Our web site has brought us many email inquiries from people who are interested in this barging life. We have compiled a list of their most frequently asked questions with the idea of providing information that will be helpful to anyone who is planning to buy a barge. We do not think of ourselves as experts, and these answers are only based on our experiences.
Updated April 2008
We can only say positive things about this lifestyle. We had never owned a boat before we came to France and bought our barge, and we really didn't know what to expect. What we found is a life we love.
The boating community immediately welcomed us as new members, they shared their boating knowledge with us while we were refitting our barge, and later they helped us learn how to drive and how to maintain and live aboard our new home. The friends we made in those first months in France remain some of our best friends today, and each year only adds new friends to the list as we meet other boaters. The barging community is like a floating international village, we all keep in touch either by phone, email, planned or chance encounters, or through the boating grape vine, where all news travels fast.
For our first six years we returned to the same winter port, Roanne. Returning there every fall felt like coming home, and spending six months a year in one place helped us make and maintain friendships with other boaters and with local French people. We feel that returning to a familiar port to spend our winters with friends adds continuity to our lives, and making French friends has enhanced our understanding of life in France.
In 2006, we were lucky enough to be offered a mooring in Paris, an opportunity that was too good to pass up, so now le Port de Plaisance de Paris Arsenal is our home port. So far, we have been so busy enjoy all that this beautiful city has to offer, that we are cruising less now, last year we only cruised for one month, and for most of the year, our barge has become our pied à terre in Paris.
It took us one full year of hard work at home in San Francisco to prepare for our move to Europe. There were so many little bits and pieces to organize. Like any other overwhelming process, we just started with one task, and we learned as we went along what needed to be done next.
We chose to keep our house, and that turned out to be a good decision for us, as we are happy to know that we can return to our home town someday when we have finished barging.
The process of moving to France and living on a barge has had its share of challenges, but the whole experience of barging has been even better than we expected. Of course, we planned on enjoying ourselves, but we had no idea that we would be joining such a great international community, or that life on the water would be so addicting. We had only planned to cruise for two or three years, and yet we are still here, and we don’t see the end of this adventure just yet.
We made the move from living in a house in California to living on a barge in France without any boating experience, so we needed to learn about boats as well as adjusting to life in France. Living in a foreign country has been stressful at times, after all, everything is so foreign, and not speaking the language when we arrived made everything more difficult.
The boating community speaks English as its common language, and since we have never been immersed in French, learning the language has been more difficult than we would have expected. It took us a few years before we could pick up to phone, rather than having to go everywhere in person, to get the information that we are seeking, and we are still working hard to improve our language skills.
Speaking French is necessary to transact any business and outside of Paris or other large cities, you cannot count on finding an English speaking employee to assist you. Boaters, who do not speak French, rely on the kindness of their boating neighbors who do, to help them negotiate difficult transactions.
We use an online bill paying service, Pay Trust to pay our U.S. bills, and we are very happy with their service. All of our monthly bills are on automatic payment, except for our visa bill, which we view online before we okay the payment. Their customer service is excellent, and we feel very comfortable recommending Pay Trust.
A long stay visa must be requested from the French Embassy nearest your home before your departure from a non-EU country.
We started our application at the French Embassy in San Francisco. We had to show our passports to enter the French Embassy, so bring your passport along on your first visit even if you are just going there to pick up the forms. To apply for a “long stay visa for non professional purposes”, you will need several different letters stating that you have income, health insurance, and an address where you will be living in France.
Make sure that these letters are succinct as each letter will need to be translated into French by a translator from the embassy's approved list, and long letters will be more expensive. Check each translator's fee, as we found they varied greatly. If you are asking for this type of visa, it does not allow you to work in France.
The process took about four months to get the Long Stay Visa on the American side. We made a mistake on the initial paperwork, and that seemed to complicate the whole process for us. Be sure to read all of the questions on both sides of the form carefully.
Once you enter France with your Long Stay Visa, that is when you start your application for your Carte (Titre) de Séjour. It is not unusual to spend another three or four months filling out more paperwork to complete the application for your Carte de Séjour. In France, we were asked for an original birth certificate, something no one had asked us for in San Francisco, and after we obtained an original, they asked that it be translated also! This translation was done for us by a French friend with no problem from the Mairie (town Hall) about official translators.
