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Cruising the New York State Canal System, the best deal on the water

Lakes Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Champlain and the Hudson River. All within vacation range of Ontario boaters and quite simply the best deal on the water. The New York State Canal system is comprised of the interconnecting Erie, Oswego, Champlain and Cayuga-Seneca systems and has always been a bargain with free docking at pretty little parks at almost every lock and town, some secluded and others in the heart of small and not so small towns. 2,250 kilometers of incredible variety. At the bottom of this page we'll also have some tips about handling the locks and some links for more detail on the system.

New York State is going to great lengths to encourage cruisers to spend time here and you will be treated accordingly. For some strange reason dockmasters, lockmasters and everyone else seem particularly fond of Canadians and are exceedingly friendly, helpful and a great source of information about their local areas.

Cruisin' with my best friend

This map is incomplete as there are many, many more stops (including the locks) than I am able to show here

We have cruised the eastern end of the New York State Canal System (Oswego to the Hudson River) many times on our way south and delivering boats, we had never done the western section from the three rivers junction west to Lake Erie. We corrected that this summer and our only regret is that we did not do it years ago. Although our cruise this summer was the Oswego and the western section of the system we have included a few photos and notes from the eastern section as well. At the bottom of this page I have also included some links for further information.

Our route on this trip - We went east from Mississauga through the 1000 Islands then back around Cape Vincent (also free docking) to Oswego, down the Oswego Canal, east a few miles to Winterhaven Marina at Brewerton to load up on the cheapest diesel in the system then turned west through the canals to Tonawanda, into Lake Erie, through the Welland Canal and back to Mississauga.

Oswego to Three Rivers Junction -
I'm a cruiser not a photographer so I have not included shots of, nor described all our stops.

OSWEGO -
Upon entering at Oswego check in with customs via the video phone at the fuel dock on your port side as you enter the harbour then immediately enter the lock. Once you pay for your lock pass ($100.00 season pass for our 40') you can spend the night on this wall which is a few minutes walk from everything you might need.
You need not pay for a single nights docking for the rest of your stay in the system as your lock pass includes free docking at every lock* and almost every town in the system.

* Except a couple of locks where docks are not physically possible.

Try not to arrive in Oswego during "Oswego Harbourfest" as you will not find a square inch of this large harbour or the canal walls open for anchoring or docking. I think most of NY state shows up for this party weekend and the biggest fireworks show I've ever seen.

The wall south of Oswego lock
FULTON -
Not a lot of space in the free marina for bigger boats but lots of room on the canal wall. A good spot for provisioning but we have not spent a lot of time here.

MINETTO -
A busy crossroads and not a lot of dock space but a good place for provisioning.


PHOENIX -
After we stocked up on cheap rum and dirt cheap beer in Oswego we moved south on the canal to another of our favourites to visit the "Bridge House Brats" at Phoenix. Here you will find free docks with shorepower and free pumpouts. The affectionately named "Brats" are a bunch of volunteer local kids who greet boaters, provide local info, water the plants, clean up the docks, walk your dog and a host of other chores. The kids are supervised by a few adults and you will not meet a nicer bunch anywhere. We slip the kids a couple of bucks to walk the dog but no tips are expected.
the little eejit didn't need a walk but he loves being around kids.

The "Bridge House" contains a small museum and a kitchen where you can purchase snacks and have a free morning coffee with the locals who make the docks a gathering place.

The Bridge House at Phoenix
Three Rivers Junction to Waterford & Hudson River
East at the junction to Waterford and the Hudson River or west to Buffalo and Lake Erie.

At the Three Rivers Junction we turned east for a few miles to Winterhaven Marina at the western end of Lake Oneida where as all snowbird cruisers know, they have the lowest price fuel on the system (as much as 85 cents a gallon lower). Most of the canal system has a 10mph speed limit so this fuel should last a long time.
Three Rivers Junction
SYLVAN BEACH -
If you continue east from Brewerton you will find at the other end of Lake Oneida, Sylvan Beach which is the NY state version of Wasaga beach complete with lovely sand and waterside amusement park for the kids and the usual lots of free docking. On a long weekend this spot may get busy so try to avoid arriving then.

Sylvan Beach
ROME -
One of the things we most enjoy on this canal system is the large number and tremendous variety of small museums, the vast majority of which are again .... free. Rome is no exception with their "Erie Canal Village" Along the lines of our own "Pioneer Village" but obviously oriented towards the canal history and well worth the stop.

Rome
HERKIMER -
Try the wonderful fresh bread and pastries at the famous Herkimer Bakery (Famous among snowbird cruisers).

After Herkimer try friday night concert at Lock 20 between Rome & Utica.

Lock 20 between Rome and Utica
LITTLE FALLS -
Pretty little spot with summer concert series, farmers market, groceries. I think this is the only place on the system where you pay for docking and pumpouts are $5.00

Little Falls
CANAJOHARIE -
We have been small town museum buffs for many years and poked around some exceptional
small museums and art galleries but the Arkell Museum and Art Gallery is truly a gem among gems and should not be missed. Take your bathing suit on your walking tour and have a dip in one of the "potholes" shown below. This lovely little town is one of our top three picks and as usual .... free docking with immaculate facilities.
Me an' my honey enjoy strolling around this town nd especialy enjot the wonderful art gallery.

