Before our journey from Chicago, IL to Mobile, AL, the idea of traversing 40+ locks was daunting. Now, after locking through all of them in different times of day/night and types of weather, we have realized that not knowing what to expect can make locks scarier than they actually are. So below, we have included some advice based on our own experiences.
When approaching the lock, hail them through the VHF radio. We found that the hailing channel used changes depending on the area. So, before taking off on your trip make sure you know on what channel or channels you can find the lock master. If you have no information going in, ask a tow captain or other boater by radio, earlier in the day.
When addressing the lock master, you can mention the lock name through the radio, repeat the name twice, state who is calling and where you are headed (example: Pickwick Lock, Pickwick Lock, this is Southbound pleasure craft, Surkha, over) and wait for a response. If you obtain none, try another channel. If the other recommended channel does not work, then wait because they might be busy. If communication fails, follow the red, yellow and green lights, which just as traffic signals, indicate if the lock is ready for you.
If you do get a hold of the lock master, tell them what kind of vessel you are, if you are just cruising, you are a “pleasure craft”, let them know your direction, South or North bound, state your location (river or channel mile) and your estimated time of arrival. Commercial and governmental vessels have priority always, in some locks you might have to wait for hours or even overnight, so consider that when planning your schedule. If you think your day is going to be tight, call the lock master the night before and ask him or her about their schedule and they will usually tell you when would be a good time to arrive.
Once you are inside the lock, have a line ready on your mid-ship cleat and fenders in whichever side you prefer to tie on. We had four fenders hanging on our port side our whole trip from Chicago to Mobile. Only once did a lock master asked us to tie on our starboard side. Most locks will have “floaters”, shown in the photo below, which will float down or up with you. This is where you wrap your line. When tying to the floater, make sure you pull hard, so that your vessel’s fenders are pressed lightly against the wall, this will prevent you from scratching your boat. In some states, such as Mississippi and Alabama, it is a requirement that anyone handling the lines wear a life jacket, so have one or two ready just in case. Some locks ask for your registration number, so keep it close by. During our trip, we did encounter a lock that tossed us two lines to hold on to while lowering us. If this is the case and there is any wind or current, make sure that the strongest of your crew members is at the side of the boat from where the force is coming from. In some smaller locks you wrap your line around a fixed circular cleat and hold on, letting go gradually as your being lowered.
Once your lines are secure, call the lock master and let them know you are ready, some will wait to close the lock door until you are ready, some do not care. A whistle or horn will sound once they start dropping or raising the water level. Once the process is done and the doors open, another alarm will sound. Remember locks are no wake zones, so keep your speed down coming in and leaving. It is always good form to thank the lock master when exiting. If its foggy, dark or you a do not have AIS onboard, you can ask the lock masters if they know of any tow boats coming your way. They will often tell you locations, names and speeds for up to 30 miles of traffic.
From Chicago to Mobile, we met only three female lock masters, so make sure you let them know how cool it is to hear a female voice on the radio, for the majority of tow captains and lock masters are men.
PS: Do not forget that next to every lock there is a damp and if you go closer to 800 ft, not only will you be violating the law but endangering yourself.