LYONS — It was Saturday morning, Sept. 7 when 74-year-old Fred Cooley was returning from four years at sea, travelling west on the Erie Canal. He was just a few days from his homeport of Buffalo when suddenly, Cooley sent out a MAYDAY distress call.
Cooley had just hit the center support pier of an abandoned railroad bridge (E 97) between Clyde and Lyons. His sailboat, named Boudica, a 38-foot Bavaria Ocean, was suddenly sinking. Cooley and his friend, Dick, quickly grabbed a few supplies, moved onto his nearby dinghy, and quickly “cut the cord” loose from the sinking vessel.
Almost magically, appearing on the scene were Nick and Allison, owner operators of Lockview Marina on Cayuga Lake. They assisted Fred and Dick onto their craft. Nick and Allison “just happened” to be nearby on the canal waters as they returned from Buffalo.
No one was hurt in the accident, but in a few minutes, the sailboat was 99 percent under water. Apparently the boat had scraped a corner of the support pier and then caught an extending railroad rail (iron) used years ago as extra support when the concrete was originally poured. It would take five days to float the sailboat enough to move it from the canal channel and tow it to the Lyons Drydock.
Floating the sailboat was no easy task. Underwater divers repaired the ruptured hole. Divers sawed off the metal rail. Many buoyancy bags were placed under the boat and then inflated. Still, a 15-ton boat full of water is not easy to lift.
Eventually, the salvage crew climbed onto the abandoned railroad bridge far above the submerged boat and dropped a chain with an attached block and tackle. The chain was attached under the bow of the boat, and with effort, it began to rise.
As water was pumped from the submerged boat, and it began to float even more, the salvage crew watched carefully — once a boat begins to float, pumping water from the wrong chambers can cause the sailboat to topple.
As fog began to visit the canal and darkness settled on day five, the boat was slowly towed toward Lyons. The boat, with no working steering mechanism, moved eerily from side to side in the channel. Finally, under “cover” of night, the boat arrived at the Lyons dock for the evening.
“This was the most challenging and most isolated job in my 18 years of salvage and rescue,” Chris Martin, salvage director and diver from Constantia, said as he looked at the floating sailboat.
On Saturday morning, Sept. 14, one week from the initial sinking, the boat was truly raised. At daybreak, a huge crane from Auburn Crane and Rigging arrived at the Canal Corporation Drydock area just below Lock E 28 A. Nick and Allison also arrived, but this time they were driving a huge transport truck. In a few hours, the sailboat was hoisted from the Erie Canal and placed on the Lockview Marina Low-Boy. The boat was secured, the mast was attached, and soon the boat was moving towards its final destination — Buffalo.
The Lyons Fire Department and the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department responded to the initial distress call. During the next week, special support and assistance was provided by the NYS Canal Corporation, under the direction of Dan Craine, Section Superintendent.
In retrospect, no fuel oil was spilled into the canal, no one was hurt, rescue was just a few moments away, and no lives were lost. But, two sailboat crashes into the same pier in 14 days does seem kinda eerie for the Erie Canal.