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How To Kayak Through Locks

How To Kayak Through Locks

One of the best things about kayaking is being able to get out and explore areas that you might not usually get to see or experience. This can be a wonderful chance to see new things, but knowing how to successfully traverse certain bodies of water and the various signs and navigational systems can be confusing.

For many inland kayakers, at some point on their adventures, they will come across a lock. The first time you do, it can be a daunting moment as you try to work out how to successfully travel up, or down, the river or canal.

What is a lock?

Locks have been used for thousands of years around the world and are designed to help boats travel uphill or downhill, which was a common problem in many rivers and boats. Nearly every river will have a rough white water section or area of shallow depth somewhere, meaning continuing through is impossible. For early hunters, it meant that they had to drag their canoe or kayak out of the water and carry it along to the next section, a time-consuming and energy-sapping process.

As boats got bigger and transport along the waterways became crucial, engineers began building canals and alternative solutions to bypass these areas. To overcome the difference in height, multiple locks were built, and essentially a lock is a series of giant chambers, with a damn at the top preventing water from flowing too fast.

How do locks work?

Locks are like an elevator for boats. When a boat enters the first chamber, if they are moving downhill, that chamber will slowly empty of water so that the water line is level with the chamber below, allowing it to progress on and repeating the process until the boat is back in line with the rest of the river.

To move a vessel upwards, the process is reversed. A boat will enter the lowest chamber, which will then slowly fill up with water, so it is in line with the one above, allowing the boat to progress forward through the next chamber until it has reached the desired height.

How to kayak through a lock

Most rivers and canals with locks will allow kayakers and other small vessels through them; however, it is always best to check before entering. When entering a lock, paddle your way directly towards the opening section and avoid the spillway sections as the currents can be incredibly strong here, and you could be pulled under the gate.

To let the lock operators know that you want to go through, there is often a signal area near the top or bottom channel, with either a marine radio, bell, or other forms of contact. The lock operator will then inform you of the current status and what you need to do.

When given the go-ahead to progress, paddle into the opening chamber, ensuring you pass the walls and avoiding any other vessels.

Signals to look out for

There are many different signals used by lock operators, but there are typically five main ones you should know:

Flashing red light

This means that you should not enter the lock and should stand clear

Flashing green light

This is your signal to enter the lock

One long air horn blast

Accompanies the green light to signal you to enter the lock

One short air horn blast

This is your signal to exit the lock as required

Multiple short air horn blasts

This is a warning signal and indicates there is a danger

Tips to remember

There are a number of tips to remember when going through locks. It is recommended that kayakers keep a long mooring line with them, so they are able to safely tie their kayak if required. As each chamber empties or fills, the water can get quite turbulent, so it is important you focus on your balance and ensure you are able to stay level.

The process of locking is not fast, so be prepared to wait for a few hours on occasions. Commercial boats and larger vessels will be given priority too, so on busy waterways, you might find that much of your day is spent waiting to enter the lock system.

Kayak On!


I was first introduced to kayaking as a teenager when I joined a competitive canoe club. It was instant love. But when I went off to school and then got a job, adult responsibilities got in the way. Now approaching retirement, I've rekindled my kayak romance. My husband and I love to throw the kayaks on the trailer and head out on adventures. Maybe you'll join us?!

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