Canal Locking Procedures


For heritage canals such as the Rideau Waterway and Trent-Severn Waterway. Read a sample of the Canal Regulations.

How a Canal Works:
Locks let in water or let water out so that boats can safely travel from one level of a waterway to another. There are dams at many lockstations that control water levels throughout the waterway. The lock staff drop or raise large wood timbers to change the height of the dam using manual iron equipment similar to the locks. It's a water dance in all seasons keeping everything moving and shorelines protected.

All operation on Canada's Rideau Canal is by human power and gravity, as it was in 1832 (except for Smiths Falls electric lockstation). The maximum size of boat that can normally use the locks is 27.4m (90ft) long, 7.9m (26ft) wide, 6.7m (22ft) high, and 1.5m (5ft) deep.

How a Lock Works:
To get ready for boats to "lock up", lock staff close the upper gates (doors) and underwater sluice gates. They open one or both of the two large wooden gates at the low side of the lockstation by turning a crab, a large metal gear that is connected to each door. Two people can operate the crank using handles on both sides. After boats enter the lock, lock staff close the lower gates and sluice gates to keep water in the lock. Then staff walk to the (closed) upper doors, open the upper sluice gates to fill the lock with water from above. Once the water is raised, the doors are cranked opened and boats leave the lock at slow speed. Once they are all on their way, waiting boats at the top may be allowed to enter the lock and the process is reversed.

On both sides of the lock's stone wall, there are thick lock cables to pass a "dock" line around. They are attached to the lock wall top and bottom so that, as the water level changes in the lock chamber, your lines will slide up or down. If your boat is about 8 metres, you will be able to reach 2 cables, one at the bow and another at the stern. Small boats will use one cable.

Prepare your Boat:
You should have lines and fenders rigged on both sides of your boat. Fenders should be easy to adjust for a vertical wall or for the top. Anyone who cannot swim should wear a PFD. Here's what you require:

  1. Fenders (3 per side)
  2. Dock lines (2 per side)
  3. Lock pole (recommended)
  4. Horn
  5. Canal Regulations booklet
  6. Lock pass or fee
  7. Crew (1 or more)

Approaching a lockstation:
Have your lines and fenders ready before approaching a lock. 3 blasts on your horn will inform the lockmaster of your request to lock through. If you are driving a large vessel, then 4 blasts on your horn will let the lockmaster know that you request both gates to be opened - but it's his decision!

"Blue Line" ettiquette:
The approach dock for a lockstation is painted with a blue stripe. This is where you tie up if you intend to lock through and the lock is not ready for you. If the blue line is full, you might stand off, if there is enough room. If the wait if long, you may politely ask another boat to "raft up" (see below). If your request is accepted, be sure to thank the other boat's captain and crew for this very big favor. Many cruising friendships have begun in just this way. (If you are refused, say nothing - the lock staff rarely miss anything!)

Entering the Lock:
The lockmaster is in charge of all boat traffic into or out of a lock. You will be told when to enter the lock, what order, where to tie up, and when to leave. If the locks are busy, the lockmaster may ask you to "raft" to another boat that is already secured on the lock wall (see below). Proceed at slow speed, stopping along the proper place, ask your crew to grab a cable with a lock pole, and pass a bow line around the cable. Pass a second line around a cable at the stern. As soon as you are secure, turn off the engine and all other motors or flames, leaving your bilge blower on. Have your lock pass or fee ready.

Rafting (tie up to a boat as if it were a dock):
You aleady have dock lines and fenders ready, but you need to adjust your fenders up or down to protect your neighbor's hull. Come alongside dead slow, stop, then pass your lines to the other boat's crew for fastening to their cleats. It's often useful to add a spring line to prevent surging forward when locking down or back when locking up when the sluice gates are open.

When the lock gates open, you exit in the reverse order that you entered in. Under no circumstances should you turn on a gasoline engine without running the bilge blower for several minutes.

Locking Tips:
Never leave a line unattended after the sluice gates open - the water can get quite turbulent, especially going "up" with the water coming into the lock. You may loop the line around one horn of a cleat, but

  1. It's not "cool" to turn the motor off while still moving in the lock, and expect the crew to stop the boat. In a tug of war, the lock cable always wins!
  2. Keep a knife handy in case a line jams
  3. Do not be tempted to fasten the line around the cable to a cleat. A boat dangling from a lock wall is rare, but guaranteed to spoil your day!
  4. Tie up Fido or Kitty - a lock wall rising up will tempt any pet.
  5. Watch for zebra mussels on lock walls and docks. They are very sharp and make nasty cuts.
  6. There are cameras at the approach to some locks, so warn the sun worshippers on your bow!
  7. In Merrickville, there are strong eddies between locks after the doors swing open - wait a bit if you can before proceeding.

Lockstation Shore Facilities:
You can dock (moor) or camp at many lockstations for a fee - this is separate from lockage fees. You can buy a pass for a short period or the entire season. If you wish to lock through first in the morning, ask the lockmaster about docking on the "blue line" at closing time. There are washrooms and gargabe cans at all lockstations. Most have picnic tables, power and ice available. Most have parking lots, but near cities there is a fee. Leash your pets and carry "poop'n'scoop" bags for your dog. If you have any questions, the lock staff can answer them.

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