Canal de Calais and the River Aa: Calais to Watten

Inside a lock while departing Calais

Inside a lock while departing Calais

Once we had Wanderlust safely tucked into the Calais’ Port de Plaisance we had a number of things to do. Our dog Gigi needed to be liberated from her foster parents in Canterbury England. Once a convenience, our leased car had become a burden and had to be retrieved from Caversham and returned to Charles de Gaulle Airport. Inside the barge, our preparations for the crossing had to be unraveled to recapture the living space. And importantly, the heavy layer of salt that we picked up crossing the Channel needed to be removed from the outside surfaces of the barge. Steel boats and seawater are always a challenging combination. We held at the port in Calais for four nights doing the things we had to do. All the time we lusted for a taste of the waterways before us.

Ultimately we emerged and moved inland on the little used Canal de Calais. The lack of regular traffic on the Canal de Calais meant that we needed to contact the Voies Navigables de France, the French waterway authority, to have bridges raised and locks operated along the way. We had a choice of methods for contacting the VNF, VHF radio or cell phone. Both options meant that we’d put our French to work. That was not reassuring. On a good day, our French could be charitably described as horrifically bad.

The response we received back on both the phone and the radio was, as we would soon learn, typical. We heard nothing that we could understand. As the phone hung up on the other end, we had no idea whether we’d even dialed the correct number. At the same time, things happened. The locks operated and the bridges were raised as needed. It was as if the mere acting of trying to make contact triggered the desired response. And with the bridges and locks operating we were on our way inland.

Calm waters on the Canal de Calais

Calm waters on the Canal de Calais

At the last lock on the Canal de Calais we encountered our first commercial barge. The barge waited at the layby above the écluse as the lock chamber filled. As we floated in the filling lock, the éclusier trotted out his family to practice English with Becky. And Becky was inclined to help them out. The chatting continued well after the lock chamber was completely filled.

As we left the lock the skipper of the commercial barge looked over at us and tapped his watch. We’d taken too much time, it seems. I looked back over at him, tapped my virtual watch, pointed forward to Becky, and raised my hands. He flashed the OK sign back. Sign language, it seems, is universal.

"Imagine there's no countries":  It's easy if you are dog.

“Imagine there’s no countries”: It’s easy if you are dog.


From the port in Calais, we traveled the Canal de Calais and the l’Aa canalize to Watten. The very last section of the l’Aa is part of the Canal Dunkerque-Escaut, also known as the Grand Gabarit. (In English, Le Grand Gabarit translates as “large gauge” reflecting the post World War II widening of a series of waterways to accommodate large commercial barge traffic.) According to PC Navigo, we traveled 37 km while passing through 3 locks and multiple moving bridges.

In Watten we moored beside a wide grassy bend of the waterway using two stout fixed bollards. It was a surprisingly pleasant spot. This was our first night on a busy commercial waterway and we were concerned that the wakes from the very large barges passing nearby might cause problems. But it wasn’t bad. Undoubtedly it helped that it was Sunday and the water traffic was light. It also probably helped that our mooring was reasonably close to a lock and the barges were slow on approach and exit.

Aside from finding a festival celebrating the first mussels of the season from Dunkirk, we did not have much of a chance to explore the area. Certainly we missed some stuff here: Watten historically was in the French portion of Flanders and there’s also some interesting WWII history nearby. Fortunately Watten is on a major commercial waterway, the inland navigation equivalent of a superhighway, and there’s a good chance that we will be back to see what we missed.

Becky chats with the eclusier and his family at the last lock of the Canal de Calais.

Becky chats with the eclusier and his family at the last lock of the Canal de Calais.

Wanderlust moored in Watten

Wanderlust moored in Watten

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