Canal Marne au Rhin (Ouest) May 2015

IMG_1950Leaving the Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne on 19th May, we had to wait as a big commercial exited the lock, which came as something of a surprise – we’d not anticipated that this was a hugely busy commercial route. As it happened, it was the first and last commercial that we saw on the Canal Marne au Rhine (Ouest).

The lock was automatic, and as we completed the cycle, the VNF man arrived with our zapper for use at lock 55 and onwards. Up to that it appeared to be mostly radar-detection for lock preparation and blue pole for operation.


Uniformly unattractive lock-side cottages along the Marne au Rhin

Our first impressions of the canal were not favourable. It was quite rugged, over-grown and over-hung with not particularly attractive lockside cottages. Initially busier too as we crossed with two other plaisanciers by the third lock. As we began to climb though, the vista opened up and we began passing through open fields.
We moored at Bignicourt (lock 66) which had been described as a good mooring with pretty flower beds and picnic tables, though as we moored we did note, with some caution that there were several wheelie tracks in the grass. Sure enough, by the time we’d had our lunch, motor bikes were whizzing down the towpath to the moorings, until about a dozen schoolkids were draped over the picnic tables. Out came the roll-ups and bong/hookah pipe (who knows?) and it got steadily noisier. Since it was only 2.45pm we decided to push on. They weren’t being a nuisance, but if it was like this mid-afternoon, who knew what it would be like by 10pm? And we couldn’t get a satellite signal anyway!

IMG_1853As the radar cycle had timed out, I had to walk up to the lock to contact the control centre via the comms box and soon we were on our way again. 4 kilometres and 2 locks further on, we moored at Pargny-sur-Saulx, a lovely mooring about one kilometre from the village across an open field. A man in a small cruiser watched from his boat as we struggled to bring the boat in between his and another boat in a howling gale. Once we’d managed it, I hopped over the bow to tie up, whereupon he emerged promptly from his boat to insist that his rope went on top of ours as he was leaving early in the morning! Thanks, pal. A nice chap came to collect a mooring fee, which I think was 6-8 euros, water and electricity included.

By morning the cold wind had dropped to around 15kmh and we were away… earlier than the fussy chap who wanted his rope on top.  🙂   Two locks later, the green light changed to double reds as we were within yards of the lock entrance, and it was the dreaded lock-ladder climb for me. At least, being the first locking of the day, the rungs were dry. Yesterday’s lockie arrived within 20 minutes, but at lock 56 yet another malfunction meant that I had to be put ashore before the lock as the detector wasn’t working and the gates wouldn’t open. As I approached the lock I found the same lockie lurking in his van, and he intervened once more. Promising start.

Nothing to do but take photographs and wait for the lockie to release us.

Nothing to do but take photographs and wait for the lockie to release us.

Along here the traditional bollards are spaced far apart but some smaller grey bollards have been attached either side of the control poles for smaller craft. Some of these had already disappeared or broken off and we struggled occasionally for rope distribution. At Lock 54 the gates remained closed after filling and I had to call for service yet again so that we could be released. An oncoming boater, who was having difficulty hanging around in the wind whilst we waited, told me that it was not much better further upstream so far as lock efficiency was concerned, but well worth the pain as the canal was beautiful. We hoped so!
Our locking coincided with just about every hail and rain shower that the day offered and at mid-afternoon we arrived at Fains les Sources to find all the moorings taken, mostly with unoccupied boats. We moored against pilings about 300 meters upstream of the quay, where the grass had been conveniently levelled, not best pleased with our day’s cruising, even though we had covered 24 kilometres and 22 locks.

The lockies along here were much less relaxed about early starts, and we were pretty much held to a 9.00am start lock-wise. The village is very pretty, with a stream running right through the centre. There is a supermarket but it’s pretty much out of the town and we gave up our quest. A boulangerie was quite close to the port though.

