Boat. It goes without saying: have the right boat – a rectangular steel barge which draws no water and has an economical motor and all the living facilities BUT if you own your sailing yacht and want to cruise the French canals it can still be done.
If your draft is greater than 2.0 m you will not be able to go very far. At two meters we travelled the Rhone with easy, sailed up the Saone watching the depth gauge most of the time and came alongside almost everywhere with a few inches under the keel. The only canal I would attempt with this draft is the canal Champagne du Bourgogne (la Marne). One can get through to Paris if all the variables are right and you have nerves of steel and don’t mind going aground more than a few times but I feel it is possible when there is lots of water. A vessel with 1.8 to 1.9 will make it with only a few groundings during a wet season. A dry season you will be lucky with 1.8m.
What do you need on your boat?
Fenders. The most important items in the canals are good strong fenders. At least four round fenders of at least 420mm diameter. The bigger the boat the bigger the fender - over 500mm get too large. Have good lines to secure them and put then at the bow to protect the pulpit rails. Two at the stern to do the same to your aft area. I also have a stern/swim platform fender I use in marinas as a protection from other vessel coming into my stern at a mooring. Then have at least four to six extra fenders along each side with at least two good strong ones in the middle section. These protect you when you come up against the lock sides as the water rushes in. The lines securing them have to be strong. I initially hung then between the stanchions but the force of the rising water against the lock walls pulled the lifelines with such force the stanchions bent inwards. The shortest distance between two points of a circumference of a circle – tight lifeline is a straight line so stanchions bent inwards. The main ones are secured at the stanchions themselves.
As you move through the canal system you move the fenders up and down to match the height of the mooring pontoons. One can also move extra fenders to the mooring side but that is a hassle especially if you change your mind mid way into a lock because some one has secured on your preferred side.
Barge Boards. Great piece of equipment when you need it and that is against a rough or broken quay but we did not use it often. The important thing is to set the lines into the wood so they don’t rub against the rough sides. I use chain but it didn’t work well.
Lines. You cant have too many good lines. Well they will start good but end well worn. The thickness depend on your hands and cleats. I have 18mm nylon lines I used in the marine at home. They have lasted well and go into the selftailing side of my electric Anderson winches. You should have two at least twice the length of your vessel – slightly shorter will do. You use them from the front and aft cleats to a middle bollard then back again to the cleat and up to your winch or hands while standing. Add some for the 5 m fall in the lock and you have the minimum length. I have spliced a loop into the one end so it is easy to attach and more importantly un-attach that end. We also have on either side a line as long as the vessel to secure us an amidships as a spring when we arrive at a wharf. This is the first to be attached. I can then go forward or astern to bring Malua alongside at which time we use the fore and aft breast lines to stop the bow or stern swinging out. The off side spring is brought round to make the other spring secured to the dock. In addition I have a light throwing line for when we ran aground. I can throw this line some distance and attach a thicker line to pull us off. The ability to throw a line some distance does help so practice on your boat before you leave. There is not much room to swing a line especially with lifelines etc.
Charts. Forget the electronic C-map charts. They are expensive and useless. I chose The Guide Fluvial as my series which is better at showing where to tie up. The write up on the towns is good. The other guides don’t work for me. The Imray Inland Waterways of France is now an armchair guide. It covers all the canals in such a haphazard way I can’t follow it plus the amount of info is sparse and dated. Through the French Canals David Jefferson is useless. I have the 11th edition not the latest so it would have to change radically if I would even consider swapping it for a trashy novel. Cruising French Waterways by Hugh Mcknight is in the same class of useless information. The per kilo to information ration is not worth carrying or posting it to your boat. Not worth a swap either.
Other books. If you don’t speak fluent French don’t leave home without French for Cruisers by Kathy Parsons (Kathy@frenchforcruisers.com). This is the best book to communicate with the locals. Not only does it have everyday words but a full and comprehensive list of French words and sayings to fix your boat or restock it with food, parts and everything one may need eg float switch – contacteur a flotteur. Not bad. The other books regard what you want to achieve in France. We wanted to drink some wine and eat some cheese. The Eyewitness Companions: French Cheeses and French Wines by Robert Joseph where a very good start. Here again bring them from home because the French books are cheap but not in English although we purchased these from the wineshop in Notre Dame des Doms at Avignon. A good guide to France helps but they tend to be motorcar centric which makes it hard while on a boat. One for Paris is essential. There is a guide Wine to water which is good but I have only seen a copy owned by another yatties.
Bicycles. Wheels. An essential part of getting about to the local village or town or just riding along the tow path. If you follow the blog you will know how I purchased mine at a flee market. The extra bike I got at a pawn broker but you can purchase good inexpensive bikes at the larger supermarkets for 99 to 130 Euros. An essential item is either a carry basket on the front or a carrier on the rear to hold you goods. A locking chain is essential in towns and alongside at night. The more upright the easier to ride in town. Mountain bikes are OK our small kids bikes do not have the ability to lift the saddle high enough so you ride with bent knees which is not easy over a long distance.
Electrical cables. Go out and purchase 30 -40 meter 240 volt extension cable if you don’t own at least that length. There are many, many places that the electricity is there but too far to get to. Not at the paying places but the many others you will visit.
