To maximise your time in some of the World’s most incredible destinations, Janneke Kuysters reveals how to use canal shortcuts to get there.

Canal shortcuts through Scotland

Scotland’s famous Caledonian Canal cuts through the Great Glen from Inverness to Fort William and offers cruisers an unforgettable experience.

The 50-mile canal first opened in 1822; it was designed to ensure ships (including those of the Royal Navy) a safe passage east or west, avoiding the dangerous route through the Pentland Firth and around Cape Wrath. Roughly one third of the route is man-made, while the rest is made up of stunning lochs.

You also pass through 29 locks and 11 bridges to go from coast to coast. The summit is in Loch Oich, over 31m above sea level.

The Neptune’s Staircase series of locks at Banavie.

The Neptune’s Staircase series of locks at Banavie. Photo: Iain Masterton/Alamy

The channel can handle quite large yachts, with a maximum mast height of 27m (for example, at the bridge in Inverness). The canal is used by motorboats and sailing yachts, as well as cruise ships and commercial vessels, plus kayakers and, sometimes, even swimmers.

It is a fun experience to sail through. The canal is very sheltered, so motoring is the order of the day there. But once in Loch Ness, Loch Oich or Loch Lochy, they are open enough to allow for good sailing among magical fortresses and beautiful landscapes.

“Originally, we planned to sail through the Pentland Firth to finish our circumnavigation of the UK,” explains Dutch cruiser Annet van Assenbergh. However, with unstable weather forecast, they sought an alternative.

Her partner Rainier de Groot says: “The locks are a bit daunting at first, especially because we started at Neptune’s Staircase in Fort William. It takes a full day to climb the succession of locks. Once we got used to the locks we enjoyed the scenery, especially seeing Ben Nevis in the distance.

“It’s a place where you shouldn’t be in a hurry: there is so much to see and do. We loved sailing on the lochs: the wind keeps you on your toes, because it can accelerate quite unexpectedly. Sailing on Loch Ness was a highlight, you can’t help yourself looking for signs of the monster!”

Annet adds: “The canal stewards are very helpful and knowledgeable. We had a technical issue on Zee van Tijd, our Garcia 43, when we were in a lock. The throttle of our engine broke off the steering pedestal. The stewards offered assistance and gave us extra time to rig a temporary solution.”

Banavie near Fort William with Ben Nevis in the background.

Banavie near Fort William with Ben Nevis in the background. Photo: John Peter Photography/Alamy

However, their advice for cruisers wanting to take a larger yacht through the Caledonian Canal is to make sure you carry plenty of fenders, rigged on both sides of the yacht, to give you maximum flexibility when you enter a lock, and extra lines.

Annet also suggests packing hiking boots, “as there are many wonderful trails to explore around the Caledonian channel.”

You can start from either Inverness or Fort William. Short term licenses can be purchased online or at the starting point: there are different lengths of stay available. The license comes with a useful information pack and a map of the channel and available facilities.

A skippers’ guide can also be downloaded from the Scottish Canals website (visit and search for Caledonian canal skippers guide). Overnight stays at some pontoons are included in the fee.

Urquhart Castle beside Loch Ness.

Urquhart Castle beside Loch Ness. Photo: Byunau Konstantin/Shutterstock

If weather allows, a circular itinerary can be sailed too: west through the Caledonian Canal and back east around Cape Wrath. This gives you the opportunity to explore the Hebrides and other lesser-known cruising areas. There is spectacular sailing between the islands.

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Standing Mast route

If you have limited time, but fancy a European cruising adventure, the Standing Mast Route (or Staande Mast) in the Netherlands is one to do.

Sailing around the north of the Netherlands can be tricky in adverse conditions, so there is a long inland route that is virtually weather-proof. It’s 225 miles long, divided into different sections.

Start in the south-west (Vlissingen) and sail to Rotterdam and out to sea again, or continue on the inland waterways until Amsterdam or Haarlem, where you can opt to go ‘outside’ again. The Markermeer and IJsselmeer freshwater lakes are a delightful cruising ground in themselves.

Traditional Dutch windmills – a feature of cruising on the Standing Mast Route.

Traditional Dutch windmills – a feature of cruising on the Standing Mast Route. Photo: dpellicola

From Lemmer you can again head inland – if you wish, all the way to Delfzijl near the German border. French cruisers Nicolas and Bénédicte Chaput bought their Najad 320 LuckyDuck in Lelystad, on the shores of the Markermeer.

