News & Events for General

Choosing Your Great Loop Route - Atlantic to Great Lakes

Date Posted: 2014-06-18
Source: Cruising Contributor

While planning a trip from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes is not as challenging as the Lewis and Clark expedition, a certain amount of planning is a good idea.  Some things to consider in your planning are: how much time you want to take for the journey, how many hours you want to travel each day, how comfortable you are traveling on the open ocean, and what is the minimum clearance your boat needs to pass under bridges. 

The longest route traveling from the south is along the northeast Atlantic coast sailing past the spectacular sites of Nova Scotia. On arriving at this famed seagoing area of the world, you will then enter the Saint Lawrence Seaway north of Quebec, Canada, and follow the Seaway directly to Lake Ontario. The enticements to take this route are that you would view the beautiful sites of the New England coast topped off by the quaint ruggedness of Nova Scotia and be able to visit the old city of Quebec and bustling Montreal. However, following this “Down East” route will also add additional time to the trip compared to other options, as well as more days on the open and unpredictable Atlantic Ocean.

A second route will take you though New York Harbor and along the Hudson River to Waterford, New York, where you will continue north through the Champlain Canal into Lake Champlain and on to the Saint Lawrence Seaway eventually arriving in Lake Ontario. Traveling through this area is scenic and filled with early American history.  Although this route is considerably shorter than the Atlantic one, some of the bridges are charted as low as 17’ – be aware!

The third route will take you up the Hudson River again to Waterford, New York, but this time you will turn west through the 363-mile Erie Canal across New York State to Buffalo, New York, on Lake Erie.  Although traveling the full length of the historical waterway is scenic and educational, the route has two problems: There are bridges on the western half of the canal charted as low as 15’ and you will exit the canal in Lake Erie, not Lake Ontario.  If you wish to continue your Great Loop journey through the Trent-Severn Waterway, you want to enter the Great Lakes in Lake Ontario, not Lake Erie.

The fourth option follows the Erie Canal about halfway across New York State into the Oswego Canal that leads directly to Lake Ontario. Although we were told the minimum bridge clearance on eastern half of the Erie Canal was about 21’ 6” We found out the hard way (by hitting a bridge with our anchor light) that the minimum clearance is actually just over 20’.  It is advisable that before traveling through any on the New York State Canals you check bridge heights with the Canal Authority at or by calling 800 422 1825.

The above is an excerpt from “The Great Loop Experience from Concept to Completion (A Practical Guide for Planning, Preparing, and Executing Your Great Loop Adventure)” by Captain George and Pat Hospodar, who also wrote “Reflection on America’s Great Loop” published by the Atlantic Publishing Group.

  • Comment submitted by Thomas Hartnett - Sun, Dec 6th

    Any height restrictions on the the longest route traveling from the south is along the northeast Atlantic coast sailing past the spectacular sites of Nova Scotia?


  • Comment submitted by Dylan J Bennett - Sun, Mar 28th

    Not low enough that it should be of any issue for 99% of leisure craft (including sailing vessels), the St. Lawrence seaway is a full deep-water class comercial waterway, with its own vessel class: Seawaymax (as [New] Panamax is to the Panama Canal and Souezmax is to the Souez; i.e. the largest vessel dimensions that can navigate via the given waterway). A Seawaymax vessel may navigate all wayerways from the North Atlantic as far as Deluth, MN.

    The specs for Seawaymax are:

    Air Draft (Height above waterlevel): 35.5M (116ft)

    Draft:7.92M-8.08M (25ft 11.8in - 26ft 6.1in) *Multiple sources differ on this.

