Locks, Locking and Bollards

Spicey Variety

French locks – ecluses – vary considerably in size, depth, shape, bollard position, operation and the kind of traffic that passes through them. These are the main types.

> Watch an excellent 3 minute video of locks in operation <

Rhone – very deep locks, floating bollards
The Rhone has enormous locks rising tens of metres, but they’re very easy since one loops onto bollards that rise with the water level (they also fill quietly and easily). VHF contact with an eclusier in a watchtower. Problems? Both bow and stern lines have to attach to the same bollard. It is easy to catch the end of a fender board in the vertical slot in the lock wall that precedes or contains the bollard. Fenders may slot into the slot and become ineffective. Less pristine floating bollards (e.g at the Paris Arsenal’s much smaller ecluse) take a while to move up in time with the boat during which time your ropes may slip off the top (so cross them).

Seine and Saone – deep locks, inset bollards or poles
Deep locks on big rivers, with big barges (peniches), freighters, etc as commercial traffic. Traffic light signals for stop, wait and enter. VHF communication (use it, call up about 2km before – don’t expect fulsome responses, however). These deep locks have inset bollards at intervals up the lock wall – not always set vertically one above the other. Bollard spacing – horizontally and vertically – suits barges, not small boats – this means it’s difficult/impossible to get a bow line to one bollard and a stern to another. You may have to ‘running moor’ or put both bow and stern round the same bollard (which naturally reduces control). Moving up from one bollard to the next requires timing and co-ordination. Lines have to be transferred (sometimes quickly, to keep control) from one bollard to the next as the lock empties or fills – it is quite easy for lines to slip off the top of slimy bollards as the boat rises.

Alternatively, a slippery pole might be used (above right)- sometimes bent, occasionally not actually still connected at its foot!
Smaller Canals and Rivers – e.g Marne a la Saone
Depths can vary considerably. Entering a small lock you may have to control the boat whilst a bight is lassoed up to a bollard 2-3m above. This takes skill, practice, and luck. Stand on the coach roof. Alternatively, someone could ascend a slippery ladder with a rope-end whilst the boat floats around below. Or you could use the crochet hook-on method, taking advantage of the strong steel ladder that exists in many locks (not all, very few on the Midi), provided it is reasonably in the right place, on the ‘right’ side (where your fenders are set up ideally, where you are used to working, etc.).
The Marne has a few locks with sides that slope out – tricky if you’re descending? No, they also now have floating pontoons inside and one can tie up to them.
Midi – curved walls
The Midi – being so old – is a different kettle of fish. One eclusier per lock, pressing buttons. The locks are curved on plan, which makes it more likely your bow, stern or what’s sticking beyond, will get close to the wall or hit it. Midi locks often cascade water over the gates into the chamber, which makes them a bit intimidating. And they also feature very fierce initial surges of water, making control very difficult indeed. It is important to use bow and stern lines, the stern being the critical one to keep tight and short.

Sometimes bollards are positioned too far back from the lock edge to be lassoed so one option is for crew to leave the boat just before the lock. It’s possible that crew can then lead the boat into the lock holding the bow line. If not, the stern line is then thrown up to crew first who makes a turn around the aft bollard, then the bow line is thrown up, caught and turned around a further bollard, then the end of the stern line is passed down to helm, crew looking after the bow line from the lock-side. Fender size and position is also important.

Problems with Water Levels
Many locks fill to the brim (or even beyond – photo bottom right, the worst example we’ve found) which means that fenders must be in the water and stay there to keep the boat away from the lock edge, which can be not only rough but also quite jagged. Fender boards keep fenders from floating away, and tyres stay put under most circumstances.
To keep lines on bollards that are below the boat, cross them (photo bottom left).


(1) By a lock-keeper (eclusier).
The normal arrangement for locks of any significant size.

(2) By rods (“perches”). see below
There is a rod hanging above the canal about 500m before the lock. Approach it, give it a twist (anticlockwise, we think) and wait to check that the traffic light changes from red to red and green, or red and green to green.
Traffic signals (below right) indicate the lock’s condition –
i) no lights, out of service     ii) red light, not available – in use
iii) red and green, being made ready     iv) green, available, proceed.

Once one has got the green light, enter the lock and moor up adjacent a vertical two rod mechanism.

Having entered the lock (green light on the traffic signal), lift the blue rod (this can be quite difficult at the bottom of a lock if the rods are slimy and difficult to reach and the mechanism is stiff as is often the case). This sets the lock in motion – lights will flash and bells ring. When the lock has completed filling or emptying the traffic signal will again show green and you can leave. The red rod is in case of emergency, there is (usually) a telephone to report operational problems.
(3) By remote control (a few locks on the River Marne). The Frank (Zappa). Just like a TV – approach the lock, press the button, make sure there’s the appropriate response and things happen as they should do.


(4) By sensor – radar or ‘magic eye’ positioned a distance before the lock. Do not pass the radar sensor (below right) too quickly or it will not ‘see’ you!

