Cruising in Practice :: Prudence

Be Aware – All the Bs


On some waterways, at some times of the year, there can be lots of substantial chunks of trees, saturated and floating well down in the water. In quieter* rivers like the Marne they require looking-for and avoiding. In fast-flowing rivers like the Seine they can also present a significant hazard when one is moored-up. We were hit by a big log whilst pontooned at Rouen and avoided being hit by one twice that size by lassoing it and hitching it to the pontoon support column. Travelling slowly in 3.5m+ depth approaching Meulan we clonked something hidden below – and it was not a shopping trolley!. Along the Marne there are lots of fallen trees along the riverside, some of which must surely project out 5-10m into the channel. [* During winter-spring, all navigable rivers are liable to be fast flowing, in full spate].


Even on the mighty Rhone, with mid-channel depths of 3.5m+ (sometimes much more) there are shallows. As always, they can be in unexpected places (which term also includes the expected places one forgets about). Low islands and visible sandbanks almost always also mean there are hidden shallows around.


The deepest water seems (usually, but not always) to be found on the outside of any curve or bend in the river. On the Rhone this can mean a difference of 3m or more.


Bridge supports often have hidden bases that – nastily – step outwards below the waterline.


Many bank-sides are shallow (the canal or river is not a trough). Those that are not shallow are rocky, or have rocks one cannot see just below the surface. Those that are neither one nor the other, are often both. Midi Canal bank-sides are delightful, mainly consisting of a tangled web of tree roots, and shallows. (They are actually easier than other canals). The accepted method for bank-side mooring (possibly for lunch) consists of gently setting the bow in, jumping off and setting a stake or (rond) anchor and then securing the stern – possibly letting it stay out where the depths are more congenial to rudder and prop. A pasarelle (gangplank) is often useful – we made ours from a cheap single section aluminium ladder and 3 decking planks. At least 1/3rd the cost of a chandlery-bought one. And smarter.

Big Boats – Peniches, Ships and Cruise Liners

‘Bumper’ Boats

On the Midi, some (by no means all) hire boats can constitute a hazard. A hazard to navigation or to incident (damage) -free locking. They’ve got big rubber bumpers all round the boat and (because of lack of experience, or care, or both) they bump into things – walls, each other, us maybe. They can also travel too fast – on the canal, in excess of the 8kph speed limit, and entering and leaving the lock (which reduces their capacity to control the vessel still further). We have been told that the hire companies (a) tell their customers not too worry too much about hitting ‘private’ boats because “they’re all insured” and (b) set travel schedules for their customers that mean they have to keep pushing on as fast as possible otherwise they won’t reach their destination depot in time and (c) do not advise customers about speed limits, nor limit the speed that boats can travel at – other than telling hirers “it’s best not to exceed 2,000rpm” (which of course they can and do).


See next tab.


We bought two big round fenders and four big tubular fenders to complement the ones we already had. In retrospect, four big round fenders would not have gone amiss – we’ve used our two in various configurations.

(1) We started out thinking the round jobbies would help ‘straighten’ at the bows but we then found them better used at the stern, to keep the stern quarters away from the lock walls and thus protect the mast overhang back there. We found it easier to concentrate on and keep the bows under control (using the running moor method and our bow thruster) than the stern.

(2) We then found that, with a fair degree of certainty, we could normally moor port-side-to and so switched the big roundies to that side, fore and aft.

(3) On the Midi, 9 months on, the initial surge of water into the curved sided ecluse is so strong the boat moves around a great deal. It is also not quite so possible to predetermine which side one may moor to, and the ecluse may include one, two or three other boats – often hire boats under minimal control, if that. We have found (going up) these locks to be quite hazardous and we’d now like big roundies fore and aft, both sides.

