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Tips on "Locking Through"

Capt. George East

Additional notes and pictures by,
Capt. Eric Grubb

Capt. Steve Grossarth,
Commercial Towboat Captain

Picture published with permission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers


There are written guidelines in place for locking through on the Ohio River, and these can be found in the "General Notes" section of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers River Charts. Visit the "Links/Resources" tab on the menu for a link to the charts.

In addition to adhering to the rules and regulations set forth by the Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard when locking through on the Western Rivers System, the following tips will make your passage less eventful.

  1. Contact the Lockmaster on channel 13. State which lock by name that you are trying to contact. Identify your vessel as a recreational vessel and by the boat name. When the lockmaster responds give them your position as to how far you are from the dam ( usually 1 or two miles) and whether you are upbound or downbound. If you can state the river mile that you are it will fix your postion and your direction exactly.
  2. The lockmaster will tell you which lock chamber to use by refering to the land side or the river side and will give you info as to how long your wait will be. All commercial vessels have right away over recreational vessels. If he says that he has to " turn the lock around", that means that the lock is set to accept vessels traveling the opposite direction than yours and the chamber has to be emptied or filled to accomodate you.
  3. Make sure that your mooring line and fenders are ready and your deck crew has their life jackets on.
  4. When you received a green light enter the chamber as slow as you possibly can ( kick big boats in and out of gear to keep your speed slow) because even the smallest wake will make your procedure difficult and will bounce the other vessels that have preceded you. One prolonged blast is the whistle signal as an alternative to the light or radio communications (two for the riverward lock).
  5. You should have at least three fenders preferably four for a larger boat rigged on the side of the boat. Rig a bow fender 1/2 to 2/3 back from the bow this will keep your bow off the lock wall both on your approach and your departure to tie to the bollard.
  6. Rig one line only with a loop on the cleat on your boat closest to midship. Take that line around the bollard and back to the cleat making fast with a wrap tie keeping the bitter end in a crew members hand so it can be rapidly untied in the evnt that the bollard hangs up when the lock fills or empties. If the crew member has to tie the line to the boat cleat be sure to have a large sharp knife ready to cut the line if the bollard hangs. This does happen! IMPORTANT NOTE: Tie to the bollard as close to the end of the lock that you can. This is because the gates are near the middle, and the water is less turbulent at the ends.
  7. When the lockmaster sounds one short blast on the horn that is the signal that it is safe to leave the lock (two short blasts for riverward chamber). If possible it is better to back away from the wall because it is very easy to hit the wall with the stern or swim platform when trying to pull away.
  8. Leave the lock very slowly and keep that speed until you are well clear of lock walls both inside and outside of the lock.
  9. Be courteous to the lockmaster because they are professional and have your safety uppermost on their mind.

Sample Radio Communication:

YOU: Markland Lock, Markland Lock, this is the pleasure vessel Mom’s Mink.

LOCKMASTER: Markland Lock back to the boat calling.

YOU: This is the 52 foot Pleasure Vessel Mom’s Mink and we are at Ohio River Mile Marker 5-3-3 about 2 miles from the lock; we are up bound and would like to lock through.

LOCKMASTER: Mom’s Mink approach the land side chamber and enter when you have a green light.

The above is a perfect world scenario. The Lockmaster may tell you that he is locking another boat down and to stay well clear of the lock and it's approach walls. Also, he may inform you of another commercial boat in front of you and that he has to lock that one up and turn the lock around to accomodate you. Whatever they say, just acknowledge and comply. Please do not complain, as this is their world and recreational vessels have a lower priority than government and commercial vessels.

You can lock through with a commercial boat, provided that it is not carrying hazardous cargo, if the captain of the commercial boat agrees. Again, if they decline, just acknowledge and comply. If the commercial vessel is carrying hazardous cargo, they should be displaying a red flag.

Capt George East
USCG Master 100 GRT

Commentary by Capt. Steve Grossarth, Commercial Towboat Captain:

The "red flag" mentioned as being displayed on the towing vessel is in real life a small (approx. 1' x 2') metal flag that is in place on the actual barge containing the hazardous cargo.

