Sometimes the best way to learn is by doing, and a self-piloted canal cruise is no exception. Tom, my in-laws, Dagny and I went on a canal cruise in Alsace in September and had a wonderful time discovering the region, the canals and the locks along the way. If you’re thinking of booking a similar trip, read on for my canal cruise tips.
So… you’ve booked a self-piloted canal cruise. Congrats!
After going on one myself and reflecting on the fabulous experience, here are my top canal cruise tips to know before you go:
Learn boating basics and review all information provided to you.
While piloting a canal boat isn’t super difficult, there are some basics to know to keep you and your family — as well as the boat — safe and sound. Most companies will provide you with a safety video and a little guide. Watch the video and read the guide before you leave. In addition, Nicols gave us a big binder full of port and safety information, so go over it with a fine-tooth comb. If you have any questions, ask the staff. That’s what they’re there for! When you board the boat with staff, take notes and ask them to repeat anything that is unclear. Better safe than sorry!
Keep in mind the boat reacts several seconds after you make a correction with the wheel
It’s not like driving a car where you can maneuver on a dime. Little corrections to the wheel are all you need to correct course otherwise a big turn will steer you hard into the side of the canal and you won’t have a ton of time to react. When you’re alone in the canal before departing, practice basic maneuvers and get a feel for how the boat and engine react. Slow is always better! That bears repeating. Slow is always better. Really.
If you’re not used to handling lines, it’s best to bring a pair of gloves to protect the skin on your hands. This goes double on days where you encounter a bunch of locks. Work gloves, gardening gloves or even winter gloves in a pinch will do the trick. Your ropes will be wet at times if it rains (yup, mine fell in the water a few times), and if you don’t have a perfect lock technique, expect to be doing a lot of readjusting. My hands were sore after a day of 14 locks and I wish I had gloves!
Pack warm clothes you can layer (especially late or early in the season)
Mornings were cool in mid-September, and on our first day when it was rainy and windy, I found myself borrowing my family’s clothing items to keep warm out on the bow, which was my perch for tackling the locks. I had a cotton fleece and all kinds of t-shirts but I was the least prepared among us — I could have used a waterproof jacket and warm scarf. Luckily for me, my in-laws are the most prepared people I know. A raincoat/windbreaker is absolutely essential as is a neck covering of some sort to keep your neck protected from the elements. Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, you never know.
Wear casual clothes you can move in and get dirty
Unless you’re only cruising for a day and docking in a big city and staying there for most of your trip, leave your nice clothes at home. In most cases, you’ll be on and off the boat, handling lines, going up lock ladders and exposed to a variety of weather conditions. You’ll probably get dirty at times and need to be able to move around quickly. This is not the type of trip where you need your most fashionable clothes. Everyone else on passing boats is dressed the same way, and a self-piloted canal cruise is one instance where function wins over fashion. Another packing tip is to pack less than you think you’ll need and conserve space with packing cubes. Several ports have laundry facilities so look them up before you go.
Work as a team to help the captain guide the boat
This may seem like common sense, but teamwork is essential! It’s not always easy to steer a 30-foot boat into a narrow lock especially when there’s an audience and a current. It’s not impossible either, so please don’t let me give you that impression. It’s just 100 times easier and reassuring for the captain when you have someone out on the bow saying “head a touch left” or “looks good” or “slow it down.” Everyone on the boat has a role. 😉 Check out my lock post and video here.
Don’t forget to have fun!
Cruising the canals of France is a blast, so above all else, have fun! Make yourselves a special meal, pop that special bottle of wine, bring some fun games, tell stories and enjoy the experience! Don’t forget to head out and explore. We even met some turkey friends pictured below. 😉