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Through French Canals | Cruising the Rhône

France is criss-crossed by a network of 100 canals and rivers totalling thousands of miles. David Jefferson’s book Through the French Canals  features the main waterways of France and in this extract, he explores the mighty river Rhône, the second longest in France and the Saône river…

The Rhône

The Rhône is fed by several navigable canalised rivers including, to the north of Lyon, the Saône with the Petite Saône and the southern arm of the Canal du Rhône au Rhin and, just a few kilometres from the Mediterranean, the Petite Rhône and the Rhône à Séte Canal. This will be of interest to anyone considering moving their boat down to the Mediterranean by the waterways because ultimately the choice is limited to navigating the Rhône or a seaward passage down the Bay of Biscay and taking the Canal des Deux Mers. The Rhône is the more popular choice. Particularly for smaller craft, the Rhône comes as something of a challenge after days spent progressing at a leisurely walking pace along the Bourgogne or Bourbonnais routes, stopping for lunch and mooring up in the early evening near a promising restaurant. In the space of a few days, the skipper is suddenly having to cope with a strong current and pay some attention to the weather as the boat is piloted down the broad waters of the fast-moving Rhône, sweeping her towards the giant locks that are a feature of the waterway. The rivers that feed into the Rhône are peaceful enough during the summer months. There is little current to cope with on the Saône, which is particularly popular with those who choose to charter boats on the French waterways.

Those who are bringing their boats through France to the Mediterranean from the Strasbourg region or from Germany may well be motoring along the southern arm of the Canal du Rhône au Rhin and experiencing mile after mile of spectacular scenery along the Doubs valley.

At the Mediterranean end of the Rhône, the skipper has the choice of either continuing almost to the end and branching off at Port-St-Louis or joining the Petit Rhône which enables a boat to transfer to the Rhône à Séte Canal and motor through the Camargue to reach a more westerly Mediterranean port.

 Saône: St-Jean-de-Losne to Lyon

Yachts bound for the Mediterranean by way of the northern waterways will eventually reach the important junction at St-Jean-de-Losne. On the way there, some will have sampled the considerable attractions of the Canal de Bourgogne, others will have chosen the Marne route through the Champagne region. Boats passage-making from Strasbourg and the north-east will have emerged from the Canal du Rhône au Rhin and others may have experienced the delights of the Petite Saône. Only those who have taken the most westerly Bourbonnais route will miss St-Jean-de-Losne, meeting the Saône 57km downriver at Chalon-sur-Saône.

Having arrived at St-Jean-de-Losne, via the various routes from the north, west or east, crews should anticipate a marked contrast in their surroundings once through the first of the Saône’s massive locks (Seurre). The channel widens from a modest 12–15m in the Petite Saône to a minimum of 40m and at times the river is 200m across from one bank to the other. There are numerous shoals, shallows and manmade submerged training walls to be avoided, with red and green channel buoys much in evidence.

Watch out for the dérivations on the Saône. These are canal sections bypassing parts of the river that are no longer navigable. Sometimes a portion of what is being bypassed can be navigated and provides a peaceful night’s stop free from the wash of passing barges. There is still commercial traffic on the Saône, with pushing tugs connected to several dumb barges creating considerable wash as they speed by at 15kn. When considering the day’s passage, the crew will appreciate an itinerary that makes provision for a quiet berth for the night, undisturbed by the wash of passing traffic.

During the season, there is little current unless, due to exceptional weather conditions, the water level is markedly heightened with local flooding. If navigating the river early or late in the year, and you are concerned about the height/current, contact direction interrégionale Rhône-Saône. Between St-Jean-de-Losne and Lyon, much of the countryside is rich meadowland dotted with farmhouses with their distinctive red tiled roofs associated with the south of France. Arriving in Mâcon brings you into a famous wine-growing area. Then the scenery changes to woodland and cliffs. All along the route, there are plenty of stopping places including ports de plaisance in most of the riverside towns. With only 5 locks to cope with a very modest fall, you can reckon on 20–25 hours to cover the 170km to Lyon, unless you are tempted to dawdle awhile and perhaps explore a short length of the beautiful Doubs river.

Through the French Canals by David Jefferson is published by Adlard Coles and out now: Bloomsbury.com

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