Nasseem in the French Canals

From the 2001/1 Newsletter

Bernard has been having trouble with his back and we really needed to change to a boat with full headroom. We wondered about motor boating so left the mast at home and chugged around the French canals for two months in May and June this year to see what we thought. Here are some of the things we discovered in 1000 miles and 500 locks.


You gotta have:

  • Central mooring cleats
  • 4 or 5 extra fenders (large but scruffy is OK)
  • Cockpit sun awnings
  • Extra strong sun cream
  • 2 extra 30 metre warps
  • Extra fuel and water containers. Main job is lowering loops over bollards, usually on tiptoe and with one hand.
  • List of Chomages (closing of canals for maintenance, mostly in winter). Available April each year from VHF. Amendments available later in year.

It would be useful to have:

  • 2 short warps to use quickly from the centre cleats
  • 2 rond anchors and rubber mallet
  • Passerelle. We made one 10 ft long by 20 ins wide (width could have been less) from 2ins ply painted with non-slip on top, and framework useable as ladder under. Can also be used outside fenders against piles. Aluminium versions cost £150+ in French chandlers.


You need the following, which were looked at several times (not the insurance)

  • Boat licence - sometimes called circulation permit
  • SSR
  • Insurance
  • ICC "In conformity ... Inland Water Transport" - this is issued by the RYA and needs an endorsement that the canal regulations (Cevni) test has been passed on the application. The old ICC won’t do

We obtained the Boat Licence from the VNF office in Calais, 45 quai de la Meuse. Mine Bertan was very helpful and speaks English, tel 0033 21 34 25 58. The licence is based on length x breadth, and is available for a year, 30 days (not necessarily consecutive), 16 days and 1 day. We are less than 25 sq.m and bought a year’s licence costing £65. For a bigger boat it would have cost about £135. There is a 10% discount up to 20 March. We were handed a VNF leaflet in Calais when we purchased our Licence, listing their offices and also a very useful chart of the Pas de Calais canals. We wrote off for further charts to offices en route and most of them sent one for their area. You could not manage on these alone but if you run off your detailed charts for a bit, it is just possible. The head office of VNF is 175 rue Ludovic Boutleux - BP820, 624 Bethune Cedex, tel 02 21 63 2424.

The Cevni regulations are set out in Marian Martin’s The RYA Book of EuroRegs for Inland Waterways. We did the test with Roy Newmg at The Boathouse, Grove Ferry Road, Upstreet, tel 860345. He charged £10, went over the important regulations with us beforehand and we had a pleasant evening out.

Charts and information

There are lots of overall charts for planning. Imray’ s Inland Waterways of France gives length of each canal with number of locks, minimum depth and maximum air draft. We used 2 different sets of detailed chart books, EDB and Navicarte. Each EDB chart covered a greater area than Navicarte, all the charts are N up on a full page with information on the opposite page and show the surrounding country, whilst Navicarte’s charts are on half the page and aligned to fit the space with a N arrow and information arrowed to the relevant site. We preferred EDB but it doesn’t cover Calais to Paris. Charts are more expensive in England and we got our EDB charts by writing to Editions du Breil, Domaine de Fitou, Le Breil, 11400 Castelnaudary, paying by Eurocheque. The address for Navicarte is Editions Grafocarte, 125 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, BP4O - 92131 Issy-Les-Moulineaux Cedex. We didn’t have an address for them before we left so we bought these in France.

The European Waterways by Marian Martin is useful, if taken less than literally. This gives advice on how to proceed. Philip Bristow’s Through the French Canals gives details of all the canals, giving distances, locks, places to stop and brief descriptions of the larger towns.

Route planning

We planned on 32 km a day overall, including stops, and achieved this. Some of the days were overlong (it’s sometimes difficult to find a stopping place). We would reduce the average a little if we were doing it again. Planning in detail is a bit inaccurate. Our best days were 60+ km but it took 2 days for 24 km when we were going through an "eschelle" or staircase with 44 locks.

Our route was along various canals in the Pas de Calais, Canal du Nord, Canal de la Maine south to Dijon, then northwards along the Canal de Bourgogne, Paris, Canal de St Quentin, back to Calais

Through the canals

The licence gives you free use of most moorings, except for the few marinas which are inexpensive by UK standards. Paris Arsenal, which is right by the Bastille, charged £8 a night including water, electricity, showers and security. Mooring alongside in the canals is OK in places but not everywhere. Some places have sloping sides and it can be difficult to get into the bank. We often just put our bows into the bank at lunchtime and tied to a convenient tree.

