Saturday, September 17, 2011

So near yet so far!

As I write this we are on the hard in the marina at Valence. A slight miscalculation in a narrow stretch of the Rhone, trying to avoid an on-coming giant péniche, and we grounded the starboard keel on something hard. Although bouncing off, the rudder skeg also caught it on the turn. After cursing the péniche (it made me feel better), I made a quick check throughout the boat and, finding no obvious signs of water ingress, the panic soon died away. The engine was merrily throbbing along and there were no outward signs resulting from the contact. It was only Hil and I that were suffering the after-affects. Shame, because the journey down from Lyon, with the overnight stop at Les Roches de Condrieu, had been superb. Hot sunny days with a balmy breeze to keep us cool, industrial size locks gently dropping us 10 –15 metres and the goal of Seté only 8 days away – it couldn’t have been better.

A couple of kilometres north of Tournon-sur-Rhone, at PK89, lies a visible rock in the middle of the Rhone. It is marked by a starboard lateral post and is clearly visible. The river at that point is around 150m wide and all the advice is to keep 100m from the (downstream) left bank. Plenty of room in normal conditions, but as I rounded the bend to the rock we were met with a rather large péniche steaming towards us, both of us in the middle of the deep channel, about 200m from the rock. He slowed and I turned to starboard.  I thought to turn and run upstream but would have only put Sno’ Rush in his path – not the thing to do! So I moved over to avoid the inevitable wash from his bow wave, watching the depth constantly. I’d got 6m under the keels but was forced into shallower water by the heavily laden péniche who was keeping to the middle ground. I went to 2m (I read under-keel depth) to keep out of his way. Since we were travelling by trees and bushes on the bank around 15m away, and the depth remained constant I felt sure we’d pass by safely. Then I noticed the depth flash to 0.3 then 1.5m again. Taking no chances on a false reading, I turned toward deeper water and prepared for the approaching bow wave. And then….BANG!

How – I don’t know. Why – God only knows, but we hit and ran over what felt like concrete lying on the river bed.

The boat seemed none the worse for its ordeal, which can’t be said for Hil and me. Sno’ Rush just carried on undaunted. We did carry on, but I had that nagging doubt about how much underwater damage had been caused, the extent growing as each hour passed! We reached our over night stop at Port l’Eperviere in Valence. Fortunately, this is an all-singing, all dancing marina/boat yard and when I found a small inboard leak coming from around the rudder stock the decision was made to haul Sno’ Rush out and see what had happened.

The following afternoon, Sno’ Rush was lifted and held while we had a look around. What we saw amazed us! Apart from an 18” long chamfer on the starboard keel and scuffing to the underside of the skeg block holding the bottom of the rudder, the hull was untouched. At its maximum, the chamfer was around 1” deep, was black and had red brick dust in it. I presumed this was from a rock. The rudder block was still fixed firm with no signs of cracks in the antifouling around its edges. I was still concerned about the leak, and not knowing the exact configuration of the inboard rudder bearing block we decided to have her in the yard for a week to find the cause. Since we bought Sno’ Rush 13 years ago, I’d never been able to examine the rudder bearing as is completely covered by the steering quadrant. In a confined space, a torch and mirror are not very helpful. I could only ever see deep incrustations of salt that over the years I’d gradually removed. It was almost clear before we started our trek. When I got to grips with it, I found a common or garden stuffing box that, to my embarrassment, I have never tightened to keep the seal on the rudder shaft. The impact must have broken the seal formed by the greased packing. All that was required to make the seal again was to re-tighten the collar.

While Sno’ Rush was on the hard, I noticed that the wooden bearers supporting the damaged part of the keel were still wet when all others were dry. That didn’t seem right. I also realised that a small repair by the previous owner had been completely removed by the chamfer. After cleaning up the area it was clear what the problem was. The ‘so-called’ repair had not sealed the keel and, over many years, had allowed water to seep inside. The black I had seen earlier was the rot between the fibreglass layers within the outer edges of the keel. Shock and horror!

