The start of the 2017 cruising season had Wanderlust hanging near the river port town of Saint Jean de Losne France. Follow-up surveys, necessitated by the builder’s surveyor’s report, were needed unless the builder had a sudden change of heart, which seemed unlikely at best. This meant that we would need to stay tethered to Saint Jean de Losne for at least a couple of months. Wanderlust could cruise but for now we needed to be able to return to Saint Jean on short notice.
Saint Jean de Losne sits on the River Saône within a short cruise of several waterways. We had six different canal options: The Canal de Bourgogne, Canal du Rhône au Rhin, Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne, Canal des Vosges, and the Canal du Centre are all at or near enough Saint Jean. If we wanted to stay on the rivers we could cruise the River Saône upstream or down. Downriver is the confluence of the Saône and Rhône in Lyon. If we wanted we could head south on the Saône and Rhône and eventually reach the Mediterranean Sea. We were spoilt for choices.
With the uncertainty about our schedule the only real option was an out and return cruise. An out and back route had an advantage; it would let us scout for suitable places to pick-up and drop off our visitors due to arrive early in June.
After reviewing the maps we decided to head up Canal du Rhône au Rhin as far as we could in the time available. It’s a waterway that we had not cruised, a plus. Some say that the Rhône-Rhin is one of the most attractive in France, another plus.
To reach the Rhône-Rhin from Saint Jean we turned Wanderlust into the current and cruised for about four kilometers upstream until we reached the lock on the southeastern bank of the Saône. Like many canals, the first stretch of the Rhône-Rhin is relatively flat as it winds through the flood plain and past a large chemical plant. Our first stop, within a good day’s cruise from Saint Jean de Losne, is the attractive historic commune of Dole.
Dole, the capital of Franche-Comté until Louis XIV conquered the region, has a long and complex history. The region has known many rulers and has plenty of history. It is famous as the birthplace of Louis Pasteur, a fact that well advertised to visitors.
Dole’s historic quarter is situated up the hill overlooking the River Doubs. Between the river and the escarpment is a small pleasure boat port. The port sits on the slack water of the section of lateral canal built so that boats can bypass the fast river. Protected by locks on both ends, boats in the port are safe from all but the biggest floods.
The location of Dole’s port is attractive and convenient. There’s a decent covered market not far away up the hill near the main church. The market is a plus as are the numerous restaurants and bars. We like Dole. When the weather changed and the rain came hard it was easy to choose to extend our stay.
As we left Dole we figured our next destination stop would be Besançon. We planned on two days to get there.
Between Dole and Besançon the Rhône-Rhine Canal follows the River Doubs. The water route splits time between the river’s natural channel and stretches of manmade canal. Canalizing rivers in this manner necessitates the protection of the canal sections from damage when the river is in flood. To do this, floodgates, which completely close off canal sections, or guard locks, which function as locks only in high water, are built.
With the recent rains some of the guard ecluses were in service. This came as a surprise. Locks that weren’t expected from the guides were appearing unexpectedly ahead of us. Navigation-wise these locks were no issue; they are easy to navigate and the delay was minor as there was only a small elevation change.
We ended the first day at the pontoon mooring managed by the small community of Ranchot. The pontoon is situated on a canal section of the waterway just below a guard gate protecting this section of canal from the river’s waters. Before long an Australian cruiser boat arrived and moored up behind. Soon wine was being shared. New friends are made quickly on the waterways.
The next day we pulled up the mooring lines and continued on our way towards Besançon. Near the pontoon we passed through the open guard gate and a short distance later Wanderlust was on the open river.
The river was flowing. It seemed that the water from the recent rains had made its way down from the mountains. Nevertheless, heading upstream the water presented no particular navigation concerns.
After about a kilometer of river the route reached a lock that marked the start of another lateral canal section. We triggered the lock cycle using the remote control provided by the VNF at the first lock and fought the eddy as the gates opened. Soon we were in the lock’s chamber climbing to the protected waters of the canal.
When the upper lock gates opened we moved Wanderlust out into the smooth waters of the canal. About a kilometer and a half up the canal there was a closed gate blocking our progress. From the water it looked like another guard ecluse. But this time the remote did not work, there were no lights, and there was no way to activate the lock cycle. Looking carefully at the map we figured out that we were behind a guard gate and not a guard ecluse as we thought. But why was this gate closed?
