The Cape Cod Canal (CCC) offers a deep draft, sea level, navigable passage running between Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts. For vessels sailing coastwise along the New England coast, the canal can provide a savings of as much as 117 NM for those who previously had to skirt Nantucket Shoals to the south.
The Cape Cod Canal is heavily used by both commercial marine interests and pleasure boaters with nearly 20,000 vessels making use of the canal each year.
The general axis of the Cape Cod Canal is WSW to ENE between Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay with passage through the canal generally referred to as either east bound or west bound.
The canal, originally privately owned, is now operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
The Cape Cod Canal operates 24 / 7 year round, however during the winter months canal transit may be temporarily restricted to low powered vessels due to ice conditions.
All vessels over 65’ (20 meters) must have permission from CCC Traffic Control to enter or transit.
The Cape Cod Canal, including its approaches, extends from Cleveland (East) Ledge Light in Buzzards Bay to approximately 1.4 NM seaward of the canals eastern end breakwater light in Cape Cod Bay, a distance of approximately 15.8 NM. The land cut portion of the canal between the Cape Cod Canal Traffic Control Center in Buzzards bay and the East Mooring Basin at Sandwich is approximately 5.9 NM in length.
NOAA Chart #13236 provides coverage of the Cape Cod Canal and its approaches. Buoys and navigational markers are "red right returning" in the approaches to both the eastern and western ends of the canal. Range lights, fixed and occulating green, are available on the eastern end approach to the canal and also on the Cleveland Ledge Channel approach on the western end.
The Cape Cod Canal is a sea level canal and therefore has no locks.
Controlling depth in the canal is 32’ (8.23 meters).
Three bridges and one overhead power cable span the Cape Cod Canal offering a minimum vertical clearance 135’ (41.1 meters).
The railroad bridge lift bridge at Buzzards Bay on the western end of the canal is normally kept in the open (raised) position. When in the down position the vertical clearance available is 7’ (2.1 meters).
The primary method of communications between the CCC Traffic Control and vessels transiting is by VHF radio.
The Cape Cod Canal has a marine traffic controller on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the traffic control center.
For radio communications, call the traffic controller on channel 16 to establish contact. You will then be asked to switch to channel 12 or 14 as the working channel to pass information. Channel 13 is also available at the canal office; however, the use of channel 13 should be limited to emergency situations or whenever vessels do not have one of the other channels. All four channels are monitored continuously by the traffic controller.
All Vessels shall maintain a radio guard on Marine VHF-FM channel 13 during the entire passage through the canal.
All radio communications in the vicinity of the Cape Cod Canal are tape recorded for future reference.
As a secondary method to communicate permission to transit the CCC, (3) sets of traffic lights showing red, green, and yellow are operated on a continuous basis at the canal. The traffic lights apply to all vessels 65 feet in length and over. The traffic lights are located at the easterly canal entrance, at Sandwich, and at the westerly entrance to Hog Island Channel at Wings Neck. A third traffic light is located at the Canal Electric Terminal basin on the south side of the canal in Sandwich, and applies only to vessels arriving and departing that terminal.
The Cape Cod Canal traffic controller can also be contacted by telephone at (508) 759-4431, Ext.500.
Speed limits through the Cape Cod Canal are somewhat complex in that they are measured as minimum and maximum times authorized to transit various portions of the canal rather than specific speeds. The following speed regulations must be observed by vessels of all types, including pleasure craft. To understand the speed requirements we have to define the Canal Authority’s term of slack water and fair & foul currents as measured at the railroad bridge current station at Buzzards Bay:
The "minimum running time" (interpret this as maximum speed allowed) for the land cut between the East Mooring Basin in Sandwich and the Canal Control Office’s in Buzzards Bay is as follows:
The minimum running time (again, interpret this as maximum speed allowed) between the Administration Office’s in Buzzards Bay and Hog Island Channel westerly entrance Buoy No. 1 is as follows:
More about the maximum allowed speeds later.
Additionally, all vessels, including pleasure vessels, must be able to transit the land cut portion of the canal, between the Cape Cod Canal Control Station in Buzzards Bay and the East Mooring Basin in Sandwich (approximately 5.9 NM) within 2 hours and 30 minutes against a 6 knot foul current. Those vessels unable to comply with this restriction must avail themselves of a helper tug, at the vessels owner’s expense, or await a favorable current.
"In the event vessels within the confines of the canal fail to perform and are unable to make sufficient headway against the currents, the marine traffic controller may activate a helper tug to assist." I will let you take a guess on who pays for that!
So let’s calculate the required speed to transit the land cut portion of the canal per CCC regulations:
In a slack water situation, with no fair or foul current, a vessel must be able to make 2.4 knots minimum through the water to comply with the 2½ hour restriction. When opposing a 6 knot current the same vessel must be capable of 8.4 knots minimum thru the water.
On observation this would prohibit your typical 7 knot sailboat and 8 knot trawler from transiting against a foul current. As measured at the Cape Cod Canal railroad bridge, if east bound you could enter at slack water flood begins or when west bound, beginning your transit 4 minutes after slack water ebb begins. This would provide you with a fair current for the entire passage through the canal.
While the canal controllers try to allow some leeway to pleasure boats less than 65’, if you end up with a SOG of 1 knot against a foul current and taking 3 to 5 hours to make the transit, don’t be surprised to hear about it on the radio. "Plan Accordingly!"
For those who might be interested - Cape Cod Canal Maximum Speed Computations.
Transit times for the Cape Cod Canal will vary based on the tidal currents. But by regulation, the minimum authorized time for a transit of the canal from Hog Island Channel entrance to the Eastern Breakwater Light will be 53 minutes.
Effective immediately the controlling depth of the Cape Cod Canal is reduced to 30 feet MLLW due to shoaling in several locations. Vessels drawing more than 22' (6.7 meters) should contact Canal Traffic Control well in advance of their arrival.
This restriction shall remain in effect until further notice.