Have you ever experienced a near nervous breakdown while going through - or even just anticipating going through - the Chittenden Locks, known locally as the Ballard Locks?
It can be scary, but it needn't be. Just keep your wits about you, follow a few simple guidelines and the next time you transit the locks you will be better prepared, more confident and less stressed.
The locks are located at the entrance to Salmon Bay and the Lake Washington Ship Canal in Seattle. More than 1 million people visit locks each year and if you haven’t been through the locks, a good place to begin is to join the crowd and observe others going through - and ask questions about things you are unsure of.
While you are at the locks, ask for a copy of "Guidelines for Boaters", a handy booklet that outlines what you need to know about locking through. The booklet covers such basics as the equipment required, where to wait, the traffic signals, priorities and the "locking through" process. Keep this handy in your boat, so you can refer to it. It is also very useful to help inform unseasoned guests or crew members.
Another great way to learn is to go through the locks with a fellow boater who has had the experience. You can either go as a deckhand on his or her boat or ask your friend to assist you in bringing your own boat through.
Locking Through: The Basics Preparation
Prepare guests or passengers who are to take part in the mooring. They should be trained in advance of the events to come, before you begin your entry. Give them the "Guidelines for Boaters" booklet to read, plus any special instructions you might have. You'll be too busy during the locking through procedure to wait until then to train them and isn't safe to do so. It can be pretty frustrating for the lock operators to deal with boat crews standing on the bow or stern looking lost and asking what to do. This is especially true when the operators know the skipper has been through before, or that the boat has been sitting outside the locks for some time waiting to come in.
Waiting in Line
As you approach the locks, assume you will be using the Small Lock (to the south). Using traffic signals, tower personnel will tell you if you should come over to the Large Lock. The traffic signals operate like vehicle traffic lights: Red means wait, green means come ahead. If you have a red light or there is traffic ahead of you, it’s best to tie up to the holding pier and wait for either a green light or instructions on the public address system. Do not call on Channel 13, as FCC restrictions prohibit the locks staff from responding to non-commercial vessels unless it is an emergency.
Lock personnel will spot you at the waiting pier and will get to you as soon as possible. If you do have an emergency situation, state so when calling. Your wait will be dependent upon safety and priority. The priority order for vessels waiting to lock through is: government and commercial vessels of all types first, then pleasure craft. Stay alert for a green light. Frequently, the locks crew is standing ready to take boat traffic when boaters aren't paying attention to the traffic lights. Stay aboard your craft while you are awaiting your transit.
Entering the locks seems to make people the most nervous. However, this should be easier than tying up at your moorage slip because our trained personnel will give you instructions, take your line and fend you off if needed. Don't let your anxiety put you on edge and set you up for a ruined weekend. The speed limit is 2.5 knots in the Small Lock and three knots in the Large Lock. Take it easy as you come in, but do make sure you are under power. If you are just drifting, you'll have no effective steering control. Stay on your controls until your vessel has come to a stop. Numerous accidents and near accidents occur when the skipper leaves the controls before coming to a stop. Just before you enter the locks, check your reverse gear to make sure it is working and watch for a lock operator to give you hand signals as to which side to tie up on.
You should be prepared with fenders and lines to tie up to either side. The operators will try to accommodate your wishes, but their decision as to which side to put you on is based on safety, staffing and best use of space. It helps for you to repeat the directional signal when you see it, so that the operators know that you have seen it.
Usually in the Large Lock, you will get verbal instructions, as well as hand signals. If you don't understand where it is you are being directed to, ask for clarification. There have been many instances when instructions to a vessel operator weren't understood, so communication can be a problem. It's not unheard of for operators to give instructions for someone to raft alongside a black sailboat on the south side, only to watch the skipper tie up to a white power boat on the north side. We don't mind you asking for a repeat of instructions, but we do tend to get a bit miffed if you end up where we did not want you.
Filling the locks, especially on a busy weekend, is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, with perhaps 100 or more boats in a locking. Operators have to take many factors into consideration including the size and weight of the boats, experience of operators and crew, cleat locations and accessibility, and the total number of boats. Your cooperation in the following directions makes this process go much smoother.
