Locking Through

28 Oct

locking trouugh 1

If you want to do the Great Loop, or if you just want to navigate the Tennessee River (or the Hudson, or the Tenn-Tom, or a whole bunch of other waterways), sooner or later you’re going to encounter a “LOCK” (I put that in caps on purpose…looks scary, doesn’t it?!?).

entering the maw

For those of you non-nautical types, a lock is a ‘passage’ past/through a dam. Yep, when mankind decided that he needed to put a big wall across some body of water, he realized that he would probably want to float a boat across that wall at some time or other…thus, he needed a series of water hallways to could raise or lower the level of the water to adjust for the different levels on each side of the ‘wall’…

… right! but enough of that technical stuff…you want to know what it takes to get a boat from one side of the water-wall to the other (with minimal damage to the paint on the boat, the fenders, the brightwork, and, especially, the marriage of the folks that are attempting to navigate it).

So, I want to get into the nits about ‘locking through’. If that’s not your cup of tea, now’s a good time to click onto that disturbing youtube video your neighbor sent you but you were embarrassed to open… but for the remainder of you loyal Bushranger followers, here goes…

It may surprise you to know that we have met intrepid individuals that have braved the locks solo. With plenty of fenders, a skillful hand at the helm, they have breezed right on through that dark channel – yep, there are some amazing (crazy?!?) folks out there! That’s not for Bushranger – we believe in the ‘crew concept’ (Boyd at the helm and me ‘workin’ the wall). And this ‘crew concept’ is made possible by a cool gadget we call the Marriage Saver — think walkie-talkies on steroids.  These smart little items allow us to talk to each other minus the yelling (or swearing) that can sometimes accompany close proximity to a black, scary wall. They are voice activated and suppress the background noise (like roaring water and creaking timbers)…one hint, though; try not to mumble or swear about minor slip-ups – ‘cause he’ll hear everything you say…


Aside from that, you’re going to need your own version of a ‘bat utility belt’ (or somewhere to hang your knife, your phone, your camera, and any other required equipment), a good hat, some tough gloves, and an intrepid attitude!

Okay, when planning for your lock passage, take a hard look at the shape of your boat. Check to see if your rail protrudes past the hull, or the dinghy occasionally swings past the port/starboard rail. Then place you fenders where your boat would most likely encounter the lock wall. We need both round and tubular fenders. The round ones are our primary buffer between Bushranger and the scary wall. Other fenders are positioned to protect Bushranger as it swings and dances in the turbulent water. Consider tying some fenders horizontally – it helps keep our railing and bulwark (especially the ‘protruding parts’) off the slimy wall surface, protecting that sweat-generating brightwork or gelcoat.

horrizontal fenders

Okay, let’s talk procedure. You can peruse the rules at your leisure, I’m just going to give you what we experienced:

