Cruising in Practice :: Locks (Écluses)
- The éclusier (lock-keeper) is the authority on lock operation. Skippers must look out for and comply with their instructions. This sometimes conflicts with a boat skipper’s own separate responsibility towards his crew and his boat to ‘take his own advice’.
- A respectful, friendly courtesy towards the éclusier (even if one-sided) is not only good manners, a concept understood and appreciated in France, it is also common sense.
- Ships, large barges, commercial barges and hotel barges have priority over plaisanciers (private boaters) and will enter the lock first, possibly filling it. Keep out of their way, wait and be patient. There is no point overtaking any ‘commercial’ anywhere near a lock.
- Avoid coming close to a barge’s stern until she has stopped in the chamber in case there is an unexpected last-minute use of reverse at high revs causing pronounced turbulence for some distance behind the prop.
- Descending, never make fast (tie to a cleat) on the boat.
- Wherever possible, use a bollard or other fitting to manage the direct pull of a line.
- Do not untie or move off until a) the éclusier has so instructed and/or b) a green signal light shows and/or c) the exit lock gate is fully open (they do occasionally jam half-way).
- Going down is much easier than going up. Keep clear of the concrete sill or step jutting out from under the upper gate.
- Going up, it is usually quietest and best at the back of the lock.
- Even a series of similar looking locks may have quite different bollard or control point positions.
Most locks of whatever size have signal lights. In brief –
- Two reds – the lock is not currently available to you. You may have to wait some time, so moor up.
- One red – the lock is not available, but will be shortly for example after the boats currently in the lock have left. Wait by mooring temporarily or by holding station in the water (but not close to the lock).
- Red and Green – The lock is being prepared for passage from your direction. Wait but be prepared to move off.
- Green – the lock is open and available.
- Flashing orange or other colour – the lock operating system is aware of your presence (you have passed a sensor, pressed a remote control button or twisted a hanging rod perche). Watch for a red/green light signal.
Large and deep locks
The big locks on the Seine, Saone, Rhone etc are all controlled remotely by lock-keepers, normally from high up in a control tower located midway in the lock basin on one side or the other. The lock-keeper makes all operational decisions based on their understanding of approaching upstream or downstream traffic, its type and size. So a private boat (plaisancier) can be kept waiting for 20 minutes or longer if the lock is ready for a barge or ship expected in the other, or same, direction. If in any doubt, moor at one of the dolphins/piles (ducs d’albe) or pontoons providing access to the bank, maintain a VHF watch and await instructions.
For obvious reasons it is highly advisable to pre-announce arrival at a lock by VHF some distance away.
“ . . . écluse A, écluse A, c’est bateau ‘X’ (name), bateau ‘X’ (name), plaisancier, montant (heading upstream) or avalant (heading downstream), je suis à Y km distance. Over . . “
The reply may be cursory but the message has been received. If no response, repeat after 1 minute. Do not repeat more than 3 times, either the eclusier is not going to reply, or there is a transmission fault.
Semi-Automatic Methods – Smaller locks
- Remote control
Approaching a lock, one pushes the upstream or downstream button. If the signal is received a light will flash and/or the lock’s traffic lights will change. Once in the lock, operation will be initiated through rods or lines (see below).
Approaching a lock, the boat passes through a detector beam that signals to the lock machinery in a similar way. It is important not to pass the detector too fast or the beam may be skipped.
- Perche rod
Suspended vertically over the canal is a perche, a length of heavy duty rubber tube. Approached slowly, the perche is twisted a half-turn and this also signals approach to the lock.
- In the lock
Once in the lock by one of the above methods, there are two rods (rarely, lines) set vertically into the lock wall, connected to a gantry at the lock edge. One is red, the other blue. The red is for emergency use only, to stop any operation and communicate the situation to the waterway authority. The blue is lifted sharply to throw a switch in the gantry and start the gate/filling/emptying sequence. Ascending, the rod is always wet and slimy and difficult to grasp and lift.
On a very few canals there is a control box at the lock side with red and blue buttons to press.
Éclusier operation – Smaller locks
Whilst many locks have been automated, there is still a significant number that are operated ‘on the spot’ by VNF personnel.
- On a one éclusier per ecluse basis
- On a travelling éclusier basis, where one éclusier manages a group of locks and hence the passage of single or grouped boats.
- The ecluse may be fully mechanised in which case the eclusier will not need any assistance. If not mechanised it is considered good practice (although by no means obligatory) for boats to moor on the opposite side of the lock to the eclusier and for crew to assist the manual process of closing or opening gates and closing or opening lock gate sluices.
