Lake Erie - Cruising & Navigation
The Niagara River to the Detroit River
Lake Erie lies just SW of Lake Ontario and is the southern most and fourth largest of the five Great Lakes. It is also the shallowest of the Great Lakes and the only one with a lake bed that is above sea level.
Like Lake Ontario, Lake Erie is equally controlled by both Canada and the United States with the international boundary running approximately down the middle of the lake from the Niagara River in the east to the Detroit River in the northwestern end of the lake.
It is bordered on the north by Canadian Province of Ontario, on the east by the State of New York, on the south by the States of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and to the west it is bordered by Ohio and Michigan.
Lake Erie is fed at the northwestern end chiefly by the waters of Lake Huron by way of the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River. This makes the Detroit River, technically, the head of the lake. From the Detroit River, the lake water flows in a predominantly easterly direction where it empties into the head of the Niagara River in the far eastern end near Buffalo, NY.
Lake Erie Facts
In terms of surface area, Lake Erie is the 11th-largest lake in the world and the 4th-largest of the Great Lakes.
The Detroit River and the Welland Canal allow passage for both deep and shallow draft vessels while the Erie Canal via the Niagara River only allows access to shallow draft vessels.
For all vessels the navigation season is governed by ice on the lake. For commercial vessels and lock operations, the navigation season typically begins in late March (20th to the 31st) and runs through late December (24th to the 31st). For most recreational boaters, they typically launch in May and haul out by mid-November.
Because of its shallow depth, Lake Erie occasionally completely freezes over in winter. This being dependent on the severity of the winter.
Buoys and Marks
Buoys, beacons, and lights on Lake Erie make use of the standard IALA Region B lateral buoyage system (Red Right Returning).
In the Great Lakes, “Red Right Returning” is generally considered to be upbound for the upper lakes.
Lake Erie Facts
Lake Erie has a maximum length of 241 SM (209 NM / 388 KM) and a maximum width of 57 SM (49.5 NM / 92 KM).
The following NOAA Charts provide full coverage of Lake Erie’s U.S. waters from the Welland Canal and Niagara River west to the approaches to the Detroit River and Detroit River Light: #14820, #14822, #14823, #14824, 14825, #14826, #14828, #14829, #14830, #14832, #14833, #14835, #14836, #14837, #14838, #14839, #14841, #14843, #14844, #14845, and #14847.
Chart #14820 – Lake Erie Provides for a broad overview with limited detail.
Chart #14822 – Approaches to Niagara River and Welland Canal. - Covers from Morgans Point, ON to Sturgeon Point, NY.
Chart #14823 – Sturgeon Point to Twentymile Creek - Covers the southern shoreline of Lake Erie from Wendt Beach, NY to Northeast, PA including Dunkirk and Barcelona Harbors.
Chart #14824 – Sixteenmile Creek to Conneaut - Covers the southern shoreline of Lake Erie from Northeast, PA to Conneaut, OH including Conneaut Harbor.
Chart #14825 – Ashtabula to Chagrin River - Covers the southern shore of Lake Erie from west of Conneaut, OH to Euclid, OH including Mentor Harbor and Chagrin River.
Chart #14826 – Moss Point to Vermilion - Covers the southern shore of Lake Erie from Euclid, OH to Vermilion, OH including Rocky River, Beaver Creek, and Vermilion Harbor.
Chart #14828 – Erie to Geneva - Covers the southern shore of Lake Erie from Sixteenmile Creek, PA to Madison-on the-Lake, OH.
Chart #14829 – Geneva to Lorain - Covers the southern shore of Lake Erie from Madison-on the-Lake, OH to Beaver Creek, OH including Beaver Creek, Rocky River, Mentor Harbor, and Chagrin River.
Chart #14830 – West End of Lake Erie - Covers the southern, western, and northern shores of Lake Erie from Lorain, OH to Point Pelee, ON.
Chart #14832 – Upper Niagara River - Provides detailed coverage of the Upper Niagara River.
Chart #14833 – Buffalo Harbor - Provides detailed coverage of Buffalo Harbor, NY.
Chart #14835 – Erie Harbor - Provides detailed coverage of Erie Harbor, PA.
