The Rhône: Avignon to Port Napoleon

A commercial prepares to leave the lock into the salt water of Port St. Louis.

Pulling away from the quay in Avignon’s port Wanderlust turned about and headed downstream on the Avignon branch of the Rhône. Once again she passed by Pont Saint-Bénézet, Avignon’s partially intact bridge made famous in the song “Sur le pont d’Avignon”. A short distance past the bridge the two arms on the Rhône join. Wanderlust went with the flow and continued her journey downstream to the Mediterranean Sea.

On this stretch of the Rhône there are few locks. Indeed on this day Wanderlust would only pass through one river lock, the Beaucaire écluse, in the 92 kilometers she traveled. Below Beaucaire there are no more locks or dams on the Rhône’s main channel. A raft on the river can float down the last 58-kilometers to the river’s estuary to the sea unimpeded. (Deeper draft craft, like Wanderlust, need to detour through the sea locks at the end.)

Grain silos in Port St. Louis

Riverside industry

Near Arles the river splits into two channels, the Rhône and the Petit-Rhône, on its way through the delta to the sea. We kept Wanderlust to the left and stayed on the Rhône proper. In the future we may keep right and cruise the Petit-Rhône to the Canal du Midi. But it would not be this season.

A couple of kilometers below the Petit-Rhône/Rhône split, the main channel passes through the historic town of Arles. We had conflicting information about whether it was possible to find a suitable mooring in Arles. Although we seriously wanted to stop, having seen the town a previous visit, it wasn’t clear that we practically could. We looked long and hard the mooring possibilities as we slowly drifted past with the current. But in the end we didn’t see a place that clearly would work for Wanderlust. The combination of the Rhône’s flow and the absence of a bow thruster made it too uncomfortable to attempt a sketchy mooring. It is a shame. We really wanted to stop in Arles.

A more typical boat comes into Port Napoleon.

Wanderlust cruises saltwater on the way around the horn to Port Napoleon.

Even after losing some of its waters to the Petit-Rhône, the main channel of the Rhône remains wide. There are few boats on this section. Pleasure boats cruising the Rhône generally split off to the Midi and, for the most part, the large river cruise ships go no further south than Arles. This left only the occasional commercial cargo barge as river traffic. We pretty much had the river to ourselves.

Established moorings below Arles are few and far between. There really wasn’t much of a place with shore access until we reached Port St. Louis near the mouth of the Rhône. There was little choice but to continue to the end of navigation on the river.

One of the few barges we saw all day was waiting for the lock that allows access to Port St. Louis. For us this was a good thing. We were uncertain about the lock operating times, which seemed set to minimize the use of the lifting road bridge just past the lock. Following the lead of commercial barges is almost always a safe bet. So after the signal light for the lock turned green we followed the commercial into the chamber.

Inside the unusual lock at Port St. Louis

The bridge lifts and Wanderlust readies to head out into the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

The lock at Port Saint Louis du Rhône, the lowest on the Rhône, is an odd one. Freshwater that has made its way down from glaciers in the Alps connects to the saltwater of the Mediterranean Sea via the lock. There’s no net altitude change in the lock; the water level on both sides is at the level of the nearby sea. Unusually there is a current of water flowing through the chamber during the locking cycle. Normally water comes into or goes out of river locks. It does not flow through during the cycle. The Saint Louis écluse is peculiar and very non-lock-like in its function.

We never did figure out the purpose of having a lock rather than a channel in this place. Is the lock here to keep a siltation-free connection between the Mediterranean and the Rhône? Or is there a lock to allow for an easier connection to the sea when the river is running high and fast? If the later is the case, why isn’t it on free-flow the rest of the time? Spring tide on the Med can be around 1.5 feet but both sides of the lock connect to the sea within a couple of kilometers, so this doesn’t seem a reason to have a lock in this place. It was a mystery that we never resolved.

A road bridge must lift before boats can leave the lock at Port St. Louis.

The bridge’s massive counterweight

Even the lock’s dimensions are odd. The rest of the locks on the Rhône are typical of the European international standard, 190 meters long and 11.4 meters wide. The lock at Port Saint Louis du Rhône is 135 meters long, not close to long enough to accommodate the 180-meter long barge-pusher combinations that you see up the river. The lock is also unusually 19 meters wide. It is wide enough to allow pleasure boats to moor alongside a commercial but not wide enough for most commercials to moor side-by-side.