The first lock has a road bridge in front of it, and a lockie was already waiting to deal with both for us. We’d obviously been tracked from the day before. There is another nice mooring near the VNF office about three locks further on, where there is an interesting metalcraft profile of a barge and a little replica engine.

Bar le Duc looks like an interesting town, though it’s difficult to get a good shot of it or the architecture from the canal with the rail line that passes between. There are moorings here, both linear and pontoons and about three boats our size could fit in here.
There are a couple of lift bridges through Bar le Duc so you need to be sure the lockie knows you’re not stopping off there.

After Bar le Duc the scenery improves dramatically, with rolling meadows, distant wooded slopes and pretty villages. A lovely though cold morning turned into a warmer day with blue skies and a few ominous clouds.

Although a lot of the locks between Bar le Duc and Lligny en Barrois have the control box on the left hand side as you ascend, oddly the right hand sluice tends to be the one that opens first (not without some force either) thus forcing you away from the wall, and then when the left hand sluice kicks in you have a fairly speedy and vigorous return to the wall!

Arrived at Lligny-en-Barrois mid afternoon and moored on the central pontoon. With a better layout, this mooring could accommodate more boats, though there are two long term moorers there (one of them huge). It’s also popular with motor homers, though there are no apparent services for them. Water and elec on the pontoons and a standard charge of 10 euros per day, regardless of length. Shower block and amenable capitaine, together with free wi-fi which drops out fairly frequently. The town is busy, but already showing the usual signs of decline with a number of empty shops and restaurants. The big supermarket in the centre (Match) was only half-stocked as it was closing at the end of the month. We decided to have a break here and stay a couple of nights.

Friday is one of two market days, but not very good. Mostly clothes stalls that day, and can you believe I couldn’t find a stall selling garlic! However, if you take your bike along the green route right beside the canal you reach a big Carrefour after a good kilometre’s ride. You approach from the back but there’s a well-worn path allowing you wheel your bike down to the car park.

Another boat arrived mid-afternoon, heading the same way as us but not willing to share locks, which was hardly surprising given the bollard availability and turbulence.  They were happy to let us go ahead at all times.

Next day we’d snuck in an early passage through the lock, and had four locks under our belt by 10.00am. Then I had to call service again, which amazingly arrived within 5 minutes. At lock 17 you change to automatic locks again. Above lock 15 at Naix aux Forges there is a pleasant mooring, concrete quay with five bollards, picnic table and rubbish disposal. A bread van visits the village.

Our zapper was returned at lock 11 and our passage through the Mauvages tunnel was confirmed for the next day. There are moorings just above the lock at Treverey, quite pleasant but with sloping sides.

For the last ten kilometres before the summit the water is so clear you can see the bottom of the canal – it’s like a tropical aquatic garden down there. The canal winds around heavily forested areas, interspaced with rolling green fields.

We moored just below No 1 lock on a pontoon with limited cleats as the end ones seem to have broken off. We put a chain around the pontoon support arm and ran a bow line to it so we weren’t taking up the entire pontoon, as the boat with whom we’d moored at Lligny was due to arrive later.


The VNF mooring above No 1 lock and on the tunnel approach

We both fit comfortably there, but there is another concrete quay with several bollards above the lock on the right, and if you continue and turn left towards the tunnel there is a VNF mooring there, behind the old towing vehicles that are no longer used.

The information board before the lock indicates that only two boats are allowed through on each return journey, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, though I’m not sure how rigorously that is applied. IMG_1907

A VNF employee would follow our progress on a ‘technical footbridge’ and boats (with no more than six passengers) should leave 50 metres space between. The first passage was at 9.15, and the lock was activated for us at 8.45am despite it being Sunday (normally 9.00am start).

IMG_1916The tunnel is not as well lit as the Balesmes tunnel, and there are narrower sections where steel arched supports appear to have erected. Towards the end (40 minutes later) a lockie cycled through on the walkway – was that the ‘technical footbridge’ we wondered?