Chart #14836 – Ashtabula Harbor - Provides detailed coverage of Ashtabula Harbor, OH.
Chart #14837 – Fairport Harbor - Provides detailed coverage of Fairport Harbor, OH.
Chart #14838 – Buffalo to Erie - Covers the southern shore of Lake Erie from Buffalo, NY to Erie, PA with details of Dunkirk and Barcelone Harbors.
Chart #14839 – Cleveland Harbor - Provides detailed coverage of Cleveland Harbor, OH.
Chart #14841 – Lorain Harbor - Provides detailed coverage of Lorain Harbor, OH.
Chart #14843 – Huron Harbor - Provides detailed coverage of Huron Harbor, OH.
Chart #14844 – Islands in Lake Erie - Provides coverage of the Islands of Lake Erie and Put-in-Bay, OH.
Chart #14845 – Sandusky Bay - Provides detailed coverage of Sandusky Bay, OH.
Chart #14847 – Toledo Harbor - Provides detailed coverage of Toledo Harbor, OH and Approaches.
Lake Erie Facts
Lake Erie has a shoreline length of 871 SM’s (757 NM’s / 1,402 KM’s). This includes the approximately 26 islands in the lake.
Canadian Hydrographic Service Charts provide coastal coverage from the Niagara River west to the Detroit River along Canada’s portion of Lake Ontario.
Charts of Canadian waters are not available for viewing on line. However, the Canadian Chart Catalog does provide a general idea of the areas of coverage.
Listed below are Canadian Hydrographic Service Charts providing coastal coverage from the Niagara River west to the Detroit River along the northern shore of Lake Erie.
CHS Chart #2120 - Niagara River to Long Point
CHS Chart #2121 - Long Point to Port Glasgow
CHS Chart #2122 - Pointe Aux Pins to Point Pelee
CHS Chart #2123 - Pelee Passage to the Detroit River
CHS Chart #2181 - Detailed Harbor Charts of Port Burwell, Port Stanley, Erieau, Wheatly, Leamington, and Kingsville, ON.
Many larger scale charts are available providing more detail of major harbors and constricted passages.
The following electronic charts provide detailed coverage of all the Great Lakes from Montreal, CA on the St. Lawrence River to Duluth, MN on Lake Superior including: Green Bay, Saginaw Bay, Georgian Bay, Lac Nipissing, Lake St. Clair, Lake Simcoe, Seneca Lake, Cayuga Lake, Oneida Lake, Trent-Severn Waterway, Thousand Islands, the St. Lawrence River from Kingston to Montreal, the Ottawa River from the St. Lawrence River to Ottawa, Mohawk River, Rideau River, Welland Canal and Erie Canal.
Digital - Bluechart G2 Vision microSD™/SD™ card: VUS042R-Great Lakes
C-Map Max Chart NA-M026: Great Lakes, North East Coast & Appr. – All of the Great Lakes
Navionics Platinum+ 901P+: Eastern Great Lakes – Ontario, Erie, and Huron
Navionics Platinum+ 900P+: Western Great Lakes – Huron, Michigan, and Superior
Lake Erie is the shallowest of the (5) Great Lakes with the deepest section of the lake being the eastern basin and the shallowest section of the lake the western basin.
Other than the western basin of Lake Erie, the 5 fathom line (30 feet / 9.1 meters) can generally be found 1 NM offshore or less. The western basin of the lake has overall depths averaging 25 to 30 feet (2.1 to 5.0 fathoms / 7.6 to 9.1 m) with large areas having water depths of 12 to 24 feet (2.0 to 4.0 fathoms / 3.7 to 7.3 m).
Lake the other Great Lakes, Erie's water levels also fluctuate with the seasons. Generally, the lowest levels are in January and February, and the highest in June or July, however exceptions to this have been noted. The average yearly level varies depending on long-term precipitation and snow melt off.
Lake Erie Facts
The Average depth of the lake is 62 feet (10.3 fathoms or 18.9 meters). The deepest point being 210 feet (35.0 fathoms or 64 meters) located near 42˚30’48" N / 79˚53’20"W. Approximately 7.4 NM (8.56 SM / 13.8 KM) southeast of Long Point, ON.
