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).
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 kilometer 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 modeled 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 2017-19 the gates were renewed to allow for use around the year (inasfar the open parts of the canal aren't frozen).
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.
- Mälkiä remote control centre, ☏ , .
- Brusnitšnoje Lock (Juustila), ☏ .
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[dead link]). 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 kilometer 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 northeastern 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.
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 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 southeastern end of the canal proper, eventhough it's still labeled 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, Fi. Suomenvedenpohja), and at its southern end Tveredych Island (Остров Твердыш/Ostrov Tverdych, Fi. Linnasaari) almost completely separating the bay from the sea.
Following the northeastern 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 southeast 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 southwestern 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
During the summer months Saimaa Travel operates cruises from Lappeenranta to Vyborg. Entering and leaving Russia by boat and staying less than 72 hours allows anyone to enter without obtaining a visa though a passport is needed (and if you need a visa to enter the Schengen Area, you need a double or multiple entry one to be allowed back into Finland), and as such 1-, 2- and 3-day cruises are available on this scheme. The ferry leaves Lappeenranta in the morning, arrives in Vyborg in the early afternoon, turns back a few hours later and returns to Lappeenranta in the evening.
One-way trips are also possible, though they're almost the same price as a one day cruise, and you will not be covered by the visa-free rule for boat travel, nor by the Leningrad Oblast eVisa scheme.
In addition Saimaa Cruises[dead link] has canal cruises from Lappeenranta along only the Finnish part of the canal.
Sail your own boat
- See also: Boating in Finland#Saimaa Canal
Check latest information from official sources. You don't want an unplanned detour via Kronstadt, or 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.
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 carries out. Between there and the sea (past 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].
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. Especially if you are on their sanction list they may find some excuse to give you a hard time. Commercial traffic across the border never started in spring 2022 because of the uncertainty (there are still cruises half-way from Finland, to the border). The canal can get closed at any time by unilateral measures, and getting your yacht out of Saimaa can be a costly operation. Check also whether your insurance is valid in Russia.