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If you’re looking for a change of pace when it comes to boating, why not consider canal cruising? Boating conditions don’t get much better than in canals, with New York’s Erie Canal and the rest of the state’s canal system proving to provide a perfect introduction to interested boaters.

“An extended cruise on the Erie Canal or other sections of the New York State Canal System is a wonderful experience, because it allows boaters to relax and enjoy the leisurely pace of the inland waterway,” says Robert Brooks, director of the New York Canal Corporation. “At the same time, this cruise can be packed with adventure because the canals are lined with towns and cities that have much to offer.”

Celebrating its 175th anniversary last year and gaining much national exposure for canal cruising, the Erie Canal opened in 1825 to much fanfare. It took the muscle power of men and horses eight years to build the canal and, though it was considered the engineering marvel of its time, not a single professional engineer was involved.

The Erie Canal connected the U.S. (and the world) commercially, from Albany and the Hudson River to Buffalo and Lake Erie. The first fleet to travel all 363 miles of the canal was headed by Governor DeWitt Clinton’s boat, Seneca Chief.

Today, cruising the canal takes about five to seven days. The Erie Canal’s channel depth ranges from 12 to 14 feet and the average width is about 125 feet. The minimum clearance under bridges is 15 1/2 feet from Three Rivers to Tonawanda and 20 feet from Waterford to Three Rivers. The speed limit is 10 m.p.h., unless otherwise posted.

When you add the New York State Canal System’s other three historic waterways (the Champlain, the Oswego, and the Cayuga-Seneca Canals), you have a total of 524 miles. With the Erie Canal as the main artery, these waterways link the Hudson River, Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario, The Finger Lakes, and Niagara River. The vast system gives boaters exciting possibilities, such as visiting quaint villages, participating in events, stopping at historic sites, exploring new harbors and waterfronts, and much more.

The Erie Canal and the rest of the system is generally open from May until early-November. There are public and private boat launches and marinas throughout, with more than 70 marinas offering boaters services and amenities such as transient and overnight dockage, utilities, fuel and pumpout, and more. Additional tie-ups, improved waterfront dockage, restrooms, and picnic facilities are also available in many canalside communities, where boaters can dock and set out on landside adventures. Some docking is also permitted at certain locks.

The lock system makes boating even more interesting. The Erie Canal features 33 locks and 15 lift bridges, with the total number of locks in the New York Canal System at 57, along with 17 lift bridges. Each lock is 328 feet long and 45 feet wide. Locks and lift bridges operate daily throughout the canal season, with most locks operating from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and in the summer until 10:30 p.m. All motorized recreational boats passing through a lock or lift bridge must purchase a two-day pass or an unlimited season permit ($5-$20 for the two-day pass and $25-$100 for the seasonal pass, depending on boat length).

In addition to the Erie Canal and the rest of New York’s system, a canal boating adventure can even lead to a foreign waterway on Canadian canals. A unique marketing partnership called “Yesterday’s Canals for Today’s Boater” teams the New York Sate Canal System with Parks Canada’s Trent-Severn Waterway, Rideau Canal, and Quebec Historic Canals. This awareness-building program shares the exciting boating possibilities within the northeastern inland waterways. While traveling the Canadian canal system, boaters will encounter top-notch amenities similar to those found on the New York State Canal System.

Along with owner-operated boats, the options for cruising the canals include many cruise and charter boat options. There are literally dozens of boat styles for rent from a wide variety of firms, as well as fully chartered opportunities. For example, just this past year, Canal Houseboat Rentals LLC (877/880-1919, www.canalhouseboatrentals.com), a company offering luxury houseboat rentals on the entire canal system, began operation. They offer weekly rentals aboard 67-foot Starlite custom houseboats that sleep six to 10 people, with amenities like hot tubs, built-in entertainment systems, and more.

Boating enthusiasts interested in visiting the Erie Canal and other canals will definitely want to purchase The Cruising Guide To The New York State Canal System. This book helps canal users navigate, plan trips, and bring into focus the historic destinations and resources along the waterway. The full-color cruising guide features every from lock and lift bridge locations to information on bridge heights, a current listing of marinas, public facilities, and services along the Canal System, permits and provisions for operating a vessel, navigation and travel tips, local facts and photographs, historic sites, and places to visit.


As mentioned above, The Cruising Guide To The New York State Canal System (Northern Cartographic, $24.95) is an incredible resource for boating the Erie Canal and the rest of the New York State Canal System. It can be obtained by contacting the New York State Canal Corporation at (800) 4CANAL4 or visiting their website (www.canals.state.ny.us). The NYS Canal Corporation can also provide a wide variety of other helpful information, including personalized assistance in planning a cruise (they’ll even fax, email, or snailmail a custom trip planner free of charge).