We Live Here!

When we moved to France, we were certain we would soon make a hilarious and embarrassing language error. It is going to happen; it is just a matter of time. But the marina where we bought Ziggy B beat us to it. Ok, they did not do it themselves, but the automated translator for their website did. Our style of long, skinny boat is known as a “péniche” in French. The automated translator used by many websites mistakenly translates it to “penis” instead of “barge.” So, as we were reading the English version of the write up by our broker about our purchase of Ziggy B, there is an unforgettable statement about how we just fell in love with a lovely penis. I think we will have to work hard to beat that one (please pardon all the puns in that last statement).

We will not regale you with all the details of getting Ziggy B ready because they are boring, and frankly, we want to fast forward to recounting our experiences after leaving the dock. Although we have captained several types of sailboats, neither of us had any experience piloting a barge when we fired up Ziggy B and headed for the fuel dock. Ziggy B is fifteen feet longer that Pura Vida, so, by far, the largest boat we have ever maneuvered. She also has a flat bottom instead of the full keel to which we are accustomed, making her incredibly susceptible to any side currents or wind. This was going to be fun.

The fuel tank was on empty when be bought Ziggy B and the gauge was blinking an ominous warning light. Having no knowledge of what type of fuel reserve may be left in the tank, the fuel station was an imperative first stop, whether we were ready or not. Fortunately, the nearest fuel dock was based on a floating pontoon on the Saône River instead of inside a tight marina. The river is wide, allowing us to move the barge around and get a feel for how she handles before trying to dock. Unfortunately, as soon as we cleared the marina and entered the river, we saw a large powerboat at the fuel dock. There was only a space about ten feet long in front of the other boat where we could dock. We did not know if we had enough fuel to idle around in the river waiting, so we needed to dock right away. In order to pull this off, we had to do a 180 degree turn in the river, bring all 27 tons of Ziggy B to a complete stop, and then back her up into the sliver of pontoon available without hitting the other boat. I had to get close enough for Kimberly to step off and secure our aft line to the dock. At this point, we had a total of about five minutes of experience at the helm. What could possibly go wrong?

As the infamous Captain Ron said in the eponymous movie, “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.” We steeled our nerves, readied the dock line, and started the turn. To our surprise, Ziggy B turned quite easily for such a long piece of steel. Once we had completely turned her around, we let her momentum die down before putting her in reverse for the final approach. Once again, we were delighted in her maneuvering ability. She is not yar by any means, but if you anticipate where the momentum is taking her, you can plan ahead. It is like driving a bus from the back seat, with no brakes. In agonizing slow motion, we backed up towards the dock and Kimberly stepped off. That was it. We did it! With that single docking accomplishment, our apprehension dropped and our confidence soared. Afterall, if we could dock our new barge backwards, upstream, onto a dock mostly blocked by another boat, the rest would be easy.

Track of our first season

Ziggy B was now all fueled up and ready to take us to new destinations. For our first port of call, we chose the city of Auxonne. The main reason is that the city was about to celebrate the 200th anniversary of carnival and these two New Orleanians could not pass that up. The trip to Auxonne would also allow us to drive the barge for quite a few miles without having to enter our first lock. Although we felt pretty good after our fuel dock experience, we wanted to get more familiar with Ziggy B before squeezing her into a narrow, concrete chamber.

Inside the lock

After an hour of driving up the Saône River, we reached our first lock. We could delay the inevitable no more. We triggered the mechanism to activate the lock, and the large, steel doors opened to welcome us into the narrow chamber with concrete walls towering over us on either side. After mooring Ziggy B with fore and aft lines we lifted the bar that sets the lock in motion. The doors behind us closed ominously and creaked as they slammed shut. Water starting rushing in from the forward gates and I could see the bow rise instantly at least a foot. Ziggy B moved backwards from the impact of the deluge and Kimberly and I pulled our lines taught to keep her in place. It was far more of a workout than we had expected. Was every lock like this? We were thinking that there is no way we could do a dozen of these in one day as other cruisers had told us was common. To put it bluntly, our first lock kicked our butts. As the water level reached the top of the chamber, things got calm. A few seconds later, the exit doors opened and a long tranquil canal awaited us. We did it! We successfully made it through our first lock without damage, injury, or embarrassment. Auxonne awaited us just a few hours upriver with no more locks in our path.

We arrived in Auxonne and moored on the ancient city quay with stone steps leading up to the formidable city wall. Our imagination wondered just how many ships and barges had docked at this very spot over the centuries. How many merchants, warriors, migrants, and families had passed through those enormous city gates before us. We have heard that Europeans find it funny how Americans ooh and aah over old buildings; and these two Americans were definitely in awe at the history before us. After all, we had just arrived where Napoleon himself served in the French artillery when he was a mere lieutenant.

Carnival revelers throw colorful confetti to the cheering crowd. By the end of the day, the city streets were carpeted in color.
Auxone City Hall with monument to Napoleon
Ramparts of barracks where Napoleon served as a young Lieutenant in the French Artillery

As we looked around our new city, we exclaimed “We live here!” Those words have become our motto when we are exploring a new city where we have just arrived. Because most rivers and canals run through the middle of, or very near, the historic parts of cities, we end up moored amongst prime real estate. This is quite different from our sailing life, where Pura Vida is usually anchored a dinghy ride from shore or tied up to a modern marina that was built long after the cities had developed, and therefore, far from the historic centers. In France, by contrast, we just step off the barge and we are right in the middle of things. It really feels like we have a waterfront apartment on the most desirable location in town. So, we pinch ourselves every time and say: “We live here!”

