Does this float your boat?

A child­hood spent put­ter­ing on canals in­spires So­phie Gard­ner-roberts to look at the pros of cruis­ing in France and own­ing a wa­ter­side home

French Property News - - Contents -

Few peo­ple can say they took their first steps by a nar­row boat moored up on the banks of the Canal du Niver­nais. Yet, ac­cord­ing to my par­ents and some grainy 1990s footage, I crawled, wad­dled and spent the first 18 months of my life on my par­ents’ boat, Liza Bars, in France. They had left the Lon­don rat race com­mut­ing from Sur­rey to the City in 1988, bought a 70ft nar­row boat, shipped it across the Chan­nel, cruised France’s in­land wa­ter­ways all the way to the Canal du Midi, and found work as a ho­tel barge crew near Béziers.

Once I ar­rived in Au­gust 1993, they re­alised this was not com­pat­i­ble with fam­ily life so they bought a boat hire com­pany lo­cated in the lit­tle port of Ver­men­ton on the Canal du Niver­nais and the River Cure in north­ern Bur­gundy and left the south in order to run the com­pany for a while. In early spring 1994, we re­turned to fetch the nar­row boat which had re­mained on the Canal du Midi and, af­ter an epic cruise north, moored up in Ver­men­ton where we lived for a year. My brother came along and, con­cerned about hav­ing two un­der-twos on the boat, my par­ents traded Liza Bars for a big, crooked and asym­met­ri­cal house in Ver­men­ton.

I grew up in the coun­try­side near wa­ter, muck­ing about on boats and ca­noes, en­joy­ing a few cruises on the canals and splash­ing in the lo­cal river. My cousins lived in an old lock house and the lit­tle bridge, tow­path and for­est by the wa­ter was our favourite play­ground. I can pretty much nav­i­gate a hire mo­tor boat on the canals my­self (thanks Dad!) and I worked three sum­mers as a lock-keeper. If you think this sounds bliss­ful, you’re right. Only now do I re­alise how lucky my si­b­lings and I were to grow up in such an en­vi­ron­ment. They say home is where the heart is, and mine is in a lit­tle cor­ner of Bur­gundy criss-crossed with rivers and canals. Here are a few point­ers for you to en­joy your very own wa­ter­side haven in France.

Pad­dles, pro­pel­lers and plunges

France has an ex­ten­sive net­work of wa­ter­ways; it’s dif­fi­cult to pin­point just how vast it is but, ac­cord­ing to 2014 fig­ures, French rivers cover a to­tal of 428,906km, with 8,000km of nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­ways so boat­ing en­thu­si­asts have a lot of space to en­joy. Boat­ing is a scenic and peace­ful way to travel, at­tract­ing many tourists who en­joy self-drive boat hol­i­days or cruises on ho­tel barges all over the coun­try. Did you know you can travel across France from north to south and east to west on in­land wa­ter­ways (ex­cept via Brit­tany as it has its own net­work)?

Gen­er­ally, stan­dard French canals are wider than they are in the UK. In fact, the min­i­mum di­men­sions of locks on the canals are based on the Fr­eycinet gauge, put in place in 1879 and re­quir­ing locks to be 39m long, 5.2m wide and a min­i­mum of 2.2m deep. As such, much of the net­work is still based on these di­men­sions and it en­ables boats of all shapes and sizes to cruise; even rel­a­tively big barges can squeeze into locks on mi­nor canals and there are still canals and rivers where freight and com­mer­cial trans­port thrives. You can find de­tailed maps and prac­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion on the var­i­ous nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­ways at french-wa­ter­ways.com/wa­ter­ways/ prac­ti­cal-nav­i­ga­tion or on the web­site of the Voies Nav­i­ga­bles de France vnf.fr, who man­age most of the coun­try’s canals and tow­paths.

To ob­tain a French cer­tifi­cate to pi­lot boats,

on rivers or at sea, you can take the per­mis plai­sance in four cat­e­gories. Can­di­dates have to sit a the­o­ret­i­cal exam com­pris­ing 30 mul­ti­ple choice ques­tions and can only make five mis­takes. The prac­ti­cal course must be a min­i­mum of three hours 30 min­utes, in­clud­ing at least two hours at the helm.

If you are bring­ing your boat with you, it is oblig­a­tory to have the rel­e­vant li­cence. If you don’t have the French per­mis plai­sance, the in­ter­na­tional cer­tifi­cate of com­pe­tence is ac­cepted by the French au­thor­i­ties if you have val­i­dated it with the rel­e­vant CEVNI qual­i­fi­ca­tion, the Euro­pean code gov­ern­ing nav­i­ga­tion on in­land wa­ter­ways.

If your prop­erty doesn’t have a pri­vate moor­ing, the eas­i­est op­tion is to rent a berth in a ma­rina for the year. You should con­tact the port of your choice well in ad­vance. Berths in ports on the Mediter­ranean are nat­u­rally in high de­mand and many have wait­ing lists but river ports should be eas­ier to get into.

A river runs by it

Nat­u­rally, own­ing a prop­erty by the wa­ter is a dream for many. The gur­gle of a river or a stream run­ning by has to be one of the most re­lax­ing sounds there is and, if you’re lucky, you can spot plenty of wildlife too. Wa­ter­side prop­er­ties are lovely and quiet and sur­rounded by na­ture; they gen­er­ally make fine homes with for­mer mills, forges or even dis­used lock houses reg­u­larly com­ing on the mar­ket.

