Check out Boating Mag’s newest boat safety guide — the experts’ guide to cruising these navigation bottlenecks — below.
Meandering along winding rivers or squeezing down narrow channels isn’t particularly hard with today’s chart plotters. Even rain, fog and night are cut by high-definition radar and night-vision gear. But electronics offer little help where man-made obstacles — bridges, locks and dams — cut waterways. Try these tips to help you through them.
“Slow down early,” delivery captain John Wampler says. Wakes travel far in narrow canals and then bounce boats into concrete and steel lock walls. Make room for exiting boats.
“Call on the VHF,” says Alain Malo, lockmaster on the Chambly Canal south of Montreal. “I ask bigger boats in first so they have more space to maneuver.” He also places sailboats so deep keels are away from underwater turbulence.
“When a lock blocks the canal, current isn’t an issue,” Wampler says, “but check for current before approaching a lock alongside a dam or spillway.” Wait for a green light, and coast in. Engage propellers as little as possible.
In narrow or shallow locks, enter dead in the center. Water that your boat displaces can push the bow away from the wall. Twin-engine inboard boats might suck the stern toward the wall when the propeller nearest the wall is put into forward, or push the boat away when that propeller reverses.
“In a tall lock chamber, that far lock wall seems closer than it is,” Wampler says. If you can’t see the stern from the helm, post crew there with a radio.
Large locks typically flood from below the water, rising with moderate turbulence and falling with less. “You’ll be OK with just a bow line and stern line,” Wampler says. These might be attached to large floating bollards recessed into lock walls, which rise with the water. When lines are provided from above, Wampler says, “use the cleats across the boat from the lock wall. As the water goes down, that gives the line a better angle to hold the boat against the lock wall.”
Some locks, like those on Florida’s Okeechobee Waterway, flood or drain by cracking open one gate. “If you’re locking down, a surge pushes the boat forward,” Wampler says. “Going up, the surge pushes you aft,” so he suggests adding a spring line.
PWC riders need a radio. “You need a VHF,” Sam Thomas, the PWC tour operator, stresses. “Lockmasters will tell you where you’ll have the least turbulence.” Always be prepared for sudden currents. Thomas has more trouble during an 8-foot rise on the Okeechobee Waterway than he does in an 80-foot lock on the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. “Lock walls are like two-grit sandpaper,” he says. “The rub rail is going to get scratched, but it’s replaceable.” Fenders aren’t practical on PWCs. Gloves are imperative, but they also won’t last past the trip. Brush up on your lock etiquette here.