Whether it is the Granddaddy of them all, The Panama Canal, or one of the many varied types of locks in the river systems where we traveled in the United States and Canada, if you haven't yet taken your cruise boat into one, it can be an exhilarating thought, or intimidating to think about.  In April of 2005, Lynn and I completed The Great American Circle Route, part of our 15,000 mile voyage through Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and around the Eastern United States.  In all we transited over 110 locks.  Some only moving us up or down a few feet, some over 80 feet.  The most intimidating was without a doubt the Panama Canal.  And as our route would dictate, it was the first that we were to transit after leaving from Southern California toward the Eastern United States.  But even this huge canal system was not bad to transit, if you knew what to do.  And after transiting the Panama Canal, all the rest were a piece of cake.  But still, some were quite interesting, and many required variations on how to handle your boat while in the locks.  So if would you like to feel better about an up coming lock transit, here are some ideas from our experiences, "locking through."


   Basically, a lock is simply a way of moving your boat from one level of water to another.  This could be a river that had a water fall or rapids at one time in the past, or a difference in level from a lake to a river, or where two oceans come close together, with perhaps a lake in between at a different level, like the Panama Canal.  Most locks consist of a chamber with doors at each end.  The few that don't work like this we will touch on later.  These gateway locks open one end to let you drive your boat in and grab a tether, they close the doors, and then either let water in to raise you, or let water out to lower you.  They open the doors and you leave.  That's all there is to it.  We will take you through 'locking through' this most common type first, step by step.  We will then touch on the odd type, and lastly, the Panama Canal, because its just much bigger and different than the rest.

    Getting through a set of locks should be planned in your day's cruise time.  Its also best to have information from local cruise guides about the locks ahead of time.  They give you key information that will make your locking experience easy and safe.  We found locking through was quite efficient but can sometimes be time consuming.  We have locked through some locks in a matter of minutes, and at times have had to wait for an hour just to get in.  You must understand that you have a pleasure boat, and most US locks, as well as the Panama locks, are commercial priority.  That means if a commercial boat is ready, she goes first.  And with a few exceptions, this means they go by themselves while you wait.  But after transiting 110 locks, not once did we really get inconvenienced more than a bit.  I've heard moaning by some boaters, but if you understand what is going on, how can you be upset.  Just take a breath, and take your turn.

    Probably the best advice for locking we can give is, be prepared.  If you know you are going to lock through today, put your fenders out before you leave your dock or anchorage.  And fender well.  This means put out a minimum of 3 fenders on each side.  We put out four as we have a 49 foot long boat.  The need for all these is because the boat is going to want to twist against the wall when all that water comes in or goes out.  There is a current that is set up in the water inside the lock when the water is let in or out.  But if you are well secured, and have enough fenders, its no big deal.  The boat will just twist and bump against the fenders.   If you don't fender well, your boat can bang a bit against the icky, gooey, sometimes rough, scratchy walls.  You don't want to do that.  In addition, you want to have gloves ready.  Some that you don't mind getting yucky, because some locks have ropes that can be a bit slimy from hanging in the water all the time.  And have life jackets ready to don because some US locks require any person outside to have on a life jacket.  Not a bad idea if you happen to fall overboard.  We never saw anyone do it, but I could easily see how that swirling water could be intimidating.  And know what channel they want you to call on.  This is usually on channel 16 or 13.  You may then be asked to switch to another channel, probably 12 or 14.

    The first thing you do when you get to a lock is call the lock master and tell them which boat you are and whether you are locking up or down.  You see, if there is more than one boat around they don't know who you are, or which way you are going.  I've heard some strange conversations from boaters who thought they were the only boat on the planet, and didn't get why they had to give all that information.  It's entertaining.  Most locks in the US have red and green signal lights as well.  If for some reason no one answers you on the radio, yes this will happen, blow your horn one long blast and then a short one to wake them up.  If no one comes to your rescue, don't panic, just wait for the green light and go on in.  In some cases, the procedure is to pull up to the wall near the lock and tie up your boat and wait until you get instructions or you see the green light come on.  These will have obvious places to tie up with cleats along the wall.  Sometimes on the radio the lock master will want to give you special instructions, like which side to tie up to or where on the wall he wants your boat inside the lock.  If you don't get any instructions, and you are by yourself, I generally tie up in the middle, because that's usually where we felt the least turbulence.  If there are other boats with you and you are first, move as far forward as you can.  This gives the other boats the easiest and safest place to tie up behind you.

