River Rhone – ‘le Rhone’ : Cruising in Detail
Information about the 323km of navigable and canalised Rhone river from Lyon (River Saone) to Port St Louis (Mediterranean). There are 12 ecluses (locks) all of which are very large and very deep, plus a final lock from the river into the harbour/canal/sea at Port St Louis.
The Rhone is one of Europe’s great rivers: in size, in power and in the commercial traffic it carries. That said and noting that conditions can be difficult at times (for example when the Mistral blows) and impossible at others (during the winter-spring spate, when alpine melt-water feeds into the river) it is not the terrible demon it once was. It has been more or less managed by those big locks and by their accompanying canalised sections that regulate the river flow and current. The river’s power is used at each lock/barrage to produce hydro-electricity and the river is the location for a number of power stations and wind farms.
1,800 plaisanciers, of 20 different nationalities, travel up or down the Rhone each year. Our own experience of the river is that, with one or two exceptions (noted below) it has proved surprisingly peaceful, albeit coupled with undeniable scale and grandeur. We’ve travelled the river in April (downstream), June (upstream) and July (downstream). Very competent boating friends who came up the river in a smallish motor boat in January did not enjoy it much.
See also general notes (foot of page).
- The river is wide and deep in the channel; the locks are big. Large ships and cruise liners use the river at all times. Outside the channel however, for example on the inside of a bend, depths may reduce dramatically (quite quickly from 15m to 2m) so it is vital to keep to the marked channel, even if plaisanciers will want to keep well to one side to keep clear of ships.
- Ecluses (locks) are open to plaisance traffic from 05:00 to 21:00, subject to hours of daylight.
- All ecluses are contactable by VHF, the channel alternates between 20 and 22.Our own ‘formula’ is — 2km from the ecluse, call up on the VHF. “Ecluse de xxxx, ecluse de xxxx, c’est bateau de plaisance Grehan, plaisance Grehan. Bonjour. Nous approchons l’ecluse, a deux kilometres. Avalant (going downstream) or Montant (going upstream)” You should get a reply, if not try again in 5 minutes – the eclusier may be busy, don’t pester. The reply will tell you if the ecluse is ready or if you have to wait and (usually) why and how long for. Traffic lights will, of course, tell you about entering or not, at the ecluse. See here for locking techniques.- In the lock, when you’ve gone up or down, do not untie your boat until you get the green light (even if the gate has opened). This upsets eclusiers a great deal (as we have heard from VHF ‘conversations’). As you are leaving the ecluse a friendly wave toward the control tower and “Merci monsieur et bonne journee” on the VHF is no more than simple French courtesy.
- Ecluse VHF frequencies changed in October 2009 – the correct ones are as below.
- Normal ship-to-ship VHF communication takes place on Ch.10 and a listening watch can provide useful warnings. Lyon now has its own dedicated channel – VHF Ch.18.
- Lifejackets must be worn in ecluses – this sensible rule is rigorously enforced.
- Commercial traffic takes priority at all times; you may have to wait at each ecluse until a freighter or cruise ship arrives and passes through. You may have to wait until further plaisanciers turn up. A wait of an hour is not unusual, but then so is entering immediately upon arrival; it’s just down to conditions at the time. Do not attempt to overtake commercial vessels in inappropriate circumstances, for example approaching a lock. You will be severely reprimanded. Treat the eclusiers with professional respect and politeness – they deserve it and it’s in your best interests. They talk to one another, too.
- The Mistral wind blows from the north and north-west down the Rhone valley, increasing in strength as it does. The few quayside locations alongside the river very quickly become unpleasant if not dangerous and river travel also becomes difficult, particularly if heading upstream. It is advisable to wait for the Mistral to blow itself out; this may take 3 or more days. A southerly wind (not unheard of) will also kick up the river surface, wind against current fashion.
