Navigating Locks Safely on Your Boat

Joseph Carro, USCG Boating Safety

Locks are more common in some areas than others, so navigating the intricacies of “locking” isn’t something you’ll encounter every day. Still, it’s a reality you’re likely to come upon at one time or another, so it’s important to understand the basics.

Navigation locks are among the world’s oldest engineering achievements, dating as far back as China’s Song Dynasty around 960 A.D. Engineers have developed many ways to build locks over time, but they all serve the same purpose — functioning as marine elevators that move boats from a body of water at one height to a body of water at another. While there are some locks in the Great Lakes and upstate New York, the heaviest concentration of locks in the U.S. is along the large river systems: the upper Mississippi River, the Ohio River and the Columbia River through Oregon and Washington state.

One of the first things you need to know about is the issue of right of way. Vessels operated by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have priority over recreational boats at all times and, for safety reasons, larger vessels such as barges take precedence over smaller ones. And two small vessels can use the lock at the same time, so share the space. It’s not only good boating etiquette, but it also saves time and water.

It’s best to learn as much as you can about a specific lock before you try to navigate through, as lock facilities vary in size and how they operate. Some have lockmasters, who provide you with instructions once you’ve entered the lock. Others are unmanned, in which case you’re on your own. Many locks operate on specific time schedules, and you’ll want to know that in advance to avoid too much waiting. A good source of information on locks is a nautical chart of the area, which will not only indicate a lock’s location but also the width and length of the lock chamber. Cruising guides of the waterways you’ll be traveling are also useful resources.

As a general safety precaution, always wear your life jacket, and make sure no one in your boat is standing on the foredeck or on the roof when you’re passing through a lock. Every passenger on board, including pets, should remain well inside the vessel and away from the sides. Locks can be very narrow, and any slight bump against the sides can throw people overboard. For obvious reasons, locks should never be used at dusk or after dark when it’s difficult to see and maneuver properly.

f you’re preparing to go through a lock, be sure your boat is equipped with at least two 50-foot lines, so you can moor your vessel to the floating mooring bits (posts) on the lock chamber wall that move up and down as the water level rises or falls. Once you’ve entered the chamber, be sure to put fenders over the side of your boat to keep it from scraping the lock wall or another vessel.

When you’re in the vicinity of locks, pay close attention and adhere to all posted signs. Listen carefully to the instructions from the lock operator and be alert to everything that’s going on around you.