Navigating Locks Safely

Joseph Carro, U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety

Locks are more common in some areas than others, so navigating the intricacies of “locking” isn’t something you’ll encounter every day. Still, it’s a reality you’re likely to come upon at one time or another, so it’s important to understand the basics.

Navigation locks are among the world’s oldest engineering achievements, dating as far back as China’s Song Dynasty around 960 A.D. Engineers have developed many ways to build locks over time, but they all serve the same purpose — functioning as marine elevators that move boats from a body of water at one height to a body of water at another. While there are some locks in the Great Lakes and upstate New York, the heaviest concentration of locks in the U.S. is along the large river systems: the upper Mississippi River, the Ohio River and the Columbia River through Oregon and Washington state.

One of the first things you need to know about is the issue of right of way. Vessels operated by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have priority over recreational boats at all times and, for safety reasons, larger vessels such as barges take precedence over smaller ones. And two small vessels can use the lock at the same time, so share the space. It’s not only good boating etiquette, but it also saves time and water.

It’s best to learn as much as you can about a specific lock before you try to navigate through, as lock facilities vary in size and how they operate. Some have lockmasters, who provide you with instructions once you’ve entered the lock. Others are unmanned, in which case you’re on your own. Many locks operate on specific time schedules, and you’ll want to know that in advance to avoid too much waiting. A good source of information on locks is a nautical chart of the area, which will not only indicate a lock’s location but also the width and length of the lock chamber. Cruising guides of the waterways you’ll be traveling are also useful resources.

As a general safety precaution, always wear your life jacket, and make sure no one in your boat is standing on the foredeck or on the roof when you’re passing through a lock. Every passenger on board, including pets, should remain well inside the vessel and away from the sides. Locks can be very narrow, and any slight bump against the sides can throw people overboard. For obvious reasons, locks should never be used at dusk or after dark when it’s difficult to see and maneuver properly.

If you’re preparing to go through a lock, be sure your boat is equipped with at least two 50-foot lines, so you can moor your vessel to the floating mooring bits (posts) on the lock chamber wall that move up and down as the water level rises or falls. Once you’ve entered the chamber, be sure to put fenders over the side of your boat to keep it from scraping the lock wall or another vessel.

When you’re in the vicinity of locks, pay close attention and adhere to all posted signs. Listen carefully to the instructions from the lock operator and be alert to everything that’s going on around you.

Finally, obey the rules. Those who operate locks have seen boaters do crazy things when locking through, such as entering waters where they shouldn’t be and cutting in front of barges. The latter can be particularly dangerous, because barge operators can’t always see the smaller vessels, and they may not be able to stop. The procedures for navigating locks are there for a reason: everyone’s safety.

Keep these tips in mind when it’s time to navigate a lock:
– If you’re unfamiliar with the area, do some research before. Purchase a cruising guide of the waters in which you’ll be operating. Note the location of the lock, how to best contact the lockmaster and any other information that will help you pass through without a mishap.

– Using your VHF-FM marine-band radio, inform the lockmaster ahead of time to signal your intention to pass. It’s also a good idea to get information about the current status of the lock’s operation. For small boats, there’s usually a small bell or buzzer near the approach for signaling your arrival.

– To protect the hull from the rough surface of the lock’s walls, position multiple fenders along the sides of your boat. The lock walls and guide ropes tend to be slippery, so you and your crewmembers may want to wear protective gloves.

– Stop a sufficient distance from the lock, so you can assess the current status. Most locks have a traffic light that indicates when it’s safe to enter. Once the light is green, or you receive instructions from the lockmaster, proceed slowly into the lock chamber.

– Position your boat so you can easily grasp the fixed lines, poles, cables or ladders along the wall of the lock. These can help you keep the boat in position as the water level rises or falls. To keep the boat in position in large locks with floating bollards, it’s a good idea to run a line from a midship cleat, take two turns around the bollard and secure the line back to the cleat.

– When your boat is secure at the wall, stop your engine and wait for the lockmaster to close the gate and fill or empty the lock. Use a boat hook to fend off the wall if your vessel starts to shift. Keep a close eye on your lines to make sure they are tending properly and nothing gets tangled along the way.

– Play close attention as the water rises to match the level in your direction of travel. Once the water inside the lock chamber is raised or lowered to the appropriate depth, the lockmaster will open the doors and signal that it’s safe to proceed. Start your engine, release any lines or handholds, and motor at idle speed out of the lock chamber.


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