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The Cape Cod Canal

Though the waters of the Cape Cod Canal appear placid in the shot above, this waterway can occasionally show a vicious side to unwary mariners, particularly at its entrances.
Imagine gliding atop silky, morning-gray waters. A fairyland of small cottages lies to starboard, where fathers and small children cast fishing lines to catch breakfast. To port, joggers and bikers roll along, as if racing the rising sun. The scene makes it hard to believe that this "lazy river" is the Cape Cod Canal, one of the more challenging passages on the East Coast.

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.

Measuring just 540 feet from side to side, the Cape Cod Canal can pose a challenge for cruising sailors who choose to transit it during the busiest times.
Because of those statistics, I’d recommend that mariners avoid passing through The Canal on summer weekends and holidays when gangs of powerboats vie for passage space and whip even calm waters into a froth of wakes. All of this despite the posted 10 mph speed limit in the canal and rules stating "no excessive wake." Mariners transiting the Canal customarily use VHF Channel 13 for contacting bridge and canal personnel, so keep your marine radio tuned to that channel throughout your passage. Commercial vessels—barges and tankers mostly—always have the right of way as they have limited maneuverability, so be sure to give a courtesy call on VHF 16 or 13 before scooting ahead of one.

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.

When the wind is up, the seas at either end of the Cape Cod Canal can be steep and unforgiving.
You will need to consult tide tables for both the Boston and Buzzard’s Bay areas, as there is a five-and-a-half-foot difference in tides between the east (Boston) and the west (Buzzards Bay) ends of The Canal. The mean tidal range for Boston is just over nine feet. The canal floods from east to west; the flood starts four hours after high water at Boston and ebbs four hours after low water in Boston. The most detailed reference is the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book, but you’ll also find information in the Reed’s Nautical Almanac for the East Coast. Tides change from year to year, so use only current copies of these.

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."
During our early sailing years, when we were young and clueless, I learned the importance of traveling the Cape Cod Canal with the current or at slack tide. We once misread the tide charts and, having never experienced a canal, thought it was funny when friends waving goodbye walked faster than we could motor. Little did we know that there is a canal edict that states, "Vessels of any kind unable to transit the canal within two and a half hours must use a helper tug or wait for a fair current before requesting clearance from Marine Traffic Control." Thankfully, it was a quiet day on the canal and we ducked a reprimand, because it took us the better part of the day to reach the exit at Buzzards Bay.

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.

Viewed from a satellite perspective, the Canal is almost visible, running west from Sandwich in Cape Cod Bay to Wareham in Buzzards Bay.
One afternoon, our flotilla was returning from a trip to Maine. We killed time by racing each other to the Canal, enjoying some lively winds as we made our approach. The fun came to a halt once we dropped sails and turned into The Canal to find 30 plus knots of wind smacking us full in the face. We jumped wave after wave, as if breaking in a bucking bronco, until we were flushed out into Buzzards Bay for more of the same. Naturally feisty, Buzzards Bay can get downright nasty when the canal is flooding and the winds are up.

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.

Suggested Reading:

Transiting the Panama Canal by Mark Matthews

Rounding Cape Hatteras
by John Kretschmer

Cruising the ICW by Sue & Larry


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