Adventures On A Wooden Houseboat On The Erie Canal

Erie Canal

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Erie Canal

Adventures On A Wooden Houseboat On The Erie Canal

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EXCLUSIVE When my husband began banging around in the garage late one night, I wasn’t too concerned. 

It was good therapy. After all, he’s a pastor. It’s stressful work. Hammering nails into wood was a great way for him to relieve the tension. 

“I’m going to build a boat.” he announced. “And we’ll take it down the Erie Canal and live on it for a few weeks.”

 I smiled. 

“Good luck, David. That sounds fun.” 

I closed the door and went back to writing my next book. I was happy for him and mildly intrigued. But the truth was— I never thought he would finish it. I certainly never thought it would float. 

I was wrong. On both counts.

Our adventures on a wooden houseboat called Earendel (named after Tolkien’s mariner) began in 2014, after David had journeyed to Seattle, bought the plans from a naval architect named Philip Thiel, purchased massive amounts of marine plywood, numerous bottles of gorilla glue, several rolls of fibreglass, 300 nails and a new hammer. 

Two years and two months later, this was the result:

 homemade boat
North Tonawanda, about to set sail

Measuring just 5.8 m long, 1.8 m wide, and 1.7 m high inside (something of a nuisance when you’re 1.7 m tall) Earendel was ready for her maiden voyage. 

She looked fantastic, resplendent in her turquoise and blues (that I painted) and her lovely little curtains (that I made.) I smiled nervously for the camera as we stood on the edge of the dock at a nearby lake and gripped my lifejacket. Would I ever see land again?

But her maiden voyage was marvellous! 

It went without a hitch. To my complete and utter surprise, Earendel floated! And there was only about an inch of water under my feet as I sat inside and marvelled at my husband’s ingenuity. 

“Oh, it’s perfectly normal for a little water to come in,” he reassured me. “In fact, it’s rather good for wooden boats…it helps to seal the seams.” 

I looked down at my toes getting wet and tried to believe he was telling the truth.

One month later, we were ready to set sail for the Erie Canal. 

Erie Canal
Erie Canal, Fairport

“Do you have a bilge pump?” asked a rather concerned neighbour. 

“No.” David said reassuringly, “But don’t worry, we’ve got a very large sponge and a big bucket.” 

David hitched Earendel on to the back of our van and we set off on our great adventure. We felt like Lewis and Clark. The officers at the Canadian border were intrigued and dutifully climbed on board to inspect her for contraband. But finding nothing more perturbing that a jar of instant coffee, they waved us on our way and we soon arrived at North Tonawanda, a quiet little marina, a launching destination chosen deliberately so that no one would see us if we went down. 

Erie Canal
Erie Canal, Fairport

“David, have you found out what the cost would be to recover a submerged vessel from the Erie Canal?” I asked, casually. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” came his reply. “I built it.” 

I wasn’t reassured, but I remembered that it had, indeed, floated… what could possibly go wrong? 

Nothing went wrong—for a while. It was glorious, and so much fun! I sat on the front of the boat as we put-putted along, in the company of beady-eyed herons and swooping kingfishers.

“The hook-up for your electricity is over here,” a nice man called out, as we manoeuvred our way into the dock at our first overnight marina stop. 

“We don’t need it, thanks,” David yelled back. The guy looked confused. 

“For your plug-in,” he insisted. “You’ll need to dock over here, or your extension cords won’t reach.” 

“We don’t have any extension cords,” David replied. “We’ll stay right here.” 

The man was perplexed. But it was true. Our only source of electricity was a small solar energy pack that our son bought us. It powered our lanterns and our phones. 

And that was really all we needed. 

By day we traversed the glorious Erie Canal. By night we played cards by the light of our lantern and the silver moon.

boat
Inside view of the boat

Earendel was the talk of the canal. We were inundated with requests to tour our tiny boat, and since the distance from stern to bow could be traversed in eight small steps, the one-minute tours were popular.

“Here’s where our bed rolls out, after we remove the ladder,” David explained to curious and much more affluent boat-owners. 

“This table drops down to create a single bunk, should one be needed. Here’s our five-day cooler (which we soon discovered, really meant that after five days there would still be one piece of ice floating around in the water) and here’s our little kitchenette.”

“Does it have a ‘head’[toilet]?” everyone wanted to know. 

“Of course it does!” we proudly replied. I remembered well the day, a few months before, when we had gone shopping for our camping toilet at Walmart. We sat on several in the store aisle and tried them out. Our first priority was comfort; our second was that it wouldn’t tip over.

All was bliss on the Erie Canal until the first rainstorm. I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of torrential rain hitting the roof and even worse, a mini Niagara Falls pouring relentlessly through the top of the windowsills. 

Erie Canal
Erie Canal

My husband scrambled outside in nothing but his boxer shorts to push Earendel away from the edge of the dock, where the water was cascading in solid sheets onto the side of the boat. We spent the next hour on our hands and knees with half of the large sponge each and the big bucket. 

The next morning, we took a trip to the local hardware store on our fold-up bikes where David bought strips of aluminium carpet tread which made surprisingly good windowsill coverings. 

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful until the engine broke down and we were left stranded in the lovely little village of Fairport, where I was forced to write my next book. We docked there for a whole week before getting the engine repaired and reluctantly making our way back to North Tonawanda and civilization. 

The three weeks we spent on the Erie Canal were some of the happiest of my life. We were the tiniest boat in sight, a little matchbox of a thing, moored alongside luxury gleaming white yachts that boasted leather interiors and air conditioning for dogs; the only vessel, it seemed, without electricity, a refrigerator or a shower. 

But to me, being on Earendel was a return to a simpler way of life, one where we had everything we needed, one that removed us, just for a time, from materialism, and allowed us to enjoy the beauty and unhurried rhythm of the natural world. 

Or, in the words of Philip Thiel, “When you’re on the water, you’re there.”

We’re delighted to feature Guest Contributor Glenys Nellist. Originally from England, Glenys is a well-known children’s author who lives in Dearborn, Michigan with her husband, David… a pastor by day and a boat-builder by night. Learn more about Glenys and her books at www.glenysnellist.com

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10 thoughts on “Adventures On A Wooden Houseboat On The Erie Canal”

  1. Such a wonderful account of the Nellist maiden voyage! I was sorry to see it end. More please. Adults love stories too!

  2. Hey Glenys, great story! I have to admit to having a little chuckle at the image of you and David bailing out your boat but was equally envious of your days away from it all. Fantastic achievement to successfully build a boat, how proud you must both have been 🙂
    Mel.

  3. Rebecca Sekulich

    I loved reading your story so much! All the way in Los Angeles, makes me miss “home” even more. Thanks for *reeling me back to a more normal time. See you At Christmas 🎄 xo

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10 thoughts on “Adventures On A Wooden Houseboat On The Erie Canal”

  1. Such a wonderful account of the Nellist maiden voyage! I was sorry to see it end. More please. Adults love stories too!

  2. Hey Glenys, great story! I have to admit to having a little chuckle at the image of you and David bailing out your boat but was equally envious of your days away from it all. Fantastic achievement to successfully build a boat, how proud you must both have been 🙂
    Mel.

  3. Rebecca Sekulich

    I loved reading your story so much! All the way in Los Angeles, makes me miss “home” even more. Thanks for *reeling me back to a more normal time. See you At Christmas 🎄 xo

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