    Length: 225.6M (740ft)

    Beam: 23.8M (78ft)

    Note:This is the bounding box for the maximum sized vessels that are able to traverse the St. Lawrence Seaway Locks. Stretches before, between, and after the locks are therefore able to support even larger vessels (although, in the case of a larger vessel between two locks, it would obviously be trapped). Furthermore, Lake Freighters: vessels which only travel within the Great Lakes Waterway, are often built larger than this, but therefore are contained within the lakes. There is no specific spec for Lake Freighters, as the ships are generally purpose built to either remain within a single Lake, or move between a specific subset of Lakes, and because, since the St. Lawrence Seaway has tighter bounds than the entirety of the Great Lakes Waterway, the vessel is intended to remain waterlocked within the Lake system.


    SO TO ANSWER YOUR QUESTION: 35.5 Meters / 116 Feet would be the height restriction (from water level to top of mast [or bridge, antennae, etc.])


    This is obviously a nominal height, extrapolated from the upper quartile of yearly maximum recorded water levels, rather than the absolute. Since we are dealing with an inland waterway, particularly a northern waterway which is highly influenced by seasonal snow-melt, during certain seasons, the actual clearances in some areas are likely a few to several feet higher. In addition, during extreme periods of flooding (usually caused by rapid snow-melt in conjunction with unusually high rainfall), it is possible that actual clearance could be reduced by a few feet. However, this would be extremely rare (like once in a century, rare). The maximum height for spec is a fair amount lower than actual, since many shipping lines will build their vessels to the outer bounds of the spec in order to increase efficiency.

    On a side note, one thing to consider when taking this waterway, is that it is a heavily trafficked comercial canalway. Comercial vessels have almost always possess right-of-way over private vessels, in all but a very few select circumstances, so the normal right-of-way rules will not always apply, and a tanker will often not even attempt to stop or maneuver out of your way if you are within its lane, so it can be a stressful journey. Comercial vessels also have priority when it comes to using the locks and the bridges. Those vessels are usually on a pre-determined schedule, and as they are often built to maximum dimensions, it means that you're often not going to fit behind one within a lock (depending on the size of your vessel; If you can fit, you'll likely need to pull in sideways and tie up to the ship, something that can delay schedules and often is not allowed). That means waiting until there happens to be a break in the schedule, sometimes hours before you get your turn, or going during an off-peak season when there are alloted slots for smaller vessels. The same goes for bridges, as they will only open for pre-determined amounts of time, usually just long enough for a ship to pass. Anchorages can be difficult to find as well, as the few that exist are generally reserved for comercial traffic- however, there are plenty of overnight docks (but expect to pay nearly what a hotel would cost, especially if you want dock power and water or pump-out). Finally, I assume anyone taking this route would go in the summer, but for anyone thinking about doing it in wintertime, while it may be possible with a steel hulled vessel, the ice can build up thick, and even with regular ice-breaking, the flows can be dangerous- large and thick enough to crack a fiberglass hull if you're going over 3 Knots, and enough to destroy Gel-Coat at any speed. Ice can form as early as October (although usually Nov/Dec), and may still be present into late May or even June in some spots (but it is usually gone by mid-May).


    Best of Luck!


    **Of another note: The Champlain Canal is only open to non-Comercial traffic between Memorial and Labor day, and has a minimum depth of around 6ft. I spoke with a lock operator when planning a trip a few years ago, and he recommended against taking any fixed hull sailboats up it (so only a centerboard). Would also need to take the mast down.

    ***I may be mistaken, but last I checked, the Western Erie Canal was no longer in continous operation (i.e. some of the locks no longer function, and only sections of it are open). About 15 years ago, I drove past some sections that had been completely drained as well, although I believe that was for repairs. So make sure to check that. I can't see bringing a fixed hull sailboat or one with any mast (besides maybe a sunfish) down the Eirie either. I know for a fact that certain lift bridges on the Western section are no longer functioning.

  • Comment submitted by Laurie Tarkey - Thu, Apr 1st

    I can't seem to find any info on going from the Oswego canal to Lake Ontario, through the Wellan canal to Lake Erie to cleveland.  Our boat is too tall to go all the way through the Erie canal.   Any help appreciated!

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