The formidable entrance to Rhone au Rhin Canal (Photo Credit: Canal Boat Juniper)
Map and elevation profile of Rhone-au-Rhin Canal

We spent the next few weeks traversing the Rhone au Rhine Canal. This waterway dates back centuries and is a combination of man-made stretches of canal that frequently intersect the Doubs River. We drove Ziggy B east along stunning countryside that meandered through plains, hills, and cities that took our breath away. The main cities we visited were Dole, Besançon, Montbéliard, and Mulhouse, with numerous charming, small towns along the way. They are too many to describe individually, but we hope the following pictures of the places along the way do justice to our inaugural French journey.

Arrival in Dole
Parked right by the statrt of a Tour-de-France stage in Dole
Our own “apartment” in the middle of the Dole historic city center
Old tannery canal, Dole
Roman gate in Besançon
Remains of Roman columns in Besançon
Besançon stole our hearts
Viaduct over the Doubs River

After 6 weeks of traveling, we reached our turnaround point, the city of Mulhouse, near the German and Swiss borders. We stayed there for a couple of weeks and explored the area by land. We were too close to the Alps to not take a quick trip by train. We left Ziggy B at a small marina and ventured to nearby Basel, Switzerland. After a couple of days there, we headed high into the Alps to the town of Interlachen. Switzerland did not disappoint. We were simply stunned by the natural beauty around us. Everywhere we looked seemed like a scene from a postcard.

Lock staircase leading down to Mulhouse
Colmar is postcard-perfect everywhere you look
Basel, Switzerland
Old city gates, Basel, Switzerland
Interlaken, Swiss Alps
The hike in Interlaken was WAY more than we bargained for

Back aboard Ziggy B, we retraced our route along the Rhone au Rhin Canal toward the Saône River. We thought that it might be boring since we had already seen this area just a few weeks before. We were wrong. Going in the opposite direction gave us a fresh perspective of the magnificent countryside and allowed us to revisit our favorite towns. There is great joy and anticipation in discovering new cities, but there is also a warm comfort in arriving at a place you feel like you know. By the time we reentered the Saône River, we had traversed more than 200 locks. Hard to believe that just a couple of months before, we were terrified of these monsters. Do not get me wrong, we still respect them and the enormous power of the water they move, but now we felt cautiously confident in our abilities.

Locking in style
Huge lock

We still had a month and a half in France, but winter was coming, and many of the canals were starting to close due to low water levels. We decided to stay on the river, where water was plentiful, and explore south to Lyon, the third largest city in France.

The voyage on the Saône towards Lyon was quite different from canal life. Mornings on the expansive river were foggy and cold, and we occasionally encountered massive cargo barges that dwarfed Ziggy B. The rhythm of the trip, however, remained the same. We would move in the mornings and give ourselves time to explore our destination in the afternoon and evening. The next morning, we would be on the move again.

Foggy morning on the river
Ziggy B parked at Verdun-sur-le-Doubs
Abbaye Saint-Philibert de Tournus, its history dates to the 9th century and was built on the site of 1st century Roman fortifications
Wild mooring on the river bank

There is something magical about arriving in a big city by small boat. Our desired mooring area was completely on the other side of Lyon from where we entered, so we got a river tour of the entire length of the city as the Saône River snaked past the old buildings perched high on stone walls and under a combination of ancient and modern bridges. We were not sure if there would be space in the small marina where we were headed, so we kept scoping out potential mooring spots along the way. When we arrived at the southern end of the city, we were delighted that there was a large space where we could tie up to the quay just off the river. This not only offered protection from the massive wakes created by the cargo and cruise ships, but it had free water and electricity. We hit the jackpot. Immediately, we decided we would live here for at least two weeks and explore what is known as the culinary capital of France.

Arriving in Lyon
Lyon did not dissapoint these food lovers
Roman era amphitheatre in Lyon

It was now late October and we were tempting the weather gods. We still needed to navigate back up the Saône to our winter mooring, but storms during this time of year can make river travel dangerous, especially for such a small vessel. We reluctantly pulled ourselves away from Lyon and started our travel upriver. Just like we had done earlier on the canal, we enjoyed revisiting our favorite spots along the way. This time, however, we had a sense of urgency.

Parked at the Mâcon city quay for market day
Market day in Mâcon is a feast of colors, flavors, and aromas

By the first of November, we pulled into our winter marina in Mâcon. It seems that old man winter takes pity on novices, because the first frost and wintery storm waited until a few days after our arrival. Our first French cruising season was complete and we were beyond delighted at our good fortune. We knew we would like France and cruising the canals, but it far exceeded our expectations. What started as a completely impulsive decision less that twelve months before, had become a reality that simply blew our minds. We fell in love with our new home. We fell in love with France. With tears of joy welling up in our eyes, and with glasses of remarkable local wines in our hands, we said to each other, “We live here!”

Our home for the winter in the southeast corner of Burgundy

Season one by the numbers:

44 ports of call
255 locks
307 meters rise
312 meters drop
619 meters total elevation change in locks. For reference, the Empire State Building is 443 meters including the spire, and the Eiffel Tower is 330 meters.


  1. Beautifully written and gorgeous pics! Bye bye Ziggy B and France, hellooo Pura Vida and Panama!
    Safe travels. ✈🤟

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