Coast Lights with a range equal to or greater than 10 SM. From the head of the Niagara River west along the south shore then north and east along the north shore of Lake Erie:
Buffalo Harbor Light
Fl G 2.5s 71ft 12 SM (10.4 NM/19.3 KM) HORN (MRASS)
Presque Isle Light
Iso 6s 73ft 15 SM (13.0 NM/24.1 KM)
Fairport Harbor Light
Iso 6s 56ft 13 SM (11.3 NM/20.9 KM) HORN (MRASS)
Lorain Harbor Entrance Light
Fl 6s 60ft 12 SM (10.4 NM/19.3 KM) HORN (MRASS)
Sandusky Breakwater Light
Fl 6s 30ft 11 SM (9.6 NM/17.7 KM) HORN (MRASS)
South Bass Island Light
Fl R 6s 95ft 12 SM (10.4 NM/19.3 KM)
Maumee Bay Entrance Light "2"
Fl R 2.5s 44ft 12 SM (10.4 NM/19.3 KM) HORN RACON (– –)
East Outer Channel Light "1E"
Fl G 5s 44ft 10 SM (8.7 NM/16.1 KM) RACON (– – –)
Pelee Passage Light
Fl 4s 91ft 10 SM (8.7 NM/16.1 KM) RACON (– –) AIS
Long Point Light
Fl 8s 30m 17.3 SM (15.0 NM/27.8 KM)
Oc 4s 82ft 16 SM (13.9 NM/25.7 KM))
West Breakwater Light (Conneaut, OH)
Fl R 10s 80ft 12 SM (10.4 NM/19.3 KM)
Main Entrance Light (Cleveland, OH)
Fl R 6s 63ft 14 SM (12.2 NM/22.5 KM) HORN (MRASS)
Iso R 6s 80ft 12 SM (10.4 NM/19.3 KM) HORN (MRASS)
Fl G 6s 67ft 12 SM (10.4 NM/19.3 KM)
Port Clinton Light
Fl (2) R 6s 30ft 10 SM (8.7 NM/16.1 KM)
Toledo Harbor Light
Iso 6s 72ft 13 SM (11.3 NM/20.9 KM) HORN
Detroit River Light
Fl (2) 6s 55ft 12 SM (10.4 NM/19.3 KM) HORN RACON (– · · –) AIS
Port Burwell Light
Iso 4s 10.4 SM (9.0 NM/16.7 KM)
Port Colborne Light
Fl 10s 15m 17.3 SM (15.0 NM/27.8 KM)
Distances and Mileages
Distances between major points on Lake Erie are listed below. The distances table is useful in planning overnight stops while transiting the lake and is available for download.
Lake Erie Distance Table (SM)
|Port Colborne, ON||Port Maitland, ON||Buffalo, NY||Dunkirk, NY||Port Dover, ON||Erie, PA||Port Burwell, ON||Ashtabula, OH||Port Stanley, ON||Cleveland, OH||Toledo, OH||Detroit River Light, MI|
|Distances shown above are in Statute Miles and are rounded to the nearest whole mile.|
|Port Colborne, ON||0.0||18.0||22.0||25.0||52.0||65.0||89.0||104.0||109.0||160.0||237.0||219.0|
|Port Maitland, ON||18.0||0.0||38.0||28.0||37.0||54.0||75.0||90.0||95.0||146.0||223.0||205.0|
|Port Dover, ON||52.0||37.0||72.0||50.0||0.0||54.0||62.0||79.0||83.0||134.0||210.0||193.0|
|Port Burwell, ON||89.0||75.0||72.0||78.0||62.0||53.0||0.0||47.0||23.0||93.0||159.0||141.0|
|Port Stanley, ON||109.0||95.0||126.0||98.0||83.0||70.0||23.0||56.0||0.0||85.0||143.0||126.0|
|Detroit River Light, MI||219.0||205.0||236.0||206.0||193.0||166.0||141.0||126.0||126.0||83.0||30.0||0.0|
The above table can be downloaded for your personal and private use. The Lake Erie distance file contains the tables in Statute Miles, Nautical Miles, and Kilometers. The files are Zipped Adobe (.pdf) format.
Lake Erie Facts
The surface of Lake Erie is 173 meters (569 feet) above sea level.
