Cruising Destinations – From Montreal fun to Lake Champlain serenity

Lac Champlain

Protected waters, great marinas, historical sites and superb scenery make for a fine mix of adventure and no-stress navigation between Montreal to the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain.

In the summer months, cruising down the St. Lawrence from points west, let’s say from Kingston, Ontario, to Montreal, is a pretty relaxed affair for the most part. You do have to deal with the St. Lawrence Seaway locks, but once out of the last one at Saint-Lambert, Quebec, you’re free to go as far as you want. World destinations are in front of your bow! These could be the Magdalen Islands, Prince-Edward Island, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, even Europe… if you have the time, of course.

But like most of us, you probably have just so many weeks to explore new cruising grounds and you already ticked off some days from your agenda getting at that last lock. Starting with Montreal, other great destinations are within two-three weeks of no stress cruising.

Montreal’s “cool” atmosphere

Chambly Canal LockThe Chambly Canal is part of the Historic canals and waterways of Parks Canada. It is possible to spend the night at some of the locks for a reasonable fee with access to Old Chambly restaurants at the visitors dock at locks 1, 2, 3 and Old Saint-Jean at lock 9. Here is lock 8.

Coming out of the Saint-Lambert lock and past Saint-Hélène Island, you can hang a left and go directly to one of the two marinas in the harbour of Montreal. More on that coming up. Powerboats will make it easily to these marinas. If you are traveling on a sailboat, it should have a powerful and reliable engine. In any case, be aware that there will be 5-6 knots of current against you, a little intimidating especially going under the Jacques-Cartier Bridge where the river is narrow.

You can also have access to all that Montreal has to offer if you elect to stop at the Port de plaisance Réal-Bouvier in Longueuil, right off the St. Lawrence Seaway and minutes away from the Saint-Lambert lock.

Lake Champlain WestportAt the southern end of Lake Champlain, the village of Westport is home to a fine marina with typical New England charm.

You’re able to make it to Montreal’s downtown marinas? Either the Port d’Escale du Vieux-Port or the Yacht-Club de Montréal are well protected and within walking distance of the Old Montreal district. Restaurants, boutiques, entertainment, it’s all there. Worth a visit – close to the marinas – is the Musée de Pointe-à-Callière, featuring archaeology and history exhibits. By the way, the above-mentioned marinas are top notch.

If you opted for the south shore and the Port de plaisance Réal-Bouvier, you’re not missing on the action. For one thing, apart from being very well protected, it offers access to many restaurants and night life in Vieux-Longueuil. There is also an excellent restaurant at the marina, Quai 99, where you’ll enjoy the view on the St. Lawrence and your boat at its dock. From the marina, you can walk to Old Longueuil using the foot bridge over Highway 132. Plus, if you need to do some provisioning, a Metro supermarket is close. Getting to Montreal is easy since a water taxi runs to Old Montreal, on the other side of the river right from where you are. Just a few words on this Longueuil marina: It is named after famed sailor Réal Bouvier, a Longueuil native, who was the first to make the North-West passage on a private sailboat with his crew back in 1976.

To the Richelieu River

Lake Champlain ValcourLooking west from the Port de plaisance Réal-Bouvier at Jacques-Cartier Bridge and Montreal.

Leaving Montreal or Longueuil to pursue your travels east, Sorel and the entrance to the Richelieu River aren’t that far with some 40 nautical miles to go. Navigation is pretty straightforward, just follow the markers. That said, you can as easily hug those markers on the outside of the channel as there is plenty of water and you’ll be out of the way of commercial shipping. The St. Lawrence pilots will appreciate your concern but, as always, keep your eyes open and your ears to VHF channel 16.

From the Montreal area, depending on your average speed or inclination to explore, there are marinas where you can stop on the way to Sorel and they are all on the south shore of the river. Once in Sorel, you can stop in one of its two well protected marinas before going up the Richelieu River. They are close to each other. Marina de Saurel and Parc nautique Regard-sur-le-Fleuve are both located past the entrance of the Richelieu River, a little further east. Restaurants and hotels are close by.

From the Richelieu River’s entrance, you are some 50 nautical miles from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. From there, it is a little further upriver getting to Rouses Point, New York, right by the Canada-United States border, which adds some 20 nautical miles before entering Lake Champlain.

For the Richelieu River part of the trip from Sorel to Saint-Jean, sailboats have to get their mast down for the Chambly Canal locks. The Parc nautique Regard-sur-le-Fleuve in Sorel has a manual operated crane for boats up to 36 feet. We recommend calling in advance to ascertain availability of the service. Another option could be the Port de plaisance Réal-Bouvier in Longueuil. Getting it back up can be done once you get to Saint-Paul-Île-aux-Noix.

