Frequently Asked Questions about The Welland Canal

1.  What is the Welland Canal?

The Welland Ship Canal is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway, that connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and is used by ships to by-pass Niagara Falls.  These ships carry cargo and passengers.

2.  When was the First Canal Built?

The First Welland Canal was built in 1824.  It opened in November 1829 with 39 locks and entered the Niagara River above Niagara Falls at Chippawa.  It was lengthened in 1833 to Port Colborne with 40 locks.  The First Canal was constructed of wood and has completely disappeared, either disintegrated, dismantled or been buried.  The present Welland Ship Canal is the fourth canal to be built and was completed in 1932.

3.  What is the Length of the Canal?  How Long Does it Take a Ship to go from One Lake to Another?

The Canal is 43.13 km or 26.8 statue miles or 23.45 nautical miles long.  Normally, it takes a ship entering at Port Weller 6-8 hours to reach Lock 7 in Thorold, at the top of the Escarpment, then 3-4 hours longer to depart Port Colborne.  With little traffic and no problems in the Flight Locks, the average transit time is 8-12 hours.  During heavy traffic, fog, snow squalls, high winds it can take 15 or more hours.  The Captain (or Captain and Pilot for a foreign ship) must be in command on the bridge of the ship for the complete transit.  When the ship is being raised or lowered, the Captain can grab a quick meal or relax in the wheelhouse.

4.  How Large is a Lock?

All locks with the exception of Lock 8 at Port Colborne are 261.8 metres (859 ft.) long, 24.4 metres (80 ft.) wide and 24.8 metres (81.5 ft.) deep.  Although a lock is 261.8 metres (859 ft.) long, the useable length is only 233.5 metres (766 ft.)

Lock 8 is the longest lock in the world at 420.6 metres (1,380 ft.)!  However, Lock 8 is a regulating lock only, it raises or lowers ships 0.3-1.2 metres (1-4 ft.) depending on the fluctuating levels of Lake Erie.

5.  How Much is a Ship Raised or Lowered in a Lock?

A ship is raised or lowered 14.2 metres (46.5 ft.).  When the ships are "climbing the escarpment" in the Flight Locks (Locks 4, 5, 6) in Thorold, they are being raised 42.5 metres (139.5 ft.).  From Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, the ships are being raised 99.5 metres (326.5 ft.).  In comparison, Niagara Falls from crest line to river bottom measures 107 metres (350 ft.) and from crest line to river level 52 metres (170 ft.)

6.  How Long Does it Take to Raise or Lower a Ship in the Lock?

It takes approximately 33 minutes for a freighter to enter a lock, be raised or lowered, then depart.  The actual raising or lowering takes 10-12 minutes.  Most of the time is spent maneuvering the ship into position and tying it up.  This action is called "Spotting a Ship".  Ships smaller than a freighter take a longer time because more water is needed to either fill or empty from the lock.

7.  What are the "Flight Locks"?

The world-famous Flight Locks (Nos. 4/5/6) are in the City of Thorold and enable ships to raise or lower 42.6 metres (139.5 ft.) to overcome the Niagara Escarpment.  They are twinned to allow simultaneous passing of two or more ships, and there is no "reach" between them.  The Flight Locks are 54.5 ft. higher than the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal.  Ships go through the Flight Locks on their own power, they are NOT pulled through by little locomotives as they are in the Panama Canal.

8.  What are those Round Yellow Posts the Linesman are Tying Ropes to?

They are called "bollards"  When a ship is coming up from a lower lock, the linesman at the edge of the lock (the "coping") thrown down yellow polypropylene lines, referred to as "canal lines" or "heaving lines" to which the mates and deckhands on the ship tie the heavy wire cables, or thick ropes, called "hawsers".  The linesman then winch up their lines and the ship's hawsers, throw the loops of the hawsers around the bollards and remove the yellow heaving lines.  When a ship is coming down the canal, and is higher than the lock wall, the mates and deckhands throw to the linesman, instead, the light lines ("heaving lines") to which their heavy wire cables or thick ropes are attached.

9.  Why Does that Tall Yellow Crane Go Down, then Up Again?

The crane called an "arrester boom", lowers a 3.5 inch (8.75 cm) steel cable, called a "ship arrester", that is capable of holding back up to 40,000 tons of ship and cargo.  The cable is lowered to protect the gates from a down bound vessel should it not be able to stop at the "right" mark.  When the ship in the lock is firmly secured, the ship arrester is raised.  The cable is also held in place should an up bound vessel accidentally drift astern when the lines are being released and its ready to be "cast off" and depart.  A short blast of the ship's whistle signals "cast off the lines" at a dock or in a lock.