Found along the shores of Lake Erie
The speed limits on the open waters of Lake Erie can generally be considered to be unlimited except where posted or common sense prevails.
As a general guide, Buffalo, NY to the Detroit River Light could be done in a little over 6.8 hours at 30 knots.
More realistically; with a SOG of 15 knots will probably require about 13.7 hours, 20.5 Hours at 10 knots, and 25.6 to 29.3 hours at typical trawler and sailboat speeds.
Tides and Currents
Studies show that the Great Lakes do in fact experience a semidiurnal tidal pattern. The tidal range however, is extremely small - averaging around 1 inch and reaching 1.6 to 2.0 inches (4-5cm) during the largest of tides. This tidal range is so small, that they are often hidden by other fluctuations in water levels that are caused by the weather. As a result, the Great Lakes are generally considered to be "non-tidal."
Water Level Fluctuations
The normal elevation of the lake's surface does in fact change. During the course of each year, Lake Erie’s surface is subject to a consistent seasonal rise and fall, the lowest stages occurring primarily during the winter and the highest during the summer. These fluctuations generally average around 2.0 feet, but recently it appears that these fluctuations are getting larger while the general lake level is getting higher.
In addition to seasonal fluctuations, Seiches (changes in water level produced by winds, storms, squalls, and to a lesser degree, barometric pressure changes) often occur. The wind and barometric pressure changes that accompany squalls can produce fluctuations lasting from a few minutes to a few hours. Strong storm winds of sustained speed and direction can produce fluctuations lasting a few hours or a day. Lake Erie is more prone to these water surface oscillations than the other Great Lakes due to the lake’s surface area, east/west orientation, and shallow depths. This effect is more pronounced at the extremities of the lake, where driven water is concentrated into a smaller area by converging shorelines. Water level rise on the eastern end of Lake Erie can often exceed 10 feet with a corresponding drop in the western end of the lake.
Lake Erie’s surface currents tend to follow the wind direction. This implies that Lake Erie’s surface current tends to flow from the southwest to the east-northeast since the predominant wind direction on the lake is southwesterly. The only area where this may differ (rarely) is in Lake Erie’s central basin, roughly abeam of Fairport Harbor, OH, where a northerly current flow may be found before it eventually turns back to the wind direction again.
The graphic below is a snapshot of Lake Erie’s surface currents on 30 March 2020. It is intended to show how Lake Eire’s surface currents follow closely with the wind direction which at the time was 15 – 20 knots out of the west over the great majority of the lake.
Lake Erie Facts
Lake Erie has the second smallest surface area of all the Great Lakes, (9,910 SM² / 25,700 KM²), yet is still ranked as the 11th largest lake in the world. It has a fresh water volume of 116 SM³ (480 KM³), that works out to 127.6 Trillion gallons of water.
WeatherBecause Lake Erie is the southernmost of all the Great Lakes, Lake Erie’s water temperature is the warmest of all of the Great Lakes. While rare, water temperatures have reached as high as 85° F (29° C), with the averages being in the low 70°’s F (21° C to 24° C) during the summer months.
While Lake Erie acts like heat sink that moderates the temperatures, its effects are much less than the other Great Lakes. The lake also acts like giant humidifier, increasing the moisture content of the air. In the winter, this moisture contributes to the heavy snowfalls famous along the eastern and southeastern shorelines of the lake and known as "Lake Effect" snow.
Typically winds on Lake Erie are strongest in autumn with gales out of the southwest through northwest most likely occurring in November and December.
Summer winds blow mainly out of the south through west, particularly southwest. These directions are also favored during the other seasons. Gales, however, are encountered less than 1% of the time from May through September.
Lake Erie’s maximum wind occurred on July 4th 1969. Winds out of the north-northwest peaked at 87 knots. These winds were triggered by squall line.
Of particular concern is the eastern end of the lake. A funneling effect can occur with southwest through westerly winds, which are prevalent throughout most of the year. As these winds encounter land, on either side of the eastern end of the lake they are accelerated. This can result in moderate winds in mid-lake often becoming dangerous gale force winds in this area.
Wind speeds on Lake Erie of 15 knots or less occur on average 76% of the time during the summer boating season while wind speeds of 10 knots or less occur on average 46% of the time.
