Working a boat through a lock safely and efficiently

Working a narrowboat up and down a narrow lock, guide to safe locking. Wide locks will require different positioning techniques. Some canals and rivers may have different type of lock gear.

Taking a boat up a lock.

Is there water in the lock?
If so you must empty it before you can open the bottom gates to let the boat in. Make sure all the gates and top paddles are closed and then wind up the bottom paddles to let the water out.

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Always check that all top paddles are closed before opening the bottom paddles, otherwise water will just be wastefully running straight through the lock. When you wind up a paddle don’t leave the windlass on the paddle gear. The safety catch on the paddle gear could slip off and the windlass would spin rapidly and fly through the air. People have been badly injured by flying windlasses. When the water level has dropped enough to let the bottom gates be opened wind the paddles back down again.

Once the lock is now empty.
Open the bottom gates to let the boat in. When the boat is in close the bottom gates. Some people prefer to use the engine to enter and help keep position in locks, others rely solely on ropes. It really depends on the boat and what you feel most secure with. If you are using ropes make sure you don’t drop the rope into the lock, it may get tangled around the boat’s propeller. This could stop the engine and leave the boat out of control.


Most people consider the safest position for the boat to be is in the middle of the lock, not touching the top or bottom gates where a fender could catch and hold the boat down as the water rises. If your boat is the full length of the lock you will have to take extra care to make sure that it does not get jammed on any obstruction on the top gate. Usually there should be at least one person on the boat, checking its position and possibly using the engine to help maintain position, and at least one person operating the paddles and holding a restraining rope.

You will probably need to restrain the boat with a rope, wrapped around a convenient bollard, to make sure it is not pulled around by the rushing water. As the boat rises the rope will get slacker and must be tightened, so don’t tie knots you can’t undo, just wind it once around the bollard and take up the loose rope as the boat rises.


You can let water in now. Slowly wind up the top paddles to let water in to the lock. Open ground paddles first. The boat will rise to the upper level. Don’t use the gate paddles until the boat is above their level to prevent water gushing into the front deck. Watch the boat all the time to make sure it is not being violently thrown around by the inrushing water and that nothing is holding it down as the water level rises. If at any time there is concern about the way the lock is filling, immediately close the paddles.

When the lock is full
You will be able to open the top gates and let the boat out. Wind down the top paddles and close the top gates after the boat. Don’t let the paddles fall on their own, it can damage them, and always check that you have fully closed gates and paddles after leaving the lock.

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Taking a boat down a lock.

If the lock is not full of water
You must fill the lock before you can open the top gates to let the boat in. Make sure all the gates and the bottom paddles are closed and then wind up the top paddles to let the water in. When the water level has risen enough to let the top gates be opened wind the paddles back down again.

When you wind up a paddle don’t leave the windlass on the paddle. The safety catch on the paddle gear could slip off and the windlass would spin rapidly and fly through the air. People have been badly injured by flying windlasses.

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When the lock is full Open the top gates to let the boat in. When the boat is in close the top gates.

You will probably need to restrain the boat towards the centre of the lock with a rope wrapped around a bollard to keep it away from the gates and to make sure it is not pulled around by the rushing water. If your boat is the full length of the lock you must take extra care to avoid being caught on the bottom gate or the top sill as the water falls. As the boat falls the rope will get tighter and must be let out, so don’t tie knots you can’t undo. Wind the rope once around a bollard and hold it firmly, letting more rope out as the boat descends. Don’t drop the rope into the lock, it may get tangled around the boat’s propeller.

Now wind up the bottom paddles to let water out from the lock. The boat will fall to the lower level. Watch the boat all the time to make sure that nothing is holding it up as the water falls. If at any time there is concern about the way the lock is emptying, immediately close the paddles.

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When the lock has finished emptying
You should be able to open the bottom gates and let the boat out.

Wind down the bottom paddles and close the bottom gates after the boat. Don’t let the paddles fall on their own, it can damage them, and always check that you have fully closed gates and paddles after leaving the lock.

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