We used the cell phone to call the VNF. It took a couple of calls to get the right person and to navigate the language barrier. After about forty minutes we heard the word we didn’t want to hear, “sécurité”. The VNF had told us that we were behind a guard gate that would not open until the river dropped. It was closed for safety reasons. It was closed to protect the canal from the river’s waters.
We wished we had known this earlier. If the guard gate near our mooring was closed or the lock off of the river section we had just left been turned off, we wouldn’t have made it this far in. It was also a surprise that we didn’t get a warning from a lockkeeper on a scooter. Usually the VNF is good about that sort of thing.
C’est la vie.
The first thought was to move to the bank, stake up, and wait it out. If we did this we could stay at the bottom of the gate for weeks until it opened. But there was a problem. The sides of the canal in the section were steeply sloped. We could not get Wanderlust close enough to the shore to get off the boat and drive the mooring pins in. There was no way to get to shore.
Next we tried to turn around even though the canal looked too narrow. Indeed it was too narrow. After a couple of attempts figured that that canal was about 18 meters wide. In spots it was slightly wider but not nearly wide enough for Wanderlust at 20 meters in length to turn about. The only option was to back Wanderlust down the canal.
Steering Wanderlust while going in reverse requires a different technique. Without the flow of water past it from the prop, Wanderlust’s rudder has limited turning authority going backwards. The most effective way to steer is to use the bow thruster. The thruster’s transversely mounted electrically powered propeller at the bow pushes the nose of the boat to the left or right with a movement of a lever in the wheelhouse. When maneuvering backwards periodic small bursts from the thruster change the direction of travel much like the rudder does going forward. With little wind and calm water backing this way was straightforward. Only occasionally did I need to nudge the thruster.
About halfway to the lock the Australian cruiser that had moored with us in Ranchot arrived. They too had gone through the guard gate and lock without concern about the waterway being open. Once they realized that we were backing out the Australians offered assistance though there was little they could do other than monitoring our progress. Eventually the Australians turned about and headed back through the lock, a maneuver that made us envious.
Backing a boat through a lock is not an every day maneuver, at least not for us. Indeed, this was the first time I tried it. Theoretically it didn’t seem very difficult. Moving slowly it was not at all difficult to get Wanderlust’s stern into the lock chamber. One last pulse of the bow thruster would straighten her out to keep the hull from scraping on the side corner of the lock. I moved my hand to the thruster controller and activated the thruster.
Immediately from the bow came a high-pitched “whir”.
When the Vetus thruster is activated there’s a rush of water and a groan from electric motor. This time it didn’t happen. It sounded like the motor wasn’t attached to anything. And we knew immediately what this meant. The thruster had broken. It was the worst possible time.
The sound was familiar. Wanderlust’s Vetus bow thruster has failed twice. The first failure was from a defective tailpiece, the angle drive that converts the vertical shaft rotation of the electrical motor to the horizontal motion of the propeller shaft. This failure occurred within fifty hours of Wanderlust’s launch. The second time the thruster failed it was from debris in the water being sucked through the plastic bow prop. The debris shattered the prop with a loud thud.
This time there was no thud. There was no doubt in our minds that we had suffered another failure of the mechanical internals of the thruster. It was just like the first time. A problem we feared would reappear had reappeared.
After the thruster first failed and Vetus made the repairs we knew that it was possible that the replacement angle drive might well be defective. From what we could tell a high proportion of Vetus thrusters from Wanderlust’s era were vulnerable to this problem. Indeed, some of the replacement tailpieces from Wanderlust’s time had also quickly failed. Knowing this, we had been cautious to minimize the use of Wanderlust’s thruster.
Now, a couple of years out from the original repair, we figured that we were lucky and Wanderlust’s thruster angle drive was sound. But at a particularly awkward moment, we learned that our second angle drive was defective also. We’ve had bad luck with bow thrusters; we’ve had worse luck with the timing of their failure.
For the moment there was nothing I could do. Repairs would require that Wanderlust be removed from the water. So for moment the best I could do was to put a foot on the side of the lock and give a gentle push to straighten Wanderlust’s entry into the chamber. After backing up far enough to clear the upstream gate, we tossed ropes over the bollards, and activated the locking cycle using the remote control.
As Wanderlust slowly descended in the lock I began to contemplate the next move. The lock gate protecting the canal shunt was on the right side of the river, facing downstream. Between the lock and the fast flowing Doubs were roughly 60 meters of water turned by the strong eddy. I knew when the lower lock gate opened we’d quickly be in the unpredictable swirl which we had just passed through.
