Whether you’re an experienced boat-hand but have never cruised in France or are new to boating altogether, there are bound to be some questions you need answering before you set sail. Canal Boat magazine’s Deputy Editor, Martin Ludgate, is here to put your mind at ease
Q: Do I need a ‘driving licence’ or any kind of qualification to operate a boat in France?
A: France does have a licence scheme, but hire boaters from other countries are only required to have the same qualification as they would need at home. As in the case of those from the UK, there is no qualification needed and hire companies will issue the hirer with a temporary licence on this basis.
Q: Do boaters work the locks themselves, or are there lock-keepers to work them?
A: Some locks are worked by boaters but many are operated by lock-keepers (éclusiers). In some cases, a keeper might be responsible for more than one lock, travelling between them by van or motorcycle. This means that when you set off in the morning you might have to wait at the first lock for the keeper to arrive, but once they know where you are, they and their colleagues will keep track of you. On manually operated locks it is the custom for boaters to help with operations under the keeper’s supervision. Keepers might appreciate it if you tell them when you are stopping for the night or for lunch.
Q: Do the canals close overnight and for lunch?
A: Yes, if the locks are keeper-operated they will close at night (the hours vary between waterways), so make sure you don’t get stuck the wrong side of one if you’re aiming for a particular overnight mooring. Lunchtime is sacrosanct in France, so expect keepers to take an hour or two off (again, the time will vary from one canal to another).
Q: Can we moor up anywhere we like?
A: Some canals are suitable for casual mooring along the banks, but on many waterways, especially rivers, it’s normal to tie up at recognised moorings sites. In many towns there will be a port de plaisance with pontoon or online moorings and facilities (such as shore power supplies and water points) for which there will be a charge, while in smaller villages there will be simpler free moorings.
Q: Will we have to watch out for large freight barges?
A: Although they seem big by British standards, most French canal locks (and the barges built to fit them) are small by the standards of modern freight. Barge traffic on these waterways has been in decline for a number of years and you are unlikely to see any. On larger waterways, especially some of the rivers, you can still meet sizeable barges. If you do, keep out of their way, and let them have priority at locks, bridges and other bottlenecks.
Q: What’s the speed limit on French canals?
A: It varies from one to another, but typically between six and ten km/h. And, as in Britain, if you’re making a big bow wave, you’re going too fast.
Q: Will I need to be fluent in French to go boating in France?
A: A large proportion of the boat hire companies’ customers are English-speaking so they will almost certainly be able to explain everything to you in English. Out on the canals, if you need to communicate with waterways staff who may not speak English, a few words of French backed up by a phrasebook or dictionary and some sign language will go a long way!
Q: Are there any signs I need to understand?
A: Yes, there are international signs – you can find them on the internet or in guide books, but most are pictorial and their meaning is clear. A few useful ones which aren’t quite so obvious are often seen on bridge arches: a rectangular version of the familiar ‘no entry’ road sign (ie a red rectangle with a white bar across the centre) indicates an arch that you shouldn’t use; two yellow diamonds indicate an arch that is only for traffic going in your direction (so you won’t meet anything coming the other way); a single yellow diamond indicates an arch used by traffic going in both directions (in other words you can use it, but watch out for boats coming towards you).