When going along the canals, keep to the middle to avoid as much rubbish as possible except when passing and do remember that light barges skid outwards on sharp corners and may invade your side of the canal. We actually bounced along the side of one, which went on to run aground on our side of the canal. Quick action may sometimes be necessary but in any case slow right down.

Quick action may also be necessary for weed patches - simply go into neutral and hope to slide through them. The Calais Canal as far as the River Aa is one of the bad offenders from mid June onwards, both for stopping propellers and blocking up engine intakes. We ran aground on a patch of weed which stopped us dead. When we lowered the boarding ladder to fit the outboard to get us clear, the ladder simply stopped on the surface and we had to use the boathook to make a hole into the water.

Locks are the thing that people worry about. We got through our 500 without bending a stanchion or popping a fender so they can’t be that bad. Commercial traffic goes in first. Keep back as far as possible going up and moor fore and aft. The circulation of water in the lock can be clockwise or anti, so you may find the current comes from aft. If you are going down, you just use the centre cleat. Don’t forget the cill. Fenders need to be at the right height going in and may need adjusting going up or down. When you are up, the water may be almost up to quay level and fenders will need to be right down. At other times, fenders need to be holding you as far from the wall as possible as it can be very rough if the water comes in fast.

Some locks are "automatic". You need to know where the ladders are and the lock controls. We used the binoculars a great deal to find this out as we approached. These locks are controlled either by a rod suspended over the canal which is turned to the nght or by a sensor across the canal a few hundred metres from the lock. Slow right down to pass the sensor. Sometimes you are rewarded by the lights changing to orange. Hang about and the gates eventually open. Don’t go in until the lights turn green; if you do, this can fox the system. Go in slowly, there is another detector across the entrance. After lifting the blue start rod (the red is to stop operations in an emergency), the lock should operate. Go out slowly as well. There is usually a telephone or button to push if you need assistance and an operator will come quite quickly. Some locks have VHF.

Manual locks either have a resident lock keeper or one who accompanies you for a distance on (usually) her moped. It is appreciated if someone goes ashore on the opposite side to the lock keeper to close the other gate, walk to the other end to operate the paddle and open that gate. If you can’t do some or all of this because you can’t get ashore or back, it won’t faze the lock keeper. He/she will still be helpful but will obviously be slowed down by a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the ends of the lock. They will give advice about where to stop, if requested. You do need to speak some French. (Two useful words are montant for upstream and avalant for downstream). If you have a lock keeper with you for a time, offer a cold drink or coffee, chat if you can. They don’t expect to be tipped. They are stood off in the winter but like to have the job.

Many of the villages are 300-400 years old and the canals are much more recent and follow contours, so they don’t go through villages. This sometimes means walking is required and bikes are said to be a good thing. We took two nice new folding bikes with a tailored cover and stood them on the foredeck, where they remained huddled for the whole two months. We don’t cycle in UK and somehow didn’t get around to it in France.

Camping gaz is difficult to find. Some supermarkets have it - yes, on the shelves with everything else. Other types of gas are available at service stations in a great big rack which contains every other known make, except Calor, of course.

Fuel is largely in cans from garages. There are a few places where you can fill up alongside, not many. Its OK to have red diesel in your tanks if you can produce a UK receipt. No red in containers though.

Water is OK in the marinas and can be had in some locks. The canal halts sometimes have it. Keep topped up. Electricity is no trouble in marinas and sometimes free. Not so good elsewhere, but you’ve been motoring, haven’t you! Showers are few and far between, and aren’t always available where they are indicated on the charts.  A mobile phone is useful. Some locks don’t have communications but give a telephone number to ring. If your mobile doesn’t work France-to-France, consider a French one, £50-60.

We covered 1626 km in 56 days, Calais to Calais, and went through 452 locks. We enjoyed our trip and recommend it, although we decided that motor boating was not for us. Everyone was as helpful as could be although the organisation could perhaps be tidied up a bit. Patience is absolutely essential BUT wonderful villages, gorgeous scenery, bit of history. Go on, try it.

Bernard and Margaret Bright

Superseal No. 29, Nasseem