Once you’re out on the water, you’re ready to relax and enjoy the day. Depending on where the waters take you that day, the level of responsibility is typically limited to your usual boating safety checks and regulations.

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However, if people venture in or out of the Chicago River, then the Chicago Harbor Lock is something that requires proper navigation. Every year, there are many boaters who run into challenges when passing through the Lock.

To help everyone maneuver this process, let’s go through what occurs and how to gain more knowledge around this.

What are some of the biggest challenges when entering the Lock?

Lack of knowledge. The Chicago Harbor Lock is the passageway between the Chicago River to and Lake Michigan. Passing through is around a 4ft change in water level, which can feel like an elevator. This surprises some people and can cause a little panic in not knowing what to do.

Understanding procedure and behavioral expectations. To go from Lake Michigan to the Chicago River may look like just a simple door opening, but there are operational functions that take place, which boaters may not be aware of.

Lock Masters are there to guide boaters through, but it helps to be an experienced boater and also to know what each signal means.

So, how does the Chicago Harbor Lock operate?

This is likely the only Lock on the water that has an actual stoplight! That said, the red, yellow and green lights have a different meaning other than stop, slow and go.

Light Decoding:

Red – Government boats. This light will remain red for all government boats. If there is an emergency, this light will not switch from red to allow any emergency transportation through the Lock.

Yellow – Commercial boats. Once the government boats are passed through completely, commercial boats will begin to pass through.

Green – All recreational boats. Once government and commercial boats are completely passed through, recreational boats will then be allowed to pass through.

What are the rules?

The Lock Master will typically announce each step for boaters entering in the Lock, which are:

  • Boaters aboard any recreational vessel must wear life jackets while in the locks.
  • Lines provided along the wall, which boaters will simply grab onto. It is not encouraged to use your own dock lines.
  • Do NOT tie your boat to the lines provided.
  • Hang on to the line along the wall through whole locking process.
  • After the water is done rising or falling, listen for a horn signaling that it’s safe to let go of the provided lines and drive slowly through the locks at no wake speed.

How can I learn more about this?

The biggest favor you can do is gain education. While some of this may sound simple, it takes a great deal of skill to know what goes into docking a boat in certain environments.

For instance, fenders are often forgotten about, which can result in serious boat damage. There have also been instances where boaters have let go of the line too early or fending off the lock walls with their feet while still hanging onto the line. This can cause personal injury as well as danger to other boats around you.

Take the Course! Locks and River Passage Making

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We want you to feel confident when you are passing through Locks and know the protocols that are expected of you. If you think you might need more training in this, take a look at our Locks and River Passage Making course. We’d love to help!


For more information, contact us at info@chicagoyachtworks.com