3 Ways Boats Get Around Niagara Falls | 8 Things You Should Know

Niagara Falls is a very popular natural tourist destination located on the border between America and Canada.

There are two cities that are distinctly connected to the falls. They are Niagara Falls, Ontario Canada, and Niagara Falls, New York, United States.

Niagara Falls is comprised of three different waterfalls.

These waterfalls are named:

  • The Horseshoe Falls
    Otherwise known as the Canadian Falls. This is the largest of the three waterfalls and is located in Canada.
  • The American Falls
    This is located in the United States.
  • The Bridal Veil Falls
    This is the smallest of the three waterfalls and is located in the United States.

While these are not the tallest waterfall in the world, they do reach a maximum height of just over 176 feet in some sections of the falls.

Niagara Falls is located on the Niagara River which connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

This site has a great history and has one of the oldest surviving United States flags at Old Fort Niagara.

3 Ways Around Niagara Falls For Boats

You have several options when you need to pass Niagara falls with a boat.

These are the three options people use:

1) The Erie Canal

The Erie Canal connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Erie Canal is 363 miles long and was opened in 1825. When it first opened it was considered one of the greatest engineering accomplishments.

The construction of the canal took 8 years. When it was completed the canal was only 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide. It contained 83 locks when it was first constructed.

Today, the Erie Canal was enlarged twice to fit larger and deeper boats. They have also rerouted some areas of the canal. Portions of the canal are still functional today but are mostly used for tourism.

The Erie Canal today is a historic waterway that is preserved and protected.

Commercial traffic declined rapidly in the late ’50s after the St. Lawrence Seaway was completed in 1959.

Because the Erie Canal opened a waterway between New York and the Midwest has been credited with large scale development in both commercial ventures and agriculture.

Resources from the rural Midwest such as wood, minerals, and fur could be transported much more quickly using the Erie Canal that could be accomplished by land. They were also able to transport much more because they were not limited by what could be pulled in a cart.

The Erie Canal was also key in immigration to the underpopulated areas of the Midwest including areas in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.

Still existing today is the Flight of Five locks. These were completed in the early 1840s and are situated along the Erie Canal.

While these do not work currently, they are in the process of being restored to working order.

If you are not familiar with the term, a lock is essentially an elevator for a boat. Locks enable canal travel either uphill or downhill.

A canal is a man-made waterway that often goes around tough rapid and even shallow water. Simply building a canal is not enough, however, because if you simply build a waterway then you could encounter similar rapid water that is exhibited by the natural water body.

To combat this most canals use locks.

A lock essentially acts as a dam for canals and keeps the water from flowing too fast for boats to use. They also allow for boats to raise or lower to different elevations.

This is accomplished by draining or adding water into the lock to raise or lower water levels which in turn will raise or lower the boat.

This is accomplished by water being let into the tub from upstream to raise elevation, and water being let out by the current tub to lower elevation. Once the desired elevation is achieved, the doors open to allow the boat to travel into the next lock or section of the canal.

2) The St. Lawrence Seaway

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway is a continuous waterway connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.

This structure is over 2,300 miles long. The St. Lawrence Seaway portion extends from Montreal to the middle of Lake Erie. This structure includes 15 locks.

This is the current commercial waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes replacing the Erie Canal.

Some important commodities that travel through this seaway include:

  • Iron ore
  • Coal
  • Limestone
  • Grain
  • Cement
  • Salt
  • Stone
  • Other general cargo

The St. Lawrence Seaway also includes the Welland Canal which contains 8 Canadian Locks.

3) The Welland Canal

The Welland Canal was finished in 1829 and is the main route used to pass Niagara Falls. The Welland Canal is a part of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The Welland Canal is 27 miles long and runs mostly North to South.

This Canal consists of 8 different locks. The total lift over the length of the Canal is over 320 feet.

This canal was designed for large and deep vessels. Because this canal was designed for commercial use, if you are a recreational craft you will often be placed at the back of the line to avoid interference with commercial vessels and their routes.

This canal is used for vessels that are too deep or whose masthead heights will not allow them on the Erie Canal.

These canals are also operated using a system that allows each lock to accommodate two boats at once going opposite directions.

Typically this canal closes between December and either late March or early April depending on weather conditions. This is because ice or other winter conditions can become a hazard for shipping as well as navigation.

This canal was updated and constructed over 5 times and is today operating under the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation.

8 Things To Know When When Passing Niagara Falls

If your goal is to sail around Niagara Falls, your best route will be the Welland Canal. This canal passes by the falls and directly connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

This route is used by thousands of watercrafts each year.

If it is your first time going across the Welland Canal, below are some things that you should know.

1) Seasonal Issues To Be Aware Off

As stated above, you will need to know your travel dates. The Welland Canal closes in the off-season. The Canal closes down in December and reopens depending on weather conditions.

This is usually in late March or early April.

This region has highly unpredictable weather, so you will want to check to ensure the canals are functioning before you begin to make the trip.

2) Toll Issues You Should Know

Maintenance costs money. Just like you would pay tolls on roads and bridges to keep up with maintenance, you will have to pay tolls if you plan to pass through the Welland Canal.

The toll levels can vary but be prepared because they are not cheap.

You will need to pay per toll used and the price ranges between $25 and $30 dollars per lock. Prices may vary depending on how your ticket is acquired.

Tickets can be purchased at automatic ticket dispensers using a credit card. You can also purchase a single ticket that gets you through every lock.

Tickets can also be purchased in advance online.

