“Rent a canal boat? We’re doing a road trip. Why would we rent a boat?” I asked Becky.
It was true that for some time we had wanted to go canal boating in France. The idea of a slow trip through the countryside self-piloting a boat along one of France’s many canals has some overwhelming appeal to us. Maybe there’s the anachronistic appeal of being able to travel the same way, well, almost the same way as people have for years and years. Or perhaps it is just an extension of playing with water and mud when we were young. But no matter the motivation, a boat trip just didn’t seem to fit in the plans for a tour of Europe by car.
As usual, Becky was undeterred by sound reasoning. And soon, after some research, we found a way to include a canal boat journey in Burgundy in the midst of our already complex trip itinerary. We would indeed go canal boating in the middle of a road trip. At least we would avoid France’s expensive Autoroute tolls for a week.
In France there are a myriad of navigable canal routes and at least as many companies willing to rent canal boats to anyone with a driver’s license or passport. No experience is required. France requires no pilot’s license for pleasure boaters on many popular canal boat routes. That our boating resume was padded with the hours riding the fake wood on amusement park’s log rides and steering pedal paddleboats around flat ponds was not important. From the eyes of Locaboat, our boat rental company, we were fully qualified to rent a boat and take it on a river or canal. We could even guide the boat through the narrow locks on our own. Somewhat less confident in our navigational skills than Locaboat, we took out the boat’s collision damage waiver.
We had decided to do our first canal boat trip in Burgundy. The route we chose started in Joigny, on the Yonne River, and connected to the Canal du Nivernais in Auxerre (pronounced oh-sehr). We would continue on the Canal du Nivernais and finish near the town of Corbigny after transiting 85 miles and 67 locks. (Locaboat would take care of relocating our car.)
We arrived in Joigny the night before we were to take command of the boat. The early arrival gave us a chance to dine at the Michelin-starred La Côte Saint-Jacques (I’ve posted the blow-by-blow details.). The next morning we had time to explore Joigny.
Unless a close relative lives nearby, Joigny is not likely to be on your European travel itinerary. Sitting on the steep slopes of the Yonne River, Joigny has two gothic churches. Long ago were overbuilt and are now distorted with time and settling, half-timbered buildings line the streets. Joigny makes for a pleasant walking tour. But, if you are planning your first trip to France, go to Paris first.
Locaboat services the boats the first thing in the morning (the returning boaters usually dock overnight at the base). The boats are ready for the changeover to the new clients in the afternoon. There was plenty of time to stock up at Joigny’s Saturday market. The market itself is worth a visit and we should have bought more food for the trip. “In the know” boaters at the dock packed their boats with provisions that usually including several cases of highly flammable adult beverages.
Before you take command of their boats, Locaboat insists even for skilled amusement park log boat drivers like ourselves that you go through a training cruise. In our case, the English-speaking trainer had the day off. Our training cruise was in French with a real time translation by a native German speaker. As we cruised up and down the river receiving what seemed to be crucial tidbits on how to avoid wedging the boat into orientations along the river that only the next ice age could resolve, we were left to wonder about the accuracy and completeness of the real-time translation.
“Blah, blah, blah, moteur ka-boom! Non blah blah ou smack! Non blah blah ou catastrophe (accompanied by exaggerated hand motions describing a rolling motion followed by the arms raised into the air)! Blah blah tres mauvais, comprendre?” Our trainer would say in French for 38 seconds.
“Don’t go directly from forward to reverse or vice versa,” came the translation, with a German accent, taking about 3 seconds.
It seemed like several details, perhaps essential, were lost in the translation. We thought about asking the interpreter if there was anything said by the trainer that was left untranslated, but we didn’t. Maybe the French trainer had thrown in a few extra details about his favorite Sebastien Loeb auto racing moments that the German interpreter felt free to exclude. Who knows? But anyway, how hard could driving a canal boat be for experienced log boaters like us?
After we demonstrated that we could drive the narrow boat through a large 100-foot wide gap in a nearby bridge, the boat was ours. We had passed the checkout. We were free to take the boat up the river. At least the Locaboat staff was confident enough that we could navigate the river and canal.
Locaboat doesn’t tell you this ahead of time, but they expect that new boaters will spend the first night at the base. The locks close at 7 pm, so, after the training and everything, there is very little time to make much progress. I suspect that, in truth, they want to give you the night to sleep on the whole thing. Do you really want to pilot a boat up a commercially navigable river? You could still bailout the next morning and avoid the trauma of grounding your boat on a deserted sandy shoal on the bank of a river in the middle of Burgundy.
After a nervous night aboard the boat, we woke to start our trip up the Yonne. Before untying, we learned that a crucial piece of equipment on the boat did not function. It took couple hours before the staff fixed our CD player and we were off on the river.
At first it seemed that there was nothing to this canal boat thing. The river was wide. What could go wrong at 8 mph in the middle of a river? The smooth sailing ended when the first lock appeared.
“Is it open?” I asked Becky?
She couldn’t tell either, so we crept forward on the Yonne to get a better view.
“There’s a boat in the lock.” Becky said.
That meant that the lock was definitely not open. It turned out the boat in the lock was “locking down” so we would not have to wait long for the locks to recycle before we could sail in. Nevertheless, we needed to hang out until the water level equalized and the boat in the ecluse could move out. According to the trainer, it was best to tie up to the shore and wait for the lock to clear. At least we think that is what he said. Thus I moved the boat to the river’s edge so Becky, with a rope, could jump off and tie us up to a bollard.
