Can You Sail from the Great Lakes to the Ocean?

After reading a recent post on our blog, you may have tried sailing Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes. That experience left you eager to visit the Great Lakes again, but this time, you want these lakes to be your starting point on your next sailing expedition. Your goal endpoint is the ocean, but is that feasible? Can you reach the ocean from the Great Lakes on your sailboat?

Yes, you can indeed sail from the Great Lakes to the ocean. In this case, the ocean you’d arrive at is the Atlantic Ocean. All five lakes connect to this ocean via the Saint Lawrence River. This river is also the Great Lakes Basin drainage outflow.

Okay, so now that you know it’s possible to reach the Atlantic Ocean from the Great Lakes, you’re more excited than ever to set sail. In this post, we’ll give you all the info you need to do just that. From the routes to take to some sailing timetables and even what kind of conditions you can expect on your trip, this is one article you’re not going to want to miss. 

What Are the Best Routes for Traveling to the Atlantic Ocean from the Great Lakes?

The Great Lakes comprise more than just Lake Erie. There’s also Lake Ontario, Huron, Michigan, and Superior. You can sail any of the five lakes to get to the Atlantic Ocean, but the question becomes, how?

You’ll rely on the Saint Lawrence River primarily, which some also refer to as the Saint Lawrence Seaway. This river goes north easterly and links all five of the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

Before you plan your trip, make sure your sailboat is at least 20 feet long, as anything shorter than that may be restricted from traveling the route. If you do go, you’ll be in good company, as about 2,000 boaters travel to the Atlantic Ocean this way regularly. 

Keep your eyes peeled for tie-up areas and docks as you go, as there should be many for weary travelers who need a break. During your voyage, you’ll sail past parts of Canada (Montreal, Quebec, and Ontario), the Ontario Thousand Islands, and possibly even Maine or New York. 

In Montreal, your ride through the Saint Lawrence River takes you to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which contains New Brunswick, Labrador, and Newfoundland. If you have the time to stop and visit, you certainly should. Then you’d finish up in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy. Nova Scotia also makes a great starting point for your trip back, which we’ll discuss later. 

How Long Will It Take You to Reach the Atlantic Ocean When Sailing from the Great Lakes?

In an ideal situation, it would take nine days to get to your destination if you left from Duluth-Superior and traveled along to the Atlantic Ocean. That’s 2,038 miles in all, so it’s not a quick trip by far. 

Holdups are inevitable that will slow you down. That’s because there are shipping lanes along the Saint Lawrence River whether you’re heading towards or away from the Atlantic. Those boaters in commercial vessels are allowed to traverse the waters first, meaning you could be waiting for quite a while.

With the stalling due to commercial traffic factored in, you could be looking at a 14-day voyage or longer. It’s hard to say and will be reliant on the sluggishness of the traffic. 

Where in the Atlantic Ocean Should You Port?

If you think the Great Lakes are broad (well, they are considering that in volume, they comprise the worldwide surface freshwater supply by 21 percent), wait until you see the Atlantic Ocean. It’s 41,100,000 square miles, with a water surface area of roughly 29 percent. The surface of the earth is covered by the Atlantic Ocean at a rate of 20 percent, so it’s certainly no small body of water.

If you’re wondering where to port, you have nearly countless options. Here’s an overview.

North American Ports

  • Altamira in Tamaulipas, Mexico
  • Matagorda Ship Channel in Texas
  • Iberia District in Louisiana
  • Weedon Island in Florida
  • Hopewell in Virginia
  • Salisbury in Maryland
  • New Castle in Delaware
  • Port of Paulsboro in New Jersey
  • Penn Manor in Pennsylvania
  • Port Jefferson in New York
  • Stamford in Connecticut 
  • Eastport in Maine
  • Shediac or Belledune in New Brunswick, Canada

South American Ports

  • Puerto Cabello in Venezuela, Carabobo
  • Montevideo in Uruguay
  • Paramaribo in Suriname 
  • Georgetown in Guyana
  • Fox Bay in the Falkland Islands 
  • Barranquilla in Colombia, Atlántico
  • Itajai in Brazil, Santa Catarina
  • Bahia Blanca in Argentina