Locking downstream now, and the next twelve locks down to Void were no trouble, all ready for us and quick to empty after an initial slow opening of the paddles. We moored outside the VNF offices in Void which is a pleasant spot. Water is available at one end of the quay and electricity at the other, which we couldn’t get to work. It was Sunday though, and maybe it needs to be turned on by VNF staff. The wi-fi was available, so we had a chance to catch up on emails and updates.

And then everything went pear-shaped on the computer front, when right in the middle of a Windows update, the black screen of death appeared on my computer! The rest of the evening was spent trying to bring it back to life.


Imagine this lock ladder but without the blue handrails – see the metal bar set across the quayside parallel with the top rung.

The next morning (26th May), we continued our journey with me steering whilst Neville continued working on my laptop. Light drizzle gave way to a steady downpour. There’s a reasonably long stretch before you reach the first lock, which is a double lock (side by side). The lights were green for the lock on the right, both being operated by an in situ lockie. The subsequent locks were all set automatically, but we became stuck at the bottom of the second one when the gates wouldn’t open. Nothing for it but the nicely slimed lock-ladder. I struggled to the top, only to find there were no handrails for you to pull yourself out onto the lock side, just a metal bar set horizontally in the ground.

I’ve done this once before (back in Yorkshire) and hated it. Unless you are practically double jointed and can touch your toes before straightening up with your back to a four metre drop, you have at some point to let go of the bar as you struggle off the ladder. I did what I did last time … launched myself head first across the lockside, ending up face down, covered in mud, but safely out of the lock. (I’ve found it helps if you sob uncontrollably during this endeavour… a little light whimpering just doesn’t cut it somehow.)

Having secured at least the promise of assistance, I checked and found there was no way for me to get back on the boat below the lock. I’d have to return via the lock ladders again.  Fortunately, Neville pointed out that there were some ladders with handrails right up at the front of the lock so he took the boat up there, lashed it to the ladders and helped me through the final couple of metres back onto the boat.  Wish we’d noticed that before!

We continued locking downstream, getting wetter with every minute, wringing out our gloves and my trousers acting like a wick, drawing the rain from the deck right up to my knees. We were not in the best of moods as we arrived at the Port de France in Toul around lunchtime.

If you’re anything more than 10-12 metres I wouldn’t bank on being able to moor here at Toul. The long quay at the back of the port has been commandeered by 20+ metre barges, and the only available space was taped off. A boater told me that space on the quay was reserved for a syndicate boat, but he thought they were out cruising. So we nicked the space, only to find that the last locking up of the day (the port is between two locks) brought the syndicate boat home. The port was fuller than it had been when we arrived, and our humbling exit involved a 90 degree reverse turn under a lot of scrutiny from surrounding boats. The capitaine arrived on scene and told us that since we were leaving early next morning, we could moor on the canal side of the larger pontoon beneath the first lock, where mooring is strictly forbidden.

And just to add the icing to the cake, during our manoeuverings out of the syndicate boat’s space, I tripped over my laptop cable and sent it crashing to the wheelhouse floor. The last 24 hours had been dismal, but on the plus side Neville had managed to locate my files (on this dead, black-screened laptop) and had transferred them to the external hard drive and to his laptop. Now all we had to do was get the operating system up and running again. All…..

The next morning we were in the lock promptly at 9.00am. There’s another mooring below the lock which is something of a ‘dog-leg’ pontoon, but it is worth giving it a go if you can’t get in at the main port, because the next mooring opportunity for Toul is about ten minutes further on, and had big barges breasted four-up. Mooring at Toul seems to be a bit of a problem, and this wasn’t even high season.

The third lock had a Happimag hire-boater at the bottom, with one crew on the quayside. It turned out they’d activated the red pole instead of the blue one, which didn’t make the lockie very happy when he arrived to restart the procedure. They then proceeded to lock up without securing so much as one rope, just riding out the turbulence and using a boat-hook to catch hold of a lock ladder ‘en passant’. The lockie stood there scratching his head, and I wondered how they’d managed on the Moselle.

