Potential for a Large Cruise Ship on the Upper Great Lakes

Welland Canal

While the ocean going cruise ship industry has undergone spectacular growth in recent years, the inland waterway cruise industry has undergone steady but less spectacular growth. The cruise vessels that sail the St Lawrence River and Great Lakes are comparatively small compared to ocean going cruise ships. However, there are prospects to develop a much larger cruise ship for operation on North America’s Upper Great Lakes.


The cruise ship industry has many different market aspects. Some tourists seek to experience a peaceful and leisurely cruise aboard a sailing vessel, perhaps enjoying the company of like-minded travelers in peaceful and serene surroundings. Other tourists seek spectacular scenery that is often available on river cruises and cruises that travel quiet waterways. The channel between Vancouver Island and British Columbia in Western Canada offers several hundred miles of breath taking and awe inspiring scenery. Many scheduled cruise vessels and coastal ferry vessels sail through this oceanic channel that has much in common with a river.

The river cruise vessels that sail sections of the Mississippi, Ohio, St Lawrence and several European rivers offer luxurious accommodations for up to 200 guests in 100 state bedrooms. More diminutive cruise vessels that offer accommodation to 45 to 65 guests sail along New York State’s Hudson River and Erie Canal as well as Canada’s Rideau Canal, Ottawa River and sections of the Trent River. While freight vessels of up to 222 meters length by 23.75 meters beam sail along the St Lawrence Seaway, many of the cruise vessels that sail this waterway measure just 122 meters length by 18 meters beam.

Upper Great Lakes

A single navigation lock of 110-foot width by 1,200-foot length and sailing depth of 30 feet separates Lake Superior from the other Upper Great Lakes that include Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Erie. The largest freight ship that sails these lakes is the Paul R. Tregurtha built to just over 1,000 feet length by 105 feet beam, and usual summer time sailing draft is 30 feet. The vessel was built at a shipyard located on the south side of Lake Erie in the State of Ohio. It is one of a dozen ships of comparable size that sail on the Upper Great Lakes.

A rebuilding of the Welland Canal would be required for these ships to sail into Lake Ontario to ports of Hamilton, Toronto, Oshawa and Oswego (New York) as well as the western section of the Upper St Lawrence River to the ports of Johnstown (Ontario) and Ogdensburg (New York). While there might be sufficient freight business to warrant sailing these vessels into Lake Ontario, environmentalists would likely oppose such a proposal. The precedent of these large ships sailing on the Upper Great Lakes could form the technical basis of a cruise ship of comparable length and beam.

The Cruise Ship

The shipyards on Lake Erie may be able to build a passenger cruise ship to a length of 1,120 feet by 105 feet beam and summer sailing draft of 30 feet or slightly less. The vessel could be based at Chicago and sail a six-day round trip visiting the city of Duluth at the western end of Lake Superior with stops at Detroit, Cleveland and a two-day stop Port Colborne (Ontario) from where guests would travel aboard buses to view the nearby and spectacular Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls is a major tourist destination that offers a wide variety of tourist attractions.

The possible maximum size of an Upper Great Lakes cruise ship would allow the ship’s operator to offer the kinds of tourist attractions that are usually found aboard large ocean going cruise vessels. For the majority of cruise ship customers, the view of the ocean becomes boring after a few hours. The viability of cruise ship operations requires that the cruise directors provide a wide variety of exciting entertainment for the ships’ guests.

Multi-Section Ship

Several years ago, maritime researchers at the University of Michigan explored the option of a two-section coupled ship that could sail on the Great Lakes. One possible concept could combine a 600-foot powered trailing section pushing a 900-foot leading section. The ship could be designed and built to be uncoupled to allow each section to transit the Soo Locks between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Alternatively, a wide version of the ship perhaps built to 150-foot beam could sail exclusively among Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie between Chicago and Niagara Falls. The vessel could offer ocean cruise ship attractions.

Lake Ontario

The freight segment of the Great Lakes maritime transportation sector would need to explore the economics of sailing the large ships that operate on the Upper Great lakes, into Lake Ontario. Only on the basis of a solid business case would it become practical to rebuild the Welland Canal and its locks to transit larger vessels. An upgraded Welland Canal would allow a large cruise ship designed to sail the Upper Great Lakes to also sail into Lake Ontario and include Toronto in the tour itinerary, with a possible turn around on the Upper St Lawrence River to allow for a same day return tour bus trip to Canada’s capital.


While a mega-size cruise ship intended to sail on North America’s Upper Great Lakes may be technically possible, there will be much need for market research to determine the size of market that such a ship could attract. It could provide accommodation for 1,000 to perhaps 2,000 guests, which would be fewer than the number of guests sailing aboard many ocean going cruise ships. A two-section version of the Upper Great Lakes cruise ship may also be technically possible and include many of the amenities and attractions offered aboard ocean going mega-size cruise ships.

The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.


Source: The Maritime Executive