The Cape Cod Canal, a 17.5-mile-long "ditch" that marries Buzzards Bay in the south to Cape Cod Bay in the north, is exposed to erratic tidal ranges, sea surges, and opposing winds—giving it the personality of a psychopath. Boaters have put up with its moods since 1697, when it was privately built to shorten and simplify the shipping route between New York and Boston. It was likely one of the first canals in America thanks to Miles Standish, who originally conceived the concept of this waterway. But the original canal was so winding and tedious to navigate that mariners shunned it, until the federal government took over and remodeled it into the straight, safe passage that it remains today. At 540 feet wide, the Cape Cod Canal is perhaps the widest in the nation, and it measures 32 feet deep. The approach channels at each end are almost five miles long, and a breakwater protects the entrance in Cape Cod Bay.
Vacationing boaters find the Cape Cod Canal a handy way to access harbors throughout Cape Cod, the beach-lined Massachusetts and Rhode Island coasts, and Maine. But if you’re planning a trip through the canal, keep in mind that this route is a major thoroughfare, frequented by more than 23,000 commercial vessels and pleasure boaters each year.
Veteran mariners of this region know to steer clear of the Cape Cod Canal when it’s cranky. I heartily recommend that you do your homework and bide your time until the tides are running with you. Sailors should never underestimate the impact of the tides. High tides flood additional water through narrow areas, increasing the speed of the current. Additionally, wave height and wind velocity and direction will also affect the rate water flows through a narrow passage like the Cape Cod Canal. When the seas are up, you can expect The Cape Cod Canal to be a maelstrom of steep chop as extra water fights to pass through.
To sidestep the unexpected, keep abreast of the weather and sea conditions for the Cape Cod area via NOAA reports, or other reputable marine weather services. If you have Internet access, also see the Cape Cod Canal Region Chamber of Commerce website for tide information and storm surge predictions. The Buzzards Bay homepage has an interactive tidal chart for the west entrance.
The current that runs through the Canal is at least four and a half knots, but averages six knots, which means small auxiliary sailboats should really not attempt to pass through when the current is running against them; especially if the vessel happens to be underpowered. Sailing is not permitted in the Cape Cod Canal, and vessels going with the current have right-of-way. And, if you have a large boat, 65 feet or larger, you’ll need the approval of the canal dispatcher to transit against opposing boat traffic.
|"We thought it was funny when we discovered that friends waving goodbye were walking faster than we could motor through the surging tide."|
The tides may be higher on the Boston side of The Canal, but the winds are stronger in the Buzzards Bay area, which is a popular sailing ground. The prevailing wind here is southeast, and it’s common for winds to build to 25 knots in the afternoon and subside at sunset, which explains why we’ve always found the canal at its calmest early in the day.
Tides and time, as the saying goes, wait for no man, and it’s best to know about some of the nearby layover spots that you can pull into while you wait for better tide to transit the Canal. Coming from Boston, you might want to seek a berth just inside the Canal at Sandwich. On the Buzzards Bay side, we like to stay at Onset, a harbor that sits just above The Canal and away from the tide rush. Pocassett or Redbrook Harbors are just below the Canal on the north side of Buzzards Bay, and Marion, a lovely sailing community recessed within a deep tributary, is across the way.
When you are ready to take on the Cape Cod Canal, remember that preparedness and patience are the keys to a speedy, comfortable passage. Check current tide tables; listen carefully to the marine weather reports; and wait until the time is right. Should you catch the Canal in a kindly mood and wonder what all this fuss was about, don’t be fooled. The Cape Cod Canal can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Cruising the ICW by Sue & Larry
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