Part 1: Strasbourg to Mulhouse including 72kms of Le Rhin
6th to 9th September 2022
We were in Strasbourg on a beautiful mooring in the Basin de la Citadelle (Port d’Europe) with this lovely view from our back deck.
We had been there since late July, originally planning to use the Canal des Vosges to travel southwestwards, but water shortages through this very hot dry summer had resulted in several canal closures, including the Vosges.
So the change of plan was to use the Rhône au Rhin canal, now separated into two branches and necessitating a 72km strip of the Rhine itself. To go on the Rhine we have to have a pilot aboard – someone with a Rhine license. All boats over 15m must have a qualified person aboard on this big and often commercially busy river – although this regulation is due to change from 15m to 20m – which will let us off the hook.
It isn’t too difficult to find a pilot with the licence – and our search was made even easier by discovering two of them working at the Port d’Europe; one of them was free to come with us – Alain. We booked him in and set about enjoying our last week in Strasbourg!
Alain was to join us at the lock where the northern branch of the canal joins the Rhine at Rhineau; on September 6th we set off for a gentle two day trip down to meet him.
It was interesting to move through the edge of the city on the water, seeing some of the more modern buildings after all the historic houses in the city centre.
We were soon at the first lock with a holiday boat practicing the ups and downs of inland waterway navigation with the help of a friendly éclusier. The first few days on a new boat can be a bit of a steep learning curve, though it is our experience that nearly every other boater will help immediately if help is needed, and often even if it’s not!
If we are early to a mooring it’s our practice to step off Calliope and catch the ropes of a later arrival; we have many friends to this day made from that simple gesture.
Soon we were out of the built up areas, enjoying the shade of the trees lining the banks – it was still rather hot!
We quickly discovered, after that first lock, that the method of lock operation on the Northern branch of the Rhône au Rhin is the pole, or ‘perche’ in French.
Here one must give it a good tug, whereas on other waterways in France it is necessary to twist the pole.
No confusion here – it is clearly marked.
And when you get beyond it, is is also clearly marked to leave it alone!
The VNF don’t want people leaving a lock to pull the pole again!
We were going rather well until we got to Plobsheim, just on lunchtime. The lock was not working; in order to find the phone number to call for assistance Stewart had to put me ashore in a rather precarious position, onto some narrow wooden guide rails, some rotten. So I had a Russian Roulette walk ashore – would I lose my balance and fall in, or would the wood give way?
In fact neither happened and I scrambled through a bush and up a steep bank to raise the alarm. Just as I was looking for a number to call from the lock a VNF van sped up and out jumped a friendly female éclusier. Our predicament had been caught on camera, and leaving her lunch half eaten she had rushed to the rescue.
Before long we were in the lock, accompanied by a family of swans who had to be persuaded to leave before the lock gates closed.
Almost immediately the Captain had another obstacle – a narrow aqueduct over the river Ill (pronounced ‘ill’, and very difficult to explain any other way…). Lovely lovely spot.
We continued on to Krafft, a village with a VNF (Voie Navigable de France) depot, office and quay. Although not immediately an attractive mooring we found it just what we needed. It was quiet at night, secure, and with a nearby boulangerie for the morning bread!
The local VNF team had gone to the bother of making one end of the quay a haven for boaters.
A line of huts included the rubbish bins, and also a covered seating area with barbecue, picnic table and garden .
We could easily go into the office and organise our trip through the lock onto the Rhine for a couple of days time – you have to book your lock slot.
As the sun went down and dusk crept in we felt very fortunate with our mooring.
Next day we did not go far. We began by crossing the Canal de Décharge de l’Ill, essentially a man-made way for the river to escape ever since the canal system here was built. It meant , for us, going through a narrow barrage, which can be closed off to protect the canal Rhône au Rhin if l’Ill is in flood, then over the crossway, where on the day we crossed there was little flow of which to be wary.
If you have read my blog before you may by now be bored of my interest in the changes to the canal system over the centuries.
But here is another example of the ancient and modern kilometre markers.
We had considered going to a mooring right by the last lock, but it was not clear if there would be space for us, and if the water would be deep enough. So to be safe we stopped a few kms short at a mooring recommended by the éclusiers.
The last lock, immediately before our mooring, also had its interest. As we approached we saw a boat heading towards us, which then turned mid stream just by the perche, and pulled it sending the lock in motion.
Although we could have fitted in the lock with them we wanted to stop before the lock so that I could run up and check that the desired mooring was free.
So once more I scrambled ashore ( I wish I had photos of my 74 year old valiant scrambles) and went to the lock – only to find two New Zealand friends of ours on their boat.
We had a quick explanatory chat and catch up before they went on their way.
It was an excellent choice for us – another rural tranquil setting, and after a walk of 20 minutes into the nearby village of Boofzheim found another good boulangerie!
Back on the boat, just in time – it poured with rain. We all needed this water so much after the long dry spell, so were pleased to hear the heavy rain continue all night.
As night came in we could see distant thunderstorms through the trees and hear the lovely sound of raindrops on the roof.
It was quite a big day the following day – which we new was going to be a long one. So we were early to bed.
Then we were on our way, with navigation lights on, at 6.45 – a time we are usually still sleeping – and picked up our pilot, Alain, at 7.45. We dropped him off almost 12 hours later.
Alain joined us at the lock from the canal down onto the Rhine so we were straight out onto the big river, heading upstream towards our first lock.