Following the Richelieu to Lake Champlain

Port De Plaisance Réal-BouvierLocated on the south shore from Montreal, the Port de plaisance Réal-Bouvier in Longueuil is close to Old Longueuil restaurants and attractions in a quiet and natural setting.

Navigation up the Richelieu from Sorel to Lake Champlain is very picturesque and simple as you just have to follow the river’s markers. There are lots of places to stop and overnight or fill up with gas at marinas along the way. You should plan ahead as far as timing is concerned to transit the ten locks along the way. All are managed by Parks Canada with their helpful staff.

The first lock will be at Saint-Ours, an easy one as it is quite large and with less than a foot going up (or down for that matter). From there, once again, try to figure what your timing will be to transit the Chambly Canal with its nine locks leading from Chambly to the town of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. This can be a half-day affair if timed right. Keep in mind that things can be busy with quite a few boats in transit at the height of the summer season.

From Sorel, you can make it to the Chambly Canal in one day, even on a “slow” boat if you started early in the morning. And, for faster boats, you’ll have to pull back on the throttles when passing marinas along the way with, understandably, “No wake – Slow” signs on the river. The shores on both sides of the river are close by and offer a lot to see, with quaint historical villages such as Saint-Denis, Saint-Charles, Saint- Marc. This is a very enjoyable trip upriver in protected waters.

If you freed your lines early leaving Sorel, you should be able to make it to the Chambly Canal locks before the end of the afternoon at the latest. The last marina before the locks is Mathias Marine, a full-service facility with excellent docks and a fine restaurant on the premises. From there, some 15 nautical miles remain before you get to the entrance of the Chambly Canal locks.

Richelieau River at SorelDon’t be intimidated by the entrance of the Richelieu River at Sorel with its busy shipping harbour, just follow the markers!

It is also possible to overnight at Parks Canada’s waiting dock in Chambly which can accommodate quite a few boats. This stopover has its own reward as you are within walking distance of Old Chambly and great restaurants with a view on the Chambly basin.

The Chambly Canal first three locks will seem a bit intimidating as you’ll be lifted directly from one to another. In all, you’ll be going close to 80 feet up from Chambly to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Once in the canal proper, six locks are left plus some bridge openings before you get to Saint-Jean.

From Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, navigation on the river is straightforward as you head for Saint-Paul-de-l’Île-aux-Noix, the “Nautical Capital”, with its many marinas and boat dealerships. It will be your last stop before Lake Champlain. For travelers looking to overnight, Marina Gosselin is by the river’s edge on the west side and the second one you’ll see as you come from the north. They have easily accessed docks, some in deeper water, as well as gas and diesel at their service dock and a great marine store. Need to have your mast up? Competent staff and the proper equipment will take care of it. But make sure you can go under the Noyan and Rouses Point bridges (60 feet at MLW). A few small restaurants and a convenience store are within a 15 minutes’ walk from the marina.

Marina de SaurelMarina de Saurel is one of two well protected marinas on the St.Lawrence River.

A little more than five nautical miles remain before you get to the US Customs border office on the west side of the river, right before the Rouses Point Bridge, which you’ll see from afar. There are docks easily accessible for boaters proceeding into US waters. Have passports and boat documents at the ready. A Homeland Security annual “boat decal” is required for boats over 30 feet (available online).

Once you’ve cleared customs to enter in the USA, the village of Rouses Point is on the other side of the bridge to your starboard. Two full-service marinas, Barcomb’s and Gaines, have transient docking, the latter having the appropriate equipment and competent staff for mast stepping.

Lake Champlain’s irresistible calling

There could be a whole article devoted to cruising on Lake Champlain, one of the great fresh bodies of water of North America. This is a very broad overview of Lake Champlain’s features for boaters and here are some highlights that make it a favourite destination for Quebec sailors.

From the north, the distance between Rouses Point and Whitehall, the southernmost point of the lake, is 92 nautical miles, mostly in open waters. But from Port Henry, the lake becomes a narrow winding stretch- follow the markers – leading to Whitehall where you’ll find the first of the eleven locks of the Champlain Canal connecting the lake to the Hudson River.

Lake Champlain PBBWell protected and a full-service marina, Plattsburgh Boat Basin offers transient dockage on Lake Champlain.

Lake Champlain waters are remarkably clean and perfect for swimming and other water-borne activities. It is also a deep-water lake, charts showing 400 feet plus in the Burlington area. Reefs are few, well-marked, and identified on the corresponding NOAA marine charts. Overnighting? There is an abundant choice of protected coves and full-service marinas. Only two large cities are along the lake’s shores: Plattsburgh on the New York State side and Burlington on the Vermont side.

