Navigating the Columbia and Snake River Locks, Tossing, Calling, and the Art of the Toss
10/05/2011 67 °F
Each week, I travel up and down the Columbia and Snake rivers from Portland, Oregon to Clarkston, Washington. Along the way, I pass through seven different lock and dam systems that the US Corp of Engineers has constructed for hydro electrical power. The dam is for electricity. The lock is to allow easier navigation for shipping between upper and lower parts of the river.
The Columbia used to be a wild river, full of treacherous bars, sand shoals, rocks, waterfalls, rapids, narrows, not to mention salmon (I‘m not going to get into that topic). The late 1800’s was a golden era along the Columbia with steam powered paddle-wheels navigating these attention demanding waters, carrying cargo and people upstream and back down. I have seen pictures of these stern wheelers out in the middle of a series of big rapids, and it is impressive to see such shaky looking boats handle the rapids. I would love to see this with my own eyes, but alas, those days are long gone. Nowadays, a large portion of the Columbia and Snake rivers has morphed into a series of lakes with water levels controlled by the corps.
While I long to see what this river used to be like, and curse the “progress” of man, I must admit, I enjoy the challenge of navigating through the locks.
Every deckhand running up and down the Columbia River needs to be skilled at “lock tossing.” Lock tossing, is an acquired skill that involves making a loop of heavy mooring line and throwing it cleanly over a floating bollard. This line is then whipped around the bollard another time, and made fast, thus securing the ship to the side of the lock. The water can then be pumped in, or out depending on where the ship is headed. Since the bollard floats, and is secured to the wall, the ship rises or falls along with the water level.
I first started lock tossing about a year ago, when I first joined the Seabird, and it is one of my favorite parts of this job. I like the challenge of relying on my judgment and athletic skill to get the job done. Not very many people get to do what I do, and this is another example.
The Anatomy of a Lock Toss
There are three people involved in successfully navigating a lock. The watch officer, who is driving the boat. The caller, who gives the watch officer distances to the bollard. Finally, the tosser, who is strictly focused on throwing the line around the bollard.
After setting up three fenders on the bow of the boat that protects the hull from the concrete wall of the lock, the caller and the tosser go to their prospective starting points. The caller starts out directly below the wing station which is where the watch officer will be operating the boat from. This station allows him to see the entire length of the side of the ship. This helps them maneuver when getting close to a lock, or a dock. The watch officer lets the caller which bollard they want, and navigates as close to the side of the lock as they can.
This is not easy. There are all kinds of factors involved in putting a ship right next to a lock wall: the wind/direction, the water currents, the speed of the ship, the skill of the watch officer. As you might imagine, it doesn’t always go according to plan.
Usually, the officers get us within about five feet of the wall, give or take, and it is up to the tosser to decide if they can make that distance. I like the challenge of a long toss, but I can appreciate the skill of the driver who puts us within six inches of the wall without touching it.
When the target bollard is inline with the caller, they hold out there hand and walk with it, calling distances to where the tosser is waiting. This is usually mid ship at the number three cleat. The caller calls out, “30 feet, 20, 10, 5, 3, 2, 1, and Abeam,” meaning we are dead even with the bollard. When the bollard gets close, the tosser must decide when to go for the toss, and again, that is not easy. If the ship is close to the wall, it’s easier to make that toss then when it is nine feet away.
There are different techniques used when tossing. The most popular is to hold two coils of line one in each hand with a “tongue” of line to throw over the bollard. Tossing is not about upper body strength, it is about technique, and the better throwers will have their technique down. You want your tongue to land over the bollard, which is roughly two feet wide, and two feet tall. In order to do this, you must throw the line not only outward, but spread apart to land over it. It takes practice.
I don’t use the popular method of coiling my lines. I hold two long curls of line in each hand between three fingers with the tongue hanging down. I don’t really think about the toss too much, I just let my judgment and athletic ability do its thing, and most of the time I’m successful on my first toss.
The following photos were taken by Clay Collins, and used with permission. You can follow his travels, at www.atlastrekker.com
Sequence Of The Toss
If the toss is made, the watch officer will have you “make it” meaning securing the line to the ships cleat in a series of figure eight wraps, or will have you go for the second wrap. The second wrap is applied by pulling in all your slack on the line, and making a smooth wrap around the bollard making doubly sure that the ship will be secure to the bollard, and the lock wall. After the second wrap is on, I pull in all the slack and make the line fast.
In adverse conditions such as high wind, or if we are locking with another vessel, it’s important to get the ship secured as quickly as possible. This added pressure sits pretty much on the tosser, and this is what separates the good ones from the average.
After securing the vessel, the deckhands stand by to make sure everyone stays away from the line, as there is an immense amount of pressure and strain on the line. If the line snaps, it is an extremely dangerous situation. A snapped line has been known to take peoples legs off or worse. I’ve never been around a snapped line, but I’ve moved far away from lines that have stretched.
The big doors of the lock will close, sometimes with a resounding BOOM! and the lockmaster will pump the water until we are at the right level to depart. It’s a good time to lean on the rail, and chew the fat. In the early morning, when the stars are out, and everyone is asleep, and I’m deep in the philosophy of the night, I realize that these are the moments I love about this job.