Navigating Locks Safely

Knowing how to navigate locks safely is an essential part of boating. Having the experience and confidence of managing locks will not only make your boating experience safer, but also more enjoyable. Locks can be dangerous, but there are ways to make your experience in them a safer one.

How a lock works

Locks enable canal boats to navigate waterways during changes in gradient. By allowing water to flow into, or out of, a lock the water levels change to enable boats to travel up or down hill.

Most locks have a set of gates at each end (one at the top and one at the bottom) with a chamber in between in which you enter your boat. Paddles at the bottom of the gate control the flow of water in and out of the lock. The paddles are controlled by a windlass, or lock handle, and are operated separately to the gates.

Here are some tips to help you to navigate locks safely.

Have a plan

Not all locks are the same, so before approaching the lock, decide what you are going to do. Find out as much as you can about the lock and the immediate area – consult a guide book or map to help you with this. For instance, check to see if there is a weir nearby, if so, see how it could affect the movement of your boat. Where are the lay-by moorings? How big (deep and wide) is the lock? With this information, you can decide on exactly how you will approach the lock. Of course, you still need to be alert in case anything unforeseen happens, but preparation is still important.

Communicate clearly

Inform your crew of your plan and confirm the part that everyone will be playing. Also, clarify the signals that you will use. Clear hand signals are often more effective and less stressful than shouting from one end of the boat to the other. Talking through your plan will help everyone to know exactly what they are doing and avoid any confusion, making the passage through the lock smooth and safe.

Proceed slowly

Slowing down is a general rule of boat safety and this certainly applies when navigating locks. It will give you a smoother passage through the lock, reducing the risk of bumping the sides of the boat. It’s also much easier to increase the power than reduce it. You may need to increase the power to give you more control in strong winds or currents, but do this with caution.

If there’s a boat already in the lock, always wait for it to leave before you start opening or closing gates or paddles. Also, ask before helping other boaters to open the gates – they may not want any help and you could cause confusion as well as offence.

It’s also very important to raise the lock paddles slowly. A sudden flow of water out of the lock, for example, can cause the boat to be pulled forward, potentially damaging the boat or the lock, or harming anyone onboard. Water that is held back is under a huge amount of pressure, operating the paddles slowly ensures that the pressure is gradually equalised across the chambers.

Keep the boat clear of the gates and cills, and watch out for the cill when the water level is lowered. You need to avoid the boat becoming wedged on the cill, which could cause it to capsize.

Stay onboard

Always have a competent person onboard when the boat is in a lock. If the lock is manned, then there should be no need for the crew to leave the boat. If they do need to step ashore, then stop the boat completely before securing it by throwing a rope around a bollard. The boat should be still and secure before they go ashore.

Hold ropes so that the tension can be adjusted for a rise and fall. For example, a single turn on a cleat or tee stud will give you enough control. Don’t allow the rope to ‘bind’ on itself as this could jam the rope, making it impossible to release.

Keep ropes tidy so that they don’t trip up anyone, fall into the water or get caught on the propeller.

If crew members do need t go ashore to open the gates, beware of slippery surfaces and unprotected drops around the lockside.

If you want to improve your boating skills, then there are plenty of courses on offer. See our blog post on narrowboat training courses. Also, you can read more about water safety on inland waterways and canals.

We hope that you enjoy many happy times on our waterways, navigating them and their locks safely and smoothly.

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