The St. Lawrence River:
Pathway to the Canadian Maritimes

By Jim Hawkins and Elinor Adams

The authors

The River

Those who live along the St. Lawrence River and consider it their primary cruising grounds move their boats up and down the river freely hopping the flood here and the ebb there to get to the weekend gathering of friends. They will travel from Quebec City up river through the Richelieu Rapids to Kingston for race week. Only weather, and they all emphasize weather, holds them back. They know the river and its moods well. If you can capture one of them for a beer and conversation take along a note pad.

Most of those interested in gathering information on transiting the river see it as merely a path to somewhere else. Perhaps you are speeding to Newfoundland, for the jump across the pond to Ireland. Or possibly the lure of the Madeline Islands, Nova Scotia, or even Labrador is impossible to resist.

You may pass down the river only once never to return again. Everything is new and the river has its own mysteries. You do it and then its over. Because of the evanescent nature of the passage, one may be tempted to just follow the buoys and get on with it. The goal of this report is to eliminate unnecessary mysteries of the river so you may be safer and truly enjoy your transit.

An imaginary line between Kingston, ON and Cape Vincent on the American side is often considered the start of the river. Most sail-boaters coming from the west will likely want to begin their experience of the Thousand Islands in the Canadian Middle Channel and one way or another work in a stop in Kingston possibly via the Bay of Quinte or with a pause at Main Duck Island on the way up from a New Your port. Unless you are in a huge hurry to get east, dallying a few days in the Islands is worth it. (For those coming up from points south by way of Lake Champlain the river “begins” at Sorel at the mouth of the Richelieu River.)

It is in the Thousand Islands that you will first begin to feel the power of the river as a current of about a half knot is noticeable. And as you leave the Islands via the Brockport Narrows, the current increases for a short distance to as much as three knots. In general, you can expect the current under your keel to gradually increase. The current boost adds many miles of distance made good to your boat’s normal speed per day. It makes rushing through the river possible, may even make it mentally difficult to slow down.

Quebec harbor marina with old city nearby.

The river is often quite wide, but as a sail-boater, you will find the river oddly constraining despite the added boost from the current. With the current carrying you along, you will be able to put up your sails even if you are able to sail at only three knots. Sailing in each of the “lakes” is even likely given the prevailing westerly winds. But you may feel controlled by the river as indeed you are. The depths outside the channel are often quite shallow. Few will want to take much of a chance leaving a buoy on the wrong side. In some areas the edges of the channel are rock, not mud. You may quickly have to douse sails and turn on the engine if the wind is not just right so that you can make the next twitch in the channel. It can be mentally disconcerting and wrongly, I believe, cause you to use the engine more than necessary.

You will develop the habit of ticking off each buoy as you pass, especially where the buoys are spaced far apart. Even then it is easy to become momentarily confused when the channel takes a jog or a side channel departs with its own set of buoys. When this happens, stop, turn on the GPS and get re-oriented. In some areas the chart shows a separately buoyed small boat channel. Satisfactory depths may be found and the current may be less. It can be fun and you won’t have to dodge the big guys.

You will not notice it much, but you are actually under the control of the managers of the St. Lawrence Seaway. They can tell you exactly what to do and when if need be. You will feel their presence mainly at the locks. Find out which VHF channels the lockmasters are using and you will get a sense of the Seaway Control. Masters and Pilots of the big ships are remarkably deferential.

The magnificent Frontenac Hotel on the bluff above the old city from the River.

There are seven locks in this section of the river. The first, Iroquois, is simply a leveling lock and may drop you a few inches to a few feet depending on water levels in the river. Usually you just float at idle in the water until the gate opens at the downstream end. The next two locks are on the American side and are the easiest to manage as they have floating bollards built into the side walls of the lock over which you loop your own dock lines. The remaining locks are Canadian. In these, the line handlers will drop you lines with which to steady your boat. As you are going downstream, the turbulence in the locks is minimal. You will have more trouble with the wind whistling down into the lock pushing the boat this way and that.

You will be required to wait on the commercial traffic to clear. This could take a number of tedious hours. And if pleasure boat traffic is heavy, you may be required to raft with other boats in the lock. At each lock there is a pleasure craft dock on the side you will tie up to when in the lock. You can remain overnight at these tie-up docks if you arrive later in the day. (The Seaway handbook lists the locks and tie-up side so you can prepare.) But with heavy pleasure boat traffic, there may be no room at the dock. You are then dependent on the good will of those already there to offer a raft up. Sometimes there is anchoring in 10-20 feet, more often in 30 feet. The Canadian locks cost $20 each either CN or US. The American locks charge $20US or $30CN each. Thus, some attention to the prevailing exchange rate is wise. Both countries want exact amounts.

The big boats, there are many of them, want their half in the middle. You would be wise not to meet one coming upstream under a bridge or in an otherwise restricted channel when the big one is moving at speed. There will be room for you both, but the quarter wave bucking the current can be brutal. So give them room and go slow after they pass until the wake has settled down.

The authors’ Baba 30 Meta Fog.

