Transiting the Welland Canal

To the editor: Exploring Lake Ontario and visiting Toronto by boat was part of an evolving plan to sail all five Great Lakes and their connecting waters in our retirement years. For 10 years, my wife Deb and I had concentrated our Great Lakes sailing in western Lake Erie, the closest “big water” to our home in Cincinnati, Ohio. In late 2007, with retirement on the horizon, we began to think seriously about circumnavigating Lake Ontario during the summer of 2008. The time had come for us to “do the ditch” and go through the Welland Canal.

The Welland is an engineering marvel. Its seven lift locks and one guard lock connect Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, bypassing Niagara Falls. The Welland accommodates a 326-foot vertical change in elevation over approximately 27 statute miles. The canal moves both commercial vessels and larger pleasure craft between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario 24 hours a day from early April until the end of December. The seven lift locks are approximately 860 feet long, 80 feet wide and have 30 feet of water over the sills. Each has a vertical lift of roughly 46 feet. They are concentrated at the Lake Ontario end of the canal over approximately seven and a half miles. The so called “flight locks,” numbers 4, 5 and 6, are compressed into an even smaller space of just 3,000 feet with a vertical lift of 140 feet.

Our trip through the Welland Canal began on an early morning in late June. I watched the big bridge just south of Lock 8 rise slowly. Deb was in her usual spot, at the helm. My sister and brother-in-law, who had joined us a few days earlier, were also on board.

We had checked in with Seaway Welland from the Port Colborne city docks earlier that morning, paid our $200 fee and called canal operations. An hour later we were cleared to begin our passage.

I looked over the port side of La Tasse. The six fenders, covered by two wall boards were secure. Two dock lines, each nearly 70 feet in length, were coiled neatly on the deck. The VHF was tuned to channel 14 &mdash the Seaway Welland working channel. Everyone on board was wearing a life jacket. A marked up and highlighted copy of Seaway Welland’s Pleasure Craft Guide was in the cockpit. So, too, was the Welland Canal chart (Canadian Hydrographic #2042).

I was satisfied with our preparations. Still, I was anxious about what the day would bring. None of us had ever been through a lock; much less on our own boat. We were about to transit, downbound, one of the steepest lock systems in the world.

The gate on Lock 8 closed behind us. We had successfully maneuvered La Tasse into position, responding appropriately to the signal lights marking the various limits of approach. All that prep work seemed to be paying off.

Deb guided La Tasse to the port side lock wall while I searched longingly for directions from the lock tender. To my surprise, he simply instructed that we “hang around in the center.” What, no tie-up? No pressure against the hull? No fending off? Just “hang around in the center!” We were, of course, in the guard lock, Lock 8, whose single purpose is to control the water level entering the canal from Lake Erie. That day, the drop was a very manageable four feet! We were on our way in a matter of minutes and headed to Lock 7, our first lift lock.

Lock 7 is approximately 17 statute miles downbound from Lock 8. It’s actually a pretty trip along the canal route. The area is mostly rural and wooded. The canal is wide and deep. Waterfowl are common. Enjoy the scenery along this route, because once you begin the flight locks there’s not much time for sightseeing!

As we approached Lock 7, we were advised by the Seaway to tie up along the canal wall. The wait would be about an hour, we were told. We pulled alongside the wood covered canal wall south of the lock and soon realized that this would not be an easy tie. There were no docking cleats. The bollards along the seawall were huge, made for freighters, about 20 feet apart and set back from the wall about half that distance. The Welland is a commercial waterway, we reminded ourselves. Pleasure craft are accommodated, but within an environment designed for commercial vessels. This was a lesson we would relearn a number of times. I reached for one of the long lines coiled on the deck and, as Deb brought us along side, I carefully stepped off La Tasse and dragged that long dock line to one of the bollards. I tied us bow and stern, but there was no obvious way to attach spring lines with the lines I had on board.

Thirty minutes later we saw a ship rising from inside the lock. Then, the gates opened and St Marys Cement II emerged. As the freighter cleared the lock and approached our position, I realized that I had made two mistakes. First, we were stern-to against the 2-knot canal current. Second, without spring lines, and with bow and stern lines secured some distance from the wall, there would be no obvious way to hold La Tasse stable against that rough wall when the freighter passed. The turbulence created by the freighter pushing against the current did move us around against the canal wall, but we escaped without damaging La Tasse. Lesson learned!

Once inside Lock 7, we moved toward the starboard side wall approximately half way along its length. The lock tenders were friendly and handed us two 1/2-inch by 55-foot poly lines, one for the bow and one for the stern. The lines were clean and looked almost new. Crewmembers, including me, stationed at the bow, at midships and at the stern all had boat hooks and were ready to fend off. The water started to drain from the lock like water from a big bath tub! Down we went, slipping the lines through onboard cleats along the way. In about 15 minutes we were at the bottom. There was some turbulence and even some noise as the water drained from the lock but all of it was very manageable and much less than expected. By fending off along the way, and using our engine to reposition the boat, we never once touched the wall. The secret we learned was controlling the bow. By keeping the bow six to seven feet off the wall, the stern, where much of the pressure seemed to concentrate, was relatively easy to manage.

It looked strange in that empty 900 foot by 80 foot by 50 foot container. I said a silent prayer hoping that the big door holding back Lake Erie would do its job. It did. The doors to Lock 7 opened and we were on our way to the so-called “flight locks,” Lock 4, 5 and 6.

We reset our wall boards and fenders enroute as the side-by-side locks in that grouping are worked from the center. This process would be completed several times before the day was done. While in the flight locks we were methodical and remained focused on the task at hand. We seldom came into contact with the walls. In the space of about 3,000 feet, we had dropped about 140 feet in elevation. The entire process was complete in about an hour. My anxiety about the process, it seemed, was draining with the water. We headed for the final three locks full of confidence.

As we approached Lock 3, we were advised that there would be another wait as several pleasure craft occupied the lock. This time, and after getting the okay fred we studied the approach each was taking to protect their hull on the upbound journey. All had bear fenders, lots of them, of all shapes and sizes! And, they were dirty; indicating that fending off would be more difficult on the return trip. We entered Lock 3. The lock tender exchanged a friendly greeting, took our canal ticket and handed us the two poly lines. Down we went, easy as pie.

We entered and cleared Lock 2 without incident. As we approached our final Lock, we were again told that there would be a short wait as a freighter was beginning its upbound passage. Again we slowly motored in the canal in lieu of a sea wall tie-up. Shortly afterward, James Norris cleared the Lock and we headed in. Fifteen minutes later, the big doors opened and we were on our way to Port Dalhousie Pier Marina and Lake Ontario.

Our downbound transit time was eight hours, a little better than average, we were told.

Transiting the Welland was an experience, enjoyable in many ways. I’m thankful that we made the downbound trip first as the upbound leg was more challenging. It helped to know the surroundings. The canal tenders were helpful and friendly. They treated us fairly in an environment created for commercial vessels. The work we had done before making the passage, including several careful reviews of the Pleasure Craft Guide, was very helpful. With few exceptions, we made the right decisions. I’d do the Welland again, but only if I had to!

&mdashWilliam T. (Bill) Boehm is a recently retired executive. He and his wife, Debbie, live on a bluff in Wisconsin overlooking Lake Michigan. During the summer of 2008, they completed a 1,000-nm circumnavigation of Lake Ontario starting and ending the trip in Sandusky, Ohio

By Ocean Navigator