By Zachary Wallen (text & photo)
In 2017, I decided to take Fregata down to the Med and perhaps compete in some of the well known classic yacht regattas that take place in the south of France. I have had an interest in exploring Europe’s inland waterways as well, so without too much fuss, I set off from Sandefjord, Norway in the fall of 2017.
I arrived in Kungsbacka about 2 weeks later after a wet and windy cruise along the west coast of Sweden. I laid the boat up for the winter and returned to my job running a sailing yacht.
The summer of 2018, I set off again
and had beautiful sailing down to Copenhagen. A break there and crew change and then sailed through Denmark arriving in Lubeck, Germany about 5 days later. I was welcomed warmly by a sailing association who let me use their crane to unstep the mast. We then cruised through the city of Lubeck into our first canal and lock, a short connector that brings you to the Elbe river. You immediately get a sense of canal life which is very tranquil. Swans and ducks greet you on almost every stretch.
Most of the German waterways are relatively uninteresting. There is heavy commercial traffic and at times high dikes that restrict views, but you are brought to some nice towns and cities that I’d never heard of and surely wouldn’t have visited otherwise. The infrastructure of the canals can be interesting, especially the ship elevators, the largest of which is a 40 m rise in Belgium. Essentially, vessels up to around 200 m drive into a huge tub of water suspended by fat cables which is then raise or lowered. These are installed in place of a chain of locks. Locks waste a lot of water as the entire chamber needs to be filled or emptied and if there is not adequate water supply, may need to be pumped back up to to higher points in the system.
My trip in Germany brought me to the Rhine river, where we had a short and fast ride downstream for a day into the Netherlands. A connector canal joins the Rhine with the Meuse river. We then went up the Meuse to Maastricht where I left the boat for 6 weeks. I returned in September with my parents and we continued up the Meuse into Belgium and all the way to the French border.
2018 was a very hot and dry summer and there were many reports of canal closures due to low water, but it was difficult to find information. There were very few long distance cruisers with whom one could speak to about what lies ahead and English is not so widely spoken by canal administrators. So i had heard conflicting reports about whether the Cand de la Meuse was open only to be turned back at the first French lock. So we had to go back down the Meuse for 2 days and begin a drawn out bypass through a Belgian industrial wasteland and come into France through the Ardenne.
A slog south along the very commercial Canal du Nord (connects Paris and Belgium/Netherlands) until finally hanging a left into a quiet deserted canal in the Aisne river valley near Soissons. Locks here only go up or down a couple meters and are operated automatically with a remote control the canal authority gives you, quite a relief after travelling with heavy traffic. Indeed, this was the type of canal travel we enjoyed all the way to the Rhône river in Lyon. Anyway, by this time it was October and we heard about further canal closures ahead (due to lock repairs) so we gave up and left the boat sitting on a town dock in a tiny village about 2 hours drive northeast of Paris.
7 months later, this past June, I returned to the boat and she was sitting just as I left her. Before getting underway, the village mayor swung by and asked for some money for the electricity I used to keep the battery charged. I gave him all 30 euros from my wallet and he seemed pleased and I left amazed and thinking that must be the cheapest dockage in Europe.
More pleasant canals were to be had this summer. Lovely French towns and deserted waterways (it is amazing and concerning how few pleasure or commercial vessels you pass on the smaller canals). The canals are usually connecting 2 river valleys and are called summit canals. One must go up a series of locks until you get to the ”summit reach” which is the highest stretch of water defined by the elevation of the source of water for the canal. Because of this limitation, the summit reach will often include a tunnel through rolling hills that can be 15 km long.
After the summit reach, you begin down locking your way into the neighboring river valley. The Champagne to Burgundy canal is one such summit canal and was in fact the last true canal of the trip. It is 250 km long and contains 125 locks. The Burgundy end of that canal spits you out into the Saône river and I once again left the boat, for 4 months this time, in the village of Auxonne. Price: 190 euros per month.
Just 2 weeks ago, I returned to Auxonne with my mother and we finished what has been at times an arduous journey. We made great time on the straight shot south down the Saône river which turns into the Rhône river at Lyon.
One enjoys a favorable current (up to 5 knots at times) and relatively few locks. The Saône and the Rhône are also very picturesque and we both agreed the food and the wine improved as we moved south. We exited the Rhône near its mouth at a lock that joins the river to the Canal a Sete. It was our final and about 300th lock of the trip.
Fregata is now sitting at a berth near the town of Aigues-Morte in the Camargue. She is for sale and ready to be commissioned for next year’s sailing season.