- The Rhone’s current varies along its length and varies according to situation. As I write this, the flow is- 500 cu.m/second at PK0 Perrache/Lyon- 800 cu.m/second at PK14 Ternay, the end of the ‘chute de Lyon’ (canalised section)- 1000 cu.m/sec at PK111 Valence- 1200 cu.m/sec at PK166 Viviers- 1400 cu.m/sec at PK267 BeaucaireThe effect of this flow will be affected by the width of the river or canalised section. The ‘chute’ is narrow and known for strong currents, as are others. The current is strongest in the centre of the river channel, lowest at the edges due to friction effects.
- For information about the current, measured at various locations, visit the CNR website. You will be able to see data that is updated on an hourly basis, together with trends from the previous hours and days. A vital resource.
See also Grehan’s detailed information about wind, current and seasonal variation for the River Rhone.
- Using a pilot-guide book is strongly recommended: Breil Guides or Fluviacarte (Navicarte) Guides.
PK0 Lyon – VHF Ch.18
See River Saone – Lyon.
PK4 Ecluse 1 Pierre-Benite
VHF #19 – 12m rise/fall. Coming from Lyon it can be tricky to spot exactly where the ecluse channel actually is – basically, keep over to the left/east.
PK4-PK14 ‘Chute’ a canalised section where the basic river current is increased. Usually quite a lot of commercial traffic. Petrochemical refineries. Can be a slow grind, travelling upstream.
Halte Fluviale on the west bank, between the two bridges. Water and electricity – contact the Tourist Office adjacent (04 78 07 41 38).
PK23 Loire – fuel barge
There are various pontoons and quays between the two bridges. The photo shows a new pontoon on the west bank, just downstream of the footbridge, opposite Vienne town – with a history dating back 2,000yrs. There is a small pontoon at PK31, convenient for the Aldi supermarket.
PK34 Ecluse 2 Vaugris
VHF #22 – 7m rise/fall.
Good long pontoon but water and electricity points not connected. By a charming village, close to Vaugris ecluse. Possibly wise to moor on the inside side, where the cleats are (depth unknown). Passenger boats may occupy the outside side. Railway line on the opposite bank.
(thanks to Désormais for update)
PK41 les Roches-de-Condrieu
A PdP (04 74 56 30 53) located to one side of the river, in a closed branch of the river’s old route. There are plans to extend the marina further into the branch, it is already fairly large – and well-used – but also showing signs of wear and tear. The outside pontoons (along the river) have few electricity or water points working, possibly because they are very vulnerable to boats colliding with them, carried by wind and current. These are significant factors, to be taken account of when berthing or entering the marina and there are back eddies to the left of the entrance, coming in, too. That said, the capitainerie is very friendly and there are good showers, fuel and a repair yard. The village has a small supermarket, a boulangerie and a post office.
A new pontoon by the old suspension bridge support. An idyllic spot.
PK59 Ecluse 3 Sablons
VHF #22 – 15m rise/fall. The by-passed river, to the west looks very inviting, but depths unknown – information, please!
Below the Sablons ecluse the river can have a strong current and there are short breakwaters that project out from the banks – below the waterline – at frequent intervals to slow the flow. Keep to the marked channel.
A small pontoon at Andancette (east bank) by the bridge over to the very pretty village of Andance.
New pontoon on piles, above the bridge, east bank. Choice of several boulangeries within walking distance, and a big Intermarché supermarket, if you turn left off the pontoon and walk for about 1 kilometre. A variety of shops. Seems like a good location – not sure what it’s like overnight. (thanks to Désormais for update)
PK78– 3 small concrete pontoons(?) with rings, west bank. Small quay on east bank.
PK86 Ecluse 4 Gervans
VHF #19 – 12m rise/fall.
PK89 Table du Roi– rock in the centre of the channel.We always seem to meet awkward traffic along this stretch, between the ecluse and Tournon. The western side is quite shallow.
Tournon and Tain l’Hermitage (on the east bank) are interesting large villages, well worth visiting. As can be seen from the photo, there is a plaisance harbour formed to one side of the river on the Tournon side just above the suspension footbridge. It is however, quite restricted and shallow; and features concrete jetties. Larger/deeper craft may not get in, or exit easily. It is also subject to wash from the commercial vessels that pass by on the river; the harbour wall is not a solid barrier. It is quite feasible to moor alongside the quay behind the wall and not venture in as fas as the jetties. Depths must be watched.
