Heron’s Maiden Voyage

Posted By on September 16, 2014

It’s been a long haul, but Heron touched the water for the first time last week. A friend with a heavy equipment trailer was able to move her for us over to the Battle of Plattsburgh bicentennial event.

Heron leaves her construction bunks.

Heron leaves her construction bunks.

We knew that the heavy trailer would have difficulty getting into where Heron had been slowly building all these years, so our first task was to move her out into the open yard. We laid a bunch of log rollers along her keel and hooked a chain through her bobstay fastenings (which go through the keel and iron keel shoe alike) to the bucket of the tractor. It was pretty nerve-wracking seeing her start to move. She settled comfortably onto her port bilge and keel. It took us several hours to move her a few hundred feet, since we were being very careful to avoid letting her get ahead of us or the rollers. With only two people, it was a delicate job. The final destination for the night was a large earthen ramp we’d constructed to make it easier to get her up and onto the trailer. In the morning, our friend with the trailer arrived and we loaded her up. That was where things almost went very badly – as Heron‘s bow rose up onto the trailer, one of the rollers jammed in the space between trailer and ramp and she came down hard on the next one. All of her 4+ tons landed squarely on one roller on the starboard side, crushing it up into the hull and fracturing the three planks it spanned. We were past the point of no return and decided to continue loading. I went back up to the boatyard and grabbed the full 5 gallon pail of tar and the caulking tools. Once she was strapped down, it was time to head out for the 2 hour drive. Heron was designed to fit on a trailer without needing any special permits (she’s 8′ wide and 10’2″ from keel to rails) but with a 3′ tall trailer it felt like a close thing making it under bridges. Needless to say, other cars on the road gave us a wide berth. She drew a lot of looks as we passed through the small towns of Northern Vermont and New York.

heron trailerEkk and I spent the whole drive over making emergency plans for the launch, since we had no idea how bad the roller damage might be. We had several factors in our favor even if it did turn out to be serious: a) she’s made of wood; b) was empty of ballast for the trip, since we didn’t want to push it on a borrowed trailer; c) we’d put every fastener there ourselves and knew how to replace every single thing on her. As it turned out, there was significant damage, but we were able to repair it on site. We used a comealong to get her off the trailer and immediately pulled her around the dock to the shallow sandy beach on the other side. With one person standing on the port rail, we could bring the damaged side out of the water enough for me to screw the injured battens back into place and recaulk it. Then we decided to let her settle on the bottom overnight to soak and swell the planks.

The newlyweds pose for pics. We weren't intentionally photobombing; there was just nowhere else for us to go!

The newlyweds pose for pics. We weren’t intentionally photobombing; there was just nowhere else for us to go!

Wednesday night and Thursday morning were the most harrowing part of the trip. Heron sat along her keel on the bottom in ~3 feet of water, with plenty of her topsides exposed but sloshing back and forth to keep the planks wet. We had chosen this sheltered north-facing beach very carefully, as winds of 5o mph were expected that night from the south. We slept on the beach with canvas over a mooring line, so if she moved we’d be the first to know. Thursday morning saw several large yachts from the marina breaking their moorings and blowing out into the sandbars of Cumberland Bay. One particularly big vessel smashed her way through a few of her neighbors before getting clear – when I went over the next morning, there was a big catamaran completely dismasted and nursing huge holes in her port hull. Our little cove stayed sheltered, though, and while the wind howling through the trees was unsettling the evening passed without incident.

We had numerous visitors while we were setting up Heron. The most entertaining was a newly married couple who saw us and pulled up to ask if they could take pictures on board. We agreed, though I think it’s pretty brave to take a white dress onto a newly tarred boat! đŸ˜‰ The boat ramp grew more active throughout Friday as other vessels and bateaux arrived. Work progressed fairly slowly with all the time we spent showing her off and accepting congratulations. It was hard to believe she was finally floating after all these years. She was still very tippy without any ballast in her, as we expected she would be, so we organized a work party and moved over 700lbs of rocks into her bilges. That brought her down about 6-8 inches in the water but not enough. By this point, her planks had swelled tightly closed. When we first launched her, she was taking on probably ten inches to a foot of water an hour. One day later, she was at 1 inch an hour. Friday saw her settle out at the rate she maintained all weekend: half an inch an hour or less. Considering that there was about 6 feet of damaged seam below the waterline that I couldn’t reach to recaulk effectively, that’s a pretty good rate.

