Log #18t Summary – Voyage through France.

February 9, 2001 in Log Series 11 - 19, Logs by Series, Series 18 France, The Logs

Log #18t Summary –- Voyage through France.

Andratx, Mallorca, Balearic Islands
Feb. 9, 2001
Covers the voyage through France from Oct. 1 to Dec. 26, 2000

It took almost three months to transit the canals and rivers of France from the English Channel to the Mediterranean, when initial planning was for six to seven weeks! We enjoyed it, but would recommend starting such a journey in late August or early September for better weather and more open facilities, haltes and marinas, and to avoid some of the canal closures (chomages) for fall and winter maintenance. The Navicartes, which were in French, German, and English, were essential for navigating and quite helpful in identifying free haltes and mooring locations as well as commercial marinas (Ports de Plaisance). In addition, they contained considerable tourist and historical information on many of the shoreside localities. I can see why many boaters spend years just travelling through the canals of Europe.

In plotting our route, we had to consider the charted depths and air draughts beneath the fixed bridges. The shallowest were depths of 1.8 metres (5 feet 10 inches), and lowest air draughts 3.5 metres (11 feet 6 inches), which are the limits imposed on any boaters transiting the canals. Perhaps a six foot draught vessel could make it by scouring a furrow along some of the shallower stretches, as the bottoms were mud as opposed to rock. The air draught was liberal as we had our mast on deck at about 13 feet (4 metres) above water, and had more than a foot clearance in the lowest tunnels and bridges. This though also depends on the water levels. Higher water levels mean more depth, but less air draught. We only touched bottom a few times with our 1.5 metre (4 feet 6 inch) draught when easing to the side of a canal for oncoming vessels, or in trying to get into shallow haltes or marinas.

The river currents were quite manageable, with our 30 hp Yanmar diesel able to give us a hull speed of up to six knots. At time our speed would be reduced to two or three knots because of river currents, and at other times we would be going along downstream at 10 knots. The current on the Rhone seemed stronger than on the Saone, Seine or Marne. Currents increased between bridge abutments, and from stretch to stretch.

Marina costs were minimal. The most expensive, but still reasonable,  was in Paris at 85 Ff ($18.00 Cdn) per night for our 10 metre boat, while others were as low as 40 Ff. Haltes were free, as were many other mooring locations. Haltes, marinas, mooring posts, water sources, and fuel locations were all indicated on the Navicartes. A few times we used our mobile to phone up a marina or a lock instead of VHF. Phone numbers and VHF channels were indicated in the Navicartes as well. I still find it strange to be using a phone on a boat.

Lock operations for the most part were efficient. By calling up a lock 15 minutes prior to arrival, most were open and ready for us. The big commercial locks were no problem. Some of the smaller locks on the Marne system were complicated by their lack of regularly spaced bollards, and by the high water levels flush with the lock walls on the upstream sides. Occasionally a mess of flotsam greeted us at the entrance or exit of locks, through which we carefully navigated by coasting past in neutral so as not to foul or damage the propeller. As it was, we had a couple of loud thunks when we hit submerged logs.

We managed quite well with two fenders supporting a fender board midships each side, and four car tires, one on each side at the bow and near the stern quarters. We made hull cloths to protect the boat’s sides to go under each tire. We left these all permanently rigged throughout the trip through France. In the locks Judy handled the foredeck and midships, taking lines ashore, while I handled the manoeuvering alongside and the stern lines. When possible, Judy would take up a bow and stern line, placing the stern line on a bollard first, allowing me to stop Veleda using either the line or engine power. However, missing bollards did not always permit the same strategy at each lock. With floating bollards, we would just use a midships line and fend off fore and aft as necessary. Going downstream was easier than locking upstream. At this time of year, we had ninety percent of the locks to ourselves. There were a few with counter currents surging at the lock approaches making entry a bit more complicated.

