Is Lake Erie Good for Sailing?

Thanks to the information on this blog, you’ve successfully completed your first sailing trip. Now you’re thinking of planning another one, this time to Lake Erie. You know other sailors have done the same in the past, but should you sail Lake Erie? Is it good for that sort of thing? 

Lake Erie is good for sailing, but it’s not necessarily easy. You must beware the sometimes-risky conditions that can occur. These include steep waves, waterspouts, strong winds, and severe storms. 

If you’re still seriously contemplating riding beautiful Lake Erie by sailboat, then we implore you to keep reading. In this article, we’ll discuss the best and worst conditions for setting sail, the challenges you may face, and some rules for sailing Lake Erie. 

Let’s begin! 

What Is Lake Erie?

Lake Erie is part of North America’s Great Lakes, of which there are four others. These include Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior. Of these, Lake Erie is one of the smallest. The lake’s entire length is 241 miles and its width 57 miles. The average water depth is 62 feet, with some very deep areas about 210 feet deep. 

Lake Erie is part of the United States and Canada. The US states the lake borders are Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. The lake has many ports, especially in Ontario and Ohio. The Detroit River is the main inlet for Lake Erie, with the Niagara River serving as a primary outflow. 

The lake earned its name from Native American Erie people. Erie is short for erielhonan, a word in Iroquian that translates to “long tail.”

Lake Erie is not just water as far as the eye can see, as it also has several islands. Some of these are the Bass Islands, Pelee Island, and Kelleys Island. These islands all fall under US territory, specifically Ohio for the majority. One exception to that is Pelee Island, which is part of Ontario. 

What Are Good Conditions for Sailing the Great Lakes?

As you begin to prepare for your voyage across Lake Erie, you’re not just going to want to sail out whenever you please. In the intro, we touched on the dangers that can occur during your trip. To avoid these, you want to plan your sailing expedition for certain times of the year. 

Here are some conditions to set out on.  

Warm Weather

It’s not unheard of for ice storms to occur even into spring on the Great Lakes. You have to remember that these five lakes are all freshwater, meaning their water temperatures change with the season. Only when it’s reasonably warm should you consider venturing out. Your safest bet is to wait for spring to pass and start sailing in the summer. 

Low Winds

Through even most of the spring, the whipping winds on the Great Lakes can persist. It’s possible to use these winds to your advantage, such as if you’re venturing out to Lake Michigan’s east coast. The winds that come in over here make surfing, parasailing, and windsurfing very pleasurable activities. 

What Are Bad Conditions for Sailing the Great Lakes?

The weather on the Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie, has been described by some sailors as unpredictable. There are certain conditions that make traversing this lake by sailboat a bad idea. Let’s talk about these now. 

Strong Winds

The winds are kind of unavoidable when riding along the Great Lakes, but Lake Erie has some of the worst winds out of all the lakes. That’s due to the way in which the lake lies. It’s right within range of prevailing winds, some of the strongest around. Winds can be dangerous for even the more experienced sailor, and that goes almost double for you. You could find yourself knocked off-course, possibly with a ruined boat. You may even end up capsized, so you must tread carefully. 

Rough Waters

Both Lake Erie and Lake Michigan are known for their choppy water quality, although the former has it much worse. With all those high prevailing winds along Erie, you get a body of water that feels more like riding on the ocean than in a lake. Like with strong winds, rough waters can easily capsize you if you’re not a conscientious sailor. 


Should a storm roll in on Lake Erie, you do not want to be out in the middle of it. Sailors who have ridden Erie have called the storms severe and intense. They’re very dangerous but not always predictable, which makes sailing Lake Erie a challenge. 


Besides rainstorms, you could also be afflicted by ice storms. Lake Erie doesn’t have a lot of water compared to the other Great Lakes. This causes what water it does contain to be very much vulnerable to temperature changes. In the winter, the entire lake could freeze, or at least parts of it. 

Ice storms can last into the spring, as we talked about before. That’s another reason to plan your trip in the summertime. 

What Are Some Unique Challenges in Sailing Lake Erie?

