Canal Rhone a Sete / Etang de Thau : Cruising in Detail
Information about the 98km of canal from Beaucaire to Sete, including the Etang de Thau. One lock, near Beaucaire.
The ecluse that formerly connected the Beaucaire end into the River Rhone was closed in the mid-1970s as part of the final Rhone improvements; the river level outside the ecluse is much lower than it was and there is also a weir between the river at this point and the main river that by-passes it. There is, or was, apparently, a scheme to reinstate the connection but this would only be to a relatively short section of otherwise inaccessible river, upstream from the (raised) barrage.
So the canal effectively runs from near Saint-Gilles (junction with the Petit Rhone and thence the Rhone) to Sete (docks, access to the Mediterranean) and to the Etang de Thau (Canal du Midi and onwards to Toulouse and Bordeaux). And with a closed-end branch running from Saint-Gilles to Beaucaire. In essence, it dates from around 1800 although improvements were made in the 1980s. Much of the canal is straight, passing through flat countryside, the Camargue wetlands and saltwater lagoons close to the sea. The Camargue countryside provides lots of informal mooring places – and also insects. Nets, repellent and after-bite are good ideas. The open sections, along the coast, can be very hot when the sun shines (which it very often does) and blustery when a breeze blows.
See also general notes (foot of page).
- Approximate minimum depth 1.80m, headroom 3.5m, width 5m. These are the ‘book’ values and may vary according to conditions. Navigating the canal should not present any difficulties to normal pleasure craft and it is one of the possible routes from the Channel to the (western) Mediterranean. It is usually reliably and well supplied with water.
- Using a pilot-guide book is strongly recommended: Breil Guides or Fluviacarte (Navicarte) Guides.
(top) The Port de Plaisance (04 66 59 02 17) Email port©beaucaire,fr (port©beaucaire,fr) and town. Lots of boats berth here (230 places), many permanently or semi-permanently during the winter. Whether you like being moored in the middle of such a bustling place is another factor; Beaucaire is a lively market town and has been for a long time. Canalside buildings (right) reflect the prosperity that trade brought to the town. (left) The closed Beaucaire ecluse, from the Rhone side, water level many metres lower than formerly.
PK7 Ecluse Nourriguier– 4m – automated
Port de Plaisance (06 70 56 81 71) (or 04 66 59 02 17 – the same capitainerie as Beaucaire) with all facilities. A short distance from the village itself and a nice spot. Has been enlarged recently; we know people who have over-wintered there.
PK24 Saint-Gilles (du-Gard)
Port de Plaisance (06 71 22 88 54 or the Marie 04 66 87 78 00) and hire boat base. Stern/bows-to mooring to quayside and canal buoy, water and electricity, showers. Distillery opposite. There are other, alongside, moorings against quays, but they are nearly always taken. Saint-Gilles has a history dating back many centuries and is named for the saint, who founded the great abbey in the 7thC. Saint-Gilles was a place of pilgrimage for medieval Europe and a stopping place on the Via Tolosana to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Today the town is a bit less glamorous, but genuine and charming. Good market, shops in the centre, supermarkets and brico to the south on the road past the (closed) station.
Saint-Gilles is a good place to get the bus to (a) Nimes airport (regular flights to the UK) and railway station (b) Nimes itself with its famous Roman amphitheatre, Maison Carre Roman temple and Sir Norman Foster’s Carre d’Art library/gallery and (c) hire a car to see the Pont du Gard, the stunning Roman aqueduct.
Three sturdy simple wooden pontoons by the grass, or moor bankside. Path to Saint-Gilles (2km). Delightful, with mozzies.
Halte, bows-to mooring. Capitainerie and cafe, little village. Alongside bollards have been removed for cycle-path, but edge depth is good.
The justly famous town lies 3km on a spur or continuation of the canal, which itself turns and passes by to the north. The spur canal then continues to the sea at Grau-du-Roi.
Port de Plaisance (06 19 96 21 23).
