From buying a suitable yacht to negotiating 371 locks, three tunnels and travelling 1,400 miles from Fareham, Lizzy Bolan shares the highs and lows of navigating the French canals
After a fantastic holiday sailing to Cherbourg and Alderney, on our Gibsea 92, my husband Rob and I aspired to sail further afield. We had read about sailors voyaging through the French canals, into the Mediterranean, which sounded like a wonderful adventure, writes Lizzy Bolan.
The first step was to find a boat that we could comfortably live on.
After much research and viewing many different boats for sale, we began to favour the centre-cockpit design yachts, which have a lovely rear berth.
One bright, chilly Saturday in November 2015, whilst wandering a Hamble boatyard, we fell in love with Zircon, a Beneteau Oceanis 36CC.
We needed a boat that drew less than 1.8m to travel through the French canals.
The 36CC had a fin keel with a draught of 1.5 metres; shallow for the size of the boat.
We particularly liked the aft cabin, spacious galley and heads, walkaround layout, and big engine room.
‘I’m sure a reasonable offer would be considered,’ the broker advised.
Feeling very excited, we submitted an offer and to our absolute delight, it was accepted. We spent the next three years planning and preparing for our trip on the French canals.
Our upgrades included:
- Two 100W solar panels, mounted on bespoke davits that Rob made to hold our dinghy
- Four new 130Ah house batteries, battery monitor, and an inverter
- B&G Vulcan 9 chart plotter
- Forward facing sonar
- Transmit and receive AIS
- Memory foam mattress, which we cut to shape with an electric bread knife
- Wooden slats fitted under the mattress, to allow it to breathe
- 36-litre holding tank
- 20kg Rocna anchor, 30m of 10mm chain and a new windlass
- New standing rigging
Final preparations before entering the French canals
We both had our RYA Day Skipper and VHF qualifications, but we also needed to pass a CEVNI exam, (Code Européen des Voies de Navigation Interieure) which we took online – it’s like the inland waterways’ highway code.
We quit our jobs in May 2019, rented out our house, said our emotional goodbyes, and left Fareham on 1 June, bound for Haslar Marina – four miles away.
After all the manic last-minute planning and preparation, we needed a couple of days to relax, before setting off on our adventure of a lifetime.
We planned to enter the canals at Le Havre, and crossed the Channel to St Vaast, Normandy.
The 90-mile journey took us 16 hours.
From there, we sailed to Carentan, then Arromanches, where we spent a bumpy night at anchor, before sailing to Honfleur.
You need to purchase a Voies Navigables de France (VNF) licence to travel the French canals, even if you are not passing through any locks.
The price is subject to boat length, and daily, weekly, monthly or annual licences are available online. It cost us €137.46 per month.
On 18 June, we set off from Honfleur, eager to start our journey up the Seine to Rouen, where we had arranged to have our mast un-stepped.
We called Rouen Port Control, up river from Honfleur, to advise them of our passage, and estimated arrival time.
The first section of the Seine is tidal, and it is recommended to travel to Rouen in one trip, as there is nowhere to stop on route.
The 62 miles took us 10 hours, at an average speed of six knots.
Rouen is the furthest you can take a yacht up the Seine, without un-stepping your mast.
After Rouen, the bridges are lower, and some routes have tunnels, so the maximum air draught for a boat to continue is 3.5 metres.
A trip up the Seine to Rouen is a fantastic way to experience the French inland waterways, without the hassle of removing your mast.
We had contacted Rouen Marina before leaving Fareham, regarding un-stepping our mast. On arrival, we discovered that they only provide and operate the crane.
The rest was down to us; including going up the mast to secure the crane strops, unbolting and removing standing rigging.
Crane hire and a month’s mast storage cost €223.
We arranged for our mast to be transported by lorry, from Rouen to Port Napoleon, near Marseille. This cost £1,348.
We didn’t realise that they don’t prepare the mast for transportation, or provide any protective packaging.
We managed to wrap it in some tarpaulin that we had onboard, and removed the masthead unit and spreaders.
Some people take their mast with them, and construct a wooden frame on their deck.
This saves money, but you run the risk of damage. We decided to pay for the lorry as we had heard a horror story about a boat spinning 180º in the first lock, damaging its mast as it scraped along the lock wall.
The first lock on our French canal journey
On 22 June, we left Rouen, excited to be on our way. It was 39km to the first lock in the Seine, at Amfreville.
This marked the last tidal section of the river. From there, we could enjoy the freedom of not having to consider tide times when passage planning.
The 203km route along the Lower Seine to Paris passes through six locks.
We were admiring the leafy green scenery when we noticed a large barge behind. We respectfully moved over so that it had more room to pass.
Suddenly, there was a loud bang, and Zircon lifted up out of the water, juddering. It sounded like we had hit something hard.
Shaking with the shock, and with my heart beating fast, I took over the helm, while Rob went to check down below.
Luckily, all seemed fine, but we decided to stick to the middle of the river, as much as possible.
The large locks on the Seine are 185m long by 12m wide, operated by a lock keeper from a tower above.
Six hours after leaving Rouen, we arrived at the first lock, in Amfreville. It looked huge on approach – much bigger than I had expected, and very industrial.
We soon found out that it was essential to call the lock keeper on our VHF radio, to request to pass through.
We were told in French, that we had to wait 10 minutes.
We later discovered that ‘dix minutes’ seemed to be a phrase used by most of the lock keepers, to indicate that we had to wait, but the duration could be anything from a few minutes to a couple of hours.
Hotel and working barges take priority on the French canals over leisure boats, and we were often kept waiting.
