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Chesapeake and Delaware Canal

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Navigating the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal

The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal also known as the C & D Canal or simply the C & D to the locals, is a deep draft, sea level, navigable passage crossing the states of Delaware and Maryland and joining the Delaware River at Reedy Point, DE with the Upper Chesapeake Bay (at the Elk River) in the vicinity of Chesapeake City, MD.

The Reedy Point entrance to the C & D Canal is located 51 NM above the Delaware Capes, 35.5 NM below Philadelphia, 62 NM from Baltimore, and 187.5 NM from the Virginia Capes.

For vessels transiting between the Philadelphia area and Baltimore, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal saves the mariner a trip down the Delaware Bay, then coastwise to the Virginia Capes, and finally back up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore. This works out to nearly a 265 NM savings in distance.

The general axis of the canal is east / west, with passage through the canal generally referred to as either east bound or west bound.

Keep in mind that the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal is a working waterway with over 25,000 vessels a year making the passage. This makes it one of the busiest canals in the world. A large portion of this traffic is commercial, including: large deep draft ships and tugs with tows. Keeping your eyes open and your head on a swivel is sound advice when making the passage.

The C & D is operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Through the use of closed circuit television, fiber optics, and microwave links, the C & D Canal Dispatcher is able to monitor all traffic in the canal.

Navigation Season

The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal is open and operating 24 / 7. During the winter months, the canal may be occasionally closed or temporarily restricted to low powered vessels and small craft due to ice conditions.

Length

Trying to establish the actual length of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal is not as easy as it might first appear. The Army Corp of Engineers, the organization who actually operates the canal, reports the length as 17 miles. Many other resources seem to agree at 14 miles and I have seen one reporting the length as 19 miles. The problem is they never tell you what 2 points they are using to get these distances.

So for the purposes of this article allow me to add to the confusion; I am going to make up my own number. Let’s call it "15.3 NM!" This is the distance from the mouth of Back Creek at Welch Point on the western end to the end of the breakwaters on the Delaware River side. This seems to be what most people would consider the extent of the C & D Canal. As far as the width of the canal, that appears to be unanimous at an overall width of 450’ (137.2 meters).

Aids to Navigation

Buoys and navigational markers are "red right returning" in the approaches to both the eastern and western entrances to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and reversing at Chesapeake City, MD. There are no navigational buoys or markers within the land cut portion of the canal, however each bend (or turn) in the canal is marked by an amber light to assist in night transits.

On the western end of the C & D Canal, there are 4 sets of ranges available beginning south of Turkey Point and leading in to the approaches to the canal: Elk River Channel North Range, Oldfield Point Range, Elk River Channel West Range, and Back Creek Channel Range.

Additionally, both banks of the C & D are lighted by mercury vapor lamps spaced 500 feet apart. They are designed to illuminate the banks at the waters edge to assist navigating the canal at night.

NOAA Chart #12277 provides complete coverage of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and its approaches.

Chart of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and Approaches

Channel Depths

Project controlling depth in the C & D Canal is 35’ (10.67 meters) over a project width of 400’ (121.9 meters).

Bridge Clearances

A total of (5) fixed bridges, (1) lift bridge, (5) overhead power lines, and (1) overhead pipeline span the C & D Canal. The minimum vertical clearance is 136’ (41.5 meters) found at the Reedy Point Bridge, 1.2 NM west of the Reedy Point Entrance.

The Conrail railroad lift bridge just east of Summit, DE is normally kept in the open (raised) position with a vertical clearance of 138’ (42.0 meters). When in the down position the vertical clearance available is 45’ (13.7 meters).

Speed Limits

There is no specific speed limit when transiting the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The only speed restrictions are those issued to prevent damage. The regulation reads: "Vessels of all types, including pleasure craft, are required to travel at all times at a safe speed throughout the canal and it approaches so as to avoid damage by suction or wave wash..." This does not absolve anyone from also adhering to the COLREGS definition of safe speed.

Communications

Communications with the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Dispatcher is not required for most pleasure vessels unless you are one of the lucky few who can afford a private yacht of 300 gross tons or more.

Due to the large volume of commercial traffic that makes use of the C & D Canal, from tugs and tows to large slab sided car carriers, I would strongly recommend all vessels, regardless of size, maintain a radio watch on VHF channel 13.

It is much better to know ahead of time what is just around that next turn in the channel, especially at night! You should also try to avoid meeting or overtaking situations with any large vessels or tug and tows in the bends of the canal where maneuvering room is limited. As I have been reminded by an old friend, your VHF radio on channel 13 is "Your Friend in the Bend" when it comes to commercial traffic.

For vessels of 300 GT or more, towing vessels, and vessels of more than 100 GT carrying passengers for hire, the following additional communications requirements must be met:

  1. Vessels will not enter the C & D Canal until radio communications are established with the Canal Dispatcher in Chesapeake City. Communications shall be established on channel 13 two hours prior to entering the canal. (C & D Dispatcher’s Call Sign is WB-33). Pilots and shipmasters shall acknowledge receipt of the 2 hour clearance.
  2. A westbound vessel must be able to pass either Pea Patch Island or Reedy Island within 1 hour after receipt of clearance or the clearance becomes invalid.
  3. An eastbound vessel must be able to pass Arnold Point within 1 hour of receipt of clearance or the clearance becomes invalid.
  4. The dispatcher will be furnished the actual time of passing these check points, along with the estimated time of arrival at Town Point or Reedy Point.
  5. A vessel entering or departing the C & D Canal must also report to the dispatcher the time of passing the outer end of the jetties at Reedy Point and Old Town Point Wharf.

The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Dispatcher’s Phone Number is 410-885-5621.

Traffic lights showing red and green are operated on a continuous basis at the canal. The traffic lights apply to "All Vessels." The traffic lights are located at Reedy Point at the eastern canal entrance and at Old Town Point Wharf at the western entrance. A flashing red signal indicates that the canal is closed.

Currents

The tidal currents in the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal set eastward on the flood and westward on the ebb. Maximum velocities range from 1.9 knots to 2.6 knots depending on your location within the canal. Storms have been known to increase these velocities to 3.0 knots or more; at such times, low powered vessels may have difficulty in making headway against an opposing current.

The average maximum current velocities over the entire length of the C&D Canal are approximately 1.9 knots on the flood and 1.5 knots on the ebb. These are "maximum" averages, but they can be used for calculating your time of transit of the canal.

While 2.0 knots might not seem like a big deal if you’re running a Donzi, for low powered boats the difference in making the passage with a fair or foul current can start to add up quickly. A brief look at the table below will show that a vessel capable of 20 knots will only see a 8 minute savings in transit time between a fair and foul current through the C & D Canal while a 7 knot sailboat will save a little less than 1¼ hours.

C & D Canal - Westbound Time to Transit
Speed Fair Current (Ebb) Foul Current (Flood)
7 Knots 01:47 03:00
10 Knots 01:19 01:53
15 Knots 00:55 01:10
20 Knots 00:42 00:50

All mariners can benefit from taking currents into consideration when planning their passage, low powered vessels especially will benefit from making a fair current passage through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. For those who might be interested in more detailed information on timing the currents in the C & D visit - Chesapeake & Delaware Canal - Planning Your Passage.

Notes & Cautions

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