Ruth’s Tie

On the waterways one keeps ones fenders out all the time, but the heights of things one nuzzles up against varies – this is an important point. Ruth invented a tying and hooking method that means the fender height can easily – and quickly – be changed, without re-tying. The fender is tied at the base of the stanchion such that its bottom is paddling in the water (some pontoons are quite low, and some locks fill to the brim). Along that length a nylon hook has been threaded and knotted such that (a) when clipped onto the mid-lifeline the fender is out of the water at ‘normal’ pontoon height and this is also our usual voyaging position and (b) when clipped onto the top lifeline it rests against our rubbing strake which is at the widest part, and this is the usual lock-wall-protection position. The hook makes the height of the fender quick and easy to adjust at a moment’s notice. Brilliant!

Fender Boards

We made two fender boards from the biggest patio decking planks we could find. The planks were initially hung from their top edges using the biggest hooks B&Q had, but in the event these were pulled straight when the plank caught in one of the first locks we went through. We changed to holes-through and a chiselled-out channel for the rope.


We obtained four small used tyres*, taped inside them three big plastic coke bottles to provide buoyancy, and covered each in an apron formed from a tough woven polypropylene mail sack. [*The VNF regulations allegedly allow tyre fenders – if they float and if each is attached at two separate points.] The tyres are hung from through the tread, not the wall (where the rope would be highly susceptible to abrasion against lock walls). So far they’ve worked well – but another one or two each side would not go amiss. The tyres are covered by the fender board, which takes the knocks and scrapes (there are many, from rough stone and concrete) and which holds them in place. The point about this arrangement is that it provides a very tough wide continuous static centre section of protection – where the boat is constantly nudging up against something. It also provides protection that can be set low down – to, or into, the water’s surface. This is important since many ecluses fill ‘to the brim’ and many canal banks are low and knobbly. One’s hull may be lying against a rough edge at the waterline.

“You can’t have too much protection”

Boue – Clogging Up

Rivers and canals are delightful, leafy places, often with languid shallow waters. Even if the water is not that languid, it will contain mud, silt, twigs, leaves – all sorts of particles that can clog up your engine cooling water intake, supply pipe or filter. This is a hazard when travelling along; it becomes worse when passing through locks because there the languid soup boils up and whatever was lying peacefully at the bottom or at the surface gets properly mixed in, at a time when you will be using the engine – in forward and reverse gears – critically.

Not surprisingly, engine cooling problems – blockages – occur most often during and immediately after, locking. [Except of course, for the obvious actually running into some shallow patch of mud]. The engine cooling alarm shrills away and immediate turning-off (to prevent serious damage through overheating) is called-for, with consequent loss of power and control.

Backwash, Check and Clean

Use a hand or foot pump, via the filter bowl inlet hole, to backwash the boue out of the pipe and the inlet. The dinghy footpump works extremely well for this purpose – we keep it conveniently to hand, with the appropriate adaptor already plugged into its hose. We also learned that checking and cleaning the filter basket at setting-off, at midday lunchbreaks, and after having arrived was a necessity. The stuff that gets pulled in and trapped there is amazing. Whilst we were moored next to a big Finnish motor cruiser, they cleaned their twin filters and inspected their (to us) giant-sized pump impeller. The pile of twigs that came out of the filters looked like a bird’s nest. There were only two vanes left on the impeller.

Be Prepared

We planned our passage across the Baie de la Seine to Honfleur, took account of tides, navigated and sailed successfully for some 11 hours. We then got ourselves and the boat in a pickle through not properly assessing what we would find at ‘the other end’; a tide in the river itself that turned suddenly and then flowed strongly seaward, that we would be tired and it would be dark, and that we would be entering an unfamiliar and substantial ‘proper’ lock – not something we had done before. The result of this combination of oversight and innocence was that the current pushed us into a big lock crossways, we got our ropes wrong, and because we were tired and the situation was dark and unfamiliar we failed to extricate ourselves before the bow guard-rail hit the lock wall rather hard. We then had to control our dismay and rescue the situation. In Rouen, when trying to be helpful to what seemed to be a reasonably competent crew on an adjacent boat, we ended up with our own boat out of control and in a certain amount of peril,  through no fault of our own and completely unexpectedly. We guess one has to prepare for every aspect of what can be expected, but at the same time somehow cope when out-of-the-blue happens – as it will. Depressingly, expect the worst in every situation but be pleasantly surprised 99% of the time!