As one moves farther east and north, marine services become increasingly scarce. Fuel, water, and pump-outs are frequent enough, but repair facilities are not. From eastern Ontario to Quebec City the yard most mentioned as full and complete is the Boulet/Lemelin Yacht facility ( or 800 463 4571 in Sillery, near Quebec City. The yard is located in the same basin as the Yacht Club de Quebec. Reportedly, yachts from as far upstream as Lake Chaplain and very far downstream travel there for repairs or winter storage. At least one circumnavigating yacht was in repair there in 2003. Otherwise, there are a variety of mobile repair companies that will come to your boat towing a substantial trailer load of supplies. Beyond Quebec City, repair facilities become even scarcer and farther apart. A mechanical breakdown or an inadvertent grounding requiring a tow could be costly. Towing insurance in a substantial amount is recommended.

Partial List of Anchorages: Thousand Islands to Quebec City

The guides provide adequate information on marinas, but offer variable information on anchorages between the Thousand Islands and Quebec City. Below is a list of some anchorages, in order, going downstream from the Thousand Islands. We have personally used some of them, perused others, and selected still others which appear suitable for sailboats suggested by other sources. Anchoring with easy access to Montreal or Quebec City is almost impossible with exceptions noted below, but the guides provide complete information on marinas close to both cities.

There are many other places to anchor depending on your ingenuity. However, without clear reason to the contrary, you should assume the bottom is rocky.

 Anywhere the chart notes a mud bottom in a location with protection is worth a try, but a mud bottom almost always means thick grass and weeds so extra time and effort will be required to retrieve anchors. Where a tributary enters the main river, there may well be a silt outflow offering anchoring possibilities even if the chart itself is ambiguous as to the nature of the bottom.

Downstream of the Thousand Islands, a convenient anchorage is in Morristown, NY, across the river from Brockville. You can anchor there in 10-12 feet behind the floating breakwater out of the fairway in mud.

Tourist group in the old city.

There are several options as you approach Lake St. Lawrence. One convenient option lies NE of the most easterly of the Croil Islands, about one-quarter mile north of buoy R50 in mud.

There appears to be good anchoring near the east end of Cornwall Island to the north of Pilon Island. An anchorage south of St. Regis Island is reported.

Near the lower end of Lac St. Franscios, is a buoyed secondary channel (shown on the chart) that leads to the small harbor of Salaberry-de-Valleyfield. It offers a pleasant stop before entering the Beauharnois Canal. The small harbor is busy on weekends as the parade of powerboats hurries to the foot of the bay to round the water fountain and rush back out. The harbor is open to the SW, but you can get far enough in to be safe in summer weather. Here is the first place where the predominance of French language speakers is noticed. This location, about 25 miles short of Montreal, offers access to the city via public transportation. The bus station is a 20 minute walk where you board for the Agrignon Station, transfer to the subway, and step off just ten minutes from the old city. Prior to the return trip, it is best to relieve yourself as the Agrignon Station has no restroom facilities! The marina at Lachine offers similar access.

Just as you are about to enter the Canal de la Rive Sud for the long trip around the Lachine Rapids and Montreal lies Ile Tekakwitha. South of marker FY is an anchorage in 12-20 feet, mud, protected from all but a strong SW. If you intend to bypass Montreal altogether or if you arrive late and do not want to chance finishing the long canal and locks after dark this is a good place to spend the night as stopping anywhere in the canal is not permitted.

You will find a buoyed channel into the marina at Languiuel downstream from the Canal de la Rive Sud (past the moorings) as noted on the chart. Utilize the channel as if entering the marina, but turn upstream out of the channel to anchor near the moorings.

Given the strong current and no more locks, the stretches from Montreal to Sorel and Sorel to Trois-Rivieres are easy one-day ventures. Note, however, a lovely quiet anchorage lying between low islands offering good protection about 10 miles north of Montreal. Enter the anchorage between Ilet Vert and Ile Deslauriers and round into the channel between Ile a L’Aigle and the unnamed islet to the east on the chart. A number of options farther in are present depending on the protection you need. Anchor in 10-20 feet in mud and a two-three knot current.

A little further along, Skipper Bob reports on what he calls the best anchorage between Montreal and Sorel. Leaving the main channel via the narrow pass north of Ile aux Rats you can find sites along the buoyed channel behind the islands.

The chart shows an anchorage near the mouth of the Riviere Richelieu, but it is not protected from current, wind, or wave action. However, a few miles further a group of low islands at the south end of Lac Saint Pierre provide beauty and good protection. An easy entry lies north of buoy S130 between Ile aux Carbeaux and Ile Lapierre, but there are many options in this group. Be aware, some of the entries are blocked with water level control barriers.

At Trois-Rivieres, anchor in the Riviere St. Maurice to the west of Ile St. Quentin upstream of the swimming beach in 10-20 feet. Leave buoy C52 to port avoiding a rock in six feet reportedly near the first nine-foot spot on the chart.

