Information about the 224km of canal from Vitry le Francois to Maxilly (on the River Saone).
Vitry is not in the official Champagne Appellation area and Maxilly is not in Burgundy, but the canal does serve as a link between the two. The canal is also referred to by commercial bargees as the “Heuilley”. Work was commenced in 1862 and it finally joined into the Saone in 1907. It rises (or falls) 239m through 71 locks between Vitry and Langres; and falls (or rises) 156m through 43 locks between Langres and Maxilly. In between is the 5km long Balesmes tunnel.
The canal is very pleasant, with interesting places along the way and it has been successfully spruced up in the last few years. The southernmost 70km section is very rural indeed, with no real opportunity to fill up with either water or fuel. There are no canalside fuel pumps or even canalside service stations there that I can think of. The canal does still carry some commercial traffic (not a great amount – 3 peniches per day at a lock) that can be slow-moving and difficult to overtake – there’s often little point in trying, since peniches have priority at locks and are allowed to start their day earlier than plaisanciers. Better to slow down, leave a comfortable distance and enjoy. The advantage of there still being some peniche traffic is that (by ‘ploughing’ through) they keep the depth maintained.
What was the canal like in 1975? – video journey here!
See also general notes (foot of page).
- Approximate minimum depth 1.80m, headroom 3.45m, width 5m. These are the ‘book’ values and may vary according to conditions. Navigating the canal should not present insurmountable difficulties to normal pleasure craft and it is one of the recommended routes from the Channel to the Mediterranean. It is usually reliably and well supplied with water. If you should ground and can’t get off, contact an eclusier who will endeavour to fill/overfill that ‘bief’ (pound/reach) and float you off. I’ve yet to meet anyone who had to do this.
- Speed limit 8kph. Reckon on 3-4kph overall for a day’s travel including ecluses, or count ecluses and times by half-an-hour each. Opening hours during the season 08:00 to 19:00, eclusiers take lunch between 12:00 and 13:30, mechanised locks stay operational. Allow 7 days for the passage.
- Many locks fill right ‘to the brim’ and beyond and this means you must have protection down at the waterline and into the water. Fenders must ‘paddle’ and/or use fender boards to keep from floating up and/or use tyres. See Protection.
- Some changes are being made, but in general the northern quarter from Langres towards Vitry is operated by travelling eclusiers. Contact the VNF in advance (the afternoon before), either by telephone (numbers below) or by talking to the eclusiers – a number of locks are manned, in particular the first ecluse above Vitry that is a local VNF office. The eclusiere (usually female) travels the canal path in a small car or on a moped, meets you at the lock (which she prepares), you assist her (usually) to operate the lock, then she finishes off after you exit and then travels on to meet you at the next lock. Working hours are strictly observed, including 1.5 hrs lunchbreak (this includes you!). Our experience (bar one and only for a few hours) was that all the eclusiers were friendly and helpful. Do as you would be done by . . .
- The locks between Vitry and Joinville (#70 to #45) are operated by a remote control that you’ll be given (to be certain, telephone 03 26 62 41 33 the day before) and by a control box with rods at the ecluse. Elsewhere, radar will sense your approach to the ecluse – don’t go too fast past the sensor or it will not ‘see’ you. See Locks. Going up the chain of deep ecluses on the Saone side approaching the tunnel can present the difficulty that it may not be possible to have crew ‘at the top’, which then means mooring near enough (this is dependent on bollard positions) to the rods ‘at the bottom’ to grab and push the blue rod up (which is sometimes very tricky if it is covered with slimy algae). The rods are seemingly always opposite the ladder position (the ladder is also slimy).
- Check your engine cooling water filter frequently – leaves and boue in the water and on the bed will get stirred up as you pass and especially as you go up or down in the lock. See Clogged.
- Useful telephone numbers (to advise of your entry into this canal, or problems, etc.) – VNF ‘one number’ 0800 863 000 – VNF St Dizier (section between Vitry and Joinville) 03 26 73 75 06 – VNF Chaumont (section between Joinville and PK133 Versaignes) 03 25 30 31 60 – VNF Longeau (remainder, to Saone) 03 25 88 42 24 – Ets F.O.G, Vitry (boat engineers) 03 26 74 03 08
- Using a pilot-guide book is strongly recommended: Breil Guides or Fluviacarte (Navicarte) Guides.
PK0 Vitry le Francois
The ‘harbour’ lies on a bend, opposite a large peniche repair yard. It is very small and shallow; except for one occasion (in November) we’ve never managed or wanted to get in and we have never managed to hook up to the electricity (both it and water are available but possibly not dependably so). There are no showers or ablutions that we have ever found; they are supposed to exist. However, it is possible to moor up outside, alongside the canal itself, although the quay is not large.
Vitryis a pleasant enough small town (rebuilt following wholesale destruction in WWII) and has facilities such as supermarkets and a large brico (DIY store).
Ecluse #71 Desert has a VNF office but also features a lock wall edge that steps below water level – impossible not to rub against and difficult to stop lines slipping off the inset bollards.
A small Halte in a quiet location. Just the quay.