For the travelers heading North, here is some info on the Pittsburgh Locks: At Montgomery Lock (M 32), Dashields Lock (M13) and Emsworth Lock (M6) the small chamber is on the river side. There are no floating mooring bits in these chambers. Also the small chambers are 360' x 56', not the 600' x 110' as at most other locks on the Ohio.

Lastly, Capt. Eric adds:

Here is link to a .pdf file from the USACE Louisville District that has some useful information for locking on the Ohio River contained in an easy-to-read pamphlet: link (755 K). I would suggest printing out a copy and sticking it with your river charts on the bridge, even for locks down here.

If you're heading north, here is the Locking Through guide from the Pittsburgh District: link (228K).

In the case of the northernmost locks that Capt. Steve mentioned, be prepared with at least 100' of line so that the lockmaster can pass down a hook, take the line, and secure it around one or two pins at the top. In this case, attach one line to the bow cleat and keep the other around a cleat at the stern.

Below are pictures taken by Capt. Eric while Locking through Markland in June, 2010:

Above, approaching the landward lock, also known as the small chamber.

Below, instructions at the lock entrance. Note that you can use the pull-chain and listen for their signals, call them on VHF ch. 13, or call them on your cell phone. We experienced a combination of radio communications and whistle blasts while going through Markland this day.

Above, a floating pin to which you attach. In this case, the upper-most attach point was better suited to our vessel due to the deckhand's and cleat's height above the water.

As the doors closed, the lockmaster confirmed that we were secured. Next, the water level started rising.

Above, a floating pin hanging on the wall. If you were attached to this one, the weight of your boat should help move it, but be prepared to disconnect just in case (per notes above).

Note that as you approach and go past Pittsburgh, you won't find floating pins (see above).

Above, water is at the upper level and the doors have opened. When fully openned, we received one short blast, indicating that is was safe to exit the landward lock chamber.


Thanks again to the folks at Markland for their help locking through. It's paid by our tax dollars, but we still appreciate their help.





Capt. George East

George East has been boating since he was seventeen, has had other interests including flying (FAA licensed pilot) car racing, and snow skiing, but he has always remained an ardent boater. After earning a USCG captain's license some 25 years ago, George spent time as a delivery and demonstration captain for one of the major motoryacht manufacturers.

During this same period, while he was building a successful construction and ready mix concrete company, George still found time to own and operate several boats including two Chris-Crafts, a Gulfstar, and two Hatterases.

Fast forward to the present to find George retired from his businesses, devoting all of his energy to boats and the boating industry. George currently holds a 100 Ton USCG Master's license. His specialties are classic Chris-Craft and Hatteras yachts. George instructed with the U.S. Power Squadron for 15 years, and is now a broker with Paradigm Yacht Sales in Louisville, Kentucky and Cape Coral, Florida.


Eric Grubb
Founder, Port KY
Licensed Master

Eric grew up around boats, trading summers on board his parents' Sea Rays for many man-hours of swabbing the decks. He grew up by the little town of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, overlooking the the Dashields Locks and Dam. He has traveled the Great Lakes, Lake Huron's North Channel, Gulf of Mexico and several rivers to include the Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela, Kanawha, Mohawk (Erie Canal), Tennessee, Tombigbee, Black Warrior and Mobile Rivers.

As a commercial pilot, Eric flies jets and is a flight instructor. He has owned recreational boats ranging from PWCs to most recently, a flybridge convertible that he keeps in a Louisville marina (MM 590). You can also find him with his family on the "Escape Pod," an 18' fishing boat. His most memorable journey was aboard the J. S. Lewis, a 155' towboat in service since 1931.

Eric is a USCG Licensed Master with a Commerical Tow Assistance rating, and is a member of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Riverman and the Louisville Sail and Power Squadron. After moving to Louisville, he conceived the idea for Louisville's Port KY website while searching for information to help him become a safer and more knowledgable local boater. He has worked hard over the years to educate other boaters by promoting safety classes through Port KY and by hosting captain's classes and related events.






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