Single-Handed Boating


Downhill, Narrow Locks

When travelling downhill the lockgates open towards the boat and this calls for rather different techniques. I have two techniques which I use to cope with this and it depends on traffic which one I will use. With no-one waiting to travel downhill in front of me (the norm) I will usually bring the fore end right up to the lock shoulders in front of the gate, trot up the gunnel and step onto the shoulder, windlass tucked into belt as usual. If the lock is brim-full then the gate can be opened immediately. If not then I draw a paddle and this usually brings the boat right up to the gate whilst the lock is filling although, for whatever reason (the spill weir perhaps), it then begins to drift back off the gate as the lock becomes full. The gate can then be used to push the boat gently back until it is out of the way of the gate itself. "Gentle" is the watchword here as too strong a push will result in you losing the boat as the distance between lock shoulder and gunnel becomes unjumpable. Err on the safe side, of course, when you re-board so that you run no risk of slipping backwards and striking your head on the coping stones!

Not to worry if the boat floats out of reach. The spill weir may pull it back, albeit on the offside so the gate must be closed again before recovering it. Failing that, leave the top gate open, walk to the bottom gate(s) and pull a paddle. The resultant flow will generally bring the fore end back into the mouth of the lock. Remember that if the pound in which the boat is floating is 'on weir' you will NOT have wasted any water by having the lock open at both ends.

Alternatively, and perhaps much more sensibly, take the fore end line when you step off and clovehitch it around the paddle spindle with enough slack to allow the boat to float clear of the leading edge of the gate as it opens. Two loops placed one behind the other take only seconds to form and result in a clove hitch when pushed onto the spindle and tightened.

The other strategy, when there is room at the lock moorings where there is usually sufficient depth, is to bring the boat in to the side arriving there with just a little speed still 'on', fasten a strap to the side shackle, drop the boat into forward gear at tickover, step off and drop an inverted loop of the strap over the post or bollard and strap the boat to a standstill (see diagram).

Pass a bight of line under the standing part of the line and drop it over the post, then take a bight over the post from the original side and walk on to the lock. Strapping the boat to a standstill will have tucked it close in to the side of the canal and, idling in forward gear, it will sit there obediently against the side whilst you fill the lock and open the gate.

In case you have not realized it, dropping two bights over the inverted 'round turn' that you used to bring the boat to a halt is effectively 2/3rds of the boatman's 'knot' that I hope you always use to tie up at the end of the day.

When approaching a downhill lock I always try to make a mental note of whether the post forming the leading edge of the gate projects sufficiently (if at all!) above the balance beam and whether the handrail stanchion adjacent to the post has sufficient clearance for a line to be passed around the post.

Should the lock be empty on arrival and the top gate be sufficiently well designed, then I pull the paddles to fill the lock and proceed to drop an inverted loop of the fore end line over the post, carrying the working part of the line around until it is above the balance beam and tucking a small bight under the inverted loop. A tug on the standing part of the line will tighten up the line and you should find that the standing part of the line (attached to the fore end of the boat) then bears down on the tucked up bight preventing it from coming free.

I then hop back onto the gunnel, down to the stern and drop the gear into reverse at very low revs. The boat backs up, takes up the slack in the line and holds the aforementioned tension on the tucked bight (unless the whole thing has slipped meanwhile!). When the lock has filled the boat will pull the gate open and, as you power it forward into the lock, the standing part of the line will no longer bear on the bight and the line will run smoothly off the gatepost.

Time to step off the gunnel on the offside, drop the paddle and return to the counter (or wait for it to come to you!).

If you have a line of appropriate length purposely attached to the offside T-stud at the stern, running behind the tiller and terminating in a loop then, as the stern passes the open top gate (slowly please and probably out of gear - YOU DARE NOT GET THIS WRONG) you can drop the loop over the gate post and the inertia of the boat will close the gate behind you most of the way whilst the resistance offered by the water to the gate's closing will have brought the boat to a halt.

Step off onto the nearside of the lock to drop the remaining paddle and walk down to the bottom gate to begin emptying the lock. Time now to gather up the fore end line if you used it, remove the gate closing strap so that it does not pull the boat back onto the cill if you used one or, if you employed neither line, then stay leaning on the bottom gate contemplating the world until it is time to push the boat gently back (if need be) by opening the bottom gate and lowering its paddle(s).

