The eastern segment of the canal de la Marne au Rhin is appealing. It features two of the most spectacular pieces of infrastructure on the Freycinet gauge waterways of France, the Écluse de Réchicourt-le-Château and the Saint-Louis-Arzviller Inclined Plane. And for much of the distance, the countryside along the canal is lush and attractive.
The Marne-Rhine canal once served as an important commercial waterway link between the Marne and Rhine River drainages. Today, the big commercial boats are gone. In their place are a few hotel barges, a fleet of Dutch flagged cruiser boats, a few private barges like Wanderlust, and scores of hire boats jammed with holidaymakers.
Attractive stretches of water often come with a high density of hire boats. Though many private boat owners are greatly annoyed by the antics of the hire boat throngs, for us it’s a mixed experience. Good or bad, the presence of a lot of vacation boats always manages to make life “interesting”. Though we are careful to keep a safe distance, it is good to see the less jaded short timers having such fun. And, along with at times creating chaos, hire boaters do have fun.
Part of the “problem” with hire boats is that it takes no prior qualifications to rent a boat in France from a company like Locaboat or Le Boat. At check-in, customers, no matter how unskilled, receive a 30-minute orientation cruise to teach them how to navigate the less than 15-meter boat that they are hiring. The result is a mixed bag of boat handling skills. You never know what to expect when you approach a hire boat. Some of these holiday boaters handle their boats expertly. Others navigate the flat water of the canals like a dog walking on ice for the first time. From what we’ve seen there’s a good reason why hire boat companies surround the perimeter of their craft with a dense curtain of fenders.
Competent or not, all hire boaters seem to have one characteristic in common; they cruise with the throttle pushed hard forward. Maximum speed seems essential to extract every last bit from each vacation.
Hire boats on the Marne au Rhin are concentrated between the rental bases in Saverne and Lagarde. The stretch of waterway flanked by these bases features attractive French countryside, two tunnels, the Arzviller Inclined Plane that lifts or drops boats 44.5 meters, and the deep Réchicourt-le-Château écluse.
With a rise of over 15.4 meters, the Réchicourt lock is the deepest lock on the narrow gauge canals in France. Like the Arzviller Plane, this deep lock is a relatively recent creation. It was built in 1965 to bypass a chain of six locks nearby.
On an out and back cruise to Strasbourg, Wanderlust both climbed and descended l’écluse de Réchicourt. In the climbing direction or “montant” boats enter the lock through a guillotine gate at the bottom of a concrete wall. Onboard it feels more like a entering a tunnel than a lock. Once the gate closes behind the boats using the lock float at the bottom of the rectangular chamber sealed off from the open canal. Soon the lock starts to fill. Thirty minutes later, with the sky again in full view, the gates open at the top allowing the watercraft to exit and proceed on their journeys.
When entering in the descending direction the Réchicourt écluse feels like a normal lock. Once the gates close behind and the water in the chamber is slowly released, the boats inside drop and drop and drop; it seems like the descent will end at the center of the earth.
With all the water is out of the chamber, the lower guillotine gate is lifted. The boats inside gather their ropes onboard. As soon as there’s a semblance of a clear path, the hire boat skippers push their throttle levers as far forward as possible to maximize their escape velocity. Behind them they leave small clouds of smoke that linger in the chamber behind the dripping curtain of water that streams down from the raised lock gate.
For the hire boaters, a fast exit from the locks is essential. It is, apparently, a race to the next lock, mooring, or whatever the next good time destination is.
(Wanderlust passed through the Écluse de Réchicourt-le-Château on August 20th and September 2nd of 2015.)