kylie jack | ux advocacy and design transformation

The Ballard Locks, more formally known as the Hiram M Chittenden (-Ballard) Locks, are an experience—a very slow, and frustrating experience. At least for us, after having gone through them countless times. Today was worth the effort.

During Pride month this year, we took a weekend trip to Poulsbo. Since we're moored in Lake Union, we had to traverse the locks on the way out to Puget Sound, and on the way back.

Our basic route to Poulsbo, about 17nm (nautical miles). We generally estimate our travel at an average speed of 6kts, so this would be a 3-1/2 our trip... except you can't estimate the wait times for bridges and locks, so until we're past Shilshole, we have no idea.

The locks are primarly there to serve commercial traffic. One could try to radio them on VHF channel 13, but we have literally heard them reply "If you are not a commercial vessel, we will not talk to you." Recreational traffic being able to use them is a bonus.

Entering the large locks from the Sound.

There are also two locks: a small one and a large one. The small one can handle one (1) large cruise vessel (think dinner cruise size ship), or a few small sailboats, a couple of power boats, and a some kayaks. The large lock can handle barges, large cruise ships, and a whole messload of recreational traffic. But because commercial traffic is prioritized, and typically only one lock operates at a time, you can wait anywhere from right now hurry up to two or three hours. During this time you have to keep your boat steady in one place amidst a bunch of other pleasure cruisers doing the same thing. Large boats have thrusters that make this easy. Our sailboat, not so much.

This is of course complicated for us by a 50' tall mast. When you're returing to Lake Union from Puget Sound, you must pass under a train bridge immediately before the locks. If you don't, you lose your place in line. If you do make it, you have a small, crowded space to share with other boats. The train bridge is about as a fickle as the locks: if there's a train miles away, the bridge has to stay down, and trains can take a pretty long time to pass through. So when the bridge opens, you take the opportunity and hope you can hold the boat without hitting a retaining wall, getting too close to the dam next to the locks, or moving backward and smashing the mast against the now closed bridge.

Behind us, danger lurks in the form of a very short train bridge, retaining walls, and shallow water.

As a relatively new boater, and a fairly impatient person—both for waiting in line, and for improving my own skills—this is pretty damn harrowing. And once we're in the locks, there's a whole new set of issues. We have to hold to the sides of the locks with dock lines (ropes), but we don't know which side until we're in and the dock workers tell us port or starboard. So at any point, I may have to move our stern lines to the other side, while trying to steer the boat and work the throttle without hitting the boat in front of us or the dock wall.

Alternatively, in the large locks, we may have to "raft up" against another boat, since the lock is wide enough to accommodate three or four vessels our size side-by-side. This means we also have to pay attention to how our lines are tied, not just which side they're on. And all this has to be done without damaging our boat or someone else's—an expensive mistake! The lock workers are gruff, but generally nice and helpful at the same time. Other boaters, especially the experienced ones, are pretty chill and always willing to assist newer folks like us.

It was Pride month, so we were flying our trans flag. As we were rising up to lake levels, I heard someone shout "WE LOVE YOUR FLAG!" And it was nice to know someone appreciated the representation that day. (If you don't recognize it, the flag is for Transgender Pride.)

Once we're tied up to the wall or another boat, we get to relax for 20 minutes while the remaining boats tie up and the lock fills with water. Since we're generally rafted up to other boats, we get to meet and chat with a lot of other boaters while we wait. The undocking process is just releasing the lines and motoring off, so not quite so stressful. Once we're through the locks, we still have to get the Ballard and Fremont bridges to open.

We passed some other boats—but really not quite enough—displaying their Pride.

The Ballard bridge is not the quickest bridge in town to open; they can tell when there's traffic coming from the locks and try to time it so they can get as many of us tall-masted folks through as quickly as possible to be the least disruptive of bridge traffic. Early in our sails, we were once chastised over the bridge PA: "Please move through the bridge expeditiously."

The best part of the return home is the Fremont bridge. They do not give a rat's ass about street traffic and will open multiple times in an hour for boats. So if you're stuck on route 40 or 62 waiting for the bridge, sorry 'bout that.