The Tancarville Canal + Harfleur : Cruising in Detail

The 25km canal runs from the twin ecluses at Tancarville, where the canal joins the Seine, to Harfleur and finally the harbour complex at Le Havre.

Built in 1887 the canal by-passes the Seine estuary. Considering the volume and size of commercial traffic that uses it (notably liquified gas peniches, car transporter push-tows and small ships), it is surprisingly rural in character for much of its length. Towards the Le Havre end there is a Renault car factory and a petrochemical plant. Because traffic flow is regulated by the ecluses at either end, it is often quiet and peaceful. However, when the ecluses are operational (depending on tide times – see below) it does fill with fast-moving, large and heavy vessels. It is nowadays too small to accommodate the very large modern ships that also ply the Seine up to Rouen. In the long-term, an extension of the Grand Canal (the large long dock below the canal in the aerial photo shown above) is planned to connect to it, near the Tancarville end. Yellow dots indicate bridges on the canal (see below).

Using a pilot-guide book is strongly recommended: Breil Guides or Fluviacarte (Navicarte) Guides. See also general notes (foot of page).

Pleasure Craft and the Tancarville Canal

The canal has potential benefits – but also some drawbacks. If one dismasts at Le Havre, its use circumvents the need travel out to sea carrying the mast and with one’s yacht much less stable. (However the now established mast unstepping facility at Rouen also does this) The Seine estuary is shallow, with strong tides and currents and an uncomfortable sea can kick up easily. It is also very prone to thick fog. The canal by-passes these potential hazards. There is also a useful boatyard at Tancarville, equipped with a tall crane and travel-lift, a chandlery and a large hardstanding area. It also provides access to the charming village of Harfleur, once one of France’s most important ports, associated with Agincourt and Henry V. However, apart from the regular influx of commercial shipping, there are two key drawbacks – tides and bridges.

Tides

Ecluses (locks) (‘sas’ in Normandy) control access at each end; they open only at the appropriate tidal state, i.e not during low water. At Le Havre this dictates when one can get between inner and outer harbours. At Tancarville the lock – VHF18 – similarly does not open until the Seine has enough depth at PK339 – 3hrs either side of local HW. Travelling west, downstream, for Le Havre one will need to time one’s arrival at the lock to avoid waiting outside – there are no waiting facilities on the river, you may be lucky and be able to tie to a barge moored to a dolphin pile. This in itself can be hazardous – the river current is fierce in both directions, the incoming flood tide is especially so.

Travelling east, upstream, for Rouen, the earliest one can exit the lock onto the river is therefore HW-3 and this may not provide enough remaining upstream flow time to get to Rouen PK245. In this event there are a number of possibilities – anchor in the drying shallow creek ‘la Risle’ at PK346; or moor alongside at Caudebec PK310, Duclair PK278 or la Bouille PK260. All these moorings may be subject to severe wash from passing shipping. The Vigicrue website provides excellent data for the tides at Tancarville and Rouen. The pattern of times and heights can be seen for these two critical places (plus others on the river), essential for passage planning in conjunction with a Le Havre tide table.

Bridges

All the bridges along the length of the canal open – potentially. In practice, the two nearest Tancarville would probably not open solely for yachts (mast up) or would require difficult prior arrangement. This effectively rules out using the canal itself in connection with the Tancarville boatyard stepping or unstepping the mast – which would be ideal, since it is a well resourced professional setup. The other five bridges (see below) open on (polite, seamanlike) demand, by calling Le Havre bridge and lock control on VHF12 or VHF 88 (These are new frequencies – used to be Ch 67). Make sure you approach close enough to the bridge for the controllers to see you on their close-circuit tv screens. We found we had to call up at each bridge – the ‘next’ bridge was not made ready automatically. (However other people we’ve spoken to didn’t find this – maybe it depends on the operator on duty!).

Le Havre – Sas (Ecluse/Lock) Vetillart

Le Havre

From the marina, through the main inner harbour lock Sas Quinette into the large Bassins (docks) de l’Eure and Bellot. In the Eure (they have moved) is CNHM, a good boatyard to have one’s mast removed or re-stepped. At the end of the Bassin Bellot (photo left) lies the large Sas Vetillart (right), fall/rise according to the current tidal state, and with a tall modern control tower next to it. And so into the Bassin Vetillart.

