The canals & rivers
We followed the Scheldt river all the way from Belgium to France and actually almost reached its source. Fun fact: In French, the Scheldt river is called l’Escaut (in Dutch we call it de Schelde).
From Mortagne-du-Nord to Cambrai (junction with the Saint-Quentin canal), we followed the canalised section of the Scheldt river for 63 kilometers. The minimum depth is 3.50 meters up to the junction of Hordain; and 2.20 meters afterwards.
The first lock you’ll encounter is at Fresnes where the lock keeper will check if you’ve already bought the French toll sticker. On the canalised Scheldt river or l’Escaut canalisé you will pass through 11 large locks.
After Cambrai, you are on the Saint-Quentin canal with a minimum depth of 2.30 meters and a total of 35 locks (the locks are now smaller, 40 meters long and 5.5 meters wide). In France, the location of a canal is indicated by PK or “point kilométrique”. For example, the start of the Saint-Quentin canal at Cambrai is marked by PK 0. This canal is 92.5 kilometers long and ends at Chauny. It also passes through 2 tunnels (the Riqueval tunnel and the Tronquoy tunnel).
Three kilometers after Chauny (PK 3 on the Canal lateral à l’Oise) there is a junction where we turned left to enter the Canal de l’Oise à L’Aisne in the Hauts-de-France region (Northern France). The minimum depth of this canal is 2 meters and the canal itself is 47 kilometers long. There are 13 locks and 1 tunnel (Braye-en-Laonnois).
The next canal you enter is the Canal latéral à l’Aisne with only 1 lock to pass at Berry-au-Bac (this is a control lock where you are asked for your name, boat registration number and destination). At Bourg-et-Comin; turn left and follow the canal for about 20 kilometers until you reach the lock. The minimum depth of this canal is 1.80 meters.
You then go on the Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne. This canal runs from Berry-au-Bac to Condé-sur-Marne (visit the beautiful city of Reims when you are on this canal) and has 24 locks + 1 tunnel (Mont-de-Billy). The canal is 58 kilometers long with a minimum depth of 1.80 meters.
After l’Aisne à la Marne, you enter the Canal latéral à la Marne with 11 locks going from Condé to Vitry-le-François covering about 48 kilometers of this 66 kilometer long canal. The minimum depth is 1.80 meters.
And before you know it, you are on the last canal of your journey through France, the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne with a minimum depth of 1.80 meters. This is the longest canal of your journey with 114 locks, 17 movable bridges and 2 tunnels (Condes + Balesmes). The canal links the towns of Vitry-le-François and Maxily-sur-Saône and is 224 kilometers long.
Be aware that some of the canals have a lot of aquatic vegetation. Be sure to check your engine regularly and empty your boat’s strainer (which filters out the debris from the water) if the engine coolant is not flowing as it should.
The first river you enter is the Saône. You first have the Petit Saône where you have 3 smaller locks before you get to the Saône where you now have to go through 6 big locks again. The only difference between the Petit Saône and the Saône is the size of the locks, it’s basically the same river. The river is 473 kilometers long as it starts at Vioménil in the Vosges. From the end of the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne, we only had to travel 223 kilometers on the Saône. Bear in mind that this river can be subject to flooding.
The Rhône is notorious for its currents, mistral winds and risk of flooding. The river is 325 kilometers long and has 13 locks with floating bollards. The locks are operated from a control center at Châteauneuf. The Rhône flows from Lyon to the sea at Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône and is still a trade and transport route where you will see large commercial vessels.
The Saône and Rhône rivers have a minimum depth of 3 meters.
The first tunnel at Riqueval (on the Saint-Quentin canal) is a special one. You are towed through the tunnel by an electric tug, which you have to book 48 hours in advance by calling a telephone number. This may change in the near future as the tunnel is currently being worked on. The installation of a mechanical ventilation system would allow boats to use their engines in the tunnel
The Riqueval tunnel is 5,670 metres long.
