August 23rd, a day of both excitement and a bit of apprehension! Excitement because we were almost there – could this be the last day of our journey? Would we arrive back in East Greenwich today? Certainly doable but it would depend on the timing.
Besides the anticipation of possibly arriving home that day, we were eagerly anticipating our journey on the Cape Cod Canal by water, hopefully a totally different experience than making the journey by car. Not that a trip by car is unpleasant but sometimes the traffic, during the summer and especially on a weekend, can quickly turn the trip into a nightmare! For this reason, we tend to avoid road trips to the Cape altogether.
But, to be honest, our excitement was mixed with a little apprehension. Because of the currents, tides and wind, the timing of the passage through the canal is critical and could be stressful. The day could be very pleasurable or it could turn into a nightmare at the west end of the Canal. Fingers crossed that it would be the former and not the latter!
To explain, the canal develops very strong currents which are the result of the differences in the water table levels between Cape Cod Bay (east end) and Buzzard’s Bay (west end). 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. If the water level is lower in Buzzard’s Bay, then the Canal’s current will move westward. If the water level is lower in Cape Cod Bay, then the Canal’s current will move eastward. When both levels are equal, the current in the Canal will be slack. The currents can reach 6 mph, so it is unwise to go against the current, some boats can’t go much faster than that anyway! The water levels combined with the timing of the tides, the strength of the currents and the direction and strength of the wind, could result in 5′ to 10′ waves entering Hog’s Island Channel in Buzzard’s Bay. Gulp!
Knowing that timing was everything, Rob spent many hours researching all factors, finally coming to the conclusion that the best time to go through the canal would be to arrive at the railroad bridge (about 7 miles from the marina) at slack tide. Slack tide is defined as “the short period in a body of tidal water when the water is completely unstressed, and there is no movement either way in the tidal stream.” On the 23rd, slack tide would be around 9:00 a.m. To be at the railroad bridge by that time, we needed to bid farewell to the Sandwich Marina around 8:00 a.m. Leaving under bright, blue sunny skies, a temperature of 66º and calm winds at 6mph NNE, it seemed like it would be a perfect cruising day! Fingers crossed that it would stay that way!
And maybe by late afternoon, we would be back in RI! Woo hoo!
Here are some fun facts about the Canal:
- NO LOBSTER POTS! No tears here!
- No fishing from a boat (shoreside ok).
- Use of Cape Cod Canal saves mariners an average of 135 miles of coastwise travel while circumnavigating Cape Cod.
- The canal is used extensively by commercial, cruise ships and recreational vessels. Approximately 20,000 vessels use the waterway each year; the vast majority of which are pleasure craft.
- 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. All radio equipped vessels shall monitor channel 13 VHF while transiting the Canal.
- Personal watercraft, kayaks, canoes, wind surfers or other non-motorized craft are not permitted to operate within, or pass through the Federally maintained limits of the Canal.
- The speed limit is 10 mph. Sailboats are required to have and use auxiliary power only.
- At only 7.4 miles, it is not the longest canal in the world, but it is the widest – 540 feet at its maximum point – for which it’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s minimum channel width is 480 feet.
- The canal is owned and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and has no tolls. It has an interesting history.
- It has a controlling depth of 32 feet at mean low water.
- Tidal currents are strong, sometimes hitting 6 mph, and change every six hours. Ebb tides run westerly toward Buzzards Bay; flood tides run easterly toward Cape Cod Bay.
- Both of the fixed highway bridges that cross the canal have 135 feet of vertical clearance: the Sagamore Bridge is close to Cape Cod Bay on the east end, the Bourne Bridge is close to Buzzard’s Bay on the west end. Both bridges were constructed in 1933.
- The vertical-lift railroad bridge near the mouth to Buzzards Bay has a 135-foot clearance when raised, but only 7 feet when down. A bridge closure is announced by two long horn blasts.
- The maximum boat length allowed on the Canal is 825 feet; maximum draft 32 feet; maximum boat air draft is 135 feet.
As we headed out, we had the remnants of a favorable current, about 2 knots in our favor! We could see an occasional walker or bicyclist taking advantage of the Cape Cod Canal Bikeway on both sides of the canal. This wide, paved waterside pair of paths, actually U.S. Army Corps of Engineers service roads, run approximately 7 miles on either side of the canal. Since the bikeway is open to the public, it is a popular path for walking, jogging, cycling as well as providing access to saltwater fishing.
