Liaison Dunkerque-Escaut (Grand Gabarit) : Cruising in Detail

Information about the 140km series of large canals from the junction with the Canal de Bourbourg at Dunkerque to Pont-Malin.

The Grand Gabarit (‘large width’) canal route was created after the Second World War to accommodate very large commercial vessels – up to 143m long by 11m wide. This includes push-tows and side-by-side configurations. Existing canals were straightened and widened; and locks (ecluses) were enlarged. The Grand Gabarit route encompasses a series of waterways, in sequence from Dunkerque the Canal Colme, the River Aa, the Canal de Neuffosse, the Canal d’Aire, the Canal de la Deule and the Canal de la Sensee. Any plaisancier coming from, or returning to, Calais, Gravelines or Dunkerque will of necessity use some part of the liaison.

Recent (Aug 2010) information (courtesy of Bill Cooper) is that the canal is seeing increased commercial traffic – very large barges from Holland that proceed at full-speed. Beware.

See also general notes (foot of page).

Basic Information

  • Approximate TE minimum depth 3.00m, TA headroom 4.5m, width 11.00m. Pleasure craft are unlikely to experience dimensional difficulties – the most significant problem relates to the size of passing commercial vessels: the wake and wash that they produce (this is greatest when they are empty and travelling faster) and which affects smaller craft on the water or moored alongside the canal banks. These vessels do not slow down when passing smaller craft, including those moored up. Taking care, setting mooring lines sensibly, using fenders and other protective measures are all important.
  • It is advisable not to attempt to moor alongside in the canal itself. There are a number of places where some mooring shelter can be found, off the main canal, but even these can experience the effects of passing ships. The nature of the waterway and the relatively small number of locks means that good progress can be made, but anticipate delays at locks, where commerce always takes priority.
  • VNF contact telephone numbers 03 28 58 71 10 (Dunkerque), 03 21 12 95 30 (St Omer), 03 27 95 82 50 (Waziers), 03 27 32 22 80 (Valenciennes).
  • Using a pilot-guide book is strongly recommended: Breil Guides or Fluviacarte (Navicarte) Guides.

Liaison Dunkerque-Escaut

PK137 Canal de Colme – Junction of the Canal de Bourbourg

The Canal de Colme section of the Grand Gabarit liaison starts 6km north of this point at PK143, at the commercial west harbour of Dunkerque, closed to pleasure craft. Here at PK137, the Canal de Bourbourg connects, providing access from Dunkerque’s eastern harbour. The Bourbourg then effectively crosses the liaison, branching off west within 2km, to Bourbourg (a pleasant village) and shortly thereafter to its junction with the River Aa. At Lynck PK128 the closed Canal de la Haute Colme to Bergues enters from the north-east.

PK122 Watten – Junction into the River Aa

Alongside moorings on the west bank (subject to wash) but also a more protected pontoon with water and electricity off the main channel, in a small canal leading off west just north of the canal bridge at PK120. In the above photo, the entrance is to the right of the bridge, before the small tree. Photo: willum-2

PK118 River Houlle

A very pleasant 4km detour is possible, off the liaison, to the small village of Houlle. Free moorings without services. Photo: Jean Marc Gfp

PK110 Saint-Omer and Arques

The liaison Grand Gabarit route now by-passes the St-Omer and the former route of the River Aa through the town has been bisected because a lift-bridge no longer lifts.

At PK110, east bank just below Ecluse Flandre and past the entrance to the northern section of the Aa, there is the entrance to a large basin at Arques: the world-famous (“Arcoroc”) glass-making works, a peniche repair yard but also a PdP (03 21 98 35 97) with water and electricity. A recommended ‘mecanicien’ is at Clairmarais, near Arcques (ask Pierre at the PdP). Through the lock, west bank, is the entrance to the Aa southern section, which leads into the centre of Saint-Omer where there are (now abandoned?) quayside mooring. However, this is almost certainly closed, due to silting.

Back on the liaison the next lock, Les Fontinettes is 13m deep and replaced a remarkable piece of C19th engineering that can still be seen and appreciated – the Fontinettes boat lift. Above the lock, the canal branch that formerly led to the lift might provide a quiet and informal mooring, off the main canal.

PK93 Aire-sur-la-Lys

Between St-Omer and Aire, the liaison is the Canal de Neuffosse, beyond Aire it is the Canal d’Aire. Also at this point there is a junction with the peaceful and navigable River Lys that leads to Armentieres, the Belgian border and Ghent. There is a Halte, again on a truncated canal section, leading up to the town. A short distance along the River Lys, Saint-Venant has a small PdP basin with pontoons. Past Aire on the Liaison, the giant Isbergues steelworks.

PK72-PK60 Bethune – Beuvry – La Bassee

Halte, once more on a truncated canal section, leading up to the town. Beyond Bethune, at PK67, there is a spur canal that leads (or led) to the village of Beuvry; there are moorings a short way up the branch. At PK60 there is a complete by-passed branch of the canal leading up to the small town of La Bassee, quayside moorings and a supermarket by the canal; an easy diversion off the main route.

PK54 Bauvin – Canal de la Deule

Here at PK54 there is a T-junction, complete with triangular island, with the Canal de la Deule. Northwards, the canal proceeds to Lille and beyond. Taking the right-hand channel, the canal heads south, continuing the Grand Gabarit route. Halte Nautique? (unverified).

PK44 Canal de Lens

8km branch – Halte Nautique? (unverified).

PK36 Courcelles-les-Lens

PdP in a small lake off the main canal (06 77 07 81 78) water and electricity but depth may be a problem – 1.4m generally, down to 0.9m at the pontoons.

PK30 Douai

The eastern part of the River Scarpe (navigable, from Belgium) runs into the liaison north of the town. Two locks above this (at the point where the natural course of the river crosses or leaves the liaison heading south-west to Arras) there is a closed branch of the river north-east (entrance by the peniche repair yard) towards the town that appears to provide pontoon moorings, depth unknown. Quaysides along the main canal through Douai itself. From Douai the liaison continues as the Canal de la Sensee.

River Scarpe to Arras

23km of canalised river with 9 locks, operated by remote control (make sure you get one at the last liaison lock). Depth 2.2m, Headroom 3.7m, Width 5m. Halte Nautiques after 9km at Biache-St-Vaast (by the lock, water and electricity on pontoon) and further 12km at St-Laurent-Blagny (at the lock by the water sports club, water and electricity), 2km from Arras. Quayside closer into Arras. Weed may be a problem towards Arras.

PK15 Arleux – Canal du Nord Junction

Many barge moorings at this point. The 93km Canal du Nord, which opened in 1965 to provide a fast route south for commercial traffic, heads south including along its route a 4km tunnel, junction with the Canal de la Somme (from St-Valery), a further 1km tunnel and finally, at Pont l’Eveque, the junction with the 135km Canal lateral a l’Oise and River Oise that head south towards Paris. The alternative route south (via Paris or Reims) continues along the liaison/Canal de la Sensee.

PK3 Estrun – Bassin Rond

A wide and peaceful area of water, off the main canal, accessible along a short side canal from the liaison (through the village of Paillencourt) and with an exit at its further end into the River Escaut/Canal de St-Quentin. Moorings, some services.

PK0 River Escaut (Canal de Saint-Quentin) – Junction

Turn north-east for the canalised River Escaut to Conde and the Belgian border. Turn south-west for 13km of the River Escaut to Cambrai, then the Canal de St-Quentin.

Click here for information about the Canal de St-Quentin.