Eventually, the huge double doors of the lock slowly opened, with a loud groan, and the green light came on, indicating that we could enter.
Rob steered Zircon into this huge, cavernous space, and I looked up at the high lock walls, surrounding us.
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The first problem we encountered was that these locks were built to accommodate barges that are 110m long.
The bollards set into the lock walls were so far apart that our lines were not going to reach, to tie off Zircon’s bow and stern.
The second problem was that, in our eagerness, we had arrived at Amfreville lock at low tide.
This meant we had to travel eight metres up the lock, instead of the four metres at high water.
Feeling nervous, but ready for the challenge, I waited on the bow, holding the line tightly, as the huge doors began to close.
Suddenly, there was a loud roaring sound, and water gushed in at an alarming rate from the lock gates in front of us.
The water level rose rapidly and my line was pulling Zircon down as I struggled to untie it, and get it on the next bollard.
I managed to secure it but we were still travelling upwards, and the process had to be quickly repeated.
A near miss on the French canals
‘Get your arm out of the way,’ Rob shouted, as Zircon’s bow crashed into the lock wall, fortunately saved from any damage by our anchor taking the brunt of the blow.
I pulled my arm back just in time, and got the bow line on the next level, and then the next one after that.
Suddenly, I realised we were at the top of the lock, back in the sunshine, still in one piece. It had been one hell of a ride.
Despite reading books about the French canal locks, watching videos, and listening to other people’s experiences, nothing can prepare you for the moment when those doors bang shut behind you, and the water starts to flood in.
We also learnt not to turn our engine off. Previously, in English locks, there had been an expectation to do so, but it seemed that the rules were different here.
First lock done, another 175 to go.
With that thought in mind, we motored along the beautiful river, considering what we could do differently.
The locks were more violent than we had expected. I dubbed them torture chambers.
As evening approached, we struggled to find somewhere to stop for the night.
We had expected to find lots of places to tie off along the river bank, but this was not so.
We ended up dropping anchor in a little cut, at the side of the river.
A couple of days and three more locks in, it was apparent that we needed to improve our technique drastically.
We spotted a rare pontoon, and stopped to discuss our options, seriously considering turning back, collecting our mast, and sailing around to the Med instead.
The bollards were too far apart for us to reach bow and stern lines, so we decided to tie off mid cleat to the ladder, as high up as possible, and motor against it.
A fresh approach
The next lock was make or break time.
Our new technique worked like a dream, and as we motored out of the lock, we were laughing, and hugging each other, with tears in our eyes, so excited.
We were on our way to Paris. What an amazing experience it was to arrive in Paris on a sailing boat.
I was blown away by the sight of the Eiffel Tower appearing, as we rounded a river bend.
The scenery just got better and better, and we looked in awe at the architecture, sculptures on the buildings and many bridges, as we passed by.
We felt proud of what we had achieved. We spent three nights in a marina, situated in the centre of Paris.
It cost €48 per night but this was the first time we had paid for a mooring since Rouen, and cheaper than a hotel room.
From Paris, it took us two days to travel 100km along the Upper Seine, passing through eight locks, to St Mammes, at the end of the river; the first opportunity to get fuel since leaving Rouen eight days ago, 303km away.
We stopped for one night, before picking up the smaller, shallower Bourbonnais canals.
We spent a further two months navigating through these waterways.
It was an eventful passage, really stressful at times, not knowing if we were going to make it through.
We broke down inside the third lock, and had to be towed back to St Mammes, and wait six days for a new part from the UK.
Once underway again at times we touched the bottom, dragging our keel through silt, as water levels dropped daily, due to a drought.
It was so nerve wracking to see our depth gauge drop to 0.1m, then 0.0m under our keel.
We got stuck for an hour at one point, before wriggling through, only to receive the news that the last shallow canal had dropped to 1.4m and was closing.
We had to turn back to Paris, through all the shallow water, and 94 locks, then navigate an alternative canal.
Thankfully, this route was not so shallow, and we were delighted to reach Port Napoleon, south of France, at the end of August, where we had our mast re-stepped.
With Zircon back to her full glory, we were ready to start our Mediterranean adventure; sailing to Spain, the Balearics, Sardinia, Sicily, Italy and the Greek islands.
Lessons Learned from sailing the French canals
- Have lots of fenders We took nine, and bought more on route. Some locks fill to the brim, so it is useful to have at least two higher and two lower each side. We had large fenders on the stern, and big ball fenders on the bow.
- VNF-run waterways The Voies Navigables de France (VNF) website can seem complicated but it contains very useful updates, and information on canal closures, warnings of obstructions and reduced depths. If we had accessed this information earlier, we would have avoided the Bourbonnais canals.
- Learn French phrases Some lock keepers don’t speak English, and you may have to call the VNF to report a broken lock or problem. We wrote useful sentences on a small whiteboard to help us.
- Don’t rush Be prepared for a long wait at broken down locks, or for holiday or working barges, which have priority. Take your time to enjoy the fantastic scenery.
- Carry fuel cans… …and a trolley to transport them. There are very few fuel stations. We often had a long walk to buy diesel from a supermarket, or fuel station in town.
- Beware pilot book ‘marina’ It could be a bank with grass-hidden bollards, a concrete wall with far apart bollards, or one pontoon. Take long mooring lines, also useful for big locks.
- Very few chandleries Many only cater for barges. Take spare service parts with you.
- Wear gloves Locks are often slimy, dirty and slippery. I hated putting my hands in cobwebby holes to tie off. Don’t wear a white t-shirt.
- Draught warning The maximum vessel draught, to navigate the canals, is 1.8m, but be aware that water levels may drop in the summer, especially if there is a drought.
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