You can apply at any town “Mairie”. However, we believe it might better and take less time to complete, if you present your application to the préfecture of your department, as they are more familiar with all of the requirements. Once you receive your Carte de Séjour it is valid for one year. You do not have to renew it at the same préfecture, although it is much easier to do so. After we renewed ours a couple of times, the process became easier every year, especially as our language skills improved.
The only money we paid for our Carte de Séjour in France was for a mandatory physical exam, which consisted of a chest xray, answering a couple of questions about our health, and touching our toes. We don’t remember how much we paid for our "physical", but in 2007, friends paid 225 euros each for their physical exams.
Be sure to bring all of your original letters and their translations to France with you, as you will need to re-submit some of the same paperwork after your arrival. You should also scan copies into your computer for safekeeping. We also scanned our passport photos into our computer, and have often reprinted those photos when we have needed to submit a passport type photo for our visa renewal, or when we renew our international driver's licenses by mail.
The process of living in France begins with having an address. When we made our long stay visa application in San Francisco, they asked for our future French address. Because we had not yet come over to France to buy our barge, we did not have an address in France. We were lucky that a barge broker, who we had been corresponding with, provided us with a letter stating that we would have a mooring in their marina for a year after we purchased a barge from them.
Once you are in France and settled, it not a problem to change your address from the first one that you submitted at home. A letter from your port captain qualifies as establishing an address for your Carte de Séjour application. You can also use the same captain’s letter to open a bank account. You will need a bank account to start certain services, such as your telephone and Internet service. These companies require that their monthly bill be directly debited from your bank account. In our previous port of Roanne, we were supplied electricity by the EDF, (Électricité de France). The EDF also offers a monthly debt of your bank account, if you wish. The EDF bill, or a telephone bill, is what you will use to confirm your address, something that you will be asked for many times over for certain business transactions including the renewal of your long stay visa.
In most ports the mail is delivered to the port captain’s office. In some ports the captain walks around the port and delivers the mail to each boat, and in other ports the boaters go to the capitainerie to collect their mail.
During the summer crusing season the port captain can forward important mail to you by "General Delivery/Poste Restante" to any town you deisgnate. You can receive mail at the central post offices of most towns. It should be addressed (preferably with the surname first and in capitals) "Poste Restante, Poste Centrale", followed by the name of the town and its postal code. To collect your mail you will need a passport or other convincing ID, and there may be a charge of around a euro or less. You should ask for all your names to be checked, as letters are frequently filed under the first letter of another name on the address. It normally takes three to four days to forward mail through France. Check above link for full details.
If you are moving on to a new winter port, the captain can forward your mail to your new address.
One reason we have enjoyed going back to the same winter port has been the fact that we were able to make local friends. We met most of our friends at the gym, and our walking club and by frequenting the same small businesses. On a couple of occasions in the past, we asked our friends who owned the small café across from our barge in Roanne, if we could use their address for the delivery of packages being sent to us by family or friends back home or purchased on line. Since there was someone at the café from morning to night, this worked very well.
We joined the DBA, The Barge Association, before leaving the States, and we found that their members were eager to share their knowledge in order to guide us through the barge buying process. We have found it very useful to subscribe to their email list where information regarding boating is exchanged between members. This is a very good way of obtaining help with a problem or to keep current on canal conditions while cruising. If you ask a question, someone always knows the answer.
"The Barge Buyers Handbook" is a must "how to" book for anyone looking to buy a barge. It is available through the DBA website store.
"Barging in Europe, (second edition)" by Roger Van Dyken is full of good information about buy a boat and barging. You can find this book on amazon.com.
We shopped online before we left the U.S. to see what was on the barge market in Holland, Belgium and France. It was a good way to get an idea of what features we wanted in our boat, and of what we could expect barges to look like inside, but everyone agrees that boats that look great and affordable on the Internet, do not live up to the promise of their photos when you see them in person. The brokers sites, however, will give you a list of the components on each boat that is useful when comparing the barges that you are considering.
After looking at all of the boats that we could find on the Internet, we made a list of the ten most important items that we wanted on our boat and used that list as a guideline for choosing which boats to see in person. You will need to see the boat in person to inspect its condition and actual physical layout. You would be very lucky to find a boat that meets all of your requirements, and that is ready for you to move onto and cruise away. Many people find that one special boat that captures their heart, and that boat sometimes sends that carefully prepared the list of requirements right out the window. That happened to us.
