Getting my Yarmouth-23 safely through 200 locks!

Gianluca - Trusty crew

Gianluca - crew

Technique, Tips and Tricks

  • You can never have enough fenders (and I’m not taking about guitars Gianluca!) I used five a side and one bent around the bowsprit. I would have liked to have more.
  • I carried four good warps at least 15m long (one for each quarter), plus two boat hooks.
  • I always secured both bow and stern within locks and kept the engine on idle, tiller lashed.
  • For locks without floating bollards, I’d motor up to the access ladder and my crew would use a warp off the Samson-post to hold fast. Moving quickly I’d carry the stern line up the ladder with me and loop it around whatever passed for an attachment point before making a better arrangement for the bow, activating the lock, and returning to help haul on the ends.
French Lock-keeper!

French Lock-keeper!

  • Managing locks is rarely a one-man job, especially when ascending. Descending was easier, and if necessary I’m sure I could handle it alone, but for insurance purposes and relief from boredom, I always invited additional crew.
  • The real danger for descents is if a rope gets caught. This happened once but in a desperate rush I managed to work the line free without resorting to my trusty bread knife.
  • There are still numerous manually operated locks and inexperienced students often man them (woman them in many cases, much to the delight of my male crew) during the summer months. At these locks I found it was always best to follow your own routine despite offers of assistance.
  • For planning purposes, if all goes well, consider that it takes on average 15 minutes to cycle through a lock.

French Lock

French Lock


I did most of my travel through the Belgian and French canals on weekends. As the commuting distances grew I used my holidays to have three-day weekends. On a Friday night after work I would drive to my boat, sleep on board, and spend the rest of the weekend cruising. Passage times of 12 hours a day were not uncommon but I probably risked mutiny on more than one occasion. 🙂  On the last day I’d search for an appropriate location to leave the boat and train, bus, taxi, or hitchhike back to my car to drive home.

Overall, this method worked, but it wasn’t always easy. Some stops were poorly serviced by public transport and the cost of driving back and forth could easily be prohibitive.  Mind you  it was amusing, especially when sitting on a train watching all I had passed with the boat (over a period of three days) go by in reverse order in a matter of hours.

Everyone has heard of “road rage” but did you know about “canal rage”?

Canal traffic

Canal traffic


I have found that locks can be stressful, especially when shared with cantankerous captains in commercial barges or leisure craft. Let me illustrate with one of my many misadventures…

Between Liege and Namur there are three relatively large locks. I was traveling this part of the Meuse with my mother as crew and Chester my Old English Sheepdog as mascot. We expected nothing less than the usual leisurely cruise and for the most part it was just that.

However, at the last lock of the day,  a large peniche had to take evasive action to prevent colliding with another vessel crewed by an elderly couple. This pair were oblivious to the danger as they set about arguing with each other and other boat crews over precedence.

I was following at what I thought to be a safe distance but as the peniche applied full throttle in an evasive manoeuvre, the resulting turbulence sent Eileen of Avoca swirling back out of the lock like a leaf in a whirlwind.

Only sheer luck (I’m claiming copious amounts of lockmanship here!) prevented me from slamming against the canal walls as Eileen was unceremoniously ejected from the lock.

Learning the ropes

Learning the ropes

Who would have thought cruising these canals could be classified as an adrenaline sport?

I’d  experienced the occasional bout of road rage (in no way related to my excellent driving skills), but I never thought “canal rage” had such a strong following in central Europe.

I witnessed several fine examples of verbal rampaging as yachts aggressively vied for position. I also found that the sport of pontoon hoarding has developed an ardent following at favourite stopovers.

It’s no wonder there were moments I could not wait to be free from the confines of the inland waterways. I was happy enough to arrive at a popular location if I could safely leave the boat at the end of a few days cruising, but until then I did my best to avoid the crush of yachtsmen.

It was best to push on unless forced to stop at a lock (closed for the night), or tie up by a quiet uncharted quay away from the traffic jams at guidebook stopovers.

Friends insist that I’m just plain antisocial. 🙂

A farraginous collection of thoughts while traveling through the Belgian and French canals

canal crew

canal crew

Having had very little experience with traveling though canals and locks, it was with considerable trepidation that I first entered the Belgian canal system at Nieuwpoort.

Reading several guidebooks did little to instill a sense of confidence. In fact it had just the opposite effect. I am now convinced that good “lockmanship”  is not something that can be attained through theoretical study.

Judging by the number of bruised pleasure craft making their way through the inland waterways (and I confess to having had my share of bumps), passing “applied locks 101” is no trivial matter.

Belgium provides a forgiving environment for the inexperienced because relatively few locks partition a days cruise. Moreover, help is always close at hand if things go “pear-shaped” because every lock has an operator.

This proved to be an ideal training ground. The experience fortified me for what was to come in the French waterways, where I traversed as many as 32 locks (near Epinal) in a single day.



My route took me through Bruge, Gent, and the outskirts of Antwerp, Turnhout (my registered home port), Hasselt, Liege, Namur and Dinant before reaching France.

There are no official entries in my journal because my original detailed log now resides on a deceased hard drive that despite heroic efforts, has resisted all attempts at resuscitation.

I could still use a professional recovery service but at this point I just can’t justify the expense.

Entering the Belgian canal system



Tuesday the 10th of April

At 7am I made my way through two locks to get to the VVW Westhoek marina (far right of the photo). Entry to the first lock is dependent on the tide (+ or – 3hrs HW) but it was a simple matter to call the lock operators on the phone to arrange everything (in English).

Until the end of April the locks are not attended on Sundays so for a while my travels will be restricted to Saturdays. My Belgian itinerary will be something like Nieuwpoot, Brugge, Gent, Antwerp, Turnhout, Hasselt, Liege, Namur and Dinant. Then it will be on to France and the Med.

GPS Track

GPS Track