10.  How Much Water Does it Take to Fill a Lock?  Where is it Pumped?  Where Does the Water Go when the Lock 

It takes 94.5 million litres or 21 million Imperial Gallons of water to fill a lock.  No pumps of any kind are used to fill or empty the locks.  It's all done by gravity-flow from Lake Erie down to Lake Ontario.  Besides the gates at either end of the locl are great valves that Seaway personnel activate to allow water to flow into or out of the lock.  The water comes in from the "reach" above each lock and from the "pondage" beyond which serves as a reservoir.  When a lock is being emptied, the water goes into the "reach" below the lock.  A small amount of electricity is used to open and close those valves.

11.  What is that Other Lock Beside Lock 3?  Is it an Old Canal?  Is that where the Water Goes when this Lock

That is called a "spillway" or "waste weir",  The water flowing from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario cannot be stopped, either it goes over Niagara Falls or through the Canal and the flow has to be regulated.  Every lock, except the Flight Locks, has a "reach" above a "reach" below, a spillway and a pondage.  The Flight Locks have no parallel spillway.  The water that empties out of Lock 7 goes into a great pondage to the east, where the Third Canal used to be, and the excess water goes down the channel of that old canal, remnants of which can be seen from the Observation Platform at Lock 3 when you look to the southeast.

12.  Do the Boats Carry Their Own Water to Fill the Locks?

This question has been asked several time and there is logical explanation for that seemingly unlikely situation.  Visitors at any of the locks see a ship with streams of water coming from openings in the bow or stern or running down the hull from the deck.   This is referred to as "cooling water" for the hot metal on deck, or for the various engines, such as the main engine or smaller engines that are used for electrical generators etc.  This water is pumped into the ship through its hull from the canal below.

On a really hot or sunny day, the ships often come through the Canal with high sprays of water or hoses washing down the decks.  This is to prevent "hogging"  Hogging occurs when the metal deck heats up and arches like a hog's back, hence the term.  This forces the bow and stern to expand outwards and downwards, while the hull retains the temperature of the surrounding water and doesn't change size.

13.  How Many Hours a Day do the Ships Transit?  Do they Tie Up for the Night?  Does the Canal Ever Close? 
        Does it Freeze in Winter?

The Canal operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from late March until Christmas week.  By then, the ice is usually fairly thick and something that last ship requires a escort by a tug.  Once a ship enters the Canal, it continues through unless it is going to the Port Weller Dry Docks for repair, the Industrial Docks in Thorold, fuel docks in Port Colborne or the City of Welland.  A pleasure craft must conte, it can tie up at the Small Boat Dock at either end of the Canal, but nowhere in the Canal itself unless it is instructed to do so by Seaway personnel.

From January until the last week in March, the Canal may be drained anywhere from Lock 7 down to Lock 1 to allow repairs or reconstruction works to commence.

For travel during the night or dull days, there is variable intensity lighting along both banks of the Canal throughout the entire length.

14.  What is the Largest Ship that Can Get into a Lock?

Ships up to a maximum of 225.5 metres (740 ft.) long and 23.7 metres (78 ft.) wide can now transit the Welland Canal.  Ships such as, CSL and Algoma ships that are examples of vessels that have been lengthened and widened to meet the new standards.

15.  What Does it Mean the Ship's Cargo is "Ballast"?

It means the ship is empty of cargo and is going to other ports throughout the Great Lakes or down the St. Lawrence River.  The ballast is water, 10,000 tons more or less, depending on the size of the ship and its navigating abilities.

16.  Why is the Ship Sitting in the Lock so Long?

It could be for several reasons, fog, high winds receiving supplies.  At Lock 3, the ship may be waiting for the previous up bound vessel to enter Lock 5 and thus have Lock 4 ready and open before it departs Lock 3.  There are also certain areas in the Canal, on the levels between locks, where it is safer for large vessels to pass.  For this reason, a freighter may sit in a lock for a period of time, waiting for the right moment to "cast off" to meet an approaching ship.

17.  Why is That Ship Approaching at Such a Crazy Angle?  Will it Hit the Lock?

That is called "sliding the wall" and it sets the bow of the ship on the right course to "nose into" the narrow lock out in the broad "reach".  Once the bow is safely positioned at the entrance to the lock, the rudder lines up the stern.

18.  How Much Does it Cost to go Through the Canal?

Depending on the gross registered tonnage of the ship, whether wholly laden, partially so, or in ballast, the type of cargo in metric tonnes, the number of persons aboard, plus dockage charges the total cost of transiting the Wellan Canal can cost anywhere from $19,000 to $38,000 in Canadian dollar per trip.  Please craft pay $80.00 ($20.00 per lock) to transit the Welland Canal.  Pleasure craft cannot be less than 6 metres or 20 feet in length, or under 1 ton in weight.  Upbound to Lake Erie, they must have 3 persons aboard, one to be in contact by radio at all times and two to man the bow and stern lines.  Downbound to Lake Ontario, they are required to have two persons only because the turbulence in filling the lock is greater.

