Belgian and French inland waterways

Dinant Belgium

Dinant Belgium

I had read that the canals would take me through some of the prettiest countryside in Belgium and France and this was largely true as many of my photographs will attest.

But I also saw some of the ugliest industrial zones, junkyards and nuclear power stations in central Europe.

It turns out (not surprisingly) that traveling on a canal is much like driving on a highway.

Industrial Liege Belgium

Industrial Liege Belgium

The banks are usually raised (limiting visibility) and even when they are low, the vegetation often restricts views of the surrounding countryside. Following these waterways often frustrated me, (mind you I’m easily miffed), but I’m now claiming that no sailing vessel should suffer the indignity of canal travel for too long. Being chained to the tiller hour after didn’t help to endear them to me and when it rained (which it does quite often in the Lorraine district) I felt and looked miserable.

Enough complaining…. on the plus side, I’ve come to know towns I’d never have thought to visit and found many to be truly splendid. The slow pace gave me time to appreciate what I saw and to unwind (between torrential downpours!). Once the dreaded locks were mastered (lets say… managed without too much anxiety) they served more as a welcome distraction rather than the hurdle they had seemed at the start of my journey. The best bit was being able to invite my landlubber friends for a great weekend without worrying that they would be bored or seasick.

The routine in France went something like this:

  • Motor along until you see a sign indicating “remote control receiver is here…”1

  • Take out the mysterious yellow control box and…. “Push the button Max…”2 A yellow light flashes above the sign indicating receipt of your command (if you are lucky).

  • Wait… wait some more…..sometimes quite a long time… usually because someone on the other side has pushed the button first!

  • Eventually an alarm bell rings and the lock gates open.

  • Dodge the oncoming traffic.

  • If you are feeling antisocial or just want to take part in what must now be a local tradition, race for the lock to ensure no one else gets a chance to squeeze in.

  • Desperately seek the elusive bollards, and failing that… do the unthinkable and attach your lines to the ladder (be prepared to be told off for doing so).

  • Risk life and limb climbing up the slippery access ladder and back to adjust your warps.

  • Lift the blue rod to cycle the lock

  • Do battle with the turbulence to protect your brightwork (probability of success 80%)

  • Relax as you motor on to the next lock

  • Grit teeth when inevitably asked, “Are we there yet?”

  • If answering No….Go to step 1

  • If Yes…. You are in the Med.

The routine for Belgium is similar, just replace the sections about the remote control with… “Gesticulate frantically with the lock-keeper” and “suffer disdaining looks from the commercial traffic operators” where appropriate.

Automatic Lock

Automatic Lock

Note: Locks beyond the Meuse were largely activated by turning a pole hung on a wire stung across the canal. Locks closer to the Mediterranean were enormous and these obviously had operators. Near Epinal, students on their summer vacation operated the manual locks for a bit of pocket money. Cute!3.

Each lock is unique. Just when you think you have a routine sorted out you undoubtedly find yourself in one with an unusual configuration and nowhere to make fast. A Yarmouth 23 is tossed about quite thoroughly by the turbulence in these locks (especially if you are near the front gates of a rising lock). On occasion it required all my strength to prevent Eileen of Avoca from thrashing about. In hindsight it would have been much easier if I had stayed to the back and always insisted on being the last boat in.

1 At Givet (my first French lock) I paid my waterway fee and was issued with a remote control for activating automatic locks.

2 Quote from the movie The Great Race

3 More on this later

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. 🙂