PK98 la Roche de Glun
Pontoon located in a wide stretch of water leading to a barrage, plenty of depth. A very nice peaceful spot, by La Roche village’s park and with the village itself nearby. A few shops and boulangeries. The immediately neighbouring hamlet of Glun (15-20mins walk across the barrage) is highly picturesque. One of those once-active places (the haunt of 14C river pirates) that ‘improvement’ of and removal from, the river, has now sent to sleep.
PK106 Ecluse 5 Valence
VHF #22 – 13m rise/fall.
A fully equipped 420 berth Port de Plaisance de l’Eperviere (04 75 81 18 93 – VHF Ch.9) including excellent showers, yard with travel-lift (30T-18m capacity), fuel, etc. Parkland south of Valence itself – there are opportunities to moor at the town quayside at PK110 but looks unattractive and very noisy (right next to the motorway) to us. Shops, supermarkets and bricos within a fairly short walk from the marina, although along a busy road. Route into the marina from the river is marked with buoys.
PK124 Ecluse 6 Beauchastel
VHF #20 – 14m rise/fall.
PK128 la Voulte– sloping quay with bollards. Large fenders necessary.
PK133 and 134 Le Pouzin
At PK133 le Bourg (right photo) – a good quay with bollards. At PK134 (left photo) a stretch of open quayside leading into a river inlet, also with mooring possibilities. A third concrete quay (in extremis) just downstream from PK134, near the wind turbines.
PK142 Ecluse 7 Logis-Neuf
VHF #19 – 14m rise/fall.
(top) Waiting for the push-tow to exit the ecluse; we then had to wait for a cruise ship to get to the ecluse and go through before us.
The photo at the top of the screen is of the wide, open river at Cruas, nuclear power station cooling towers on the west bank. The PdP (04 75 96 48 79) is newish (2007), with good reports but somewhat isolated. It is important to follow the marked entrance channel – there are rocks and shallows elsewhere.
Mike Alexander (barge Ailsa – thanks for the lower photo) reports – Nice quiet mooring out of the wash from passing voyagers. Welcoming Capitainerie and several other boaters came out to help us moor. Town is prosperous due to EdF nuclear power station and Lafarge quarries. Both will have contributed significantly to the amenities and upkeep of the town; you only have to see the sports ground and playing fields. Main town is inland of the railway line. Cruas also has an SNCF station. Enjoyed a fine 13.90€ lunch in the bar/ cafe close to the church which dates back to 804AD. Small supermarche in town. Oldest part of the town is on the hillside and being rebuilt; one or two houses are already in occupation. Summary, good port for a welcome break with marina power, water and town facilities. Think it was 16€ per night for power, water and mooring. Very friendly.
PK148 Opposite the power station is a peniche repair yard – quite where the channel through the islets and shallows is, is not clear.
It would be possible to moor at the long length of commercial quay. At the southernmost end the ship level quay steps down for a roll-on roll-off ramp.
PK164 Ecluse 8 Chateauneuf
VHF #22 – 19m rise/fall. The eclusier here currently (2009) has a reputation for keeping plaisanciers waiting unnecessarily but we’ve never experienced this.
PK166 Viviers – reported to be closed during 2015
Viviers is one of France’s ‘hidden’ gems. An unspoiled (not cleaned-up, not overly prettified) walled medieval hilltop town/village (city?) with France’s smallest cathedral at the top (Gobelin tapestries). Narrow twisty streets, little courtyards, provencal tiled roofs, gargoyles, sculpted facades and faded painted signs. If this isn’t enough (plus the charming general character of the village beyond the walls, the plane trees, the renaissance bishop’s residence . . ) if you take a walk out of Viviers, heading north-west (turn right at the tourist office), you will come to a river bed (it joins the Rhone just above the PdP) upstream of which is a completely intact Roman bridge. Viviers is magical.
