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Saimaa Canal (Finnish: Saimaan kanava; Swedish: Saima kanal; Russian: Сайменский канал) is a 43-km-long canal connecting the Saimaa lake system to the Baltic Sea. The canal goes through Finnish and Russian territory. Visitors can sail through it on a canal cruise or by their own craft. In addition it can be explored by car, Highway 13 on the Finnish side and 41K-084 on the Russian side go along the canal and there's a border crossing at Nuijamaa-Brusnichnoye (next to where boats cross).

In 2023, the canal opens 2 May.



The Mälkiä lock, the first lock when leaving Saimaa, in 1956

Already in the early 16th century there were plans to connect Saimaa to the Baltic Sea, to make it possible to sail to Olavinlinna (Swedish: Olofsborg), a Swedish-built fortification towards the east. Lappeenranta and Vyborg, the cities near the ends of the canal were likewise established as fortifications during the Swedish time (in the present day they are twin towns and interestingly almost exactly the same size population-wise). The first attempt was the Pontus Canal (named in honour of the late general Pontus de la Gardie) in 1607–1608, but after less than a kilometre of digging near Lappeenranta the project was abandoned.

In the mid 19th century, when Finland was part of the Russian Empire, the first working canal was built, as it was calculated that transporting goods between the Finnish inland and the imperial capital (St. Petersburg) would be much more efficient by boat than by horse. The building started in May 1845, and the canal was opened in September 1856, and in terms of manpower the first canal is still the biggest single construction project in Finnish history. The canal was 58 km long and had 28 locks with wooden gates, and was modelled on Göta Kanal which had opened in 1832. Swedish engineers who had built Göta Kanal in a similar terrain were involved in this project.

The canal became important for the economy of Eastern Finland and it also became a tourist attraction. Usage of the canal was high enough that the passage fees paid for the building costs in less than 25 years. This also meant that the canal needed to be improved and enlarged, for instance in 1923, 13,000 ships carried more than a million ton of goods through the canal. By that time Finland had become independent from Russia, and the whole canal was still on Finnish territory. A major improvement project (referred to as the second building of the canal), including uniting several locks and straightening the route, was initiated in 1927, but less than half of the work was finished when the Second World War broke out.

By the end of the war, canal infrastructure had been destroyed and as the Karelian Isthmus was ceded to the Soviet Union, the canal was divided by an international border, and so traffic ceased for several decades. In 1963, Finland made a 50-year lease of the Soviet side of the canal similar to the former U.S. lease of the Panama Canal Zone. After that the "third building" of the canal was initiated, partially along the plans from the 1930s, but the canal was also widened as the average size of ships had grown over the years.

The canal in its current form was opened on 5 August 1968, with 8 locks, 13 bridges (including 7 drawbridges), a length of 42,9 km, a width of 50–60 m, and a depth of at most 6 m. A new 50-year lease was signed in 2012, and in 2017–2019 the gates were renewed to allow for use around the year (insofar the open parts of the canal aren't frozen).

Technical information[edit]

The canal is operated and maintained by Väylävirasto, the Finnish government's agency for transport infrastructure. The main control centre is at the Mälkiä lock, although the Russian locks are also operable from the Russian side. Sailing between Mälkiä and Brusnitchnoye usually takes between 5 and 8 hours, depending on how busy the canal is and the size of your vessel.

Maximum vessel size: length 82.5 m, width 12.6 m, draught 4.35/4.5 m, height 24.5 m. Speed limit 9–18 km/h (5–10 knots).


Map of Saimaa Canal

If going on a canal cruise, your voyage will start at the 1 harbour of Lappeenranta. It's quite centrally located, next to the fortification (linnoitus). From there, the ship heads out on Lake Saimaa (on average 75.7 m above sea level), and turns east. If sailing your own ship, you may of course come from much further north, maybe all the way from Kuopio. In the eastern suburb of Lauritsala, you will enter the canal, and pass under the Lauritsala Canal Bridge (Lauritsalan kanavasilta), and the bridge of the railway to Joensuu. Just before the bridge where Highway 6 crosses the canal on Mälkiä Canal bridge (Mälkiän kanavasilta), the ship will stop at the first lock, 1 Mälkiä.

