Getting Through the Welland Canal

It was Friday, and I called Gerry K, and Kenny K to see if they were free and willing to help me progress through the Welland Canal.  Thankfully they both said yes, and we agreed on a Sunday to make the move.

By Credit to the author, CC BY-SA 3.0,


I had done some Intel gathering with regards what would be required to transit the canal.  There are 8 locks in total, numbered from 1-8 starting at Lake Ontario.  Lake Erie is about 99 meters above Lake Ontario, so in order to move shipping form the two Great Lakes, and beyond the locks required for commercial and recreation travel.

After some organizing we met in Hamilton, and my wife dropped us off at the marina, in Port Colbourne.  Here we made preparations to get the boat over to the dock prior to Lock 8. Since there is no reserving your transit time, and the fact that commercial traffic has priority.  In addition you have to purchase your ticket online, or go to the machine, similar to a parking voucher machine, and pay there with a credit card.   I figured that if we were there bright and early we would have a good shot at not only getting spot in the que, but completing the trip to Hamilton in one day.

Gerry, Kenny and I got there and readied the boat. Flashed up the trusty Diesel, and motored around the corner to the dock where we tied off to the dock at about 0800.  We found the phone for the Welland Canal operators.  I picked up the phone and a person answered the phone on the other end. He said I would have to purchase a ticket for the machine, as I intended to do.  However, yet again on this trip, I was left gutted, which seemed to be the theme for this trip.  He said, “Call me back around 1200, and we will see if we can get you in today”.  I was shocked and immediately was kind of panicked.  The only one who had free time for two days was Gerry as he is recently retired, both Kenny and I had to be at work the next day.  I explained this to the person on the other end of the phone line, in calm cool collective way that we have to be at work tomorrow, and really need to get through today.  In a kind, caring and almost accommodating tone he said, “Okay then call me back around 1100, and we will see what we can do then”.  Again, frustration was starting to escalate in my blood, I could not believe it.  I was stunned that we could not get the boat home today.  I knew Kenny and Gerry would not be able to stay.  I remember what a beautiful day, and a great start to the day we had, and now it came to a shitty ending.

At the dock for the Welland Canal

I started to weigh my options as I started to walk away from the phone, immediately raced through my mind as to how I was going to fix this.  Postpone the trip, then cost of a weeks’ worth of dock fees would be costly, I couldn’t do it myself, as the canal authority requires two line handlers down bound, and three up bound.  Ugh what do I do…?  When I got to the fifth step the answer came to me like a bell, well a phone bell, really.


The operator called back on the phone and said there is a tall ship coming out of the canal, and the bridge will go up to let him out.  If I can get under the bridge before it comes down, I can go now. I said thank you and Gerry and I went back to the boat to let Kenny know we need to get into position post haste.  We flashed up the diesel and got into position. As the bridge went up we went under and were now in the Welland Canal.  AHH a little relief for the stress of the morning, it is a great day after all.  Little did I know what was coming up.


We motored up to Lock 8.  Here I completed the paper work, and gave proof of payment for the transit of the canal.  In lock 8 it was a short drop of about 2 feet.  Still kind of cool watching the locks close, and then open and we motored up the canal for almost 14 nm. passing Lakers on the way. 

The river banks and houses, really gave an interesting and unique perspective of the area. As we approached lock 7 we were in radio contact and noticing the lights as an aid to navigating the locks, we had to wait for a green light for us to enter.  Sounds simple, but they were a little difficult to locate at first. Once found we were all good. Here we met two of the canal workers that would guide us almost to the end.  We were chatting and they mentioned that someone had a cruiser that had to spend the night in the canal because they were not able to get all the way through yesterday. I could feel anxiety starting to course through my veins. They give us the anchored poly ropes to pay out as we descend into the cavity that was evacuated by the water.

Once at the bottom they haul up the ropes and the gate opens and we motor on to Lock 6 a distance of about 1.5nm.

As we entered Lock 6 the first of the three flight locks, for us going down bound.  Still feeling good about our progress, and all going well, mostly attributed to what we learned from the previous two locks.  As the lock gate closed, in hind sight it was being locked into a roller coaster that you don’t really want to go on in the first place.  At the time I did not know what was going to happen, thankfully.

We lowered down into depths of Lock 6 no problem, which is until they opened the gate into lock 5. The current was a huge problem for us.  This needs some explanation.

First when using the motor on a sailboat it is much different than a fishing boat, or stern drive.  When you make a turn on a powerboat, usually you turn the propeller and that gives you immediate control and direction.  However, on a boat where a rudder is used to steer. The only way you will have control to turn is if you have flow over the rudder, which means you need to be moving through the water to be able to steer.  So our scenario is that that current and boat were moving in the same direction, and there for we had very little flow over the rudder and struggled to gain control.  This is why a boat going with the current should be given right of way, the boat going against the current actually has better control.

The second complication to this equation is that with locks 7 and 8 we had a lot of distance to cover to the next lock.  This was a huge benefit as the length of travel allowed for the surge from the locks to be absorbed and limit currents, and back currents.  In locks 4, 5, and 6 when the vessel is through the shared gate you were already in the next lock. The surge and lack of propulsion made it very difficult to steer and get close to the wall to get the ropes.

The third thing to keep in mind is that in the flight locks lower over 40 meters.  In addition the flight locks are over 15 meters higher than the Gatun lock in the Panama Canal. Unlike the Panama Canal there is no train pulling you through but you have to do it under vessel power alone.

Therefore, it is easy to see the difficulty of this, so easy I that it did not come up in my research, and I was caught completely by surprise.  The boat was being swung sideways in the canal and was almost out of control. I thought for sure we were going to smash into the concrete walls, or run into the gates. Thankfully, I had two highly skilled people on board.  Kenny and Gerry were a god send, Kenny at the help skill fully maneuvering the boat under horrendous conditions and very tricky currents.  Gerry with quick of mind and hand to get us tied off so that I could get my rope at the stern. The only problem we had to this same thing again. Ugh.

Kenny K, Master helmsman
Gerry K , Master rope handler and sailor


Me still learning the ropes

The canal worker chuckles and said it is worse going up bound and there is more currents. At any rate we made it through the canal.  We could see the sky way and Lake Ontario. We make it through the rest of the locks after the flight locks without a problem.  Now we just need to go under the sky way, and around the corner and we are home!

Our last hurdle of the Welland Canal, then under the Sky way and out into Lake Ontario

Dare I think it… we are almost home!  Nope I shouldn’t have said it or even thought it. Yes more trouble to come….but that will be next week.

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