There were several areas which had a variety of charter power boats available. I can see where just cruising the canals and rivers for a few weeks would be a pleasant way to see parts of Europe, whether it be the small market towns, vineyards, and tranquil countryside, or the centres of large and ancient cities such as Paris, Nancy, Cologne, Maastricht, Brussels, Strasbourg, Amsterdam, Lyon, Avignon and others. What large city in Europe is not on a canal or river? The city marinas are no more expensive than was Paris, and are usually right in the old city centre. Where else could you stay in Paris for 85 francs a night, and that was at Place de la Bastille, less than a kilometre upstream from Notre Dame Cathedral?

Distances involved depend upon the routes taken. We would cover from ten to sixty nautical miles a day, depending on direction of currents, and number of locks traversed. Our longest distance for one day was 66 nautical miles from Honfleur to Rouen when we went up the Seine with the tide and only had one lock to transit. Another day we did 22 locks and traveled 20.6 nautical miles from Chaumont to Langres on the Canal de la Marne a la Saone. The distances on the Navicartes were measured in kilometres (Pointe Kilometrique), and in some cases small inaccuracies crept in as original PK’s would still be used even if the distances had been reduced by new canals running straighter than the original river courses. As a rough estimate, one nautical mile is almost two kilometres.

We traveled 1456 kilometres or 787 nautical miles and went through 175 locks from Honfleur to Sete. The breakdown by section is as follows:

–          River Seine, Honfleur to Paris – 6 locks, distance 366 km,

–          Marne River, to Epernay – 18 locks, 182 km,

–          Canal Lateral a la Marne, to Vitry-le-François – 15 locks, 67 km,

–          Canal de la Marne a la Saone, to Heuilly – 115 locks, 224 km,

–          Saone River, to Lyon – 8 locks, 237km,

–          Rhone River to Arles – 12 locks, 283 km,

–          Petit Rhone and Canal du Rhone a Sete – 1 lock, 97 km.

The alternatives to this route to the Mediterranean through France would be to go out the English Channel, across the Bay of Biscay, either to go in through Bordeaux to the Canal du Midi and into the Med at the Gulf of Lion, or go offshore around Spain and Portugal and into the Med at Gibraltar. We did not care for either of these routes, especially crossing the notorious Bay of Biscay in the fall.

We had three major delays of over a week each. The first was after we left Paris, when the canals were closed until the end of October. The second was on the Saone when it flooded and we were trapped in the marina at Pontailler unable to get under the bridge back into the river. The third was the lock-keepers’ strike on the Rhone, stopping all river traffic. We were held up for three days because of heavy winds on the Saone at Tournus, and for three more days in a southeast gale plus two holidays when the bridges did not open at Sete. These final delays at Sete sealed our fate of being unable to get to Barcelona for Christmas with our friends there. However, we did have a good New Year’s with them. Much as we enjoyed the opportunity to see the centre of France by water, these delays were frustrating, especially as we had anticipated being under no time pressure to make our anticipated Christmas destination.

We really enjoyed the people we met. We found them most friendly and willing to help, especially considering our limited French and the fact we were often in out-of-the-way small towns. They helped us with our E-mail connections, hooked us up to electricity sources usually closed for the winter, allowed us to moor alongside their barges, and supplied information on a variety of issues. The carnival people in Lagny who helped us rewire our plugs, the bargees who allowed us to leave Veleda alongside for as much as a week, the president of a bridge club and the local grocer who allowed us to use their phones for E-mail, the boatyard manager who drove us over town for groceries, laundry and showers, and Bernard at Arsenal Marina in Paris whose slogan was “The answer is YES, now what is the question?”, all were most helpful. We also met many other boaters from France, England, and Germany who shared their knowledge of the rivers and canals. Thank you to all of them.

Our favourite locations were ones in which we were right in the middle of town. Honfleur, Rouen, Paris, Lagny, Tournus, Tournon, Avignon, Arles, and even Sete all had downtown docks, pontoons, or marinas from which we could stroll through the old central part of the community. We enjoyed their markets, churches, vineyards and wineries, foods and wines in their restaurants, ruins and historical sites, and the ancient  waterways along which European civilization evolved. Not withstanding the cold rainy weather and the delays, it was a great trip.