Mälkiä is the lock with the highest lift, 12.4 m. Nearby is the main control building for the canal from where the locks and drawbridges are controlled, Lappeenranta pilot station, and a museum dedicated to the canal (Saimaan kanavan museo). Next to the canal you can also see the Mälkiä locks and a stretch from the first version of the canal, built in 1856.

Barely a kilometre downstream is the next lock, 2 Mustala lock, with a lift of 7.3 m. After this lock, the canal passes Mustola harbour and leaves urban Lappeenranta. About 5.5 km after leaving Mustola lock, you will arrive at 3 Soskua lock, the last lock in Finland. Soskua has a lift of 8.3 m, and on its north-eastern side there is a stretch of the old canal. It is followed by a quite straight section of the canal down to Kansola drawbridge, where there's an even longer section of the narrow and curvy, old canal on the eastern side.

The canal widens, and narrows back again, makes a few bends, and enters the village of Nuijamaa. Where the canal flows into 4 Lake Nuijamaa, about 12 km from Soskua lock, is the Finnish border and customs control. It's about 3 km across the lake to the mouth of the canal on the Russian side, and a further 4 km including a long straight section to 5 Пялли/Pälli lock, the first Russian lock, with a lift of 11.7 m and as such the second highest. Here is also the Russian border control.

Ilistoe lock

After Pälli, the road next to the canal (which is also the Lappeenranta–Vyborg highway) crosses over to the eastern side of the canal. The following lock, 6 Илистое/Ilistoye (Lietjärvi), is less than 2 km downstream, and has a lift of 10.2 m. The shipping lane goes across Big Lake Ilistoye (Большое Илистое озеро/Bolshoye Ilistoye Ozero), and continues as fairly wide for a little less than 2 km, arriving at the 7 Цветочное/Tsvetotchnoye (Rättijärvi) lock, which has the smallest lift, 5.5 m. Here, the highway crosses the canal again and returns to the western (or southern) side of it.

The approximately 7.5-km section that follows this triplet of locks doesn't look much like a canal. First the shipping lane goes along the Big Tsvetotchnoye Lake (Большое Цветочное озеро/Bolshoye Zvetochnoye Ozero), after a short canal section the narrower Small Tsvetotchnoye Lake (Малое Цветочное озеро/Maloye Zvetochnoye Ozero). Then it turns to a proper canal (with a section of the old canal next to it) just before the next lock, 8 Искровка/Iskrovka (Särkijärvi) lock. With a lift of 11.4 m it's one of the bigger ones.

Iskrovka is followed by yet another lake, Lake Brusnitchnoye (Брусничное озеро/Brusnitchnoye Ozero). After a relatively short canal section you arrive at the 9 Брусничное/Brusnitchnoye (Juustila) lock, the last one before sea level, and with a lift of 10.0 m. Here the Russian customs control takes place, and it's the south-eastern end of the canal proper, even though it's still labelled as such further south. This is the point from where private vessels will need a pilot until Vihrevoi Island, where the Vyborg Bay meets the Gulf of Finland. Near the lock there's a memorial to the canal's builders.

The shipping lane goes across Novinskiy Bay (Новинский залив/Novinskiy Zaliv, Fi. Juustilanselkä), narrows down to what again is called Saima Canal, passes under some power lines and the Pavlovskiy Bridge (Павловский мост/Pavlovskiy Most) and thereby the Vyborg's bypass highway A-181. After the settlement of Rappatily (Раппатилы) on the western side follows the Zashchitnaya Bay (Бухта Защитная/Bukhta Zashchitnaya, Finnish: Suomenvedenpohja), and at its southern end Tveredych Island (Остров Твердыш/Ostrov Tverdych, Finnish: Linnasaari) almost completely separating the bay from the sea.

