In his seven years as a lockmaster, Tim Tabery has seen boaters make many serious mistakes in the dangerous waters around a dam.
"There is a hydraulic effect on the downstream side of the dam," Tabery said. "Some people don't realize this, and that is why we have fatalities. The water spins and spins and spins, and you are not going to get out of it."
The turbulent water below the dam as well as a strong-flowing area above the dam are called "restricted areas" according to Tabery, a resident of Hastings. Those areas are marked with buoys featuring an orange diamond on them.
"This buoy with an orange diamond means it is a restricted area," Tabery said. "People go in that restricted area all the time."
Tabery and the operators at U.S. Lock & Dam No. 3 near Red Wing have a megaphone they use to warn boaters who are entering a restricted area. He said boaters usually respond to the warnings but not always.
Since it may take as much as two hours to pass a barge through the lock, he recently saw a pleasure craft try to cut in front of the towboat.
"The towboats are like a train," he said. "You aren't going to slow them down when they are coming in with 19,000 tons of commodities."
The boater decided not to cut in front of the towboat, but headed into the restricted area. Tabery used the megaphone and warned the boat. "He put it in reverse, and it looked like he was going to flood the boat, instead of turning the boat around and going upstream," Tabery said.
The restricted area above the dam may also have an undercurrent called an outdraft, Tabery explained. The water comes around the bend of the river and heads toward the dam creating a flow that pulls at the boats and barges lining up to enter the lock.
When the water is high and the gates are open, he has also seen boats that don't want to wait for lockage head straight through the dam gates.
"The operators flip their stomachs when they see that," Tabery said.
It is both dangerous and illegal to travel through the dam.
"It's a $300 fine in Wisconsin and $185 on the Minnesota side, depending on who handles it," he noted. "You are looking for an operator to call Goodhue Water Patrol, and we are going to give them your number, because we have seen horrific stuff on this river."
Sergeant Scott Powers of the Goodhue County Sheriff's Office said, "When boating near dams, you want to make sure that you are 150 feet away from the roller gate area downriver. This is normally marked, but we still find boats fishing too close. On the upriver side, boaters need to stay 600 feet away from the roller gates. The areas above and below have dangerous currents."
Powers also said boaters need to pay attention to safety regulations regarding flotation devices.
"When we do a boat stop for a violation and then proceed with a safety check, we will find some boaters that have their PFDs stowed away or in locked compartments or in bags in the boat and not readily accessible."
He explained that a boat 16 feet or longer must have a wearable life jacket for each person, as well as a Type IV throwable flotation device.
"We find that the Type IV throwable is not always immediately available which means it must be easily reached and out in the open and not in a container or compartment," Powers said.
He explained that this summer has been a busy one for the sheriff's office and the search-and-rescue teams who have been called to the Mississippi River, the Vermillion River, the Cannon River, Lake Pepin and Lake Byllesby.
"We have been called out for 10 search-and-rescue operations with 290 hours put into the operations," Powers said. "This summer we have responded to three drownings and multiple other water emergencies."
Tabery said boaters wanting to use the lock often call on the phone to ask about availability. "Please don't call on the phone," he said. "Use Channel 14 on the radio, or use a signal cord."
Lock operators are often away from the office and out working along the lock. They may not hear the phone ring, but they carry handheld radios with them and can respond on Channel 14, he explained.
About 300 yards above and below each lock is a large sign that says "Pull Signal Cord for Lockage." Boaters should pull the cord and wait along the guide wall until an operator gives them permission to enter the lock, Tabery said.
"If I can preach anything today, it is stay away from the restricted areas," Tabery said.