Locks Are My Life Now

“Hello!” I shouted as I wielded my pole to tap on the sailboat’s porthole in an attempt to wake the inhabitants. The gangway hatch slowly slid back and a bleary eyed bald man looked up at me. 

Between the blare of the boat horn Rick was using to rouse them and the dog barking frantically at the guy, I explained. “We’re trying to use the lock, but they can’t open the gate with you so close. There will be a lot of turbulence so you need to untie and back up.”

“Uh, okay,” he slowly replied. 

We had left this morning around 6:30 to make the first lock opening at 7:00. Weather and wind were forecast to turn the next day as we crossed Oneida Lake, so we decided to skip Sylvan Beach and barrel through to Brewerton. Now this. 

We backed up in the narrow channel as did the sailboat. The lock master radioed it would be a few minutes to top off the lock, then let in an Eastbound sailboat. THEN he could start dumping the water out our way. The sailor replied that THEY were in no hurry but the motor yacht (us) seemed to be. We had a few choice words for a dude that would hold up all barge traffic around a lock because he decided to sleep in. Should I have made him breakfast before asking him to move? We bit our tongues. 

 It’s an agonizingly slow 20 minutes to lower the lock when you are at idle. It requires constant adjustment on the captain’s part to keep the boat from drifting too close to shore. Our sailboat buddy kept backing up as well, but he wasn’t looking behind as he did it. Rick had to keep scooting back to maintain a comfortable distance between the two vessels. 

Anticipation is always high as we wait and the constant jostling added to that. Then, trains began to rumbled on an overhead track. Not one, not two, but three of them, jangling my nerves further. 

Finally, the gates started opening. The port side opened all the way. The starboard side stopped halfway. We all sat. The lock master radioed the sailboat in the lock to say he was free to exit the lock. He then announced that the gate was stuck and we needed to hold tight until he could raise his supervisor on the phone. We sat some more. 

DCB5662D-E6D1-4003-A285-DD568205C23CA crackle came through the radio as the lock master said they were sending crew. We all decided we needed to tie up on the wall leading into the lock. So the sailboat headed back where they had been. Now I felt bad for rousing them. He tied up forward and headed to catch our lines. Now I felt even worse for thinking nastily about him. Rick hopped off and finished with the lines. The lock master came down to say it would probably be around noon before we entered the lock. We settled in for a while.

Such is life traversing the Erie Canal. The reward is the exquisite scenery. But the locks. Sigh. Those locks. On average, they appear on the horizon every 30-60 minutes. We’ve been completing 4-5 a day. Each lock requires a PFD (life jacket) per person, worn at all times. We also need gloves, because we’re basically holding onto shorelines for dear life to keep the 40,000 pound beast in check through swirling waters. The pup refuses to be inside if we are out, so I suit him up in his PFD as well. He gets very excited when I get it out. He loves being on deck. But even he gives me this look of “really, dude? Again?” by the end of the day. 

Once in a lock, I have to use a hook on a long pole to grab a line. Rick throws the boat into idle, jumps on deck, and grabs the nearest line toward stern. We wrestle to gain control and wait for the on rush of water. 

It’s a slow dance while you are taking your ascent; maintaining control while staying enough off the wall to prevent popping your fenders or worse, scraping your rails. Allow the boat to drift too far and you may lose your ability to bring it back in. With boats aside, behind, and in front, you also risk taking out something they prefer to have intact. There is not only the water rushing towards you and under you to consider, but the wind, as the top of the flybridge peeks over the wall while you rise. The longer the ascent, the more room for error. My entire body ached the first two days. Apparently, I have muscles under my arms I’ve never used before. Likewise, in my back and shoulders. And don’t get me started on the hands. For someone with arthritis, hanging on is truly a challenge.

At lock 5 (20 foot), we were all the way forward with a full lock. At one point, I was pulled forward toward the rail by the rope. I must have had a panicky look on my face. Rick yelled, “Ease up on the rope!”

“I can’t! I’ll lose it!” I replanted my feet and threw all my weight back. Slowly it started to come back towards the wall. Then it was Rick’s turn to struggle. We did triumph over lock 5 eventually, but now, terror strikes in my heart when I know we’re lead boat. 

Lock 17 was a whopping 40 foot lift. We’d heard rumors about lock 17. Lock 17 bounced around in my dreams. Maybe I would lose control and the rope would pull me out of the boat. There I’d dangle. My hair flapping in the wind. Or maybe we would crash into another boat. Or maybe Banjo would fall in.

As with other larger locks, only port side was used as the starboard was deemed too turbulent on Lock 17. As we waited for the lock to be reset, recent acquaintances heading out the other side radioed to warn of the rockiness of pulling all the way forward. We were the lead of two boats, so able to only enter halfway up. The water slowly trickles on this mountainous wall, then builds. The first third is the diciest as water is rushing everywhere and small eddying occurs. Eventually, I reach a point where I know we’re close to the top and I’ve maintained control. My sinuses drain (what’s THAT all about?), the birds start chirping again, and the sky gets bluer. Honest.


All told, we didn’t have to wait until noon to lock through 19. It was about 9:00 when we exited. As it turns out, waiting led to another large boat showing up. Based on where we all had tied up, we were last in which makes for a much smoother ride. So, glass half full, right? Glass half full. Of Canal water. Sigh. 

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