While visibilities are often restricted by any number of factors including rain and snow, fog is the most frequent and troublesome cause of reduced visibility on Lake Erie and is primarily a spring and fall problem.
Over the open waters of the lake, spring is the most prevalent fog season. Visibilities of less than 0.5 SM (0.4 NM/0.8 KM) occur up to 5% of the time. Visibilities of 2 statute miles (1.7 nm / 3.2 KM) or less occur 5% to 10% of the time during most of the boating season. The shorelines are susceptible to both autumn radiation fogs and early spring advection fogs. Fog seems to be more frequent along the Canadian shoreline of the lake.
The visibilities at Simcoe, ON, drop to less than 0.5 SM (0.4 NM/0.8 KM) on an average of 46 days annually compared to a range of 15 to 23 days along the U.S. shoreline.
The shallowness and orientation of Lake Erie make it susceptible to southwest and northeast winds, which can quickly raise dangerous seas. If these winds are continuous over a long period of time, a dangerous surge problem (Seiches) can be created at both ends of the lake.
Rough seas are most frequent in late fall (November and December) and occur most often in the eastern half of the lake. Waves of 10 feet (3 m) or more can be expected up to 3 percent of the time in the east, while seas of 5 feet (1.5 m) or more are encountered 30 percent of the time lake wide; extremes of 15 to 20 feet (4.5 to 6 m) have been encountered.
Lake Erie Facts
Commercial ship traffic on Lake Erie is the highest of all of the Great Lakes. Couple that with Lake Erie’s notoriety for foul weather it also has the highest number of ship wrecks.
Thunderstorms are responsible for some of the strongest winds on the lake. They are generally a problem from April through September but can occur at any time.
Over the open lake, they occur 1 to 3 percent of the time with a peak during the summer months. They are most likely between sunset and sunrise. Onshore they most often occur during the late afternoon. During June, July and August, they come ashore 5 to 10 days per month.
The stretch of shoreline between Windsor, ON and London, ON along the northern shore of the lake is known as the thunderstorm capital of Canada. Windsor has the largest number of thunderstorms in Canada with an average of 33.2 per year and London, Ontario is not far behind with 27 thunderstorms per year.
For the most part, ice is rarely a problem for the average recreational boater since most have hauled out by the time the first ice appears. However, we will touch on it briefly. You know; just in case.
Because the west end of Lake Erie is so shallow, it freezes early and rapidly. The exact times are heavily dependent on the temperatures, but late November is usually a safe bet for the beginning of ice development.
In Maumee Bay, OH, a solid sheet of 12 to 18 inches thick is common. In South Passage, between the mainland and Kelly’s Island 18 inches can be found due to rafting and ridging. During severe winters, thicknesses to 24 inches are common and 5 foot thicknesses have been observed.
By mid-March, the ice in the west end of the lake starts to clear because of the temperatures and the prevailing west winds.
The central part of the lake generally remains open through January except for a few strips of thin ice. Growth is rapid in February, and high concentrations of thin ice develop by mid-month. By early March, medium-thickness lake ice predominates, with somewhat better conditions along the Canadian shore. Melting and clearing is rapid in mid-March, and the remaining pack is usually concentrated east of Long Point, ON by the end of the month.
During severe winters, ice thickness’s up to 24 inches are common.
Over the entirty of the west end of the lake, the ice attains an average thickness of 7 inches with an average maximum thickness of 11 inches.
In the eastern part of the lake, ice begins to form in early to mid-January and may reach a thickness of 8 to 12 inches by the end of the month.
The solid ice increases to 16 to 20 inches thick by the end of February. In Buffalo Harbor, an average thickness of 9 inches and an average maximum thickness of 18 inches can occur.
In the lake, the prevailing west winds usually create pack ice forming considerable ridges and rafting. Extremely hard pressure ridges 3 to 4 feet thick are not uncommon in February and March. As the ice on the rest of the lake begins to break up, the winds force it into the east end of the lake, and it completely blocks the approach to Buffalo Harbor. The soft deteriorating ice forms mush ice about 3 to 6 feet deep, interspersed with pressure ridges 4 to 6 feet deep. The mush ice has been reported as much as 20 feet deep in places. Rafted ice fields 15 to 20 feet above the water level have occurred during severe winters; under these conditions, ice can persist thought late May.
