Trip Report – 1850s Vintage Trip – Rideau Canal – Jun 2011

Rowing 4 days with vintage equipment on a naval whaler through a UNESCO world heritage site and it’s series of locks? Yeah that sounds like a challenge!

Several years before, through working with the Scouts, a project was initiated to refurbish two Naval Whalers that had been acquired. With the Rideau Canal, opened in 1832, passing through our city, and the Whalers being of roughly the same design as was used in that time period. We thought, why not use them to row through the canal using only equipment available in that time?

Trip Set-Up

What is the Rideau Canal?

After the war of 1812 between Canada and the U.S.A. the linkage between Montreal and Kingston via the St. Lawrence river was seen as a potential exploitable weakness. Colonel John By was therefore tasked to create an alternative path, going through the Ottawa river and through the Rideau river. This required a construction of a series of locks (currently 47) so ships could navigate the elevation difference between the 202km linking the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers. Construction took 6 years and the locks are still in operation today. The section in Ottawa is also the site of the longest and largest skating rink in the world during winter.

Rules of the trip

Essentially the rules were to use as period-specific equipment as possible or its equivalent (except for all required safety equipment which was modern). In some cases where we couldn’t find much, we just tried to get the closest possible. We used glass and tin for storage of food and water and brough along a charcoal stove for cooking. We did not bring any floor mattress for sleeping and just got a lot of blankets to stay warm.

We decided to implement a 1hr rotation for rowers so we could have a break and switch positions one in a while. The configuration of the ship has 5 people rowing with alternating sides and one person on the tiller, guiding and navigating. The rowers face back so they can’t see what is coming up which can make things a bit tricky.

Equipment preparation

With these rules set, we turned to the ship to determine what needed to be done to prepare it for the trip. The ship is 27ft in length and has a series of benches and footplates so rowers can push off. It doesn’t leave much useable space for sleeping, especially for 6 people. We figured we could build a deck on top of the benches, stow them during the day while rowing and put them into position when we needed a surface to sleep on. It would also help in storing items without having to try and walk around them if we needed to switch positions. So we all met up to weeks prior and started the build.

We also figured we would need shade during the day and shelter at night, so we rigged up a kind of canopy that would protect us from the elements. Support pillars in wood, canvas canopy and ropes with wooden spacers to hold it all up. We didn’t take pictures of the build but had to assemble it when we got on-site as it would not be safe to tow the Whaler with it on.

Final set-up & departure

Sylvain had volunteered to bring us to the start of our journey and follow our route by car while visiting the nice towns along the way. This gave us a bit of security in case we needed help and simplified the put-in/take-out timing logistics. We finished our rigging and launched, everyone got into position and we rowed away.

Naval Whaler set-up for our camping & rowing trip
set-up for our camping & rowing trip

Almost quick end

We were starting to get some speed when, not even 200m later, we hit a deadhead log right underneath the whaler and abruptly slowed down significantly. We heard the cracking of some fibreglass and everyone immediately thought the same thing “uh-oh, we haven’t even started and we might be sinking”. Thankfully though, we spun a bit from the blow and had enough speed to clear the obstruction and there was no visible damage. We did however, rethink this navigating wherever we want, and looked for the buoys that indicate the navigable path. The moment of panic eventually made way to laughing and joking about Seb’s poor navigating.

Rowing: save your back, be coordinated

Rowing in a vessel like this is quite a team sport, if you aren’t coordinated things go wrong. The rowing motion uses your entire body, you push off with your legs and lean back to get a good pull and then use your upper body and arms to lift the oar out of the water and reposition it for the next push. If you push off when the person behind you hasn’t done it yet, you get an oar to the back. Unfortunately, our coordination for the first few hours of the trip wasn’t the best, getting the timing right is difficult especially if you are reacting to the other’s motion which can be jerky. I don’t know how many times Wissell got my oar to his back, I hope it hasn’t caused your back issues!