Bridge 1 – (pont tournant)

Past sky-scraping piles of containers, to the first bridge which is a non-descript low concrete swing bridge.

Bridge 2 – (pont levant blanc)

Near a barge dock lies bridge 2, the white lift bridge (road/rail).

Bridge 3 – (pont levant rouge) (chemin de fer)

At the end of a large wide dock lies bridge 3, the red lift (railway line) bridge.

Bridge 4 – (pont levant vert)

Between Bridge 4 and Bridge 3 a main channel diverts off southwards, giving access to the large commercial docks and the Grand Canal du Havre.

Harfleur

Harfleur, Tancarville Canal

For six centuries Harfleur was the principal seaport of northwestern France. In 1415, it was captured by Henry V prior to the Battle of Agincourt. In the 16th century, the port began to dwindle in importance owing to the silting up of the Seine estuary and the rise of Le Havre. In 1887, the Tancarville canal restored waterborne access to the town from both the Seine and Le Havre. Turn off the canal and up the River Lezarte, under the two road bridges. There are some excellent long-term/peniche moorings along the river banks downstream of the historic village itself.

Bridge 5 – (pont levant bleu)

Bridge 4 is at the end of the Tancarville Canal proper, near the petrochemical works.

Canal Proper

The blue bridge (top left) ‘No. 6′ serves the busy A29 main dual-carriageway road which crosses the Seine via the spectactular (and extremely high) Pont Normandie. We guess that, although it opens, it would do so very rarely. Commercial vessels, including the big car transport push-tows from the nearby Renault factory (shown exiting Tancarville Ecluse into the River Seine) can pass underneath.

Our photographs show the 18km of canal quiet and misty; this is not always the case. Bridge 7 (bottom right) carries commercial vehicles to Le Havre’s industrial area, which lies south of the canal, between it and the Seine.

Tancarville – Boatyard and Ecluse

Boatyard, Canal de Tancarville
Ecluse, Lock, Canal de Tancarville Canal de Tancarville, River Seine

The boatyard at Tancarville (top left; bottom left in the aerial view) Chantier Naval des Torpilleurs is very well resourced. Tall crane (for de-/re-masting), travelift, large hardstanding area, chandlery and workshops. It is the same company that operates the boatyard/chandlery in Rouen.

When we visited in autumn 2008 there was little to moor-to other than a few wooden piles but apparently that is being changed to new floating pontoons. If one could transit the canal to or from Le Havre, mast-up, the yard would be ideal. As it is, one can’t. However, it could still be advantageous to use this little known facility – (a) as a useful intermediate halt between Le Havre and Rouen, depending on circumstances and timetables, exploiting the Tancarville Canal and accepting the drawback of needing to pass the lock (which is only operational either side of HW). And (b) as a possible place to de-/re-mast, also accepting use of the lock, but gaining the advantage of travelling all maritime waters (Channel, approaches to Le Havre/Honfleur, and the Seine estuary) with the mast up. Tariff in 2008 – Travelift 120-145€ per lift – De/Re-masting 95€ (140€ for ketch) – Yard storage 2.50€ per sq.m plan area per month. But the new mast stepping service at Rouen supersedes this option.

Tancarville ecluse (VHF Ch18) has two chambers side-by-side; we are not sure how they are used, it is possible that this depends on tide, direction of passage and size and quantity of vessels. We passed the older lock (left in the aerial photo), together with a substantial push-tow and a small ship. Last in, we were discomforted because all these kept their props turning hard; it was very difficult to maintain direction and control as we entered the lock and moored up close behind them, at dusk. Immediately outside the lock is the big Tancarville bridge and beyond that (north side) is a range of substantial steel pile dolphins (‘ducs d’albe’). This is where commercial vessels wait for the lock’s operation. There is nowhere for pleasure craft to moor temporarily and the currents in this part of the river, close to the sea/estuary, are very strong indeed, in both directions. The guides say that yachts can moor between the piles and the bank; we certainly wouldn’t and didn’t, preferring to request (VHF Ch73 and shouting out) tying up to a waiting peniche. The request was speedily and helpfully granted.