The Welland Canal (Upbound)

The Welland Canal is always a challenge, and while we have come down the Canal a few years ago we have always been told that going up is far worse due to turbulence created by the filling of the locks. For this reason they require a minimum of 3 people on board for a pleasure craft to transit the canal. We were fortunate that our good friend Shane was able and willing to help us out. You can see his online journal at FoghornLullaby .com Shane met us in Port Dalhousie where we were awaiting our Sunday start. You are not allowed to stay overnight on the staging dock at Port Weller. You reserve and pay for the transit in advance, on their website. It’s 200 dollars which sounds steep but is really a deal given the thousands of dollars a ship pays to get a lift to Lake Erie. You must then arrive before 9am on the day of transit ready to go.

Our Day on the Welland was, as is often the case, a long one. There were 4 recreational craft to go up that day. When we arrived 2 larger power boats were already waiting on the dock, and we slid in behind them and checked in with the Welland control. Shortly thereafter a small 27 foot CAL sailboat arrived and had significant issues docking. After all the drama unfolded, they explained that two of them did not have any experience and the Captain had only purchased the boat a week ago. Needless to say we were beginning to have concerns about how the day would unfold. Then, shortly thereafter one of the Power Boat Captains came back and explained that he was a very experienced professional who had done the canal multiple times and that the Welland controllers had left it to him to organize the 4 pleasure craft. He said there were only going to be 3 sets of lines, and that the two sailboats would have to raft up in the locks. We explained that with the predicted 30 knot wind gusts and turbulence we had concerns with the two sailboats tangling masts and we would prefer if the two motor boats rafted, or if one of the sailboats rafted with a power boat. He then changed his story immediately and said it was up to the controllers to decide and he was just following their direction. We were concerned enough that I decided to call the control office. I described the situation to the first controller, he transferred me to the local controller in lock 1, and finally he transferred me to the head controller of the canal. When I explained exactly how the last hour had gone, and what my concerns were, he asked me if I would be happy if I rafted with a power boat, or the two power boats rafted. I said either of those options were fine by us, and he said to leave it with him …

Powerboat captain came back about 10 minutes later and informed us that he had been told he would be rafting with the other power boat, and the two sailboats would go in on their own. This was good news for us. We were about to see how good.

There were further delays as the two power boats were Americans and needed to be checked by customs. While this was unfolding the controllers put a couple of freighters through ahead of us. We ended up waiting from 8:30 am arrival until 11:50 am before we got the ok to enter the first lock.

There is a pleasure craft guide you can access online with all the directions for recreational boats. You can find it here. It gives info about locking schedules and procedures, also shows the progression of locks and bridges, what side your fenders should be on depending on the lock and what the light signals mean. Another note here, bring as many fenders as you can, the bigger the better, and if you have a fender board, that really helps for the upbound travel. Thanks Shane for lending us Foggy’s board.

The first three locks we soon learned that the self proclaimed “experienced captain” was very often not in control of his boat, gunning the engines and taking dozens of attempts at catching the lines in the locks. Regular profanity was also heard directed at his crew. It caused significant delay throughout the day, and there was some damage to both powerboats in the process.

In contrast the small sailboat did remarkably well, catching their lines and holding in. They were quick to learn and got better and faster with each lock. We became friendly with them as we waited together outside the locks for the power boats to settle themselves and get the lines together. In the middle section of the 8 locks, there is a flight of 3 locks together (4,5&6) which present a fair challenge. On the second of these locks, one of the guys from the canal who was dropping the lines thought it might be safer if we switched and rafted the two sailboats for the next lock as there were so many issues with the two power boats. He gave this direction, and went back to the office, then he promptly returned and said he was told by the controller to leave things as they were. Perhaps they were enjoying watching the drama on their video screens.

We were told lock 7 was the worst. Its a big step, and exposed to the wind as it’s basically at the top. We were to get a slow fill, to make the turbulence a bit better, but we still found it the biggest challenge of the canal. It took all our strength to keep us off the wall and quite some time to make it to the top. There was one point where a second fill was opened and water came rushing from across the lock where we were literally heaving on the wall with all our strength. The wind did not help much either.

After lock 7 you have 25 km of canal to motor, and lock 8 is a floating lock, meaning you don’t even tie up but just slowly travel through it as it fills. It’s a control lock to control the level of lake Erie as the wind direction can drastically change the water level at the end of the lake. It’s a gift as it’s so easy after the rest of the day. We started motoring from lock 7 at about 7 pm with several hours to go to lock 8. We would be doing 8 in the dark. “Sea Captain” from the power boat dropped two crew at the shore as is permitted after lock 7, and pushed ahead, leaving an intentional wake as he cut across our bow and headed up the canal at a much faster pace. We were hopeful that would be the last we would see from him.

It was soon dark and we noticed that the small sailboat had settled in behind but had no navigation lights. They were damaged in their docking drama at the staging dock, so they put a red headlamp on the forestay and followed us the rest of the evening. We approached lock 8 well after dark, close to 10pm. Wasn’t it poetic justice that the controllers had the power boats waiting for us at the lock, unable to enter for hours until we arrived? They could not have been happy. We slowly passed through the lock, and near the end we were asked by the controller to notify the power boats ahead of us that we needed to get to starboard at the end of the lock as an oncoming freighter would be passing us just before we go through the lift bridge. The Power boats had been chatting on another channel and had forgotten to switch back to 14 so they could not be raised on the VHF by the Welland. We pulled up and notified them and then got over for the Freighter, then under the lift bridge and about 5 more miles to Sugar Loaf Marina.

The approach to the Marina is close to the entrance to Port Colborne, we remembered it from our passage down some years ago with our good friends Rob and Monica on board. Rob is an accomplished instructor and was helping us learn about prop wash in the mouth of sugar loaf harbour. There are some big factory buildings to starboard to go around and then you enter the marina. We noticed some lights waving on one of the docks and headed that direction. After docking we realized that the people on dock were friends of the owner of the CAL 27 that was still following us. They had been waiting all night, and after helping Bill find his way to the dock in the dark we had a celebratory moment at the end of a very long day. I am sure we will see Bill again one day.

As a Bonus, here is a video link that Shane put together.

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