“We wanted to sail her to her homeport, Douarnenez, but we ran into very consistently strong south-westerly winds. Local cruisers recommended the Staande Mast Route to make our way south-west.

“At first we were a bit overwhelmed by all the locks and bridges we had to negotiate, but we took our time, because there are many delightful stops along the way. The route takes you right through the centre of historic Haarlem, and the iconic cheese town Gouda is well worth a visit too.”

Larger yachts can pass through the channels in the western part; for the northern section there is a draught restriction of 1.8m. Local cruiser Berend van Geffen takes his 65ft Bekebrede through it to get to his homeport Kudelstaart for the winter.

Harlingen on the Frisian coast.

Harlingen on the Frisian coast. Photo: W van der Iaan

“I love the channels: they are almost independent of the weather and so convenient. I often choose the passage through Amsterdam: you need to go in a convoy in the middle of the night. The bridge tender follows the ships from bridge to bridge on his bicycle; it’s always a fun experience.”

Göta Canal

The Swedish Göta Canal is ‘younger’ than the Caledonian Canal, but very similar in its construction and lock handling – unsurprising, because British engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834) was involved in both mammoth waterworks.

The Göta Canal was opened in 1832 to allow freight and passengers to travel quickly between Stockholm and Göthenburg. It runs from Mem on the east coast of Sweden to Sjötorp on the banks of the Vänern lake.

To get to the west coast of Sweden, you need to take the Trolhätta Canal, which runs from Vänersborg on the lake to Göthenburg. In total, you pass through 64 locks reaching a staggering elevation of 91m above sea level. The passage is 200 miles in length, so you need to take your time to get through it all.

Lock flight at Bergs slussar on the Göta Canal.

Lock flight at Bergs slussar on the Göta Canal. Photo: Can Sahin/LCProBild

Motorboats and historic passenger vessels use the canal, alongside sailing yachts. For yachts, the maximum draught is 2.8m, the maximum mast height is 22m.

“For us local cruisers, the channel is an easy and quick way to get across the country,” says Swedish cruiser Tuija Lövtangen. She and her husband Ingvar sail their Forgus 37 Hakuna Matata II from Jönköping on the Vättern lake.

“We can choose if we take the channel to the west coast or to the east coast for our summer cruising. Both are beautiful cruising grounds; that is why the Göta channel is such a great part of a cruising itinerary in Sweden.

“Another interesting itinerary is to sail around the south coast of Sweden and come back through the Göta channel. In that way, you can combine exploring both coasts with ease.” “But the channel offers so much too; it is a destination in itself,” adds Ingvar.

Islands in Lake Vänern, Sweden’s largest lake.

Islands in Lake Vänern, Sweden’s largest lake. Photo: Johner Bildbyra AB/Getty

“So take your time and explore. The channel is man-made, but it connects lots of lakes of different sizes. The two largest ones, Vänern and Vättern, are cruising grounds in themselves. You could easily spend a week or two there, sailing past old castles, Viking heritage and large towns like Karlstad.”

Tuija advises: “Sailing on the lakes can be challenging: because of their size (Lake Vänern is 90 miles long), they can be very choppy when the wind picks up. It pays to look at the forecast for the lakes, because if you have headwinds, progress can be really slow due to the chop. The prevailing winds are from the south-west.”

“The Trolhätta channel is used by large cargo ships: you need to keep an eye out for them,” says Ingvar.

“In the Göta channel you’ll only see other pleasure craft. The group of locks in Trolhätta itself is very impressive: in each lock you go up at least 6m. It pays to read the channel information on how to handle these locks. In Trolhätta you can see the historic locks that were hewn out of rock.”

Limfjorden and Nord-Ostsee-Kanal

The Nord-Ostsee-Kanal, also known as the Kiel Canal or simply NOK, is 61 miles long in an almost straight line from the Baltic to the German Bight in the North Sea.

The NOK was finished in 1895, but later widened to accommodate for the vast number of large ships: the alternative is to sail all around the north of Denmark. It is one of the busiest channels in the world: around 100 million tonnes of freight go through it every year, and around 12,000 pleasure craft.

Sailing the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.