Canajoharie

Canajoharie pot hole (not like the ones in Toronto)

Canajoharie

WATERFORD
-
There are boaters welcome centers (WiFi, showers, laundry facilities) on the system such as the one here where you will be welcomed like the prodigal son by the volunteer seniors.Imagine that ! there is still a place where boaters are wanted. (Ask about the inexpensive all you can eat pancake breakfast at the local seniors center). Like almost every other town on this system there are special events. The big feature at Waterford is the annual. "Tugboat Roundup" which features converted and working tugs that you can tour.

Waterford Tug Roundup
HUDSON RIVER -
Just around the corner from Waterford you can turn north to Lake Champlain and Montreal or turn south and be in Manhattan in two days. We have run boats from Manhattan to Port Credit in four days but you should take more time to enjoy the spectacular Hudson Valley.
There are a number of restaurants on the Hudson where if you buy a meal you can stay on their docks overnight otherwise there are no more free docks but quite a few beautiful anchorages.

If you decide to go to Manhattan you may want to read Boating in New York Harbour


Rainy day on the Hudson River near West Point
Three Rivers Junction to Lake Erie
East to Lake Oneida and the Hudson River or west to the finger Lakes and Lake Erie.
SYRACUSE -
If you turn west at the Three River Junction rather than east to the Hudson river, you could turn south into Lake Onandaga to visit Syracuse and visit the Salt Museum and the Erie Canal Museum.



Three Rivers Junction
BALDWINSVILLE -
Lovely little town with everything you need within two blocks, a couple of great restaurants (Best crab cakes ever at the Lock 24 restaurant) and free weekend concerts at the open air Budweiser stage just across from the docks (best seats in the house).

Baldwinsville - Budweiser stage at left

Baldwinsville - boaters welcome office. My honey & me

Baldwinsville - Lots of free dock wall

CAYUGA and SENECA LAKES
-
State parks, Watkins Glen race track, Montour Falls, lots of wineries to visit, good fishing and something for every member of the family. Once in these lakes you are off the canal system and the free stuff pretty much stops but it is also dirt cheap compared to what we pay in Canada

SENECA FALLS
-

On the canal that joins the lakes is this lovely small town (back to the free stuff) with a couple of very inexpensive restaurants serve awesome homemade burgers (pint of draft for $1.50), a terrific deli and yet another superb little museum and John the happy, outgoing dockmaster to tell you all about it. Few places we have cruised are as welcoming as this. Help yourself to the fresh veggies in the community garden across from the docks. All they ask is that you do a little cleaning up or weeding. The tomatoes taste the way they did when you were a kid.

Beautiful entrance to Seneca Falls

Seneca Falls - Community vegetable garden across from docks
Free docks and rental narrowboats at Seneca Falls

NEWARK
-

Dockmaster Mike (Mrs.Mike if he's not there) will greet you and provide keys to the immaculate washroom and laundry facilities and provide directions to everything available. after dark take some bread down to the end of the dock and hand feed (yes, right out of your fingers) the fish. You can do this during the day but the murals and fish are beautiful at night.

Newark murals - Dockmaster office above

Dockmaster Mike and my Laura

Newark free docks

PITTSFORD -
A neat little spot with a touristy flavour, the usual good restaurants and impeccable facilities. Note the sign on the dock stating that if you want free docking for more than two weeks you have to get permission.

Pittsford - Converted Silo/office building

Pittsford-Docking more than 2 weeks requires permission !

Pittsford - More dock space

SPENCERPORT
-

Sleepy village with supermarket, wifi, dockside restaurant, showers, washrooms and laundry facilities in the renovated trolley station.

Spencerport
BROCKPORT -
Small college town with friendly visitors center at the docks all you might need within easy walking distance ... bars, restaurants, movies antique shops. and the usual well maintained docking facilities.

Another rental narrowboat at the Brockport docks
HOLLEY -
Beautiful little town and another little museum. Walk through the gorgeous little park that parallels the free docks, you can make a left to see the waterfall or continue on for another 30 seconds and come out at the back of the supermarket where I bought 30 cans of Labatts Ice on sale for $8.99.

Spent some time with friendly bridge tender Don Phillips. Don is much happier than he looks in the photo below. I think he thought I was going to play with his bridge controls.

Docks at Holley

Lesson on bridge operations from Bridge tender Don Phillips
(He's actually happier than he looks)

Holley - My Laura at the waterfall on the way to get groceries

LOCKPORT
-

We didn't stop here but is sure is pretty.

Lockport
TONAWANDA -
What a great spot and gets very busy on weekends but there is so much dock space on both sides of the river you'll find a way to squeeze in. Live theatre, antiques, free concerts on weekends,small museum water side bars and a whole slew of Canadians from the east end of Lake Erie make this a regular weekend run. This is by far the biggest docking facility on the system with a small dock fee of $10.00/day (but still $2.00 for a pumpout) since you are now outside of the canal system.