    Now when you get into a lock and head your boat for the wall, you are going to be looking for one of four different types of attachments for holding your boat steady during locking.  Hopefully, you have read about this lock before you get there, and once you read and understand what to look for, you will be prepared.  Lynn and I got to where we didn't care which kind it was, we just took it as it came.  It's quite easy once you know what you're doing.  Now once you get inside, one of these four types of tethers will show themselves; ropes hanging down in sets of two, with about 25 feet between, or vertical cables attached to the walls, or pipes imbedded in the walls, or floating bollards on pipes in the wall.  Take a breath and relax, we'll tell you how to handle each one.

Summary first: Ropes- you grab hold of two ropes and hold on; Cables- you feed two lines through two cables, one forward and one aft, and hold on; Pipes in the wall- you feed two lines through two pipes and hold on; Floating bollards- you feed your line around one bollard amidships and hold on.

Ropes: These ropes are only attached at the top and fall to the bottom of the lock.  You want to ease your boat up to the position you want and have your crew person (politically correct here) grab one rope and hand it to the driver, if only two are on board, then move to the other end of the boat and grab a second rope.  Once you have both ropes, the driver can leave the controls and hold the boat near the wall.  Whether you grab a rope first at the bow or stern depends on where your two crew persons will be tending.  In our case, I was at the pilothouse near the bow, so that one was first, then Lynn went aft for the second.  If you have extra crew you can grab both ropes at the same time.  Generally, when you have ropes as your 'tether', you are in a smaller lock with less turbulence, but we have had some that gave quite a tug on the boat.  So hold on and pay attention.  If you let go, and have your engines off, you can drift away from the wall and into something you don't want to drift into, like another boat or a wall.  You don't want to do that.  And, don't tie the ropes off to anything, because when the water goes in or out you are going to be adjusting the rope length to your boat level to hold the boat steady.  If you are going up, then you are deep down in the lock walls and the water is coming in raising your boat.  Take up the slack as your boat goes up.  If you are near the top when you motor in, then water will be going out and you will go down, so you have to release rope as the boat lowers.  Now, this going down can be the bad part if you did (unwisely) tie off a line, as the weight of your boat will rip off what ever you have it tied to.  Not a good thing.  Don't tie off a line.  When the level stops changing, just wait and hold the boat steady. Most often you will get instructions when to leave, so don't start heading for the opening doors.  Wait for them to be fully open and you get a signal to exit.  This is usually a horn blast, or a message on the radio from the lock master.  Then motor on out. Be patient, it is quite simple if you know what you are doing. 

A note here for those of you with large boats.  Over 20 tons is a guess. The larger the boat, the more force the water imparts on the boat and the more difficult it is to hold close to the wall.  Our boat is 25 tons, and at times I did use a cleat to take a wrap to help hold the boat.  Just don't tie off, because you will not be able to get it loose as the boat moves down, and it will be expensive.

Vertical Cables: These are a bit easier because you use your own lines and you can tie off one end for more stability.  Keep the other end loose and fed through the cable.  In this case you are not adjusting line length as your boat level changes.  Your line simply slides up or down the cable which is attached at the top and the bottom of the lock.  Ease up to the first cable and send a line around the cable and hand it to your crew, and go get the second and hold on.

See, locking through is no big deal. We actually found it a break in the monotony of river cruising.  And except for the Panama Canal, there was only Lynn and I for the other 100 plus locks.

Vertical Pipes: These are handled exactly the same as cable, except there are actually vertical pipes attached inside indents in the walls.  Just feed your lines around the pipes and let your lines slide up or down.

Floating Bollards: These are really neat. Lynn's and my favorite.  A floating bollard is a short length of vertical pipe that is capped on top, this making a place to wrap your line around.  It is then attached  to slide up and down around a long pipe that is embedded in the wall.  The bollard actually does float up and down with the water level, sliding up and down the pipe in the wall.  You simply pull your boat up to one bollard amidships, wrap your line (twice) around a bollard, and hold on.  Your boat and the bollard holding you steady will float up or down with the water.  Cool.


    Lynn and I really enjoyed the variation of some of these locks.  Our favorite was the hydraulic lift lock in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.  This lock is two large 'pans' which are shaped like a large lock basin, but there are actually two, side by side, and are attached to a balanced hydraulic controlled elevator mechanism.  They are easily large enough for four of our size boat.  You drive in and tie up.  Then they close the gate and one pan goes up, and one pan goes down, 70 feet.  It is really quite the thing to experience. If you would like a picture, go to our Cruising Chronicles and click on Trent Severn Waterway.

