Safety equipment recommendations for the Hiram M Chittenden locks

Boats locking through the large locks in Ballard, WA

Whether by land or by boat, I love visiting the Hiram M Chittenden locks, also known as the Ballard Locks. Before I bought my boat, I would often visit and watch boats large and small locking through — both in and out. I have a ton of pictures from the locks throughout the years, but the album grew larger and larger as the arrival of my Formula 31PC drew nearer.

The locks are a great experience, but they can be very intimidating if you are a new boater going through. I want to take some time to detail what you should have on board when you lock through.

Equipment

The lock website provide a list of things they recommend to have yourself prepared:

  1. Two (2) 50-foot lines in good condition with a 12-inch eye at the end. One attached to bow, one attached to stern
  2. A working fire extinguisher approved by the US Coast Guard
  3. One or more Coast-guard approved PFDs (life jacket or other) per passenger
  4. Fenders on both sides of the boat so you can dock on either side and protect your other side from other boats beside you
  5. Engine in good mechanical working order, capable of reverse

Lines

I’m here to tell you that if this is all you have on board, you are doing yourself a great disservice, particularly if you are going alone. With the right conditions and appropriate help aboard, two lines should be enough. However, my recommendation, particularly when locking through alone, is that you have six (6) 20-foot lines or better as well as the two (2) 50-foot lines.

I know you’re asking, “Why?”

When locking through with help, your additional hands can relocate lines while you navigate where lock operators direct you to. Two lines can be enough in the right conditions and with the right help aboard. When locking through alone, you need to be prepared to do as little as possible once inside the locks. I tie one line to the stern, one to the bow, and one at midship on BOTH sides. That way, as I approach, I am prepared to go either direction without moving from the helm.

Fire extinguisher

Fire extinguisher on my Formula 31PC

Fire extinguishers are often hard to get to in a hurry when boating.


The coast guard requires that a boat my size has two fire extinguishers on board. I technically have four on board. I have two hand extinguishers (one mounted in the cabin, and one in the cockpit) as required, a Fireboy fire suppression system in the engine compartment, and a third extinguisher that I keep handy and close by when underway.

See, there you go again asking, “Why?” You have great questions!

When you’re locking-through, you are in close proximity to several boats with a LOT of fuel and other flammables. You’re in a situation where you cannot escape: you’re trapped in that lock until they open the gates and all the other boats are out of your way! If anything should go wrong with your boat or another, you want to squash that problem quickly, and you want to make sure you have enough material on board to either put out the fire or escape with your life. The small extinguishers many of us have on board are just not enough to put out a typical fire by the time you realize there is one. It’s one thing to be unprepared for fire in open water or at a dock. It’s another thing to be trapped in a potential fire pit!

Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs/life jackets)

Hydrostatic PFDs are recommended by many when locking through.

Hydrostatic PFDs are recommended by many when locking through.


You got your boat, you were so excited to get on the water that you rushed to Fisheries supply and bought yourself a set of cheap orange PFDs. I applaud you and appreciate your concern for water safety! I really do! But…

Those PFDs are usually so bulky that no one wears them on the water. Think about it and then go out during any busy boating weekend and look around. Who is wearing one? Anyone? Nope. If you see someone with a life jacket on, they are usually in trouble, or the person is a small child. I recommend you get what you can afford, but also realize that this is your life you’re talking about. You might have strong beliefs in your swimming skills, but if something happens on your boat while underway, you may get knocked out before you go in the water. Even if you don’t, you will run out of steam swimming far sooner than you think — particularly if you have to swim against wind and tide.

I recommend getting a hydrostatic PFD. I bought some from Mustang Survival at the Seattle Boat Show. These PFDs are small and can be worn easily even while moving around your boat quickly inside the locks. However, they have a CO2 cartridge that will fills your PFD when it is submerged in water, dissolves a tablet, and allows the air to flow through. If you fall in, you’ll be floating in no time! Things can happen in the locks. You don’t want to fall in. I recommend even if you have help wearing their PFDs, that as captain, you wear yours as well. If your help falls in, you’ll need to take their place, tie the boat up safely, and then help get them out of the water. Having your own jacket on is important.

Fenders

I don’t have much to add to this. Fenders are important when you go through the locks. You’ll often be asked to dock very close to other boats. Don’t worry if you think you can’t make it in. The lock operators will literally lasso a cleat on your boat and guide you through if necessary. But in either case, you want fenders in place to keep you from scraping the wall or another boat. Remember, you are still responsible for damage you do to other boats when in the locks. I have two VERY oversized fenders that I use when I plan to lock through. They are big enough that they keep one side of my boat extremely safe.

“Why?”, you respond for the last time (in this post).

Well, this is personal preference, but I tend to feel like if I can keep one side of my boat extremely far away from anything that will do it damage, I can keep a close eye on the other during the locking. I throw as many regular sized fenders as I can on one side of my boat (usually 5 or 6) put the two very large enders on the other side along with two other regular sized fenders and I’m ready to essentially play bumper boats without any damage (Seattle Skipper does not recommend that you “play bumper boats”. In fact, we highly recommend against it).

Engine Reverse

Before you enter the locks, I recommend that you check your reverse. On a busy day, you’re most likely going to be using it a LOT while you wait anyway. Just make sure it works because you may be asked to reverse once you get to the locks.

Other Notes

Make sure you have good boating shoes on when you go into the locks. If you have any sort of deck on your boat, you’ll want something non-slip. Even on a hot day, you’d be surprised what can end up on the deck that will make you slip up. Condensation from the drinks the girls were having before you reached the docks, bird droppings, a couple drops of gasoline from your fuel up earlier in the day, and rain that hasn’t quite dried up as well as you thought from a passing shower are all things that can cause you to slip and ruin your locking experience.

Summary

I know I can be a bit cautious in my boating, but I hope we can all be safe on the water. I love to have a good time too, but I’m very aware that a small mistake can have huge consequences. Being prepared is great prevention. In my next post, I’ll cover the process for locking through both with help and without!

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