First time through the locks

The discussion began innocently enough. It had to do with how much fuel we might require on the way up and back from the Seattle area to Glacier Bay, Alaska, on Eliana, our Nordhavn 76. My wife Debbie and I planned to make Glacier Bay the northernmost point of our summer cruise. We could purchase fuel along the way, but we have heard the prices can be high.

A tank check using pre-calibrated fluid pressure on each tank indicated we had 1,935 gallons on board. Based on past fuel consumption records, and with 15 percent reserve, that’s enough for about 1,480 miles. Enough maybe, but we keep Eliana pretty busy and the fuel doesn’t get stale, so we decided to purchase some peace of mind — this made extra sense if we could find a good price somewhere around Seattle. There were enough other things to think about for this trip so the decision was made to add 2,000 gallons.

We don’t purchase fuel often, so when we do it’s usually for enough quantity to be diligent on the price. Puget Sound is a good place to shop. There are several excellent, high-volume docks in the area, but the best price I could find was at Covich Williams, a dealer of fuel and lubricants to the commercial fishing fleet. One reason may be because they are located in Seattle’s Ship Canal beyond the Chittenden Locks. This would require taking Eliana through the locks, both in and then back out. Was it worth a few extra cents per gallon? Herein lies the story.

Now the fuel discussion has evolved to be completely about locks. As Debbie often says, our learning seems to come in layers. Each new experience weaves in with already acquired skills creating yet another layer of capability. For one thing, we plan to transit the Panama Canal next year. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to get some lab time in a real life setting beforehand?!

Still, we decided our first time through would go better if we had someone along that knew the system. Don Kohlmann at Nordhavn’s Northwest office in Seattle graciously offered to help. That’s like hitting the jackpot. Balancing our relative inexperience is Don’s immense competence coupled with a quiet, confident manner that puts one at ease. Needless to say we were extremely grateful for his presence.

Seattle’s Ship Canal is a busy place. It’s a deep, fresh water channel serving Lake Union and Lake Washington. But it’s also home to dozens of shipyards and businesses that serve the maritime industry throughout the Pacific Northwest to British Columbia and Alaska. Some of the best talent in the business is right here — a very impressive lineup of marine knowledge.

To get into the canal, you must pass from sea to canal level through one of two locks. Completed in 1917, the Chittenden Locks are locally referred to simply as “Ballard Locks” after the community bordering on the north. Designed similarly and second in size to the Panama Canal, the locks maintain the canal water level at approximately 20 to 22 feet above sea level and also serve to separate salt water from fresh water. Salmon migrate via a fish ladder feature built into the dam. All of this is interesting enough that the Ballard Locks are one of Seattle’s top tourist attractions, attracting more than one million visitors a year. The Army Corps of Engineers have incorporated a park-like atmosphere into the complex, including a botanical garden and an aquarium area to view the salmon as they swim up the ladder.

There are two locks, one small and one large. The small one utilizes floating bulkheads and is faster. The large one can transit large vessels, or many smaller boats simultaneously, but is slower and requires careful line handling during the transition. Our hope was that we could take one on the way in and the other on the way out. Fortunately, our wish came true and we got to do both. Don was kind enough to take some pictures for us since we were too busy to pick up a camera.

Entering from Salmon Bay, we were looking beyond a railway bridge to a small set of signal lights. We hovered downstream of the bridge until we finally got the green light.

Once past the railway bridge, we got a clear view of the open lock. The small one had ample room for Eliana. To the right was the river overflow and fish ladder. With so much water coming over, there was a considerable current passing our starboard hand as we entered the lock. As we approached our lift position, Debbie already had fenders set and readied her line to place on the bulkhead bollard. Lock personnel were up top ready to help. I moved outside to get a better view of our port side fenders. After coming to a complete stop and once securely tied, the only job for me was to keep the fenders slightly off the bulkhead using the thrusters. Debbie secured the stern breast line while Don took care of the bow. The gates closed behind us and the lock filled.

Once we were in the canal, we saw Wizard, a fishing vessel seen on the TV show Deadliest Catch.

On the way back out after filling up with fuel, we were assigned number two in line going into the big lock behind the vessel North American. We were tied to the wall, then had a workboat rafted on our port rail. A flock of other boats came in behind.

Tie up on the big lock was different. The bollards are fixed on top. Therefore, we have to gradually let out line fore and aft as the boat is lowered to avoid getting hung up. That means the big lock is definitely a three-person job. The wall position is interesting due to the park-like atmosphere. Onlookers are only a few feet away. It was an odd feeling to have our work day being observed and photographed! We made it back down and then out with no mishaps!

The locks are an engineering marvel and a festival of onlookers. We were treated professionally by the lock personnel and amazed at how routinely the traffic moves through the locks. At least we now have a concept of the process and I’m certain we’ll be able to do locks whenever we need to. There is a first time for everything.

Rick Heiniger is an engineer from Kansas who started Hemisphere GPS (, a company that developed GPS products for precision agriculture. Rick and Debbie live and travel aboard their Nordhavn 76, Eliana, and commute to Kansas City every six to eight weeks to visit their children and grand children.

By Ocean Navigator