    Another interesting lock in the Trent Severn Waterway was the Big Chute Marine Railway lift, just before Port Severn on the Trent Severn Waterway.  It is actually a self leveling railway car with a  capacity of 90 tons.  It is 100' long and 24 ' wide. Your boat drives into the lift while it is submerged.  Belts are adjusted under your boat like a lift that hauls your boat at a boat yard.  The rail car then slides up out of the water by means of cables underneath, goes over a hill and puts you back into the water on the other level.  It really was fun. While waiting our turn, we heard some boaters yelling, "We're all gonna die!" as their boat slid toward the water.  They were just kidding.  See this lock also in our Trent Severn Waterway chronicle.


    All of you who have been in awe of these locks, we just want to let you know they are indeed really awe inspiring and a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience.  Looking at the result of this engineering feat, and reading of the efforts to create them is a moving reminder of the enormity of the human spirit and what we can accomplish.  This is just a short chronicle of our passage, and some informative instruction by way of our experience.

    As we got within two days of Balboa, Panama, moving down the Pacific from Costa Rica, we began to email, call, and radio, in order to make contact with one of the listed "agents" from our travel guides.  The agent, we were told, would assist us with the complicated paperwork, procedures, and scheduling through the canal.  Unfortunately, after many, many attempts, we never did receive a response.  So when we reached the Balboa Yacht Club we caught a mooring, tied up and went ashore in a water taxi.  We were met by a local taxi driver that said he had been doing this for 30 years, we didn't need an agent.  He was right.  He walked us through the whole process, two days worth, 5 buildings and a bank, talked to the clerks, helped fill out the papers and pay the fees.  For our 25 ton trawler the canal fee was $600.  He also taxied us around Balboa, shopping and sight seeing and restaurants, for the three days wait. We got a schedule on Saturday morning, and off we went.  Total cost for his services, $200!  The agents we read about supposedly charged $650-1200, and they don't ferry you around town for 3 days!

    OK, now here is the story about our trip 'locking through'.  First off, these locks are BIG.  You are first assigned a 'pilot' to your boat who boards just before you leave in the a.m.  He tells you where to go, how fast, and communicates with the canal authorities, and the lock masters.  You drive.  You must have already arranged for large lines, 4 lines, each 120 feet long, 1/2" min. size, and a 3 foot eye in one end.  We rented ours for $20.  Our taxi driver set us up.  You also have to provide 4 line handlers.  Our taxi driver could have arranged for these, but we advertised on the morning cruise net by radio, and got several offers of service from boaters who were not going through but wanted the experience.  One of our crew performed as one line handler, Lynn took care of food and drinks and helping to communicate to the line handlers.  We just served them lunch, and paid a taxi to take them back to their boats after the lock through.  There are 6 locks, all about the same size, 3 at the Pacific side, Mira Flores, and 3 at the Caribbean side, Gatun locks.  You can be asked to spend the night in the middle, anchored in lake Gatun, taking two days to transit, but we went through all in one day.  You are told to plan for this, which means providing meals and arranging for an area for the line handlers and pilot to sleep.

    You can also request how you want to lock through. Not guaranteed, but I'm told most always accommodated.  We asked for 'center lock' or 'tug escort'.  Both of these are the least complicated for the safety of your boat.  We actually went through the Mira Flores locks 'rafted' to a tug.  This was no work at all, we just pulled up to the tug and handed our lines over and they tied us up to their tire covered side.  They did all the driving through the locks.  On the Gatun side, we went center lock through one lock with a Very Large container ship right behind us.  That was surreal looking up at that thing as it slowly moved to with an inch of us.  OK, it was about 50 feet away when it stopped.  But it sure felt like it was a lot closer.  For the last two locks, a small sail boat that we had leapfrogged down from Mexico with and talked to on the radio, was assigned to us to raft up, then we went 'center lock' with our trawler supplying the power and driving.  Center lock just means your four lines are sent up to men on the top of the lock walls and they drop them over bollards.  Your line handlers are then instructed to keep the slack out of the lines to keep your boat in the 'center' of the lock.  You instruct your line handlers not try to pull the boat one way or the other, ours is 25 tons and does not move by one person pulling, but just adjust the slack in the lines around a cleat on your boat.  It worked quite easily, and despite what we read, a woman or slight person can do it if instructed properly.  You don't need big, burly, manly men.  As you move from lock to lock, the men on top of the walls move your lines off the bollards and walk to the next lock as you drive from one lock to the next.

    All in all, Lynn and I have enjoyed our experiences through the locks.  It was only scary because we had not done it before, but really, it is easy and painless if you prepare and take it slow.

  We hope our experiences are helpful, and "We wish all of you who cruise, fair weather, and may the wind always be at your back.  But we know better, and that's just part of the adventure."

  Les and Lynn Cotton

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