As we approached the Sagamore Bridge, memories of major traffic jams from my younger days crept into my mind. Travelling to the Cape during winter months, not a problem, but in the summer, especially on a weekend, what a nightmare! Traffic would be backed up for miles approaching either of the bridges on Fridays, then it would be a repeat performance on a Sunday night when everyone tries to leave the Cape all at once. I soon learned that visiting the Cape just wasn’t worth the hassle! Rob and I reminisced about the traffic we encountered on the Bourne Bridge when we picked up a new Nova Kool refrigerator for Quantum Leap in 2015! Definitely a different impression on this day – looking up at the traffic (instead of being stuck in it) from the water was pure joy!
As mentioned above, 20,000 vessels travel the canal annually including barges and cruise ships, which have the right of way. Lucky for us, there was barely any traffic, just one other powerboat travelling in the opposite direction. A very relaxing trip!
Even at a distance, we could see a lot more traffic driving across the Bourne Bridge. What a surprise since it was only 8:40 a.m. on a Wednesday morning! Check out the video below as we approached the bridge.
Here are some fun facts about the railroad bridge:
- The current vertical lift bridge, constructed in 1935, replaced the original bascule bridge built in 1910 which had a single span, 160 feet long, that pivoted on the north foundation.
- The vertical clearance above mean highwater: 135 feet
- Total height above mean sea level: 271 feet
- Number of Tracks: 1
- The bridge is kept in the raised position until a train needs to cross
- Time to Lower: 2.5 minutes
- Length of Center Span: 544 feet
- Center Span Weight: 2,200 tons
- Original Cost: $1.56 million
- When constructed, it was the longest vertical lift railroad bridge in the world.
- Today it is the second longest lift bridge in the United States, the longest being the Arthur Kill Vertical Lift Bridge between New Jersey and Staten Island, New York.
- The bridge underwent a massive rehabilitation from 2001-2003. Work included new paint, new counterweight cables, new operating and electrical system and rehabilitated sheaves.
The railroad bridge is normally kept in the open position, but is lowered twice a day for the “Trash Train” and occasionally for other rail traffic (i.e. dinner train) and for maintenance. Today instead of being called the “Trash Train”, it is called the “Energy Train”. According to this article, the reason for the new moniker is because “for every ton of municipal solid waste processed, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by the equivalent of approximately one ton of carbon dioxide emissions.” Arriving at the SEMASS Resource Recovery Facility in Rochester, MA “the train cars carrying Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) are tipped onto the vast floor and scooped up into the incinerators to produce electricity.” The train carries about 60 tons of household solid waste daily!
The train crosses the railroad bridge twice a day in the morning and evening at no set schedule. When the bridge is lowered, all boating traffic comes to a halt until the bridge is raised again. About an hour after we went under the bridge, we heard on the radio that it would be closing. Talk about good timing!
Here’s a YouTube video showing it being lowered and raised:
On a less smelly note, earlier I mentioned the maximum size of a ship traversing the Canal, in 2017, the Viking Star at 747 feet made her way (clearing by inches) under the train bridge. Check out this YouTube video:
No issue for us, at 17’6″ air draft we would have much more room to spare! On the other side of the bridge, we would pass by the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. At their dock was an American Eagle Cruise Ship (at 241 feet, much smaller than the one above) at the Academy as part of their Cape Codder Cruise itinerary. This was her inaugural cruise.
As we left the Cape Cod Canal, we were now entering Buzzard’s Bay. Thankfully calm seas! We survived the Canal! In fact the weather was just absolutely perfect this day!
This 17,646 square foot home named Seapoint in Dartmouth, MA was for sale for $25 million in 2020. Probably too late to make an offer! :>)
Ahoy! There’s Sakonnet lighthouse in Little Compton! Goodbye MA, hello RI!
We estimated our arrival time at EGYC would have been after 4:00 p.m., definitely later than we wanted. Yes, we could have pushed ourselves and made it all the way but we didn’t want to rush it so instead we made a Dockwa reservation to stay on a mooring at Third Beach (not too far from Newport). Because these are town moorings with no amenities, the fee is cheap (at least compared to what we had paid previously), only $20. Our reservation was quickly confirmed by the Harbormaster who told us to choose any available mooring marked RENTAL with red bottom paint, most located on the outer perimeter. Arriving around 1:30 p.m., we were surprised being summer that there were a number of available moorings. Surprised that no one came around to check to see if we had a reservation. Perhaps next time we wouldn’t bother making an advanced reservation.
Exciting that in one more day and we would be back home!
For more photos and videos from this leg of our journey, click here.