French Canals | Sailing Blog - Technical Hints and Tips - Sailing Television

Top 10 Canal Journeys

French Canals - We spent 10 weeks on this trip - here crossing the Loire River
Briare2 sml
If you dream of exploring foreign countries by water, then the inland waterways and canals are a great way to see the inside of the country. I have just finished editing the last episode of Season 9 Distant Shores (here on Vimeo) - all about travelling on canals and waterways - and thought I could try to summarize and compare these voyages. Over 24 years we have made journeys on a dozen different canal systems. Here are our favourites. Honestly I did try to put them in order but it was too difficult. They were all fun!

FR0706 bow tunnel small
French Canals

Right across France by boat!! There are numerous routes but all require the mast down as the small canals have clearances of just 3.5 meters. It is a modern route up the Seine to Paris though, so if you just want to visit Paris clearances are higher - 5.5 meters to enter into the excellent Arsenal Basin marina.

We did the whole trip across France in 10 weeks but this included 10 days in Paris, and many other stops. If you plan to take your own boat it should probably be less than 1.7 meters to enjoy the trip. You can also rent boats at different areas along the way. Here are links to blogs on preparing for the Canals, taking the mast down, fendering, and general recommendations.


The US Intra-Coastal Waterway (or ICW) will always have a warm spot in our hearts as it was part of our first big cruise - leaving Canada and heading south to the Bahamas back in 1989. The whole 900-odd miles we travelled from Norfolk to Ft Lauderdale took us roughly 5 weeks with many great stops along the way including charming towns, nice anchorages, friendly folks and some challenging navigation. Nowadays it has shoaled up somewhat in certain areas but I think is still a fun trip. You have a height clearance of 64 feet so it's a "mast-up" route for most boats.

Scottish Canals

The Crinan & Caledonian Canals are also "mast-up" routes for most boats (27 meters clearance to transit the Caledonian), deep and well maintained. The Crinan is short and could be done in 6 hours but we divided it in half staying the night along the way, and at the end. The Caledonian is much longer allowing you to cross Scotland and go through Loch Ness en route to Inverness. Pubs and a few cute villages en route plus spectacular scenery!

Dutch Canals - Standing Mast Route

We were surprised by how lovely this trip was! It had been difficult to get good info on the Dutch Canals so perhaps we hadn’t understood just how charming the dutch towns were along the way. We started at the north in the Lauwersmeer, and visited Dokkum, Leeuwarden and Lemmer before crossing the IJsselmeer to Enkhuisen, Hoorn and Amsterdam. All these stops were AMAZING... historic, friendly and neat as a pin. (here’s our blog on the Dutch Canals)

UK Narrowboat Canals
Quirky and charming, the narrow canal system in the UK is one of the oldest systems we travelled. The canals are so small you can only do it in the special narrowboats (unless you travel by canoe!) The beam is just 7 feet (including fenders) so no normal cruising boats can do this system. But narrowboats are readily available for hire and it’s a fun way to see the countryside. Chugging along a waterway that’s hardly bigger than a ditch... there are pub lunches and evenings tied to the shore in the middle of the country. It sometimes seems like you have gone back one or two hundred years. We only did 3 days on this system but could see returning to do another trip. Here’s the link to our program on Vimeo.

New York’s Erie Canal
This is a very useful short-cut from the Great Lakes to the route south. The Erie Canal is also quite fun, travelling through some lovely scenery and nice small US towns. They are actively encouraging boat traffic and some towns offer free/cheap dockage wifi etc. We recommend you add a day or two to the plan here to take advantage of this lovely route. It's not just a shortcut but a destination! At the end is the dramatically beautiful Hudson River and New York City.

trent severn bridge
Canada’s Trent Severn

44 locks and 210 miles of rivers, lakes and waterway connect Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay. The Trent-Severn Waterway crosses a very pretty area on Ontario, Canada with vacation cottage lakes and tiny old Canadian towns. Water depths are 6 feet but over 5 feet will have some issues. Height is restricted to 22 feet so its "mast-down" for sailboats. We spent 7 days coming through to Lake Simcoe. If you don’t want to bring your own boat this is another nice opportunity to rent a houseboat. Highlights are the remarkable lift locks (which we filmed) and the nice cottage lakes. Best time is June-September.

