Locking Through the Welland Canal

…at a turtle’s pace

“Livin’ the dream,” a woman walking her small dogs by the seawall comments.

I nod back to her from the cockpit of the trimaran. We had just spent an all-nighter traversing the Welland Ship Canal from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie – a 27-mile distance with an altitude gain of 326-feet, nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls.

This passage started at Port Weller where I met my friends James and Jackie. As I was waiting for them, I watched the pilot boat head out to meet the freighters. From there, the pilot climbs aboard the vessel to help them navigate the narrow locks. Clearly, this was serious business. The ships averaged about 740-feet long and 78-feet wide and an experienced pilot was vital to the safe passage, much like in the Panama Canal.  

Watching the ships enter lock #1 at Port Weller

Watching the ships enter lock #1 at Port Weller

Checking in at the phone booth in Port Weller

Checking in at the phone booth in Port Weller

The Canal was built as a solution to moving goods from the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence Seaway and beyond. Today, the canal transports about 3,000 ships and their cargo a year. In fact, pleasure craft are not a priority and typically have to wait until the lockmaster deems it viable for us to traverse the canal. Once we enter, we have to complete it in its entirety in one go.  

On their arrival, James calls the lockmaster from the telephone booth, pays his fees and we’re told to be on stand by for further instructions. It wasn’t until 9:00 p.m. that we got the call – we would be traversing the locks at night.

Having locked through the Erie Canal, the Rideau Waterway and the St. Lawrence Seaway, I am by no means a stranger to the locking process. Each system has it’s own idiosyncrasies, but the methodology is the same: enter the lock and approach the wall when directed, grab the (slimy) rope from the wall at bow and stern, and ensure your vessel isn’t swinging off the wall as the water begins to fill or empty from the locks. A pair of sturdy garden gloves, extra lines, lots of fenders and fender boards (2x4 boards with lines attached to either end to place over the fenders) help the process.

The first two locks were a breeze. We met the locking assistant, Christopher, who would accompany us all the way through to the end of lock 7. Christopher, we quickly found out, was a master of understatement. As we approached lock 3, he suggested that this lock might get “turbulent”. The height of the wall, which averaged about 40-feet, meant that we couldn’t see Christopher above. He would dangle lines for us to hang on to. Jackie would fish them with her boat hook and I would lead one of the lines and start weaving my way past the various halyards on the ketch-rigged trimaran – running the gauntlet of obstacles like the bbq and incongruous deck-levels and trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to avoid getting the line snagged behind the fenders, all the while making sure I don’t wedge myself between the boat and the wall. At night. In the dark.

As the locks begin to fill with the 94.5 million liters of water (21 million Gallons! How many Olympic swimming pools is that?) – the water would boil and bubble from the sides of the lock, tugging and pushing the 50-foot trimaran that clung onto the wall like a barnacle. The sound of the water would boom in the enclosure – sloshing and echoing in a deep cave. The smell of damp-concrete, the dark glistening walls, and the eerie sound in the chamber made it feel like at any moment a sea monster would wrap it’s tentacles around the hull and drag us into the deep – did I mention is was dark?

Exiting the lock - those yellow pillars on the right are an automated suction-lift mooring system. The yellow vacuum pads attach themselves to a ship's hull. The pads will then travel up or down along with the ship, keeping the ship aligned within the lock. We had to use the old-fashioned manual system of hanging on to slippery polypropylene ropes.

Exiting the lock - those yellow pillars on the right are an automated suction-lift mooring system. The yellow vacuum pads attach themselves to a ship's hull. The pads will then travel up or down along with the ship, keeping the ship aligned within the lock. We had to use the old-fashioned manual system of hanging on to slippery polypropylene ropes.

Locks 4 through 6, the flight locks, were a series of 3 locks with a collective height of 139.5-feet. They are a series of twinned locks that allow ships to go up and down simultaneously. By the time we reach the top of the lock, we could only see the top of the bridge on the passing ship. To make this procedure easier, we were instructed to approach the front of the lock this time, which was, theoretically, meant to minimize the impact of the turbulence.

At the exit of the 6th lock, Christopher, in his typical understatement that would strike uncertainly and terror in Jackie and myself, he suggested we tie up to the wall on the starboard side as we exited “so we don’t get sucked in” as the oncoming barge enters the lock. By now, it was 3:30 am, the time of night when you’re eyes and senses start playing tricks on you. We watched as the freighter approached the lock, the momentum propelling it toward the gate. The water swirled and eddied beside us – we did not, however, get sucked in!

Lock 8 fills only about 2-feet to level up with Lake Erie.

Lock 8 fills only about 2-feet to level up with Lake Erie.

We parted ways with Christopher at lock 7 and followed the well-lit channel, making sure to stay well out of the way of any on-coming freighters. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was in the middle of the night and our captain was feeling ‘a bit of virtigo’, this part of the passage may have been pleasant as we passed the pastoral landscape. The last lock didn’t require us to tie up and we dropped our paperwork and receipt into an extended fishing net and hovered as the final lock filled 2-feet, leveling us off with Lake Erie. 

As the sun began to rise and birds began to chatter, we passed under the last lift bridge and tied to the wall at Port Colbourne. After eight and a half hours on the water, a distance that would take me less than an hour to drive, the boat was secured. I promptly hit the bed and fell into a hard sleep. Yup, livin’ the dream.

Here’s a short video of us locking through the Welland Canal. I used my iPhone - it was dark and my hands were kind of full, but I managed to get some footage.