Downbound (the Welland Canal)

After three nights at anchor enjoying the beauty of Pelee Island, the strong northeasterly winds finally blew themselves out and we woke on the morning of July 11 to find the wind and waves blowing into our anchorage from the southeast. It was time to move on.

The Great Lakes offer much more than can be seen in a single summer, and so we knew when we were planning our route this year that there would be great spots we had to skip as we made choices on where to spend our time. As we prioritized our time, one choice we made was to make Pelee Island our only real stop on Lake Erie. Lake Erie’s geography influenced this decision… adding even one more stop would mean adding days, as the ports like Port Stanley on the Canadian shore are a long way north of the rhumb line down the lake, and crossing the border to US stops like Cleveland or Erie would really need more than an overnight stay. The prevailing winds blow straight down the lake from southwest to northeast, making it an obvious place to put in a long sail with a cooperative weather window.

From Pelee Island to Port Colborne, at the east end of Lake Erie and the entrance to the Welland Canal is 170 nautical miles. For planning purposes we usually assume we can average a speed of 5 knots, up to 6 with good wind and less if the wind is light and we don’t motor. Do the math and we had a 28 to 36 hour sail ahead of us, so we set our alarm early and were out of the anchorage by 7 a.m. aiming to arrive in Port Colborne early in the afternoon the next day. The sail during the day was uneventful as we sailed down the lake with a nice tailwind, wing on wing. As the evening came on the wind had built up towards 20 knots, but the forecast was still for 15-20 knots at most through the night, so we put in a reef in the main and started into our watch rotation.

Come midnight and the end of Glenda’s first watch we were glad to have put in that reef, as the winds were steady at 20 knots and the seas building. By 3 a.m. the winds were into the low 20s and we had furled in a lot of the genoa. We watched squalls with lightning (and rain on the radar) pass south and north of us, and listened on the VHF as Environment Canada issued squall warnings for just about everywhere else (Lake St. Clair, Lake Ontario, Georgian Bay, etc.). Unnerving for sure, but never really close. Despite the reduced sail, Innisfree was humming along comfortably at over 6 knots and there were still some stars in the sky. Instead of going below as I came off shift, I decided to curl up in a corner of the cockpit and catnap. At 4 a.m. the winds were 25 knots gusting to 30+ and we reduced sail again: second reef in the main and the genoa furled away, replaced with a partially-furled jib. Surfing down the now ~3 meter waves, we were pushing our average speed towards 7 knots. I felt pretty proud of our boat… the conditions were rough (Lake Erie is shallow and the waves were close together and pretty steep), but Innisfree tracked well and never felt strained. Not long after dawn we rounded Long Point and found some welcome relief from the waves, making the last few hours into Port Colborne a lot more comfortable.

Morning after… tired but happy

In Port Colborne we had a great visit from Glenda’s good friend from UBC, George, and his wife I-San. We stocked up on provisions, and the next day my friend / university roommate / best man Aaron and his wife Kelly joined us for the journey to Toronto.

The trip from Lake Huron down to Lake Erie is pretty straightforward… the St. Clair and Detroit rivers are navigable, pretty wide, and the currents gentle. The same is not true for the trip from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, where the Niagara river descends, crashing down the largest waterfall in the world, Niagara Falls. To get around Niagara Falls, ships take the Welland Canal. Well, these days they take the 4th Welland Canal. The first one was completed in 1829 and followed a much more circuitous route. Upgrades over the years made the path more direct and the advent of the St. Lawrence Seaway have increased capacity to the present canal route, in service since 1973. This is a canal designed for commercial shipping, not pleasurecraft (and rightfully so considering the economic importance of the route). Pleasurecraft are not the priority and the seaway is pretty clear about that. Nonetheless, our experience was great, and as long as you pay attention to the radio and the signals, it’s not hard to navige through. The seaway schedules two days each week for downbound passage, so we made our reservation and showed up on schedule at the entrance dock, where seaway control quickly moved ourselves, a powerboat and another sailboat into the canal.

There are 8 locks along the 26 miles of the canal, and these locks are big! We were met by two canal staff at the first big lock. They handed us lines and stayed with our group the whole day. Descending through the locks was pretty easy: pull into the lock and take the lines, then ease them out and fend off the rough walls as the water level drops. In the first lock we were on the wall, but after that we rafted (tied on) to the other sailboat, so not much to do but enjoy the ride! Going upbound is apparently a lot more difficult as the water currents swirl strongly as they fill the locks, and I could imagine how winds could become problematic as well, though we luckily had a calm day. In total, we dropped nearly 100 meters down from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, and sitting in the bottom of the locks looking up at walls about the same height as our mast certainly makes one feel small.

Once you start down the canal, you can’t stop partway along: passage through has to be done in a day, even if it’s a long one. It was great to have the extra hands and company of Aaron and Kelly along for the trip! And so about twelve hours after we’d pulled into the canal in Port Colborne, we emerged out the other end into Lake Ontario, rounded the corner and motored a short way to Port Dalhousie before setting out in search of cold beer and tasty pizza for dinner.