The Rhône: Ampuis

The Pierre-Bénite écluse, the highest lock on the Rhône viewed from downstream.

From the pontoon mooring in Vienne we headed upstream to Lyon. Logically we would have continued downstream to explore more of the River Rhône. But for the moment we felt that there was more left to do in Lyon.

Contributing to the decision was the weather. It was hot, very hot. We knew that the electrical power in the Lyon’s new port was solid and we could power the air conditioner through the night without running the generator. Without air conditioning barges and boats can get uncomfortably warm. For now urbanity and creature comforts won out over our wanderlust.

After three weeks in Lyon the heat wave passed and we continued our journey down the Rhône.

At this point we had an inkling of a destination. We had learned that there were several boatyards near the mouth of the Rhône in Port Napoleon. It was possible that we might be able to get some of Wanderlust’s many problems fixed there. Indeed, there was a chance that we might be able to get her exterior repainted, which was good news as finding inland boatyards capable of doing a grit blast and spray paint job on a 20-meter barge was proving difficult.

Wanderlust moored in Ampuis

Heading downriver from Lyon we passed by Vienne and continued to the Vaugris écluse just past the commune. The Vaugris lock is much like the other locks controlling the waters of the Rhône from Lyon to the Mediterranean. The locks are large. Barge and pusher combinations that can be up to 190 meters in length and 11.40 meters wide can be accommodated. (The exception is the locks to the Med itself, which are somewhat shorter and wider.)

The Rhône locks are also deep. Boats transiting the Vaugris écluse gain or lose 6.7 meters in altitude. Though a twenty-two feet height change is a deep lock on the scale of the French waterways, Vaugris is shallow on the standard of the Rhône locks. Indeed, the deepest lock on the Rhône, and in France, is the 23-meter deep Bollène écluse further downstream.

A cruise ship passes Ampuis in the evening.

Château d’Ampuis

Even a shallow Rhône lock cycles a lot of water. Vaugris’s chamber holds approximately 14 million liters of water. It is not really fair to say that 14 million liters of water are consumed during a lock cycle, as the water continues to flow downstream as it would before the advent of dam and lock construction. But like all of the river locks on the Rhône, the écluse and dam combination at Vaugris is associated with a hydroelectric power plant. Indeed hydroelectric dams on the Rhône generate around 3% of France’s electricity. Though the water is not “lost” during boat locking cycles, the process does deny the hydroelectric plants’ turbines some of the potential energy of the Rhône’s water.

For the CNR, the company that manages the water and produces the electricity on the Rhône, it is best and most efficient if boats are clustered together as much as possible in the locks.

A typical cruising day for Wanderlust on the Rhône involves passing through two or three locks. Being spaced hours of travel apart, as they are, each lock on the Rhône is a small adventure. There’s no real locking rhythm like what happens near the summit of the smaller Freycinet canals where it is possible to transit six locks in an hour and more than twenty in a day.

A de-masted sailboat in the Pierre-Bénite écluse

The locking process is often puzzling. As we arrive at a lock, we signal our presence over the VHF radio. Then we wait, hoping that something good happens. Maybe half of the time there is a difficult to understand confusingly noisy response back in rapid French over the radio. We ware lucky to catch a key word or two. Other times it’s radio silence. Does the lock keeper, sometimes based in a remote location, know that Wanderlust is waiting?

Nevertheless, the locks always eventually open and the lights signaling that we can enter turn green.

On the Rhône sharing locks with commercials is a likely occurrence. Roughly 70 to 80% of our time on the Rhône we were in the lock with a large commercial barge or river cruise ship. The commercial barges and cruise ships typically range from 80 to 125 meters in length. There is generally plenty of room for pleasure boats, as long the commercial isn’t a lock-filling pusher combination.

As a rule commercial traffic has priority in the locks and elsewhere on the waterways.  Consequentially our preferred strategy is to hang back within sight range of the lock and wait to be passed by the next fast moving commercial coming up on our stern. We would then tail the commercial barge into the lock with the entry lights green.

Passaat, one of the vinyl chloride carriers that work the Rhône

Wanderlust must wait for this cruise ship in enter the Pierre-Bénite écluse first.

If we had our preference we’d closely follow the commercial barge downriver to the next lock but most of the time this did not work. We could not keep up. The commercials and cruise ships on the Rhône typically move much faster than most pleasure boats can, including Wanderlust. The speed limit on the Rhône is 30 kph. Wanderlust struggles and burns a lot of fuel to maintain 14 kph.

