Of Locks Bits and Bow Pulpits

by Howard Eskildsen

Once upon a time, when we were new to boating, we somewhat successfully attempted to lock through a dam for the first time.  We made it through to the other side, did no serious damage to ourselves or the boat, and learned some valuable lessons on how to do it right the next time.  

            We had recently moved to Kennewick, Washington, near the confluence of the Snake and Columbia River, and were enjoying our second season on the Fairy Boat, a 26 foot Bayliner.  Some members of the local yacht club, who always seemed to be sitting in the clubhouse, gave well meaning advice on the process.  They said to simply tie the bow line to the floating bitt in the lock, and we would be all set.  I learned later that I could find much better cruising advice from a member who spent more time on his boat than in the club house!   

            The local Coast Guard office clarified the signals and procedures of entering and leaving the lock.  They didn’t care how we tied up, as long as we tied to the floating mooring bitt and not to the ladder or other immobile fixtures in the lock.  After all, everyone knows how to tie to a mooring bitt, don’t they?  A call to the local lock master produced similar advice. 

            Armed with information from the local boaters, the Coast Guard, and the local lock master, I figured we were ready to go.  Fairy, the first mate, and I loaded our two daughters and my parents onto the boat, and we took off for Ice Harbor Dam, ten miles up the Snake River.  I was a little nervous, but dad assured me that it would be easy since they even let canoes through. 

            Four other boats waited with us in the staging area below the massive pillars and hoist that raised and lowered the downstream lock gate.  Finally, the giant gate rose upward with a metallic squeal, revealing the deep chamber that would lift us nearly a hundred feet vertically to the level of the water above the dam.  I began to feel like a cross between the scarecrow and the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz as we passed into the lock.

            Beyond the dripping door, the somber chamber resembled a giant trash compactor.  Visions of Star Wars heroes nearly being crushed to death in a similar appearing scene momentarily flashed in my mind.  I tried to remember how to steer, and how to work the forward and reverse gears as we approached a mooring bitt at the other end of the lock.  After several bumbling attempts, and several words of “encouragement” shouted to the first mate, I finally got the boat close enough for Fairy to wrap the bow line around the bitt.  In the process I rediscovered that the helmsman must stay at the helm until the boat is stopped! 

            Secure at last, or so I thought, I took in the surroundings.  We were the largest boat in the lock, the others being in the 16-18 foot range.  They were all tied by their bows to the buoys, so I figured we were all right.  A few scantily clad occupants of the other boats gazed our way, more amused than awed by our presence. 

            The lock gate sank back down to the water.  Then a low rumble that made the boat tremble rose from the dark depths of the lock.  Wow!  Visions of the giant trash compactor returned, and my brain turned to mush as the walls seemed to close in.  Water rushed into the lock from below and pushed the stern outward. 

            “DAAAAAAD!”  My daughter pointed frantically toward the bow pulpit.  It was wedged against the wall of the lock as the swirling waters tried to turn the boat around.  I hurried to the bow with a boat hook and pushed with all my might against the wall. 

            “Fairy, come help me!”  She had a puzzled look on her face as I tried to explain.  “The ‘bowl puppet’ is hitting the wall and scraping and…I need help, we banged up the bow ‘ploppit’!”  My wavering voice kept scrambling the syllables of “bow pulpit” until it came out completely wrong.  

            “What the heck is a bowel poppet?” she shouted back.

            I shoved even harder on the slimy lock wall and the boat hook slipped, nearly sending me into the water.  It was enough, however, to free up the bow pulpit and the boat turned into the current.  It was relatively easy from then on to keep the side of the boat off the slippery wall with the boat hook and fenders, but we had become the major attraction in this floating amusement park. 

            By the time we got to the top, my senses returned.  I remembered how to steer the boat and recalled the signals for exiting the lock.  I drove slowly, deliberately, straight out of the lock without looking at the bemused faces of the other boaters. 

            Returning home occupied my mind for the next few hours while we picnicked at Charbonneau Park a mile above the dam.  After some consideration, I abandoned the idea of hitch hiking home and giving up boating forever.  No, we had to lock through again, and I had to do better the second time.  It finally dawned on me that with a little common sense, we had the skills and the tools to do it right, if we only applied them and didn’t make the situation worse that it was.

            Back at the dam we waited in the summer sun while other boats exited from the lock.  When the green light came on, we entered with fenders in position and a long mooring line tied to the midships cleat.  Fairy had the boat hook with the other end of the line fastened to it by a single hitch and held the bitter end in her hand.  Our oldest daughter stood in the forward hatch, boat hook in hand, and my dad was in the cockpit with a big grin, ready to fend with his cane. 

            I slowly angled towards a floating bitt on the wall to starboard, put the stern drive in neutral, and the boat’s momentum closed the gap.  With a few feet to go, I turned the wheel to starboard and put the stern drive in reverse for a moment.  The boat stopped abeam of the bitt, and the stern walked slowly towards the wall.  Fairy used the boat hook to loop the line around the bitt and then I shut down the engine and tied the other end of the line to the stern cleat.  Keeping the boat off the wall was easy with boat hooks and a cane ready, and the fenders saw little use on the way down. 

            The late afternoon sun peeked under the downstream gate as we left the lock through an opening even larger then our grins.  Though my hands were still shaking, we had gained a skill and a confidence that opened the door to real cruising.  Eventually we would lock through nearly 30 times at seven different dams and travel up and down 300 miles of river that had previously been inaccessible.  Then we would discover the sea…but that’s another story.