On the Rhône, between Valence and Avignon is the famous Bollène-écluse. River navigation infrastructure-wise the impressive Bollène lock is the highlight of any trip on the Rhône. It is the deepest lock on the Rhône River and indeed in France. Boats using this lock gain or lose 23 meters in altitude in minutes. That’s roughly the height of a seven-story building. It is very unlikely that Wanderlust will ever pass through a deeper lock.
The Bollène écluse is most impressive when heading upstream. Arriving boats encounter the massive vertical face of the dam-lock complex blocking the route. Usually the lockgate is closed on arrival meaning that the boats need to wait either by “hovering” in the stream or by tying up at the pontoon or the dolphins. Eventually the massive “guillotine” gate lifts open revealing the inside of the chamber. After the boats in the lock leave and the control light changes to green, the waiting watercraft enter the chamber. As always, the commercials go into and out of the lock first.
Once inside the chamber the crews secure to the periodic easy-to-use floating bollards embedded in deep slots in the sidewalls. Floating bollards indeed float. They are designed to rise and fall at the same rate as the boats. This makes management of the mooring ropes trivial.
Inside the empty chamber of the Bollène écluse is cavernous. The pool of water is 11 meters wide and 190 meters long. High above is a band of sky. The bottom of the deep lock is an intimidating place, particularly when one considers the power of the water held back by the dam.
The sounds of the locking cycle are unforgettable. The lock gate closes behind the assembled boats with a deep resonate rumble. As the lock fills every squeak and moan generated by the poorly lubricated floating bollards reverberates around the chamber. Beneath it all is the low grumble of the barges’ motors set to idle.
Though the mistral may be blowing hard up above, it is dead still deep down in the chamber. All around the walls are dark and wet. The air is dank and humid, filled with the musty smell of river water combined with the acrid sooty odor of diesel exhaust.
Taken together it all produces a feel and soundscape fit for a Hollywood science fiction movie or video game. But this is not some fantasy or a creation of an art director. It is a real place serving a practical purpose.
As water fills the lock and the boats rise, the crack of blue above increases in size. In minutes the lock is completely full. With the sky in wide view the flotilla of assembled boats readies for departure.
Skippers of small boats do not rush out behind large commercial barges or river cruise ships. It’s a lesson learned quickly in big locks. The prop wash from a big commercial is substantial; small boats that get too close get tossed about. Even Wanderlust, 20 meters long and 41 tonnes in weight, gets bounced from lock wall to lock wall if she gets too close behind a commercial’s screw on departure from a lock.
So we wait. After the commercial traffic has cleared the path, we pull Wanderlust’s ropes and move the throttle forward. We exit the lock onto the river with a “Merci, au revoir” over the VHF radio for the lock keeper. It always pays to be polite in France.
To find the Bollène écluse on a map press this link.