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The French Canals: Part 2 - Race to the Top

Melanie and Morgan Finley

Swift
Moody 44
April 7th, 2021

The French Canals is 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. With four on board (Morgan, Melanie, Isla (12) and Pippa (9) Finley) their adventures are never boring. Part 2 sees the family negotiating a number of locks as they travel through the ‘Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne’.  You can follow them on Instagram @sailing.swift.


It is Day 14, July 23. We are only a couple of kilometers, locks, and nights into the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne. This canal will take us up over the highest point on our voyage south, 345 meters above sea level.

The free shower is a really nice start to the day, but as I walk back to Swift, I receive terrible news from Mel. We find out that the VNF is closing this canal in 6 days and that the canal has been allowed to drain overnight bringing the minimum depth to 1.6 meters. We have 210 km to go and over 120 locks, and our draft of 1.5m is now very close to the new levels.

We’ve also heard that weed continues to be an issue. We start to panic and decide we need to get moving and call VNF immediately.

The outlook seems bleak and getting bleaker. It’s 0900h, and we know this is the only route in 2020 that will get a boat with our draft through France to the Med. But at this point, we were so far in that we were determined not to return to the English Channel.

The start of our trek is pretty weedy, but we can push on. Water levels seem fine. Our lock transits become more streamlined as we fall into a routine.

In the locks, Pippa goes up the slimy ladder or gets boosted over the top of the lock to catch ropes. Isla fends off the opposite side and then tends the stern line. Mel tosses the bow line and runs around assisting. I manage the spring and bow line sometimes from the deck and sometimes from the top depending on bollard placement.

Entry into each lock is tight with approximately 8 inches each side if I get it perfect. We motor under low revs or let the momentum carry us in. The bow thruster helps with final maneuvers when there is no weed. When we enter the lock, our remote has a button to fill the lock, and the exit sequence is otherwise automatic.

We are still a couple of hours from St. Dizier when Mel gets a hold of VNF and confirms that the canal is closing. They tell us to move quickly. The sun is relentless. We’ve taken down the awning so we can better transit the locks which come every couple of km. Twice we cool off in the cleaner looking canal sections. It is too narrow to stop the boat so we take turns hanging (superman style) off the boarding ladder at the stern while the boat glides down the canal in neutral so we can maintain steerage.

St. Dizier is unappealing as a stopping place and leaves us too much distance still to go. We head for Joinville with two potential mooring spots. By 1700h we are tired and worn out by the locks and the sun, but we still have 15 km and 5 locks to go – at least 2 hours. Pleasure boat traffic is supposed to tie up from 1800h in contrast to commercial traffic which can go until 1900h; however, we suspect that we can use our remote to keep going after 1800h especially because there is no commercial traffic this year. We push the boat speed up above the 6 km per hour speed limit and speed up our lock entrances and exits as much as we can.

The countdown to 1900h continues, and there is nowhere to stop. We have two locks to go at 1825h. By the time we exit the second-to-last lock, it is 1842h, and there are 2 km to the next. If we trigger the lock sequence before 1900, we figure it has to run the full cycle?? At 1852h the lock is in sight, and Mel is pushing the button trying to start the sequence. It flicks to red and green, meaning it is preparing for us. We are in the lock by 1857h and, thankfully, it fills and lets us out again!

We are in the clear except the first mooring is much too shallow and has a private barge on it. The second mooring has room, but as we ease towards it angling the bow in we run aground. We are about a meter away at the bow which is just within jumping distance.

We had planned to re-provision on this leg, so I grab my wallet and phone and run up to try to find the store that is apparently open until 1930h. At 1929h I find it and they let me in despite having no mask. I grab random fresh veg, some bread, meat, even a pack of beer only to realize I don’t have a bag and they don’t supply them. I walk back to the boat juggling carrots and the rest. The kids are having a celebration chocolate. We are pretty happy with our progress. It was long, very long, but more or less manageable day.

Day 15, July 24. I am up way too early, concerned about water levels. We could see the evidence of the drawdown when we arrived last night, and I’m very worried they will continue to draw down and our situation of being gently aground will become a whole lot harder. My fears are unfounded, but by 0645h we have everyone up. The girls are drinking sweet tea and eating cookies. Our day starts at 0700h when commercial traffic could get going in a normal year. We are congratulating ourselves on being able to push through. The depths are low, only reading 0.2 to 0.4 m under the keel, and the weed is bad at times but we haven’t faltered. However, two hours into our morning, we hit the worst section yet. The farmland stretches away on either side. There are no trees lining the edge of the canal, it is hot and the weed is thick with only a narrow ribbon of water where the mats of weed don’t choke the surface. The edges are fresh mud from the drawdown and the depths drop to 0.1 and then 0.0 m under the keel. We watch the speed slow from 4.4 km per hour to 3.5 and then 2.8. We are crawling along. There is hardly any water in the canal, and we look at each other and think that we can’t go on if it’s like this the whole way. However, there is nowhere to turn around. The width of the canal is much less than the length of the boat. How long will it be until the fall rains float us again if we get stuck?