In the Small Lock, hand or toss the middle or end of your line to a lock operator, who will place it around the bollard. After that, secure it to your vessel. Be careful when tossing your line - it's no fun to get hit in the face. In the Small Lock, there are floating tanks that will go up and down with your boat and the water level. During the locking process, keep an eye on your lines just in case the floats hang up, as will happen from time to time. If this does happen to you, slacken your lines, call it to an operator's attention and the flow of water will be stopped.
In the Large Lock, hand an operator the eye of your line and he or she will place that eye on the top of the wall. If you are coming into the ship canal from the Sound (headed east) or are too far away, the operator will throw you a line so you can tie it to the looped end of your line and your line will then be pulled over. Because there are no floats in the Large Lock, you will have to either pay out or take up your line as you go up or down. It is important to pay attention because, unlike with the Small Lock, it takes several minutes to stop the flow of water in the Large Lock. In that amount of time, the water could drop four or five feet. This would either leave you hanging high and dry, or pull the cleats out of your deck.
Lock operators try to stay vigilant to ensure everyone is tending their lines properly, but sometimes there are only two operators available to watch 800 feet of lock wall. When the gates are ready to be opened, you will be asked to secure your lines for safety, as there are strong currents in the locks (as much as six knots). If your lines have been handled properly, they will not have any slack in them when you tie them down.
It is important you never release your lines until instructed to do so by a lock operator. If you are rafted alongside another boat, do not let them cast your lines off until you have been given the okay to go. To your inexperienced eye, it may look safe to go, but the operators often see things that aren't evident to you. When you do cast off, the easiest way for many people to remember which line to take off first is to use this simple rule: saltwater line comes off first. "Saltwater line", in this case, means the line on the west end of the boat; that would be the bow line heading out to the Sound and the stern line when heading into the ship canal. This rule is important because of the direction of the current flow. If you do it the other way around, you might find yourself spinning down the locks, crashing into other boats. That's not a pretty sight and it can be quite embarrassing when you have a large audience.
The lock operator's job is to assist you in getting through the locks as quickly, safely and easily as possible. Bear in mind the emphasis is on safety. Remember, personnel at the locks have to make a lot of assumptions when they are dealing with you. There are more than 75,000 vessels locked through each year and the operators don't always recognize a particular boat. Sometimes, due to noise or poor acoustics, they are not sure if you have heard the instruction - and they may repeat the instructions in an increasingly louder voice. Other times, certain actions are taken and instructions given because the operators are unsure of the skipper's and line handler's capabilities.
If it seems like your boat handling skills are being questioned, don't be offended. The operators are making assumptions on the side of safety. One final recommendation about boating safety in general - It is a good idea to have all hands trained in operating your boat. Take the time to train everyone, so they could respond appropriately if something were to happen to the skipper or a deckhand. Remember the locks personnel are there to help you have a pleasant and safe passage through the locks. Your cooperation and preparation are needed to make it safe and sane.
Basic Equipment List
The following basic equipment aboard your boat will help ensure the safety of passengers, your vessel and others around you:
- Two 50 foot lines with an eye at least 12 inches in diameter on one end An adequate number of fenders for both sides of your vessel
- Fire extinguishing equipment
- One or more personal floatation devices (PFDs) for each person on board
10 Tips for Locking Through
1. Stay calm and relaxed. This will help out more than anything.
2. Line up at the waiting piers and wait for a green light or instruction on the public address system. At the locks, Channel 13 is for commercial traffic and emergencies only.
3. If using the Small Lock, short lines of 15 or 20 feet are sufficient. In the Large Lock, two 50 foot lines, with a loop in one end to give to the lock operator, are required.
4. Be prepared to tie up on either side, so you don't have to scramble at the last minute.
5. Have adequate fenders in place to protect your boat, as well as other boats you might tie up to.
6. Stay alert. Watch and listen for directional signals from the lock operator.
7. Acknowledge the signals from the lock operator by a hand signal or verbal repetition so that the operators know you clearly understand them.
8. Come in slowly, but don't drift in. If you're not under power, you won't have good steering control.
9. For safety's sake, do not untie or cast off your lines unless a lock operator tells you to do so.
10. When you do get instructions to leave, always cast off the line closest to the salt water first. That would be the bow line first when you are heading west and the stern line when heading east. Article reprinted by permission of Waterfront News