The Welland Canal provides a mast up, deep draft, link between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, by passing the Niagara Falls in the process.
The canal is primarily used by large commercial vessels transiting between the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence Seaway but pleasure craft are able to use it subject to paying the 240 dollar (2016 prices) one way transit fee. However, commercial vessels are always given priority and whilst it is possible to transit the entire canal and its 8 locks in 6-7 hours, it can also take 18 hours or more if there is heavy commercial traffic.
Overnight stopping in the canal is not permitted and whilst the canal staff will make every effort to get pleasure craft through in daylight hours this is not always possible. In 3 transits we have only completed it in daylight once, the other 2 times we started at first light and didn't complete it until around 0300 the following morning. If for no other reason than this, a Welland canal transit can be a mentally and physically exhausting experience which should not be underestimated.
The following should be noted for cruise planning purposes:
- a minimum of 3 adults must be on board when heading upstream (Lake Ontario to Lake Erie), only 2 are required if going downstream.
- the locks are massive and although the walls are relatively smooth there is significant turbulence when ascending. It would be a wise precaution to purchase large additional balloon type fenders before the transit. 2 snatch blocks are also useful so that the fore and aft lines thrown down from the lock sides can be led through these snatch blocks to a winch and controlled from there. Trying to hold and control the lines by hand is close to impossible when ascending.
- if you don't meet the minimum crew requirements for the transit it may be possible to "buddy up" with another vessel and share crew. i.e you provide the crew for them to transit the canal and the next day they give you crew for your transit or vice versa. Alternatively it is possible to arrange for "paid" crew to help with a transit and the pilot's office at the end of the canal may be able to give you some useful telephone numbers. However, both of these take some time to arrange and if you will need either of these then you need to add a couple of days contingency planning into your itinerary.
- irrespective of the above, if your schedule allows then you may wish to wait until 2 or 3 craft of similar size and type are ready to transit the canal as the lock keepers will raft craft of similar sizes together for the ascent/descent and only the innermost craft of the raft has to tend the fixed shore lines that will be thrown down by the lock staff. This means that the task of handling the lines at each lock can be rotated between the craft in the convoy, which makes it a less tiring process for all concerned.
- If transiting southbound (upstream) there is a pleasure craft waiting station at the northern end of the canal where you can tie up overnight prior to a transit the following day. However, it is not a particularly pleasant place to stop. There are no facilities, it is often very hot, airless and stifling, and the biting insects are voracious. Port Dalhousie a few miles to the west, or Niagara on the Lake 6 miles to the east are both much better options for an overnight stop prior to the transit. The mole Marina blistered onto the outside of the Port Weller Harbour breakwater is too shoal for anything other than extremely shallow draft sailing vessels. If transiting northbound then you have the option of either staying in the Sugarloaf Marina at Port Colbourne, or on the waiting pontoon at the start of the canal. The latter is closer to the town of Port Colbourne but exposed to swell from the south.
An alternative to the Welland Canal is to use the New York Canal system between Oswego on Lake Ontario and Buffalo on Lake Erie. However, this is a mast down route and whilst the New York System canal is well maintained and dredged between the Hudson River and Oswego, the section between Oswego and Buffalo has a reputation for being less so and may not always be passable.