Cruising the Maine coast in our own boat has been a long-held dream for me and my wife, Kris. Last summer we made it reality on a four-month cruise aboard Orion, our 1987 Sabre 38, from southwest Florida to Maine and back to Virginia. After traveling the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), which provides many sailors protected—if sometimes tedious—inland passage between Florida and Portsmouth, Virginia, we found ourselves navigating the rivers, cuts, and man-made canals between the northern Chesapeake Bay and Maine.
Along the way, we learned that navigating and timing the currents and tides in these often tight waterways can be as challenging and satisfying as any offshore passage (of which we had a few, as well). From north to south, the most noteworthy of these include the Cape Cod Canal connecting Cape Cod and Buzzards bays; the passage at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, linking Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound; The Race at Long Island Sound’s eastern end; Hell Gate in Manhattan’s East River; the Cape May Canal that permits direct passage between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay, and finally, the Chesapeake and Delaware (C&D) Canal, which connects Delaware Bay to the top of Chesapeake Bay and points south.
In general, as we sailed north on the Eastern Seaboard, tides became greater in strength and height and consequently occupied a more prominent place in our navigational and route planning. When tidal flow was concentrated in a canal or cut, the resulting currents could become heavy and quick, even dangerous for a displacement sailboat like ours. In almost every case and somewhat dependent upon the canal’s length, we had to time our transits at either slack tide or during a favorable one. Weather, of course, was a factor, as was fog, not to mention the ships and tugs that use many of these waterways as well.
There are plenty of online sources for tides and currents, but our bible became the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book, commonly known as Eldridge and currently published by Jenny White Kuliesis, Peter Kuliesis, and Robert Eldridge White Jr. In continuous publication since 1875, Eldridge provides not only a concise set of tide and current tables for the Eastern Seaboard but also maps and diagrams of currents (these visuals are invaluable), safe navigation data, weather tools, sun and moon tables, some local lore, and much more. This is a book that is as comforting at the helm as it is in a berth before turning out the light. Studying Eldridge every day and absorbing its information became second only to the weather forecast in our decision-making about everything from a daysail to a coastal passage.
After a wonderful summer spent in Maine, it was time to head south to find a warmer winter base. Our friend, George Kyame, agreed to join me in Maine in late August as crew. Kris was home with an ailing cat, and I was happy to have company and physical support after several solo passages.
Cape Cod Canal
Heading south from Portland, we encountered our first canal when we arrived near the eastern entrance to the Cape Cod Canal in early September. The current iteration of the canal was completed in 1940, and at 480 feet wide it was, at that time, the widest sea-level canal in the world. As early as 1628, Myles Standish of the Plymouth Colony first considered a canal in the area to facilitate trade. In the 18th and 19th centuries, several private companies tried and failed to complete a canal, but in 1916, a privately funded canal was finally completed. It was only 100 feet wide and 25 feet deep, and from the beginning problems plagued it. The U.S. government stepped in and bought the canal in 1928 and designated it a free public waterway, eventually widening and deepening it to its current controlling depth of 32 feet.
Boats have a maximum of two-and-a-half hours to transit, and the Canal Authority monitors all travel with cameras. Technically the canal jurisdiction is nearly 17 nautical miles long, but the land cut is just 6, and that’s where transit times are most meaningful. Two-and-a-half hours to travel something like 6 miles may seem like a piece of cake, but if you time the tide incorrectly, you could be pushing against 6 knots of current. Displacement sailboats are required to use auxiliary power, although sails can assist, and with 6 knots as a typical cruising speed in slack water, attempting a transit against the current would clearly be foolhardy.
Orion and crew neared the eastern canal entrance at 6:30 p.m. It was temperate and crystal clear, just at twilight. Shoreside lights were starting their evening twinkle. We were purposefully early, and with little wind we decided to douse the sails and drift while we enjoyed dinner. By 8:30, with just a minimal bit of flood left, we headed for the entrance.
A shocking number of lobster pots clustered near the canal’s entrance, but we had the spotlight out, and it was invaluable. Once past the pots and inside the breakwater, our boatspeed increased quickly. I called Canal Control on VHF channel 13 to see what kind of traffic we might expect; just one commercial vessel, a tug towing a barge, was exiting Buzzards Bay and would be approaching us.
Nighttime canal transits can be daunting. When entering from Cape Cod Bay, the breakwater channel points directly at a large power plant on the southern shore. The channel then arcs to starboard just before you lose your nerve. It’s disconcerting to be steaming directly at what appear to be hundreds of lights and certain disaster, but trust your GPS and the channel markers, and you’ll soon safely pass into the canal.
Beyond that, our transit was lovely and uneventful. Other than some activity on the shoreside trails, we were alone on the waterway. The eastbound tow appeared, and Orion passed without fanfare.
