River Garonne + Gironde Estuary : Cruising in Detail

Information about the 53km of tidal river from Castets-en-Dorthe (junction with the Canal de Garonne) to Bordeaux and (a further 30km downstream) the confluence of the River Garonne, the River Dordogne and the Gironde (the estuary of the Garonne).

See also general notes (foot of page).

Basic Information

  • Approximate notional minimum depth 1.80m, headroom 6.5m. This is a tidal river and also one with significant areas of sandbanks, shallows and other obstructions. Care must be taken to keep to the safe channel, including using the appropriate bridge arches. Neap tides are to be preferred.
  • Going upstream to Castets, leave Bordeaux 4-5hrs before local high water and carry the tide upstream for an approximately 6hr journey.
  • Going downstream to Bordeaux, leave Castets at local high water to carry the outgoing tide and river current.
  • Specific advice may be obtained from the VNF office at Castets ecluse – 05 56 62 83 07 or 06 62 99 63 91 (speak to Jean-Christophe who very knowledgeable and helpful) – or from the VNF regional office at Cadillac 05 56 62 66 50.
  • The Garonne Mascaret At Equinoctial (and other) Spring flood tides a mascaret (tidal bore) may form, particularly between PK31 Barsac and PK65 Begles, travelling up the river against the current. Cadillac pontoon should be avoided at this time but the phenomenon is not especially dangerous for experienced boaters in adequate craft if one keeps bows to the flood, to ride it, and a centre-stream position.
  • Using a pilot-guide book is strongly recommended: Breil Guides or Fluviacarte (Navicarte) Guides. Breil guide 16 is particularly good for the many small ports dotted along both sides of the Gironde.

PK17 Castets-en-Dorthe

Top photo – The large and very deep double chamber ecluse at the junction of the Canal de Garonne and the tidal river itself, taken at low water. Only the right-hand side of the side-by-side pair is used. VNF vignettes will possibly be checked at this ecluse, coming into the ‘system’ from the river – they can be purchased at the ecluse office (05 56 62 83 07) or online in advance (see VNF tariff information here). The entrance door is located two storeys up the face of the building: testament to the potential height of river flooding.

Lower photo – from the ecluse, looking west along the river and under the bridge. Just visible past the left-most bridge support is the river waiting pontoon.

The Garonne is actually navigable for a further 12km upstream to La Réole. Take the rising tide up from Castets for this slightly adventurous step. After 2-3km, at the first upstream bend in the river (opposite Caudrot village), keep to the outside of the curve: there are rocks in mid-channel. Depth at La Réole may be less than 1.5m and the only mooring is a rowing club pontoon; having ‘made it’ you might then feel obliged just to return to Castets.

PK25 Langon

This is where the Airbus parts are unloaded from their barge, for onward road transport to Toulouse. No moorings.

PK35 Cadillac

Floating pontoon on piles, but best avoided at Spring tides. A very pleasant ancient village.

PK66 Begles – Port Garonne

A large river PdP, fuel and 12 tonne lift-out facilities – passing boats will probably be allocated outside pontoon positions, further out into the current, keep bows towards the flood tide. Supermarket and other shops nearby, good transport connections into Bordeaux. 05 56 85 76 04 or 06 18 60 26 78 port©mairie-begles,fr  (port©mairie-begles,fr)  

PK70+1 Pont de Pierre – Take one of the three (white edged) central arches (below, right side).

Tricky to maintain steerage through, if carrying an upstream current; strong eddies beyond on the southern/upstream side because the bridge tends to ‘hold back’ the river – a difference in water level can even be noticed between the two sides. The tidal turn from strongly downstream to strongly upstream happens very rapidly.

PK70+4 Bordeaux

Mooring in Bordeaux is not too difficult. The three options are (a) on the good new pontoon immediately downstream from the Pont Pierre, south bank. Telephone 05 56 10 28 26 or 06 44 18 87 37 to reserve. Or (b) within the Commercial Harbour, via a very large ecluse (05 56 90 58 00 or VHF Ch12, 9 or 16) only accessible from HW-1.5 to HW+0.5 ***Closed until July 2013*** or (c) on some pontoons in the river at Halte Nautique de Lormont by the high Pont d’Aquitaine suspension bridge, 5.5km downstream (PK70+5.5). The strong river and tidal currents at this point do not make for comfortable berthing. (Tel : 06 77 17 91 83)

Detailed report on moorings in Bordeaux.

The Gironde Estuary

The Gironde, formed at the confluence of the River Dordogne (and the River Isle) with the Garonne, is Europe’s largest estuary. Tidal currents and conditions, which can be significantly modified by wind strength and direction, must be taken into account in planning an upstream or downstream passage. In very general terms –

  • The downstream ebb flow happens for approximately 2/3rds the time, the upstream flood for 1/3rds. This means that the flood tide is much stronger than the ebb, particularly in the hours HW-4 to HW-3. Apart from the obvious, note the implication for ‘shooting’ the Pont de Pierre at Bordeaux (see above).
  • Approximate tidal timings (but affected by wind and ebb strength)
    – Standard Port – PdG Pointe de Grave (estuary entrance – link is to tidal times)
    – HW Pauillac = HW PdG +1hrs (link is to tidal times)
    – HW Bordeaux = HW PdG +2hrs (link is to tidal times)
    – HW Castets = HW PdG +4hrs

PK70 (canal) +47 (Gironde) Pauillac

The consistently recommended place to un-mast or re-mast (the alternatives would be Royan or Port Medoc at the estuary’s seaward entrance, a further 45km/24NM and thus inadvisable if carrying one’s mast). Optimal access into or out of the harbour is at slack water; the crane is used at HW slack. Capitainerie 05 56 59 12 16.

Pauillac is about 3hrs from Bordeaux; heading upstream our suggestion would be to stem the last of the ebb tide for an hour or two, to arrive at the Pont de Pierre just after the turn thus carrying the up-river flood, but before it becomes uncomfortably strong passing through the bridge arches.