In July, my husband, John, and I and our son, Jack, sailed across the English Channel, and motored through 176 locks, taking seven weeks to travel from Le Havre in northern France, to St. Louis, on the Mediterranean, on our Moody 38. Below are some notes for a successful canal cruise.
Bicycles. Useful for riding to the bakery or just exploring the countryside: The steep hills of Champagne and the Rhone afford spectacular views.
Binoculars. Binoculars help when approaching locks and reading the "traffic lights".
Depth. Although 6 feet is the controlling depth, the canal depths may vary because of local water shortages or silting. Boats drawing 6 feet carry a board on the bow warning upcoming traffic that they can’t hug the banks.
Fenders. Sixteen fenders were not enough. Most boats use a plank with fenders on both sides. At the end in Port St Louis we sold eight fenders to northbound boaters.
French holidays. France is mostly closed in August, shops and restaurants along the route will be on vacance.
Guides. NAVICARTE These 20-euro guide books are essential providing charts, pilotage and tourist information. The UK's Cruising Association handbook, Cruising the Inland Waterways of France and Belgium gave excellent, recent sailor friendly advice. firstname.lastname@example.org. A French road map is an informative extra to tourist guides.
License. The skipper's (International Certificate of Competence) must be endorsed with the CEVNI (Code of Voies de Navigation Interieure) license by passing a multiple-choice test. Also, a cruising permit, the VNF (Voies Navigables de France) must be obtained. (www.vnf.fr). In July '05 we bought a four month licence for 300 euros in the VNF office near Rouen marina, between Le Harve and Paris. Daily and monthly permits are available.
Locks (Ecluse). There is a simple traffic light system to facilitate movement in and out of the locks. There are different mechanisms for operating the automatic locks e.g. a twisting pole, radar. Once into the lock and ready, there is a "red and blue" box activated by the boater, and the sluice gates open. If there is a lock keeper it is customary but not obligatory to help them.
Mast. Most boats carry their masts on A-frames on the bow and stern. Ours was 52 feet and would have overhung by six feet on each end. It was removed in Le Harve, and, trucked to the south coast Port St. Louis where it was re-masted.
Marinas, anchoring, and mooring. We found marinas, stops (haltes nautiques), and docks along the 842-mile lock system. The navicartes give fairly reliable information about power and water. We tied up beside a lock if we arrived after it closed; however, peniches (working barges) get priority. Boats moor along the banks using large metal pegs, but it is important to remember that the river rises at night from the leaking locks. There is no Skipper Bob guide to anchoring as in the ICW as there is very little anchoring.
River traffic. The Seine, Saône, and Rhone rivers carry ocean-going ships and huge barges, so you need to watch out for wakes created by these vessels when mooring along the bank.
Routes south. Maps of the waterways are available from the VNF. Depending on draft there are three options for motoring south: the River Marne, the Bourbonnais/Loire or the shallowest, the Bourgogne. Check, and re-check with cruisers who have just completed the route concerning water levels. It is unlikely that people in the north (Rouen or Paris) will know what the water levels are in the south. Boats have been landlocked in August when the water has run out. Despite copious research we turned back from the Loire and travelled on the deeper River Marne. From Le Harve the Marne River route to the Mediterranean takes you 843 miles through 176 locks.
Trains. Train lines follow many canals with stations and boat stops coinciding making escape or visitors easy.