Navigating locks is tricky

Since all the rowers are facing back and the oars extended are wider than the lock, it takes a good amount of communication to be able to navigate them. Without the oars, there is no power so there needs to be enough momentum to be able to enter the locks, but not too much so that you can’t stop on time. The rowers need to keep going until given the word to retract the oars quickly so the whaler can fit. This all becomes even more complicated when there are multiple other boats taking the same lock, moving only with momentum and with a huge blind spot due to the canvas tent. I only have one video where we retract the oars to pass in a narrow section where there is a rotating bridge, you can see just how much the oars stick out on both sides. Once you’re in the locks though, it’s pretty simple, there are a few attachment points, and you can push off the walls to move from one lock to the next or out enough to extend the oars.

Life on the ship

Honestly, it was not super pleasant. We were rowing for about 8 hours a day on 1hr rotations (5 rowing, 1 on the till). We took breaks every rotation and at some point decided to just jump off in the water and go for a swim. When you’re rowing, you don’t actually see much, the canvas does protect from the sun but it also blocks the view, you can only see the person navigating and the scenery behind them. You also have the risk of getting hit in the back with an oar when out of synch which happened every so often. There was one oar that was a bit more crooked than the others and it messed up the timing every time you rotated into that rowing spot. Essentially, you are doing repetitive physical work with not much to look at and getting hit from time to time.

When navigating, things were better, you got to rest your muscles for a while, you could see what the heck was going on outside and just had to be careful to stay within the navigable path and to coordinate for passing through locks.

We all drank grog (mix of water and rhum) to make things easier and somewhat more authentic and sang various songs while rowing (“All for me grog” became popular). I have to say this trip brought at least half the people to the breaking point where they just needed to vent, or stop for a little while. We’re all used to roughing it a bit and long days with physical exertion, it’s rare any one of us will hit that point but this was pushing it and difficult mentally especially with the sleeping situation.

Sleeping with mosquitos

Mosquito-proof enclosures are underrated! With our period-authentic approach, we didn’t have any bug nets or anything covering us except our canvas roof and blankets. Our first night we essentially just dropped anchor and were in a little bay in the middle of the water. There were so many mosquitos and nowhere to go to get away (nor bug spray). We clearly couldn’t make a fire on the ship to smoke them out either. I eventually grabbed some sort of cloth and wrapped it around my head to protect myself while sleeping but even then, they couldn’t get to me but they could buzz around my ears all night long. Our decking was as comfortable as wooden planks could be, we were all huddled together so we could fit and mosquitos were relentlessly trying to get to us. It was not the most restful nights. For the other nights, we docked near the locks, some locations were better than others but there was always mosquitos.

Sunrise shining inside whaler with everyone still sleeping
Sunrise shining inside whaler with everyone still sleeping

Making food

Our first night, we used our charcoal stove on the side of the whaler while we were anchored. However this was a bit risky because there was this big heat source next to our wooden planks on an unsteady surface. We didn’t have gloves or anything to deal with the hot charcoal and nowhere to stow it if it was still warm. We decided it was too risky to do that again and started using the grills which were near the locks. Eating at a picnic table is also much nicer than sitting in the rowing spot you were in all day. Food consisted mostly of cheese, bread, jerky and soup/chili essentially things that don’t require refrigeration. We didn’t bring anything to make coffee with, and Gibe had brought some coffee grinds just in case. After a couple days his coffee withdrawal headache was too much so he just grabbed some grinds, put them in a jar with hot water and drank that. No filtration, no fancy mixing, cream or sugar, just coffee grinds, water and hope for the best. We did have one stop at a restaurant in Smiths Falls to meet up with Sylvain for a meal.

Overall Trip & Final Thoughts

We set out to go from Kingston to Ottawa (202 km) in 4 days and we managed to do about 150km to Merrickville which isn’t too bad. We saw what life could have been like without some modern equipment and how the seaway could have been navigated (ok the maiden voyage on the Rideau Canal was on a steamship but still). It was a grueling trip, I’m glad we did it but not sure I would do it again (ok, I’m kind of a masochist and would probably be in 😀 ). I’m not completely disappointed we didn’t get to Ottawa, the bottom section through the city has a lot of boat traffic (and lineups to go through) and navigating all that with the whaler would be difficult. It would have been nice to do it but we couldn’t really have done it in the time we gave ourselves. We already pushed past the breaking point and did some good distance so this was a success.

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