Be a Packet Boat Captain

By Sue Freeman

Most boat captains have years of experience under their caps. It’s required for navigating the tricky ocean waters, or even the Great Lakes. Fortunately, we live in an area with calm waters where you can become a captain for a week or weekend with little or no experience required. Better yet, you can become a historic captain - piloting an old-fashion styled packet boat along the Erie Canal.

The packet boats are modern vessels, styled to look and feel somewhat like the original vessels that plied the Erie Canal in its hey day between 1825 and the early 1900s. In those days, families lived on board the boats as they transported goods and animals to the east and pioneer families to the west. Today, taking your mule on board is frowned upon. Your family is welcomed, however, to sleep on board and enjoy a multi-day time travel adventure.

Tooling down the Erie Canal is a fantastic fall experience. For miles you’ll glide along uninhabited woods-lined shores ablaze in the vivid reds and yellows of fall. Dock at the small towns that pop up periodically to stretch your legs with a walk (to a restaurant?) or maybe take a bike ride. Several of the packet boat rentals come with on-board bikes that make shore excursions easier. Often along the canal, the old towpath has been converted to a multi-use trail. Families find it fun to take turns having someone pilot the boat and someone else bike parallel to the waterway, then switch after a predefined distance.

A thrill of boating the Erie Canal is the chance to lock-though some of the 83 locks. Approaching a lock from above, you motor into a segment of canal with cement lined banks. Then, with grinding and moaning noises, the lock gates swing closed behind you, with only the top edge sticking above waterline. Another clunk and groan, and water begins to disappear below your boat. Slowly you sink into a wet cement chasm. In front and behind you appear massive wood and metal gates, oozing water. More strange clunks and the doors in front of you slowly swing open, displaying a ribbon of water beckoning you to proceed. What new sights and sounds will you find around the next bend? Another thrill is the feeling of power as a lift bridge rises in the air to allow your passage while motorists wait impatiently.

Several companies rent packet boats:

Canal Cruise Lines, P.O. Box 285, Cape Vincent, NY 13618
Phone: (800) 962-1771, Fax: (315) 654-3171
42-foot canal boats departing from Seneca Falls & Fairport.

Low Bridge Charters
P.O. Box 7, Waterloo, NY 13165
(315) 539-8034
44-foot boat departing from Spencerport.

Mid-Lakes Navigation Co., Ltd.
P.O. Box 61, 11 Jordan St., Skaneateles, NY 13152
(315) 685-8500, (800) 545-4318
33-foot, 41-foot, and 42-foot canal boats departing from Syracuse and Macedon.

Erie-Champlain Canal Boating Company
1 Tugboat Alley, Waterford, NY 12188
Phone: (518) 577- 6363, Fax: (518) 861-6369
41-foot boats departing from Waterford (near Albany).

Select one that fits your needs (they come in a variety of sizes) and take time out this fall to experience life from the days when it took just under six days to travel from Albany to Buffalo on the Erie Canal.

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