Just past the Massachusetts Maritime Academy campus and at the end of the narrow portion of the canal, we hung a hard right into the narrow, twisty channel that leads to the popular anchorage and interesting town of Onset, Massachusetts. Well charted with daymarks and an occasional lighted buoy (again, the spotlight was invaluable), the channel led us into the anchorage where we found a suitable spot, dropped the hook, and tucked in for the night by 12:30 a.m. It had been a long and unusual day, and we both were dog tired but very happy with the results.
In the days that followed, we transited the exciting channels at Woods Hole from Buzzards Bay into Vineyard Sound during a late-afternoon tide window in lingering fog and light rain, then The Race while entering the eastern end of Long Island Sound. From there we made our way steadily toward New York City, where we navigated the notorious Hell Gate in settled weather and daylight. The ensuing ride down the East River was thrilling for its cinematic quality and the sheer number of vessels on the waterway. In every case, Eldridge was our trusted guide. From New York, it was south down the New Jersey coast until we reached Cape May Inlet, where we pulled in and anchored in the harbor to prepare for transiting the Cape May and then C&D canals.
Cape May and C&D Canals
The Cape May Canal is short and perfunctory, but it saves hours and the need to negotiate the broad, often boisterous mouth of Delaware Bay. Currents aren’t so much an issue here as the two fixed bridges with a 55-foot published clearance. With Orion’s mast height somewhere between 53 and 54 feet, we timed our transit at mean low water to take full advantage of maximum clearances. (It was our experience that the published height was greater than the actual height if one believes the tide gauges at the base of the bridges. We saw 54 feet on the tide gauge at mean low water.)
We left the anchorage near the Cape May Coast Guard station around 9:30 a.m., crossed the harbor, and transited the Cape May Canal an hour or so past the ebb. We continued up choppy Delaware Bay motorsailing in squally, unsettled weather, reaching the eastern entrance of the C&D near 7 p.m., which put us about a half-hour past slack water. Our timing was nearly perfect to take advantage of the west-flowing ebb.
At 14 miles long, the C&D has good anchorages at both ends, so properly timing your passage is straightforward, but the current can run as much as 2-4 knots in this canal. Motoring is required, and big ship traffic is nearly constant.
After a full day in rough-and-tumble Delaware Bay, the canal’s calm waters were soothing to the soul. At 450 feet wide and 35 feet deep, the C&D is lit on both sides with lights every 500 feet atop 25-foot-high poles, making it easy for us to see our way. Five high-level highway bridges cross with a minimum height of 133 feet. One railroad lift bridge, while typically raised, still operates for trains; it’s worth it to call Canal Control on VHF13 and check the bridge’s status (more than one sailor has misjudged this and hit the bridge when it was down or not fully raised).
About 12 miles west of the canal’s Delaware River entrance we came to Chesapeake City, whose small basin and snug anchorage was a welcome sight after a long and challenging day.
The following morning was a rather cool, cloudy, and dull event. Orion and crew left Chesapeake City heading west into the Chesapeake Bay. We counted more than two dozen bald eagles, mostly juveniles, before leaving the canal proper, a stunning testament to the birds’ rebound from near extinction.
From there, we would enjoy several days of great sailing, fine anchorages, and a few marinas on our way south to what would be Orion’s winter home off the Back River in Hampton, Virginia. We began our summer cruise near Marco Island, Florida, at the end of May, and now, nearing the end of September, our long odyssey was nearly complete.
As you transit the Chesapeake and Delaware (C&D) Canal, at Chesapeake City you may notice three stone buildings perched on the south side, next to the Canal Control building. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the C&D Canal Museum is one of the region’s most fascinating, and in some ways it’s the only one of its kind in the country.
Though it’s a sea-level canal today, when it opened in 1829 the C&D had four locks. These three buildings—built in 1837, 1851, and 1853—operated as a pump house to move water into the locks at Chesapeake City. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, they house two massive, walking beam Merrick & Sons steam engines powering a 38-foot-diameter cypress water wheel that lifted water from Back Creek into the canal—84.3 tons of water per minute. All remain intact, and the engines are the oldest steam engines still on their original foundations in the United States.
“It was one of the first civil engineering projects proposed in the New World, and one of the most difficult to carry out,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which has placed the canal on its list of national historic landmarks. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers has also listed the engines and water wheel as national landmarks.
This living history is accompanied by displays and artifacts about the canal’s history, from its conception in 1661 by Augustine Herman, to its present status as the only 19th-century canal that remains a major shipping route, with more than 15,000 vessels using it annually.
Easily accessible on foot from either the anchorage or the marinas in South Chesapeake City, the museum is free. Hours are generally limited to weekends during summer, but you can call 410-855-5622 for updated information.
The Corps also operates the Cape Cod Canal Visitors Center and Museum near the Cape Cod Canal’s eastern entrance. Rather less easily accessible to transiting sailors than the C&D Canal Museum, it still provides a wealth of information about the canal’s history. It’s open from May through October; confirm days and hours at 508-833-9678.