While the locks can be intimidating before beginning them, once you've done a few they become more of a nuisance than anything. Having been through the Welland canal before, the Erie canal locks are minuscule by comparison. We felt more than ready to tackle this new system. The key difference between the Welland and Erie canal is that the Welland can be completed in one long day. The Erie, not so much (theres a reason they sell 10 day passes).
Here's how "locking through" works.
Step 1: Hail the Lock Master.
Seriously, what a cool job title! These guys truly are masters as we discovered not only are they responsible for the opening/closing and the flow of the locks (and consequently how fast you go up or down - how easy or hard the lock will be) but they are also full time caretakers and maintenance personnel as well. From oiling the gears to mowing the lawn they are fully responsible for the lock and the property surrounding it. Title earned!
So, hail your lock master....politely ask for an opening....wait for special instructions (port or starboard tie up, etc)...say thank you!
Step 2: Get yo lines ready!
*Most* locks will have their own lines ready to go, but just in case, always have your lines ready. If you've been given instructions by the lock master as to wether you'll be on port or starboard, prep that side, otherwise, best to have some lines on both sides.
Step 3: Throw down those fenders - grab a boat hook!
While we've read/heard varying accounts of how to prep your fenders for a lock, we're hear to tell you - you needn't worry about anything special. Make sure you have fenders ready to go on both sides of your boat, and maybe don't get too attached to the paint job on them.
While we've heard of people creating fender boards (see picture), we've heard just as many accounts of these getting tossed after the first lock. Bottom line: if the skipper knows the boat, approaching the locks is far easier than docking! Coming in to a lock is no different than tying off to a wall at a marina/yacht club etc.
Step 4: Wait for a green light to enter the lock.
Most locks will have a 'traffic light' indicating to boaters when the lock is ready. Not following those lights, despite what it *looks* like can result in a pissed off lock master and consequently a hell of a ride up or down for you. Barring the traffic light, wait until the doors are fully open. If unsure, just chat with your lock master! They're remarkably helpful (and maybe lonely?).
Step 5: Enter the lock slowly.
With one crew at the bow armed with a boat hook, the skipper will slowly saddle up to the lock wall. The crew member at the bow uses the hook to either grab a line along the wall or secure a line from the boat around a cable attached to the wall. It all depends on your lock. There are 3 types (see pictures). Our favourite was probably cables as the lines tend to be wet and full of whatever crud was resting in the lock water (we suggest gloves!). As we were the only boat going through 9/10 times we just used our boat hooks to grab the cables, not too worried about our swing. At this point, depending on how many boats are transiting the lock with you, you may just have to sit tight and wait for everyone else to be secured in the lock before anything starts to happen.
Step 6: Hang on.
Whether you're locking down or up the locks can take a surprisingly long time for how quickly the water moves. Hold on to your rope or cable the whole time though! Even if your ride starts out smooth and comfortable, if for some reason a valve isn't flowing properly your transit can get turbulent - forcing one end of the boat into or away from the wall. While this rarely happens, it is worth noting that had we NOT been holding the lines we might've ended up in the wrong part of the lock - bad news if you're in there with several other boats. Don't let this scare you though! At most we had to push off the wall with our boat hooks or hold a little tighter to the lines around the cleats.
*Special Note* DO NOT lock your lines off to the cleat. The locks can move surprisingly fast, pulling those lines taught faster than you can untie them. THIS can result in bad news for you and your boat. Do not tie off the lines!
Step 7: Wait for your green light to exit.
Once you get the cue, push off and exit at *no wake* speed. Be prepared for current as you exit the lock depending on the flow of the upper or lower water.
Step 8 Thank your lock master.
For real. They didn't *have* to open the lock. And maybe they're lonely. You don't know.
*Safety tip* While in the Welland canal it was required that every crew member wear a life jacket while transiting the locks. In the Erie Canal it was not a requirement but is STRONGLY recommended. You're performing operations over the side of the boat in a small, confined lock with turbulent waters. SHOULD something happen at least you'll be floating!
Also, if you're interested, this lil site has a whole ton of helpful how-tos, navigation information and history of the NY canal system.