How to Get Afloat Without Your Own Boat

Perhaps no state has a greater variety of waters to explore with a boat than ours. The Finger Lakes region, bordered by a Great Lake, crossed by the longest fully functional canal in America, and home to rivers, creeks, ponds, marshes and the Finger Lakes, has cruising for everything from ocean-going freighters to car-topper canoes. But what if, amidst all this water wealth, you are beached without a boat? Luckily, landlubbers have ample opportunity here to get afloat if they don’t own a vessel of any sort.

Boating excursions of all levels of duration and intensity exist in our region. You can go out for a good meal and a one-hour ride aboard any one of at least a half dozen different dinner boats. You can sail or go fishing with a charter boat and captain/guide, or the really ambitious would-be skipper can assume command of a houseboat or lockmaster hireboat for a week of canal cruising. There’s a boat trip for every budget and time schedule in our region. Here is a sampling of a few of them.

People like to float around for all sorts of reasons. One very big draw in our area is fishing. The waters that make this an inland mariner’s delight, also offer anglers hungry largemouth bass, tasty walleye, voracious pike, and 40-pound salmon. As a result of all this edible biomass, almost every Finger Lake has at least one fishing charter business on it, while Lake Ontario has a whole fleet of charter boats.

Captain Clyde Keck, who sails the big lake in search of salmon trout and bass, is typical, if more experienced, than most anglers turned pro, so he can spend more time on the water. Keck sails his Fantasy, a 30-foot Sportcraft, out of Fair Haven Bay. He began fishing for salmon just as soon as New York and Ontario Province began stocking them in the 1970s. “I started out with a little 12-foot boat on the bay. Back then a
4-pound bass was a big fish.” Keck began offering charters around l983, making him one of the most experienced captains on the lake. He has spent thousands of dollars to equip Fantasy with the latest and best fish finding and catching gear, and he says of his full-time seasonal business, “I work harder now than I ever did as a firefighter.”

Seeking Lake Ontario salmon is a specialized business, so even long-time anglers, who usually fish inland waters, often opt for a charter with a guide like Keck, who also takes out families for summer bass fishing. The bass trips are shorter and closer to the scenic shoreline of the lake, and the fishing has been unbelievable lately. “You can oftentimes catch your limit — easily 50 fish in a day.” These trips with lots of action are well-suited to taking the kids along. Keck offers fishing trips from late April through early September. And he says July and August are good times for a charter as the weather is usually calm and settled then.

If you like seafood but don’t care to catch it yourself, another option for enjoying fish afloat is to take a dinner boat cruise. A number of larger vessels cruise our lakes, bays, rivers, and canals, and also serve meals and drinks while underway. One of these is Al Gilbert’s Harbor Town Belle that sails out of Rochester. She’s an authentic paddle wheel-powered riverboat (although her wheel is powered by hydraulics designed by Gilbert himself rather than steam). She sails both Lake Ontario and the Genesee River and offers several special excursions, like the popular Mark Twain cruise with a professional actor who reads some of the author’s lively prose about river boating.

Another dinner afloat option is that of recently relaunched Rose Lummis, sailing on Sodus Bay. The 60-foot Lummis, formerly the Miss Green River of Indiana, operated on Sodus Bay in the 1980s before being laid up for a few years. She was reactivated in 2002 by her new owners, who did a total renovation of the vessel and her facilities. Then there is the Fairport Lady operating on the Erie Canal, the venerable but still spry MV Manhattan sailing out of Ithaca, several other vessels on the Finger Lakes, and a number of brunch, lunch and dinner cruises from Mid-Lakes Navigation on Skaneateles Lake and the Erie Canal.

Mid-Lakes Navigation, one of the pioneers of canal chartering in the region, also operates a fleet of steel-hulled charter boats that you can take for week long cruises of the canal. Designed and built specifically for Erie service, the Lockmaster canal boat is simple to operate and comfortable to cruise. Mid-Lakes charters the boats out of two locations, Cold Springs Harbor, near Syracuse, and Macedon Landing, near the Wayne-Monroe County line. You can choose among various sizes of charter boats, ranging from 33 to 44 feet. They easily accommodate four to six people and are completely equipped for comfort with heaters, showers, a full galley and even a bicycle for exploring towpaths and canal towns. I sailed briefly on the 33-foot Hemlock and found her immaculate, user friendly and extremely well-thought-out for cruising.

