Fixed bridges -- When planning a trip I identify the location and get the
vertical clearance of fixed bridges on my route. If any are lower than the
height of my mast above waterline, I look for alternative routes. If there
are none (or none are acceptable), I figure out where I am going to unstep
my mast. The spars are then secured above deck on crutches/supports I have
made for this purpose which keep it high on the centerline (but low enough
to fit under the lowest fixed bridge along the route). This keeps my deck
clear for working (locking, docking, and anchoring), keeps the helm clear
for steering, provides maximum visibility, permits convenient access below,
allows hatches to be opened for ventilation or emergencies, and permits
dinghy to be stored on deck. It also serves as a ridge support for a tarp
over the cockpit for protection from sun and rain. Assuming a masthead
mounted VHF antenna, alternative arrangements for VHF communication are
necessary. A handheld unit is fine for communication, but may not be
adequate for receiving broadcasts on marine weather channels.
Swinging bridges and drawbridges -- Some open on demand; others open on a
particular schedule (typically on the hour or half-hour). I find out which
are which and get the schedules of those that operate on a schedule. I also
find out the VHF channel monitored by and the sound signals used to
communicate with the bridge attendants. I try to time my arrival to
correspond with bridge opening schedules, preferring to be a bit early
rather than late. Because some waiting is usually inevitable (sometimes a
lot of waiting if I arrive just after closing), I plan for that.
When approaching a lock, you may have to wait. Some locks have traffic
lights -- green = open, red = closed. If you need to wait, there may be a
wall or dock to tie to. If the waiting area is full or there is none, it is
necessary to stand off. There is often at a slight current pulling you
toward or away from the lock, so some manuevering under power will be
necessary to hold your position. Do not approach the lock too closely --
there may be turbulence when it opens. You also want to make sure your
position does not interfere with boats exiting the lock.
When the lock is opened, the lock attendants will direct the waiting boats
to specific locations. First there does not necessarily mean first in. In
small locks (like those in the Trent-Severn Waterway), boats are put on
both sides. Since you may be directed to either the port or starboard side
of the lock, you need to have fenders and bow and stern lines ready for
either possibility. Sometimes boats are rafted, which requires breast and
spring lines as well. Check to make sure nothing is protruding beyond the
gunwales that could hit the walls.
Equipment needs -- Adequate size and number of fenders. I use four 10"-12"
fenders per side on my 26 footer. I have not done the Welland Canal yet,
but have been told burlap bags filled with straw are the recommended
fenders and can be purchased from marinas at either end of the canal.
Having a way to quickly adjust the location of the fenders (horizontally
and vertically) is a big help. Four transit lines -- two bow and two
stern. Length and diameter will depend upon lock. Boat hooks -- one secured
but easily accessible on bow and another at the stern. Work gloves --
cotton or leather.
Crew/linehandlers -- I have singlehanded my 26 footer through small locks,
but do not recommend it, especially when up locking. For most small locks,
two people (helmsperson plus one linehandler) are adequate when down
locking. The line handler handles the bow line, the helmsperson handles the
stern line. Holding the boat against the turbulence encountered when up
locking (especially when the boat is located at the front of the lock where
the turbulence is greatest) may require more than two people. Lockmasters
can deny entrance if they don't believe the boat can be handled properly.
Some locks require a minimum number of people on board. If you don't have
the required number, it is usually easy to hire someone or borrow crew from
another boat. Some canals also require transiting vessels to take an
advisor/pilot on board.
Locking technique and precautions -- Specifics will vary. In small locks,
you enter the lock slowly and come to a stop parallel to the wall. In
hydraulic lift locks, you then just tie to cleats, bollards, or other
points on the wall. The boat is essentially in a "bathtub" and the whole
tub moves up and down, so the water level does not change relative to the
Some locks have attachment points that move up and down with water level
or "drop lines" (vertical lines spaced along the lock wall; the ends are
permanently attached at the top and bottom of the wall). One end of the
bow and stern transit lines is cleated off to a deck cleat. The transit
line is looped around the attachment point/drop line and the free end is
held in your hand or, if necessary to maintain control, given it a turn
around a cleat (a figure eight works well) or winch. But do not cleat it
off. The loop in the transit line is supposed to slide up or down the drop
line as the water level changes. You may have to loosen, lengthen, or
shorten the line quickly to keep the boat in the proper position. Worst
case scenerio, the loop binds and the boat will either be pulled under or
In some small locks, one end of each transit line is attached to a bollard
at the top of the lock wall. The free end is run through a chock, fairlead,
or cleat on the bow and stern of the boat and line is let out or hauled in
as the water level changes. Again, it may be necessary to take a turn
around a cleat or winch to handle the loads, but never cleat off.
On big locks, you want a center tie when up locking. Check out
David Wilson's "Northbound Panama Canal Transit"
does a better job of describing the procedure than I can.
Precautions -- It is important to keep the boat properly positioned and
under control at all times. Turbulence when uplocking, especially at the
front of the lock, can really try to toss the boat around. You want to
avoid slack in the transit lines which will put high shock loads on cleats,
etc. or allow the boat to slam into the lock wall. Be sure never to let
hands or other body parts get between the boat and the lock wall. The use
of a boat hook is recommended to grab drop lines/attachment points, pull
in, or fend off. However, when things are going well, I have used my hands
for this. Gloves are nice because walls and some lines are slimey and may
be rough. They can also help and protect your hands when handling transit
After the lock has completed filling/emptying, the lock attendants will
direct the order of exit. Don't be in too much of a hurry to exit. There is
usually a slight surge when the gates are opened.
Payment of fees -- You usually pay before entering the first lock. On some
small locks, you can pay on a per lock basis while you are locking through.
VHF communication -- Know the VHF channel monitored by the lockmasters so
you can contact them if necessary.
Hours of operation -- When transiting a series of locks on a waterway, the
lockmasters keep in touch with each other by telephone to organize the flow
of boats. If it is near closing time, telling a lockmaster you are or are
not heading for the next lock helps them. On the Trent-Severn and Erie, you
can tie up at the locks to spend the night -- but may have to wait to tie
up until after the locks close and may have to untie before they open.
Dinghy -- Stow it on board. Some locks will treat a towed dinghy as a
separate boat and charge a fee for it. But mainly, it is a real pain to
maneuver in a lock with a dinghy on a tow line off the stern.
Aids to navigation -- Aids to navigation may be unique for the waterway so
you need to learn them. Some waterways have summits and the buoyage will
reverse on the other side of the summit. For example, on the Trent-Severn,
red buoys are on your starboard going upstream. Once you cross the summit,
you are heading downstream and the red buoys are on the port side.
Rules of the road -- Vessels travelling downstream have right of way. This
is important when travelling through a narrow or fast flowing section of
waterway since vessels travelling downstream have less steerage control.
Water depths can vary and may be shallow, so knowing your actual draft is
When entering areas with limited maneuverability or blind spots, I
broadcast a securite warning to let other boats know I am coming.
Anchoring -- make sure you are out of the channel and use an anchor light.
Speed limits -- Sailboats probably won't have to worry about exceeding
speed limits. But in sections without speed limits, you are likely to
encounter powerboat wakes. Be careful they don't push you into an awkward
or dangerous situation.