The Welland Canal Decision

To Welland or not to Welland

If you are already on the Great Lakes (and planning to remain on the lakes), then the use of the Welland Canal when transiting between Lakes Erie and Ontario is probably your best (although not your only) choice of routes.

The problem of making a route decision comes into play for those entering or departing the Great Lakes via the Erie Canal.

Should you enter or exit the Erie Canal at Buffalo, NY on Lake Erie and avoid the Welland Canal altogether or via the Oswego Canal at Oswego, NY on Lake Ontario and make use of the Welland? For those bound to or from Lake Ontario, the question is moot.

In an effort to outline the differences, let’s set up a scenario of a voyage from NYC to Buffalo. Regardless of which route you choose, your decision will have to be made on or before your arrival at Three Rivers Junction on the Erie Canal.

Factors to Consider:

  1. Mast Head Height
  2. Operating Day
  3. Distance
  4. Cruising Speed
  5. Crew
  6. Weather
  7. Cost

Mast Head Height

This is the first thing that you should take into consideration and is the major "GO / NO GO" factor in the decision making process.

If you cannot get your Mast Head Height down to 15.5 feet (4.72 m) or less, the decision is made for you. You will not be able to meet the vertical clearance limitations of the Western portions of the Erie Canal and will have to divert at Three Rivers Junction and make use of the Welland Canal via Lake Ontario.

Operating Day

The operating day is restricted to an average of 10 hours on the Erie Canal, while you have the option to run 24 hour days on Lake Ontario.

The downside is that you will have to plan your arrival for the days and times for passage through the Welland Canal.


From Three River Junction on the Erie Canal to Buffalo regardless of the route you choose the distances are within approximately 17 NM of each other. Using the Erie Canal the distance is ≈166 NM versus ≈183 NM if you choose the Welland Canal. For those bound for ports other than Buffalo such as the western end of Lake Erie or the upper Great Lakes, this minor difference in distances disappears.

Since any distance must be factored together with your cruising speed to have any relevance, we will look at that next.

Boat Speed

The western end of the Erie Canal is pretty much restricted to a 10 mph speed limit (8.7 knots). The Welland Canal's speed limit varies between 6 and 8 knots. The difference being, by using Lake Ontario and the Welland you have ≈137 NM (254 km) of unrestricted speed available to you compared to ≈8.7 NM (16.1 km) when using the Erie Canal.

Let’s look at two different possibilities of U/W time; a power boat that cruises at 20 knots and a sailboat that cruises at 7 knots:

Via the Welland Canal
Route Leg Distance Speed/Time Restrictions Sailboat @ 7 kts. Power Boat @ 20 kts.
3 Rivers Junction - Oswego, NY 20.6 NM Yes 6.44 Hrs. 4.53 Hrs.
Oswego - Welland Canal 121.1 NM No 17.3 Hrs. 6.0 Hrs.
Welland Canal 23.4 NM Yes 11.0 Hrs. 11.0 Hrs.
Welland Canal - Buffalo 17.5 NM No 2.5 Hrs. 0.87 Hrs.
Totals: 182.6 NM ***** 37.24 Hrs. 22.4 Hrs.
Via the Erie Canal
3 Rivers Junction - Tonawanda 155.0 NM Yes 28.14 Hrs. 21.5 Hrs.
Tonawanda - Black Rock Canal 7.4 NM No 1.01 Hrs. 0.4 Hrs.
Black Rock Canal - Buffalo 4.0 NM Yes 1.1 Hrs. 0.9 Hrs.
Totals: 166.1 NM ***** 30.24 Hrs. 22.8 Hrs.
Times include lockage time of 00:30 per lock.

As can be seen from the table above, the typical sailboat will save 7 hours of U/W time by making use of the Erie Canal while a powerboat will save almost ½ hour by making use of the Welland Canal. But at what Cost. . .?

Crew Requirements

Another factor to consider is how many crew you have on board. Up bound pleasure vessels on the Welland Canal are required to have (3) crew members aboard to transit. Down bound vessels are only required to have (2) crew members. If you require additional crew for the transit, the canal authority can help with names of some locals. Expect to pay around $150.00 to $175.00 for an experienced crewmember.


The weather on Lake Ontario during the summer months is generally fair with a southwesterly and westerly wind component at an average of 16 knots and wave heights of less than 1’ occurring about 50% of the time. Chances are good that you will have favorable weather for the passage, but always get a weather report prior to making your decision.


Since you have reached Three Rivers Junction (where you will have to decide which route to take), then you have likely already paid for your transit of the New York State Canal System. If you are forced or simply choose to use the Welland Canal, then expect a pretty large hit to your wallet. The tariff for transit of the Welland Canal is $200.00 (2021) for pleasure craft.

Estimated Costs Erie Canal vs. Welland Canal
  Power Boat   Sailboat
  NYSCS   Welland
  NYSCS   Welland
2 Day Pass *****   $20.00   *****   *****
10 Day Pass $50.00   *****   $50.00   $50.00
Sub-Totals: $50.00   $20.00   $50.00   $50.00
Welland Canal  
Toll *****   $200.00   *****   $200.00
Addn’l Crew(?) *****   $125.00   *****   $125.00
Customs & Immigration *****   $30.00   *****   $30.00
Sub-Totals: $0.00   $355.00   $0.00   $355.00
* Fuel Burn 348.0 gal.   452.64 gal.   30.24 gal.   37.2 gal.
Fuel Cost @ $4.00 $1392.00   $1810.56   $120.96   $148.80
Sub-Totals: $1392.00   $1810.56   $120.96   $148.80
Totals: $1442.00   $2185.56   $170.96   $553.80
* Currently in 2021 the NYSCS is Free.
* Fuel Burn is based on normal cruising speeds and was estimated @ 1 GPH for the sailboat and 30 GPH for the power boat. Fuel burns were reduced for lower speeds where applicable. Your mileage may vary!

Decisions, Decisions....

So... Which is the best route for you?

If you are in a position that you can choose which route that you prefer, here is a quick recap:

Time Savings

Power boats capable of 20+ knot cruising speeds make out better using the Welland Canal, but only slightly. This time benefit will increase with higher speeds. Sailboats and slower power boats on the other hand will see significant time savings by using the Erie Canal.


For almost any vessel the Erie Canal route will provide a significant cost savings compared to using the Welland Canal. For sailboats this savings is approximately $383.00 and for 20+ knot power boats the savings jumps to around $744.00.

So which route is best for you? You’re the Captain... Your Decision!

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