Our boat was one of the first boats that we looked at in France, and we liked it immediately, even though it did not meet a couple of the items on our list. After looking at several other barges in France, we drove to Belgium and Holland to see as many barges as possible. Everyone had advised us to do this, because barges are plentiful in Holland, and it is thought that they less expensive also. We looked at many barges, but we never saw any boat that had the wonderful features of our barge. We had already fallen in love with its back deck and the large wheelhouse with a kitchen and dining area.
We came to France with our dog and suitcases and duffle bags full of what we thought that we would need to cruise for a few year before we bought our barge. We had booked in advance into a gîte, a farmhouse near the major barge brokers in St. Jean de Losne, thinking that we would stay there just while we looked at barges in the area. When we decided to purchase our barge from a nearby broker, we asked to stay for two months. We were told that the remodeling work that we were having done on our barge would be completed by then. In the end, we lived in that wonderful farmhouse for six months, and we now count Nathalie, the owner, as our best French friend. Our advice is to make plans, but don't be too disappointed when nothing happens as you expected. We have good friends that we met when they also booked into the gîte. They had booked for 3 days, thinking that they would stock their newly bought boat with supplies and cruise away. In France, particularly in small towns, there is not just one store where you can go to buy furniture, linens, electronics etc. Shopping to outfit your boat takes longer than you would expect. Consequently, we all lived together at Nathalies for 2 months, and we became great friends. Nothing happens quickly in France, and that is part of the joy.
If you want to experience living in a foreign country all year, then you should be looking for a boat that is also a comfortable home. Someone advised us well when they said, “You will have to learn to handle whatever size barge you buy, so we might as well buy a barge big enough to be comfortable.” Most people that we know who live on board all year have boats that are 20 plus meters.
One must think about balancing the need for living space when you boat is acting like a house in the winter, with the need to cruise comfortably during the summer. Cruising through tunnels and narrow bridges takes more time if you are a wide barge, because you have to go slowly, and finding moorings at night becomes more difficult for every meter over 20.
If you plan to be on the canals only during the cruising season (April to October) a barge less than 20 meters would be best. The smaller the boat the more freedom you will have. Small boats can travel everywhere easily. Moorings are less expensive and easier to find. But, the biggest factor is the maintenance of the boat. The bigger the barge and the more complicated the systems, the more time and money you will spend on maintenance and repairs.
The air draft is an important consideration when buying a barge. In Holland where many barges were built, there are many lifting bridges and height is not a problem. In France canals pass through tunnels and arched bridges. If you plan to cruise in France, the air draft becomes an important consideration when selecting a barge. A barge with an air draft less than 2.7 meters or with a wheelhouse that can collapse to that height, can go anywhere in France. With an air draft of 3.1 meters or a wheelhouse that will collapse to 3.1, you will be able to travel on almost all of the French canals. Most of the bridges along the French canals are 3.50 meters or higher. On a rare occasion a bridge will be marked at 3.45 meters. To make sure that we can pass under a bridge we have a wire twanger above our bow flag that is 5 centimeters higher than our air draft. If we hit our twanger, we know to stop and go to Plan B.
There is a bridge on the Canal du Midi at Capestang. It is an old arched Roman bridge with one of the narrowest passages on the canals. The distance from the water line to this bridge’s arched opening has been precisely measured every few centimeters along the arch so that boaters can calculate in advance if they will be able to pass under without tearing off their wheelhouse, or even if they will fit with their wheelhouse collapsed. There are many stories about boaters recruiting enough people from a local bar, after lunch is said to be best, to climb aboard to act as ballast, in order to lower the air draft so that the barge can pass under the bridge. If you try this method, you may have to buy the house a round.
A barge with a water draft of 1.3 meters or less can travel on almost any canal. Deeper water drafts can manage, as sail boats do, but with much more difficulty, especially when mooring. Ideally, you would want the water draft of your barge to be closer to 1 meter. The water draft of most of the French canals is listed at 1.8 meters, but with less commercial traffic “plowing the canals”, this is no longer the case. The 1.8 meter figure might still be correct at the center of the canal, but a boat with a deep water draft will have trouble moving to the side to pass other boats, especially commercial barges and because the water depth is shallow near the sides of the canals, mooring is sometimes a problem.