Even when it was working it’s not clear that Wanderlust’s thruster produces enough force to overcome the eddy. But without a bow thruster controlling Wanderlust while she moved backwards into the rotating waters was certain to be difficult. Our only option to turn was to apply short hard bursts of the prop while the rudder was turned to lock. This would help rotate the boat but it would also slow Wanderlust down and leave her in the eddy longer.
The best plan, I figured as we descended in the lock, was to turn Wanderlust’s stern toward the shore with blasts from the propeller as she come out of the lock backwards. Usually it’s not a good idea to back the stern of a boat towards shore; it increases the risk of damaging the propeller. But if the aim were good, the nearby waiting pontoon would protect Wanderlust’s stern gear. The water was deep at the pontoon and the fenders on the pontoon would protect the Wanderlust’s paintwork, I hoped.
Once Wanderlust reached the pontoon, I figured I could continue the turn her to starboard. If needed I could use a stern spring rope, though that possibility seemed problematic at best and I hoped I would not need to try. Once Wanderlust’s stern was pinned against the pontoon I would move Wanderlust’s bow out into the current, helping to spin her around faster. It would leave her facing downstream towards our direction of travel.
It was a good plan right up until the moment the lock gate opened. As soon as we cleared the lock coming out backwards, the eddy waters spun all of Wanderlust’s 41 tonnes strongly to port. I made a brief attempt at the planned turn to starboard but it was quickly clear that Wanderlust was not maneuverable enough to overcome the momentum induced by the eddy’s swirl. The eddy was much stronger than I recalled on the way upstream.
It was now time for Plan B, whatever that might be.
After a few seconds in the eddy there really only seemed to be one thing I could do; I’d have to go with the flow.
With Wanderlust’s throttle pushed hard to reverse, I backed out at full revs through cloud of diesel smoke. The engine pushed the stern of the boat into the middle of the strong flow of the river. The risk was that once her stern reached the strong flow Wanderlust would naturally be rotated to starboard leaving her facing upstream away from the direction of travel. If I applied forward throttle too soon the barge would be ferried towards the shore, which would have been difficult to counteract. If we were facing the wrong way into the current I’d face trying to turn Wanderlust about, as she was being swept rapidly towards the weir 700 meters downstream. Either way it could have been ugly.
We were fortunate. The angular momentum that Wanderlust developed in the eddy kept the boat rotating as she reached the fast flowing river, for the moment balancing the force of the midstream water trying to turn her to starboard. With the linear momentum developed in the full throttle reverse we reached the relative safety of the middle of the stream with the boat sideways to the current.
Unnerving as it was to be moving rapidly downstream with Wanderlust sideways there was now enough room to complete the turn to downstream. With the wheel turned to port and the throttle advanced to hard forward Wanderlust comfortably turned and avoided the bank. She surged forward towards the next lock cut with the added momentum from the maneuver.
As Wanderlust was moving downstream in what figured to be a 6 to 8 kilometer per hour current I noticed for the first time the flood marker on the river. The water level markers are signboards on pylons driven firmly into the riverbed. Three lines marked “I”, “II”, and “III” indicate the height of the river. As we passed I could see that the water was lapping over the lowest mark, the “I”.
I’ve never found a complete explanation of the meaning of the French river level markers. Indeed, I understand, perhaps incorrectly, that the levels, particularly Mark II, can mean different things depending on which river you are on. This ambiguity seems very French. So without a readily available clearly written definition, I’ve come up with my own interpretations. Follow these at your own risk!
Mark I—Caution, medium water:
Pleasure craft are advised to sit tight and consume all of the adult beverages on board before proceeding. Cruise if you must, but before you pull the ropes and depart you should check to see that your insurance is up-to-date and your fenders are fully inflated. Put the seat backs and tray tables in the upright and fully locked positions.
Mark II—Heavy water, special prescriptions apply particular to the waterway:
Leave navigation to the professionals. Keep an eye on Youtube for new videos of commercial barges crashing. Pleasure craft should stay at the dock unless the craft is a white water raft or kayak.
Mark III—All navigation must stop:
Moor up securely and hope for the best. Send out for more wine. If you see Noah and his Ark abandon all hope.
Despite these guidelines this day on the Rhône-Rhin, with the water merely at Mark I, no navigation was possible: The guard gate was closed. No boats, commercial or private, could pass. The II and III on the sign might attract “oohs” and “aahs” from the passersby but they didn’t have much benefit to the passing boaters.
