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
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