Many villages provide moorings with water and electric at a small fee, 2 to 8 euros a night. Large cities offer ports with full services and are more expensive, usually depending on the size of your barge. These nightly fees can range all the way up 59 euros 28 cents for boats over 20 meters in Paris during the high season of 2008.
You can also pound steal stakes into the canal bank to tie up for the night, enjoying the peace and quiet of the countryside at no charge. There are many mooring choices along the canals, and you can find many free moorings if you do not need water or electricity. Moorings are less frequent along the rivers.
The decision of where to spend the winter is most important if you plan to live on board, but even if you don't, you will want to find a safe place to leave your boat. Most ports are chosen by talking with other boaters, and now most people like to book ahead well in advance because the more popular ports all have waiting lists.
We like returning to the same port every year, but others like to see where they end up at the end of the summer and then find a winter port. Finding a good winter port late in the year is becoming more and more difficult however.
Winter moorings vary in price, again with the Paris Arsenal being the most expensive. The Paris Arsenal also has very limited moorings for barges over 20 meters.
A large part of the barging adventure is moving your barge through the locks. In the beginning it is a real challenge, and as you learn all of the skills necessary to enter and exit the locks without hitting the walls, you stop fearing locks and find them a peaceful change of pace. We enter all locks slowly, with one person on deck ready to put their line over a bollard. Once the line is secure and the boat has come to a halt, we can relax a bit and even get into a conversation with the lock keeper or people passing by and one of us can help with the gates. There are many different methods of teamwork to move through the locks, and every couple finds the way that works best for them.
Canal Locks: In 1879, Charles de Freycinet, as the French minister of the interior, standardized the canal locks to be about 40 meters in length and 5.20 meters wide. He also decreed that all boats should be less than 38.5 meters in length and less than 5.05 meters in width.
River Locks: As the rivers widen, the locks get bigger, and you will communicate with the lock keepers who are in towers by VHF. You will find yourself locking with the commercial big boys who always have priority for entering the locks, and if your language skills aren’t up to speaking and understanding VHF French, you can follow the lead of the commercial barges. If they slow down a couple of kilometers before the lock, then you know that the lock is not ready in your direction. Once at the lock follow the directions of the red and green traffic lights. Even through the commercials may enter on a red light, it is not okay for you to do so. Wait for a green light. The river lock keepers will keep the red light on for a reason. Usually it is that more commercials are coming up behind you. The lock keepers might keep the light red until all of the commercials have entered the lock, then, if there is room for you, they will give you a green light, and you can enter.
If you are not following other boats, use your VHF to announce yourself to the lock keepers when you are two to three kilometers away. You will need to tell them whether you are approaching from upstream or downstream and your ETA, and they will tell you either to come on ahead or to slow down to wait for the lock. If you are traveling downstream with a good current behind you, slowing down and timing your arrival at the lock is much safer for you than having to make a U-turn in front of a barrage. If the lock keepers don’t answer on your first attempt, try again as you get closer. They will respond to let you know how to proceed.
We have been through thousands of locks, many of them over and over again, and we have the same rule for every lock, pay attention! Every time is different, and you must be ready to expect the unexpected. When we pass through a lock, we do not carry on conversations with lock keepers or friends on board, until our rope is over the bollard and the boat has come to a stop. To practice going through the locks, click here.
Note: At the Basel Rainwat agreement conference, new radio regulations were established for all inland water ships on the continent over 20 meters. Now all ships must have two fixed VHF radios equipped with ATIS. One radio is for a channel to monitor ship-to- land, i.e. calling a lock. The other radio must monitor ship-to-ship communication, which in France is channel 10.
In our winter mooring, of course water is no problem, its right outside our door. When cruising, we fill the water tank at every given opportunity. Most town moorings have water, but sometimes you will cruise through an area where water is hard to find even at the moorings. The navigational maps note that water is available at certain locks, but if there is traffic coming in the other direction it is difficult to stay long enough to fill your tank. We have learned to refill at every opportunity while cruising, even if we just filled our tank the day before.
In Europe, they have white and red diesel. The red diesel, which is just white diesel with red dye added and taxed differently, is much cheaper, about half the white price. In 2008, new EU boating regulations for the Continent now state that all boats must use white fuel for propulsion. In the past Belgium allowed the use of red diesel for propulsion. This is no longer the case. Red diesel can only be used for domestic use, for the operation of generators and furnaces. Like most barges, we have two separate fuel tanks, one for white and the other for red. If you are living aboard year round and have a separate red tank, you will save 750 to 1,000 euros on your yearly fuel bill.