The PdP (+33 475 52 68 16 or +33 673 07 55 33) has all services including showers, usually plenty of room. Cost was 23€ for 2 nights in 2008. It is critical to enter between the two marks just off the end of the ‘harbour’ wall along which cruise ships moor. To the south of the entrance runs a hidden breakwater.
It is possible to cruise for a 4km distance along the by-passed river upstream from Viviers but you will reach an enormous and very dusty Lafarge cement lime quarry, at Lafarge.
Below Viviers, the ‘Defile de Donzere‘, the narrowest natural gorge on the Rhone, the flood control gates at PK171 (plaisanciers must use the eastern side route, not the central) and the 30km canalised Donzere channel.
PK172-PK174– the canal features 750mm high vertical concrete planked sides, not the sloping concrete banks used elsewhere. Quite feasible to moor alongside – although the wash from passing commercial vessels needs to be anticipated.
PK188 Ecluse 9 Bollene
VHF #20 – 23m rise/fall.
Was the deepest lock in Europe, possibly the world’s best known. Amazingly big to be inside, at the bottom, like a concrete cathedral with the roof off. Very smooth and very easy. Quite an experience for a small boat.
PK201 le Cabaret– Where the river rejoins (west side) there is a commercial (sand and gravel) quay ‘at the point’ and a new TGV bowstring span rail bridge. Opposite the quay, toward the flat bridge span, there is a small inlet that looks like a good anchoring spot (check depths, naturally).
A pretty, wine-oriented, village. Quayside (high) with mooring rings, but also a relatively new pontoon – probably room for no more than 2 boats.
PK215 Ecluse 10 Caderousse
VHF #19 – 10m rise/fall.
‘PK214’ (=PK219 -5) l’Ardoise
We like the PdP at l’Ardoise (+33 677 08 11 10 or +33 466 50 48 48, speak to Ariane) a lot; it may not suit everyone. All basic services, secure and safe. Cost approx. 15€ per night. It is very peaceful and yet there is background noise from the cement plant nearby. Well suited for a night’s stay, a month or for long-term berthing. A mixture of industry and rurality – good walks. Small supermarket and boulangerie in the village, about 10-15mins walk. Buses to Avignon and Pont St Esprit, both of which are nice (exceptional long ancient river bridge at St Esprit). TGV stations at both, although St Esprit’s is a 15min walk away at la Croisiere.
At PK219 take the route west along the river proper. At the tip of the Ile de la Piboulette there is a small pontoon, but it is for canoes and skiffs only. Continue 5km up the river, surrounded by lush banks, keeping to the marked channel. Then past the quiet empty disused hulk of one of France’s major steelworks and also the remains of former riverside life – you can just see the faded sign of the ‘Auberge de la Rhone’ – now by-passed. Finally, in sight of the river dam, beneath the ‘golf ball on a stick’, the sheltered PdP harbour.
PK225 Roquemaure– there is a piles-and-platform combination, for peniches and cruise ships, but there is also a separate small plaisance pontoon – or possibly, the village quayside. Opposite the romantic Chateau de l’Hers, a ruined castle set atop a rocky outcrop. The river is very wide here; the current may be lessened but the potential for winds is increased.
PK239 Ecluse 11 Avignon
VHF #22 – 10m rise/fall.
PK242 – Villeneuve-les-Avignon (see below)
‘PK242’ (=PK244 -2) Avignon
Avignon is a world famous place and cannot be missed.
Firstly, navigation information. At PK244 take the eastwards river branch past the big, long, river cruise ships and past (not through!) the remains of Pont St Benezet. Just beyond you will find the capitainerie barge (showers, etc.) (04 90 85 65 54) and this is where the PdP once was – it was swept away during the winter of 2002/3 and has not been reinstated. Even in summer the strong downstream current here has to be respected. Moor to the public quayside (see top pic) – water and electricity in most places. It can get crowded and it can feel somewhat unsafe (particularly if you end up toward the bend in the busy road, centre of pic) – people living in vans, etc. Lock up!
