Transiting The Hiram M. Chittenden (Ballard) Locks can be a challenging exercise for recreational boaters. It requires patience, good boating skills, a sense of community and willingness to help others (especially in the busy summer months), and a constant awareness of safety.
With the winter months being less busy than during the Spring and Summer, they’re an excellent opportunity to practice your locking skills by moving between the Ship Canal and Puget Sound.
Recently my wife and I planned to spend a few days in Port Townsend and La Conner. Due to some scheduling challenges I would have to take our boat through the locks myself, and meet her at Shilshole.
While my wife and I have probably gone through the locks several dozen times, I’ve only had to go through alone a few times before. The first time was two summers ago and I was apprehensive. I was worried about handling the lines. Could I do it alone? What if I were in the large lock and had to maintain control of two 50′ lines?
Prior to going it solo the first time I visited the locks, on foot, to speak to some of the people working there. The advice and guidance I received was simple. They convinced me that I could it do and that their job was to make sure I did it well, and safely. They even suggested I call ahead to the lock master and ask any specific questions I might have and, if I felt it necessary, call the day I was planning to go through.
Recreational boaters should be aware, though, that communicating with the locks via VHF radio is not permitted. Only commercial vessels can do that. In fact, signs suggest that recreational boaters should turn off their radios. However, that doesn’t prevent you from stopping by in person and chatting, or calling on the phone.
With regard to radios, I tend to leave two of my radios on. One is set to channel 16 and, when preparing to head through the locks, I like to have a portable set to channel 13. I turn them completely off or silence them when I begin going through, but while waiting it’s useful to hear which commercial vessels are planning an approach.
My most recent solo locking experience happened February 12, 2016 (see video above) and I was treated to a spectacularly beautiful day. It was so gorgeous that I decided to mount a GoPRO and capture the experience.
I was pleased with the results, though the video did reveal some poor line handling toward the end when I was trying to release the bow line. In retrospect I should have had a utility pole up on the bow with me. Still, the locking was a success. I managed to get through safely – without damaging the boat (or anyone else’s).
Key steps I think any recreational boater can benefit from knowing when going through the locks, whether alone or with a crew, include:
- Prepare by having all your fenders and lines ready.
- Don’t assume a port or starboard tie – be prepared for both!
- Remember slow is smooth and smooth is fast! Don’t rush.
- Wear your PFD! The water is cold and people slip and fall often.
- Don’t assume the small or large locks – be prepared for both (and have the proper lines ready).
- Be willing to help other boaters making their way in with you, but don’t interfere with the lock personnel. They’re very skilled at helping boaters get through the locks. Listen to their instructions and follow them precisely.
- Beside turning off your radio(s), be sure to turn off your radar! The lock personnel don’t enjoy the extra radiation.
- Don’t get hyper excited by position. Most boaters know and respect the order they arrive in and also know that for the large locks it’s expected that larger vessels enter first, even if they have just arrived. So, while it may look like some boats are cutting in front of everyone, bigger boats are expected into the large locks first and will likely assume positions along the wall.
Another tip we can share after having done it for about five years – bring Girl Scout cookies. It’s a nice gesture and the crews working during the busy summer months will be grateful – and cut you a little extra slack as you’re working to refine your locking skills!