Tying the boat up to the bank may just have been another of the maneuvering details lost in the training translation. Becky was ashore with the rope but the boat had overshot the landing dock. I had to come around again and I was looking astern while backing the boat away from the riverbank with the throttle pegged. I glanced forward to see Becky diligently securing the bow rope to a bollard with one of her ultra secret super secure knots.
“Untie the rope!” I shouted.
“Why? My knot is perfect,” Becky shouted back.
There was no choice. I quickly violated one of the only things I had clearly understood from the training—don’t change the thrust’s direction without a second’s pause in between. I was afraid that, if I didn’t act immediately, the front of the boat would be left securely affixed by Becky’s work of art to the shore with the remainder of the boat, and me included, quickly establishing the depth of the channel of the Yonne.
Fortunately the boat’s transmission survived the radical maneuver. By the time the boat was back under control and the rope was on board, the lock was clear. All I had to do was pick up an increasingly insubordinate crewmember from the bank. With additional elaborate and comical (only to an outsider) maneuvers, I directed our pennichette close enough to the shore to let Becky leap on board. We never actually docked the Lezinnes to the riverbank.
Needless to say, TSA weapons screening of Thermonuclear Becky before she reboarded the boat would have been a good idea.
“This wasn’t a good start. There’d be a mutiny before we reach the first lock. It has to be a record,” I thought to myself.
Reality excluded any further extraneous thoughts. The next challenge, if I ignored Becky arming herself with the dull kitchen knives below deck, was the lock directly ahead.
(To see what actually happened check out this stop action video.)
Locks or ecluses, in French, are really simple hydraulic devices. A boat enters a channel closed at one end by a gate. Once the boat is inside, the gate behind closes and sluices are opened to even the lock water level to the river or canal level in the direction of travel. Once leveled, the gate in the direction of travel is opened and the boat moves out a few feet higher or lower than it started.
There is one detail that we didn’t consider when planning this trip. With the small boats used on the canals “locking up” or gaining altitude while moving upstream is a more difficult maneuver than “locking down.” The reason is simple. When locking down, you steer the boat into the lock and a loyal crewmember casually steps ashore, the wineglass in hand being a common accessory, and loops the ropes around a bollard or two and then steps back on the boat with the end of the rope in hand. Standing on the boat, the crewmembers sip wine and slowly release rope keeping the tension so the boat stays near the side of the lock as the water becomes turbulent when the sluice is opened.
Locking up is more challenging. You enter into the lock well below the rim. If you are lucky, you might find someone on the lock side that you can toss a rope to. Otherwise, the boat’s driver has to maneuver the craft close enough to a long and often slimy-slick swimming pool style ladder. A crewmember scrambles up the ladder to get to the rim of the lock. From there, the ropes are held tightly (the water going into the lock is more turbulent) either on shore or on the boat until the water levels are equalized. Getting the crewmember to the ladder and not having them slip and face plant into the water is a challenge.
For our first lock, we weren’t close to getting Becky ashore. Finally, the lock keeper, when the amusement value of our struggles waned, took pity on us and caught the rope that we tossed up. He looped the rope over the bollard, and dropped the end back to our boat. Being close to the Locaboat base and lock-naïve boaters, the keeper likely helped out more than most. In fact, I suspect he might have an extensive video collection of novice boaters trying out the locks for the first time. I know I would.
This was not a good start. But we got better quick. We had to. The next lock, the boat was closer to a somewhat less slimy ladder and Becky was able to dive and grab it while I kept my eyes averted less I see her plummet into the murky cold lock water. At this point, I pretty much figured the best rescue technique, if Becky ended up in the water, would be to drive the boat back out of the lock. If the boat was short of the spot and Becky missed the ladder and ended up in the water, the life that needed saving would be my own. I’d turn the boat around and head north at the top speed of 8 mph in the small hope that Becky couldn’t catch up. Fortunately I never had to revert to this Plan B Self Rescue technique. We quickly got pretty good at getting Becky ashore and locking up. Becky never fell into the water.
It helped that some of the locks had sliding docks that moved up and down with the water height. These were easy. Tie the boat to the dock and sit back and watch the waters level change. Untie the boat and move on. We almost broke out the wine glasses when we saw these.
We passed our 11th lock at the edge of Auxerre. Rounding a bend on the flat still water of the Yonne, Auxerre’s massive gothic cathedral, abbey, and church came into view looming over the river and reflected by the mirror smooth river. Boats were parked everywhere. A festival, a regional wine festival it turned out, was in full stride on the right bank of the river. The approach to Auxerre on the river formed an indelible memory and not just because we survived the day on the Yonne.
According to Locaboat’s suggested itinerary, we were supposed to spend the night in Auxerre. We couldn’t imagine a nicer place. But where would tie the boat? The docks were filled three deep and the banks were lined with boats. Suddenly a woman on the bank waived us in and directed to dock alongside another boat already tied to the shore. The woman worked for the boat dock; they’d charge us a small amount of money to spend the night but we’d be able to get electricity, water, and WiFi. (We learned that WiFi is pronounced “wee-fee” in France; we’d need to find another name for the tariff charged for using the pay toilets in France.). The dock is the boat equivalent of an RV park.
We had just enough time to catch the end of the wine festival. For three Euros, we were able to taste Chablis, Chitry, and Irancy wines from a variety of small producers. The wines were unfamiliar. It was a great opportunity to learn something new about the wines of Burgundy.
After dinner in town, we settled in for a comfortable evening on the water. The Lezinnes is equipped with 5 berths, a galley, and a head. There’s plenty of room for two, though it would help to be short. The headroom below deck is limited.
The next day we’d move off of the main channel of the Yonne and on to the Canal du Nivernais. Now our “canal boat” trip would really begin.