Navigating the Locks

The LAIKA lives in Lake Washington but summer voyages will surely have us traveling into and around Puget Sound. To get there we’ll need to head out toward Lake Union and then on to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks – a popular tourist spot in Seattle and a necessary transfer junction bridging the lake and Sound.

So far, we’ve gone through the locks four times with our own boat and a few other times onboard friend’s vessels (both power and sail). While we were warned well before our first attempt that the locks can be intimidating, we found the process of preparing and going through both orderly and fun.

In boating “slow is the new fast” and that’s especially important when entering and maneuvering within the locks. It’s also critical to have the right gear which means two 50′ lines ready to be used should you be selected to enter into the large lock. The smaller lock doesn’t require long lines, just regular dock lines.

Cathia and I are now fairly comfortable locking through. We approach cautiously and await instruction from one of the lock masters, after determining which lock to enter by way of the traffic lights.

One of our close friends suggested always having a box of cookies ready to share with the lock personnel. We’ve followed his advice every time now and have been warmly greeted and accommodated, despite our relative lack of boating and locking experience.

What’s the scariest part of maneuvering in the locks? Our experience suggests that it would probably be positioning our boat in the small lock when it’s full – which means only about four or five other boats. Twice now we’ve been asked to scoot in and tie up next to another boat with only inches between our port side and the wall of the lock and large I-beams. Having plenty of fenders on both sides is a prescription for both success and sanity.

A few words of advice we’ve taken to heart include paying close attention to the lock attendants and handling lines in the order they dictate (lake lines are always removed last due to outflowing current) and going as slow as safely possible. The last part has been fairly easy thanks to our Axius system. I find myself controlling the boat by joystick whenever I’m inside either the small or large lock.

Here are some links you may find useful if you’re preparing to lock through:

Novel way of getting a VSC

If you haven’t obtained a vessel safety check (VSC) it’s a good idea to schedule one. They’re free and offer you a quick, seasonal way of getting an objective view of your boats water worthiness, safety level and compliance with local regs. A good place to start in terms of finding a qualified individual that can visit your boat and perform a VSC is the Safety Seal site.

This past week my wife, daughter and friend of ours were in Lake Union heading toward the locks for a planned outing to Poulsbo. It was 9:30 in the morning and with Morrison’s Fuel Dock in site and almost no other marine traffic we spotted a brightly colored Coast Guard pontoon boat. We were traveling well within the 7 knot speed limit and had a low wake. But, something told me, since we were practically the only boat out there at the time, that we were in for a boarding. And, that’s exactly what was going to happen.

The Coast Guard boat turned on their flashing blue lights and approached our boat. When it got closer it used its speaker to request a boarding. Naturally, we brought the LAIKA to a stop and prepared to welcome our boarding party. With armed Coast Guardsmen on a boat with a menacing 50 caliber bow mounted gun what other action do you take?

Interestingly, we had just installed Skyhook for our boat, a Bayliner 340SB with Mercury’s Axius system. Axius delivers a computerized control-by-wire system that independently controls the two stern drives for amazing control (like parallel movements using a joystick). If you’ve ever played a video game you already know how to perform dock maneuvers with our boat – or any boat equipped with Axius or Zeus (the same system for pod engines). Skyhook delivers a virtual anchor for the boat. Using GPS it’s capable of literally keeping the boat in one place – regardless of currents and wind. If the boat moves the system senses where it should be and uses the engines to scoot back into position. It’s accurate to within a few meters, provided you have good GPS coverage.

So, the Coast Guard boat moved into position and two of the officers stepped onto our swim deck and into our cabin. They were extremely nice and requested to see our documentation (we’re CG documented), PFDs, extinguishers and other safety equipment (like flares, whistle, flags, etc.). They also examined our engine compartment and complimented us on its cleanliness.

The whole event took less than ten minutes. They were also gracious enough to pose for some pictures which my daughter thoroughly enjoyed.

We have friends that have been boating for decades that have never been boarded. Here we are, new boaters, out before the season officially begins and we received our first Coast Guard Boarding. It was a success because all our safety and mechanical gear was in great shape. It was also fun to test out the Skyhook feature, which worked perfectly. We intend to use it mostly when waiting for the locks to open.

So, while a VSC remains a great idea (and we have one planned), we already know we’ll pass – thanks to our Coast Guard boarding and inspection.

Who needs a boating season?

We bought our boat, the LAIKA (a Bayline 340SB), last August at the boat show that took place in Shilshoe Marina. From the very beginning we knew we’d be using the boat a great deal.

This past winter holiday season we were out for three of the Christmas Light parades – two in Lake Washington – and the final one that went from Kirkland, through the Montlake Cut, into Portage Bay, and then on to Lake Union. All three events were fantastic and helped us learn important night-time navigation skills.

This late winter and early Spring we’ve been through the locks a number of times, visited Poulsbo twice and have been on Lake Washington about a dozen times.

We’ve got about a hundred hours on the boat already and boating season has yet to begin! In fact, who really needs a boating season? For us, it’s year-round! Sure, formal boating season coincides with warmer and more pleasant weather, but it also means crowded water ways and longer lock lines.