The French Canals will be a series of three articles recounting Morgan and Melanie Finley’s passage from the English Channel through rivers and canals of France to the Mediterranean in July and August of 2020 aboard Swift, their Moody 44 sailboat. They bought the boat in the UK and had a slow start with COVID-19 lockdowns. With four on board (Morgan, Melanie, Isla (12) and Pippa (9) Finley) their adventures are never boring. Part 1 sees the family go through their first lock, arriving in Paris and continuing through the Canal Lateral a la Marne. You can follow them on Instagram @sailing.swift.
It’s 0530h and we’ve already been in Cherbourg, France for a week, waiting for a chance to head south through the Bay of Biscay to get to the Mediterranean. This looks like it may be the best day for the next week to make a 90-mile run southwest, but the wind is still blowing 15 knots and will be right on the nose. The Channel Islands are still closed from COVID-19 travel restrictions, so we can’t shorten our day. We’re up early in order to catch a lift from the huge currents in the Alderney Race.
Needless to say, there is no excitement for this morning’s adventure. We know Pippa (age 9) will suffer from the mal de mer. I’m suffering from the mal de bierre. What are we doing? We hate beating to weather.
However, we’ve just heard the French canals are open again – Paris, vineyards, pastoral countryside, no slogging to windward and no crossing the Bay of Biscay! And so the decision is obvious; the next day we change course 180 degrees and sail at 7 knots with the wind at our backs as we slip eastward toward Le Havre and the entrance to the Seine River.
It was easy to make arrangements to proceed through the middle of France by contacting the Voies Navigable de France (VNF) and paying for the permit. Permit costs are calculated based on the length of the boat and the amount of time you plan to be in the canals. We paid 155 Euro for Swift for one month.
The Seine River
A week later we’ve pulled the mast in Le Havre, and we arrive in beautiful Honfleur at the mouth of the Seine River. We aren’t going into this completely blind. It was always the plan to use the French waterways to travel to the Mediterranean when we found a Moody 44 in the UK with a shallow draft of 1.5 meters. However, the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK derailed our plans and itinerary, and the uncertainties from a slowly reopening Europe suggested we might be better transiting the Bay of Biscay.
We had also planned to make this trip in May when, historically, the water levels in the canals are higher and the traffic is lighter. It was now July 2020, and, although we could still picture the worst with Swift grounding in a drying canal until the fall rains, we were also very excited to be finally heading in the right direction and going somewhere we really want to go!
In the first 30 minutes of Day 1, July 8, we run aground at low tide outside the Honfleur lock with two other sailboats. I hang my head in shame – at least it is soft mud. Swift has the shallowest draft of all three boats, and we are soon off to catch the tidal surge for the run up the Seine to Rouen. We pass medium-sized freighters and dockyards, but also long stretches of muddy banks with riverside vegetation and very little else.
The first lock on the Seine is 40 km past Rouen. The lock is huge – sized to accommodate commercial barge traffic. Our first transit is a near disaster because we have moored far up the lock nearest to the turbulence from the flooding process. We swing all over, and the mast swings in close to the wall. We emerge shaken but unscathed, and moor for the night at a quiet wall by a sleepy neighbourhood. A friendly canal traveler provides advice for future lock transits. We celebrate our successes and look forward to tomorrow.
The next morning is amazing. We are up early and mist swirls over the river as we motor away from our mooring. The remainder of our run to Paris transitions from the lowlands of the Seine estuary to more scenic landscapes with farmland, pretty villages, and even the odd castle. We transit the locks without mishap and with much less stress.
We reach Paris on July 12, two days before Bastille Day. It is surreal to arrive in one of the more beautiful and vibrant cities in the world on your own boat. You motor right past the Eiffel Tower! That thing is so very impressive and very huge! An eclectic mix of canal barge conversions line the riverbanks. We motor under spectacular bridges and eventually moor in the Arsenal Marina basin at the base of the Bastille monument.
Our experiences of Paris and the Bastille Day celebrations are of social distancing but nonetheless great. We travel on foot or rent electric scooters. We walk around the Eiffel Tower but don’t go up. We see the Louvre but only from the outside. We eat ice cream near the fire gutted Notre Dame Cathedral. We drink French beer outside Parisian brasseries. We stumble across military horse guards and their accompanying band, who parade unannounced through the streets to avoid drawing a crowd. Our view of the fireworks is distant, but how great is it to be sitting on the banks of the Seine River listening to musicians and the chatter of groups of friends enjoying a few beverages? Paris doesn’t disappoint, and visiting Paris was one of the adventures that Isla (age 12) was most looking forward to.
Our only negative to date, and it is certainly enough to dampen our enthusiasm for our waterway adventure, resulted from meeting another sailing boat – the first and only one we see. Unfortunately, they were on their way back to the English Channel, having encountered excessive weed on the canal route they chose south of Paris. We spend an extra day in Paris trying to get answers from VNF, the agency responsible for the waterway system in France. There is only the one route through France available to us due to our draft. They confirm that there are weeds but that it is open for now. For now? That sounded ominous. We decide to push on or we would have to head back to the English Channel and face the Bay of Biscay.
The Marne River System
We depart Paris nice and early and head west along the Marne River system. On Day 1 we get to take our ocean-going sailboat through two tunnels. They are narrow and low, but we get a rush out of the novelty.
That first night we arrive in the city of Meaux. There is an excellent Halte Nautique (a public stopover) with pontoons for a dozen boats. We have one neighbour, and the cost to moor is only 10 Euro with power and water. The town is pretty, and the kids stay on the boat while we sneak off to drink a couple of beers in the town square at a vibrant little bar.
As our journey continues down the Marne, the scenery transitions to hillsides covered in vines. We tie up to the bank in the middle of nowhere beside corn fields. The swimming is great as are the views. We stay up in the cockpit until well past dark, enjoying the peace and beauty of the French countryside.
We travel on through the Champagne region where we stumble upon a Champagne tasting room and leave with a few more bottles to add to the bilge! We are loving it! This is exactly what we wanted. This stretch of the Marne has been really beautiful, with lots of interesting stopping places. People are friendly. The Marne is clean and provides some excellent swimming breaks. The weather is warm and sunny. Aside from the regret that comes from eating my body weight in cheese and consuming the same in wine on a daily basis, we are feeling pretty good.
We start to encounter more weed when we continue on through the Canal Lateral a la Marne. The Canal narrows and the locks are sized down accordingly. It is possible to push through the weed, but the size of the floating rafts at the entrance to some of the locks is concerning. We start emptying our raw water strainer every morning.
Two days later we enter the outskirts of the city of Vitry-le-Francois, and we don’t feel the love for canal life anymore. The Canal is a narrow dirty ditch alongside aging industrial buildings. Weeds choke the edges. I skim past a shopping cart. We turn past the boat harbour we originally thought we might stop at. There are a few small commercial barges and some pleasure craft. Most look like they got this far only to die a slow rusting death. A barge pumps dirty brown bilge water into the Canal in front of us – no swimming here!
The entrance into the first lock of the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne is no better. It is under a train staging area, which makes a low flat-ceilinged tunnel. There is nowhere to wait and no room to maneuver. Finally, the gate opens and we squeeze in. It’s a taller lock than any we’ve had in a while, making it feel even more tight. But we go up and the sunlight is shining on us again. The lock keeper is friendly and hands us our remote to operate the locks. He also informs us that the weed isn’t bad and the water levels are OK. We leave the lock feeling like we just won a prize. Things are looking up!
Stay tuned for next month’s Currents to read French Canals Part 2!