Make sense of… boating in France

Summer is almost upon us and many people will be taking to the water once more. We recap what paperwork you might need to get afloat

Boating is a popular summertime activity, both along the coast and inland waterways
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It is one of the staples of French summertime television news, usually appearing in some form at least once a week: sunlight glittering on the sea, and gendarmes in uniform chasing a jet-ski to demand “Vos papiers, s’il vous plaît”. 

The solemn-voiced TV journalist will later list the infringements that necessitated the full force of law and order; speeding, straying into swimming areas, and not having a boat licence are common. 

Because it is summer, and the TV cameras are there, the guilty parties are usually let off with a stern talking to, but the reports do serve to highlight how important it is to know the rules and regulations of boating in France. 

Tests are required

A recreational boat permit (permis plaisance) is needed for power boats with an engine of 4.5kw (6hp) or more, and not just on inland waterways. 

It cannot be used for commercial shipping, for which much more stringent training is needed. Almost all jet-skis have motors over 6hp, and only small outboards are likely to be less. 

People in sailing boats are exempt from needing a licence – unless the boat has a motor of 6hp or more. 

The exam is open from 14 years old if you are a member of a sailing club, or 16 for everyone else, and follows the format of a driving licence, with a theory part and a practical exam. 

Most training schools also require a medical certificate from a GP saying you are fit enough to drive a boat. 

The exam differs, depending on whether you opt for the coastal waters (côtière) option or the inland navigations (eaux intérieures), which cover sailing within six nautical miles of shelter (dock or safe anchorage appropriate to the craft) and boats up to 20m in length respectively. 

It is possible to apply for extensions to these, called hauturière (deep sea), so there is no distance limit, and grande plaisance fluviale to remove length restrictions. A minimum of three hours of practical instruction must take place at a certified training centre. The extensions to the permits require additional tests and training

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The fees paid to the government  amount to €78 in electronic tax stamps, and €30 to be included in the official register of the training centre. 

Added to this are tuition fees charged by the training school. Internet searches show most charge between €300 and €500. 

An example is training offered by the association Cercle Nautique Royannais at Royan (Charente-Maritime), which offers a weekend course for €200 for the training, plus the €108 government fees, and a €100 subscription. 

It promises a near-100% pass rate, with the training part undertaken in groups of two or three on a dedicated training boat, equipped with GPS and a modern radio. 

Do foreign certificates hold in France?

Foreign nationals can prove equivalent licences from their own countries. The UK’s Royal Yachting Association (RYA), for example, advises its members who wish to boat on coastal waters in France to carry any certificates they have with them, as it has heard that occasionally a certificate has been requested. 

This is particularly recommended in the Mediterranean. 

The RYA Level Two National Powerboat Certificate is considered equivalent to the French permis with the côtière option, allowing non-French residents to use a French-registered boat. 

For inland waters, you will need to pass the CEVNI test, which assesses your navigational knowledge by asking you to correctly identify buoys, traffic lights and other signs, and hold an International Certificate for Operators of Pleasure Craft (ICC). 

However, it might not be sufficient for vessels over 20m in length. To hire a boat on inland waterways, a licence is not normally necessary. 

Upon arrival at your point of departure, you will be given a demonstration of how to use and navigate your boat before setting out on your trip. 

The minimum age is 18 for this and most firms specify that at least two adults are required on board 

The boats available are invariably fitted to a high standard, with some even boasting pullalong swimming pools! 

Le Boat, France Afloat, Nicols and Locaboat are just a few of the big names operating across the hire market, but there are plenty more to choose from. 

Do not forget to book early – as far as eight months in advance is advisable, especially if you are looking to take your break in the peak holiday seasons and on one of the more heavily boated routes, such as the Canal du Midi. 

Sailing on coastal waters is equally popular in France. Indeed, the country is home to one of Europe’s biggest yacht makers, a firm called Beneteau, which made record net profits of €182 million in 2023. 

Mooring fees can be an issue

You will hear frequent complaints that it is “impossible” to find moorings. What this often translates to is that it is impossible to find places in chic ports and marinas, but if you are not fixed on being in a fancy spot, it is nearly always possible to find somewhere to moor for a fee. 

Prices vary, but most guides say around €700 a year will buy you a spot in a port for a 10m boat in the north of France, rising to over €1,500 for similar along the Mediterranean coast. 

Mooring to a buoy is usually cheaper than using a pontoon, and some ports have a system where you hire or buy an anneau (a ring) fixed to the port wall, which can be cheaper than a pontoon place. 

On inland waterways, you generally need to pay a fee to the navigation authority – usually Voies navigables de France, or VNF – to use the canal or river you are cruising on. Navigation fees are based on boat length. 

The vignette certificate should be displayed at the front of the boat, on the starboard side. They can be bought here on an annual basis or for a day, week or month. No vignette is required for craft under 5m or under 9.9hp.

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