Monday, September 14, 2015

Becoming a Lock-Smith

Working the Locks

Today I learned how to actually pilot the boat in and out off the locks. I have watched how it is done, but knowing that it can cause a serious problem if it is not done right, I was hesitant to do it myself. Today I asked the captain of the boat (That would be Bill), to give me instructions on how it was done. His instructions were excellent, but he guided me through one lock and then politely announced that he was going to go and work the locks leaving me to run the boat all afternoon. Obviously this was a good plan, and by the end of the day I was sliding the boat into the locks with barely a bump. These locks are very narrow, with room for only one boat and there are barely inches on either side, and only a few feet aft and astern. As well, it seems that they like to put the locks on a slight angle so you cannot go straight in, but need to turn in at the exact time. Of course, turning a 60 foot long boat on a dime is not easy. However, you do feel good when you finally slip the boat around a bend and into the lock without touching the sides.The rest of this entry I wrote at home giving you a brief explanation of the locks.
Cruising the Panama Canal
When you transit through the Panama Canal, the lock system is a big deal, and the real highlight of a cruise with hundreds of passengers trying to get the best spot to watch the ships guided through the locks. On our river cruise through Europe the locks were not even mentioned in the literature and we tended to slip through overnight as if they were an unwanted hindrance to our trip. On this trip, we have almost 100 locks to navigate on the 100 mile trip; only these locks we have to operate on our own. In their heyday during the industrial revolution when these canals were THE method of transportation, each lock had it’s own Lock-keeper who lived in a cottage beside the canal and worked the locks and maintained the canals and the locks. Now the locks sit lonely and deserted and the users need to know how to operate them if they want to use the canal system.

Fortunately it is not difficult, and we quickly caught on after the first one. Most of the locks operate in both directions, so if the canals are busy you need to be aware of boats moving in both directions and if the locks are wide enough and traffic is heavy you are encouraged to share the locks and conserve water. If you are lucky, the lock is ready for you as you approach, the doors are open, the water at the right level and you can pilot the boat right in. Someone has to get off the boat to operate the gates and doors, so you need to get close enough to the shore to allow someone to jump ashore. If you are going up you need an empty lock, if going down you need to start with a full lock.

Don't do this!
Once in the lock chamber, it is very important to hold the boat in the center of the lock. If too close to the doors at either end you can become swamped by the incoming water or hung up on the frame as the water goes down; neither is good! Once the boat is in the center of the chamber, the operator outside makes sure all doors are closed tightly. Then the gates in the doors are opened allowing water to either enter the lock or flow out. The gates are small doors in the larger swinging lock doors. The gates are operated by remote ratcheting gears, which the operator works with a lock “windlass”. As the small door opens water rushes into the lock if going up, or out if going down. The pilot of the boat has to carefully keep the boat steady against the in/out flow of the water with the engine or with ropes.
Typical British Locks

You quickly learn that the water on both sides of the doors must be equal before the big doors will open; the procedure cannot be hurried, water pressure will not allow the doors to move. The operator works the doors by leaning back into the large counter-balanced leaver attached to the doors, and pushing back along the track beside the lock, worn by hundreds of feet over a hundred years. Once both doors are opened the boat can motor out, the operator can jump back onboard and you can continue on.

If lucky you can then settle back and enjoy the rest of the trip, but on two days of our trip we have to repeat this procedure 18 times . . . . .

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