I recently posted a time-lapse video of a Cape Cod Canal Transit which was pretty well received by the boys at the Canal’s A.C.O.E. Office. It was the 1st of March and the opportunity couldn’t be ignored. With the opening seconds of the video showing us entering the East End in a pronounced slide and set toward the south breakwater, the canal is entered with the music of one of my favorite Santana tracks kicking in at just the right moment as we shot into the entrance.
The question from Ryan is; How would you compare a Hell’s Gate transit to a Cape Cod Canal transit?
Okay, since you ask……
One thing right off the bat, they are similar but different transits. The Gate presents its challenge once we commit for the eastbound transit at the lower end of the Poorhouse Flats range. After that (if you’re in the flood current) you are going through the Gate, stopping is not an option. Thirty or so minutes later, the “deed is done”. The Canal is a committed transit after passing Hog Island just west of the Maritime Academy.
Hell Gate is a tight and rocky estuary that doesn’t allow for a lot of leeway, it is an intense affair with two big turns. Once you clear the railroad bridge it becomes kind of anti-climactic. This time of year both waterways have the added challenge of dealing with large numbers of recreational vessels.
The Canal is a fifteen mile transit from Cleveland Ledge to the East End, the last twelve or so being the very definition of commitment. Once you’ve sailed past Mass Maritime and the A.C.O.E. West End Station there isn’t any room to turn around or places to stop.
On average the canal transit lasts from 1 to 2 hours depending on the current and traffic.
The Canal is similar to Hell Gate as it requires focus and timing to approach and negotiate. The primary difference is the amount of time you need to spend doing it.
Turns must be set up well in advance for large units since a fair current will introduce a respectable slide toward the down-current side of the channel. Bottom clearance is a consideration as well. Although the canal has a decent depth, there are some shallow spots that develop from time to time that will create enough suction that can make handling a deeply loaded unit a struggle in the turns. With a head current (going against the flow) it’s almost like pushing a pencil by its sharpened tip across a table. A balancing act that lasts for the entire transit until the east end breakwaters are in the rearview mirror.
Hell Gate has numerous eddies to contend with but they are fairly predictable for an experienced pilot. The Canal has a strong current that follows the trend of the ditch without too many cross-current issues (except perhaps near the academy and east entrance breakwaters). The east end can be challenging once it is approached since (as evidenced in the video) the bay influences the entrance with waves, weather and wind. There is also a railroad bridge at the West End Station that closes the waterway from time to time. Traffic is advised well in advance by the A.C.O.E. Controllers and the bridge never has an unannounced closing.
Should there be a strong northerly or easterly component to the wind and seas at the eastern end, many conventional tug and barge units delay their transit until the conditions abate since exiting the canal in push gear is something we’d want to do without a heavy swell surging the gear. Tugs towing light barges negotiate the canal at nearly any stage of the current without too much difficulty, but those towing a loaded unit “short” (close to the tug) through this waterway experience a delicate affair that is generally timed to coincide with the slack rather than max current. Tail boats are often used to help keep the tow under control as well.
Like Hell Gate, the canal can be an unforgiving stretch of water. More than one unit has had a bad day in the canal when things went sour. It only takes a few seconds of inattention to get in trouble; it gets ugly in a hurry.
Hell Gate is scenic and cool for its views of the Manhattan skyline and its Upper East Side until we reach the Astoria side of the railroad bridge, then it’s industrial chic for the ride past the Bronx. It gets pretty again when you reach the Whitestone Bridge and head under the Throg’s Neck bridge for the Sound.
The Canal is lovely and quintessentially New England, with wide walking and bike paths on both sides. Folks fishing in crystal aqua green water enjoying the parade of vessels large and small. It’s a beautiful ride any time of the year.
Sea level canal transits (like the Cape Cod Canal and Chesapeake and Delaware) are challenging and interesting. You are on your toes for the entire trip since a fair current will boost your speed over the bottom dramatically and a head current will make for a long trip. It’s about focus and forethought. My Dad used to say that a boat handler should be thinking a mile or so ahead of his boat to be ready for what’s next.
I’ve got to say that I like both transits. The Canal is pretty, but at the end of the day they both offer something that is challenging and interesting.