The French canals provide an attractive alternative to the Strait of Gibraltar for yachts looking to enter the Mediterranean. Terysa Vanderloo reports
For many skippers wishing to sail between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, it’s necessary to go via the Strait of Gibraltar. However, for shallow draught yachts, an attractive alternative awaits: a cruise through the French canals.
This isn’t necessarily a quicker option; while there are fewer miles to travel, the canals are a slower affair due to the 8km/h speed limit, numerous locks and time spent at either end unstepping and stepping the mast.
However, it’s a rewarding and enriching journey, unlike any other type of boating. My partner Nick and I recently took our Southerly 38 through the Canal de Deux Mers and found it to be a truly unique cruising experience.
While there is an entire network of European waterways waiting to be explored, there are two main routes that British sailors might be interested in: one is the east-west route via the UNESCO-listed Canal du Midi and the Canal de Garonne, jointly known as the Canal de Deux Mers, which connects Mediterranean France with the Bay of Biscay.
The other option is the north-south route, which links the English Channel with the Mediterranean via the Rhône, the Saône and the Seine, as well as a number of smaller canals.
The first factor you must bear in mind before deciding on a cruise through the French inland waterways is the dimensions of the canals, particularly draught. Not all canals are maintained at the same depth: for example, the Seine is 3m, the River Saône is 1.8m, and the Canal du Midi is 1.5m (and these depths can be patchy in places). Our Southerly 38, Ruby Rose, has a swing keel, which gives a minimum draught of 0.8m.
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Air draught is another consideration; there are many low bridges to squeeze under, most of which have a towpath that leads underneath the bridge, which narrows the width of the canal as well. The narrowest part of the Canal du Midi is 5.45m and the lowest bridge is 3.25m above the waterline. Other canals in France offer slightly different dimensions, but unstepping the mast will be necessary for all sailing boats entering the canals.
We chose Chantier Allemande in Grau d’Agde on the Mediterranean for the unstepping, and Paulliac to step on the Atlantic side. Costs were reasonable although varied; unstepping was €35, stepping was €120.
However, it wasn’t so much the locations for unstepping and stepping our mast that had us scratching our heads – it was the matter of transporting our rig. Should it go by road? Or on deck? Our mast is 16m high and our boat is 12m in length, so our major concern with having our mast on deck was dealing with the overhang.
We felt it might be easier to transport by road, and so initially explored that option. We were quoted €1,000 for the mast transport, not including storage costs incurred by the boatyards.
Ultimately, we chose to keep the mast on deck. Constructing the frame was an unfamiliar although enjoyable challenge. We built two A-frames out of pine beams, one at the bow and one across the transom. Due to the air draught restrictions, we set the rig on its frame under our bimini.
Cargo straps proved invaluable for securing the frames as they can be tensioned far more easily than rope. Once the mast was sitting in the frame, we also added two additional struts, one in the cockpit and another on the coachroof, cut to size and wedged into place to provide extra support.
We covered the two mast ends with towels and an old pillow, then placed a bucket over the top. It may have looked odd, but we knew the ends of the mast would be the most vulnerable to damage while in the canals. Indeed, when we arrived in Paulliac we had a very scuffed bucket, but not a single scratch on the mast.
Staking your territory
One of the delights of travelling along the canals is that you can pull over and tie up almost anywhere. It’s forbidden to tie to a tree, so ground stakes must be used (you need to carry your own), but the reward is a huge amount of flexibility in terms of where to stop for the night.
This isn’t your only option. There are moorings and facilities placed at regular intervals, often with electricity and water and sometimes even showers and a laundry. The costs vary from €2-€20 per night.
Most ‘nature moorings’ (posts for tying up to, but no other facilities) are free and often found on the outskirts of town. A good cruising guide will provide detailed information on the location of all moorings and facilities along the canals.
Getting around is easy: the towpaths are often converted to bike tracks so having bikes on board is therefore recommended. However, the canals almost always pass through the centre of the towns and villages on its meandering path, and so provisioning, finding a restaurant or taking in the local sights rarely requires more than a leisurely stroll.
Being France, a produce market, a bakery and somewhere to buy a bottle of wine is never far away. Supermarkets are also usually nearby.
Before entering the canals, the logistics of negotiating the locks with just the two of us on board was an unknown.
Most locks in the French waterways have now been automated, which means you activate the lock by twisting a pole suspended in the middle of the canal on your approach.
The Canal du Midi is an exception, and the locks are still operated by a lock keeper (éclusier).
Going downstream is easy: you enter the lock when it is full and tying up to the bollards provided is merely a matter of practicing your lassoing technique or stepping off the boat, just like tying up to any dock.
In an automated lock, you press a button on the control panel to close the gate and start the process. The lock then empties itself of water and once you’re down and the gate opens, you retrieve your lines and continue on your way.
Going upstream is inherently more challenging: you enter the lock when the water is at its lowest level, sometimes several metres down, and have to attach your bow and stern lines either to bollards at the top of the lock wall, or to poles or floating bollards which are set vertically into the wall.
The latter option isn’t available in most locks on the Midi: because it is UNESCO-listed very few alterations to the original locks have been made. This left us wondering exactly how we were meant to secure our boat when going upstream on the Canal du Midi.
We were advised by fellow canal goers to enter the lock and then throw your lines up to the éclusier, though we felt that expecting the éclusiers to abandon their actual job – operating the locks – was impolite.
So we tried lassoing the bollards from the boat, but this proved an unreliable technique at best; the bollards were above the level of the boat, often above head height, and sometimes quite far away.
We quickly decided that the best thing to do was to let me off the boat in advance (either to the waiting pontoons outside every lock, or we simply nosed the boat into the bank).
I’d then go up to the lock, greet the friendly éclusier (who was occasionally unaware of our presence), and wait at the lock entrance for Nick to bring the boat through.
We employed the boathook to retrieve the bow line, and Nick could throw up the stern line or, more usually, simply hold it out for my waiting boathook. Once the lock was full I’d jump back on board. This method ensured that Nick didn’t have to leave the helm, and I was able to manage the lines.
It also left the éclusier to get on with operating the locks or help other boaters out with their lines, many of whom were enjoying a hire boat holiday and sometimes weren’t as experienced at line handling and boat manoeuvring as we are.
We enjoyed a month in the canals, and could have easily spent an entire season exploring the route from Agde to Pauilliac. This passage goes through some historical and beautiful towns such as Beziérs, Carcassonne, Castelnaudary, Toulouse, Moissac, Montauban, and Bordeaux.
The countryside, ranging from rolling vineyards with snow-capped mountains in the background, to verdant green farmland dotted with church spires, not to mention the bustling streets of central Toulouse and Bordeaux, was also as fascinating as it was varied.
The two canals offered vastly different experiences, with the tree-lined Garonne far quieter and more sedate than the wonderfully atmospheric Canal du Midi. We consider our trip to be mere reconnaissance for many more journeys through the French canals in the future.
About the author
Terysa Vanderloo has been living aboard her Southerly 38 with her partner Nick Fabbri for five years and together they have sailed three continents, two oceans and 25,000 miles. For more detailed information about their experiences on the French canals, see their YouTube channel, Sailing Yacht Ruby Rose.