Joe Boater Locks Thru

Oh Joe! You’ve bought a “new to you” sailboat. You practiced in the canal, you’ve tried different sail combinations and you’ve got it on and off the dock. You’ve backed it up, or least tried to, and established the turning radius, or so you think. The previous boat was a fin keel with a spade rudder, this boat has a full keel with a transom hung rudder. Before it was 26 feet and 5000 pounds, now its 20 feet and 6000 pounds. Before there were no appendages, now there is a bowsprit and an outboard.

You think you are ready for the Sound, so you pick your day and head over to the Ballard Locks. “All boats use the large locks, large boats first.”  Uh-oh. You are single-handing so you’ll raft up to a 50 foot power yacht and the anxiety level has spiked. You wait your turn and cautiously ease up to the yacht and tie up. Success! You did it! There is small talk with the yacht crew as you descend the 20 feet to sea level.

The bells ring and the exit gates open. “Sailboat, bow line first” the locks-man instructs. But wait! Oh no! The crew of the 50 footer untied your stern line first and the boat is now spinning around backwards in the current! Finally the bow line is untied but the boat is perpendicular in the lock. Quick, into reverse, an effort to turn the boat upstream but the boat doesn’t turn. Quick, into forward, before the outboard hits the gravelly concrete wall. Ugh, too late! You start to move forward, but straight toward the opposite wall. The full keeled boat won’t turn in time with the current! Quick, run to the bow, boat hook in hand to soften the blow as the bow pulpit scrapes. People are shouting instructions but …Wait….Relax….You are on your own and as long as you are gentle, you’ll drift out of the locks until there is room to turn the boat and be on your way. This is how it plays out and there is no further contact. (sigh)

Joe is frustrated and he thinks it through. The damage is minimal. A small scrape on the outboard cover’s latch, the bow pulpit and his ego. He must accept all three as the cost of the learning experience.

What went wrong? Joe needed to be less assuming and more vocal about tying and releasing his lines. “Lake Line Last” is the rule because there is always an outflowing current. Joe knew this, but did not impress upon the other yacht’s crew this vital sequence.

It was not the first time Joe has locked through, but the first time in this boat. While he felt ready for the small locks, he clearly was not ready for the big locks. Which lock is used is not always up to the transiter. There was not enough practice and familiarity with the boat. How to best turn and maneuver this particular boat was still an unknown. Joe was not familiar enough with the outboard and did not have a full understanding of its mechanical adjustments. Having another crew member may have helped too.

Locking through is serious business and is best done with good cheer, politeness and constant situational awareness. Expecting the unexpected, staying focused on the task, being wary of other boaters, knowing your boat, good communication and vigilance are your best bets.


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