Setting off for a new destination is always exciting. So when an opportunity arose to help deliver a yacht from Ft. Lauderdale to Manitowoc, Wisc., last summer, I jumped on it. And when you are asked by a peer you respect, who also happens to be fluent in French, well, all the better.
There are several ways to reach the Great Lakes. This time was through the St. Lawrence Seaway, and there is definitely some French spoken there.
It is a big trip. There are advantages, such as being close to land in case of weather. And there are disadvantages, such as, well, really none in my book, except that it is about 3400nm. But this is what we do, isn’t it? We take these vessels to beautiful places. Getting there is one of the best parts, at least for captains and crew.
And this trip is filled with everything you can imagine, and some you can’t. Picture FLL to Newport, but on steroids. The scenery is more intense; the water is deeper, clearer and bluer, the cruising is more majestic; the stops are more picturesque. There’s texture here, beautiful, rich texture.
None of us had ever done the trip before, not the captain, myself, another relief captain or the regular crew of mate, stew and chef. And to add a little fun to it, the owner joined us part of the way.
The run to Newport is familiar to many of us so I’ll begin from there. Once departing Newport, it was through the Vineyard to Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia, where we had a fuel truck meet us. We found out that we were the talk of the coffee house, so we waved to the parade of cars coming by to see the big “ship”.
As you round Prince Edward Island and cruise into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, you a suddenly struck by the surroundings. The landscape is tremendous. The water is stunningly clear and clean, filled with dolphin and several types of whales. We were fortunate to see a little bit of everything that kept our minds racing and our vision sharp.
Why don’t more yachts cruise these waters? They offers some of the most gorgeous scenery on this side of the Atlantic. There is so much to see and the Seaway has beautiful, fun and exciting destinations. I look forward to convincing some lucky owner about chartering in these waters. They are untapped beauty in so many ways.
In the Seaway, there are a few rules of which to be mindful. There is absolutely no black water dumping allowed. There are regular call in checkpoints along the Seaway where you report over set VHF channels as you transit. The Canadians take this seriously as even the smallest of maritime accidents can be catastrophic to their shipping trade. Yachts are required to keep their AIS on.
Everything is written in French, so some knowledge of the language is critical. There are tolls for each of the locks, which can be purchased online in advance. Print out each receipt to give to the lock tenders. And you are required to have a pilot for the Welland Canal, and to wear life jackets, though they can be the smaller inflatable, working ones. Check your particular vessel size/tonnage for other pilot requirements.
There are a number of publications helpful in making this trip. We used The Seaway Pleasure Craft Guide, The St Lawrence Seaway Guide, The Seaway Handbook, and the Welland Canal Guide, among others. When you are entering the lakes, you are upbound; downbound is leaving the lakes. The terms don’t refer to north or south. We wrote it on the chart with arrows.
When you arrive into Quebec — especially if you arrive at night, as we did — it is absolutely magical. It’s an old European-style city, its sparkling lights all around, its stone buildings cutting into the sky. If someone just dropped you there, it might take awhile to figure out you were on this side of the Atlantic.
Getting into the city takes some effort, as there is a lock system to get into the marina. They were small locks, not like what’s to come.
From Quebec you cruise by Montreal, which is more metropolitan than Quebec, more governmental, and, in my opinion, less charming. But this is where the interesting part begins: the locks, with Nos. 5, 6 and 7 — the Snell, Eisenhower and Iroquois locks — the most memorable.
The first thing to know is that you cannot enter a lock until you have permission. There is a lighting system outside of each lock. After contacting the lock via VHF, you must wait until you have a green to proceed.
You will be side-to a large wall. They will toss you lines to help guide you during the lift or drop. Do not use the lines to hold you, merely to guide you. Put a stern line across the transom, as you would in docking. Have a boat hook handy and remove your flagpole if possible.
The captain will be holding the yacht close but not on the wall so have large fenders without covers out. We’re going commercial style here and it can get gnarly. Our crew had constant communication telling bow and stern distance off the wall. It was just like docking, over and over again, in a giant Jacuzzi with walls 5-20m high.
A few more locks and you are in Alexandria on the edge of Lake Ontario, the easternmost of the Great Lakes. As you head to Port Weller, directly south of Toronto, double check your charts. If you go slightly left of Port Weller, you would head down Niagara Falls.
Remember that you are still primarily in Canadian waters, so you are still reporting in as required. And don’t forget about pilot requirements. This will continue until you get to Port Weller, which is the entrance to the Welland Canal and locks. If you haven’t already, you will pick up your pilot here. We used a gentleman named Roger, a walking history book of the Welland.
The Welland is the “Big Daddy” of locks. The others were mere precursors for what you are about to experience. Especially locks 4, 5 and 6, which are grouped together. The total rise for those three is 145 feet (44m). Your pilot can request a “slow fill,” and you will want it here.
Commercial vessels take precedence, and the communication is constant, so Roger made sure that we arrived to Port Weller just before another vessel. On my next visit through, we were held here to allow other vessels to transit. This is where the difference in time transiting the Welland comes in.
Once through the Welland, we were technically back in U.S. waters and, as we were headed to Manitowoc, we stayed on the U.S. side. Tell your mobile phone company you will be in U.S. waters close to Canada. The cell towers pick you up and charge accordingly. I picked up a temporary Canadian plan.
It’s only about 200nm through Lake Erie. We proceeded to Grosse Pointe Yacht Club on the south end of Lake St. Claire, where we cleared back in.
For those who have never been up there on a boat, I have one word for you: bugs. They call them “fish flies” because they look like, well, fishing flies. They are everywhere and absolutely nasty. They can make a white boat look gray. They will cover every inch of everything. And they pop when you step on them.
By the time you rinse them off, they have already returned to where you started. Be careful to keep doors closed, even dogged down as they can get in through even the tightest area. We kept the automatic aft door on “sea state”.
We had been forewarned by the dockmaster so we didn’t have too much of a problem. The people there are kind and helpful, and the area is rich in American history. It’s definitely worth a visit.
The next run was through Lake Huron, about 445nm, through the Straits of Mackinac, and into Lake Michigan where we were met by a thick, dense fog, the first we’d encountered on the trip. We travelled in and out of it and finally arrived into sunny Manitowoc on a Sunday afternoon.
The yacht was a Burger so it was like a homecoming, people out with their families on a beautiful day. So many people there have worked in the yard, some even on that yacht. We met a man whose now-4-year-old daughter had just been born when this boat launched.
We were a tired but happy and more experienced crew having completed this journey, a trip many yachties dream of doing but not enough owners will take. I’ll do what I can to spread the word.
Capt. Wendy Umla has worked on large luxury yachts for more than 15 years. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.