Cruising the french canals by boat is simply a joy. Maybe if i give you a few more facts you might understand why. When you are in the canals your pace of life is totally in the slow lane in more ways than one. Probably the most obvious reason is that you cannot do more than 6kn anyway so you are not going anywhere fast. Also the locks do not open until about 8am then the lock keepers have about 2 hours for lunch and then the locks close for the night fairly early in the evening. Once you get in tune with the way the canal system works though you start to get well and truly in to the chill out zone. The great thing about once the locks are closed in the evening is that you know that there is a good chance that you wont have a boat go past you to spoil your tranquility. All you need to do is find a nice place to moor for the night chill out and enjoy the piece and quiet.
The boat above was our first boat a Westerly Longbow from 1974. Forty years old now and i am sure she will still be going strong in another 40.
Talking about tranquility what could be a more tranquil setting than the picture above, This picture is not just a one off there are thousands of miles of canals and rivers throughout France and there is a picture like this around just about every corner.
When you eventually get fed up with the solitude and this can come quicker for some than others. we met people who were intending going from the English channel to the Med in about 6 weeks and were still in the canals a couple of years later. As i was saying once you do want a change for more civilisation you can travel up the river seine and go straight through the heart of Paris. More up by the Eiffel tower go under numourous ornate historical bridges and up to Notre Damn
So you have had solitude and historical cities. That is just the tip of the iceberg though. There are so many gems while travelling the french canals. A couple that will stick with me for the rest of my life. These are travelling over aquaducts and through tunnels. Obviously France is not flat and the canals cannot just drop down to every valley floor and climb over every hill. So the direct route has to be taken. The first time we went over a aquaduct it was the strangest feeling. There we were travelling in a boat through water and you could look down in to a valley below you and see a fast flowing river pass beneath you.
We went through a few tunnels during our time in the french canal system. One tunnel though stands out from the others though as it was 6 miles long. Took an hour to pass through. Was only wide enough for one boat to pass at a time. The builders of the tunnel though widened it in the middle and put in a passing point so that boats could enter from both ends and then pass in the middle. Then carry on with their journey.
The entrance to the tunnel looks dark and narrow and did not disappoint it was dark and narrow all the way.
Passing through the locks in the canal system is an integral part of your travel. We have done the French canal system 3 times and probably negotiated about 900 locks. They vary from very sedate locks that hardly have any rise or full. To huge locks in the river Rhone. With the deepest locks having a rise or fall of nearly 20m.
When you enter some of the locks in the river Rhone it can seem quite intimidating. They are however some of the easiest locks in the French canal system. As they have floating bollards that simply float up or down as you go up or down. So you just tie up to the bollard and let the lock do its work.
A big decision for every boat owner when entering the french canal system is what to do with the mast. On all our journeys we made supports across the deck and took the mast with us. A now popular alternative is to leave your mast at your entry point have it trucked down to your exit point and then have it re stepped. The thought of leaving the mast behind and banking on it being where it should be after we had travelled a thousand miles of canals just did not appeal to me.
Port Napoleon which is situated at the bottom of the river Rhone is inevitably going to be your exit point of the canal system and entry point to the med> therefore they are well practised at taking up and dropping masts.
Re stepping the mast can be a stressful time as you have to get your brain back in to sailing mode and out of canal mode. In the picture above you can see the mast supports that we made up for Leesa Christina that worked well for her trip through mainland France.
There is only one real exit point at the med end of the canal system. There are however various entry points at the English channel end. With le havre being the most popular. We however with having both our boats moored in Rye while getting them ready for long distance cruising. Entered at Calais with Cedilla our westerly Longbow and the canal de la Somme with Leesa Christina which is a Jeanneau voyage 12.5m. The French canal system is supposed to have minimum depth of 1.8m. After entering the canal de le somme though and already having taken our mast down. They told me that the canal had been de regulated to only 1.4m and with Leesa Christina drawing a depth of 1.7m this did not fill me full of confidence. Then they made me sign a bit of paper saying that if i got stuck it was my responsibility to get it sorted out. Turned out fine though we pushed through a lot of mud but at least by the time we left the canal de la somme the keel was nice and clean.
Wild horse were a common site along the canal de la Rhone a la sete. Along with flocks of Flamingos that can regularly be seen in the etangs which run along side the canal and the sea.
Well i must be starting to bore you now all i can say though is if you are thinking of doing the trip through the canals just go for it. You wont regret it and will fill your memory full of wonderful memories.