Tonawanda
Tonawanda

Tonawanda
HANDLING THE LOCKS -

Newbies are often intimidated by locks as was I the first time after listening to the experts who said you needed bales of hay as fenders and 2X6 fender boards to save you from damage on the walls... Bunk !


Year ago on my first trip through these canals I took this stuff seriously but dumped the fenderboards and hay bales after the second lock. Sure you will get some slime on you fenders and some will drip onto your decks, just hose it off. Photo at right shows a fella single handling the locks.

1 - Fender position is very important. You want your fenders on the rub rail. this keeps your boat off the wall and minimizes slime transfer to your hull. Buy a bunch of mesh laundry bags at Dollarama to cover your fenders and dispose of them when they are slime saturated. Once you become accustomed to the lines, your boat should rarely touch the wall.

2 - Have lines and fenders ready on both sides of the boat as traffic may dictate which side wall you go to.

3 - Always have a boat pole ready to snag a line if its a little out of reach.

4 - The approach ... enter the lock slowly. Any wake you drag in will bounce off the walls and the gate and come back at you and anyone sharing the lock will get rightly ticked off. Enter in the middle and approach your stopping point at an angle then gently kick your stern towards the wall. Trying to drive parallel to the wall over a distance is difficult and you'll likely roll your fenders up and scrape the wall with your rubrail. You mate will be at the turn of the bow ready to grab a line. The mate should be watching you and you give him/her a nod as to when to grab a line as the pilot is the one who decides where to stop and will grab the aft line.

5 - There are two types of lines in the the lock. Some are just ropes that hang from the top of the lock and some are cables that are fixed top & bottom. Grab the hanging rope or loop your own line around the fixed cable. Never ever tie off your line to a lock line, disaster can result.

6 - The departure ... Never let go of the lines until you see the green light come on. Never let go of the lines until the boat in front of you is well under way. If you are opposite a boat on the other wall, agree who will go first while you are waiting. Push off the wall and try to leave the lock in the center of the channel as there is sometimes turbulence at the downstream gates which can push you around a little bit.

7 - There will be more turbulence near the gates on the low side. ie. locking down.

Bob Frederick on "El Nido"(34' Mainship) single handing the locks

Fender position is important

Loop your line around the cable (fixed top & bottom)
THE WELLAND CANAL -

Locking on the Welland is little different than the Erie canal ( other than lock size) but you will have no choice on what side to go to or where you stop.

Downbound - is quite easy in fact the first lock is so gentle and lowers so little that you don't even have to take a line. When entering every other lock there will be a worker ready to hand you lines so thats where you have to stop. Downbound is easy and our 45 LOA is easily handled by my wife and I.

Upbound
- if you do our route counter clockwise you will be upbound in the Welland and a crew of at least three is mandatory. You can hire a third hand for the upbound trip, just ask Seaway control when you check in. Many of the hands hired for this are off-shift Seaway workers. Upbound is a little trickier than downbound due to the increased turbulence at some of the gates upon exiting the lock and there is some more turbulence while the lock is being filled. Fill turbulence is why three crew are required, one each at bow and stern and one at the helm in case throttle is needed to hold your position. Upbound you will enter the cavernous lock and only two lines will be dropped to you, so again you do not have a choice of position or side.
Hanging rope lines in the Welland
You must remember that this can be a very busy commercial canal and that pleasure craft take a back seat to the big ships. I have done this canal in 6hrs and I've done it in 26hrs. it ain't a pretty place and you cannot stop for a break.

When you check in with the phones provided at both ends of the canal it might be wise to ask for an estimated transit time. Ask is it's worth waiting til' the next day and make your decision.
If you are a power boat capable of travelling at the speed limit of 10nm/hr you might want to think twice about going through with a sailboat who has trouble getting over 5.5. There is no point in trying to get ahead of a slower boat as Seaway control is going to make you wait for them at the next lock anyway.


Ship traffic in the Welland Canal
NYS Canal website with step by step photos of each lock in the system.

Official NY State Canal website with lots of good info. You can purchase a cruising guide here.

The Travels of Tug 44 Tug 44 is a long term cruiser on the system and has lots of useful information on his website.

Erie Champlain Canal Boat Company Rent an English style narrowboat to cruise the canals

Erie Canal Boat Company Conventional houseboat rentals

Canal Cruises Another English style narrowboat rental company
Arkell Museum Amazing museum/art gallery in Canajoharie

Newark Just Google the name of any town on the system. They all have websites with info on museums, special events and more.

Skipper Bob's Cruising Guide For a measly $13.00. A must have, mile by mile guide with details on every stop on the entire system.

Seneca Falls Museum Yet another superb little museum and like all the others ... it's free !

Many Chandleries carry or can get you the chartbook, Official Cruising Guide and Skipper Bob's Guide or if you are going to be in Toronto near the waterfront call the Nautical Mind bookstore and see if they have them in stock.
So cruising the Erie has given you the itch ? Check out Primer For First Timers Heading South if you want to travel a little further.

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