Joe Boater’s Locker

Oh Joe! You are returning to your homeport inside the Washington Ship Canal before the Memorial Day weekend. You are on a reciprocal route of the mass exit through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks which is typical of this weekend. You are tied to the eastbound small lock waiting pier, a creosote and barnacle covered string of cross beamed pilings just west of the railroad bridge, the outflowing current keeping your lines taunt. The lock gates open and the small lock empties. It is full and includes four large sailboats.

The railroad bridge over Shilshole Channel is in the closed position with vertical clearance around 40 feet. This means the four large sailboats are trapped in the locks’ exit basin until the bridge can be opened. Each boat has its own approach to this. Boat #1 starts a circling pattern in the small lock exit area. Boat #2 pulls up to the small lock waiting pier and ties up. Boat #3, does a full 180 degree turn and heads up into the strong current, remaining stationary, balancing the motors power against the channel’s current in the small lock channel. Boat #4 is left with fewer options and in their slower decision making, find themselves broadside to the current and pinned against the railroad bridge piling. That looks awkward.

The railroad bridge begins to open. Circling Boat #1 sees this and makes a quick move and are the first under the bridge. Boat #2, tied to the pier, readies, but stays put awaiting the traffic to clear. Boat #3, makes a 180 degree in the current to go. The current is strong here and maneuverability is tricky. They make the turn and realize that the bridge may not have been opened for the awaiting sailboats, but rather for a fishing vessel that is now steaming under it and towards the large lock. Boat #3 and this large vessel are both headed under the bridge at the same time, in opposite directions. The sailboat skipper panics and tries to circle back around, but they don’t stand a chance in the current. The boat goes sideways and before they are able to turn further, the current sweeps them down onto Boat #4 (the boat already awkwardly balanced on the piling) with a crunch. The collision dislodges Boat #4 from the piling and both boats slide backwards under the railroad bridge along the protective bulwarks, screeching and crunching as they go. After the fishing vessel clears the bridge, boat #2 makes a smooth exit.

Incredible! Joe was happy to be tied to the pier at that time. Watching was enough. It is very common for traffic to build up coming and going from the locks, awaiting the railroad bridge to open. Sailboats leaving the locks need to circle about, tie up or idle in the current. Sailboats approaching the locks huddle outside in the current awaiting their chance. Add large commercial vessels to the mix and it can be a challenging and stressful situation. Experience helps. Patience helps. Joe will add keeping away from other boats helps too.

Ballard Locks


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