Another oddity is that larger barges have an alternative route. The Canal de Barcarin’s redundant lock is just a few kilometers upstream of the Port Saint Louis lock and can accommodate barges up to 175 meters in length. Again it’s not quite long enough for big pusher combinations.

With the quirks, navigation of the Saint-Louis lock is also different. The constant current in the lock means boaters must work to keep their craft at the side of the lock under control during the unusually long lock cycle. And breaking with the normal protocol, the commercial requested that we take Wanderlust out of the lock first after the cycle finished and the road bridge lifted.

Out of the lock Wanderlust was in Port Saint Louis’s harbor. The boats moored there are mostly sea going sailboats and cruisers with very few if any riverboats. We were clearly now off of the inland waterways.

Before we arrived in Port Saint Louis we hadn’t looked at the map too closely. Naively we believed that Port Napoleon, our destination, was close to Port Saint Louis. On a map the ports are physically close as a crow flies, a kilometer or two apart. But as we learned on arrival there is no direct water route between them. Getting from Port Napoleon to Port Saint Louis by water requires a boat to travel the out into the Gulf of Fos, turn to starboard at the end of a long spit of land, and follow a narrow channel marked by buoy’s and poles back to reach Port Napoleon.

Rounding the corner we kept Wanderlust to the center of the Port Napoleon navigation channel. The channel was well away from the shore on both sides. It was tempting to wander outside the channel. There were no obvious obstacles. But we were good and stayed inside the marks.

It turned out that that was a very good decision. Later, on our departure from Port Napoleon, we saw fisherman standing in the shallow water just on the far side of the markers polls. We had no idea that the water was just inches deep so near the channel. But at least if Wanderlust became stuck we would have been able to walk to shore.

At the start of the day Wanderlust leaves Avignon in the fog.

The ten kilometer or so journey from Port Saint Louis to Port Napoleon added an extra hour to our journey. It was Wanderlust’s first time on salt water since the English Channel crossing.

All told we spent around a week in Port Napoleon. Wanderlust was not alone. By our estimation there are more than a thousand boats in the port, many in the water and even more on the hard. Along with the boats are numerous boatyards. It is possible to get pretty much anything fixed on your boat in Port Napoleon. Indeed during our stay we had people from various yards on board looking into the variety of Wanderlust’s issues. Nevertheless, though the yards had the capability of fixing Wanderlust, they did not have much experience in working on inland waterway barges. Indeed, of all the many boats at the port, she was the only barge.

At least it was educational to discuss Wanderlust’s many problems with more professionals. There’s always something new to learn.

The salute from the lifting bridge in Port St. Louis as Wanderlust passed.

One upside was that we were able to order a replacement part for our Webasto air conditioner. Without factory service in much of France, we had spent the summer trying to track down the cause of the problem and the parts for the repair. A boatyard at Port Napoleon was able to diagnose the malfunction and order the part. Though the replacement board wasn’t immediately available, the yard was able to order it and have it shipped to a port ahead of us on our return journey. It took us to 2018, more than a year after the failure, to have the part was installed.

We briefly contemplated taking Wanderlust out for a short journey on the Mediterranean to Marseille or Cassis but it seemed best that we started our way back up the river. Thus Port Napoleon was the furthest extent of our cruising for the 2017 season. The rest of our journey back to Saint Jean de Losne would retrace the route that we had cruised already. Wanderlust was heading back to her home port and to the end of her season.

Wanderlust moored in Port Napoleon.



The leg of Wanderlust’s travels occurred at the end of August 2017. She traveled 92 kilometers between Avignon and Port Napoleon. Her engine ran 9.4 hours. She transited two locks and one lifting bridge (at the Port St. Louis lock) on this segment.

To see a map this leg of the journey, without the portion between Port St. Louis and Port Napoleon activate this link.

2 thoughts on “The Rhône: Avignon to Port Napoleon

  1. I’m impressed – very adventurous to travel so far down the Rhône. I guess a Channel crossing toughens you up for such a trip. Fascinating.

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