With the speed difference there is an ever-changing line-up in the locks. Private boats collected by the locking cycles tend to travel the river together in informal flotillas, as their top cruising speeds are similar. With hours between the locks, the clusters of pleasure boats are often leapfrogged by the faster commercials.

Another complication on the Rhône is the frequent presence of vinyl chloride carrying barges. Vinyl chloride is transported inland on the river from a chemical plant in Lavéra France near the mouth of the Rhône to Saint-Fons, just south of Lyon. In Saint-Fons the chemical monomer is polymerized to produce the popular plastic polyvinyl chloride or PVC.

For safety reasons these barges carrying vinyl chloride go through the locks on their own. We were reminded of this when we tried to tail barge into a lock with Wanderlust’s throttle pushed hard forward. Just before we entered the lockkeeper turned the light red on and dropped the gate forcing us into a full reverse abort.

Chapoutier’s vineyard in Côte-Rôtie

For private boaters with a limited understanding of French and a noisy VHF radio speaker the vinyl chloride transport barges can create communication confusion. Sometimes we’d understand from the lock keeper that we’d have to wait for the next commercial only to discover at the last moment that the next commercial was a vinyl chloride carrier and that would could not go through the lock with it. The wait for the lock would now be an hour rather than the 20 minutes expected.

If we knew we had an hour wait ahead of time, we’d maneuver to the waiting pontoon, if it wasn’t occupied, and tie up and relax until the lock light turned green. But with the wind, current, and the absence of a bow thruster, getting in and out of the waiting pontoon was a challenge. It wasn’t worth the effort for a 20-minute wait; it was usually easier to loiter in the stream doing laps until the commercial arrived. The problem is that sometimes our 20-minute cruise to nowhere was, in reality, an hour-long back and forth journey up and down the river.

The ever-present issue of limited mooring opportunities also complicates travel down the Rhône. So as we left Vienne we phoned ahead to the port de plaisance in les Roches-de-Condrieu to see if they had a spot that would accommodate Wanderlust. There was a space, we were told, but when we arrived we realized that the mooring was a short finger 7-meter-ish finger pontoon on the inside of the port. All of the barge friendly moorings on the outside were occupied.

Wanderlust waits above the Vaugris écluse.

Considering the wind, the eddy from the river, and the tight turning required to maneuver inside the port, it would have been ugly getting into the proposed spot without a bow thruster. Rather than risk bashing several moored boats to fiberglass bits, we waved off the capitaine who had come out to guide us in a dingy and eventually headed back up stream to the pontoon we had seen in Ampuis.

Condrieu is nice, but taking Wanderlust there would have to wait for better circumstances.

The pontoon in Ampuis is on a narrow stretch of the river’s channel. After being bounced around on the quay in Vienne we expected that this mooring might also be rough. But it turned out Ampuis wasn’t nearly as choppy as Vienne, surprise as Wanderlust was much closer to the fast moving commercials passing by. The pontoon in Ampuis was also reliably available when we passed by three times in 2017, very unusual on a river where the moorings are typically in high demand.

Ampuis is a small town. (Wiki says that there are 2,711 residents.) The commune is famous as a central town in the prestigious Côte-Rôtie Northern Rhone wine appellation. Indeed, near the mooring pontoon is Chateau Ampuis, the head office of world-famous E. Guigal vineyard and cellars. Guigal’s production facilities are in town also, a short walk away. Naturally we wandered over and bought wine, which was sold at a discount to the supermarket retail price.

Steep vineyards in Condrieu

It was nice having Ampuis’s pontoon to ourselves. The small halte fluvial was pleasant. All told we spent five nights there in 2017.



Wanderlust’s engine ran for 5.5 hours from Lyon to Ampuis. There are two locks and 37 kilometers of waterway in between.

Also of note in Ampuis is the produce store, les Jardins de la Cote Rotie, on the outskirts of the village. The store specializes in the produce grown abundantly nearby.

A rough map of the route can be found here, with the start from la Confluence roughly one kilometer from the river confluence shown as a starting point and the mooring in Ampuis roughly a kilometer below the Vaugris lock.

A Côte-Rôtie vineyard

One thought on “The Rhône: Ampuis

  1. Pingback: The Rhône: Valence | Wanderlust

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