You should, how­ever, be aware of a few things be­fore sign­ing on the dot­ted line for that dream house by the wa­ter.

Flood­ing is an ob­vi­ous con­cern and, if the var­i­ous storms that bat­tered the coun­try in Jan­uary and the sub­se­quent floods are any­thing to go by, they are a risk to take very se­ri­ously. Of­fi­cial maps and doc­u­ments de­tail­ing zones at risk of flood­ing ( zones inond­ables) are avail­able to con­sult pub­licly. You can head to your mairie and con­sult the Doc­u­ment d’in­for­ma­tion Com­mu­nal sur les Risques Ma­jeurs (DICRM). On­line, en­ter the name or post­code of your com­mune in the search bar on the handy web­site georisques. gouv.fr to find out what kind of nat­u­ral risks you are ex­posed to.

Sell­ers of a house are obliged to pro­vide an état des risques na­turels et tech­nologiques as part of the di­ag­nos­tic dossier they have to

com­pile. As a buyer, you can as­sess the lo­ca­tion dur­ing a visit, says char­tered sur­veyor John Snell. “Most solid build­ings can with­stand a short pe­riod of be­ing flooded; how­ever, the real risks arise when there is a flow of wa­ter which can scour out foun­da­tions, while float­ing de­bris can cause dam­age,” he says. This can in­clude ob­jects from land im­me­di­ately up­stream of the prop­erty so buy­ers should take note of the sur­round­ing ter­rain too. “Check­ing the avail­abil­ity of flood dam­age in­surance for a spe­cific prop­erty is an ad­di­tional en­quiry to be made if in doubt.”

As an owner, you also have a few rules to com­ply with, par­tic­u­larly for prop­er­ties lo­cated on the banks of nav­i­ga­ble rivers, ex­plains Mary Hall, a prop­erty man­ager in Lot. “You own the land down to the river, but you can’t fence it off or plant trees or hedges within 3.25m of the river,” she ex­plains. “You can­not legally stop walk­ers and an­glers from en­joy­ing the river­side. If there’s a tow­path along the river­bank, that has to be kept clear for a width of 7.8m, and you can’t plant trees or hedges within 9.75m of the wa­ter’s edge.

“The banks of nav­i­ga­ble canals must sim­i­larly be kept clear and ac­cess al­lowed. Do not build a pon­toon or mod­ify a bank to make a land­ing stage with­out per­mis­sion from the Di­rec­tion Dé­parte­men­tale des Ter­ri­toires or you could be forced to re-in­state the banks.”

By the sea­side

The same goes for sea­side prop­er­ties and flood risks and you should al­ways con­sult the flood risk doc­u­ments for your com­mune. Coastal ero­sion, where the land is worn away by crash­ing waves and mar­itime winds, is an­other prob­lem to keep in mind. The same storms that caused floods in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary, also eroded the French At­lantic coast­line. Some beaches in Nou­velle-aquitaine for ex­am­ple, were eaten away by 5-7m! “While a house may cur­rently be many me­tres from the sea, a few hard years can bring the waves men­ac­ingly close,” Mary ex­plains. “Prop­er­ties may be­come un­mort­gage­able, unin­sur­able and un­leasable in a short space of time.” John adds that salt-laden air brings a few is­sues to be aware of. “It will ex­pose any fail­ings in metal fit­tings,” he ex­plains. “A quick rinse-off af­ter stormy/squally weather is usu­ally ad­vised,

al­though na­ture help­fully sup­plies rain in the ma­jor­ity of cases.”

Prop­er­ties with pri­vate moor­ings are quite rare but not im­pos­si­ble to find. Just bear in mind that these prop­er­ties come at a pre­mium, par­tic­u­larly in hotspots such as the Riviera.

Go with the flow

France’s vast net­work of canals and nav­i­ga­ble rivers pro­vide a large num­ber of wa­ter ac­tiv­i­ties for tourists and lo­cals alike. This means plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties if your move to France de­pends on earn­ing a liv­ing. If you love be­ing on or around boats, you could join a boat bro­ker­age fran­chise like our case study(right). There are hol­i­day boat hire com­pa­nies all over the coun­try and they are of­ten look­ing for boat me­chan­ics, clean­ing per­son­nel or even ad­min staff to take book­ings. As their clien­tele is largely Bri­tish, they’ll be keen to hire English speak­ers though a cer­tain pro­fi­ciency in French is im­por­tant too.

It’s also worth look­ing into pur­chas­ing a lock house. As well as a pic­turesque set­ting, you can en­joy the pass­ing com­pany of boats, cy­clists and walk­ers. The VNF of­ten put call-outs for projects to con­vert dis­used lock-houses into com­mer­cial, cul­tural or tourism busi­nesses so keep a look out on their re­gional web­sites.

Be­cause of their fan­tas­tic prox­im­ity to the coast and beaches, sea­side prop­er­ties are in high de­mand, par­tic­u­larly for in­vest­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties as many tourists, most of them French, love to hol­i­day on the French coast so your sea­side prop­erty could eas­ily be­come a hol­i­day rental if you are not plan­ning a per­ma­nent move just yet.

Boats on the River Yonne in north­ern Bur­gundy

The river port in Sav­erne, Al­sase

The Canal du Midi is pop­u­lar for cruis­ing

Squeez­ing through a lock in Char­ente

Early days on Liza Bars

Cruis­ing in Jura

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