- Tipping is not expected and indeed all éclusiers are public servants and such action could be frowned upon. Traditionally, bargees placed a coin on top of one of the bollards. Whilst there are, of course, exceptions most éclusiers are friendly, helpful and do more than their job description sets out. It would not be unreasonable to acknowledge this in some way.
Deep locks, floating bollards
The Rhone has enormous locks rising tens of metres, but they’re very easy since one loops onto bollards that rise with the water level (they also fill quietly and easily).
Both bow and stern lines have to attach to the same bollard in equal lengths, or a mid-line (if available) may sometimes suffice. It is easy to catch the end of a fender board in the vertical slot in the lock wall that precedes or contains the bollard. Fenders can also slot into the slot and become ineffective.
Big locks, stepped bollards
These deep locks have inset bollards at intervals up the lock wall – not always set vertically one above the other. Bollard spacing – horizontally and vertically – suits barges, not small boats – this means it’s difficult/impossible to get a bow line to one bollard and a stern to another. You may have to ‘running moor’ or put both bow and stern round the same bollard (which naturally reduces control). Moving up from one bollard to the next requires timing and co-ordination. Lines have to be transferred (sometimes quickly, to keep control) from one bollard to the next as the lock empties or fills – it is quite easy for lines to slip off the top of slimy bollards as the boat rises.
Substantial stainless steel poles inset in the lock wall, stretching from the lock floor up to the lock edge. They are not always straight, in perfect condition or conveniently positioned. Once taken around the pole and brought back, lines do not have to be adjusted and can be kept tight, sliding up or down as the boat rises or falls.
These may be spaced to allow for bow and stern lines to each use a pole, or (more usually) both lines brought to the same pole.
Bollards on the lock-side
Most smaller locks are like this. Bow and stern lines must be taken up from the boat to a bollard and either brought back to the boat, or handled at the lock side, or both. There are a number of possible, or interrelated, factors –
- Getting a bight of rope up to a bollard from a boat in a fairly deep lock takes skill, patience and luck. Particularly since bollards may be set back from the lock edge and not visible, although it is usual for bollard positions to be indicated by white paint marks on the upper lock wall. Helm will have to keep the boat in position – and be patient.
- Getting a stern line on first provides the most reliable control for then positioning and securing a bow line. Bow line on first can lead to the stern swinging out or the boat even reversing itself.
- Where feasible, it can be easy and convenient to drop crew off before the lock and then pass lines up to them – stern first, which is passed back to the helm and then bow, which is managed by crew at the lock side.
- Most locks have metal ladders set into the lock wall. It is possible for crew to climb up to the lock side and then handle lines in a similar way. The ladders are always wet and slimy and there is an inevitable risk of slipping and falling.
- Bollards, poles and other lock equipment have been originally installed to suit barges. As a result, they are not always positioned conveniently for smaller craft. Positions can vary surprisingly from one lock to the next, both along the lock and on one side or the other.
- Depending on the waterway and the construction of the lock, water can fill the lock via sluices that are part of the lock gate (wound up or down by hand or power operated) or through the lock floor, or in combination or sequence. Whilst most locks are quite manageable from this aspect, others can feature a very strong force of water from ahead (from the gates) or from underneath (through the floor). Either or both can push the boat around in ways that make it difficult to control if one is inattentive.
- See also Other Notes tab
- Some large locks on the Marne and the Yonne have sloping sides. Whilst most have now been fitted with pontoons that slide up and down to tie to, a few do not. Descending is primarily a matter of keeping the boat on station away from the approaching side using engine and steering. Ascending, because of the inflow of water, is more difficult and the eclusier will normally assist boats to get a line ashore to provide a steadying means.
- It is not uncommon for locks to fill high enough (sometimes right to the brim) such that lines pull upwards from bollards – and some bollards have no cross bar, top cap or other feature to stop those lines pulling off. One answer is to ‘cross’ the line, taking a turn from one side of the bollard around to the other so that the bollard can be ‘throttled’ by the line without being tied or fixed to it.
- Midi locks, having sides that are curved on plan, can be difficult to leave – that is, move off the wall, clear the lock exit –if the wind is pressing the boat sideways into the curve. Better to try to berth on the up-wind side in the first place.
Paul and Sheryl Shard, of the Distant Shores sailing adventure travel TV series that is broadcast in 24 languages worldwide, have released an extract from their ‘Through the French Canals’ video. It’s a really excellent taster of what the canals are like and what going through the traditional Freycinet-size locks is like: