The most common question I got after our first self-piloted canal cruise was whether or not someone new to boating and the canals of France can do this type of vacation and actually enjoy it. Would the stress of handling a boat get in the way? Should someone with no previous boating experience even rent a canal boat in France at all?
Should a beginner rent a canal boat in France? My honest thoughts
In case you’re just tuning in, I recently got back from a canal cruise with my family in the Camargue and the Canal du Midi — one of France’s most famous canals. You can read more about it here!
Let me start by saying that I’ve done three trips like this and it’s a unique experience I’ll never forget. We’ve rented a canal boat in Alsace, the Canal du Midi, and again on the Charente. They were all wonderful trips that’ll give you a different perspective from the water, but I completely understand having anxiety ahead of time. It’s normal if you’re wondering if you’ll be comfortable maneuvering a canal boat down the canal, through locks, docking, etc.
I know that handling a boat by yourself for the week can seem like a tall task, especially if you have limiting boating experience. I was a total beginner once too and was very concerned with making a fool out of myself and/or damaging the boat.
For all of our trips on French canals, we went with a local boat rental company called Nicols but there are several boat rental companies from which to choose.
Keep in mind that all of Nicols’ boats do not require a boating license. People just like us rent boats like this all the time. If you have limited boating experience, you’re not alone.
Before embarking on our first canal cruise in Alsace, Tom and I had never been the captains of our own self-drive boat. My father-in-law had a boating license years ago, but soon learned that he had forgotten pretty much everything in the 35 years since. So for all intents and purposes, we were total newbies.
Note on the terminology: I’m using the world self-drive boat here to mean a boat you drive yourself and not one that drives itself automatically. The opposite of a self-drive boat would be one where you hire a captain to pilot the boat and that’s not what this is. You’re in charge of the boat on the country’s canals. 😉
Next, keep in mind that Nicols knows that many of their customers are total beginners and have zero experience with canal boat holidays.
When you arrive at their base, an employee will show you the ropes, literally. You’ll go over the boat, safety procedures, and then learn basic maneuvers.
Before departing, they’ll make sure to answer all of your questions and that you feel comfortable with the boat and the route. There’s an emergency number in the big binder Nicols gives you full of info about the canal, the boat, and general safety, so you are sure to get in contact with Nicols no matter the time of day.
Looking back at how I felt before our first trip, I guess you could say the 4 things below had me the most nervous.
As I found out, they were all pretty much non-issues when you want to rent a canal boat in France:
- The locks: I felt anxious because of fear of the unknown. I had never been through one or even seen one in real life and didn’t really understand the concept. I was scared the water would rush in or a door would close on us. Once I learned best practices and understood what locks were, I was majorly relieved and they were no big deal. (read my detailed post on going through a lock here along with a video I made) There were even lock keepers in some instances to help out.
- Docking: Boats don’t react like cars and a “simple” maneuver might take multiple attempts if you have minimal experience. As we found out, there were many areas to dock that required very little skill.
- Damaging the boat: The boats aren’t cheap. Smashing into the side of the canal or something as equally catastrophic crossed my mind a couple of times, but looking back, I’m laughing at myself. While yes, you could behave recklessly and damage the boat, if you exercise caution and prioritize safety, you’ll be fine.Remember, the boats’ engines are limited to 8 km/h at their fastest and each boat has no fewer than 15 rubber bumpers that will keep the boat safe if you rub up against a wall or dock. It’s normal to use your bumpers and bump into the wall from time to time. That’s why they are there. And when in doubt, slower is always better. (a post on canal boating best practices is coming, so stay tuned)
- General boating know-how like tying lines, passing other boats, etc.: Sometimes the best way to learn is to just do it and I found this out the first day. I also did a bit of research (more on that below) so I felt confident enough with the boat.
Bear in mind that when you’re on the canal, many of the other people you see have rented a no-permit-required boat too. There are several companies that all offer the same concept, so don’t feel like you’re the only one who has very little experience.
The no-permit boats are capped at a speed of 8 km/h, as in the boat is configured so that you cannot go any faster than this. Slow is always better and you take it at your own pace.
Also keep in mind that no one is allowed to boat on the canal past sundown, so once the sun sets, everyone is docked. No need to worry about navigating at night!
Also, there’s little to no current in the canal. Unlike a river that moves, the canal water is mostly still making maneuvers easier than they would be in the ocean or bay. That also means you don’t need to content with seasickness.
So… can you rent a canal boat in France with limited boating experience?
If you’re interested in booking a self-piloted canal cruise and you have no previous experience, please remember you’re not alone. As I said, Tom and I had no clue before our first trip and we learned along the way. We ended up loving it! You can absolutely do this.
Renting a canal boat in France is a fantastic way to see small towns and villages and all the local markets and delicious food you’d probably never have a chance to discover by car. It’s an amazing way to take in the beauty of France!
That said, there are a few things I recommend doing and NOT doing if you’ve never done a canal boating trip in France before.
Here are my beginner French boating holiday tips:
Book a route that doesn’t have a ton of locks. That way you can just enjoy cruising. Locks aren’t scary or dangerous if you follow safety procedures and understand what you’re doing. They can get tiring though if you have a bunch in a row or you end up having to wait a long time for it to be your turn. This is also the case if it’s just two of you cruising. Fewer locks = less stress.
Do NOT book the largest boat in Nicols’ fleet: Yes, the size of the boat matters! This is for your sanity and safety. Boats take a while to react to steering changes, so if you’re not used to handling a boat, a large one will be more difficult to dock and maneuver in general.
There are 2 exceptions to this advice:
1) If you have a large, able-bodied crew and they are all hands-on willing to help with lines and/or have boating experience. Does this sound like your close friends and family or not? It’s important.
2) You’re the most chilled out person there is and nothing fazes you, you don’t panic, and you’re extremely good at figuring things out on your own in stressful situations.
Another note on that. Many of the larger boats have bow thrusters, a propulsion device that’s there to help you maneuver. With the touch of a button, you can make small adjustments to where your boat is pointing in about 1 second flat. This is majorly helpful if you’re a little crooked heading into a narrow bridge or lock.
***Do your research. on boating, the canals, and best practices.***
This is my favorite tip because it can make the biggest difference. Use YouTube videos and Google to your advantage. If you show up clueless, it probably won’t be a disaster, but it’s best to be prepared. Know what it’s like on the canal to the best of your ability by researching beforehand.
You’ll be in awe of the spectacular scenery of the French waterways but if you haven’t researched anything about boating on the canal, you might be adding unnecessary stress to what’s supposed to be a relaxing trip.
Do try a weekend trip first if you are not sure if a full week is right for you.
Do a mini-break so there’s no obligation to set out for a full week if it’s your first time boating on the canal. Book a shorter trip and see if it’s for you! There’s no right or wrong choice when it comes to the best boat bases or best routes. They all have their charm so you can’t go wrong.
Skip the busiest ports and avoid peak season.
If you’re nervous about docking and having an audience watch you try to back in five times, skip the biggest ports. Also, it’s a good idea to steer clear of the famous Canal du Midi in the summer if you don’t want to be the center of attention.
In Alsace, on the other hand, pretty much every port was quite small with minimal spectators. Along the Canal du Midi, though, there were bystanders even along the locks (they’re great in a pinch to help you with lines!).
There are plenty of areas to moor along the canal bank as well as slips in smaller ports. That way you can practice your docking technique until you have the confidence to try a busier port.
And really, who cares what anyone else thinks. If it takes you 5 tries to dock correctly and safety, then so be it. Everyone was a beginner once!
What do you think of canal trips like this in France?
PIN my rent a canal boat in France post: