. We hitched these lines to our sturdy docklines so that workers on the dock could haul our docklines up and loop them around bollards. Once we were secure, enormous wood and metal gates slammed shut behind us and water started pouring into the lock.

We had requested a slow fill but the turbulence in and beneath the water rocked the boat. At the Captain’s orders, deckhands aboard eased and took up slack in the docklines, enabling us to maintain our position as we quickly rose to dock level and cheering bystanders appeared through the chain link fences at the edge of the cement dock. Finally, the water settled. Ahead, the thick gates rumbled open and we glimpsed flashes of green grass and trees and murky, blue, canal water. Slipping off the dock and out of the lock, the crew breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed on the deckboxes, exhausted. One down, seven to go.

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