The ‘Rules of the Road’

The rules of the waterway road are relatively easy to comply with, and the ability to handle one’s boat precisely and confidently is just as important as theoretical knowledge of the waterway code.


Priority to commercial traffic and other barges

Smaller boats must at all times leave room for barges to proceed on their course and to manoeuvre. Barges must never be forced by small boats to steer clear. Skippers of boats must constantly bear in mind this priority to working boats, including trip boats. They must also steer well clear of all craft under way, dredgers and other maintenance vessels, and any work sites on the waterways.

Meeting other craft (croisement)

Boats may pass each other only when the channel is wide enough, taking into account local circumstances and other traffic movements. Boats whose respective courses are such that there is no risk of collision must not alter their course or their speed in a manner likely to cause a risk of collision. Boats meeting must normally keep to the right (passing port to port).

Blue Flag Rule

There is an exception to this rule (more important for barges than for small boats) on wider river navigations, where it is normal practice for boats heading upstream to keep to the inside of the channel in bends to take advantage of the slacker water, while boats heading downstream keep to the middle of the channel. This practice is covered by the international ‘blue flag’ rule, under which the upstream-bound barge wishing to keep to the left makes its intention clear by displaying a blue flag or panel on the right-hand side of the wheelhouse (or by night, a flashing white light). The barge heading downstream acknowledges by displaying its blue flag or flashing white light, and adopts the corresponding course. If the skipper of the first barge fears his intention has not been understood, he sounds two short blasts (to pass on the left), and this signal must be acknowledged. (Similarly, one short blast confirms the intention to pass normally on the right, and must be acknowledged.)

Small craft are not bound to observe this rule, but being aware of it makes it that much easier to comply with the number one rule of priority to commercial craft.

Overtaking (dépassement or trématage)

Overtaking normally takes place on the left. Only on wide river navigations may overtaking on the right be envisaged.

The skipper of the overtaking boat must strictly indicate his intention by displaying a blue flag at the bow. If the overtaken vessel has to modify its course or speed to facilitate this manoeuvre, the overtaking one shall sound two long blasts followed by one short one to signal he is overtaking to starboard, or two long blasts followed by two short ones for overtaking to port. Boaters must not accelerate momentarily for the exclusive purpose of passing another boat or barge, and should bear in mind that it is forbidden to overtake (a) whenever it is not certain that the manoeuvre can be effected safely, (b) within 500m from a lock and (c) wherever these prohibition signs are displayed.

Generally speaking, never try to overtake a barge on the ‘Freycinet’ canals unless invited to do so by the barge skipper, since this can be a dangerous manoeuvre. If no such invitation is forthcoming, and the boat skipper is certain that there is time to get far enough ahead of the barge before the next lock is reached not to cause any delay (in practice, this means that the next lock must be at least 2 or 3 kilometres away), he may signal his intention to overtake by sounding two long blasts and two short (to overtake normally to port). It is then permitted to overtake unless the barge skipper sounds one short blast, meaning that he would prefer to be overtaken to starboard, or five short blasts, meaning that he considers it unsafe or inappropriate to be overtaken at this point.

However, only experienced navigators with loud horns should indulge in such dialogue; it is simpler, especially on a heavily-locked canal, to moor when the opportunity arises and let the barge get well ahead.

Turning (virement)

When a boat wishes to turn to head in the opposite direction, notice of the intention is to be given by one prolonged blast on the horn, followed by one short blast if swinging to the right and two short blasts if swinging to the left.

Speed Limits

The special regulations for each waterway (règlement particulier de police de la navigation intérieure) lay down speed limits, and the owner of any boat exceeding the authorised limit renders himself liable to prosecution.

Throughout the smaller canal network the limit is 6 kph (4 mph / 3.3 knots) for barges and pleasure boats displacing more than 20 tonnes, reduced to 4 kph for the passage of movable bridges and navigation at night (where allowed). The limit is eased to 8 kph and in some cases 10 kph for boats of less than 20 tonnes. 3kph-sign-88x85In practice, however, speed in the smaller canals should constantly be adapted to local conditions, the basic rule being to ease off whenever the boat causes wash to break on the banks, as well as when passing moored boats (maximum 3 kph) and anglers, thus avoiding damage in the first case and unpleasantness in the second.

On canalised rivers, higher speeds are authorised in river sections than in lock-cuts or canal sections. For example, the limits are respectively 15 kph and 6 kph on the Marne, on the Saône above Auxonne and on the Yonne, while the maximum on the smaller river navigations is 10 kph.

On the large-scale waterways, much higher limits are applied, generally 15 kph in canals or lock-cuts and up to 35 kph in open river sections. Speeds higher still, up to 60 kph, are allowed on specified short reaches for the practice of water-skiing and small power boating only.

It must be underlined that local restrictions may be applied on any waterway, and indicated by the conventional speed limit sign shown in the section on navigation signs.