Lessons in Locking

When I was learning to fly airplanes, I bought a plaque with a quote that resonated deeply with me. In only a few words, it encapsulated an aphorism that I have tried to live by most of my aviation life and to a lesser degree, in my boating life.

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness or neglect.” I naively believed that the distance between the perils in aviation and the time to avert danger where much shorter than the time to avert the same for the Mariners’ peril. I thought that at least you could float in a boat, right?  I would go back to the author of that quote and ask him to consider rephrasing the “even to a greater degree” line and then ask Poseidon to forgive my ignorance and hubris.

What brought this reflection about, you may be asking yourself, and what lesson or trouble did Jerry find this time? You would be right because I found that aphorisms, whether in aviation, maritime, or any other pursuit by men and women, are born out of the immediacy of experience.

Jean and I are fortunate to have completed two-thirds of the Loop and have entered the remaining one third, known as the river system.  We have had our challenges along the way and are grateful for each, and every experience we have earned and learned from, but for me, the most challenging moment came in the Starved Rock Lock, on the Illinois River. Those few moments in the lock made each of the previous challenges feel like child’s play in comparison.


Photo by Wikipedia

The locks in the states are similar to the locks we have experienced in Canada (the Rideau Canal and the Trent-Severn mostly) but differ vastly in size and type of traffic that uses them. The closest that we experienced in Canada was the St. Lawrence Seaway locks, and we were immensely happy that we only had to lock through those a couple of times. The “commercial locks” are typically over a 1000′ long and can range anywhere from a few feet to over 35 feet change in water level. In the states, commercial traffic on the Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, to name a few, have priority and work 24/7 transporting up to 16 barges in one haul up and down the rivers. A single pusher/tow vessel can fill an entire lock and take a long time to load in or out of the lock. It is not uncommon for pleasure craft (known as PC’s to the river captains) to wait hours for an opportunity to lock-through. I am not complaining. The industries (and the public) that benefit by barge transportation is immense, and without them, our economy would be crippled. The amount of materials that barge traffic haul is more than cargo aircraft, railroad, and semi-trailer loads combined can haul. The priorities and wait times are just part of river cruising and are to be expected and endured.  Jean and I have made 120+ lock-throughs learning and gaining confidence with each one. Our last experience has delivered the most powerful lesson in locking-through to date.

The morning begins calm enough with an early departure from the Ottawa City Dock for an hour or so cruise to our first and only lock of the day. We planned to stretch from Starved Rock Lock to Peoria (a run of about 65+ miles) and tie up for a couple of weeks to make a side trip to the west to visit family in Colorado.  As we entered the river, we joined four other boats heading for the same lock. Three more boats fell in behind us, and we all cruised slowly towards Starved Rock. It is customary to call the lockmaster before departure to give him a heads-up, plus find out if we should even untie and proceed towards the lock.  If there is numerous commercial traffic, it pays to stay at the dock and wait without running engines and burning fuel.

The lockmaster said that an 8:30am lock-through was a good possibility, so off we went.  As we got closer the lock-through time increased from 8:30 to 9:00 due to traffic. What many cruisers will do is “hover” in place while waiting for the appointed time.  Makin Memories does not like to hover so we will do a slow up and down the approach to the lock depending on how much traffic is waiting. Others will join in and wait for the lock-master to open the gates and direct us to the spot they want us to come alongside and we will either throw a line around a floating bollard or hang on to lines the lock staff give us. This day there was a pusher/tow in the uppermost part of the lock with Jean and me in the third position. Pusher/tows do not tie up to the wall of the lock, nor do they “hold lines.” They will use their engines to “push” up against the wall to maintain their position. Pushers and tows are river vessels that transport barges (up to 16 at a time) up and down the rivers. They are different than tugs both in size and power available, but nevertheless can be just as intimidating and almost as powerful. A few differences are in design and horsepower available and the ability to pull other vessels. A tug can produce as much as 27,000+ horsepower awhile a pusher can generate, on average, 5000+ horsepower to perform its work. The method of steerage comes in many different forms. Pushers can utilize Kort Nozzles or Cycloidal Propellers, or other vertical axis methods as examples (Google it!). The point is that the thrust vector is confined and powerful and to be avoided whenever possible.


River barge pusher

After about a 90-minute wait on station, all the PC’s were given instructions to enter the lock and give their entry order. Jean and I were instructed to take the third position behind another cruiser and the pusher/tow. The lock-through was slow due to only one of two hydraulic cylinders operating properly, but otherwise uneventful. The fun began when the gates opened, and we were to exit the lock. The lock-master instructed the pusher/tow to remain in place and for the PC’s to proceed around the pusher/tow and exit the lock. The first clue that all was not going to go as planned was when the first cruiser was leaving the wall and was sucked up against the pusher/tow and could not transition around without using a much higher throttle than is typical.  When the cruiser did make it around the pusher/tow, the thrust from the pusher/tow pushed the cruiser into the opposite lock wall. There is usually a moment (upon reflection) that if you could have back to re-do the moment in question, you would. After the first cruiser made it off the opposite wall, I throttled off the wall and began to go around the pusher/tow. I too was sucked towards the pusher/tow and then pushed by the stern thrust into the opposite wall as well. That is only half of what was to come. As my stern hit the lock wall, I throttled up to push out against the thrust from the pusher/tow but had to throttle back to miss the cruiser ahead of us because on the other side of the lock another barge was on the immediate right side preparing for entry into the lock up bound. It was a serpentine maneuver that the first cruiser and myself were in. The entire time the pusher/tow in the lock kept his rpm’s up and pushed the two of us out of position.  On the radio, we heard the lock-master issuing warnings, and cautions to the other PC’s in the lock not to proceed and the pusher/tow to decrease their rpms to reduce the wake output.  By the time Jean and I made it through the exit and past the other barge and pusher, we had hit the wall fairly-hard but made it through.  The rub-rail and the nose of the dingy on the port side took most of the impact but upon inspection safely down the river, they were not severely damaged.

Honest reflection has taught me a few lessons here. The first and foremost was that PFD’s are absolutely a necessity. We hit the wall so hard that I was afraid that Jean would be thrown from the forward deck and into the water. Secondly, I should have never left the wall until the lock-master guaranteed that the pusher/tow either reduced its power output or exited the lock before me. The power produced by the pusher/tow holding its position against the wall was too violent for us to pass by safely. My bad!!  I also did not appreciate the crew of the pusher/tow lined up on their boat to “watch the show.” Very unprofessional and makes me wonder if this was not a planned “event to watch.” Still, when all is said and done, I decided to push off the wall and go. I regret making it now. After the two cruisers left, the lock-master halted the other PC’s and instructed the pusher/tow to exit the lock.  It took close to an hour for the others to exit the lock and continue down river.

As I nurse my LPTSD (Looper Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) over the latest “new lesson learned,” I urge other PC captains to remember that they are the captain of their vessel and ultimately, they are responsible for their decisions and if they feel that the situation is not safe, they, and only they, can make the decision to “go or not go.”

4 replies »

  1. Oh my gosh Jerry. I am surprised you maintain such cool. I think I would have said a few words to the lock master myself and the tow captain. I only hope a few beers helped you in your L PTSD. Hope you don’t have to face this ever again. Have a good couple of weeks off enjoy your travels out west and be safe.

  2. Never thought of thruster wake as being so powerful. Learned something new. Happy you came through without heavy damage or injury. Looking forward to having you back.

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