Sweden’s Gota Canal

We spent more than a week crossing Sweden via the Gota Canal. We did it in September but would recommend it during the summer season. The middle section crosses lovely northern lakes with nice swimming in summer. There are some cute small towns and there was even an opportunity to moor up in the moat of a Castle!

For More info check out all my blogs related to Canals

On DVD our shows on Canals were

Season 5 - Trent Severn
Season 6 - Erie Canal & ICW
Season 7 - Narrowboats, Kiel Canal, Gota Canal, Dutch Standing Mast
Season 8 - Scottish Crinan and Caledonian Canals
Season 9 - French Canals (5 episodes) and Great Canals Journeys

Plan your passages around the world with us aboard Distant Shores
Order the Super Pack on DVD and get Season 1-10 Downloadable.
Order the Super Pack on Vimeo and we will send you the code for Season 10 as a bonus.

Canals - Recommendations

Well we finished the French Canals after a very successful trip lasting almost 10 weeks. It was something we had dreamed of doing for years. It was a great voyage and we had a blast! Coming into Paris on our own boat, visiting small french villages and tasting wines at the “caves”... If you are thinking of seeing France by canal there are a number of options. Chartering a houseboat/peniche is one option. Going aboard a larger Peniche as a passenger or bicycle tour is another. But this blog is about taking your own boat. Can you do it and will it be any fun?

Suitable boats
Draft - We have seen a variety of craft in the canals but some were having less fun than others... If you have a boat that draws more than 1.8 meters than you should not even consider the trip. If your boat draws between 1.6 and 1.8 then you should be prepared to run a ground a fair bit. Boats drawing less than 1.6 will be safe. we draw less than 1 meter but swing the keel down to 1.6 for most of the trip as a safety valve. We very rarely touched bottom when staying in the proper channel, but when passing other craft we had to more to the side of the channel and were glad we drew less than 1.8.

Beam - Our beam is 4.2 meters and the limit is 5 meters. But lock chambers are just 5 meters wide so your beam must include the width of your fenders. For us that meant we had less than 20cm clearance on each side as we came in to the locks. Thats less than a foot. So for boats more than 4.5 meters wide you will need a good fender strategy that isn’t very wide to fit in the locks. Our fender system worked very will. I highly recommend you think carefully on the fender system. With a good strategy we never worried about the narrow locks and bridges. If we jostled the lock wall our boards just bounced us safely away. And once settled in the lock chamber our width meant we almost didn’t need to tie up in the chamber - we were a tight fit and just sat there (same as the big peniches)

Fender Board
I believe our large fender board was the secret to a stress free passage (nearly stress free:-) and here are few hints.
Keep it low for the many locks that raise the boat up to there is just a few inches of wall remaining. Our boats was 12 inches tall and could be hung right down so it nearly drags in the water. Bevel the edges and front so it doesn’t get caught on the walls. Make sure the lines attached do not go on the outside or they will wear through. Tie a line to the front of the board that runs forward so the board won’t be swung back when you rub along the walls. We bought 8 more fender before the trip and it was cheap insurance. No scratches after the trip!

Bow thruster
Having a bow thruster was a great advantage.
We used it quite a lot and it again reduced stress. We even used it in the locks sometimes to centre the boat when currents swung us around. Take a spare fuse for the thruster too.

The canals have different restrictions on height. For the Canal Briare/ Loire/ Centre that we took the restriction is 3.5 meters of “air Draft” If you don’t know your exact height you must figure it out precisely before starting. We measured our height with the mast on deck at 3.1 meters so had plenty of clearance. If you are 3.4 or greater you might need to take something down?

Carrying the Mast?
We carried our mast because it is too long to be transported by road in France. However if your mast is less than 18 meters long it can be trucked to meet you. Then the boat is easier to manage, shorter and tidier. Worth a thought!