We spent two very pleasant days here, in mid-November. A very nice Halte, with water and electricty; ablutions in season. Small village close by.
PK30 Saint Dizier
St Dizieris a small town with a full range of facilities. There are extensive quaysides and other places to moor alongside, but currently no Halte (the old PdP at PK28 pictured top right has been abandoned for some years but can still be used – service station close by). The town has plans to develop a smart new PdP but these are at the scheme stage. The VNF office by ecluse #58 seems to have closed. We understand there is a boat mechanic DER tel: 03 25 05 54 54.
A Halte (timber pontoons) by a village. Small grocery/boulangerie.
PK42 Eurville – quayside, planned to be improved under VNF scheme.
A small Halte in a quiet location. Small supermarket nearby. Service station not far. Trains rumble past.
Lift Bridges and Turn Bridges
This section of the canal has a number of lift (pont levant) and turn (pont tournant) bridges. Some are operated manually by eclusiers and some operate automatically, an approaching boat being sensed by radar. Don’t approach too fast!
Small village Halte in a quiet location. Just the quay.
Apparently a very pretty village, it was pouring with rain when we arrived for an overnight stay so we didn’t see too much of it. The canal meanders through the village, which includes the Chateau du Grand Jardin a restored 16C house and park. At PK62 a popular Halte with water and electricity.Also length of public quayside at PK63.
PK72 Donjeux and PK78 Villiers
An excellent new Halte with all facilities, pretty little village (the small supermarket is at the top end of the village) and lovely scenery.
PK90 Vouecourt and PK93 Vraincourt
Two small Haltes; Vraincourt has water and electricity.
PK106 Condes and PK110 Chaumont
Condes has a bridge over the Marne, just by the fine 1887 short tunnel, which is itself just by an ecluse at one end and a small lift bridge at the other. There is a short length of quayside by the pretty lock and adjacent buildings at PK101 Riaucourt- very pleasant location.
At Chaumont (capital of Haute Marne) there is a large supermarket on the hill up to the town from the canal and a Halte (03 25 31 61 09) with good facilities including water and electricity.
PK124 Foulain – PK139 Rolampont – PK145 Humes
PK124 Foulain (no pic) has two small timber pontoons by grass just below the bridge. There is water but the tap is beyond normal hose length away and does not have an attachment spout – jerrycans only. The village has a good service station not far from the mooring (across the bridge, over the level crossing, turn right).
PK139 Rolampont (top left) has a small quay (often occupied) – services may not be operational. However, the village is very nice with a basic range of facilities and there are other opportunities to moor bank-side. A bike ride away (head north on the main village street) is the petrified waterfall and beautiful woodland scenery of La Tuffiere (lower), which is memorably unique and well worth visiting.
PK145 Humes (top right), a small village Halte.
PK149 Champigny – PK151 Langres
Two Haltes, fairly close to Langrestown – an historic hilltop location with ramparts, a complete 2.5km curtain wall and fine buildings. Champigny with water and electricity, Langres with a service station fairly close by (0.5km.
PK155-PK160 The Balesmes Tunnel
Entry into the 5km tunnel is now controlled from the ecluses at each end; one way in each direction for a period of time. Tunnel and 12 ecluses control office +33 325 88 42 02 (at Heuilley-Cotton). The recommended speed limit is very slow – frankly we would have had problems maintaining concentration and direction at that speed. We were following a peniche in the lead-up to the tunnel that, considerately, let us overtake. In the event, our passages have taken about 1 hour, without incident.
The tunnel is lit and most of the lights work (not all, there are ‘dark’ gaps) but a properly powerful torch or headlight is essential. Keep a close watch for logs and branches. There is a path that runs the entire length, making the tunnel feel narrower than it actually is; there is plenty of headroom (and drips!). The tunnel bief (pound) is, of course, the highest point in the canal; it’s downhill from then on in whichever direction and ‘down’ locks are much easier than ‘up’ ones.
The canal’s ‘feel’ is very different each side of the tunnel. Emerging to be greeted by a view of the small village of Heuilley, one feels almost alpine. In the vicinity (PK162 – PK170) is a flight of 12 (mechanised) ecluses, some very close to one another and all between 4m and over 5m deep. Easy to descend they are correspondingly difficult to ascend – even with crew waiting ‘up top’, getting lines up to them whilst controlling the boat is tricky to say the least. There are opportunities to moor bank-side and visit the village of Villegusien – at PK168 and PK169.
A small village Halte. Just a timber pontoon. Pretty – no facilities in the village.
A new village Halte with water and electricity.
The southernmost 40km
There are small Halte mooring places at PK211 Oisilly, PK215 Reneve and PK217 Cheuge. There are also numerous opportunities to moor bankside provided one is sensible about the location. Watch out for both shallows and bank-side rocks. The above picture is at PK198 Lalau; we have also moored against a little-used grain silo quay at PK206 Champagne-sur-Vingeanne.
The last (or first) pair of ecluses, where the canal joins the River Saone. The contrast between the narrow parallel-sided canal and the wide soft river is striking.