Like the other Great Lakes, Lake Erie produces lake effect snow when the first cold winds of winter pass over the lake’s warmer waters. Heavy lake-effect snowfalls can occur when the following conditions are in place:
Atmospheric Instability and Fetch.
There are other factors that are also in play, but these 2 are the most important.
To create the necessary atmospheric instability, a temperature difference of 15° F to 25° F is required between the air temperature at the water’s surface and the air temperature found at 1500 meters / ≈4900 feet. This is commonly referred to as the 850 mb line.
Cold air needs to travel approximately 62 SM (100 KM) or more over the lake’s warmer surface water.
As cold air flows over the warm water, the lake warms and moistens the air near the surface. Since warm, moist air is less dense than cold air, the heated air rises. Rising air cools and water vapor condenses into cloud droplets which fall as snow. When the prevailing winds push the clouds over land, friction with the ground causes air to pile up creating lift and enhancing snowfall.
Since winds blow primarily west–to–east along the main axis of the lake, lake effect snows are more pronounced on the eastern parts of the lake such as cities such as Buffalo and Erie.
Using the 30-year average monthly snowfall totals as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), of the top (5) snowiest cities in the United States, (4) are found along the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
- Syracuse, NY – 123.8 inches annual average.
- Flagstaff, AZ – 101.7 inches annual average.
- Erie, PA – 100.9 inches annual average.
- Rochester, NY – 99.5 inches annual average.
- Buffalo, NY – 94.7 inches annual average.
Lake Effect Snows typically end or are greatly reduced when the lake freezes over since water vapor can no longer be absorbed into the atmosphere.
Boating Season Summary
Meteorological Table – Lake Erie
May thru October Average Occurrences
|Wind > 33 Kts||0.6%||0.4%||0.2%||0.3%||1.0%||3.6%||2.0%|
|Seas > 9’||0.2%||0.2%||0.1%||0.2%||0.2%||1.6%||0.7%|
|Visibility ≤ 2 NM||7.3%||7.6%||5.9%||7.2%||3.4%||2.9%||5.9%|
|Temps > 69° F||3.7%||23.0%||62.9%||64.3%||24.4%||0.9%||22.3%|
|Mean Temps °F||54.2°||65.4°||72.1°||72.1°||65.3°||54.3°||57.8°|
|Temps ≤ 33° F||0.5%||0.0%||0.0%||0.0%||0.0%||0.3%||4.6%|
|Wind Speeds ≤ 15 Knots||74.3%||79.8%||79.2%||80.0%||65.4%||54.2%||*|
|Wind Speeds ≤ 10 Knots||44.6%||52.1%||48.3%||47.5%||35.3%||26.4%||*|
U.S. - NOAA Weather Radio
National Weather Service (NOAA Weather Radio) - Stations provide mariners with VHF-FM broadcasts of weather warnings, forecasts, radar reports and surface weather observations. Reception range is up to 40 miles from the antenna site, depending on the terrain, type of receiver and antenna used.
Lake Erie - NOAA Weather Radio
|KEB98||Buffalo, NY||162.550 MHz||WX-1|
|KEC58||Erie, PA||162.400 MHz||WX-2|
|KHB59||Cleveland, OH||162.550 MHz||WX-2|
|KHB97||Sandusky, OH||162.400 MHz||WX-1|
|WXL51||Toledo, OH||162.500 MHz||WX-6|
Canadian Weather Radio (Environment Canada)
Environment Canada (Canada Weather Radio) - Stations provide mariners with basically the same type weather information as their counterpart; NOAA Weather Radio and making use of the same frequencies. VHF-FM broadcasts of weather warnings, forecasts, radar reports and surface weather observations. Reception range is up to 60 kilometers from the antenna site, depending on the terrain, type of receiver and antenna used.
Lake Erie - Canadian Weather Radio
|St. Catharines, ON||162.475 MHz||WX-3|
|Normandale, ON||162.450 MHz||WX-5|
|London, ON||162.475 MHz||WX-3|
|Oil Springs, ON||162.400 MHz||WX-2|
|Windsor, ON||162.475 MHz||WX-3|