Some people look at the route from the North Sea down to the Med as a shortcut. If you have a powerboat that might not be up to crossing the Bay of Biscay, then this is a reasonable idea. But for a well-found sailboat that could do the passage around then it is not really much of a shortcut since you have to deal with the mast and the locks take quite a while.
But , if like us, you are interested in seeing France from the deck of your own boat, the French Canals are an unforgettable adventure and wonderful way to see this romantic and beautiful nation.

Canals - Fender strategies

The French Canals are a destination we have wanted to cruise for many years. Five thousand miles of canals criss-cross the country and also connect to Belgium, Holland, Germany and beyond. Altogether you have thousands of miles to explore and many years worth of cruising in the European waterways. For us we have planned a 3 month excursion crossing France - a leisurely journey with plenty of time to stop and sample the wines, cheeses and pretty french villages.

Canal System
Some of the canals we will travel on were built 400 years ago, and most were designed for barges up to 5.2 meters wide by 1.8 meters deep and 38 meters long. The barges are big and square and just fit into the locks - no room for niceties like fenders. For the modern yacht that doesn’t want to scratch her topsides we will need a system to work safely through the locks. Distant Shores II is 4.2 meters wide so we will have just 0.4 meter on either side including fenders. If your boat is square and made of steel then you may not need any of this!!

Design Criteria
- entering the lock - approaching a lock we will be moving slowly and trying not to hit either side so we will need fenders that allow us to nudge the side of the lock and not slide up out of the way. Some people have used a huge rope hung like a belt around the wides point (generally the gunwales). We have opted for fender boards hung down outside the fenders to absorb friction of the walls and protect the fenders. We tie the board with a forward line as well so it won’t swing back if we scrape the wall moving in the lock.

- rising up or going down in the locks - going up in locks is usually rougher since the turbulence of the incoming water can push the boat around. Most sailboats have narrow bows and sterns so need to have some large fenders near the corners to protect against the bow or stern hitting the lock. The huge “tear-drop” fenders work well for this and also for powerboats wishing to protect their flared bows.

- low lock walls - some locks tend to fill up quite high so there isn’t much wall left at the top of the lift. In this case there might be just a few inches left of lock wall and fenders may all pop out. So it is important to be ready with some protection down near the water line.

Here is our current version of the system (Version 3.3?)
  • a 4 meter fender board (each side) that is a foot high (13 feet long X 12 inches high and 2 inches thick). Small fenders attached to the board as a backup in case the main fenders slide out. A forward line to keep it in place as we move along the lock wall.
  • low “swimming” fender boards as a last defence against very low lock walls if the lock is overfilled and our fenders pop out
  • large fenders at bow and stern to protect in the event of the bow or stern swinging in to the wall

Fender Board Notes

In the upper picture you can see the support line holding the board up and the line going forward to stop is swinging back when we rub the lock wall on the way on and out of the lock. Some people use this same system for holding a bunch of fenders. One line from the bow down to the bottom of the first fender and then running aft tethering each fender to they don’t swing back.

Fender boards will scrape along the rough lock walls. It is important that lines tying the boards must not be on the outside of the board or they will quickly chafe through. There are various solutions to this. I made our 2 inch thick board from 2 times 1inch boards. I drilled holes through the inner board for the lines and attached the outer board to that with screws and glue. There will be a considerable wearing down of the outer board by the time we are through the locks.


Mast down - hints & tips

This was the first time to take down the mast on Distant Shores II. Taking the mast down is biggish job but we have done it 3 times before on Distant Shores 1 - similar size and fittings, and also on Two-Step (6 times). We spent two days removing sails, building the horses and pulling out halyards etc.

Here are a few hints to happier “de-masting”

Plan and prep - carrying the mast on deck. I did a scale drawing to plan out the mast horses in advance since we would have to pass under a clearance of 3 meters. I used the drawing to plan how much lumber to buy. The drawing shows I will have to fold the dodger (sprayhood) down to clear the mast. The yellow box from the waterline is for a clearance of 3.1 meters. Different canals have different clearances. We need to clear 2.9 for the Nivernais so I don’t think we will take that route!

Unrigging the mast - make notes and take pix so you can rerig it all. It makes sense now but will I remember which line went in which block when we come to put it back up?