The Erie Canal is a waterway filled with the unexpected for the first-time canal voyager. Most people are surprised at its tranquility and seclusion. Its narrow waters take you through countryside remote from houses and roads, past farm fields, old stone structures from the previous canal, and wooded banks. I’ve seen deer, beaver, wild turkey and mink while canal cruising. Towns like Fairport and Seneca Falls also draw cruisers with their shops, restaurants and other amenities.

The Lockmaster boats, equipped with bow thrusters and one-lever operation for the engine, are dead easy to manage. After a one-hour orientation, the canal cruiser is on his or her own, gliding off at a leisurely 6 miles an hour into a world that feels very distant from everyday 21st-century living. Spend a few hours sitting on the padded benches of the foredeck and listening to the swish of the bow wave as the scenery slides effortlessly by, and you won’t want to come back to reality.

You can also charter a luxury houseboat for canal cruising, complete with hot tub, from Starlite houseboat rentals in Seneca Falls. These are 67-footers that can accommodate up to 10 people and are perhaps best suited to skippers with at least a little bit of boating experience.

If quiet floating with fewer people appeals, the Finger Lakes is home to several businesses that can provide that type of excursion. At least a half-dozen outfitters will rent you a canoe or kayak and a couple of them also offer guided tours of area marshes and streams. Harry Weideman of Macedon offers instruction for sea kayaking and also does tours of the historic Erie Canal that include a two-day B&B package. Kayak Quests, also located on the canal at the Mid-Lakes Macedon landing facility, offers rentals and guided tours as well. At least two companies in Ithaca also offer canoe and kayak rentals. I have listed additional sources of paddle-boat rentals at the end of the article.

For well over a century people have enjoyed sailing our lakes. You can sample the timeless appeal of catching the wind aboard a half-dozen different sailing charter yachts in the region. One of the largest and newest of these is the Malabar X, a 75-foot gaff, rigged wooden schooner. She is of traditional plank-on-frame construction, built in Ithaca, and she is meticulously crafted and flawlessly finished. The Malabar sails out of Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake and accommodates up to 28 passengers. She is operated by the Hazlitt 1852 Winery, in Hector, the creator of Schooner Red, Schooner White, and a number of other wines.

Several smaller sailing yachts also offer charters on the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario. Most of these boats will sail with just one or two passengers and limit their charter parties to no more than six at a time. Cayuga Lake is home to Wind Catcher and Alcyone Charters, sailing out of Ithaca, and Catch The Joy sails on Canandaigua Lake. My own Titania, a 32-foot sloop based on Fair Haven Bay, can get you out on the big lake for an afternoon sail or a sunset. To explain the timeless appeal of sailing for many on a gentle summer day I’ll repeat the most often heard remark by guests aboard my boat last season, “It’s so relaxing!”

It does seem like a lot of charter boat operations include some aspect of eating. You can go boating without consuming calories and may even burn up a few with the paddling boats. But one cruise option that passes through our area several times a year is definitely not for the weight watcher. That’s the American Canadian Caribbean Lines trip, that takes in the canal and Lake Ontario aboard a 100-passenger cruise ship. She departs her Rhode Island base, steams up the Hudson and through the canal to Oswego, and then sails Lake Ontario west to Chicago or down the St. Lawrence to Quebec and the spectacular Gaspe area. This is the ultimate freshwater cruise experience for food and scenery, judging from the menu I saw posted and according to the information I got from several very enthusiastic passengers I spoke to during the ship’s call at Oswego two summers ago.

So there’s a brief  rundown of ways to get afloat without your own boat in upstate New York, on everything from a paddle boat to a 180 footer. Perhaps I’ll see you on the water next summer, and bon voyage!

Most of the specific businesses mentioned in the story have websites, if you plug them into the search engine. Visit www.accl-smallships.com for cruises and costs on American Canadian Caribbean Lines and their canal cruising liners the Grande Caribe and Niagara Prince.

Try www.fingerlakes.org or www.fingerlakes.net for Finger Lakes tourism. Individual counties also maintain websites with attractions and boat trips. For fishing charters around the region try newyork.fishingcharter.net.

For kayak and canoe rentals try the Adirondack Mountain Club listing at  www.amc-ny.org/rec_actv/canoe/liverys.html#ny.

And last but not least, you can sail with Captain Sue at www.silverwaters.com.


by Susan Peterson Gateley
Susan Peterson Gateley has sailed the area for 33 years, written about it for 22 years and has offered sailing trips on Lake Ontario for six years.