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We made it from Little Falls to Canajoharie yesterday and were able to tie up on the town’s free dock. We transited through three locks yesterday, including one with a 47′ lift, the highest in the NY Canal System and one of the highest in the world. Even though we are far from experts, once you get the drill down, going through the locks is not that difficult. We have even met a couple of people who take their (pretty large) boats through by themselves.

I thought it might be helpful to list some of the tools you should have on hand to make the process easier.

Guide Book:

For these canals, the NY State Guide Book is gold! Buy it!

Handheld VHF (or primary VHF radio)

If you have a sailboat you will need to unstep your mast to transit the canals. Doing so likely means that your VHF antenna has also been removed. Unless you have rigged a replacement for this so that your primary VHF radio is of use, you’ll want to have a handheld unit so that you can contact the Lock Masters. In the NY Canals the Lock Masters monitor channel 13.

As we near the lock Rebecca would typically hail the Lock Master saying something like this:

“Lock 13, Lock 13. This is the catamaran approaching from the west. Requesting eastbound transit.”

Sometimes they answer right away. Other times it takes a while.


You’re going to want to have plenty of fenders. We have only been tying up on our starboard side and thus have none to port. If we had more fenders, it would actually be nice to have some on that side, just in case we were forced to go to the opposite wall, or in case some other boater came too close to us.

Fender (Batter) boards:

To protect the fenders from the sometimes rough and always slimy lock walls, many people use fender boards. The boards are rigged to hang in between the fenders and the lock wall, protecting them from abrasion as the boat moves up and down. We were given a couple of very nice fender boards just before we left to come down here and they have worked perfectly. If you look in the photos below you’ll see that they were constructed by drilling a hole down through the board as opposed to side to side. I think this is best as it eliminates the possibility of the line chafing as it rubs on the stone walls. One point to be aware of with respect to the boards… on a few of the locks there as some large pockets in the stone. Take care that your boards don’t get hung up in one of them as you move up and down.

Boat Hook(s)

The process of going through the locks works like this: Once the doors open and you receive a green light (Note: sometimes the lights weren’t functioning), you will motor slowly in, taking a place along one of the walls. In many (all?) of the locks there are ropes hanging down which are attached at the top. In others there are cables running vertically, attached both at the top and the bottom. Sometimes there are also vertical poles. Regardless, as you come to a stop you’ll need to grab onto one of these things. A boat hook, or two, makes this job easier.


Some heavy duty leather work or garden gloves will be nice to have to protect your hands from the wet, slimy ropes.


If you have access to one of the cables or poles running vertically in the lock, a good way to hold your boat in position is to loop a length of line around it, sliding it up or down as the boat moves. This method of hanging on gives you much more leverage and control. Note: DO NOT SECURE THE LINE TO YOUR BOAT! Hold it in your hands.

Another note on where to hold on: In each of the locks there is also at least one ladder which runs up and down. The two people we spoke to who said that they single-hand their way through the locks said that they prefer to hold on to the ladder. This requires moving the line a few times as the boat moves vertically but they feel it gives them the best control. We have yet to try this.

Fend-off pole:

We only have one boat hook but we do have another pole we use for fending off. When the lock doors open and it’s time to leave, both Rebecca and I will give our boat a big push off the wall, making our exit from the lock easier.

One last thing:

Have your lock transit pass number memorized or written on a scrap of paper in your pocket (we kept the original in the boat). Typically on your first lock of the day the Lock Master will come around and ask you for this number. It’s pretty tough to go and get it while you are supposed to be holding onto a line. Ask me how I know this?

Two more additional thoughts:

  1. Watch out for debris in the canals. We often found quite large branches floating inside the locks. For some reason they get trapped there.
  2. I think having a knife really handy is a good idea too. Things could go from bad to worse really quickly if a line gets snagged. Having a knife on your person or nearby could make for an easy solution to such a problem.


  1. Good info and tips……where do you store the fender boards when not in use…….how long are they 6 feet…….here is what i made a few years back and they work great at a fixed pier……

    • Hi John

      Sorry I forgot to reply to this. I think our boards are about 4.5 feet long. They store perfectly in our port bow locker. The ones you made up look pretty cool too!

  2. Hi guys, glad to see you are making good headway on your way south. I’m not sure if you want to post this type of question because it is financial but on average how much would you spend on diesel each day while motoring? Just food for thought in case I ever try such a crazy thing like buy a sailboat and sail away!!

  3. You should write a tip book…. How about writing that pass number under the brim of Rebeccas’ cap or on the cuff of the glove?

  4. Excellent post today Mike!! You will have enough infofrom your blog to write a book. It would be a perfect how to book. The pictures show it all.

    • Thanks Terry. I already came up for a concept for a “fiction” book about a monster that lives in the locks. I’ll tell you about it later. It’s scary!!!

  5. You could always write the number on the mast! Gloves and caps can get lost, but that mast isn’t going ANYWHERE! Great blog and pics, guys. Very helpful. I had thought of the gloves, but not of the push pole. You are making remarkable fast progress! I had thought it would take a great deal longer to get through the canals. Is anyone singing “Oh, the Ei ri ee is Arising” or I got a Mule” whilst you go through? 🙂

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    […] Links Blogger Challenge.” They range from informative (“The anchor drill,” “Tools for lock transiting“) to inquisitive (“To beg or not to beg“), to heartfelt […]

  7. Another tip, one that I teach in my ‘Sailing South – First Timers’ Guide to the ICW’ seminars, is to take off fender covers, as they pick up dirt and grip. Not only will that damage the gelcoat, but ultimately, the covers will be nothing but shredded rags at the end of your canal transit.

    • Good thinking, Wally. We don’t have covers on our fenders but if we had and they were left on, they would have been trashed.

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