Built for commercial traffic, the locks are open for you too
By Steven Bull

For any boater there are the bucket list items. Maybe it’s getting behind the wheel of a Nor-Tech, or buying a yacht big enough for the whole family, or maybe it’s exploring a specific body of water.

For me, it’s the Welland Canal. I’m a boater, but I’m also a history nerd. The impact this engineering marvel had on revolutionizing trade in the Great Lakes region has always held a wow factor to me.

Finally, in July, I had the opportunity to take on this epic boating adventure. No, it’s not fast boating and, no, it’s not a fantastically long distance. Nor, truth be told, is there an abundance of stunning scenery. Even still: it’s thrilling.

We set out in windy and choppy conditions from St. Catharines Marina on Lake Ontario at 9am on a Wednesday. After braving the small craft warning and big waves, we made it within the protected mouth of the Welland.

Primarily built for and utilized by large commercial traffic, approximately 4,000 transits carrying 40-million tonnes travel through the canal annually. There are also around 400 recreational boats that make the voyage every year. After all, this is the only way to get between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie without a trailer.

As such, there are systems in place to get you from here to there and it all begins with your check-in at the pleasure boat dock – there is one at each end of the canal. Here you go into a phone booth and pick up the phone. It auto-dials the control centre that will give you your instructions. For us it was about an hour’s wait as there was maintenance being done on one of the locks.

Here, too, you can pay for the transit with credit card ($240 CDN) but a better bet is to pay online before you start because there’s a discount of $5 per lock so your total is only $200. Keep in mind these are one-way fares. The big boys pay a much heftier fee of roughly $1 per tonne, per direction to cover the entire Montreal to Lake Erie seaway system and some carry more than 25,000 tonnes!

The canal operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week from early spring to late fall and there’s no way to reserve a time or plan too far ahead with the traffic. You can see where the big lakers and freighters are in the system to get an idea of what you’re up against by heading to the Seaway Corporation’s website – though it doesn’t include recreational boats.

We lucked out, running into no other vessels until we were nearly done and even then there was just one. At each lock the workers told us that the previous day was so backed up it would have taken us nearly 20 hours to get through. And once you start, there’s no turning back, you have to keep on chugging through, lest you hold up a vital commercial artery of North American trade.

As I eased our boat through the massive doors of Lock 1 there was an unspoken but collective sigh of, “Here goes nothing…” from our entire crew – six in all.

Heading up to Lake Erie means you enter each lock at its lowest point meaning you enter a 766-foot long, 80-foot wide cavernous pit with 50-foot high concrete walls on either side of you and massive doors that look like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie set. In a word: intimidating. Even more so at the double-sized doors of the flight locks.

Cruising in slowly, we kept our eyes peeled for the yellow lines the Seaway workers drop down. As the doors closed behind, I shimmied the boat as close to the wall as possible to grab the lines. Print out the Pleasure Craft Handbook (available on the Seaway website) before you go to read before but also to keep handy. It tells you which side of your boat you’ll be sliding up to the wall so you can have your fenders ready before you enter.

A good tip given to us by the folks at St. Catharines Marina is to loop the lines around a cleat at the bow and the other at the stern but on the far side of your boat. A lot of people – ourselves included – are in such a rush to secure the lines to the boat you just throw it on the cleat near the wall. That gives you no leverage and means it’s hard to keep pulling yourself snug.

Remember too, that you’ll be going up an average of 46 feet per lock and it happens in about 12-15 minutes so you’ll be constantly pulling the lines in. So don’t tie them off, but just loop once and hold so it can slide easily and be thrown off should you get into trouble.

The captain must remain at the controls at all times, both as a rule and as a necessity. As the lock fills, thousands of gallons of water are rushing up underneath your boat and churning and spinning – exactly like water does when you fill up a bathtub. And you’re a little boat in a big bathtub trying to stay in the same spot. We didn’t have the luxury, but bow- and stern-thrusters surely would definitely make the task easier.

Every lock is manned at all times and you need to monitor VHF channel 14 which the Welland Canal uses. And they will radio you and may ask you to radio them – most often approaching Bridge 11 and Lock 8.

The most intimidating locks are also the coolest: the flight locks!

Locks 4, 5 and 6 are all together so as you exit Lock 4 you directly enter Lock 5 and, once again, Lock 5’s “exit doors” serve as Lock 6’s “entrance doors.” It means those locks are the largest climb of your journey, “flying” your boat up over the Niagara escarpment.

They are the only locks that are twinned to keep traffic moving – meaning there is one lane of locks for downbound and one for upbound. Keep to the right and you’ll go in the correct one.

After Lock 7, it’s a 13.7 nautical mile (25.3 km) cruise to Lock 8. It’s nothing like the others. It’s a regulation lock that only raises you up a few feet and you don’t even have to tie up.

Once the doors open you’re done! Cruise on past Port Colborne’s municipal docks – where the call-in and pay points are for your downbound journey – out past the piers into Lake Erie and you’re done!

All in all it took us seven hours from getting the go ahead to pulling out of Lock 8 and heading directly to Sugarloaf Marina in Port Colborne for a well-earned celebratory toast.

Coming back is the same basic concept, just much easier! You cruise into the lock at the same level as the workers handing you the lines. The water drops much more smoothly than it fills – again, the bathtub analogy holds. Still, it’s a long and tiring voyage. Stopping once you’re through for a celebratory “docktail” is about as wise as you can get in my books!
Sixteen locks later, my boating bucket list is one item shorter!


This article is featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Boats&Places.

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Steven Bull is an Associate Producer and Host of PowerBoat Television. He grew up boating on runabouts and PWCs on the lakes around Huntsville, while his wife grew up on cruisers. It only took months after getting married for Steve to adopt that lifestyle. Together, they purchased a Sea Ray 380 Sundancer they keep at the Toronto Islands. A graduate of the University of Windsor’s business school, Steve worked in the front office of OHL and CFL teams before moving to Europe and working as a Ski Guide in the French Alps. He returned to Canada get a Master of Arts in Journalism from Western University (formerly UWO). Steve’s broadcast experience ranges from the BBC World Service in England, to business reporter with NTV in Kenya, and from 2010-2014 as a multi-platform reporter and host with CBC News. In 2014, Steve combined his passion for boating with his skills as a broadcaster by joining Lifestyle Integrated where he contributes to Boats&Places Magazine, BoatTest.ca, BoaterNews.ca, and of course, PowerBoat Television.