The Great Lakes all do have their fair share of wind and weather, that’s for sure. However, compared to Lake Erie, you’re less likely to encounter a series of unique challenges on the other lakes. Now, when we say challenges, we’re not talking about fun hurdles to overcome. If anything, you want to plan for these things and avoid them as best you can. That will allow you to sail from one end of Erie to the other without incident. 

Wind Fetch

In boating, there’s a concept known as wind fetch. This refers to how far the wind can travel without anything interrupting it. Lengthier wind fetches often deliver with them rough waves, so you can imagine that Lake Erie has a pretty long fetch. On the lake’s eastern end, the fetch increases the water level to ¾ a meter to 1 meter more. 

Rising and Lowering Waters

That 62-foot depth of Lake Erie is not very deep. Compared to the other Great Lakes, Erie has the least amount of water. If you’ve never ridden in shallow waters before, this will be quite an experience. 

Water Temperature

Also due to its shallowness, Lake Erie is very susceptible to temperature changes, as mentioned. Not only can Erie freeze over quick in the winter, but come the summer, the water temperatures are very warm. Now, it’s not necessarily super unique for a lake or any body of water to warm or cool with the temperatures. However, water becoming so cold it can freeze is a little rarer, even though it’s something that happens to Erie regularly. 


Have you ever seen a waterspout? If you said no, that could change if you sail Lake Erie. Waterspouts look like a tornado, but they’re exclusively in the water. They attach to cumulonimbus, cumuliform, congestus, and cumulus clouds. 

While waterspouts are uncommon, with the severe storms that can occur along Lake Erie, you have a decent chance of seeing one sooner than later. A fairweather waterspout won’t travel far and thus isn’t very hazardous, but the same can’t be said of the tornadic waterspouts. These are more like real tornadoes, even if they lack as much energy. Don’t be fooled, though, as it’s still possible to perish in a waterspout. 


Although we don’t want to scare you, shipwrecks happen pretty regularly at Lake Erie. In fact, starting at Long Point, there are roughly 200 wrecks. The reason for these accidents can be attributed to sandbars beneath the surface of the water. 

While Lake Erie may be shallow, it’s deep enough that these sandbars are hidden. The positioning and height of the sandbars can change often, as sediment beneath the water builds up and travels. All it takes is your boat hitting one of these sandbars with just enough force and your trip would be over in a hurry. 

It’s hard to predict where the sandbars will be or where they may move. Both Canada and the US have striven to install wind turbines that run on electricity near parts of Erie that are especially shallow and/or windy. This should combat the sandbars. 

By 2020, the goal is to have 1,000 megawatts of power generated from these turbines, which is a pretty good amount of wind. This may make sailing Lake Erie a little safer, but for now, it’s hard to say what will happen. The plans for the wind turbines were made back in 2010, but it doesn’t appear that they’ve been installed yet. 

Which Boat Should You Choose for Sailing Lake Erie?

Thus far, we’ve talked about riding across Lake Erie on your sailboat. Is that even plausible? It is, but you don’t want to use any sailboat for the job. 

It’s recommended you sail in one with a bow that’s closed. It’s also ideal to avoid sailboats made of aluminum or other flimsy surfaces. Opt for fiberglass instead, as it’s safer. 

You must have a visual distress signal on your boat if it’s 16 feet long or under and you’re riding during sunrise or sunset. That’s a Lake Erie boating regulation, so make sure you follow the rules to avoid a fine. Even if your boat happens to exceed 16 feet, you should still keep your visual distress signal handy. After all, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, especially on Lake Erie. 

Make sure you have a radio as well so you can track weather and listen to any Coast Guard warnings as these crop up. 


Lake Erie makes for a wonderful sailing experience, but it can be a perilous one if you go in unprepared. Between low water levels, propensity for strong storms, and very high winds, it’s not easy at all to sail Erie.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid doing so, especially if you really want to try it. With the tips and information in this article, you’ll be ready to set sail and conquer the Great Lakes. 


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

Recent Posts