Water Hose. At least 30 meter. Here again the water is there you only have to get it. People will let you connect to their hose but not to their electricity even if you have the connection fittings. The yellow French hose is the greatest. It lasts and doesn’t kink.
Diesel Containers. I don’t usually like carting fuel from the service station down the road. The 10 to 20 cents savings is just not worth the effort but to those that do it is a saving and you can get it more frequently than getting fuel on the water. We travelled from Lyon all the way up the Saone and canal Champagne du Bourgogne and back to Lyon with the fuel on board. Good planning saves your back and arms. I pulled my arm in Greece so am now careful about the weight.
Camping Gaz. The only kind to use in France. Forget exchanging your Greek bottles in France, we tried it twice and where rejected. Give them away. Replace the bottles at the first Carrefour. Not too expensive. Get your empty ones filled at the larger supermarkets. Find the service desk, hand in your empty bottle for a slip and the take a full bottle off the shelf and pay for it at check out. See that they have the bottles before handing in your empty. It cost any thing from 12 to 29 euro to refill a large bottle. Refilling your Oz or American bottle at a gas refill place is not worth the trouble from all accounts. If you are that serious go to a place, put a deposit on a bottle and take a full one, change your regulator to fit the local bottle and you have gas if it will fit in the space available. I will decant the gas from French bottle into my stainless steel tanks when leaving France.
Folding Propeller. Leave it at home in the canals. If you have a fixed prop on board fit it when you enter the canals. You don’t need a folding one and the chances of it getting damaged is greatly increased in the canals either from floating trees, weed and rubbish or even tree roots when you are alongside the bank. Diving on a prop in the canals is not a great experience.
Anti Fouling. I haven’t seen the underside of Malua but it looks as if nothing is growing on it. What there is soon dies when you go into the salt water again. Obviously ablative antifouling will get washed off but I will have to see how quickly. Watch for an update.
Water filters. Some people say check your filter every day for debris. I did not but there again I have a guard at the inlet, a very good strainer and quite a high rise to suck up. A friend got some plastic caught at the valve which caused some difficulty but the other two yachts came through without any trouble.
Chairs. Have a place to sit at your wheel because in the canals you will be steering all the time. The narrower the canal the more adjustment. I use the auto helm but even then it is adjustment all the time so sit and access the controls or else you will be standing for up to eight hours. Having two or more folding easy chairs to put on the bank at drinks time gets one off the boat and is a good spot to gather people around either other yachts or just passing people. A folding table to serve dinner or lunch increases the pleasure. Not often but memorable.
Communications. Very similar to sailing in the Med but you wont have a backstay to get SSB email. Free internet access is few and far between except at McDonalds but there again they are usually out of town. I have chosen a USB dongle phone access. (3G, Edge or slower) I have an unlocked USB module and purchase a sim in the country I am travelling in to access the phone network and the internet. Italy is good value while France is a rip-off but I just skip a bottle of wine for lunch every second week to pay for the pleasure of collecting my email every morning. Surfing the net is a rare option. The same can be said for a Pay-as-you-go sim card for the phone network. Talk is cheap but data is about 2 euro a minute which is just over the top. If you leave roaming on you have to have a pipe with money flowing in it to keep up with the charges so just forget having a smart phone online all the time. I use Orange because it works for me others use SFC and purchased their USB and internet access at the same time. They tell me a years contract is cheaper especially if you get TV and a decode box but TV is not my scene.
Emergency Radio Antenna. If you participate in the Med net cruisers network or one of the others it is great to put up your antenna and listen to where your friends are. Remember you don’t have a back stay to transmit your SSB radio signal so an alternative is required. We could hear people in Turkey from north of Dijon so don’t think you are out in the cold just because your inland. Most days the static from industrial sites is not good but other days reception is good.
Shopping, Bags and Trolleys. Shopping is easy not only for the essentials but all that extra goods you always wanted to purchase. Carrefour, Intermarche and large Casino are great in that order. Remember to take your own carry bags because French store don’t provide plastic bags. Stock up on garbage bags because you will run out with none coming in. Shopping trolleys require a one euro deposit to release them from the others so keep a coin handy. Credit cards are always acceptable even with a signature and no pin.
Markets. These are the highlight of the summer experience. Here you will get most fresh goods but also cloths and other things. You interact with the locals and see the locals interacting. Take a bag or a bag on wheels. If you don’t have one then 10 to 15 will get you one like the locals. Be prepared to find your way through the French meat. They don’t cut it according to British standards so you won’t recognise the cuts. It can be daunting at a butcher so we tended to shop for meat at supermarkets. It is always good. The pork and veal, exceptional, quite different from back home!
Cheese. Deserves a section on its own. It is so cheap you tend to purchase too much so get yourself a cheese board with a cover so you can leave the cheese out to mature the way the French do.
Flies. In the canals especially around Bourgogne where there are many Charolaise cattle there are many flies. You struggle to get rid of them or keep them out. Nets are OK but they keep the breeze out. A fly swat helps. There are no mosquitoes after leaving the low lying areas round the mouth of the Rhone so sleeping is fine with the portlights open.
Last Point. Start with the right boat! Our Adams designed yacht with 2 m draft was just not right however we did have a great summer and achieved our goal of understanding the French and the French way of life – we also sampled a vast range of great wines and eat cheeses that you only get in rural France. It was a great experience.