The history of Canandaigua Lake is incredibly rich, and while many may know bits and pieces of its colorful legends and lore, there is one man who knows and tells it better than all the rest. His name is Gray Hoffman, better known as Captain Gray of Captain Gray’s Boat Tours. For 30 years, Captain Gray has made his living and his life on the “thumb” of the Finger Lakes, and although he has now passed the business to his son, Jadon, also a boat Captain, Gray still takes a few tours each week… just because it’s in his blood.
“I grew up on the water with my grandfather,” he says from the helm of the Jennifer Mac, one of the two tour boats docked behind Canandaigua’s Inn on the Lake. “He lived in North Rose, and being the first grandson, I always stayed there during the summer. One of my first memories was being wrapped up in a blanket in the bow of his boat on Sodus Bay while he trolled for pickerel.”
Once a boat operator in New York City, Gray remarks that only in recent years, after his family had a genealogy done, did he discover that many of his ancestors were actually sea captains out of New England. “It surprised me,” he says, and then adds with a wink, “but it explains why my grandmother had brown bread and beans every Saturday night of her life.”
The Hoffman clan, consisting of Gray, his wife Dee, and nine children, bought the narrated boat tour business in 1972, and every member of the family participated in its operation. Dee became known as the “Ticket Lady,” and according to the Captain, “is the reason that we’re still here today. She always was the business person in this partnership.” Jadon was only 11 when the business was purchased, but he says that he and his siblings were very much a part of the day-to-day operations.
“We caught lines, sold tickets, played a lot of pinball, and were practically raised at Roseland Park,” Jadon says with a reminiscent smile. “We all had to pull our weight and pitch in. We couldn’t avoid it. It was our family business, and we’ve always been a close family.”
The old wooden boat purchased with the business was called the Sandra Lee. The Sandra Lee was the first tour boat that ever sailed Canandaigua Lake, running half-hour tours out of Roseland Park in 1957. Gray purchased a second boat, the Jennifer Mac, in the early 80s, but decided to launch that boat from a site behind Canandaigua’s Inn on the Lake. The two boats ran simultaneously until the amusement park closed in 1985. The Sandra Lee was then sold, and business continued with the 38-passenger Jennifer Mac.
As time passed, however, the capacity of tour busses grew, and increasingly the Hoffmans found that the boat couldn’t accommodate a full busload of people. So, in 1990, Jadon and his wife, Ann, bought their second boat, the Eleanor Gray, from the Wisconsin Gulf area. The Eleanor Gray seats 65 people and has a restroom aboard, something that enabled them to expand their operation from simply one-hour tours, to two- and three-hour tours, and to catering private parties.
One Sunday morning visitor described his journey with Captain Gray as “a real stress reliever,” and that’s a pretty good description of what it’s like. It’s a calm, easy, peaceful ride, and Captain Gray’s melodious narration is almost as soothing as the water lapping gently against the hull of the craft. Moreover, if you enjoy history, there’s no better place to hear it told, and it all begins with the purchase of a ticket at the Gazebo behind the Inn on the Lake.
The “Traditional” One-Hour Tour
Captain Gray and his crew take you approximately one third of the way down the west side of Canandaigua Lake, crossing over to a point near Thendara on the east side, and then bring you home down the east side. Captain Gray will enchant you with legends of the Seneca people, will transport you back to the glory days of the steamboats, and introduce you to a host of colorful historical characters that are the reason Canandaigua exists today. From General Sullivan’s campaign against the Senecas in 1779, to the construction of the historic City Pier, to even Canandaigua’s recent struggles with the zebra mussels, Captain Gray will share the local heritage, and entertain you with stories you’ve never heard before. Tours run daily from July through Labor Day with departures at 11 a.m., and 1-3-5-7 p.m. Daily departures are also available in September and October weather permitting.
Coffee With The Captain
Enjoy all the elements of the traditional tour and more. Sit back and enjoy a warm cup of coffee while the Captain weaves through the Canandaigua Yacht racing fleet and takes you two thirds of the way down Canandaigua Lake, regaling you with little known facts of both past and present. Are you aware that the water in all the Finger Lakes flows from south to north? Do you know why? The Captain will tell you! Coffee tours are two hours long and generally run from 9 – 11 a.m. on Saturdays in July and August. What a wonderful way to start the day!
Around The Lake Cruises
If two hours of sunshine and beautiful views aren’t enough, you may decide to “do it all.” Around-the-lake cruises are offered every other Sunday starting in July and continue through mid-October. This three “plus” hour tour allows you to enjoy the full beauty of the Bristol Hills with a journey all the way to Naples and back.
Create Your Own
Private parties are a large part of Captain Gray’s tour business, and the only limit to these is your own imagination. Enjoying the beauty of the water with good friends, family, or business colleagues, either with a light snack or a full meal, provides a wonderful and memorable experience. Captain Gray’s works with both caterers and waterfront restaurants to help make your party a successful one for you and your guests.
Captain Gray’s also offers fall foliage cruises, one of the most popular tours they host. September and October, if the weather cooperates, are the two most beautiful months on the lake. Many people believe that the view from the lake in the fall is more breathtaking than at any other time of year. Another very popular cruise, according to the Captain, is the Ring of Fire Cruise, and as he explains the cruise, his “storyteller side” comes out…
“In the fall, the Seneca people would gather on the sacred hill, Genundowa (also known as Bare Hill), lighting a sacred bonfire to give thanks to the Great Spirit for good hunting, good fishing and good crops. Members of the tribe would light similar fires all around the lake, forming a circle of fires. Canandaigua echoes that tradition each year on the Saturday before Labor Day with its “Ring of Fire.”
The business now has seven Captains, and more than a dozen crew who help with a number of varying duties. Rarely, however, is there a time when you won’t find at least one of the Hoffman family on duty. Even though Captain Gray confesses to “weaning” himself away, he admits that the love of the job is still with him.
“It’s never been about money for me, and I guess some people might say I’m not a very good businessman in that respect,” he says, adjusting his signature Captain’s hat, something he never leaves shore without. “Sure, money is important, but to me, it’s always been secondary. Taking the people out in the boat, and watching kids’ eyes light up when they hear the stories and the legends, that’s what it’s all about for me. After 30 years, I still don’t tire of that.”
by Linda Burnett
Linda Burnett is a features writer for The Ontario County Connection, and has published two novels, “The Loveling” and “Time Quest.” She is working on her third. When she isn’t writing, her favorite place to be is in her garden in Bloomfield, where she resides with her husband, Dan Compton, and their three children, Josh, Rachael & Robyn.