Pleasure and pain in Paris - Part 2 by Valerie Helps

Valerie Helps* and photographer Geoffrey Bull continue their story about the time they spent in Paris living on their boat de Villehardouin in the Paris-Arsenal Port de Plaisance.

Paris – what can one say about this city? The heart-rending beauty of Rodin’s statues; the buskers and street theatre (not to mention the markets) along my favourite street, the vibrant Rue Mouffetard; the art works in the spectacular Musée d’Orsay; Autumn splendour in the Luxembourg Gardens; coffee in the Place des Pyramides with a golden Joan of Arc; purchase of a gorgeous leather coat at the flea markets; the portrait artists at Place du Tertre in Montmartre and Sacré-Coeur pristine on the skyline.
I wanted so much to share with my daughter, Monet’s series of water lilies in the oval-shaped rooms in the Orangerie Museum, but it was closed. Disappointed, we left and to my surprise came across a bronze cast of one of Rodin’s most exquisite sculptures ‘The Kiss’ – so all was not lost.
During our second week in the Paris-Arsenal, we were advised that the VNF (Voies Navigables Francaise) would close the lock between the marina and the Seine for repairs for ten days as from 15 October. My daughter was due to leave Paris on the 19th and we felt we could not disappoint her by leaving our mooring before that date.
So we stayed on, knowing that the only way out of the Arsenal was a long detour via two canals; the canal Saint-Martin and canal Saint-Denis that would bring us out onto the Seine 30km north of the Arsenal entrance! In view of the fact that we were heading south for several hundred kilometres to our winter mooring, it was already late in the year to be cruising.
We duly left our mooring at 9 o’clock on a freezing, foggy morning (7 degrees) and immediately went through the 2km-long tunnel that goes beneath the Richard Lenoir Boulevarde and the Place de la Bastille. Lit only by vast circles of daylight coming through the roof that confused our vision, had it not been for our spotlight it would have been quite difficult to see where we were going.
We locked up the nine locks through leafy Paris suburbs glowing with autumn colours, very beautiful but the 4.5km to the Villette Basin took far too long; we then turned left into the 6.6km canal Saint-Denis and the first of seven locks (Pont-de-Flandre) where, after waiting an interminable time, the gates opened and in we went.
Napoleon’s Tomb. / A retired floating beacon on the Seine.
It turned out to be alarmingly narrow, very deep and full of floating garbage, and as the water level sank, very gradually, I was conscious of the thick and slimy weed covering the walls that were uncomfortably close to our boat.
It seemed as if we were slowly sinking into a cesspit with no obvious way out; the exit gate at the lower level was not visible until we had descended about four metres into the obscene hole in the ground. After further descent we finally reached the bottom, yet the gates remained tightly shut for some length of time during which I began to feel quite trapped.
In due course they began to open and the welcome view of the open air and the canal beyond relieved my tension.
We knew of only a couple of moorings for pleasure boats in Paris – Grenelle Port de Plaisance was closed for the winter, and the lock into the Paris-Arsenal of course, was under repair. This meant we had to get right through Paris and beyond, to find a mooring for the night.
Once again we were held up, this time at the Suresnes lock that straddles the Seine north of Paris. The inset bollards on the lock walls were very high and far apart so Geoff used the “bull’s horns” – an extending, curved aluminium frame (fashioned from a telescopic fishing net) with which he was able to loop the rope around the bollards that were out of reach.
Seafood market stall.I stayed at the helm to keep the boat steady and alongside the wall as we were tossed around by the incoming, unusually turbulent water which came crashing down in front of us in huge waves, filling up the lock very rapidly.
A great deal of nervous tension is expended going through some of these mighty river locks, manoeuvring around massive barges and dealing with the wash as they move out of the lock ahead of us. Sometimes I think we are mad!
The Seine south of Paris autumn tranquillity.By the time we were back in central Paris and passing the entrance to the Paris-Arsenal (from whence we had started that morning) it was 5pm. The light was already fading and we had until 6pm to get through the St-Maurice lock on the Marne to find the closest mooring – another 6km upstream. Our normal cruising speed is approximately 8kph so it became a race against time, hindered by the bateaux-mouches that were out in force, their turbulence slowing us down alarmingly.
I telephoned the St-Maurice éclusier (lock-keeper) and explained in my best French that the Arsenal was closed and asked if he would stay open for us. He replied, but I was unable to hear what he was saying as our engine was racing so fast. Twenty minutes later I phoned again and said we were getting nearer at which he chuckled, and said clearly that he would wait for us. We reached the lock at 5.45pm and rafted up against a barge.
We moored at the little pontoon at Maison d’Alfort (left bank) a short distance from the St-Maurice lock which we’d seen on the journey in to Paris – and collapsed in a heap with a glass of sustaining amber-coloured liquid. We’d made it – 47km in nine hours. I have no idea what we would have done had we missed the lock – it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Seine south of Paris mansions line the river.We finally reached our winter mooring at Rogny-les-7-Ecluses on the Canal de Briare on 29 October, just a few days before lock no 34 at Reinette – between Paris and Rogny – closed for repairs.

Paris by boat


Navicarte no 3 ‘La Marne de Paris à Vitry-le-Francois’.
‘Les canaux de Paris’ free brochure supplied by the Mairie de Paris.


No special qualifications are required for those wishing to charter a boat on the French canals, however, should the hirer wish to venture onto the major rivers the skipper must possess an International Certificate of Competence or some acceptable form of nautical qualification. Details can be obtained from the RYA (Royal Yachting Association) or from a similar organisation.

Cost of Living

Generally much cheaper than Australia. Eating out can be most reasonable if you shop around.

Marina Fees

(subject to constant change)
Variable – sometimes free: average 5€ a night and busier ports up to 20€
Nogent-sur-Marne – 10€ a night  (all incl depending on length of stay)
Paris-Arsenal October price – 14.70€ a night  (all incl)
Winter mooring – average 80€ per month. Free winter mooring in some ports


 – (n.b. fuel prices fluctuate daily. Currently 1.00€ per litre.) Average consumption 1 litre per 3km (more against the current). Tank capacity 220 litres. Range 450-650km.


– An instant gas water heater provides hot showers. When cruising the water is heated by the engine. A 13-litre bottle current price 31€ lasts two months (two people.)


 – Mostly free; capacity 600 litres lasts 5/6 days (two people.) In France all water is drinkable “potable” unless otherwise stated.