Even with bow thrusters, maneuvering a barge through a narrow gap while heading downstream in strong flow is challenging. The effectiveness of the rudder is determined by the speed through the water and the force of the water being pushed past its surface by the propeller. If a barge is floating downstream in a current running at 6 kilometers per hour the boat has all the force of its momentum but no maneuverability, as there’s no water moving over the rudder. Using the propeller with the rudder turned will maneuver the boat. At the same time it will also increase the forward speed making it more difficult to shoot the gap.
We knew all of this as we headed to the canal cut. It didn’t help much.
At the entrance to the cut the river’s flow bends to the left and cascades over a weir. I moved Wanderlust far right out of the flow of the Doubs as much as possible and away from the dam. If we got too close it would be difficult to keep Wanderlust from being pulled towards the weir. Ideally we’d stay as close to the right bank as possible leaving enough room to maneuver.
Moving Wanderlust to the side of the river increased her speed. When Wanderlust’s bow hit the entrance to the cut I moved the throttle to full reverse attempting to slow the momentum as much as possible. In the process, as it always does in a hard stop, the heavier rear end of the boat started to swing out to the side forcing Wanderlust into a turn. Nevertheless she came to an almost complete stop awkwardly oriented in the gentle eddy. With couple pulses of the prop and some difficult to avoid bumps we snaked into the safety of the channel.
Checking later we could see no new scrapes on the hull. The fenders took the blows. There was no hull paint lost in the whole affair. We declared victory.
The experience served as reminder of why it is best to try to avoid traveling downriver in heavy flows. But sometimes there is no choice.
A short ways past the gap and through Ranchot’s still open guard gate we were back at the previous nights mooring. Our new Australian friends from the night before were there already. Soon after the festivities began again.
Mostly navigating the inland waterways is a placid and low stress. It’s a rare occasion when you face a challenge that gets the heart beating. This was one of those days. The wine tasted particularly good this evening.
The next day at Ranchot we had a decision to make. When the waters dropped and the guard gate opened did we try to continue forward? Or did we want turn back to Saint Jean de Losne and try to arrange for repairs?
Out came the maps. When we looked at the route on the Rhône-Rhin ahead we saw that there were tunnels a short distance ahead. Without a bow thruster the narrow tunnels promised to be tricky to navigate. At the very least the fenders and rubbing strakes would get workouts as we pinged through the underground passages. Under normal circumstances the Rhone-Rhin has reputation as a difficult to navigate waterway; it seemed sensible to head in a direction of easier to cruise waters.
The decision to turn back left us with extra time. Wanderlust was now on a cruise to nowhere. With the extra time we took up residence in Dole’s port, enjoying the commune’s covered market and numerous restaurants for a week.
While in Dole we called ahead to a boatyard in Saint Jean de Losne to order a replacement tailpiece for the bow thruster from Vetus. We were sufficiently confident in our diagnosis of the fault that we were willing to risk having to paying a return shipping and restocking fee if the part wasn’t needed.
A few days later we learned that the Vetus tailpiece for the bow thruster was out of stock throughout Europe. The yard in Saint Jean told us that Vetus was arranging for another production run. The part, we were told, would not be available until June 21. The 21st would be OK, if that were a real date.
One way or the other, we were headed to Saint Jean de Losne at the end of June. The builder had not had a change of heart and the surveys were now firmly cemented on the calendar by hefty upfront payments. Both the thruster repair and the underwater hull paint surveys required Wanderlust to be out of the water, it was best to do them at the same time, if possible.
In the meantime the best plan for our guests was a short cruise up and back the Canal de Bourgogne. The locks on the Burgundy Canal are easy and predictable. The scenery is pleasant. It seemed a good choice for our guests and us. For sure it was not going to be as exciting as the Rhône au Rhin. But at the moment that seemed to be a good thing.
Wanderlust departed Saint Jean de Losne on May 5 2017. She returned on the 16th. The roundtrip to Ranchot and back covered 100 km with 34 locks. Wanderlust’s engine ran for just short of 25 hours.
Dole is 24 kilometers with 9 locks from Saint Jean. Wanderlust’s engine ran 6.3 hours on this leg of the journey.
The barge mooring in Dole is free but unserviced, other than a usable water tap on the left side of the port. (Smaller boats may be able to use the facilities at the hire boat base.) The banks are sloped, which is tricky, but there are steps that help.
Click here for a map of the route.