PK48 – PK56 North Channel
Things of interest along the northern canal channel (that by-passes Aigues-Mortes). There are a number of wooden pontoons (left pic) (a) near the Tour Carbonniere and (b) either side of the flood gate at PK55 (right pic). They are in various states of repair, but are good, free moorings compared to the expense of the PdP. So far as the flood gate is concerned, we always seem to meet a sizeable passenger tour boat around there – and they are driven without any regard to other boats’ safety. Beware.
PK64.8 Grand Travers – It is just about possible to find – gingerly – a spot to moor bank-side, between the bits of jagged fallen stonework and the gravelly shallows, as we have done here, with the lagoon just across the grass, flamingos and all. From early evening to early morning, magical.
PK71 Carnon– To the north of the bridge runs a very short channel, the Port de Perols; it is difficult to turn at the end, as we found when we went up there by mistake and briefly ran aground trying to. To the south of the bridge a channel goes through to a small boat marina and the sea, air draft only 1.2m. More encouragingly, west of the bridge (south side) there is a good quayside with bollards. We have stopped for lunch there and got provisions from Carnon village.
PK75 Palavas (les 4 canaux)
The photo is taken looking west (towards Sete) along the canal, at the 4-way junction. South (to the left) under a bridge (3.5m air draft) lies a fully equipped PdP ‘Paul Riquet’ (04 67 07 73 48). North (to the right) is the River Lez, up to Lattes and Montpellier.
PK79 la Maguelonne
Walk to the gorgeous sandy beaches, to the adjacent historic Abbey (or take the little tourist train, in season) and to the nearby (3km) village of Villeneuve-les-Maguelonne. Navigationally, at PK78.5 (where we are moored in the pic above) although there are three idyllic timber pontoons it is extremely shallow, off the main channel. Further south there is a long (2km?) length of stone quayside; much better draft but usually crowded. Between the two there is a floating footbridge, pivoting at one end and powered by an outboard motor at the other. Hoot (loudly) to request it to open.
Frontignan has a railway bridge and a lift bridge that opens each day at 8:30 and 16:00 (for a very short period only – don’t be late!); at other times the canal is bisected at this point. If you are obliged to stay there, or choose to, you’ll find Frontignan to be a really nice place. East of the town, at PK91, a channel leads to the fishing harbour and the sea.
Frontignan is 5-6km (say 1/2hr) from the Etang de Thau (a very large salt-water lake) at PK98 and Sete. For Sete, enter the Etang, turn to port and (keeping the safe depth marks to port) head south-west. For the Canal du Midi (i.e crossing the Etang) head west-north-west toward the two yellow marks that can be seen.
Access to/from Sete is governed by the lifting railway and road bridges, which open for a short time only, three times a day.
Etang de Thau
[pron. ‘toe’] The Etang de Thau is the second largest lake in France. The northern side of the lake features many square hectares of oyster beds as well as the fishing villages (with plaisance ports) of Marseillan, Meze and Bouzigues.
To go between the Canal du Midi and the Canal Rhone a Sete is to travel the etang lengthways, from one end to the other; a distance of about 20km, say 1.5hrs if conditions are good. They are not always; because the lake is relatively shallow (roughly 5m in the centre, but large areas around the fringes are 3m or less) any kind of strong wind can easily and very quickly kick the surface into a chop. The geography is flat and open; and strong breezes and winds are very common. Most of the time this warning will seem completely irrelevant, the surface flat and calm, but it would be wise to check that the boat and her crew are up to the task of coping with a side or head wind and some unsettling motion, should the need arise. We know experienced boaters who have had to call up on VHF #16 and seek assistance when they got into difficulties and ended up on the southern lee shore, unable to claw off.
Les Onglous at the south-west end of the lake, the point of access into the Canal du Midi, has a breakwater with port and starboard marks, and a small lighthouse ; it is wise to approach from a northerly direction, there are shallows to the east.