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!
Good article. The strangest solo locking I’ve done was at a time the small locks were shut down for maintenance and mine was the only boat transiting the large locks. I won’t go into the details of how that worked (irrelevant and different locks personnel might want to approach it differently), but suffice to say they know how deal with even that situation where you’re on the wall and can only handle one lock line and can’t even borrow crew from another boat. There really is no reason to fear the locks; just respect them.
One of my solo lockings was also in the large locks – but it was during the summer and there were other boaters that helped out. Someone rafting up to me came aboard and help tend one of my 50′ lines.
Nice article. Well worth a read by those going through with other crew as well.
I am alone most of the time when I transit the locks, and I have benefitted from the consideration of the lock wallahs and from other boaters. It is key. I try to call attention to the fact that I am solo when that is the case.
One thing that would help everyone is an improvement in communication from the lock personnel… especially when coming in from the sound. It is very difficult to hear instructions given the distance and the noise from the railroad trestle (not just trains, but the water that is oven coming down from the trestle).
And yes, being tuned into channel 13 is very helpful.
I agree that there should be better communications. It’s sometimes very frustrating. However, I suspect their argument will be that they exist primarily (perhaps solely) for the purpose of managing commercial and fishing traffic. I’ll try and ask the next time I’m there walking about as a tourist – which remains an extremely fun thing to do from time to time.
Hmmm… perhaps I’m wrong about this, but I think that supporting recreational boaters is a formal part of their remit. Commercial traffic rightly enjoys precedence, but easy enough to argue that better-informed recreational boaters will improve the usefulness of the waterways for commercial traffic as well!
I think you’re right.
The Corps of Engineers has one criteria for marine operations, commercial tonnage. Since the completion of the 520 bridge, the tonnage has fallen below the threshold for Corps to invest in upgrading the locks (they are 100 years old and in serious need of upgrading). I have just become aware of this problem. A number of years ago the Swinomish Channel was silted up to the point that boaters were in danger of running aground, but the lack of commercial tonnage meant that the Corps would not dredge the channel. I don’t recall how the situation was resolved.
I was thinking about writing up a locks tips post too, but would need a lot more lock thrus before I’d even consider going solo.
Our biggest challenges have been with congestion (in the summer, 50 boats waiting to enter eastbound!) and current / wind pushing on the boat when heading west. Maneuverability of your boat matters a lot. As a sailboat with prop walk we’re not super maneuverable. Seems like a motor boat with twin screws or a bow thruster would have an easier time with some parts of it.
I thought the VHF communication ban was a USCG decision, rather than Locks imposed. Communications are terrible – they announce instructions over the loudspeaker which no one can hear over the wind.
The summers can certainly be congested. I tend to take it all in stride. Even though we have a fast motorboat we have a self-imposed rule of never rushing to get somewhere. I try and give myself extra time at the locks and enjoy the excitement when it’s super busy.
You are right about maneuverability being challenging – certainly for vessels without a great deal of thrust and directional control. Though, you probably have the advantage of a nice sized rudder.
The other key for the locks – bring oversized fenders!
I forgot the mention that sailboats often have a unique advantage going solo through the locks – your assortment of winches, cams, long lines and generally strong seamanship skills can make a complicated job easier. I was in the big locks once and a solo sailer was easily handling both his long lines through a pair of aft winches. From one spot he was keeping them both properly tensioned. Most powerboaters have no such toys and have to have people manning both ends of the boat!
My anecdotal understanding is that this is a local decision, as in other parts of the country, channel 13 is available to recreational boaters. I wouldn’t argue in favor of changing this, but rather to provide better means of communicating to the boaters waiting to get in (or out).
I was coming through the locks this winter on my sailboat and with a broken throttle cable, which made controlling throttle a challenge, and the attendants specifically told me that it would have been fine, indeed expected, of me to hail them on 13 for a heads up, so that they could better assist.
I’d imagine that’s a situation that warrants communications – for the sake of safety.
Patrick you are correct, it is USCG. You can’t talk to the bridge tenders on the radio either.
My simple advise to all skipper transitioning the Locks is; Do what the person on the wall tells you to do. They are pretty good at determining if you are solo. I solo and pickup crew often as I like to leave very early or vary late. I like the locks as it is a challenging seamanship gig.
The important advice in your article is have everything ready for both sides before you approach. Not just fenders on both sides, but lines. Flake you mooring lines on lifelines, or rail so the Lock Master can pick it with a boathook and help you.
As a sailboat who opens the BNR bridge, we do have a extra challenge. I have been stuck outside the BNR bridge, in my place in line as the whole locks fills and closes. So on some busy days when the 4pm trains are expected, and the bridge happens to be open, I will pass the crowd to get up stream of bridge. I am polite and know my place in line. Usually only one or two explanations are required. But that presents a new challenge as you are in the bulk of the current with a lot of other boats who will be passing you in a small area. I have found there is a nice eddy right at the end of the wharf between the locks (by the Green/red Stop/Go lights). And you are out of the way. and can setup to move further away the light goes green for either lock.
Do what the lockmaster on the locks tells you to do and it will be fine! Good article.
How about when the bridge closes behind you, thereby locking you in, and a bunch of power boaters, who often have much better maneuverability, come under the bridge to line up for the locks. Fun times.
Great video. My only suggestion is to keep an eye on the floating tanks that you tie up to. My one exciting experience was when the tank hung up on the wall and the boat developed a severe list as the water level continued to drop. With a crew of Indian Princess’ and one non-boater Dad, I was lucky to free the line before it broke or the cleat popped off.
Excellent point – and something many of the guides point out. I’ve always been aware that they could get stuck but never witnessed them doing so. Perhaps I’ve become a little too complacent about that possibility occurring. Your comment has reinforced my need to be more aware of my surroundings during a locking.
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I’ve found that going out solo is a lot easier than going in, as the lock attendants have always held onto the bow line until I get the stern set (I run the bow line to the cockpit and hand it to the attendant via a boat hook).
Coming back in from the Sound I have often wondered if running a spring line from mid ship back with a loop that I can toss over a lock cleat, before I secure a stern line. This would
1) pull the stern in so that I can tied it off fast
2) prevent the bow from swinging out
3) Give me time to go to the bow and take care of it with a separate line.
You’re right. Going out, and being at the same height as the lock staff sure makes it much easier – both in handling (and handing off) lines and communicating. Come to think of it – all my solo trips through have been outbound.
Thanks for the great article. I want to implement this, but the antenna seems either not available or much higher priced right now. I wonder if you can suggest an alternative. Or if you think this package might be a good solution, even if the antenna might need upgrading later: http://r.ebay.com/NtCXWR. Also, is that router still the best option? Thanks! -Bill