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  • Writer's pictureBruce Tate

Locking Through

Our first day's run took us further down the Tennessee River than we'd ever been before. The Crimson streaks of the sunrise lit our way for the first twenty minutes, painting an impossibly beautiful winter vignette. This morning, there were smiles, laughs, and even a few tears as the reality of life away from our home and friends sunk in.

Along the way, we'd chase noisy blue herons off of their roost as they sailed angrily away, often upstream to be displaced a few scant minutes later. We opened up the Volvo diesel and ran fast for a bit. Through the high water, even fully laden, our tiny trawler reached 19mph for small periods of time, making it possible for us to complete our day's run of 86 miles plus a lock in ten short hours of daylight.

A couple of hours passed and we locked through Nickajack. The lock was set in our favor meaning the chamber was full so we sailed right in with very little wait, a welcome happenstance on this day with brisk winds and fast current.

I should take a few minutes to describe these locks. The chambers are not all the same, but Nickajack is big enough to accept rafts of 12 barges. Recreational craft call ahead on a radio or phone and request permission to lock through. A traffic light on the top of the chamber signals red, yellow, or green depending on whether vessels should not advance, proceed with caution, or safely enter the chamber.

Once in the lock, vessels tie off to huge yellow floating drums called bollards and signal to the lock master once their boat is secure. Once all boats are in the lock, the lock master closes the doors. With creaks and groans, the massive doors slowly shut, assisted by the current of the river. Once closed, a siren downstream warns any traffic that the lock will release water. Then, valves open, and unseen pipes at the bottom of the lock drain water from the bottom of the chamber to the lake below.

Because the doors don't perfectly close, there is leakage. The boiling, hissing water is an ominous reminder that thousands of gallons of water are moving from one pool to another in a short time. The bollards - with stickers from vessels which have passed through - groan and creek in their giant metal tracks, smoothed by wheels. The smells of river water life, obviously alive but decidedly fresh, fill the chamber.

As the boat falls 30 to 80 feet over 20 minutes, passengers on either end of the boat use boat hooks to keep the boat in position, making sure neither bow or stern hits the wall as strong currents flow through the lock from upstream to down.

Eventually, the river level starts to stabilize and the bollard comes to a stop. The gates start to open, the downstream portals opening to another world to explore. Engines start, with tethered vehicles stretching at their tethers awaiting the signal like a playful dog on a leash. The lock master blows a horn and boats exit, usually in the order that they enter the lock. Vessels radio the lock to announce that they've cleared the giant doors.

To those who appreciate the role American rivers have played in this country's development, the experience seems impossibly grand, but there's a darker side too. This week, a boat sank in the Coffeeville lock. No one knows exactly why. We overheard a radio conversation from a lock master scolding a crew, telling a story about a young man who had fallen in the water earlier but was fished out. Then, he told another story about a man who slipped in icy conditions a scant two weeks ago and was crushed to death between a barge and the lock wall.

For all of their danger, I love locks. The simplicity of letting gravity and water move boats up and down in the same chamber is one I will always cherish.

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Patricia Diviney
Jan 29, 2022

Wonderful commentary. One can almost transport themselves into a lock. Steve says that the difference between those locks and the ones we navigated on the Barrow River in Ireland is about 700 years. Where there were no pipes for discharge and Pat had to hand crank the locks open and closed by hand.

Maggie Tate
Maggie Tate
Feb 01, 2022
Replying to

700 years!! Amazing. I hope our infrastructure holds up that long!

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