From the north, popular spots include Carry Bay on the Vermont side where you’ll find North Hero Marina. Located only 15 nautical miles from Rouses Point, this marina is very well protected and has gas, diesel and pump-out service. Their Tiki Bar has good food and is a lively spot. You can drop the hook in Pelots Bay, just around the bend from the marina, which is well protected, if a little weedy.

Further south, Deep Bay, within the Pointe-au-Roche National Park, is protected from winds from the north with park’s moorings for a reasonable daily fee. Next will be the city of Plattsburgh. Its main marina is Plattsburgh Boat Basin offering all services. Just a few miles down is Valcour Island, another national park. With its many coves protected from the “winds of the day”, this large island is a popular and a busy spot in summer.

The city of Burlington is on most sailors’ cruising agenda for good reason. It’s well protected harbour offers moorings managed by the city with easy access to the town’s attractions. Docking is also available at the city’s Community Boathouse. Close by the waterfront is Church Street, pedestrian only, with shops and excellent restaurants. To replenish provisions, City Market has fresh produce and everything you can think of for meals on board.

The widest part of the lake lies between Burlington and Willsboro Bay, on the New York side, another popular cruising destination. Very deep water goes right up the cliffs bordering the west side of Willsboro Bay. Spectacular! Now part of the Safe Harbor group of marinas, Willsboro Bay Marina is a full-service marina nestled to the south of the bay. You can anchor a little further, but winds blowing down the mountains at times can be fierce to say the least!

Other interesting destinations further down Lake Champlain are the historical village of Essex on the New York side, with a marina and transient slips, picturesque Converse Bay, opposite Essex, where you can anchor in protected waters, and Kingsland Bay on the Vermont side also offering good protection except in strong west winds.

From Kingsland Bay, a narrow stretch – some five nautical miles – leads to Northwest Bay on the New York side. The small village of Westport, at the bottom of the gently sloping mountainside awaits and Westport Marina has transient slips with all the usual services as well as a charming little boutique with exclusive items.

A final note: Lake Champlain gives access to the Hudson River via the Champlain Canal and its 11 locks. Depending on your type of boat, New York City is, at the most, four days away. It is a great trip through time and history. For many, in the fall season, it is also the gateway to distant shores further south and warmer climes for the winter!

Rouses Point BridgeSpanning the Richelieu River from Rouses Point, New York, to Vermont, the Rouses Point Bridge, actually named Veterans Memorial Bridge, is close to the US-Canada border.


Cruising references

There is ample and reliable documentation to accompany you on a trip down the St. Lawrence from Montreal to Lake Champlain.

For information on marinas and facilities along the way, the Nautisme Québec website at nautismequebec.com offers an online version of its annual Nautiguide (hard copies are usually available in marinas and it is free) with a comprehensive and updated marinas directory. Their INautique app has the same info and is very user friendly.

The St. Lawrence Cruising Guide (120 pages) published by L’Escale Nautique is a very well put together cruising guide covering the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf from Cornwall to the Magdalen Islands, including Chaleur Bay and the Mingan Archipelago. It also includes the Richelieu, Ottawa and Saguenay rivers. You can order it on their website at www.escalenautique.qc.ca/boutique/

For cruising on Lake Champlain, the Cruising Guide to the Hudson River, Lake Champlain & the St. Lawrence River is a must. You can find it in marine stores and online at the Nautical Mind Bookstore.

It is possible to charter a sailboat on Lake Champlain. Well reputed and Montreal based Navtours has a fleet out of Plattsburgh. Look them up on the web. They also have a base in the Bahamas.

A single summer isn’t enough to explore all Lake Champlain has to offer. Some never tire from it. There are over 30 marinas accommodating close to 3000 residing boats in the summer. Many are Canadian flagged boats, especially in the northern part of the lake. It is a little more than an hour by car from Montreal. You’ll hear “Français” on the docks and in the bays at anchor! July is busy and, at times, dozens of boats can be anchored in the popular bays of Valcour Island. The lake’s national parks – 16 state parks – accessible from the water, offer as many opportunities to stretch your legs – and those of the kids! – go to the beach or enjoy nature.

As an aside, a few pointers if you consider going further downriver, to Quebec City, for example. From Sorel, you can stop in Trois-Rivières at Marina de Trois-Rivières at Île Saint-Quentin, which is well protected and “full service”. Just keep an eye on the weather forecast before crossing Lake Saint-Pierre where a nasty chop can build up in north-easterly winds. And unless your boat has a very shallow draft, you’ll have to follow the markers along the commercial channel. From Trois-Rivières, you navigation plan to Quebec City should account for the tides the further you approach your destination.

Henri René de Cotret
A long-time sailor, the author is a regular contributor to L’Escale Nautique magazine and a boating safety consultant.

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