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Canal Boating Holidays - Guide to Canal Lock Operation

Canal Locks - How They Work
What Does A Canal Lock Do?

A Rough Guide to Lock Operation

Marsworth No.2 Lock viewed from No.1 Lock - Staircase Locks at Marsworth Junction on the Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union CanalGenerally locks are not difficult to operate, but they do require a degree of physical fitness and manual dexterity and effort. You will soon become proficient in locking with a little practice.

Do not let children operate lock mechanisms unless they are physically able and then only under strict supervision.

If at any time you are not sure what to do, do not be afraid to ASK. Other boaters are generally friendly and understand that you may not be practiced, they will be pleased to help you. If necessary, moor up and watch other people working the lock until you feel confident yourself.

Canal Lock Equipment

You will require a windlass for winding the canal lock paddle mechanism up and down.

You may also require a Waterways Authority key or or anti-vandal key to unlock the canal lock paddle mechanism.

Avoid Lock Accidents - Safety First is a Priority

You need to be aware at all times of the safety of your boat, yourself, your crew, children, pets and bystanders. Children and non-swimmers are recommended to wear life jackets and pets kept under control around locks.

Ensure that you and your crew are wearing suitable footwear. Particularly avoiding high heeled, open-toed shoes and flip-flops. A windlass dropped onto bare toes can be extremely painful! Secure spectacles, loose hair or clothing, scarves tucked in, avoid wearing anything around the neck, like long necklaces, cameras, shoulder bags etc. which can catch on the windlass or in the paddle mechanism. Do not allow small children to touch the mechanisms around the locks.

How Do Lock Gates Work? - What Are Locks?
About Lock Construction

A centre paddle lock - Lock Top GateA lock is a construction for altering the level of water of the canal, enabling boats to travel either up or down hill. Lock construction consist of the lock chamber, which is a brick, stone or metal enclosure which holds the navigable water; the gates are positioned at the top and bottom ends of the lock; the gates have balance beams, which you push against to open and close the gates, the gates allow the boat to enter and leave the locks; the paddles, which are raised and lowered to control the water flow to alter the level; and the cill, which is a large raised ledge at the top end of the lock against which the top gate shuts.

Locks are worked by water pressure and muscle power, there are no pumps or electric motors, except some of the larger commercial traffic or guillotine locks.

Narrow Locks are wide enough for one boat. Wide locks generally hold two or more boats side by side.

Lock Etiquette

Hawley Wide Lock, Camden Locks, Camden Town, Regent's Canal, London

If a Lock keeper is on duty, always follow their instructions. You will usually be expected to operate the locks yourself, but under instruction or supervision. Some locks, particularly on rivers are always operated by Lock-keepers. Most locks, however, are self-operated.

If the water is in your favour, you have right of way; if the water is against you then a boat seen coming towards you has right of way, as they can make use of the water. You may have to wait a few minutes for the oncoming boat to get into a position to use the lock - please be patient.

Do not be tempted to use lock moorings for overnight stays or moor there for longer than it takes to lock as you will be obstructing other users.

If a boat is coming towards you as you exit the lock, leave the gates open for them

Locks are a great place to meet other boaters, to exchange news and gossip, and to learn tips and hints from more experienced crews.

If you are waiting in a queue, one of your crew should go forward with a windlasses and offer to help the boats in front of you. Not only will this speed things up, you will have the opportunity to chat, meet new people, and possibly learn more about the canals.

Remember, if you do offer to help, always follow the instructions of the crew whose boat is in the lock.

How a Canal Lock Works - Now its your turn......read on

Going Up In A Canal Lock

Foxton Locks

Top Gate - Atherstone Lock, Coventry Canal - Showing the 'Ground Paddles' (White posts either side of the gateWhen you arrive at the lock, moor up and send at least one of your crew, with their windlasses, forward to the lock. If another boat is already using the lock, your crew can help them through, but always ask first!

If the lock is empty of boats and water, open the gates by pushing against the balance beams. If the lock is full, or partly full, and no boats are approaching the lock from above, use the windlass to wind up the paddles on the gates nearest to your boat. The water will empty from the lock and may cause a wash that affects your boat. When the lock is empty, open the gates and wind the paddles down with a windlass.

Pushing against the balance beamSteer the boat into the lock, the crew shuts the gates behind it, making sure the lower gate paddles are down. If practicable, reverse the boat up towards the bottom gates and use the centre line with a turn or two (do not tie off) to a lockside bollard if available and hold the end of the rope, to prevent the boat lunging forward, or sideways in a wide lock. The crew then goes to the far end of the lock and slowly opens the top, 'ground' paddles. These are situated either side of the lock. Winding up the ground paddles, followed by any centre lock paddles, if fitted, to fill the lock. Always wind slowly to avoid making a tidal wave in the lock which will throw the boat backwards against the bottom gates. Leave the pawl or safety catch in place whilst raising the paddles. Once the paddles are up and you are happy with the flow and its effect on the boat, remove the windlass from the mechanism.

Steering the boat into the lockIf you find you need to control the movement of the boat, do it with gentle bursts of throttle, forward if the boat is moving backwards, reverse if the boat is moving forwards. Your crew must understand the importance of opening the paddles slowly, to prevent the boat washing about in the lock.

When the lock is full, open the top gate and steer the boat out of the lock. Meanwhile, the crew shuts the top paddles. They then shut the gate behind the boat while you moor up for them to get back on board. If another boat is coming towards you, your crew should leave the gate open for them.

Going Down In A Canal Lock

A rare electrically operated lock on the River Stort Navigation

When you arrive at the lock, moor up and send your crew, with their windlasses, forward to the lock. If another boat is already using the lock, your crew can help them through, but always ask first!

If the lock is full, the crew opens the gate and you can steer the boat in. If the lock is empty and no boat is approaching from below, or partly full, the crew fills the lock by winding up the paddles nearest to your boat. When the lock is full, the crew opens the gate and winds down the paddles.

Steer the boat into the lock, and the crew shuts the gate behind you. Position the boat well forward of the white Cill Markers, which are painted on the lock sides just inside the top gate. Avoid fouling your front fender on the bottom gates.

The crew empties the lock by winding up the paddles nearest the front of the boat. As the lock empties, continue to look behind you to check that the back of the boat is clear of the cill markers. Use gentle bursts of throttle to keep the boat steady. There is no need to tie off your boat in the lock.

When the lock is empty, the crew opens the gates and winds down the paddles. Steer the boat out of the lock; the crew shuts the gates behind you unless another boat is coming towards you, and re boards the boat.

Remember to shut all paddles when leaving a lock and gates too unless another boat is coming towards you.

Avoiding Canal Lock Accidents Turning Into A Disaster

A River Thames Wide Lock

If at any time the boat adopts an unusual angle or things don't seem right, stop all lock operations and find out why!

If you catch the back of the boat on the cill as the level drops - Shut the paddles immediately, then slowly refill the lock to right the boat.

If you get the front fender caught in the bottom gates, Shut the paddles immediately and refill the lock slowly, freeing the boat.

In any emergency in a lock failure to act quickly may result in the boat sinking in the lock!

In the event of a lock being inoperable, contact your hire company or waterways authority for advice.

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