We were on the Moselle by 9.30 and had a fairly peaceful morning cruising through lovely countryside and through two locks by 12.30. And then, everything went pear-shaped again!

Our final drama!

Our last lock, Neuves Maison, has a long, angled, shuttered approach which is controlled by lights due to the reduced visibility. The lights were on green and we started our approach. When the doors opened the lights remained on red. We hung about in the lock approach under increasingly windy conditions and I tried to contact the lockie on VHF. No response. After a while I phoned him. He spoke fast, and with an accent but I gleaned that another boat was coming and there would be a twenty minute delay. We took the boat to the left hand side, but there was nowhere to moor and we had to keep pulling her back in the wind. After a while the lockie came on the radio (despite not having responded to us on VHF earlier) though his message was incomprehensible. I tried to confirm what I thought he was telling us, and our communication degenerated into him shouting something which sounded like “reticulez, reticulez” which eventually morphed into “arriere, arriere”. Eventually I deduced that the expected boat was a big commercial and that he wanted us to draw further back still, so we reversed even further along the shuttered approach. Then I spotted a small eye-ring on the shuttering at head-height, so we put a mid-ship rope through it and secured ourselves to stop us being drawn forward again. We could hear the lockie in radio contact with the big commercial that was coming down, warning him that there was a plaisance in the lock approach, on the left. And we waited… And waited…
Eventually the bow of the commercial rounded the corner, (it turned out to be a 120 metre scrap metal carrier) and we were relieved that we were secured as it would pass. We turned our attention to our rope… with dismay.

The commercial had drawn down the water level as it approached, and now our rope was about half its previous diameter, humming like a bee and totally impossible to release. It was either going to snap, or we would have to cut it. The commercial crawled relentlessly on and past us, as I began to prepare a second rope for our locking, and Neville crouched over the bits, waiting to take advantage of any back-swell that might raise the water level sufficiently for us to release the rope. He missed the first opportunity, but managed on the second attempt and we were free. Two more plaisanciers were behind the commercial and there was a frantic scrabble then for everyone to get into the lock behind the commercial. The latter of these were hire-boaters, with an array of empty wine bottles on the deck and no life-jackets. They were bellowing at each other, and at the boat in front; the lockie was bellowing at them to put their life jackets on and they were attempting to use a steel boathook to fend themselves off from our hull. Oh happy day!

We’d arrived at the lock at 1.30pm but it was 3.00pm by the time we’d risen to the top of the lock. And even then, the commercial, who’d spent the last five minutes of lock-filling craning his car onto the lockside, now spent a further five or six minutes assuring himself that the crane arm had fully retracted before proceeding to inch slowly out of the lock.
It seemed like a lifetime, but we were at last off the Marne au Rhin and the Moselle, and onto the Canal des Vosges!

About Sandra

I used to cruise the French waterways with my husband four or five months a year, and wrote fiction and poetry. Now I live on the beautiful Dorset coast, enjoying the luxury of being able to have a cat, cultivating an extensive garden and getting involved in the community. I still write fiction, but only when the spirit moves me - which isn't as often as before. I love animals, F1 motor racing, French bread and my husband, though not necessarily in that order.
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10 Responses to Canal Marne au Rhin (Ouest) May 2015

  1. All that hassle and the computer mess as well…guess you’ve had a better time. Hopefully the sun eventually came out and things improved. I know you made it back to merrie olde England, so there’s at least that. 🙂



  2. billgncs says:

    I suppose adventures are never as fun during them… but I recall you looked pretty nimble on the locks when we were there.

    Glad you made it 🙂


  3. rogershipp says:

    Wow… so much hurry up and wait time for your trip….but what memories for later. HEre in teh states, I do not think that there is anything comparable to this kind of trip. Gridlock on an interstate is definitely NOT the same thing.


  4. Some troubles, but the scenery looks lovely. Quite an adventure. 🙂


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