French locks: a love story

After going through more than 200 locks in three different countries so far, and the large majority of them being in France (we still have to see what the locks on the Rhône look like), we felt the automatized locks on the canal de la Meuse and canal des Vosges deserved their own post.

Let’s start with a bit of history. When France lost 581 km of canals to the Prussians in 1871, it also lost a direct connection to the North Sea. France then decided to build 476 km of new canals (canal de l’Est) that connect the Saône, the Moselle and the Meuse. Most of the locks were built around that time. The canal de l’Est was also built as a defense line: a river can run dry in summer while a canal cannot. It was an economic advantage too: the route from Marseille to Antwerpen was shortened by 145 km and 110 locks. After the second world war, the French government mostly focused on the development of railroads and roads so the canals have not been modernized ever since (except for the automatic part – you can now operate a 150 year old lock with a remote control). Big ships cannot go on these canals so they are used for recreational purpose only. France has kept its cultural heritage intact: it’s still possible to use the inland waterways to go from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.

We were going upstream on the canal de la Meuse and part of the canal des Vosges, hence also going up in the locks (going down is way easier so we’ll skip that part). The lock walls are often completely overgrown, when the doors open you often feel like an explorer somewhere deep in the amazon jungle discovering a long forgotten temple. The sudden waterfall that appears after activating the lock adds to the Indiana Jones like experience. Hence rule number one: never be in front of the lock when going up, especially with a sailing yacht.

Left: An automatic lock in operation. Right: how it really feels like when you’re in the front.

Now here is the tricky part when going up. You enter the lock and you see a bare wall, absolutely nothing to attach a landline to. If you happen to have a barge or a very high motorboat then you could reach the bollards on top. From the deck of a sailing yacht you can’t even see them let alone try to throw a rope around them or get a rope around them with a pike pole. Since you’re absolutely not allowed to tie up to the stairs, the only real option you have is to climb up with the ropes. While you climb up you realize why you’re not allowed to tie up to the stairs: there are still a lot of desperate people that do tie up to the stairs, and that doesn’t add up to the stability of the already flimsy, slimy and rusty stairs from the 19th century.

To make things even more interesting there’s absolutely no logic / system in the placement of both the handle to activate the lock and the stairs to climb up. You can find them on the left side, on the right side, in front of the lock or in the back, every time is a surprise, you better be flexible and fast.

In some locks the stairs where not even placed on the side of the handle to activate the lock (we’re thinking of the first few locks on the canal des Vosges). A bit worrying if you think that the handle to activate the alarm is placed next to the handle to activate the lock. In case you happen to fall overboard you’ll have to swim across the lock, climb up the ladder and run around the lock to activate the alarm.

The biggest surprise was the alarm when activating the locks. Some locks where completely silent, you wouldn’t know if you did it right until the doors where actually closing, some locks only had a flashing light, some locks sounded like the first notes of the Madness song ‘baggy trousers’ and some locks had a 70’s style alarm that sounds a lot like Dr. No just discovered you entered his secret volcano base. And these alarms can be pretty loud. Bring earplugs.


5 Replies to “French locks: a love story”

  1. Hi team,

    That starts to look like work, much the same but with many differences!

    By the way when are you near Montelimar? Next week we go to France in the Drôme.
    We pass the Rhone so we might spot the Halcyondays.

    1. We’ll be in Lyon tomorrow if all goes well!

  2. Comme disent les Italiens, qui va doucement….va surement… et qui va surement va loin 😉
    C’est super de partager un peu ce périple avec vous….Bonne navigation….Bisous.

  3. Coucou les marins,
    Vous allez devenir les spécialistes des écluses !
    Quelle est la longueur du bateau ?
    Vous n’aviez pas l’intention de passer à Metz ?
    J’habite à quelques 500 m d’un tout petit port de plaisance, celui de Longeville les metz. On aurait pu se voir.
    Quand serez vous en Méditerranée ?

    1. On commmence à se faire la main avec les écluses 😉 le bateau fait 8,5 m de long… On est passé par Toul mais pas par Metz. Maintenant on espère être en Méditerranée dans moins d’une semaine ! Bises

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