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November 23, 2018

France: Bollène-Écluse

Filed under: Europe, France, Photography, Travel, Travel, Writing — Tags: , , , , , , , , — anotherheader @ 5:51 pm

The downstream face of Bollène-Écluse viewed from the water.

On the Rhône River, between Valence and Avignon is the famous Bollène-écluse. River navigation infrastructure-wise the impressive Bollène lock is the highlight of any passage on the Rhône. It is the deepest lock on the Rhône River and indeed in France. Several million pounds of boats, the equivalent weight of more than ten 747 jumbo jets, can gain or lose 23 meters in altitude in minutes using this lock. That’s roughly the height of a seven-story building. It is a remarkable piece of engineering.

The Bollène écluse is most impressive when seen from the downstream side. Arriving boats encounter the massive vertical face of the dam-lock complex blocking the route. More often than not the lockgate is closed on arrival meaning that the boats need to wait either by “hovering” in the stream or by tying up at the pontoon or the dolphins. Eventually the massive “guillotine” gate lifts open revealing the inside of the chamber. After the boats inside the lock leave and the control light changes to green, the waiting watercraft enter the chamber.

Inside the lock’s chamber

The convex shape of the lower lock gate

When empty the Bollène écluse is cavernous. The pool of water at the bottom is 11 meters wide and 190 meters long. High above is a band of sky. The bottom of the deep lock is an intimidating place, particularly when one considers the power of the water held back by the dam.

Once the boats have entered and secured to the floating bollards the locking cycle begins. The whole atmosphere, the sights, the sounds, and the feel if being in the lock as it operates are unforgettable. At first there is the deep resonate rumbling as the lock gate slowly closes behind the assembled boats. When the lock starts filling with water every metallic squeak and moan created as the poorly lubricated floating bollards slide sporadically up their tracks reverberates around the chamber. Beneath it all is the low grumbling bass line of the barges’ motors set to idle.

The commercial barge Guadiana enters the Bollène lock.

The upper lock gate is closed and the locking cycle has begun.

Though the mistral may be blowing hard up above, it is dead still deep down in the chamber. All around the walls are dark and wet. The air is dank and humid, filled with the musty smell of river water combined with the acrid sooty odor of diesel exhaust.

Taken together it all produces a feel and soundscape fit for a Hollywood science fiction movie or a video game. But this is not some fantasy or a creation of an art director. It is a real place serving a practical transportation purpose.

Guadiana exits the lock heading downstream.

Zulu follows.

Occitania waits to enter the lock as Guadiana and Zulu exit.

It takes several minutes to completely fill a big lock. When the level inside the lock chamber matches the level outside the gate at the top opens to the river. Boaters loosen their ropes and continue on their way against the current made gentle by the dam. Ahead there are more locks and more water to navigate. For through traveling boats and barges, the process of passing through a lock will be repeated numerous times, though never as spectacularly as it is at the Bollène écluse.


To find the Bollène écluse on a map press this link.

We traveled through Bollène écluse in the summer of 2017.

Locking down in the deep lock.

Guadiana goes up.

Guadiana prepares to leave the lock going upstream.

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