How To Sail From The Great Lakes To The Ocean

It’s a feat in and of itself to sail to the Great Lakes. Now you want to take it one step further and reach the ocean, notably, the Atlantic Ocean. How do you chart a sailing course to get to the ocean from one of the Great Lakes?

You can leave the Great Lakes and reach the Atlantic Ocean in one of three ways, via the Mississippi River, the Erie Canal, or the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In this guide, we’ll unravel the mystery of how to traverse the above paths all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. We’ll include plenty of sailor’s insights along the way. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be ready to plan your sailing trip!

Sailing from the Great Lakes to the Ocean: Here’s How It’s Done

From the Mississippi River

The Great Lakes are a hop, skip, and a jump from the Mississippi River if you take the Illinois and Michigan Canal. 

This route will also introduce you to the Tenn-Tom Waterway, which is short for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a 234-mile waterway from the 20th century.

You may recall our article about sailing the Great Loop. Well, if that’s a course you decided to take after reading our post, then you should definitely start your route to the Atlantic from the Mississippi River. If you haven’t read the post yet, you can read it by clicking here.

The reason? As you go, you’ll cross the western part of the Great Loop, which is about half the loop. Then you’d make an exit south of Lake Michigan at Chicago right when you reach the Chicago River.

If you follow that route, you’ll soon find yourself venturing along the Des Plaines River downstream. You’ll keep going beyond Peoria with sights of the heartland. By the time you reach the Illinois River, you’d be at the Mississippi River right near St. Louis.

You can also depart from St. Louis, heading for Cairo (in Illinois, not Egypt) as you venture north along the Ohio River and then across the Tenn-Tom Waterway.

Yet a third way you can leave from the Mississippi River is to take that river south and keep going until you reach Memphis. From there, sail towards Greenville, Mississippi.

You’ll be closer to New Orleans by the time you reach the Atlantic Ocean, but you will get there.

You can even start from Lake Michigan, venture down the Mississippi River, through the Tenn-Tom Waterway, and then along the gulf coast of Florida.

Sailor’s Insights:

The downstream portion of sailing the Des Plaines River doesn’t require you to put your mast up. Instead, you can allow the gentle breezes here to propel you forward, which is quite helpful.

The Tenn-Tom Waterway, although manmade, is still beautiful and will be one of the best sights on your trip for sure.

When sailing through the Florida Keys, be wary of hurricane season. That starts on June 1st and lasts until November 30th.

The downside of taking the Mississippi River is that you’re subject to commercial traffic from other boaters. Plus, some of the stretches of your trip are a little boring without a lot to see.  

From the Erie Canal

The next option you have for reaching the Atlantic Ocean from the Great Lakes is to take the Erie Canal. The canal cuts through Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and Lake Champlain.

You have a few variations of this route that you can take depending on your preferences. When sailing this route from the upper Great Lakes, by the time you reach Lake Huron, you can go one of two ways.

Your first option is the Trent-Severn Waterway, a short canal between Lake Huron, the Georgian Bay, and Lake Ontario at Port Severn.

The waterways that extend from here are the Severn River, Lake Couchiching, Lake Simcoe, Kawartha Lakes, the Otonabee River, and the Trent River.

You’d cross through Lake Simcoe and then over several lakes across Lake Ontario to the north. You can skip Detroit as part of your route on this path, seeing instead the Parry Sound and the North Channel on Lake Huron.

Your second option is to go all the way down south of Lake Huron until you reach St. Clair River. You’d take the river to Lake St. Clair and then go south until you reach the Detroit River to get to Lake Erie.

When departing from Lake Erie or the vicinity, take the Welland Canal to reach Lake Ontario. Then you’d turn east to the Oswego Canal in New York.

By venturing south for 24 miles along the canal, you’d get to the Erie Canal near Liverpool (New York, not England) and the Three Rivers. Sail east to Albany, then go south along the Hudson River until you reach New York Harbor.

You can see plenty of wilderness along the St. Lawrence Gulf as well as picturesque views of New York’s skyline that are usually not afforded to you.

By the time you depart from the Hudson River, you’ve reached the Atlantic Ocean. You’ll be very close to the Caribbean!

Sailor’s Insights:

Most sailors who wish to reach the ocean from one of the Great Lakes will use the Erie Canal to get there. That’s why you’re likely to see so many boatyards.

Not only is it common to reach the Atlantic Ocean from the Erie Canal, but it’s considered one of the faster routes as well.

That said, be sure to plan for lock and canal closures, which can really put a damper on your sailing plans and possibly force you to go a different route.

You will have to put your mast down at times, and you could be charged for each foot of length your mast has, anywhere from $4 to $8.

From the St. Lawrence Seaway

The third option you have for reaching the Atlantic Ocean from the Great Lakes is to take the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The seaway includes a series of channels, canals, and locks between the United States and Canada.

You typically have to receive permission to sail through, but if you do get it, you can easily reach the Atlantic Ocean. Your sailboat needs to be at least 20 feet and weigh no more than a ton.

About 2,000 boats pass through per year for recreational sailing just like you. These sailors aren’t all necessarily going to the Atlantic Ocean, but surely some are.

The coastline along the seaway is absolutely gorgeous, making this more challenging, even adventurous route absolutely worth your while. 

You’ll see some of the most stunning sights as you reach Maine’s coast as well as when passing through the northeastern provinces of Canada.

Speaking of Canada, it has another natural wonder that you’ll get to witness as you sail the St. Lawrence Seaway, and that’s the Thousand Islands.

As the name implies, this series of islands includes about 1,800 in all between Canada and the US.

To get to the Thousand Islands, leave Lake Ontario and sail along Montreal. Then you can venture on through the St. Lawrence River beyond Quebec to reach the Gulf of St. Lawrence. If you want, take some time to visit New Brunswick, Labrador, and Newfoundland since you have this unique opportunity.

If you need a shortcut, then from the St. Lawrence River, begin sailing the Richelieu River in Quebec. The river will be downstream of Montreal.

Continue to Lake Champlain, then travel along the Hudson River from the lake’s southern end. You’ll reach Albany, New York, cutting out a lot of St. Lawrence River travel in the process.

Sailor’s Insights:

Although this route is picture-perfect, it’s a longer way to reach the ocean. 

The recommended time to start sailing is around July 1st. If you’re a couple of days later than that, you might still be okay, but if it’s been more than a week, you should take the other routes instead.

You can keep your mast up the entire time without incurring additional fees, which is another obvious advantage.

The tie-up areas and docks around this route are plentiful due to the beauty and popularity of the area. You can stop overnight or even for several days and not have to worry about your boat.

That said, commercial traffic should be allowed to sail in front of recreational sailors like yourself, so always give them the right of way.

Keep out of the shipping lanes in the down-bound lane near the Atlantic Ocean and the up-bound lane, which is also close to the Atlantic as if you were leaving it.

The sailing here can be quite difficult, especially if your route takes you near the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. There, the water can rise over 45 feet in a span of only 12 hours. You have to be ready for that as well as rough currents.


Sailing from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean gives you a unique chance to personally experience some of the world’s greatest waterways and canals. Start with the easier routes and work your way up. Enjoy the ride!


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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