Bottom gates generally have a reasonably generous lock tail. If there is a single bottom gate then bring the boat to a stop in the lock tail. Stepping off may involve getting on the roof and thence to the lock shoulder, or trotting along the gunnel far enough to step off below the shoulder. Where double (mitre) bottom gates are fitted I usually slow the boat as it reaches the gate and use the cabin shaft to try to push the ends of the balance beams. When the gates are well balanced this will usually be successful but, where not properly constructed or maintained, then I have to resort to stepping to the bank, closing one gate, walking along the gate plank and jumping to the equivalent on the second gate in order to close that also. Beware rapid acceleration away from closed mitred gates as the prop wash can easily sweep them open again!

If there is a fair amount of water coming down, then the spill weir flow may have moved the fore end across the canal too much in which case reverse the boat in the lock tail right up to the gate and put the tiller hard over to 'lean' against the tail wall forcing the fore end back towards the channel. Repeat as necessary until you can boat clear.

Additional notes:

(1) If the joint between the top gate post and the balance beam has started to rot then it is possible, as the boat passes the gate and the tension on the bight is released, that the line will catch in the rotting joint rather than run smoothly around the post and drop into the water. I recommend that you avoid using the gate opening 'technique' if there is any sign of deterioration of the woodwork joint - all too frequently found these days, I'm afraid, as routine maintenance by lengthsmen in dry weather no longer seems to involve judicious use of (say) plastic padding to prolong the life of gates but, instead, simply seems to involve mowing the towpath grass in 'public' spots!

(2) If you are going to use a line and loop to close the top gate behind you as I have described above you need to get its length 'right' for the boat you are using as you plainly do not want your fore end to impact the bottom gate. In his excellent book "A Boater's Guide to Boating" Chris Deuchar suggests dropping an inverted (open) loop of line over the top gate post and strapping the boat to a halt whilst closing the gate thereby. This probably demands that the boat have more inertia (i.e. speed) as it enters the lock and has the attendant risk of fingers being trapped in the strapping loop or the loop not being properly positioned before it starts to tighten up. The consequences of 'getting it wrong' are losing fingers or having the boat strike the bottom gate without having being slowed down sufficiently and could possibly cause breaching of the bottom gate entirely. I have never had the nerve to try simultaneously strapping both the boat and the gate and I suggest that the technique which I have evolved for myself is rather more safe and reliable, if a little slower, as the distance between the boat and gate is pre-determined by the length of 'line and fixed loop' and the loop only needs to be dropped over the post rather than wrapped around it. With a 70' boat distances will be very be critical; my 60' boat allows a little more leeway.

Downhill, Wide Locks

I will either strap the boat to a halt on the lock mooring bollards, dropping a couple of bights of strapping line over the bollard and putting the boat into forward gear at idle revs or bring it to a halt with the fore end tucked into the angle of the offside gate and lock shoulder with the counter by the towpath. I drop a line from the 'T' stud onto the bank in case it drifts away whilst the lock is filling although the movement of water into the lock with the boat skewed right across the gates will usually hold it rock steady. Likewise if the boat is strapped on a lock bollard the water movement will keep it trimmed neatly to the coping stones. In either case the top gate can eventually be opened without fouling the boat's fore end.

If a top gate is fully open when I arrive then the boat can be steered straight into the lock whilst I step off at the shoulder with a strap and drop an inverted loop over the strapping post on the lock shoulder (alternatively and even more carefully, a 60' boat can also usually be strapped to a halt on the first strapping post past the gate).

Ideally I will strap the boat to a halt in the lock with the fore end almost into the angle of the bottom gate. Push the top gate into the 'flow', walk down and wind the bottom paddle 6-8 turns till the top gates close gently, wind the paddle all the way up and then pick up the fore end or mast line and thumbline the boat to the gate. The thumbline should run from the fore end T-stud, or the mast looby, over the gate mitre posts, along the beam on the outside of the lock as far as the second stanchion and then be passed under the handrail, back over it, back under it and around the stanchion to drop down on the outside of the gate. Sufficient slack (but not too much) must obviously be allowed on the standing part of the line to allow the boat to descend in the lock without being 'hung up'. Get back onto the boat, shift it into reverse gear at idle, and wait for the lock to drain at which point wind on (still in reverse) and the thumbline will pull the gate open. If you shift the boat into forward gear just before the gate and thumbline form a dead straight line then the gate will continue to swing open and the boat can be steered out, the thumbline dropping into the water as the boat passes the gate.

The gate will now be open with the paddle still raised so bring the boat to a stop at the lower lock shoulder, step off with a stern line to wrap around the bollard, lower the paddle and attend to the gate.

Comments, please.

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