Thursday, August 11, 2016

Looking at Locks

Have you ever wondered about locks? I don't suppose many people do unless they have boats themselves and do canal cruising, but even so, I'll bet that even then not many people think about how many types of locks there are.

Sharing a big lock with the commercials
On our recent travels, I experienced a whole series of different locks. They came in a range of sizes from approximately 39 x 5 metres (the old single péniche locks) to a massive 125 x 16 metres (for the big commercial waterways).

A péniche sized lock on the Canal de Roubaix
Some locks are assisted and others, the large commercial ones, are not. In these, the controllers sit in high towers and all you hear of them is a voice through a loudspeaker...usually when you've done something they don't like. It can be quite unnerving to be barked at on full distortion volume, especially as you generally have no clue what they are barking at you for (did I just mention distortion?).

A cheerful lock assistant in Ghent

Locks also come in various heights and with different types of doors. I've been up (or down) everything from about 2,5 metres to 11 metres on this last trip. Most of the locks had two doors each end; some had one that rose up (or down) like a guillotine.

Close to 11 metres deep

Then there is the exciting anticipation of wondering what you will have to tie up to. After waiting sometimes more than half an hour to go in, there is plenty of time for me to worry. Every lock on this trip was an adventure and even though I got used to them, it was always with some nervousness that I peered into the yawning openings looking for what I would have to fasten my rope to. For instance, some locks have handy bollards or cleats in the walls. These are easy (relatively) as it's just a question of slipping your rope noose over the one your skipper wants you to take as you slide slowly in. Mind you, I would probably get the prize for missing the easiest bollards more often than even the newest of novices. I am chronically clumsy when it comes to these things.

Waiting for a commercial lock

Other locks might only have their bollards at the top on the wall. If you happen to enter an empty basin, this could mean climbing up slithery, slimy ladders to be able to fasten your ropes. Now this is okay when the climb is only a few metres, but I quail when it's more. After all, I'm not as young as I was when I started this barging lark but I'm quite proud of the fact I did it when necessary this time round too. I didn't even complain - not vocally, anyway.

The best locks tend to be the very deep ones that have floating bollards that rise up or descend with the water level. They are my favourites because you can tie up and forget about them - more or less. As long as the floaters actually float, everything works fine, but you need to watch that they do. Apparently, they occasionally get stuck, which might not be fun. In locks without floating bollards, you have to keep an eye on your ropes and either loosen or tighten them as you fall or rise, or even move them to other more convenient points. All this is fine as long as you aren't being buffeted around by the onrush of incoming water or by a commercial's propellor. They are supposed to turn their engines off, but often they don't and the power of their props can cause some very uncomfortable bashing around.

Deep locks with floating bollards are my favourites, especially
if we are alone!
Of course, we also had fun with the smaller locks that are operated by a telecommande or remote control. We had these on the Canal de Saint Quentain in France. By English standards, these locks are still quite big, but they are limited to a single péniche (39 metres by 5). The really big commercials cannot follow this canal as a result, and they have to take other routes.  At the first lock in the series, we collected a remote control and at each subsequent lock, we had to point it at the gates and hope it would activate everything, much like changing channels on the TV. It didn't always work first time and much fun was had guessing how close we would have to get to the gates before the system itself got into gear. We then waited for the lock to fill or empty as required, after which the doors opened. Then we entered, tied up and pressed the remote again.

With this system, if you are going up, you cling onto your ropes for dear life as all hell breaks loose when the water rushes in - well that's how it seems to me; Koos is much more relaxed about all the swinging around. Going down is a more gentle affair. Once the process is complete, the gates open and off you go.

Some smaller locks are uncomfortable when the water
rushes in
Lock on the Canal de Saint Quentin operated by remote control

It all worked very well most of the time and we really liked these locks. I say most of the time, because on a couple of occasions, the remote didn't work and we had to wait while a waterways volunteer came and figured out what was wrong. We weren't in a hurry, though, so it didn't really matter. The lack of pressure was very nice when we were in control, and when we weren't, there was no pressure from anyone else, so we had time anyway.

A do-it-yourself remote controlled lock on the Canal de Saint Quentin

So there you have it. A summary of locks I have known. Now I bet that was totally fascinating, wasn't it?


  1. Thanks, Val! As always...fascinating! You will long be fit and strong with climbing slithery, slimy ladders to get your ropes fastened. What a marvelous assortment of locks! And the pictures are great. I'm going to go to bed picturing all these tonight and dreaming that I'm floating away on your Watery Ways.

    1. It sounds more like the subject of nightmares, Steph, so I hope you slept well!

  2. I think that caution is the byword when negotiating locks and the users need to have their wits about them at all times. I recall that my mother had two pet hates of canals one was the tunnels and the other was the deep locks with their dark slimy walls. Thank you for reminding me Val.

    1. I would agree about the tunnels, Mel. I avoid those too! Locks are, however, part of the long as there aren't too many of them!

  3. I have memories of being in the locks in the yacht and being dwarfed by the barges, I also remember the slimed walls and Pete getting exasperated when I missed the bollard😉 I like that you gave turned them into an adventure xxxx

    1. Fran, it became my personal challenge to conquer the bollards this trip. I was so proud when I eventually managed not to miss the bollards and even more when I could flip the ropes off the bollards on top of the walls when we'd gone down so far I couldn't see them anymore. That was a major triumph! Little things, hey? Niw I read your comment I'm glad I'm not the only one who misses things 😄

  4. One day, Val, you must do the Caen locks at Devizes!

    1. You are right, Jo. I must! There are rather a lot of those, aren't there? :)

    2. One or two ...

    3. I'll start going to gymf, I think. This will need preparation and training...

  5. I love locks - when we lived in Birmingham we had some very impressive flights of locks on the canals nearby - e.g Tardebigge with 30 locks. It was a good occupation to see the boat people toiling away struggling with lock after lcok. Occasionally our kids would help with the gates, but I regret we had most amusement from inexperienced people messing up!

  6. I've seen so many locks and registered how different they are, but not really noticed the differences. But then I haven't spent as much time going through them as you have! I am sure that after a year or so on boats I would be noticing every detail....


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