The other tunnels use a red/green light to indicate when you can go through. To give you an idea of the length:
- Tronquoy – 1.098 meters long
- Braye-en-Laennois – 2.365 meters long
- Mont-de-Billy – 2.302 meters long
- Condes – looks more like going under a bridge than an actual tunnel, let’s say it’s maybe 300 meters long
- Balesmes – almost 5.000 meters long
Tip: Make a playlist and enjoy some good music, the acoustics in the tunnels are great!
We had different ways of operating the locks:
- Locks operated by a lock-keeper. Either with fixed or floating bollards (on the Rhône). These are mainly larger locks.
- Locks that are operated by a remote control that you receive; either from a lock-keeper or via a distributor. There’s a sign in front of the lock telling you when to press the button to go up or down. When you press the button, the lights change to red/green to indicate that the lock is being prepared. We have received two different remote controls:
- One with four buttons: Alarme (in case something goes wrong in the lock – emergency button), Bassinée (to start the lock operation), Avalant (to open the doors when you go downstream), Montant (to open the doors when you go upstream).
- One with three buttons: Alarme (in case something goes wrong in the lock – emergency button), Avalant (to open the doors when you go downstream), Montant (to open the doors when you go upstream). You have to pull up a blue lever to start the lock operation.
- The blue and red lever: Some locks are operated by pulling up a blue lever. You need to make sure that your boat is positioned correctly next to the lever. The position of the lever is not the same in all locks, sometimes it’s on the port side, sometimes on the starboard side. The red lever is only used in emergencies or when the lock is not working (to alert the VNF).
- The pole: You have to manoeuvre your boat next to a pole suspended over the water and then turn the pole. This starts the lock operation.
- The chain: No, not the Fleetwood Mac song but a term for when locks open automatically one after the other. Some locks in France register when you leave and prepare the next lock already for you.
The lights in front of the lock indicate its status:
- Orange: The signal is correctly received when pressing the remote control.
- Red/green: the lock is being prepared.
- Green: You can enter the lock.
- Red: You are not allowed to enter, someone from the other side will go through the lock first.
- Red/red: The lock is not working/something is wrong.
It can happens that the locks break. Either you get stuck before the lock (the doors won’t open) or you get stuck inside the lock (the doors won’t close, the lock process won’t start or the exit doors won’t open). Unfortunately, this does happen. In this case you must either call VNF (via telephone or via the intercom) or the problem has already been reported to VNF automatically (if the alarm light on the red lever is flashing). It usually doesn’t take long for them to come and help you out.
We sailed through autumn and winter and saw almost every weather scenario. Rain, snow, ice, hail, sun, strong winds and a even a double rainbow.
There are two things to bear in mind when sailing at this time of year:
- The canals freeze when it’s very cold outside. We had a night of -7°C and woke up to a frozen canal. We heard from the VNF that they sometimes add warm water to the canal to make sure it doesn’t freeze. However, if it is frozen, the locks may not work properly and your boat will have to plough through the ice, limiting your speed (+ the noise is deafening!). Also note that water taps are often closed when frost is expected.
- Sailing in winter means condensation problems in the boat due to the low water temperature and the difference with the temperature inside the boat if your boat isn’t insulated properly. We have had mould and even pools of water in some of our lockers.
The ports and ‘halte nautiques’
Harbours are usually closed in winter, which means you won’t have any facilities (showers, washing machines, toilets). Often there is space to moor (free of charge), but this can mean you’re stuck in the harbour if it’s fenced off and you don’t have a code or badge to re-enter.
The ‘halte nautiques’ where we moored were always very nice and some even had free water and electricity. There are many on the canals and even on the Saône. The Rhône is much more limited and mainly harbours are the only possibility to moor your boat for the night.
France is a beautiful country. Although there is still a lot of industry in the north, the further south you go, the more you are surrounded by nature. Plains, fields of flowers, hills, mountains, forests, vineyards… Entering a canal often means a different landscape. Sit back, relax and enjoy the slow pace of your journey! You won’t regret sailing in France.
* Read the first part of this blog (part 1) to find out how we prepared.
* To find out how we experienced this trip, read part 2.
* Follow sailingelburro on Instagram for travel pictures.