On another forum a question was posed about the protocol for passing through the locks on the Columbia River and Snake River. Rather than take that thread any further off course I decided to start a separate thread to cover that and answer any questions about the locks. Then I figured I'd post that same information on here so others could see what it's like. I hadnít planned this to be so long but Iíve tried to answer as many questions as I could.
The locks are operated and maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers. USACE Walla Walla District controls the locks on the upper Columbia River and the Snake River. USACE Portland District takes care of the locks on the lower Columbia River.
While the locks are all pretty much the same in the way they operate, there are differences between the locks, albeit minor ones. Each lock has a Lock Operator or Lock Master who controls the every facet of the operation of his lock. He determines when a boat can enter, which boat comes in first, where each boat can tie up to the floating bollards, etc.
Between Sept 15 and May 15, government and commercial vessels have priority over recreational vessels. Also, during those times boats can enter the lock at just about any time (daylight hours) and will be locked up or down. The remainder of the year the locks have set times when they will operate. Those times are 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. for upstream lockages. Downstream lockages are 30 minutes later.
The locks also differ in how boaters are treated. In the locks on the downstream end of the Columbia where they have a lot more recreational traffic and likely a lot more skippers who donít know what theyíre doing, the lockmasters assign your boat to a specific bollard. There are eight bollards in each of the locks and theyíll tell you which one to tie up to. On our locks up on this end of the Columbia and on the Snake they donít do that and allow you to pick your own bollard. It also helps that, after going through the locks many times weíve gotten to know the lockmasters by name and they know that Iím one who knows how to lock through. I think they also can determine from the way a person handles his VHF talk how knowledgeable a boater he is, and their attitude reflects that.
As you approach the lock to go through, boaters can call the lockmaster on VHF14 and request lockage. We usually call them about 30 minutes out so they know weíre coming. That way if the lock needs to be ďturned aroundĒ (i.e., the water level in the lock is at the top and it needs to be at the bottom for us to go through) it give him time to accomplish that.
We also call when we arrive at the lock. The lockmaster will give you a green light to enter when everything is ready. Thatís your signal that youíre clear to proceed into the lock. Another advantage of calling ahead is that you will generally have a green light when you arrive so you donít have to wait.
The locks on the Columbia and Snake rivers are among the largest in the country, if not the world, in terms of how high they raise/lower a boat. There are dams that are taller, but they donít have navigation locks. Each of the locks is 86í wide and around 675í long. The length varies a bit from lock to lock but the width is a constant so they can handle the barges. The lift also varies from lock to lock, with Ice Harbor lock being about the highest with an average lift of 105í. Iíve been through Ice Harbor lock during the spring runoff when the upstream water level was high and the lift was 118í.
When boaters pass through many locks in other areas of the country they either toss a line up to lock workers on the wall of the lock, or the lock workers toss down a line to the boat. In either case, they use the line to keep the boat in position and adjust the length of the line as the boat rises or falls.
Thatís not a workable system when you have a lift of 100í+ so these locks have large tin cans called bollards. The bollards float and are free to move up and down as the water level in the lock is raised or lowered. The bollard has steel wheels on opposite sides that roll up and down in tracks built into the walls. Hereís a picture of a typical bollard, this one at Ice Harbor lock.
Usually the bollard just floats there, but if thereís any wave action inside the lock, hereís what can happen.
Normally the lockmaster will keep the guillotine door open until everyone is secure. There have been times when theyíve shut it at our request prior to us tying up at a bollard. Weíve done that twice, and both times when the wind was coming through the opening beneath the door so hard it was causing a large wave action and making tying up almost impossible.
In both of those times we just held position in the middle of the lock until the door got down and the winds died. Thatís what was going on in the video I posted above.
When a boat comes up to the bollard it is secured to the large cleat on the top. Boaters have the option of securing to the cleat using a bow line and stern line, or as we do it, with a line from our mid-ship cleat to the cleat on the bollard.
As a boater approaches Ice Harbor lock from the downstream side, hereís what he sees. These pictures were taken during the spring runoff so the water is turbulent and contains a lot of silt.
The two tall towers hold the cables that lift the guillotine gate at the downstream end of the lock. When they have tugs coming through they raise the gate all the way up, creating about a 50í tall opening. The opening to the lock is the black hole right in the middle of this shot.
The day these pics were taken there was about an 8-9 kt current running down the river. Hereís a shot of a red nun buoy that is almost completely under the water because of the current. This makes navigation a bit tricky at times.
Hereís what the lock looks like as you enter. Iíve gone through this lock many times and itís still a bit overwhelming.
When the wind is blowing it swirls around inside the lock and tosses even large boats around like they were toys. This happened to me a year or so ago and we ended up getting spun around in the lock. The port stern of my boat struck against the wall and caused about $1,800 damage.
Hereís a shot looking back toward the guillotine gate as itís being lowered.
When the boater has his vessel secured to the bollard itís customary to call the lockmaster on VHF14 to let him know youíre secure. PFDís are required inside the lock for any passenger on a vessel who is outside an enclosed cabin. Once youíve notified the lockmaster that youíre secure he turns some switches that open valves beneath the floor of the lock. There are no pumps involved in raising or lowering the water level, itís all done by gravity.
If youíre going upstream, the lockmaster opens the valves and the water rises to seek the same level as the river above the lock. The water flows into the lock from the upstream side and itís just like filing a bath tub.
This water coming in can create turbulence in the lock. It also pushes against the bow or stern of boats that are tied to the bollards. If youíre not securely tied and youíre near the upstream end of the lock, the water is pushing on your stern. That tends to push your bow toward the wall of the lock, so lots of fenders between your boat and the lock are needed to prevent damage. If youíre near the downstream end of the lock the water is pushing against the bow and doesnít have the same effect, though it does try to push the boat back and, because the boat is pivoting around the bollard it can push the stern against the wall. The force isnít as great but large fenders are still needed.
Hereís a shot of the turbulence in the lock as the water is being let in.