Moving a piece of railway track.

Moving a piece of railway track.

Due to the Saranac’s extremely shallow waters this year (there were bateaux running aground in ankle-deep water out in the middle of the bay) and concerns over ballast, we decided to forgo putting up the masts this time. They weigh about 200lbs a piece. In addition to her 400 lb iron keel shoe, we’d put in about 700 lbs of stone ballast and still needed more. There were numerous pieces of scrap iron in the water along the shore, so we scavenged some of that. The small 18th century rowing vessels known as bateaux were built specifically as cargo haulers, and even the small ones can move a lot of weight. This boat, the Growler, has carried 1000lb cannon slung underneath the hull. I’d spotted a piece of long-abandoned railroad track in the water earlier in the day, and Growler helped me move it over to where we could pass it through Heron’s stern lights and down along her keel. We figure that weighed close to another 400-500 lbs. With all this weight added, she was sitting very comfortably in the water. She was still high, but had stiffened up considerably. Half a dozen people on one side simply made that side settle a little lower, not go into a gut-clenching roll as she had while empty. Nevertheless, we asked all cannon crews serving on board to go with minimal crew.

We’d taken a dinghy out the previous day and marked a channel we knew Heron could pass through to get into the deeper waters of the bay. Unfortunately, the wind shifted overnight and when we woke up on Sunday the bay was even shallower than it had been. Four days of wind from the south had piled up water into the bay, and when it swapped to northerly winds the bay dropped by almost a foot. Heron was now drawing close to 3.5 feet with the added ballast and the weight of three cannons and their crews. She set clear of the dock and looked promising, then the northerly winds pushed us out of the channel we’d marked and into a sandbar. Heron doesn’t have auxiliary power yet; we were rowing and poling her around, with a couple of the smaller row gunboats standing by as needed. She hit hard aground and refused to move. We moved the crewmen around to shift weight, and had several gunboats take lines and try to pull her off to no avail. It was embarrassing, but not the end of the world. She didn’t take any damage. And besides, this sort of thing happened all the time in the age of fighting sail. And at least we didn’t have to throw the cannon overboard like they did back then in order to lighten her enough to get off. We ended up running a line back to the fixed pilings of the pier and having a team of guys haul her off. Then we rowed back to the dock and set up as a stationary gun platform for the battle.

Heron aground.

It turned out that having Heron so close to shore for the battle worked out pretty well for the spectators. There were close to a hundred or more on the shore where we were, even though this was far from the main viewing area. The spectators got to see several cannon being served and fired from only a few dozen yards away. We were involved in the battle as British gunboats made firing runs past us and received our shot in return. While it wasn’t as great as being out in the main part of the bay, I think we did a good job of making the best of it and still putting on a good show.

Guns on deck.

Guns on deck.

Overall, Heron‘s first adventure went fairly well. She floated (which is always a nagging fear with a new boat) and served her purpose with cannon on deck. I had to head out on Sunday afternoon, leaving Ekk alone to keep an eye on her until our friend with the trailer comes back on Wednesday to haul her out and take Heron home. This was the last event we’d had planned for the season, so she will go back to her bunks in our boatyard for the winter. Now that we know her hull design works, there’s a lot of finish work to do. She’s getting two watertight bulkheads installed belowdecks (we didn’t put them in for the first launch because we knew she’d take up a lot of water and wanted to be able to pump the whole hull at once while we stayed in shallow water) and crew accommodations, plus all the finish carpentry and painting that got overlooked in the rush just to get her floating.

Welcome to the fleet, Heron!

About the author

I'm a museum professional with an MA in Museum Studies and Atlantic History. A lot of my research has been in colonial and maritime history, as well as material culture of the 16th - 19th centuries. I've held a lot of weird jobs covering everything from beekeeper to tall ship deckhand. I currently live with my partner on the Canadian border in Vermont.


One Response to “Heron’s Maiden Voyage”

  1. Victor Suthren says:

    We hope a fully-rigged Heron couldl be a core part of the August 2016 flotilla on Northumberland Strait, Canada (Summerside. Prince Edward Island to Pictou, Nova Scotia), for a 1770s week-long event Captain Cook Society with shore encampments to be known as “In The Wake of Cook; Charting and Settling Atlantic Canada”. It may be too far to trailer the ship, but it would be the star of the event. Will keep fingers crossed.

    Vic Suthren
    Captain Cook Society

    In The Wake Of Cook

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