A frog swims besides us. I eye up its legs contemplating their potential as a protein source. We think sugar beets are growing in one of the nearby fields – can you eat sugar beets?

We are, unfortunately, also the cork in the bottle. If we stick here, no one else will get through either. Stress? You bet.

The lock is in sight, but it is achingly slow progress. Eventually we manage to smear our way into the lock amid a big raft of weeds. We turn the engine off when we are moored up so I can remove weed from the strainer. The lock cycles and up we go. A VNF van shows up and asks how we are. We mention the water levels in the last stretch and explain we are 1.5 m. He grimaces and looks surprised. However, he also says it should be better for the next bit. Yes please!

The entire day goes by like this. Fortunately, no stretches are quite as bad, and we start to transition to stunningly beautiful rural countryside filled with sunflower fields, wheat, and pastures. It is gorgeous.

The irony of finding exactly the picturesque countryside we want but not being able to stop is not lost on us. We don’t make it to Chaumont that night but close. Instead we select a rural stop in a canal we can swim in by tying up to a blue dolphin. These are set up for commercial barges with a small ramp from the shore out to a single pile. Bollards set into the shore provide moorings for the fore and aft lines. The fender boards provide the protection we need against the pile/ramp. Best of all they leave us far enough in the center of the canal to remain afloat for the night.

Day 16, July 25. We are up early again. Tea, cookies, the first lock opening – it’s like déjà vu. We find the going acceptable, making pretty good time through the first couple of locks and the small tunnel. At one lock early in our day we encounter a closed lock and no lights. Our remote doesn’t work. We just can’t imagine suffering any sort of delay. We can see a VNF van, some machinery, and some people, but they don’t notice us or hear our horn. We take the chance on unloading Isla from the bow onto a small stone staircase by the lock entrance. There isn’t really room for this maneuver, but I sneak the boat in and she slides off without falling in. She runs up to find out what is happening. Pippa and Isla were in French immersion back in Canada. Isla uses her French skills to, not only get their attention, but to also expedite the lock reopening. Awesome, we are back on our way!

That night we have chosen a stop just short of Langres. We have read that 1.8 meters should be available at a pique nique halte. Sadly, it doesn’t work out that way. Our first try has us aground well short of the wall. We move upstream 20 m, where we can get close enough to get off the bow, but we leave the stern in deeper water.

Day 17, July 26. I’m up early again but feeling a bit better because we plan to tackle the summit today. The race may be over. It’s Sunday and early but I decide to check out the little boulangerie in town. I walk into the sleepy farming town. No one is up. The sheds all hold tractors. The buildings are stonework with big rough wooden beams above the doors. They look hundreds of years old and probably are. Bright flowers decorate some of the front yards, and I stop to take a few pictures. As I come around the corner the boulangerie is open! I’m welcomed in, and I figure out which croissants are made from butter and which are made from margarine. I choose the butter – of course. I grab some baguettes and bread and head back to the boat. Coffee, croissants and pain au chocolate in the cockpit make for a better start!

Our day is a good one. We aren’t far from the top. If we are correct in our understanding of which part of the canal is closing, we should have a day and a half to spare so spirits are high. We come to the lock immediately before the summit tunnel and, although we haven’t seen a boat in a while, we wonder who is going to control the traffic lights that will allow us through. Everything seems automated, and yet the tunnel is too narrow to pass anyone so we think the system will be like a one-way bridge except that it is nearly 5 km long. A long narrow stonework canal funnels us towards the tunnel. There is a green traffic light, and we see the entrance. It looks much smaller than we anticipated. As we get close, it narrows further to accommodate a walkway along the side – the old tow path we assume. When we enter, we find we have 16 inches of space on each side. Traveling at 4 knots requires constant attention to avoid smearing the boat against the walls. The girls spend the whole tunnel providing constant updates on the size of the gap as measured by the size of a water bottle we have in the cockpit. “1 ¾… 1 ¾… 1 ½… 1 ½…”. The tunnel is fascinating if a little damp and claustrophobic. It was constructed in 1883 and there are stalactites forming on the sides. It feels like it goes forever, and despite the lights in the ceiling the water is a long black ribbon. We feel like we are on a Disney ride.

When we are in the middle, the tunnel is just straight enough for us to see the light at both ends. Finally, we reach the other side and exit into torrential rain. When will this race end?! But then we turn a corner and see the last lock!

There is a crew of VNF personnel and even a VNF office at the lock. They confirm we have passed the closure point. We made it – champagne for happy hour that night! However, they also tell us that we aren’t quite free from weed, but at least we are clear from the low water levels and closures – for now. Seriously? For now… again?

Our ending to the day is an amazing staircase of 8 locks, each of which descends 5 meters. For the first time we go down in a lock! So much easier. The bollards are easier to access, and Pippa is done with slippery ladders. The new challenge is that on some locks the water level is very near to overflowing. Navigating into a lock when the wind is blowing and a stone wall is at waterline height on both sides is nerve wracking, but at least we’ve already had lots of practice with the narrow entrances.


Stay tuned for next month’s Currents to read the closing article of the series French Canals – Part 3!

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  1. Jennifer says:

    What an adventure! Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.