KEEPING CURRENTJune 11, 2013
Monday, 10 June, 2013
Wx: ENE F 1, 7/8ths stratus
Pride of Baltimore II at anchor in 40 feet of river on two shots of chain
Anchored in the considerable current of the St. Lawrence River, Pride of Baltimore II awaits a routine inspection by the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority, the corporation which governs the waterway and the seven locks connecting Montreal to Lake Ontario – 159 nautical miles horizontally and 236 feet vertically. Without these locks, the rocky slough of the Lachine Rapids would mark the end of the line for Pride II. In fact, it was these very rapids that kept the vast British Navy out of the Great Lakes in 1812, putting England and America on equally unequipped footing for the coming conflicts on Lake Ontario and, of course, the significant US victory on Lake Erie.
Setting aside the impassable Lachine, getting a sailing ship as far as Montrealin 1812 would have been an excruciating affair. Even today it is no simple task, and for the 20 hours or so before we anchored in small hours of this morning, Pride II was treading narrow channels along pastoral scenes, bustling factories, and scores of church spires. For all that way, she stemmed a steady current, a river current – a sure sign we’d bid adieu to the sea and were truly inland.
Below Quebec City on Saturday, however, the river proved itself a long reaching tendril of the ocean. Under frequent showers and through thick fog, strong Northeast breezes conflicted with ebbing tides and honed the waters of the St. Lawrence to sharpness. Pride II managed seven hours of pure sailing up the river in rollicking conditions, from l’Ile aux Lievres until the fittingly named Chenal des Grands Volliers – the Channel of Tall Ships. It wasn’t just sailing – still ocean owned, the lower St. Lawrence runs a decent flood. We hitched a ride, making over ten knots for a stretch under fore tops’l, stays’l, and fores’l.
But the St. Lawrence flood is nothing when compared to its ebb, and by midnight Sunday we were slogging against its full strength off Quebec, eagerly trying to pinpoint the right time to arrive at the river’s most treacherous spot, the Richelieu Rapides. As ruthless as the 17th century French Cardinal who shares their name, the Rapides are almost never still, feature a maximum ebb current of eight knots, and are marked by drying rocks on either side of the narrow channel that comprises them. Passing through in a moment of relative calm is, in a word, vital.
For all the numerous navigation tools and technology Pride II possesses, one book towered high for negotiating these disobedient, mercurial waters of the St. Lawrence – The Atlas of Tidal currents of the St. Lawrence Estuary from Cap de Bon-Desir to Trois-Rivieres. Published by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in 1997, this reference divides the most challenging section of river into nine digestible geographic zones, and dissects the movement of water within each of them into hourly bytes. Bold, primary colors show strength and nearly cartoonish arrows mark the racing ebbs, the driving floods and the swirling eddies. It is a marvelously simple book to use, and allowed Pride II to exploit both a detour through Chenal du Sud and a bolstering flood along the southern shore. For 24 hours, it was indispensable for navigation.
Even now, in my mind, it serves as an indelible reminder that simple tools are often best. That is, after all, why we sail these Grand Volliers, isn’t it?
Captain Jamie Trost and the crew of Pride of Baltimore II