In 2017 our last attempt to navigate the Canal du Rhône-Rhin ended when we encountered a closed guard gate above the village of Ranchot. At the time, the River Doubs was experiencing higher than normal flow from the recent rains. Though we didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, there were signs we might have issues with high water on the way to Ranchot as Wanderlust passed through flood locks were functioning.
A flood lock, or “écluse de garde” in French, is a lock that only functions when the water is above a certain level. Its purpose is to prevent the river current from flowing through and damaging a linking section of manmade canal. When not in use both gates of the lock are left open and boats cruise straight through.
A step up from a guard lock is a floodgate. These guard gates swing closed like a door and completely shutting off a manmade canal segment, again to prevent the free flow of water. While through navigation can occur when guard locks are functioning it is not possible when a guard gate closes. Through navigation is not possible.
We’ve seen many floodgates on our cruises through France. When the water is low it is hard to imagine that like they would ever be needed. Further it always seemed as if there would be little chance that we’d be cruising when the water was high enough to require the gates to be closed. Surely we’d be hunkered down waiting for the high water to pass. But we were wrong about that. In May of 2017 we encountered a closed floodgate on the Canal du Rhône-Rhin above the small commune of Ranchot. It was a complete surprise. There was no warning, no sign, or notification from the VNF, the French waterway management authority. The closed gate just appeared in front of us and blocked us from going further.
The closure of the gate above Ranchot turned out for us to be a season altering event. We had nowhere to go but backwards on the waterway with no possibility of turning around. This meant that we needed to reverse out of the lock cut using the sideways thrust from Wanderlust’s bow thruster to steer. This type of maneuver isn’t hard if you go slowly, which we were doing. Unfortunately just as we backed into the lock at the end of the canal cut the thruster failed due to a mechanical fault. Unable to get repairs for months, the loss of the bow thruster completely altered our season’s cruising plans. The Canal du Rhône-Rhin would have to wait for another time.
In 2019 we were finally able to return to try to finish what we started and complete the cruise of the Rhone-Rhine. This year water conditions were eerily like the ones we had experienced in 2017: It had been raining and the river flow was strong.
The flow might not have been as robust as it was in 2017, but it was close enough to be concerning. As always, the Doubs is challenging to navigate when it is flow is fast. Fortunately we were heading upstream which meant we had more control of the boat. Still it was not comforting to see that the guard locks were again in use. This, as we had learned, surely meant we were close to the navigational limit, but how close we could not tell. If it had rained hard in the hills ahead in the last couple of days the river would level would push towards flood. If it did we’d have to stay put and wait for it drop.
In 2019 we again stopped for the night in Ranchot; it’s the best mooring option on this leg of the journey. The next morning I took no chances. This time I rode the bike up to the lock cut to see if the guard gate was closed. There was no chance I’d risk having to back out of a long canal cut again.
Fortunately this year the guard gate was open. Soon Wanderlust was on her way, passing through the gate that had become to us a mythical barrier. As she did, Wanderlust entered unexplored waters. The mystery of the unseen remainder of the Canal du Rhône-Rhin lay ahead. This year our quest to explore the Rhone-Rhine canal would not be denied.
Wanderlust traveled from Dole to Ranchot on the way to Besançon on the 9th of May 2019. This leg covers 21 kilometers with 8 locks. Her engine ran 4.8 hours. The following day she headed up stream through the bothersome écluse de garde.
A map of this segment from Dole to Saint-Vit can be seen using this link.