Following the north-eastern side of the island, past the famous Monrepos park would take you the straightest way to central Vyborg, but it's not clear if it's deep enough for any vessels of substantial size to sail in the narrowest part of this passage. Instead, the canal cruise ships to Vyborg, as well as anyone heading out to the sea, pass the island on the western side, under the Druzhby (Дружбы, "friendship") railway and road bridges. From there, cruise ships turn south-east and follow the island's southern bank to reach the 2 Vyborg international ferry terminal on the western side of the old town.

On the other hand, the shipping lane out to the sea continues in a south-western direction, following the directions of the pilot, probably past Vysotsk, and to the island of 3 Vihrevoi (Вихревой остров/Vihrevoy Ostrov) where the mandatory pilotage ends. If sailing back to Finland, stop for Finnish border and customs control at 4 Santio or 5 Haapasaari.

Cruise on scheduled ferry[edit]

During the summer months ferry companies used to have cruises to Vyborg (allowing also one-way travel, although not visa-free) as well as ones to the border and back through the canal. The cruises to Vyborg stopped with the war on Ukraine and as of spring 2023, there seems to be no cruises at all.

A visa-free visit of 1–3 days on a scheduled cruise used to be allowed. Whether they still are is moot, as such cruises aren't arranged as of spring 2023. A double- or multiple-entry Schengen visa was still required for the return, for those who need a visa in the first place.

Sail your own boat[edit]

Russian ship at Brusnitchnoye
See also: Boating in Finland#Saimaa Canal

Check latest information from official sources. You don't want an unplanned detour via Kronstadt, or to find the canal closed.

If just sailing through the canal and not stopping on the Russian side, you don't need a Russian visa. However you need a passport and other documents and there will be controls by both countries on both ends of the canal. Detailed information and forms are available at the Väylävirasto website, see above. You may want to contact them directly, to make sure you get updated info.

In the canal, border and customs controls on the Finnish side are in Nuijamaa. On the Russian side the border control is at Pälli lock (the lock closest to the border), and the customs control at Brusnitchnoye (the lock closest to Vyborg). If you're not landing anywhere in Russia, Brusnitchnoye is also the exit point (or entry point) of Russia where border controls are carried out. Between there and the Vihrevoy island (seawards from Vyborg) usage of a pilot is required by law. In the Gulf of Finland, the Finnish border and customs controls are on the island Santio off Virolahti or, if bypassing the archipelago, on Haapasaari off Kotka (or farther west, if you keep to the sea).

In the canal and in Saimaa, pilotage is compulsory for vessels longer than 35 meters, smaller ships don't need to use a pilot; pilotage here is handled by Finnpilot. The compulsory pilotage in Russian open waters is handled by Inflot Vyborg Department[dead link].

The canal is open around the clock, in 2023 May–Dec (the shorter times for 2022 are still shown on some pages). Late autumns is only suitable for ice-going vessels.

Stay safe[edit]

Be careful at the locks.

Because of the Russian war on Ukraine and West's reactions to it, there may be risks involved in passing Russian waters. Commercial traffic across the border never started in spring 2022 because of the uncertainty; there is still little freight traffic, as insurance companies don't want to take the risk. Canal authorities, on the other hand, deemed that shipping should continue and returned to around-the-clock operations.

Before making definite plans, you should check whether your insurance covers you in Russia and whether there may be some specific reason that Russian authorities might want to lay hands on you. Male Russian (dual) citizens, vocal critics of their politics and people on their sanction list should asses the risk that they might find some excuse to give you a hard time.

On 26 April 2022 Russia threatened to terminate the canal agreement (the term of which is until 2062). This seems to only have been rhetoric, but check the political situation before your visit, to avoid getting your yacht trapped in the lake.

Go next[edit]

  • Lappeenranta and Vyborg at each end of the canal are obvious choices for going next.
  • If you've sailed your own ship into Saimaa, you have access to most of the eastern half of the Finnish Lakeland. In the other direction you can sail west out into the Gulf of Finland, or visit Russian ports.
This itinerary to Saimaa Canal is a usable article. It explains how to get there and touches on all the major points along the way. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.