Trois-Rivieres to Quebec City

Beyond Trois-Rivieres the river changes character as tidal influence becomes significant. The Richelieu Rapids can be intimidating, but the main difficulties (though hardly hazardous) for a deep draft boat are the rips and boils. With careful planning you can choose to go through with a “slow” current, but you may still register 11 knots over the ground for a short stretch. At this point the Sailing Directions ATL 112 and a tide reference are extremely helpful. Slack water after high tide lasts as little as 20 minutes. At low tide, the current continues to run out slowly for another hour or so with local variations.

Looking downstream from Quebec harbor with one of many “saltys” in
the view.

It is possible to cover the 67 miles in one day: A vessel traveling at six-seven knots should leave Trois-Rivieres eight hours before low tide at Quebec. Faster boats can leave five-seven hours before low tide while slower boats should leave nine-ten hours before low tide at Quebec, but this means a fair amount of pushing into the flood and/or traveling in the dark.

A better way for a slower boat, I believe, is to take two days. For the fastest passage with time to spare before the tide reverses, you would leave Tres Rivieres at local high tide slack. Portneuf lies about half-way to Quebec City just past the Richelieu Rapids. Deep draft boats can enter the marina at any tide. One boat known to us anchored just downstream behind the Portneuf breakwater laying a second hook into deeper water as a precaution. An anchorage in eight feet at low tide with a sand bottom lies directly across the river and shows on the chart. Anchor on either side of the old wharf. Locals use this as a weekend anchor-out spot and reportedly enjoy the sand beach located there. Others use it to await a change in tide. In a pinch, you can tie outside the Portneuf wharf, but due to the tidal range you may need to tend lines.

Another good “half-way” option is the Neuville marina 10 miles further downstream. Accurate instructions for entering are given in the Sailing Directions. When continuing on from this marina, you may head downstream directly from the breakwater at any tide by angling toward the south end of the suspension bridge visible in the distance. To move quickly on to Quebec City, leave at local high tide.

In Sillery, just before Quebec City itself, anchor among the moorings in sand adjacent to the Yacht Club de Quebec. While the current runs strong in both directions in the channel, it is much reduced through the moorings To easily visit Quebec City, take a slip at the Port Authourity Marina which is only a ten minute walk from the old city.

Quebec City to Tadoussac

A little way past Quebec City, you encounter salt water for the first time. Tidal influence is, if anything, more of a factor and the river current is still strong. Most of the marinas, with significant exceptions, dry at low tide. Keelboats can enter at half-tide, or above but sit down in mud when low tide arrives. In contrast to the portions of the river described so far, staying in the big-boat channel all the way is not the preferred path. For example, Cap-a-L’Aigle, the first marina with access at low tide, can be reached in one day by leaving Ils aux Coudres far to port while following one of the “old” sailboat channels. The ebb tide plus the river current can reach nine knots here making it feasible for even a slow boat to traverse 70 miles in a day. Typically, one leaves Quebec a couple of hours before high tide and arrives at Cap-a-L’Aigle before or just after the flood begins.

Anchorages are available all the way out, but some are exposed to NE or SW winds. Timed right, marinas that dry can be visited. So this 70-mile section of the river can be covered in one or many days. Marinas, anchorages, tidal currents, routes, and cautionary notes are so well described in “St. Lawrence River and Quebec Waterways” that additional advice here would be superfluous.

Shallows and islands pepper the river up to Tadoussac contributing to severe rips and overfalls where the bottom interacts with swift currents. Rips are further enhanced due to the outflow of the Saguenay River, a significant river in its own right. These complicate a visit to the whale sanctuary and entry into the Saguenay fjord. Combining anchorages and marinas in tandem on both sides of the river provides many options for enjoying the river and managing the demands of wind, tide, and current.

Tadoussac to Cap Rosiers

Below Tadoussac, you start to feel you are truly in the ocean. The outflow from the Saguenay River tends to stay near the surface as it trends to the south side of the St. Lawrence. It serves to keep the south side of the increasingly wide river warmer while reducing the already diminished flood all the way to the tip of the Gaspe’. Still, a strong east wind against the current can make for an uncomfortable chop. Cold water wells up on the deeper north side of the river, the turbulence enhancing the food supply for the whales. But the north side offers more remote and, for some, more interesting, if colder, cruising. Careful planning and attention to the tidal range is still required to assure access to marinas or anchorages.

Passing out of the St. Lawrence, one is presented with a bewildering array of cruising destinations. Turning south takes you to the Gulf coast of New Brunswick and on to Nova Scotia. To the east lay the Isles de Madeline and beyond them the west and south coasts of Newfoundland or the east entrance to Cape Breton. To the northeast the Belle Isle Strait gives access to Labrador and the east coast of Newfoundland.

The St. Lawrence River is a cruise in itself with plenty of excitement and challenges to satisfy the most seasoned crew. But the river also opens the way to some of the most beautiful and, yes, challenging cruising in the world, the Canadian Maritimes.

Jim Hawkins and Elinor Adams are starting their second extended cruising adventure. Stay tuned.