Navigation of the Cape Cod Canal

The Cape Cod Canal is a sea-level waterway offering vessels a minimum channel width of 480 feet wide and an authorized depth of 32 feet at mean low water. The swift running Canal current changes direction every six hours and can reach a maximum velocity of 5.2 miles per hour, during the ebb (westerly) tide. The three bridges that span the Canal were designed to allow for 135 feet of vertical clearance above mean high tide.

Vessels up to 825 feet in length can use the Canal's safer, shorter route, but many small recreational craft enjoy the waterway as well. All mariners should familiarize themselves with the Canal's navigation regulations before entering. Recreational boaters are also strongly urged to review the Canal boating safety guide, which outlines the unique hazards boaters face while transiting the Canal. The navigation bulletin advises all mariners about shoaling and current construction projects that affect navigation in the Canal.

Use of Cape Cod Canal saves mariners an average of 135 miles of coastwise travel while circumnavigating Cape Cod. Support for the navigation mission at the Canal includes a state of the art Marine Traffic Control System, Marine Traffic Patrol by Corps vessels, and maintenance and improvement of the Canal channel and mooring basins.

Supporting the nation by maintaining and improving navigation channels was among the Corps of Engineers' earliest Civil Works missions, dating to Federal laws in 1824 authorizing the Corps to improve safety on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and several other ports. The Corps maintains navigable waterways, such as the Cape Cod Canal, by keeping them at Congressionally authorized depths and widths through dredging and other means. The improvement of the original privately owned Cape Cod Canal is one example of how the improvement process works.

Today, the Corps maintains more than 12,000 miles (19,200 km) of inland waterways and operates 235 locks. These waterways, a system of rivers, lakes and coastal bays improved for commercial and recreational transportation, carry about 1/6 of the nation's inter-city freight, at a cost per ton-mile about 1/2 that of rail or 1/10 of trucks transportation. Ports and waterways also play a role in national defense. Practically all the heavy equipment and supplies bound for overseas military deployments moved by ship through ports maintained by the civil works program.

Marine Traffic Control

During the 1950s and 1960s the number of vessels and the volume of cargo tonnage shipped through the Canal steadily increased. To keep pace with increased waterway usage and to save on personnel costs, the Corps of Engineers designed and installed an integrated ship traffic control system in the early 1970s. The system utilized limited radar and complete closed circuit television surveillance to monitor the channel from towers which were strategically positioned along the waterway. The radar and television images were relayed to a central control console in Buzzards Bay from which a Marine Traffic Controller was able to monitor all ship traffic in the Canal. Using a multichannel marine band radio, the controller was able to communicate directly with ships transiting the waterway.

The modern Marine Traffic Control System is an advanced display and decision support system. The system integrates radars, closed circuit television cameras, VHF radio, tide elevation and sensors for wind speed, air and water temperature. Automatic processing of all data collection presents a complete picture of vessels and conditions in the canal to support management of the 17.4 mile waterway. Data on vessel movements and communication are recorded for playback.

The system allows the Marine Traffic Controller on duty to manage the busy waterway and pay maximum attention to important operational duties.

Marine Traffic Patrols

The Cape Cod Canal Marine Operations Section patrols the Cape Cod Canal with a mission to keep the 17.4 mile waterway safe for transits of both commercial and recreational vessels. To achieve their mission, Marine Operations personnel render assistance to disabled commercial and recreational vessels in the Canal; seek compliance and enforce Canal navigation rules and regulations; inspect infrastructure along the Canal; investigate and make reports on pollution incidents and other incidents; enforce an area of restriction around the Railroad bridge when it is in lowered position; and provide security zones for special interest vessels and endangered marine mammals within the waterway.

With a fleet of two 38-foot Metal Shark patrol boats and two 25-foot SAFE boats, the Marine Operations Section provides a quick and  effective response to any marine emergency that occurs within the Canal. Assistance from Corps patrol boats can be requested from the Marine Traffic Controller on VHF channels 13, 14, or 16, or by telephone at 978-318-8500.

Controlling Depth in the Canal

The controlling depth of the Cape Cod Canal is 32 feet MLLW.  Sand shoals can periodically develop in the canal channel.  All vessels transiting with a draft greater than 28 feet should contact and consult well in advance with the Marine Traffic Controller.


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Cape Cod Canal Field Office
P.O. Box 1555
Buzzards Bay, MA 02532
Phone: (508) 759-4431 or (978) 318-8816

Cape Cod Canal Visitor Center
60 Ed Moffitt Drive
Sandwich, MA 02563
Phone: (508) 833-9678
Visitor Center Directions