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Inland Boating


Over the last one hundred years much of America’s interior has been opened to cruising boats because of canal and lock systems such as the Tenn -Tom waterway and the New York State Barge Canal. While these canal systems were formed for commercial traffic, recreational boaters now heavily use them.

Canal systems can have virtually every type of waterway that you can boat on, from narrow rivers, to wide lakes. Here are some things you need to consider on waterways with locks.

  • Make note of the water levels on the canal system you will cruise. Water levels may vary dramatically over the course of a year. If your boat has a deep draft, you may not be able to travel on some canal systems during certain times of the year.
  • Be careful of floating debris in lock systems. Because water level and flow is regulated, debris tends to build up, especially near the locks. Debris in the locks may get caught between your vessel and the lock wall, causing damage to your boat.
  • Watch the currents as you head up river near a dam. Currents can be very strong, especially when the lock or dam gates are open.

As you approach a lock, there are special rules of the road you need to follow to insure a safe and quick lock transit.

  • When you near a lock, hail the lock-master or tender on VHF channel 16/14/13 (Your local chart will have the proper channel marked) for instructions on when you can lock through.
  • The lock-master will give you information on where to tie up, especially if you will be locking with other vessels. If you do not have a VHF, you may use three long blasts with your horn, or use small boat signal cord which many locks have on the outer approach wall of the lock.
  • When it is time to enter the lock, you will either hear horn blasts, or see a flashing green light.
  • A flashing red light means do not move forward, a green and amber light means proceed with caution, and an amber light means proceed under full control.
  • Some systems may use fixed lights, but most use a flashing light system.) If there is a main and an auxiliary lock, one long horn blast will mean that you are to enter the main lock (land side lock) two long horn blasts mean that you are to enter the auxiliary lock (river side lock).
  • The same signals are used to depart the lock, except that the horn signals are short blasts instead of long blasts

There is a strictly enforced order that vessels may enter a lock. As a pleasure craft, you will always have the lowest priority for entering a lock.

Military craft have first priority, followed by commercial passenger vessels, commercial tows, commercial fishing vessels, and finally pleasure craft. Even if you are the first to arrive, vessels with higher priority will be allowed into the lock before you.

Normally everyone on board except the captain (if the captain is not also a line handler) will be required to wear a life jacket. Have bumpers on the side of the boat next to the wall, both sides if you are tied to a raft of boats. Automobile tires are not allowed in locks, so don’t use them for fenders.

Have your crew equipped with poles to fend the boat off the walls or other boats. Turbulence, other boats and the wind can move your boat around quite a bit inside the lock. Have strong lines to tie up your boat. Many modern locks have floating bollards to tie your vessel to, but most older locks do not. Make sure your lines are long enough to reach the top of the lock.

Never use a hitch to tie up with that you cannot readily remove from a bollard as you might need to remove your lines very quickly. Better yet, have a line handler take in or pay out slack as necessary. When it is time to leave the lock, you will do so in the order that you entered the lock. Proceed at a slow speed, and enjoy your trip!