If you are boarded by the police, they will always check your fuel. If you only have one tank and it has a pink blend of red and white, you will be asked to prove when, where and how much red fuel you have purchased. If the police feel that your purchases and cruising distances do not match, you will have to pay the tax difference and a substantial fine, at the least. It is always best to keep all of your fuel receipts.
Most barges use a boiler and radiator central heating system that runs on red diesel. A few of the older boats will only have a wood burning stove. Some boats have both systems. If you want to live on your barge during the winter, you will need to have good insulation and a good heating system.
With our tri-band phone, we use Orange as our service provider, and we have been very happy with their services. We have a "Europe option" that gives us service throughout Europe, and we have found this very convenient when cruising into Belgium or taking the train into Switzerland, etc. If we cross a border for any reason, our phone will work without having to change SIM cards or without making any changes to our service. We like this convenience as it is always good to be able to make a call in an emergency, but a word of warning, it is very expensive to use your French phone in another county, so if we are planning to stay for awhile we buy a local pre-paid SIM card.
To subscribe to a monthly phone service from a French service provider you will need a bank account. Your telephone bill is then automatically collected directly from your bank account. Two weeks before our monthly deduction, Orange sends us a text message telling us the amount of the bill. This system works well for us, particularly while we are cruising when we do not receive our regular mail.
A cell phone is a valuable tool while cruising. The majority of the canal locks are now automated, and you may be assigned a roving lock keeper who checks on you from time to time. It is a good idea to get his cell number when you first meet, and to note it on your canal charts, as we have found that the numbers rarely change. We use our cell phone to communicate with the lock keepers or the district VNF office to report a problem, and to inform them of the time that we will be at the first lock in the morning. This makes cruising much easier. We have also use our phone to call ahead to ports that take reservations in order to secure a mooring. In case of a break down, it is nice to be able to call your mechanic, and in an emergency, the cell phone is invaluable. We wouldn't travel without one.
You only need to sign up and then you pay only for the calls. There is no monthly service charge. We dial a computer in the States, let it ring once and hang up. The computer calls us back, and then we dial the phone number we want to call anywhere in the world. In 2007, the cost to call the US from a fixed line was .08 cents per minute. The cell phone rate was .32 cents per minute. There is a rate sheet on the web site that gives the current costs to other countries.
In the last couple of years an Internet connection through a land line has become very reasonable in cost. We now use Neuf Telecom for our phone and Internet connection. For 29.90 euros a month (2008), we have a ADLS line, 70 TV channels, and free phone calls to French fixed lines and to many other countries including the US. We call to the US, to both fixed and cell phones, for free. They do charge for calls to US 800 numbers. Several other companies offer the same type of service.
During the cruising season we access the Internet with our cell phone using the GPRS (General Packet Radio System) system. GPRS is now rather old fashioned, but since we only cruise two to three months a year now, it still works well for us. Other boaters have moved on to mobile PC card 3G+ or similar systems. The technology improves all of the time and it is now easy to access the Internet while cruising.
Medical care in France is excellent and inexpensive. We maintain our American medical and dental insurance plans for major expenses or emergencies, and to use when we visit our home in the states, but for everyday medical expenses, we pay as we go with our French doctors. In Paris, our medical doctor charges 25 euros a visit. An annual medical exams are more, about 100 euros including lab tests.
Over the years, some of our boating neighbors have had to be hospitalized or have needed surgery, and they were all very pleased with their hospital experiences, and the quality of the medical care that they received. They all chuckle about the fact that patients in French hospitals get a glass of wine on their lunch and dinner trays.
Because everyone has different income levels and spending habits, it is difficult to put a dollar amount on how much it might cost each year to live in France on a barge. It might just be easier to say that you do not have to be rich to enjoy this lifestyle. Most boaters agree that they are living here in France for less money than they would need to have the same quality of life back home, no matter where their home may be.
We love having friends come to visit, but we have discovered over the years that it is best to have a list of “house” rules so that your company understands how to live on a boat. We also have learned that short visits are better, and so we tell our friends not to think of us as a “destination resort”, but to stop in and see us for a few days during their European vacation.
When buying your boat, remember that your guest room is going to be empty most of the winter, so having a guest room that doubles as living space for you is best.
France loves dogs and Toby loved France
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