3 Ways To Sail Around Niagara Falls (Helpful Tips)

Niagara Falls is a top-rated natural tourist destination located on the border between America and Canada.

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

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:

Niagara Falls is comprised of three different waterfalls:

  1. The Horseshoe Falls
    • Otherwise known as the Canadian Falls. This is the largest of the three waterfalls and is located in Canada.
  2. The American Falls
    • This is located in the United States.
  3. 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 reach a maximum height of just over 176 feet in some sections of the falls.

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 Hudson River.

From there, it is a two day trip to New York City and out into 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.

The Erie Canal was enlarged twice to accommodate larger and deeper boats. They have also rerouted some of the canals.

The canal is still functional today for pleasure craft and small commercial craft and a tourism attraction, but due to repairs, some of the locks are closed at times during the season (May 15 through October 15).

Be sure to check with www.canals.ny.gov for updates.

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, it has been credited with large-scale development in 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 could also 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 Midwest’s underpopulated areas, including areas in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.

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

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 human-made waterway that often goes around tough rapid and even shallow water. However, simply building a canal is not enough because if you simply build a waterway, you could encounter similar rapid water 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 will raise or lower the boat.

This is accomplished by water being let into the tub from upstream to raise elevation and water 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.

Six things you should know when transiting the Erie Canal:

  1. Check with the New York Canal System website regarding any canal closures, www.canals.ny.gov.
  2. Sailboat masts must come down. At each end, there are boatyards with cranes for this. There is usually quite a pile of discarded wood to make mast support on your deck. Be sure to have a saw, deck screws, and a cordless driver!
  3. Towns along the way welcome boaters. There are often docks with water, electricity, and pump-outs. Many are free or charge a small fee for electricity. You can always walk to a grocery store and a restaurant or two.
  4. Fees range due to boat size. For 2021, the NY Canal system has waived all fees! Check the above website for current information.
  5. Speed limits vary by section of the canal. In general, a 6-knot speed limit is observed.
  6. There is one more lock on the Hudson River after exiting the Erie Canal. Then your mast can be raised.

2) The Trent Severen Canal

The Trent Severen Canal transits from Port Severen, Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, across Ontario to Trenton, near Kingston on Lake Ontario.

This northerly route completely bypasses Lake Erie and Niagra Falls. The canal is 240 miles long and contains 45 locks. Masts must come down on sailboats, and the draft is a maximum of 6 feet.

The Kirkfield Lock is actually a lock chamber that lifts your boat and deposits it up or downstream.

The Big Chute Marine Railway uses a different technology as well. A railway system lifts your boat up and overland before depositing it back in the canal.

The fee to transit the Trent Severen is about $5 per foot of boat length. The canal is open from May 15th through October 15th.

If you want to continue to the Atlantic Ocean, there are several choices. You can continue out the St. Lawrence River or sail south 40 miles from Kingston, Ontario to Oswego, NY. There you can enter the Oswego canal that joins the Erie Canal. Again, the mast must be down for the Erie Canal.

Be sure to spend time in the Thousand Islands area, the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway, starting at Kingston, Ontario.

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. It is about 5 miles west of Niagra Falls and runs parallel.

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 commercial vessels’ interference and routes.

This canal is used for too deep vessels 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 simultaneously, 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 operated under the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation.

8 Things To Know When Transiting the Welland Canal:

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 prices average about $200 for pleasure craft. 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.

Some bridges 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 assigned by the Welland Canal.

You will be instructed on what channel to monitor when entering the system. Canal operators have cameras and will know where you are at all times.

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 pinpoint travel time for the canal exactly.

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 in a pleasure boat, 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 the travel time.

The locks only operate at one boat per lock per direction. This means that you will have to wait for each 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 5 1/2 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 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 must 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

You may want to do a few things to prepare for the trip through the canal and the locks.

These preparations include:

  1. Fender Covers:
    • If you have expensive fenders on your boat, you may want to invest in fender covers. This will help decrease the damage caused by the boat jostling in the lock and canals.
    • The bigger your boat, the more likely you will get this type of damage.
  2. Helping Hands:
    • You will be required to have two adults on board for locking down from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Three adults are required for locking up from Lake Ontario. There are bulletin boards at each end with phone numbers of crew willing to help.
    • Compare this to the four-line handlers and a professional advisor needed for the Panama Canal. And the locks in the Welland Canal are about the same height as the Panama Canal.
  3. Mooring Rope:
    • 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.
  4. Gloves:
    • You may also want to consider gloves that will protect your hands while working with ropes while in the canal.
  5. Tolls:
    • 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:

  1. Food and water
  2. Sunscreen
  3. Warm and cool clothes
  4. Weather gear for bad weather
  5. A radio that can be used to listen to the instructions given by or contact the Welland Seaway operators.
    • If you do not have a radio, you will need a cell phone as you need to be contacted.
  6. 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 canal’s entrance. The phone will be provided for you to announce yourself.

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

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.

“Tumultuous Uproar” Boat Transit 2015:

We sailed out the Great Lakes via a combination of the above routes.

One of our goals was to visit the Thousand Islands area, the St. Lawrence River’s mouth, the east end of Lake Ontario. This is a magical river of castles built in the late 1800s and beautiful pine-covered islands. The Erie Canal bypasses Lake Ontario, right to the Hudson River.

Instead, we sailed across Lake Erie to the Welland Canal. We call the Welland Canal the easy way to go down Niagara Falls without a barrel! It certainly proved to be a nice trip. We had heard horror stories of delays, but we completed the transit in 5 1/2 hours. The cost was about $200. The staff couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful. Only two adults are required to lock downstream.

The canal workers hand you lines neatly coiled for your lockdown. We actually had only three hands available among Lisa and me. Our Jack Russell Terrier, Sophie, insisted on being held the whole time. No problem. Compared to the Panama Canal, this was a breeze. And the locks are a similar size.

We stopped in Rochester, NY, right around the Welland Canal exit corner into Lake Ontario. There was a jetboat ride office there. They told us they were taking a bus up to Niagara Falls to pick up their tourists. Yes, they would give us a free ride to the Falls.

After a few weeks in the majestic Thousand Islands, we sailed 40 miles south to Oswego, NY. The local boatyard removed and lowered our mast for the sum of $300! Not bad for 45 minutes of work. There was a pile of discarded mast supports from boats who raised their mast there. A bit of crude woodworking, and our mast was securely cradled on deck.

We motored south on the Oswego Canal and joined the Erie Canal. We motored for 5 leisurely days on the Erie Canal, visiting the small towns along the way. This is a straightforward route to travel.

The last five locks are the Waterford flight, Five locks in succession. That brought us to the Hudson River. Waterford has a welcome center for boaters along a dock wall. Docking is free, $5/day for electricity. Most enjoyable was to walk up the hill and watch other boats transit the Waterford flight.

The operator even let me lock a boat through, following his instructions. These locking stations are museums as well as functional equipment.

One more lock on the Hudson River, and we were able to raise our mast. One option for this is the Castleton Boat Club. This is a small club that lets you use their crane to raise your mast, DIY, for $60. The members get to sit up at the club, drink beer and watch.

I asked one member, “You have to have some good stories.”

He said, “One Canadian boat was returning after 14 years in the Caribbean. Their mast was so corroded in the mast step they couldn’t get it to lose. They practically lifted the whole boat with the crane. They were banging on it with hammers and heating it with torches.

Finally, the owner said, “This will be the next owner’s problem.” He grabbed a saw and sawed his mast off at the deck!

We had no such trouble with Uproar’s mast. She felt whole again with mast up as we sailed down the Hudson River to New York City.

Popeye Whitford

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