19.  Why Don't Sailboats just Sail Through the Canal?

At the height of the summer season, some "tall ships" and other fair-sized sail training vessels transit in the Canal.  The reason sailboats can not go through under sail, even when there is plenty of wind is a sailing ship cannot steer straight in such confined space.  Sail boats also have no braking mechanism and require unrestricted open water to function at all.

20.  What Crew Does a Freighter Carry?

A straight deck bulk carrier has a crew of 22; a self-unloading freighter has a crew of 29.  Canadian tankers such as the Enerchems, have a crew of 22; an American tanker has a crew of 18.  On average, most freighters have 20-24 crew members.

21.  Why do they Put Up the Bridge so Early?

The Port Robinson Bridge was struck and destroyed by M.V. Steelton on August 25, 1974 and has never been replaced.  Bridges usually come off second best in a collision, so they must be up in plenty of time and stay up until the passing ship is well clear.  On August 11, 2001 at Allanburg, the lift bridge descended prematurely, striking and destroying the wheelhouse of the Paterson Company's WINDOC.  In the event of machinery malfunctions or power interruptions on the bridge a vessel must have enough time to "make a wall" or tie up.  A fully-loaded ocean vessel, such as we see on the Great Lakes, travelling at full speed will require 1 mile of clear water to come to a stop when the engines are thrown into "full astern" model.

22.  What are all Those Numbers on the Bow and Stern of the Ship?  What are Those Peculiar-Looking Symbols on
        the Hull?

Those are the draft (draught) marks, the Plimsoll lines and the diagrams that tell you a ship has a "bulbous bow" or a "bow thruster".  The Canal has a depth of 8.2 metres or 27 ft. throughout and 30 ft. in the locks.  With normal lake levels, a ship can carry a cargo to the depth of 26 ft. 3 inches - the 8 metre draft mark on the bow and stern.  One inch less of draft equals 125 fewer tonnes of caro on a typical ship with a capacity of 35,000 metric tonnes.

The Plimsoll lines on the hull at mid-ship indicate the depth to which the ship can be loaded under certain conditions (ie. summer, winter, tropical seas, fresh water lakes, etc.)  The bulbous bow offers less resistance to the water as the ship moves forward and also affords more cargo space.

The rudder controls the turning to port (left) or starboard (right) of the vessel and the propeller controls the speed ahead or astern.  The bow-thruster controls the movement of the bow from side to side, especially in tight spaces where it is difficult to manoeuvre.  The white vertical markings (labelled "tug") on the sides of the ship indicate the location of internal bulkheads and instruct tugs where it is best to push.

23.  What are All Those Flags?

It is easy to recognize the Canadian or American national flag on the sternpost of the ship, or up on the mall mast.  The flag at the stern will always be the flag of the country in which the ship is registered, although a different country may own the ship.  Also, on the main mast, above the wheelhouse or on the foremast at the bow, will be the "company" or house flag" -Canada Steamship Lines tri-colour with maple leaf.  Upper Lakes' red pennant with white/black diamond; Algoma Marine's red/black pennant with black bear inside a circle; Paterson's white pennant with white "P" in a red diamond.  The flags with combined diamond and black bear, and the letters SBC or SSU signify Seaway Bulk Carrier or Seaway Self-Unloader.

The solid red flag signals "danger" is usually on an oil or gasoline tanker.

The navy and white St. Lawrence Seaway flag is a stylized representation of a ship in a lock chamber and has been presented to vessels for a special reason, the opening of the Seaway at Montreal and the opening of Lock 3 of the Welland Ship Canal.

The flag of Ontario bears the Provincial Coat of Arms and 3 maple leafs branching out from a single stern.

Beside the "company flag" on a foreign ship, will be the red/white parti-coloured Pilot's flag.  Currently, all foreign and salt-water ships must have a pilot take them through the length of the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Our Canadian captains are familiar enough with the waters, hazards and locks to take their ships through themselves.

Ocean vessels passing through the canal will fly the flag of their country of registration and the name of their homeport at the stern.  They will also display Canada's flag as a courtesy.

24.  Why is a Ship called "She" Even with her Name is Gordon C. Leitch or Captain Henry Jackman or Rt. Hon. Paul

John Jackson, Prof. Emeritus of Brock University in his book "The Welland Canals, A Comprehensive Guide" quotes E.C. Russell, writing of Customs and Traditions in the Canadian Armed Forces as saying, "the most likely explanation is the traditional belief of sailors that a ship is very close to being a living entity, endowed with a spirit and a distinct personality, demanding respect and given proper consideration, most dependable.  And somehow, through some curious alchemy in the mind of the seamen in the days of sail, often away from the land for months on end, this near-human being took on the beauty and mystique of a woman."