Wiring - remember to disconnect wires that come out of the mast - in our case VHF antenna, radar, lights and wind instrument. Label and photograph connectors to help with reassembly. I put the “1” and “2” labels on the identical grey wires with Sharpie” permanent marker.

VHF - with the mast down we loose our VHF radio - we carry a small “rubber ducky” VHF antenna which can be connected where the mast feed is disconnected. Now our VHF and even our AIS works so we can use our radio to talk to locks etc. Note our AIS is the Raymarine unit that multiplexes the signal from the masthead. So the one little rubber duck will do both and we see ships coming on our AIS.

Main support aft - I have made this one as a tripod so it also supports the mast for-and-aft. This is very important as we don’t want the mast to start sliding when we cross a wake.

Forward support - ours holds about 45% of the weight with a cross to stop it tipping and most weight supported on the centre post.

Block to support front of mast at bow. This will be lashed better to also help support against the mast moving for and aft.

Over-engineer - we don’t want this falling down - I have used a heavy 2by6 lumber (50mm X 150mm) for main supports and 50X100 or smaller ones (2 by 4 inches)

Its is bolted together with heavy 10mm carriage bolts and oversize washers to attach the timbers. There is another bolt hidden that connects the 2 cross members.

Carpet or rubber to protect the mast and deck. It also spreads the load to timbers and also where the stands rest on deck.

This is from a doormat that was rubber and carpet together. Most people use carpet scraps but we didn’t have any.

Boom lying on deck - we used a cushion to spread the load and protect the fibreglass.

We planned to have the mast hang over the stern by 2.5 meters. This way I see it easily while manoeuvring from the helm. The bow hangs over by less than a meter so it is easy to judge. It was tougher with Two-Step which had a keel-stepped mast - so the overhang was more than our deck-stepped mast.

Another advantage of a small bow overhang is we can come in bows-to and not block the dock.


Preparing for Canals

Bonjour toutes mes amis

Sheryl and I are back on board Distant Shores II in England getting ready for the French Canals.

We have planned 3 months for this trip but have been dreaming about it for more than 15 years! It always sounded very romantic to cross France by boat, and when I learned you could go right into the centre of Paris, I knew we would do it someday. But back then we owned Two-Step and she is too deep to manage the canals at 6 feet. The Canal de Midi route has a maximum draft of around 1.5 meters and the various Paris/Med routes have a limit of 1.8 meters. Two-Step drew over 1.8 so would not be allowed in. Bummer! This was where we first started seriously considering a shallow draft boat! Now we are coming to finally tackle the canals - our draft is less than 1 meter!

Taking a Sailboat in the canals

First we must deal with the mast. There are not many canals that allow for sailboats to transit with the mast up. We did a few of these routes the past two years.
Gota Canal in Sweden (Season 7 - episode 10,11)
Kiel Canal to the Baltic in Germany (Season 7 - episode 6)
Dutch Staandemastroute - Standing Mast route through Holland (Season 7- episode 12)
Crinan Canal - Season 8 episode 3
Caledonian Canal - Season 8 episode 4

These canals all allow a sailboat with mast height less than 21 meters. But crossing France we must take the mast down.

Mast on Deck?

In the past we have done the Erie Canal in the USA and Canada’s Trent Severn Waterway carrying the mast on deck. French canals have a maximum “air draft” of less than 3.5 meters so we would have to carry the mast lower than we have in the past. The alternative in France is to use a mast service to transport the mast. It will be waiting when you arrive at the end. The advantage is not banging your head in it for the 2-3 months of canalling, plus not dealing with the “overhang” since the masts of most sailboats are longer than the hull.

Fendering - Protection

I am currently working on the fendering system. We normally use a fender board hung outside a pair of fenders to protect against rough lock walls. With this extended canal cruise I am adding even more fenders and plan 3 more fender boards so we have 2 each side. I will post again when we have this system set up finally.


Other considerations include preparing for a trip as a motorboat. So carry engine spares, lots of fuel and possibly jerry cans if you can’t get the boat to a fuel dock. Practice clearing the intake water filter since there will be more debris/grass/weed than normal. Carry extra impeller for the same reason.

Charts and guide books etc ... more in the next blog...