Sailing the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Photo: Image Professionals GmbH/Alamy

“Most yachtsmen see the channel simply as a boring, but fast, way to get back and forth to the Baltic, but I disagree,” Dutch cruiser Nico Kuijper says. He takes his Dehler 44 Oceans4 almost every year through the NOK to go sailing in the Baltic.

“Getting to the starting point on both ends is tricky: the weather and tide need to be just right. Especially on the Elbe river, it pays to pick your weather and tide window carefully,” he says.

“You could motor the channel in one day (sailing is not allowed, but you can hoist a sail to go faster), but there are good stops along the way. Rendsburg is worth a visit in summer, when NordArt is open – an international modern art exhibition in an old foundry. Along the channel, there is lots to see: deer roaming the shores or the famous flying ferry.”

The height restriction for yachts going through the NOK is 40m and there is a maximum draught of 7m, and there are time restrictions: yachts are only permitted to use the channel during daylight hours.

It’s mandatory to listen to block channels on the VHF, to hear warnings of very large ships coming through.

In the north of Denmark, the Limfjorden is another natural ‘channel’ worth exploring. It stretches 90 miles from Thyborøn in the west to Hals in the east, following a winding irregular shape with numerous bays, narrows, lakes and islands and offers an ‘off the beaten track’ cruising experience.

The canal is a busy commercial route.

The canal is a busy commercial route. Photo: Weitse van der Laan

“You could sail through the fjord in two days, but why hurry?” Danish cruiser Martin Bjørn Christensen says. He regularly sails his Beneteau First 40 MileVidt in the Limfjorden.

“There is so much to be seen. You see plenty of wildlife around your boat, beautiful rolling hills and the quaint little towns. Both smaller and bigger bridges spice the cruise through the Limfjorden. In between them you have plenty of room to hoist your sails and enjoy the constantly changing landscape.

“There are plenty of marinas to visit and small islands where you will experience the Danish way of life first-hand. If you need to stock up or want to enjoy some city life: Alborg, the fourth biggest city in Denmark, is right in the middle of the fjord.”

The combination of the NOK and the Limfjorden offers a wonderful itinerary: with the prevailing south-westerlies sail to Thyborøn, through the Limfjorden and, after passing through Hals, explore the beautiful islands of Denmark.

You sail in the lee of mainland Denmark so enjoyable, fast passages are almost guaranteed. After meandering through Denmark you can take the NOK back to the North Sea.

Shortcuts to the Great Lakes

The north-east of the USA and Canada offer two incredibly adventurous channels to get to the Great Lakes. You could spend a lifetime cruising the Great Lakes, but to get there is equally interesting. There are three options: truck the yacht there, take the St Lawrence, or go up the Eerie Canal.

Discovering New York by yacht.

Discovering New York by yacht. Photo: Drazen/Getty

The St Lawrence Gulf starts in New Brunswick and narrows to the St Lawrence River near Quebec. Following the river (and the locks) you’ll get to Montreal and on to Lake Ontario. Here you can continue through the system of waterways and locks to the Great Lakes.

The other option is to sail to New York, unstep the mast and go up the Hudson River and the Eerie Canal to Buffalo. The Eerie Canal was built in 1825: it was the first waterway that connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.

Belgian and French cruisers Barbara Beeckman and Yves Jourdan sailed their Jeanneau 389, MedioVaS, all the way from the Caribbean to Canada and back, via Bermuda, St Lawrence, Lake Ontario, the New York canal system, the Hudson river, and the Intracoastal Waterways. Yves described the trip as ‘a dream come true’.

“After exploring the stunning Nova Scotia coastline, we sailed to the remote Magdalena islands in the St Lawrence Gulf, and enjoyed a calm summer there.”

“It’s tricky to sail upstream on the St Lawrence,” Barbara notes, “it’s a daily combination of current and changeable winds that keeps you on your toes. You don’t get to decide on the timeline, the tide does. Apart from countless charming harbours and anchorages, you visit such places as the Bay of Eternity, where you are granted access by whales and belugas.”

The Thousand Islands National Park on the St Lawrence River.

The Thousand Islands National Park on the St Lawrence River. Photo: Arpad Benedek/Getty

The couple sailed most of the way to Quebec, before having to use the engine to reach the city of Montreal. “For a Frenchman, entering Montreal is a piece of history coming right at you, highly moving,” recalls Yves.

“And getting to know such a welcoming population is a blessing. They are so incredibly keen to meet the very few, if any, foreign sailing visitors.”

