Navigating the Cape Cod Canal
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 month’s, 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.
Aids to Navigation
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 are available on the eastern end approach to the canal and also on the Cleveland Ledge Channel approach on the western end.
It should be noted, that a buoyage reversal occurs at the approximate mid-point within the canal.
The Cape Cod Canal is a sea level canal and therefore has no locks.
The controlling depth of the Cape Cod Canal is currently 32 feet (9.75 meters) MLLW. Sand shoals can periodically develop in the canal channel. All vessels transiting with a draft greater than 28 feet should contact and consult well in advance with the Marine Traffic Controller.
Three bridges (2) fixed and (1) lift bridge along with two overhead power cables span the Cape Cod Canal. The bridges have a minimum vertical clearance 135’ (41.1 meters) and the power cables have a minimum authorized clearance of 160’ (48.7 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. These speed regulations must be observed by vessels of all types, including pleasure craft.
Maximum Allowed Time for Passage
"Vessels of any kind unable to make a through transit of the land cut portion of the canal against a head current of 6.0 knots within a maximum time limit of 2 hours 30 minutes shall be required to obtain the assistance of a helper tug at the vessel owner’s expense or await favorable tide [sic] conditions . . ." (I think they mean "favorable tidal current conditions".)
So what does this mean exactly? The onus is on the vessel’s captain to ensure his vessel’s speed can meet this requirement or wait until the tidal current conditions are such that he can.
Minimum Allowed Time for Passage
The "minimum running time" (you can interpret this as maximum speed allowed) must be observed by vessels of all types, including pleasure craft.
For the Land Cut portion of the canal the minimum running time authorized is as follows:
- Against a foul current - 60 minutes.
- With a fair current - 30 Minutes.
- At slack water - 45 minutes.
Hog Island Channel
For the Hog Island Channel, the minimum running time authorized is as follows:
- Against a foul current - 46 minutes.
- With a fair current - 23 Minutes.
- At slack water - 35 minutes.
For a full discussion on canal speeds, see Cape Cod Canal Speed Computations..
Breaking the Rules
So what happens if you can’t maintain the required speed while transiting the canal?
"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!
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 5 to 6 hours to make the transit, don’t be surprised to hear about it on the radio. "Plan Accordingly!"
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.
Notes & Cautions
- Tidal current flow in the Cape Cod Canal Floods East and Ebbs West.
- Current velocities can reach 5+ knots.
- All vessels over 65’ (20 meters) must have permission from Canal Control prior to entering the Cape Cod Canal.
- Sailing vessels are required to have and use auxiliary power during passage throughout the canal.
- When the railroad bridge span at Buzzards Bay is in the closed (down) position, all vessels are directed not to proceed beyond the points designated by stop signs posted east and west of the railroad bridge.
- Most vessels may transit the canal in fog (visibility less than ½ mile), by use of radar provided, that clearance has been obtained from the canal traffic controller.