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Lock safety... 

RYA Inland Instructor Tom Sowerby shares his top tips.

Without wishing to scare monger, locks can be dangerous but that doesn’t mean that they cannot be tamed. There are several ways you can make locking a safe and dare I say, stress free procedure!

Here RYA Instructor, Tom Sowerby, from Bisham Abbey Sailing & Navigation School shares his top tips for lock safety…

“The basic principles of safe locking can be boiled down to five key points, they don’t guarantee problem free locks but they should ensure that nothing goes drastically wrong and, most importantly, that you and your crew are safe”, explains Tom.

1. Preparation

It’s like Christmas dinner really; do enough prep before the event and you can relax, deciding to ‘wing it’ will almost certainly result in problems. So, using a guide book or map, look at the area around the lock. If there’s a weir nearby look at how the water flow may affect your boat. Which side are the lay-by moorings? How deep is the lock? Having a rough idea of the lock dimensions is also useful. When cruising on a new waterway it is helpful to know how the lock operates. The basic method does not change whether you are pressing buttons or winding a windlass. The more you know about the lock the better. Surprises in locks are rarely enjoyable!

2. Communication

Just because something is obvious to you doesn’t mean that it’s obvious to all. Talking through your intentions may feel formal but it is necessary; giving crew the opportunity for questions, giving you a dress rehearsal. There is nothing worse than getting half way through a manoeuvre and being unsure what happens next! Try to use visual communications rather than verbal, yelling to crew who are 60 feet away is hardly conducive to calm boating!

3. Speed

The golden rule for safe boating in is SLOW DOWN! Every rule must have an exception and in strong wind or currents a little more power may make life easier, even then it must be used with caution; you must be certain what you are doing is correct. In general it is easier to put power on than to take it off, so slow down early, you can always put it back into gear if needed.

The other advantage of going into neutral early is that as most boats steer better when in gear you can afford to use some power at the end to aid manoeuvring. If space permits it is preferable to position the boat at the back (tail) of the lock chamber, this will reduce the effect of the sluices and also keep the boat away from the cill. The golden rule of ‘slow’ also applies to opening sluices or paddles; allow the water in and out in a slow, controlled manner.

4. Rope Skills

Crew should throw the line around a bollard rather than jump ashore, this is safer and easier; then, once secured, step ashore if necessary. If the lock is manned then ideally everyone should stay on board. At no point should anyone be leaping ashore; we’ve all seen irate helms shouting at their crew to ‘jump’ because they have managed to get the boat within fifteen feet of the bank, but this doesn’t mean it’s right! Ropes should be used to hold the boat in position but never to stop it; that’s why there’s reverse!

Ropes should not be made fast, hold them so tension can be adjusted for rise or fall. A turn taken on a cleat or tee stud gives more control. Take care not to allow the rope to ‘bind’ on itself. The forces involved can jam ropes beyond release.

5. Leaving

The safest way is simply to release the bow line and pull gently on the stern line. This swings the bow a couple of feet from the lock side allowing you to drive out centrally from the chamber. Ropes should be tidied so not to trip anyone, fall in the water or foul the propeller.

Remember, each lock will be different. The RYA Inland Waterwyas Helmsman’s course is designed to give you experience of a range of exercises required for inland boating and in particular locking. Whether it’s trying your hand for the first time, ironing out some bad habits or simply formalising your experience there will always be something to be gained from the course. One of the biggest dangers in boating is complacency.

Learn more about the RYA Inland Waterways Helmsman’s course and the new RYA Inland Waterways Crew Course here.

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