3) Navigation Aids

Navigation aids can be used to help you through the canal system. If you are unfamiliar with the area or how to use these canals there are charts and guides available for download online.

The entrance to the canal is not very obvious to spot. If other boats are in the area they can offer a clue to the entrance but it would be beneficial to know where you are going, just in case.

4) Vessel Size Matters

There are 8 locks in this canal system. The maximum vessel size that can fit through the locks is 740 feet in length. The depth of the channel is 27 feet and the maximum draft allowed is 26 feet.

A draft, also called a draught, is the distance between the waterline and the bottom of your hull. Usually a draft includes the thickness of your hull as well.

There are also bridges that run over the canal. The minimum clearance available is 116.5 feet from the water to the bottom of the bridges.

You will want to ensure that your vessel meets these requirements.

Because this is a commercial canal these requirements are quite large. Most recreational vessels will not come close to these measurements and should have no issue passing through the canal.

One vessel requirement that is more likely to pertain to recreational vessels is that your vessel must be at least 20 feet long to go through the canal.

5) Communication Issues To Know About

While you are traveling you will want to make sure you have the proper communication channels as assigned by the Welland Canal.

These can be found in the Welland Canal informational website.

6) Important Speed Limits

Like a road or other areas of travel, there is a speed limit for canal travel. This is to reduce accidents as well as preserve the integrity of the canal and the locks.

For all water vessels, the speed limit in the canal is 6 knots. A knot is a nautical mile per hour. This translates to about 6.9 miles per hour.

While in the channel this speed limit changes to 8 knots. This is about 9.2 miles per hour.

7) Travel Time To Be Expected

It is hard to exactly pinpoint travel time for the canal. The travel time can change depending on how busy the canal is and what type of vessel you are in.

Commercial vessels are allowed in before recreational vessels so if you are traveling recreationally you will want to be prepared to be put at the end of the line. Depending on how many are in front of you this can greatly change travel time.

The locks only operate at one boat per lock per direction. This means that you will have to wait for each individual boat ahead of you to go through the systems.

The average time for travel through the entire Welland Canal averages around 10 to 11 hours.

The fastest time you can get through this system is about 7 hours. With a lot of traffic, it can take up to 17 hours or sometimes more.

Knowing this you will want to make sure you are patient and well prepared.

There are no places to stop throughout the channel so you will want to have all the gas and supplies you will need to make it through the entire system.

8) Customs You Should Know About

There are Canadian Customs stations located on both sides of the canal.

If you are traveling from a point in the United States to another point in the United States but have to pass through Canadian water you will likely not be required to report your entry into Canada because you will be considered “in transit”.

To be considered “in transit” you must be in a continuous movement that is uninterrupted and does not have any delays or stopovers.

If you are entering Canadian waters for any other reason besides being in transit, you are required to report to Canadian customs.

This includes any foreign vessel that anchors, lands, or moors alongside a dock or other vessel in Canadian waters. This also includes any Canadian vessel that departs from Canada to foreign waters and attempts to return.

Large fines can be charged for vessels that need to but fail to report to Canadian Customs.

Make sure you know if you are exempt or if you are required to report.

How to Prepare for the Trip

There are a few things that you may want to do to prepare for the trip through the canal and the locks.

These preparations include:

  • If you have expensive fenders on your boat you may want to invest in fender covers. This will help decrease the damage that could be caused by the boat jostling in the lock and canals. The bigger your boat, the more likely you will get this type of damage.
  • In place of fender covers, you could also bring 3-4 bumpers. While in the locks you will bump against the sides and theses can help protect the integrity and overall appearance of your boat.
  • You may be required to moor alongside other ships while waiting for your turn in the canal. Because this canal is designed for larger ships the mooring point is very tall. You will want to be sure you have a long mooring rope for the event that you are required to do this.
  • You may also want to consider gloves that will protect your hands while working with ropes while in the canal.
  • You will want to be prepared for the tolls. They generally take credit cards but like any other technology, have been known to fail at times. For this reason, having cash as a back-up is a good idea.

You can check for closures and other canal information at the Welland Canal System “Notice to Mariners”.

Checking this before you go will let you know all that you need before you arrive.

Packing for the Trip

Packing is an important part of preparing to go through the Welland Canal. The trip through the canal can last anywhere from 7 to over 17 hours depending on traffic and other factors.

With nowhere to stop in between, you will want to make sure you have the supplies required to be on your vessel for 17 hours.

Things to pack include:

  • Food and water
  • Sunscreen
  • Warm and cool clothes
  • Weather gear for bad weather
  • A radio that can be used to listen to the instructions given by, or to contact the Welland Seaway operators. If you do not have a radio you will need a cell phone as you need to be able to be contacted.
  • You will want to have the required safety equipment.
    This includes life jackets. They are required to be worn while in the locks due to turbulence that can be experienced. At all other times, you are just required to have them. It is required to have at least one per passenger. You will also want to have all the necessary safety equipment that is required by the coast guard.

When you arrive at the canal there will be a payment/communication booth at the entrance of the canal. The phone will be provided for you to announce yourself.

They will take down the name of your vessel and any contact information. It will be at this time a cell phone number can be provided if you do not have a radio.

To get around Niagara Falls, the Welland Canal is the most up to date and functional option. If you are prepared, this should be a relatively easy option for you.

Just make sure you plan for the travel time you are looking at. It is easy to be in this canal longer than you think and you will want to be sure you are prepared.

If you read this guide and look to the canal’s website you should be prepared to make the trip. Just make sure your boat meets the requirements and you have all the equipment required.

Happy travels!

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