Going between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario requires a trip through the Welland Canal. For our trip through the Welland, we were joined by Howard and Kerri-Ann who had purchased the first Gaviidae from us. For our down bound trip, we only needed two people, but they are both very capable sailors and are always eager to help, especially when it involves something new. Transiting the Welland was going to be a first for all of us.
I paid our $200 reservation fee for a July 28 transit. The next task was to learn as much as possible in advance of the trip. The first challenge was figuring out where we needed to have the boat to start the trek and what time. Our friends on SV Komeekha had made the trip through the Welland earlier in the summer and they conveniently included critical details in their blog: 7:00AM at the Port Colborne City Docks.
The information on the Welland Canal is in a Seaway Guide that includes the entire St. Lawrence Seaway. And the detail is co-mingled, so it’s a bit challenging until you figure out that any reference to the “American locks” is to the section on the eastern side of Lake Ontario.
For convenience, I printed out just the pages that dealt with the Welland. The entire crew reviewed the material the night before and highlighted key points. Our trip through the canal would include 3 bridges and 8 locks – piece of cake compared to the Erie Canal which we transited in 2017!
We prepped the boat by removing the fleece fender covers and replacing them with giant t-shirts from a thrift store. Gaviidae looked quite fetching sporting her red, black, and blue fender covers!
Welland Canal Transit Changes
The Welland Canal restricts which days recreational boaters can transit the locks. Down bound (Lake Erie to Lake Ontario) recreational boats can only transit on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday. Upbound traffic is restricted to Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. If you miss your reservation, you must wait until the next scheduled day.
The Last Supper
Howard loves scallops, so Dan included those as the highlight of our dinner the night before the trip through the Canal. And since Howard, Kerri-Ann, and I did a provisioning run after they arrived in Port Colborne – dinner was a tad on the late side. Maybe not the best planning when an O-Dark-Thirty wake-up time was scheduled. But the food and wine were great, the company excellent, and we all went to sleep with happy tummies.
Like a tight, military regimen our alarms all went off at 0530. We cast off at 0615 and arrived at the City Dock at 0630. Our first communication with Welland Seaway Control was about fifteen minutes later informing us our passage would start at 0700. That was the last of the precise schedule – we went under Bridge 21 at 0730. Then we ended up waiting in Lock 8 for another boat to catch up as they missed the bridge opening.
The First Lock
All the boats that start out at Lock 8 continue through together for the duration. Lock 8 is a weird lock – they call it a “leveling lock” and the distance you go up/down varies on the water levels. There is no tie-up, you just hover in the middle. So, our group of two sailboats and one powerboat did just that – hovered while we dropped about 4 feet.
We exited Lock 8 with no issues and headed down the canal. It is 10 nautical miles to Bridge 11 and another 3 to Lock 7. The scenery is relatively undeveloped, and we had a pleasant ride down the canal listening to the occasional chatter on the VHF as the commercial vessels ahead and behind conversed with the Seaway Control.
Around 9:30AM, a squall front went through right at a very narrow section of the canal. Of course, this was also when we had the Algoma Transport (big laker) coming towards us. With Howard at the bow trying to watch for rocks along the shoreline, I pulled over as far as I could to give way to the massive ship. At points, I could just barely see Howard through the driving rain. This was certainly the closest we had ever come to a moving freighter but it’s massive size did block the gusts from the squall!
The Buddy System
We cleared under Bridge 11 and Lock 7 without major issue but we were happy that we had three people to fend off the side of lock wall with the trusty 2×2’s that Howard had brought along.
At the top of Lock 7, we had to wait for commercial vessel Redhead to exit the locks ahead of us. We were also informed by our lock handlers that for the remainder of the locks, the second sailboat would be rafted to us. There was a page in the materials that mentioned this, but since there were only three boats, I did not think this would happen. Wrong assumption! In addition to having a “buddy boat”, the two lock handlers assisted us the entire length of the canal. Fortunately, they were both very nice and did their best to keep us informed of upcoming traffic.
The next set of locks we encountered is called a Flight as you move from one lock immediately into the next. We moved forward into Lock 6 and the smaller sailboat pulled up alongside. Fortunately for us, they had an abundance of fenders. To protect both boats, we insisted on tying the boats together at the bow, stern and spring lines at mid-ships to keep our masts a safe distance from each other.
Each lock on the Welland Canal drops/raises a vessel between 43 to 49 feet. The flight locks together, dropped us approximately 150 feet as we transited Locks 6, 5, and 4. With such great drops, I had a hard time holding the line at the stern of the boat. Dan and I switched positions with him on the stern line and me at the helm. A crew member from the rafted boat came over and also assisted. He had a great deal of experience, and he gave us a few tips that made the downward transition easier. I can’t imagine doing the transit with only two people, especially if you had to raft up!
Moving between Lock 6 and Lock 5, we opted to keep the boats rafted as it was a short distance. We had prior experience hip-towing a boat over 10 nautical miles so we and were confident we could move both boats without issue.
As I moved the two boats forward, the back end of the boat was suddenly sucked sideways to port! The crew scrambled back into position to fend off the lock wall. It was a few moments of chaos and fortunately only the front of the dinghy got smacked. We decided at that point the two boats would separate between each lock.
In researching later what had happened, I learned that the commercial ships now have a Hands Free Mooring system where there are large vacuums that attach to the commercial vessels and hold them in place in the locks. The orange contraptions in the image are the vacuums. I’m not sure whether one of the vacuums was still partially engaged as we went by or whether the turbulence was residual. Regardless, the stern of the boat was pulled to port in a manner that was highly unusual.
Photo: The Hands Free Mooring system used by commercial vessels, courtesy of GreatLakes-Seaway.com.
End of the Welland
Once through the Flight Locks, the remainder of the trek through the Welland went fairly well. With each lock, we got a little bit better with our approach, descent, and departure. We learned that taking the line from the attendant and running it through the fixed chock and cleat on the stern worked much better than trying to hold it around a winch.
After the near-disaster in the Flight Locks, there were no further close calls as I maneuvered Gaviidae into and out of the locks. We exited the canal onto Lake Ontario at 4:15PM, ten hours after we started and happy to have the Welland Canal adventure behind us. A big thank you to Howard and Kerri-Ann!
July 28, 2022 Port Colborne ON to Port Dalhousie ON 28.24 Nautical Miles 43°12.323’N 079°15.795’W 536.59 Total Nautical Miles