Training to pilot your canal boat

After a half hour of practicing lock basics, the boats headed back to the port to make final preparations for their departures.
Story and photos by Derek Doeffinger

Pedaling out to lock 29 in Macedon last Friday afternoon, I arrived to find a traffic jam. At the lock a flotilla of canal boats (five) was waiting to enter. I thought it was a grand family reunion but a few questions later I found out that all the boats were being piloted by tourists. They were training on how to operate a canal boat.

At the moment of my arrival they were learning how to enter and depart a lock. That includes radioing the lock ahead of time, waiting for the go ahead from the lock and then maneuvering the boat into the lock and next to a wall so a deckhand (typically a spouse) can hold onto a lock rope to keep the boat in place as the water is lowered or raised.

The panel on top of this pedestal (called the home stand) contains the controls for powering and maneuvering the boat.

Coming from the Macedon port a mile to the west meant they all entered  a lock full of water and had to wait for it to drain. Then, one by one, the pilots used bow thrusters to edge away from the wall before powering out of the lock. They all passed under the adjacent highway bridge and then did a U-turn and lined up to come back into the lock. Once back in the lock they repeated what they learned but this time waited for the water to refill the lock. While the water slowly rose in the lock I walked around its perimeter and noticed that all the pilots were men, presumably husbands. Being a bit of a wise guy, I couldn’t help asking two of the wives relegated to holding the ropes to secure their boats against the wall why they weren’t the pilots. Both laughed. One jokingly said, “He’s a control freak.” The other smiled and said, “I’m glad he is; I hate driving.”

All the boats soon left the lock and headed west back to the port of Macedon, before heading out onto the canal for a glorious weekend of blue sky. I only hope they were all well trained in using their propane heaters.

While the lock drained I walked around it and caught brothers Robert and Jashua (correctly spelled) hauling in a big (soon to be released) cat fish.

To read more about fall canal activities go to the current issue of Life in the Finger Lakes magazine and  read the article “Color lovers head to the canal.” For info on renting canal boats, go to

Derek Doeffinger spent a few decades at Kodak explaining how people can take better pictures and then encouraging them to use Kodak products — especially digital cameras. That last part didn’t quite work out. Fortunately during his Kodak days he became an obsessed outdoor photographer, especially of Finger Lakes waterfalls. He’s written several photos books about the Finger Lakes and digital photography, and now has written quite a few articles for Life in the Finger Lakes.

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