Locking Through the Chittenden Locks

If you are a boater in the Seattle area, you will eventually experience the opportunity to transit the Hiram Chittenden Locks. This is a fairly easy process, but many face their first experience with fear and trepidation. There is no need. The process is straightforward and the lock attendants are quite helpful. You will be an expert in no time. We’ve done this many times and thought it might help others to write it all up.

Information about the Hiram Chittenden Locks can be found here. And here is the view from the air.

The locks are a popular tourist destination. On nice days, there are many people walking the grounds and watching the boats. You will have quite the audience while you are in the locks. This photo was a slow day in February.


I am told the Chittenden locks are the busiest locks in the United States. The locks operate on a first come, first served basis. It can be challenging during busy times to keep track of what order the boats are in. Keep track of the boat ahead of you and hope they have kept track of the boat ahead of them and so on. We try to go through at off times. The locks are open to vessel traffic 24/7/365.

Transiting the locks in the small lock is fairly quick. Depending on the size of the boats, it holds between one and ten boats. The cycle time is just a few minutes. The large lock is a longer process. It takes quite a bit more time to get boats in and out of the large lock. The cycle time is also longer. It can take an hour to load, cycle, and unload the large lock. Busy times increase the likelihood of using the large locks.

Both locks have a light indicating when to enter. If the light is red, stay well clear of the entrance. Tie up to the waiting area or hold your position out of the traffic areas. When the light turns green, slowly enter in the appropriate order.

The lock attendants will call for the larger boats if that is appropriate. Commercial vessels will have the right of way and may proceed ahead of boats that have been waiting. This can be frustrating.

Watch the lock attendants. They will point to which side of the lock they want you on. In the small lock they are also likely to ask your length and beam. Be prepared to provide that information promptly.

Use of the large lock requires that the larger boats enter first. The lock attendants will tie them off to the wall and instruct smaller boats to tie to the larger boats. Let the larger boats go first. There will be plenty of room for all.

Tying off in the locks requires a different process depending on whether you are in the small or large lock. The small lock has floats along both sides to tie your lines off to. The large lock does not. The lock attendants will generally tell you where to tie off your bow and stern in the small lock. Each tie off is numbered. They will say something like put your stern on number one and your bow on number 15. The large lock requires that vessels tied to the wall use special lines for this purpose. You will need at least two lines 50 feet long with a 12 inch diameter loop spliced onto one end. Fisheries Supply sells custom lines made just for this purpose.

Going out to Puget Sound, the lock attendants will take the loop of your line from you and put it on a button. Returning from the Puget Sound side requires the lock attendant to throw a line down to you so they can get the loop of your line up to them. Tie their line to the loop of yours with a sheet bend or similar simple knot.

Here is the link to complete information and proper procedures for locking through straight from the Corp of Engineers. We have done this many times. Here are our suggestions.

Wear a life jacket. This seems so obvious to me. Yet, most do not. I cannot think of a more dangerous place to fall in the water. Concrete walls and boats jockeying for position make the water in the locks a very bad place to be. People are scrambling around to tie off to the floats or other boats, moving fenders and lines around, and propellers are spinning — all while the boats are moving around in the locks. The risk of falling off your boat –especially the smaller boats — increases dramatically in these situations. A life jacket is just common sense.

Monitor Channel 13. Communications between the locks and commercial traffic on either side of the locks takes place on VHF channel 13. In an emergency, you can contact the locks on this channel.

Be prepared. I am regularly surprised by the people entering the locks with no fenders or lines ready. We have even had smaller boats instructed to tie to us who have had no lines or fenders. An awkward time for them.

Put fenders out early and on both sides of the boat. You may be instructed to tie off to either wall. In the large lock, you may be instructed to tie off to either wall or another boat.

Rig lines early and on both sides of the boat. Again, you may be instructed to tie off to the wall or another boat on either side. We have lines ready on both sides of the boat well before entering the locks. If using the large lock, be sure to have your large lock lines at the ready.

Have boat hooks ready fore and aft. Keep a boat hook at the ready at both bow and stern. You never know when one might come in handy.

Tie your lines off to your boat. Loop your lines around the cleat on the float or other boat and take the line back to your boat to tie it off. You should always have the ability to release your own lines.  This means having lines sufficiently long to be up to the task.

Be courteous. There are often numerous boats transiting the locks. These boats are all shapes and sizes. Boaters range from very experienced to ones for whom it’s their first time in the locks. Everything happens in due time. Be courteous to others and enjoy the experience.

Ask the lock attendants if you have questions or need assistance. They are there to help you make the process as painless as possible.

Have a good time. After all, you are on your boat, and that is never bad. All those people at the locks watching you are envious.

A few photos …

The fishing vessel Memories follows us back from the Puget Sound through the small lock.

RKL_4711 RKL_4715 RKL_4724


Tied to the the wall in the large lock.



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