Thursday, July 19, 2012

What it's like going through a lock in a sea kayak on the Rideau Canal

Holding on to a drop cable inside a lock
Pretty glamorous, eh? Well, here goes. I'll be going through a lock on the Rideau Canal for my very first time, gulp! We're kayak camping for 3 days, launching from Kingston Mills and heading for the Narrows.

It's a bit intimidating looking at a big lock from a kayak. My stomach is nervous, my heart is speeding up. I don't know if I'm going to like this. But once I'm in the lock, I'm stuck and there's no going back.

The water boils a bit and gets a little turbulent before the lock door opens. Gee, that sure makes me feel better! You feel like you're going into the belly of a beast.
Paddle buddies go in first. They've done this many times before and lucky for me, explain what to do and what to expect beforehand. Having them in front of me and watching what they do is a big help. It's obvious that I'm nervous as a cat, but they chuckle when they see me pull my camera out of my life jacket pocket with my one free gloved-hand and take a few pics before the flow gets stronger and I need to put it away.
 Tips for going through a lock
  • Stay clear of the lock door and boat channel. When the lock opens, there may be motor boats coming out or going in ahead of you. Paddle in when lock staff indicate it's safe to do so.
  • Listen to any instructions from lock staff. 
  • Grab onto a drop cable (also called a "mooring cable").
  • Try to position yourself further back in the lock as the current and turbulence is stronger in the front as the lock fills (depending on the direction you are going on the canal, the lock may be filling or emptying. I haven't been in a lock that is emptying . . . yet.)
  • Keep the nose of the kayak from drifting too far away from the wall.
  • Watch the nose (bow) and tail (stern) of the kayak to make sure it doesn't get caught in between the wall and the drop cable as you bounce around in the flow.
And the most important thing?

RELAX! Unless you're in the front and have to manage more than your fair share of turbulence. Then you'll really have to hang on.

Lock staff watch and monitor the progress of the lock filling and how you're doing in there. They can slow down the flow and fill (or empty) the lock more slowly if you're having trouble. Usually it's the kayak closer to the front of the lock who gets the bumpiest ride. But even further back in the lock, you can get a little pushed around at times.

Paddlers with whitewater experience don't seem to mind it as much! But I prefer the softer, safer, easier ride in the back - thanks!

The flow usually starts slow and easy, mid-flow seems to be the most turbulent, then slows as the lock is almost full.

Being inside the lock can be a social experience too. Sometimes we chat with each other, lock staff, and other boaters. Enjoy!

When it's all over, the lock opens and you're free!
What a great feeling - to get out of there!

How to stay cool in a lock

In the heat and summer sun you can really cook inside a lock or a series of locks and get overheated and sunburned. Be prepared before you enter the lock.

Positioning: There is a shady and sunny side in a lock. If you can, position yourself on the shady side.

Gloves: I wear light neo gloves. They stay wet, keeping my hands cool and protect my knuckles from getting banged around on the cement wall of the lock as I hang on. Gloves also protect your hands from sunburn!

Hat: I wear my lightweight, white, OR UPF 30 Lawrence of Arabia style hat! It has a good size beak in the front and the light flowing fabric sides protect the side of my face and neck in the front and back from the sun.

Clothing: I wear a lightweight, white long-sleeve rash guard top. I rinse it in water before paddling and put it on wet. It keeps me cool and fresh for two hours - then dries. I can re-wet the arms if they dry. It keeps me cool all day and keeps the sun off. I don't need sunscreen and I don't sweat. Sweating cools you but you also dehydrate faster. Sunscreen can block skin pores, feels sticky and the sun still hits and heats up your skin. You can still burn with sunscreen. I prefer to cover up with light, breathable clothing with UV protection. You can burn through some light and loosely woven knit summer clothing. So be careful.

Water and snacks: Keep a water bottle handy on the front deck of your kayak. Maybe also an energy snack. You'll be spending lots of time in and around the locks if you're locking through. Expect delays in busy summer months.

  • Spray skirt - Your legs can get really hot and sunburned in a kayak if you're not wearing a spray skirt. I attached my neo spray skirt only at the front and the back and left the sides open to let air in and keep the sun off. Lighter nylon skirts and half skirts work well too.
  • Stable kayak: It helps to be in a stable kayak you trust when trying something new. I was testing a big, plastic, mango-coloured Wilderness Systems Tsunami 165 sea kayak on this 3-day kayak camping trip on the Rideau Canal. Even though I felt pretty nervous going into all the 9 locks we went through on this trip, I always felt very secure in the Tsunami 165. It is very stable and comfortable. I was happy it was my kayak camping partner on this trip. You spend a lot of time sitting in a lock waiting for it to fill (or empty, depending on which direction you are travelling on the Rideau Canal.) Going in and out of the locks, I used the rudder to make steering easier. Inside the lock, I pulled the rudder up to prevent damage as the kayak can get a little banged up against the cement wall inside a lock with the water flow and turbulence.
This post shows just kayaks inside the lock. Further on in this story, we'll lock through another lock with five big motor boats and see what that's like! 

It was my biggest worry. I'll let you know how it went.
I'll show you the camping neighborhood at Upper Brewers lock station.

What's this all about?
See: Kayak camping the Rideau Canal and testing the Wilderness Systems Tsunami 165 sea kayak

Happy tripping!
The BaffinPaddler

More Resources:
  • Thanks to experienced paddle buddies who explained how to get through a lock, and who took the positions closer to the front so I could hang on in the gentler, rear section of the lock. Much appreciated!
  • Thanks to Ottawa Paddle Shack for letting me test the Wilderness Systems Tsunami 165 sea kayak on this trip.

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