Locaboat at 40: A snapshot of a lock keeper to show you another side of the story

To celebrate its 40th birthday, Locaboat went along to meet up with one of its loyal friends. Philippe Canivet, now retired, watched Locaboat’s self-drive boats passing through his locks for many years. He told us about his favourite memories. A snapshot of a gatekeeper on the Canal du Centre.

Why did you become a lock keeper?

To begin with, I worked in a factory. But since I was born on a farm, I wanted to find a job where I was able to work outside, close to nature and in the open air. One of my friends told me that a recruitment exercise was being held. I took the tests and I was offered a job.

What does the work involve?

The work is quite varied. I used to make sure everything was in place to allow the boats to pass smoothly through the locks, and to keep the traffic flowing. I did the emptying and refilling. As a lock keeper, you’re responsible for your section. You have to maintain the canal banks, do the pruning, the painting and the greasing, and keep the mechanisms in good working order. I multi-tasked. It suited me down to the ground because I don’t like routine!

What qualities does a good lock keeper have?

First and foremost, patience, and not being afraid of going out in all weathers. You have to enjoy being on your own but you also have to enjoy company. You need to know the waterway signs and how locks work. You must like meeting people and you need commitment. I had a long section with a number of locks.

Whereabouts were you?

I was on the Canal du Centre which links the Loire and the Saône valleys, it used to be called the Canal du Charolais. I looked after 12 locks. It’s a distance of 10 kilometres, and even by car, that’s long way! In a pleasure boat it takes about two hours, but on a working boat it takes at least six hours.

What was it like, where you worked?

It was opposite the Mont de Sène, a little mountain that people sometimes call “the mountain of the three crosses”. The countryside is very green. By the side of the canal there are vines and vast fields of Charolais cows.

What did you like most?

I saw a lot of beautiful boats. I used to like looking round them, even the bargemen’s boats. Some of them have huge living quarters, it was fantastic. The boats were made entirely from wood. They really looked after them, I must say. I really did enjoy that, looking round the boats.

Did you get to know a lot of people?

Yes of course, there’s time to chat. At first virtually all the boats were working boats. We used to talk about this and that, and it was a chance for me to find out about other parts of France. Then the pleasure boats arrived. I used to give them tips on the best places to visit in this region.

When you saw all these boats going past, didn’t it give you the urge to travel?

When I went on my holidays, I used to go to the mountains. You need a change of scenery from time to time. When you spend all year beside the water, you know, you want to see something different. But there weren’t many holidays.

How long have you known Locaboat?

I got to know Locaboat when they first set up in this region. They’re good pals. Well, I’m retired now and we still see each other. On top of that, they have some beautiful boats. I saw the very earliest ones. These days they’re bigger and they have all mod cons. And because there are fewer and fewer working boats, there’s plenty of time to chat with them. It’s always good to see a Locaboat pleasure boat coming. Even when we don’t speak the same language, we always manage to make ourselves understood! We enjoy each other’s company.

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