Cape Cod Canal

With its impressive engineering, its succession of bridges, the concentration of traffic, even the streetlights lining its banks, the Canal possesses a quirky industrial charm.

Introduction

It is difficult for the contemporary mariner to imagine sailing in New England without the Cape Cod Canal. Before the Canal opened in 1914, the shortest route between New York and Boston required ships to navigate the muscular currents of Vineyard Sound and the shifting sands off Monomoy before passing the unbroken beaches of the Cape’s outer forearm – 100 miles through some of the most dangerous waters of the East Coast. For a period in the 1880s, ships were wrecked at the rate of one every two weeks.

Today, a sailor with ordinary seamanship and a look at the current tables can expect to pass safely through the Canal between Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay. And for some, the Canal is an attraction in its own right. 20,000 vessels use the waterway each year; the vast majority are pleasure craft.

Navigation

Currents

The single most important consideration for a sailboat transiting the Canal in either direction is the current. Tides at the east end, in Cape Cod Bay, are nearly 5 feet higher than tides at the west end in Buzzards Bay, and they occur roughly 3 hours out of phase with each other. As a result, currents flow hard through the Canal, topping 4 knots in most tide cycles and often exceeding 5 knots. There is a brief period of slack water as the current reverses direction every six hours, but it rebuilds to nearly full strength within an hour and a half of the change. Currents are similar, though less intense, for another 3 miles in the Hog Island Channel into Buzzards Bay.

The only practical strategy in a modestly powered sailboat is to time your arrival for a fair current.

Current predictions are available in Eldridge and from the Canal website.

Not for navigation

Approaches

The east entrance is straightforward day or night in all but a northeaster. The considerable fetch in that direction can offer a nasty surprise, and miles of lee shore, to a northbound sailor emerging from the shelter of the Canal. Change headsails inside, and consider laying over at the Sandwich Boat Basin if conditions are severe.

The range lights just inside the entrance are helpful at night, but they are hard to pick up amid the visual clutter of the nearby powerplant.

At the west end, the Hog Island Channel is narrow but straight and well marked. It’s also frequently the choppiest, most unpleasant water around. The long fetch to the southwest is exposed to the prevailing winds of Buzzards Bay, and when these meet the west-going current from the Canal over a shoaling bottom, they kick up waves that even a 40-footer can bury her nose in. Timing your entrance to Buzzards Bay early or late in the day can help.

📷 Geoff Rand
The east end is protected by a breakwater, where the Canal empties directly into Cape Cod Bay.
The east approach and the Sandwich Boat Basin. Not for navigation.
The west approach. Not for navigation.

Anchorages

Anchoring is prohibited within the Canal. If you need to wait in Buzzards Bay for an east-going current try Pocasset, Megansett or Wild Harbor as a temporary anchorage.

In calm summer weather, you can anchor off the state beach at Scusset for a swim in Cape Cod Bay. {CS}

Moorings & Slips

Moorings and Slips at the west end are available in Onset, a short distance north of the Hog Island Channel, or Red Brook Harbor, behind Wings Neck. The Onset channel is wider and less daunting than the chart suggests. Sandwich Marina has slips in the Boat Basin at the east end.

Charts

Not for navigation. Charts are not updated. 

Regulations

Railroad Bridge

The railroad bridge, near the west end of the land cut, is normally kept in the open position, but is lowered twice a day for the “Trash Train” and occasionally for other rail traffic and for maintenance. Patrol boats generally appear when the bridge is down to keep boats well clear. If closed in fog, the bridge sounds 4 short horn blasts every two minutes. A sailboat waiting for the bridge to open should turn and motor bow-first into the current.

📷 Geoff Rand
Canal Patrol in front of the lowered Railroad Bridge.

Regulations

Complete regulations are on the Canal website; Eldridge prints a summary. Below are some highlights of particular interest to sailors.

Vessels are required to pass through the 7 nautical mile land cut portion of the Canal in under 2 hours 30 minutes, a speed over ground of 3 knots.

Canal Traffic Control monitors the waterway 24 hours a day via cameras and radar.

Vessels under 65 feet do not require clearance from Traffic Control; vessels over 65 feet do. The traffic lights at the east entrance and on Wings Neck at the west end apply only to vessels over 65 feet.

In order of priority: Vessels under 65 feet must give way to vessels larger than 65 feet. Recreational vessels must give way to commercial vessels. Vessels travelling against the current give way to vessels going with the current.

Vessels must monitor VHF 13 while in the Canal. Traffic Control uses 16 as a hailing frequency for non-emergency calls, and 12 or 14 as working frequencies.

Sailboats are required to have and use auxiliary power. {Winds in the Canal are often light and fickle, so negotiating it under sail is generally impractical anyway. ed.} In addition, vessels must not obstruct navigation by unneccessarily idling at low speed, and vessels are expected to stay on the right hand side of the channel.

Vessels are required to notify Traffic Control if an emergency develops, and may be required to take assistance from a helper vessel. Patrol boats are manned 24 hours a day.

Vessels planning to anchor outside the channel are required to notify Canal Traffic Control. {Small boats occassionally anchor alongside the Hog Island Channel to wait for a fair current, but the incessant traffic makes for an uncomfortable berth. ed.}

📷 Geoff Rand
Bourne Bridge
📷 Geoff Rand
Cleveland Ledge Light marks the start of the Canal zone in Buzzards Bay.

Services

Fitting Out

Both Onset and Red Brook at the west end, and Sandwich at the east end, have a full range of supplies available.

Sandwich is by far the most convenient if you don’t plan to spend the night near the Canal.

Contacts

Canal Traffic Control/Patrol
508-759-4431
VHF: 13, 14, 16

 

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Cape Cod Canal

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