All the locks on this section of the Rhine (maybe on all of it) have two locks side by side, one twice as wide as the other, but both the same length. They are less deep than many we have been through on theoRhône but big enough thank you! We were in the smaller lock most of the time -though not every time, as you will see. As Calliope floated to the top of the first lock at Rhineau it had become almost daylight.
Alain encouraged us to use a lot of the power in our 150hp engine – something you cannot do in narrow canals where we would create too much wash and damage the banks.
Our here on the Rhine we were up to 1700 rpm which was giving us 13kph according to Alain’s app.
Calliope loved it!
The wake we set up here was allowable, and the movement through the water looked beautiful as the sun rose.
That is Germany on our port side; France ran along to starboard.
We all took turns at the helm, although Alain did most because he was so enjoying being back on a boat rather than in an office. Stu and Alain were in charge for the locks, and I was trusted not to hit anything in between on such a big wide open waterway!
We met up with other, much bigger, barges at the locks. I certainly would not be trusted with, or even want to try, to put one of these wide commercial barges into a lock that is about half a metre wider than the boat! How do they squeeze in? It made us look very narrow!
You will notice we now have our mast upright; it is normal for barges – commercial and pleasure – to travel with them half lowered to fit under the many low bridges we pass under, but with no such encumberments on the Rhine our pilot suggested raising it so that the VHF communication with the locks could be accomplished with more ease.
In many ways these locks are far easier to navigate than the narrow self-operated locks in the canals.
Such a breeze for the crew – I could put a rope round a floating bollard, secure it, go below and make a cup of tea whilst watching my rope through the window!
Most of our journey was through countryside, and to our East we could see across to the Black Forest mountains. I tried to explain to Alain the significance of the Black Forest, in terms of gateaux, and how I had a huge one made for my 60th birthday!
Later, as we got towards the end of our time on the river, there was a far more industrialised section at Ottmarsheim; this is on the French side, despite its name. We like to see these big modern quays, demonstrating the importance of water transport in the 21st century.
At last – 10 hours later and in fading light – we saw the sign for the southern part of the Rhne au Rhin canal – our exit.
The sign was telling us that we could aim for either of two locks. We had already agreed with Alain that we would go for the larger of the two, on the first side of the little islet.
So at last we get to our last lock of the day, Niffer, an extremely interesting and different lock! I have searched and searched for information on the architect of this building but cannot find the answer. Interestingly it is the smaller of the two locks, known as Niffer-Kembs, that seems to have the notoriety, having been designed by Swiss architect Le Corbusier.
At this lock we had a different design of floating bollard – initially rather nice, but with the ability to trap your rope when you get to the top!
Alain was leaving us here, and as he stepped ashore he was luckily on hand to pull the rope free.
Bye bye Alain – thank you!
Cheers Captain – our pilot has left, we are off the Rhine, and back to our own devices. We have done it! It may not seem much to most of you, but we had been apprehensive about being on the Rhine and needing a pilot. In fact it was simple, enjoyable and educational, though a long day for people who usually aim for a maximum of 4 hours cruising!
Then, as we look for a mooring, and the sun sets behind black clouds, we hear that our Queen Elizabeth II, Lilibet, has died. It cast a sombre mood over what was otherwise a feeling of success and relief. We drank a toast to the passing of a very special woman.
Then as we relaxed and settled down, out of the darkness came a bright light!
A big barge passing us, working late. Thank goodness we had our navigation lights on again!
After the ghostly giant had passed though we had a very welcome peaceful night at the halte nautique at Hombourg.
The morning light was glorious; it made it all the easier to get up and move on to Mulhouse, a few kilometres away.
And the daylight gave us a better view off where we had spent the night – a good VNF pontoon on the canal, offering respite to those who have left the Rhine – or are about to join it!
Before we set off Captain Stu lowered the mast again to its normal cruising position.
The run into Mulhouse started with a wide canal capable of accommodating commercial barges like the one that passed us in the night. We reached the right angle bend in the canal and found the wharfs where these barges dock and turn.
Then the canal narrowed to freycinet size – the size of the smaller 38 metre commercial barges, and closer to Calliope size, though they are still almost double our length.
We arrived at a very modern lock – so modern that the VNF had not yet finished it so it was not yet automatic.
A very helpful éclusier came out to meet us, taking the details of Calliope and making sure that we had a current vignette – the equivalent of road tax, but for a boat in France.
Then the giant lock doors closed down behind us and we began what was to be quite a trip upstream over the next few days – but that is in the next blog post!
For now we were happy to cruise into Mulhouse, past good floral displays, and the development of what will be a lovely modern garden (not shown here). Stu tells me that the upside down writing is for reflections in the canal, but not calm enough or the right light for reflections as we went past.
We had called ahead to book a mooring at the Mulhouse port. Soon we were able to moor up to the hammerhead reserved for us – in plenty of time for me to find a local boulangerie – good fresh baguette towards our lunch.
There are only two more things to report before I sign off and leave Calliope in Mulhouse.
One is the city itself.
The city is full of interesting and architectural buildings – just a few shown here from our short walk around. To be honest we did not do justice to the place – we were still a bit tired and shell-shocked from the Rhine and the news about Elizabeth R.
It is worth a longer visit.
The other less glamorous delight of our stay was to find a working ‘pump out’ in the port. It really helps the black tank system to occasionally have a good clear out from the top via a pump out system, but they are hard to find in France and Belgium.
This tine it meant mooring against another very helpful barge and running the pipe across to Calliope.
It all worked exceedingly well, despite Stu’s slightly worried face!
We spent the evening and the night feeling ready for the Rhône au Rhin uphill journey ahead, as you will read in the next blog.