  1. Don’t expect the Lock Masters to be chatty… they’re busy folks! You’re supposed to contact them either on your radio, or your cell phone, or even by pulling a ‘door bell’ type cord that hangs near the entrance. We were told not to call them too far out (we waited till we had about 2 miles to go before trying) and sometimes it took a while to get a response. They seem to enjoy communicating with their horn and the signal lights. So, once they had acknowledged our existence, we watched for the signal light to turn green and the horn to blow before going into ‘the jaws of the beast’! But, interestingly enough, every one of those Lock Masters turned out to be really nice – some even chatted with us as we transited through (I don’t know if our handing out homemade cookies at each lock had anything to do with how lovely they all were…)
  2. If you’re not a big ol’ barge or some other commercial vessel, expect to be at the bottom of the pecking order – which means you just might have to wait – and wait – and wait – But, if you’re a Loopers, why worry, right?!? …who’s is a hurry, anyway?!?
  3. Besides fenders, you’re going to need a stick. Now, you don’t want a really big stick (unless your Captain needs a bit of incentive occasionally – never mind, that’s a different blog all together) – just about 5 feet long works well for us. pushingThe stick is used to help keep the boat from scraping the lock walls. If the stick is too long, there is potential for the back-end of the stick to inadvertently poke out that window that unexpectedly jumped up behind you while you’re concentrating on the yucky wall in front of you…and none of those flimsy plastic-ended boat hooks, please! They have a tendency to bend at the most inopportune moments! Expect to have to travel to both ends of your boat to occasional give a push, so make sure the path you need to travel is clear of obstructions (you really don’t want to trip while the water is gushing, the boat is dancing and that big black wall is looming just inches from your beloved boat – and don’t forget to wear your life jacket! …enough said about that).
  4. The position you choose for your boat along the wall will make a big difference with all the turbulence. forward positionIt appears as if the spots most forward (or aft) get the least amount of turbulence (although that forward position does do a bit of dancing when the front gate opens). Of course, you might not have a choice if it’s a busy locking day. You might even have to ‘raft’ up to another boat (hopefully, that Captain of the boat you’re tied to knows what he’s doing…if he doesn’t do a good job of securing HIS boat, then your problems will be legion!).
  5. If you’re transiting the Tennessee River or the Tenn-Tom Waterway, you’re also going to need something with which to catch the bollard (the big pin that travels up and down the lock wall as the water level changes). (there is an assortment of ‘non-bollard using locks’ on other waterways, but we’re not goin’ there today…)bollardA lasso is what we use. Boyd made a loop of rope and threaded it through a piece of plastic hose so it holds itself open (makes for easier ‘lassoing’). As your Captain gently brings your boat along side the wall, stand as far forward as your lasso will allow (have the back end lightly secured to a center cleat so the line doesn’t end up falling into the water by mistake). The reason for standing as far forward as possible is so you can get a second and third chance to ‘catch’ the bollard, if your first throw isn’t on-target. Once your bollard is securely lassoed, tighten the line around the cleat (you can’t just hold the line – the Lock Masters are very strict about you actually securing it to the cleat). That’s fine, but keep an eye on it. If you happen to be unlucky and the bollard doesn’t rise or fall properly, you will need to either release the line or, if that is unsuccessful, have a knife ready to cut the line (we haven’t actually run into that problem yet, but we’ve heard plenty of horror stories…). Oh, and Boyd has also made me a ‘spare’ lasso, just in case yours-truly inadvertently lets the primary lasso go for an unplanned swim (the stuff of nightmare, don’t ya’ reckon? — stuck a big black lock, water churning, and an unsecured Bushranger heaving and dancing to the turbulence of the filling chamber — brrrr…..)
  6. When you’re in the lock, take a look around; you may not be alone (and I’m not talking about other boaters). We’ve heard stories of deer and even alligators waiting for the lock doors to open. In one of the last locks we transited, the shiny head of a three to four-foot snake (I swear it was a copperhead) was peering back at me as I raced to the back of the boat to save the dinghy from a particularly nasty bounce. Aside from the loud squeak that came out of my mouth to notify my Captain of the approaching threat (I suspect I may not have been as succinct as I could have been when describing the potential boarder to my Captain – I think my words included quite a few #$@!!!s), I swung my lovely 5 foot stick in the general vicinity of the approaching snake, and QUICKLY backed away. The snake then proceeded to the forward lock door and patiently waited for it to open.

I am sure there is quite a lot more I could say regarding ‘locking through’, but I suspect that you are as tired of reading about it as I am of typing about it (these fingers have a 2 page limit, and I have exceeded that limit by quite a bit). So, let’s leave it at that, and if you have any questions, comments (I LOVE comments!), or additions, I think it would be great to hear from you.

So, that’s it for “Locking Through” (how much do you want to bet that I’ll think of something absolutely CRITICAL that needed to be included just as soon as I post this…all well, there’s always the possibility for sequels…)into the lock

6 Responses to “Locking Through”

  1. Heather Rutherford October 28, 2014 at 15:43 #

    Great writing – I was with you all the way!

  2. Gregg Turner October 28, 2014 at 17:04 #

    Well Done Ms. Bushranger! Don’t think you missed a thing! Especially the “rafting” lesson!

  3. jdepodwin October 29, 2014 at 20:29 #

    Absolutely fascinating, and looks very challenging and perhaps exhilarating at times. Never knew about the critters trying to get through the locks at the same time. And the 5 foot long stick makes good sense. How thick does it need to be to ensure it doesn’t break if it is being used to push off the wall? I am continually amazed at the wealth of knowledge you loopers have mastered over the past few years. Well done!

    • Mrs Bushranger October 30, 2014 at 08:34 #

      Boyd cut off the end of a shovel for me…originally I was using a steel collapsible boat hook which also worked well (I also had a boat hook that was a thin aluminum with a plastic hook, but the end bent!)

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