European Ports

  • Alesund in Norway
  • Wilhelmshaven in Germany
  • Vlissingen in the Netherlands
  • Port of Tilbury in the United Kingdom, England
  • Sullom Voe in the United Kingdom, Scotland
  • The Hague in the Netherlands
  • Oslo in Norway
  • Gothenburg in Sweden
  • Port of Ghent in Belgium 
  • Esbjerg in Denmark
  • Patras in Greece
  • Palermo in Italy
  • Marseille in France
  • Malaga in Spain 
  • Dun Laoghaire in Ireland 
  • Azov in Russia
  • Berdyansk in Ukraine

African Ports

  • Port Harcourt in Nigeria
  • Tangier in Morocco 
  • Nouakchott in Mauritania 
  • Libreville in Gabon
  • Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire
  • Cotonou in Benin
  • Freetown in Sierra Leone
  • Walvis Bay in Namibia
  • Praia in Cape Verde
  • Luanda in Angola
  • Douala in Cameroon 
  • Dakar in Senegal
  • Conakry in Guinea
  • Accra in Ghana 

East Asian Ports

  • Tripoli in Lebanon
  • Tel Aviv in Israel
  • Mersin in Turkey
  • Latakia in Syria
  • Larnaca in Cyprus
  • Sukhumi in Georgia

The list above, while not exhaustive, gives you a pretty good picture of where you can stop. No matter where your trip to the Atlantic Ocean takes you, there’s always a great port right around the corner. 

What’s the Best Route to Take Back to the Great Lakes?

You can spend months, even years exploring all the ports the Atlantic Ocean has to offer, but at one point, you may want to head back towards the Great Lakes. Which routes are available to you? 

Along the Saint Lawrence Seaway

Your first option is to just go back the way you came, starting in Nova Scotia and taking the Saint Lawrence Seaway towards the Great Lakes. 

Through the Hudson River, Then the Erie Canal

If you’re closer to New York as you exit the Atlantic, then sail the Hudson River. You can do so two ways, the first of which will put you in Waterford, New York. Ride the Erie Canal to get to Buffalo, New York. This will land you right back on Lake Erie. This trip takes about 363 miles on the Canal alone.

Through the Hudson River to Lake Ontario 

You can also reach Lake Ontario from New York. Once more, start at the Hudson River, sailing it from Waterford to the Champlain Canal. This will lead you to Lake Champlain, then to the Saint Lawrence Seaway and finally, to Lake Ontario. 

What Is the Trip Like from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean?

If you remember from our article on sailing Lake Erie, we discussed that conditions can sometimes be rough. Although you’re starting at one of the Great Lakes and heading away from it, you’re still a little nervous about what you might encounter on your adventure. What should you expect?

You’re right to be a touch concerned. As you begin sailing the St. Lawrence River towards the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the currents and tides can get quite dicey. Some sailors who have made the trip have gone so far as to describe the conditions as “extreme.” You may find it more difficult to navigate than you normally do. To put yourself in the best position for success then, sail when the weather is clear and not very windy. 

Even still, you might feel like you’re fighting against the Gulf of St. Lawrence current, and that’s because you are, at least when moving upstream. Don’t worry too much. If you go the reverse route we talked about above, the current will make the trip back easy and comfortable. 

Your troubles aren’t over when you safely get through the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Next, you have to worry about Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy. You won’t find tidal ranges any higher than here, not anywhere on the planet. The mean spring range is 47.5 feet.

If you’re not sure what a mean spring range is, it’s a calculation you get when you subtract the mean high water springs from the mean low water springs. In other words, it’s a way of calculating tidal levels and how high these may be.

To get a better feel for how the Bay of Fundy behaves, within 12 hours, the water level can either decrease or increase to 47.5 feet. Yes, that’s quite a significant difference, and you can’t anticipate what you’re going to get with the Bay of Fundy until you’re there. Prepare as best you can! 


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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