(4) By a travelling eclusier / eclusiere. This happens on the Marne a la Saone canal. She will meet you – by prior arrangement via the VNF office – at the first lock (e.g of the day) and ready it for you. She operates the mechanism, you help where appropriate by closing or opening gates on the side she can’t get to without walking all the way round. You exit, she completes closing the lock, gets in her micro car and meets you at the next lock. Teamwork, respect and friendliness are the orders of the day – wherever possible. You may meet the occasional grouch, we had one unpleasant young man for 2hrs, the rest were lovely people.

General Principles

  • Commercial vessels always go in first, even if they turn up 10mins after you – the eclusier will usually ask you to wait. On the Rhone, one left the fastness of his concrete control tower and cycled to the end of the lock (they’re that big) to hand signal “wait” (not specifically to us!). In fact it’s better to be behind one of these floating behemoths than in front anyway. There’s not much point in overtaking commercial craft anywhere near a lock.
  • It’s better (quieter) at the back of the lock. Not so far back that your stern hits the gate, or bangs the underwater cill by the gate as the water drains away. In bigger locks, we usually try to use the second bollard in. We find it important to be clear about what bollard we’re aiming for, as early as possible.
  • It’s easier going down, than up. No trying to get mooring warps up to bollards many metres above. Much of what we say here is about going up.
  • Always wait for the gate fully to open both when entering and leaving. Never be hurried unduly, even by the eclusier, and especially not by other users. Enter as slowly as is commensurate with steerage.
  • With some exceptions never be less than fully controlling, by hand, all mooring warps. Never fully tie up. As ever, a controlling turn around a cleat or winch makes things easier (and safer) than directly tugging along a rope. On the Rhone, do not untie or move until you have the green light even if the lock gate is fully open – eclusiers do not like boats that ignore the rules.
  • Entering a lock it is one’s stern that is the most difficult bit to keep under control. When the lock starts to fill the significant inflow of water will then make the bow tricky to control. Fairly obviously, bow and stern lines are the normal answer, with the stern line being attached first (one can then always drive forward to bring the bows to a satisfactory position). Mooring the bow first can produce worse control problems with the stern (swinging across the lock) than vice versa. We have seen rotated boats have to leave locks stern-first. (Schadenfreude, I think it’s called).
  • At some point the boat and its cleats will move from being lower than, to be higher than, the bollard. This means (a) the rope may pull vertically off the bollard, so if appropriate ‘cross it’ and (b) be alert to once ‘clear’ ropes fouling lifelines, bikes and other deck detritus as the boat moves up/down.
  • If you think you are inexperienced and incompetent, others may be even worse (=Take Care).

The ‘Bargee’ Running Moor
Where appropriate (see above) we might use the bargee running moor method (although they have the considerable advantage of a nice long flat side to their vessels) (which they don’t seem to mind bashing too much). The method involves using a bow or mid spring rope, looping onto a lockside bollard roughly adjacent the cockpit, and using gentle forward throttle and steering to hold the boat, in correct alignment**, pushing forward against the spring. We have found that a mid spring works as well as a bow spring, and avoids the bother of the warp tangling the lifelines. There must be a decent distance between the bow or mid cleat and the bollard aft of it for the method to work, otherwise bow control will not happen and a stern-swing will.
[** “correct alignment” means – neither end of the overhanging mast hits the lock wall . .too hard . .].

Crochet Hooking
As noted, some deeper locks have fixed bollards set at intervals in the walls – the intervals may suit barges, but we find them difficult – most particularly because as the boat rises up past the bollard position ropes tend to slip off the top before it’s convenient to move them up to the next bollard. Shallower locks have bollards spaced along their edges but it can be tricky to lasso a bight of rope over them from 2-3m or more below.
But every lock** has a ladder, or two or more, and they go from top to bottom, with closely spaced rungs (naturally). This iron ladder is often wet and slimy making climbing up potentially hazardous, but it is also substantial enough for a yacht to use to moor-to, using a ‘crochet’ (hook).
We have used a ‘rond’ (bank-side) anchor as our crochet, although it is not 100% perfect for the job. The technique is to feed the bow spring line through the crochet’s ring, hook the crochet on the ladder at shoulder height, and cleat back the line and running moor as usual. When one has risen enough, remove forward power temporarily, move the hook up the ladder, and then resume forward control. If you don’t have suitable hooks, you can loop a bight through the ladder and back on board, but this is clumsier and has a greater ‘tangle potential’.
** Exceptions – (a) many on the Midi don’t, (b) really big locks have floating bollards, (c) neither are suited to this method and (d) some ladders are just not in the right place . .


We think this is important and it seems appreciated, even on the huge Rhone locks. Whether by voice or VHF, as we leave we always say “merci, monsieur/madame et bonne journee”. Nearly always get a positive response – voice, wave . . If it is the eclusier’s job to help his/her users, it is our part of the bargain to help where appropriate and wanted, and to be friendly.