Lock ‘N Load


No guns here please. Not interested. Fascinated by guns, but never wanted to own or operate one. Damned things have a habit of going of and hurting people. Being a new boater, I am referring to the locks you meet along The Cut (the canal) and how you get into them….thus the loading reference. Very tricky and can be dangerous. Requires some daring do on the part of both the lock handler and the helmsman (helmsperson sounds silly). But a good team can handle any lock with relative ease.

On our two last days on the Cut we did 41 locks. They are all double locks meaning they have two gates and can hold two narrow boats. We were fortunate enough to team up with another boat each day to help with the work. But the first of those two days saw my best friend walk 5 miles (between locks) and work about 8 locks in that stretch. She walked because she can actually go faster that way than if I moored up after every gate, waited for her to get on board and then cruise to the next lock at 4 mph. I had the easier job….until I got to the lock.

And there she would be waiting, windlass in hand having just opened the paddles to drain or fill the lock ready for me to enter. A windlass? Paddles? Let me try to explain for those uninitiated what in hell these items are. A windlass (pronounced like the stuff that blows through the air) is a metal turning instrument (45 degree angle) that latches onto a spindle to open the paddles that release water into or out of a lock. Got it? Took me a while too. Many locks have two sets of paddles, one on the ground that opens a paddle on the bottom (one on either side of the lock and the other is on either gate arm to open the top paddles. The rule is to open the ground paddles first then the gate paddles if you are filling the lock. Emptying the lock means you can just open the paddles full in any order. Depends whether you’re going up hill or down hill.


Once the level of water has reached its maximum….either high or low….the gates open quite easily in many cases. And some of those gates are very heavy. They have to be to hold back all that water. Usually you start out pulling the gate, using the legs. You grab a handle on the gate and let your feet push along a path that has foot grips every so many feet to avoid slippage. Some gates are much heavier than others and require more leg and arm power. Empty lock gates are easier to move than full lock gates. That’s just logic.


Now that you have been thoroughly educated on the handling of locks, or skipped over the last two paragraphs, let me tell you what we did in the locks we had to do by ourselves. Some people have to negotiate them without any crew. At least we had the two of us. My best friend decided she would manage the locks while I drove the boat into and out of the locks. To minimise gate openings, we decided to only open one. That meant I had to thread the needle with a 60 foot boat and be careful not to hit the other gate. People have broken them before and closed whole sections of the canal for weeks. Silly buggers. Usually these are holiday boaters who get a 10 minute lesson before heading out onto The Cut.

My years of using motorboats in Canada helped me understand the steering….opposite way to where you want to turn….but a tiller is a different animal to an outboard motor. Especially ours. It’s a bit stiff and my arm hurt after a day’s cruising. But I never complained….much. I enjoyed the challenge of parking the boat into the open lock. Then comes the scary part. Once past the gate door and it’s closed behind, the boat has to stay clear of the cill. THE CILL! Scared the life out of us the stories told about the cill (sill). Boats have sunk being caught on the cill. Not to be taken lightly and avoided at all costs.

The cill, according to the Boat Owner’s Book, is “The bar of masonry often faced with a timber sealing piece below water against which the bottom of the lock gates rest when closed.” If the back of the boat rests on it when the water drains, the boat will raise up at the back and sink in the front. At the least the boat will be stuck in the lock, water pouring in the front. A crane has to be used to pull the boat out. Very time-consuming, damaging and very embarrassing. The longer the boat in the lock the more the risk of being hung up on the cill. A white marker on the cement walls of the lock indicating where the cill is. Sometimes they fade and the guessing game begins. Worrisome. You either have to tie the boat to the side and keep the boat from moving while the water rises or falls or learn how to use the forward/reverse lever to keep the boat off the cill and away from the opposite lock gates.

Then I drive out of the one opened gate and wait for my best friend to close up the paddles and the gates, jump on the boat and head to the next lock….which, on the Grand Union Canal, is often only a hundred or so yards away. And the whole process begins again. I blame the terrain. You wouldn’t get locks on the prairies of Canada. But they do make the journey interesting, especially when you share the double locks with another boat. We met some fine people in the locks.


And that’s that. Except for one last story about locks. I was in one with another boat. They had a couple of Dachshunds aboard. Real cuties. One of the little critters thought he might jump over to our boat from theirs. Just as he did, my boat was washed backward in the lock. Not very far, but far enough to nearly pull the little guy into the waters of the lock. Fortunately, he got back on his own boat before any damage was done. Good thing he was a Dachshund.


About geezerbluesoflondon

Writing and Music are my passions. I have been honing both for over six decades now. I was born in London, England but spent most of my life growing up and being educated in Canada. In 2006 I moved back to London, England where I worked at a music shop then taught music from my studio in Kent. I then sold the house and studio and moved on to a narrowboat on the canals of England. I presently live on the boat in a marina in Worcestershire, England. I have 2 published books available from Amazon and Kindle and am about to self-publish my 3rd. I have three grown children. I hope you enjoy what you read in my Blogs.

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