Locking Through On The Erie Canal

By Carol & John Lucas

Taking your boat through canals with locks is easy, once you get the hang of it. Here are the basics.

Most of the major rivers and canals of the world have keepers who operate locks that lift and lower boats around cascading water levels. But in some cases, especially in rural and quiet pastoral areas — you're expected to operate the locks yourself. Don't worry. They're fairly easy to operate.

Here's advice based on our experience chartering a self-drive boat on the Shropshire Canal from England to Wales, our first river cruise together. This advice would work in most canals and locks in the world, including the canals of France; although almost all of the French canals have lock operators.

Photo of tying up along the locks

First, here are the three major components of a lock:

1. The lock chamber allows water levels to vary consistent with the upper and lower bodies of water. It normally has an inset ladder on the "land" side of the chamber. Some chambers are oval-shaped, which allows them to bear more land and water pressure.

2. A set of watertight gates at each end of the chamber open and close, allowing boat[s] to enter or leave. There is a walkway across each set of gates, allowing access to both sides of the lock chamber when closed. The gates point upstream like an arrow, allowing the flow of water to tightly close them. Most gates don't have closure until the water in the chamber reaches a minimum flow level.

Each door is dovetailed. When both doors are closed the dovetail creates a snug fit. To open and close the gates a capstan, or upright post with a winch on top, is fitted to a sprocket at the foot that pulls or pushes a rod when you "grind the winch". Note: The capstan may have a foot clutch to prevent slippage and/or lock the doors in place. Some of the smaller locks have a single swing gate. When opened, the gate doors swing into a recess in the chamber wall to allow boat passage.

3. A set of underwater "windows" opens and closes to empty or fill the chamber. A windless operates a rack-and-pinion mechanism in each door that lowers and raises the windows. In England there are some locks that fill from the top of the gate using paddles that are lifted. Keep the boat clear of the flow. "Locking through", or transiting a lock, from a lower to an upper body of water seems more difficult than going down river especially when you have to first empty the lock. Whether going up or down river, locking through requires two people to operate a lock: a lock operator and a boat driver. You need to have a division of labor and a comprehension of the responsibilities. The lock operator copes with opening and closing the gates to flush or fill the chamber. The driver maneuvers the boat in the lock and manages the deck lines as the chamber fills or empties.

If you are going upstream and the lock gates are closed because another boat has locked through, the chamber needs to be emptied before you can enter. After you have entered the chamber the lock is then refilled to raise the boat to the upper level. To assist the transit, on either side of the locks, there are transient docks or embankments that allow you to tie off when the chamber is not ready to enter. If the lock is open, you can drive in and the operator can climb the recessed ladder. However, we recommend that the operator be dropped off at the dock rather than climb the chamber's vertical and often wet ladder.

Most river journeys start by going upriver from a boat base. The following instructions for transiting a lock follow the steps necessary to ascend a river when the down-river gate is closed, the chamber is full, and the upriver gate is open.


The driver can assist the operator opening and closing the gates and windows if the boat is parked at the transient dock. If possible, turn off the engine at the dock, lock the boat and join your partner in opening the locks.

The operator should mount the chamber at the upriver end of the lock and close the open doors by grinding the capstan. If a door refuses to budge or is difficult to close, depress the foot clutch. If that doesn't work, the windows may not be open or debris is wedged under the window. Clear the window by opening it.

Next walk back to the closed doors (wave at the driver if they can’t assist you) and cross over on the gate bridge. Go to the upriver end and close door until both doors form an arrow shaped gate.

At this point you must close the upstream windows by grinding on both windlass handles. The windlasses are centered on the top of each door bridge. When finished, return to the downstream gates, which are still closed. Open the windows to let the chamber empty.

When emptied, the water levels in the chamber and the lower river are the same. Now you can open the down-river gate by grinding on the capstans. Cross over the upriver gate, which is closed, and return to the down-river door on the land side. Once this door is opened, you can drive your boat into the chamber.

The lock operator needs to stay on top of the lock wall to catch the dock lines thrown by the driver. Once the chamber is filled, the operator can open the upriver gates, then board the boat and assist in hauling in the deck lines so they don't get caught in the prop. If you can't get on board you can be picked up at the upstream dock.


After you enter the chamber, the boat needs to be centered to prevent it from running into the walls. The driver stays onboard at the external steering station to engage the engine and/or haul on the deck lines. For-hire boats always have a necklace of fenders for protection, but the bow and stern are vulnerable. When water rushes in or out of the chamber the boat can bob about and bump the gates or another boat (most locks can hold at least two boats).

Do not turn the engine off. You may need it to maneuver as the chamber fills. Throw the deck lines to your operator. Deck lines are set fore and aft on the land side of the boat, looped around the mooring bollards that are anchored on top of the canal wall. The lines are never run around or tied to the bollards as they need to be eased off before you leave the chamber. Do not run your lines through or around the chamber ladder. The driver manages both lines from the station as well as operates the engine.

Scenic view of one of the locks on The Erie Canal

If the upriver transient dock is occupied by a boat heading down-river, the operator can board using the chamber ladder versus climbing across the transient boat. Sometimes the chamber water level allows the operator to step aboard.

For a boat traveling downstream, the process is reversed. After about three locks you will become an expert. As we locked through with other boats, we became friends operating the locks, and when we tied up for the night, language was not a barrier as we talked the language of boaters.

Of course sharing wine and cheese helped also. Bon voyage! 

Carol and John have spent most of their lives sailing the Great Lakes.

— Published: October/November 2012

BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at WestMarine.com
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!