“Eastern Lake Ontario was another gem, with a thousand tiny islands, many of them with a small wooden house on them,” says Barbara. “They are part of a nature park. You ride your dinghy to a pontoon and cook your lunch with firewood, using one of the permanent fire pits.”

After crossing the border into the USA they had to unstep their mast at Oswego Marina, to start the long trip on the Eerie Canal and the Hudson River. “After stepping the mast again, at the equally welcoming Katskill marina, we were sailing downstream at last!

“Arriving in New York City after such a long trip is something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. You get to drop anchor right on the back of the Statue of Liberty, for free. If you are as lucky as we were, you even enjoy an unexpected fireworks show!”

Corinth Canal

The Greek Corinth Canal is spectacular, in many ways. Its history is remarkable: the project to dig the channel was started in 67AC. Over the following almost 2,000 years, the project was stopped and restarted many times until, finally, in 1893 it was opened.

The Corinth Canal connects the Gulf of Corinth in the Ionian Sea with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. The channel is very impressive with a steep sided (76m high) and narrow waterway. It’s 3.4 miles long, 23m wide and 8m deep and offers a quick passage between the Ionian and the Aegean.

Passage through the channel is usually booked in advance, but can be booked on the spot too – it’s not the cheapest, but certainly spectacular.

Jesper and Mette Rossing took their Sunreef 50 One Ocean through the Corinth Canal twice. “Besides the obvious reason of saving the 300-mile sail around the Peloponnese, we chose the Corinth Canal wanting to see and sail this stunning piece of engineering,” Jesper explains.

The Corinth canal is steep-sided and narrow.

The Corinth canal is steep-sided and narrow. Photo: imageimage/Alamy

“The channel can only take one flotilla of boats at a time, so traffic is regulated by traffic control. The bays on either side are notorious for sea state and funnelling winds, so sailing there can be challenging. But you can be lucky too: when we sailed at night in the Bay of Corinth in a westerly direction towards the Ionian Sea, we had calm conditions and the most stunning scenery of the lit up coastline and the large Rio Antirrio bridge.”

Transiting the canal does require care. “The canal is quite narrow and in 2022 there were still parts of the collapsed walls that made the passage at certain points even narrower,” says Mette.

“We are 9.1m wide and we found it challenging to stay dead straight so as to not veer too close to either side. The couple set off at a conservative speed to admire the engineering of the canal, but say that traffic control quickly radioed them on VHF to usher them to pick up the pace a little.

“Going east in the bay of Corinth we did a stopover in Itea to pick up guests coming from Athens. From there we took the bus to explore the ancient town of Delphi and to learn more about the story of the Oracle. Definitely worthwhile – and to top it off the scenery was stunning.”

The canal is a gateway to cruising the Aegean.

The canal is a gateway to cruising the Aegean. Photo: Phil Johnson

Canal du Midi

The largest and oldest channel in Europe is the Canal du Midi, connecting the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. It first opened in 1683 and was used for over 200 years as an important waterway for freight and passenger ships.

Nowadays, the 140-mile channel is only used for recreational vessels, who take on its twists and turns through the beautiful landscape of southern France.

From Sète on the Mediterranean coast the canal runs to Toulouse. After passing 63 locks, vessels can continue on the Canal de Garonne, all the way to Bordeaux.

Using this channel saves sailing around the Iberian peninsula (with its associated orca concerns), but there are limitations in draught (1.5m, and expect shallow patches) and air draught – the mast has to be unstepped.

Using locks

Inevitably many channels and canals utilise locks to manage the water level. Navigating a lock by yacht can be stressful, especially when the difference in water level on either side of the lock is considerable. Preparation helps to make getting through them an interesting, rather than unnerving, experience.

Have enough fenders to protect both sides of the yacht. Having fenders both sides helps when a quick decision has to be made to change to the other wall of a busy lock.

Take at least four sturdy mooring lines of considerable length: it pays to have them prepared and ready when entering the lock: two on each side.
In channels with historic locks, like the Caledonian and Göta canals, instructions for setting up your lines are clear and you’re expected to follow them.

In Dutch channels, expect to share the locks with large barges: up to 115m. Check the VHF channel for each lock and contact the lock operator before going into the lock to get instructions.

If you can, stroll around locks before going in to familiarise yourself with the layout and procedures.

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