The Bridge (Pont St Benezet) was once extremely long, with many arches, and reached from Avignon a kilometre to the Tour Philippe le Bel at (what is now) Villeneuve. Only a few arches are now left. The song is about dancing on the isthmus ‘island’ across the river from Avignon, under (sous) the bridge not on (sur) ‘le pont’. Also at Villeneuve, St Andre’s Castle (left pic) is an outstanding example of medieval fortification. The Pope was obliged to flee Rome in 1309 and established his relocated court and palace at Avignon – the result is a soaring architectural masterpiece. Besides the palace, the town itself shelters a maze of streets behind massive defensive walls. Villeneuve was the location for 15 cardinals’ palaces. It all lasted 70 years, then the Pope went back to Rome – although a series of quasi-Popes then continued to operate from Avignon.
It is possible to cruise another 7km up the river beyond Avignon; we have not done so.
Below Avignon PK248 the River Durance looks wide – and shallow. There was a small marina here once, now gone.
A new (opened in summer 2014, west bank) pontoon. Do not pass between the marker buoys outside – there is a submerged training wall, enter from upstream or downstream. Depth on the inboard bank side of the pontoon goes down to 1.5m.
6-8 places (planned expansion to cater for hotel barges) with water, 16 amp electric supply, WiFi, black and grey water pump out, tanker fuel delivery (48 hrs notice), free car parking, bread and croissant daily delivery, secure mooring and pontoon security with the port capitain living on site. Capitainerie with facilities and bikes for hire planned for the future. Olivier Pallier, the capitain, who is helpful and friendly, has 3 barges moored and these can be tied-to.
Aramon village is 350 metres away, has shops, is charming and has several restaurants, a good Asian take away and two bars. Bus to Avignon, onward to Uzès and the Pont du Gard.
contact©air-et-o-nautique,com – Tel +33 (0)220.127.116.11.12 – www.air-et-o-nautique.com (but website currently under construction!) (Thanks to Steve Bateson and David Rothery for expanded information 2014)
A PdP of 25 places, managed by the Beaucaire capitainerie. Tel 04 66 59 02 17 Email port©beaucaire,fr (port©beaucaire,fr) All normal services, pontoons on the river. We haven’t stayed there, we know friends who stayed long-term. The village was a well-known centre of basket-making.
PK265 Ecluse 12 Vallabregues/Beaucaire
VHF #20 – 16m rise/fall. The first/last Rhone lock.
< New (2013) pontoon at PK266, but for passenger boats only.
The Chute de Vallabregues PK266-PK269 is narrow, passing between Tarascon and Beaucaire (on the Canal Rhone a Sete and not now accessible from the Rhone) and under the twin road and rail bridges. This, together with the Chute de Lyon (below Lyon), is where smaller boats will find the current most noticeable and possibly difficult to deal with, especially passing by the bridge supports.
East bank opposite the wind farm – a potential bolt-hole into a (mainly) disused narrow harbour. Check depths (as ever). The river below here is wide, with many lagoons off to the side behind low stone breakwaters; behind those, low-lying marshes.
PK279 Petit Rhone junction
Stopping in Arles is not easy. The pontoons by the (old) Pont Trinquetaille have been removed. Alternatives include
– Tel 04 90 96 00 85 and seek VNF advice, give notice to open the Arles ecluse and moor in the Arles a Bouc side canal (where the Van Gogh lift bridge is)
– Mooring to a floating restaurant ‘la Peniche‘ (apparently they are quite happy about this) by the bridge. 04 90 93 31 10 (on the left in the photo above)
– Mooring at the Barriol shipyard PK284 (maybe not for long) 04 90 93 74 60 Longer-term, there are plans to develop a marina behind the Arles ecluse.
The photo shows the Rhone in the foreground, the branch off into the ecluse (the furthermost blue gate can be seen, raised up) and the harbour/marina of Port Saint-Louis. To the right, the Canal St Louis leads into the Golfe de Fos, past the reknowned yard of Navy Service (re-masting and all facilities and services on-site). To the south-east (to the right of this photo) lies Port Napoleon, access from the Golfe de Fos.