The dos and don’ts of transiting the locks

Pay attention to the man: listening for instructions from the lock attendants is rule number one when transiting the Ballard locks.

David Carpenter has seen some boneheaded maneuvers in three decades of working at Seattle’s Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, but one in particular stands out in his mind.

A couple was motoring in their boat down the ship canal when their cat jumped in the water just as the boat neared the entrance to the small lock. The man tried briefly to rescue the cat with a fish net and then jumped in after it, leaving his panicked wife onboard as the ship continued heading toward the lock.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Carpenter, navigation supervisor for the locks. “So many bad things could have happened.”

The water in the small lock was down, making it impossible for workers to help the woman onboard if anything went wrong. Carpenter instructed the wife to turn off the engine, and the husband was soon back onboard with the cat and steered the boat safely into the lock.

With boating season officially starting Saturday, the potential for problems among boaters transiting the Seattle locks — which are among the nation’s busiest — increases as the number of boats transiting the locks rises. About 45,000 boats move through the site’s small and large locks annually, about 70 percent of them pleasure boats. The small locks can hold as many as 16 boats, depending on size, and the large locks up to 90.

The combination of boats in a confined space, vessels rafted together, water levels rising and falling and experience levels ranging from clueless to competent can result in serious mishaps.

For a newbie’s perspective on transiting the locks, read Three Sheets Northwest blogger David Geller’s post here.

Among the worst, was an incident about 20 years ago, when an old wooden tugboat was in the locks heading out to Puget Sound. The skipper’s wife was handling the lines, Carpenter said, and as the waters of the lock lowered the woman struggled to undo the bow line, tied in a half hitch to a large, heavy cleat on the boat. Lock workers yelled at the woman to get away from the cleat, Carpenter said, but she persisted in trying to remove the line.

The cleat snapped off, flying up and fatally striking the woman as horrified lock attendants looked on.

“That was pretty traumatic for our people who were trying to get her away from it,” said Carpenter, who was not working that day.

About 45,000 boats through the locks annually, making them among the nation's busiest.

Such incidents are rare, and Carpenter said boat handling in the locks has improved overall since the dot-com boom, when brand new boaters were buying 40- and 50-foot boats and cruising around with no idea what they were doing. Drinking and boating incidents are also down, Carpenter said.

But even experienced boaters can become complacent, and Carpenter often sees boaters making the same mistakes. Among the most common he’s noted:

Not having the right lines ready – boaters should have at least two 50-foot lines (with eyes of at least 12 inches in diameter) when using the large lock so they have enough line to let out as the water drops. Ten-foot-long lines are sufficient for the small lock, Carpenter said.

Not hanging enough fenders – fenders should be hung on both sides of the boat, both to protect against collisions and be ready if rafting is needed. “It’s amazing how many times people don’t have enough fenders or they only them on one side,” Carpenter said. “They buy a boat but they don’t want to pay for fenders.”

Not being aware of currents – currents on the west side of the locks can make steering challenging for boats heading out to the ocean, as well as those traveling eastbound.

Freeing the wrong line first – boaters heading outbound (westward out to Puget Sound) should release their bow line first, while inbound boats (eastbound) should release their stern line first. Put another way, release the line closest to saltwater first.

Using a half hitch to secure boat lines – a half hitch can make it difficult for boaters to untie the line fast enough as the water level in the locks drops. Once the line is under pressure it quickly becomes impossible to untie, and lock attendants often have to cut lines that become stuck. To avoid that happening, loop the line around your boat cleat in a figure eight without the half hitch.

When going through the large lock, make sure to have at least two lines 50 feet or longer ready.

Free “Locking Through” classes are offered on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month from April through September, and the second Wednesday from January through March. Classes are at 7 p.m. at the locks’ visitor center and include a video usually followed by outdoor instruction.

Detailed instructions for entering the exiting the small and large locks, including videos, are also available on the locks’ website.

Generally, Carpenter said, boaters need to pay attention to traffic signals when approaching the locks, have lines and fenders ready, and pay attention for instructions from the lock attendants. Singlehanded boaters should tie stern lines off first and hand the bow line to a dock attendant.

Once you are in the lock and tied up, watch for other vessels and be prepared to fend off. Some captains leave their engines running — to the annoyance of other boaters — but turning them off is not required, Carpenter said.

Sailboats often get in trouble with currents, Carpenter said, particularly when they’re headed eastbound. Sailboat captains often release their bow lines too soon, causing the current to catch the bow and turn the boat, often in the direction of other vessels.

“Once you get a little bit sideways on a sailboat with a keel, you have a hard time avoiding other vessels,” Carpenter said.

While collisions are often avoided through lock attendants intercepting potential disasters before they happen, Carpenter said, boaters need to be extra alert when traveling through the locks.

“On a busy weekend, it really is kind of frenetic out there. There’s a lot going on. You have to keep your head on a swivel, make sure you follow directions and watch out for other vessels.”

Editor’s note: this story has been updated from its original version.

6 Responses to The dos and don’ts of transiting the locks

  1. Rich Deline June 4, 2017 at 9:55 am #

    Good interesting article, but link to “Locking Through” is outdated….best to direct new boaters to and look on Questions tab for link to “How to take my own boat through the “

  2. Mike March 22, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    “currents on the east side of the locks can make steering challenging for boats heading out to the ocean, as well as those traveling westbound” – this is clearly a typo, as westbound = heading out to the ocean. My experience is that the currents are mainly a problem on the *west* side of the locks, as the run-off from the overflow chutes comes in from the south and tries to push a boat towards the north wall of the small locks.

  3. Dylan Lippert May 3, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    I have always ended up locking down the big lock…always fun especially single handed, but the lock attendants are very helpful. I have never locked up in either lock and look forward to doing so this year.

  4. David Geller May 3, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    Here’s another view of the locks – this time empty!

  5. David Geller May 3, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    Here’s a link to an article from 2008 that’s pretty interesting – also featuring David Carpenter – this time showing us what lies below and within the locks:

  6. David Geller May 3, 2011 at 9:02 am #

    Very informative article. Thank you.

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