So that is where you find me now. The keel had been cut back to solid GRP exposing the solid ballast and it is drying out in the hot sunshine. Luckily, the repair isn’t that deep and, drawing on my previous epoxy experience, I should be able to repair it properly. I also have a mentor a few boats down – Claude is the resident guru on all matters fibreglass. He is currently rebuilding a French GRP hire boat, so I think I’m in safe hands.

Here is a thing – I always thought my ballast was lead shot encased in resin, but clearly it is not. It’s a humongous steel casting covered by a thin sheet of foam encased within ¾” of GRP. I wonder if this was special, as I’m sure it was a Seaforth owner who told me about the shot.

Anyway, we’re here for the winter. It’s not Seté but, being only 200km away, has the same weather (perhaps 1-2°C cooler). To be fair we were having trouble finding a winter berth so it has fitted in quite nicely. Seté is fully booked for winter berths but I am on a reserve list. I am “sure to be fitted in” at Cap d’Agde after 15th November, so the nice lady Capitan told me, but nothing is concrete. I’d begun the search in late August, and rung all eight marinas in the Seté area – each one was a “non” to a winter berth. Staying in the canals was an option, but one I didn’t relish. According to most of the stink-boat owners we have spoken to on the way down, all the better places on the Canal du Midi are reserved by the Spring. So Valence is our winter home. To be honest, after 1031km and 224 locks, we’re both looking forward to the long lie-ins!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Auxonne to Lyon

 What a find – a ‘normal’ marina at a beautiful old French town! Made even better by the fact that it only opened 4 months earlier and is managed by an English couple. Roy and Carole are a very knowledgeable couple. They not only hauled goods up and down the Saône/Rhone for many years, but they live on one in the marina. Port Royal, as the marina is called, is part of the ever-increasing H2O company who have a few other ‘marina’s’, including the one at the centre of the French boaters world at St Jean-de-Losne. Port Royal has all the amenities together with toilets/showers on a small barge. Auxonne is a lovely riverside town, complete with Army barracks, and has a large superstore and DIY store (Intermarché & Bricomarché) the other side of town (15 minutes walk).

Auxonne public quay with the marina further along.

On Thursday 11th August, we moved on to St Jean-de-Losne passing through Auxonne lock. The upper Saône locks are larger than those on the canal we had just left, probably four-times larger, but the drop was only 2metres or so. They operate on the same pushrod system but are manned by a dedicated lock-keeper. The passage to St Jean was 19km with one lock. I had been expecting some assistance with tide and found it was running at about 2km/hr (1 knot). Our 8km/hr in the flat water of the canals became 10km/hr on the river at the same engine revs. 15km/hr (8kn) is the speed limit in this upper section, but I am more than happy travelling at 10km/hr (5.4kn) over the ground.

The arrival at St Jean’s was greeted with a public quay lined with bars and café’s, all sporting colourful umbrellas to shade the open-air tables above the quayside. The quay was full of all types of boats but we were intending to go into the marina behind the main town. We finally found a berth in amongst the hoard of boats and tied up. 19km and 1 lock.
The H2O marina at St Jean-de-Losne

Many of the boaters we had spoken too had told us about St Jean’s, and indeed, most of them had winter berths there. It is central for the canal system and up and down the Saône making it the ideal location. The town itself has a history of being the ‘bargeman’s capital’, serving as a centre for the commercial péniches in times gone by. It is located on the junction of the Saône and Canal de Bourgogne. The entrance to the marina is off the canal and opens out into a large basin. The canal side of the basin is dominated by Blanquarts which is still a thriving péniche/boat repair business. Boats of all kinds, all sizes, in all states of repair in and out of the water. H2O have their massive marina on the town-side and a large hire-boat company ‘Le Boat’ have the northern end of the basin.

We stayed six days at St Jean, the weather was glorious (30’s again), the people friendly and helpful (many speaking English), and it was just nice to bask in the atmosphere of French working-boat history.

On Wednesday 17th August. We left St Jean and made our way downstream to a small halte at Suerre (28km and 1 lock), located a short way past the Suerre Lock. This lock marked the change not only in the increasing size but the regulation to wear life-jackets to be worn The days were continuing to be hot and as a result, that night we were treated to a wonderful thunderstorm overhead and heavy rain. Pity it didn’t clear the air as it remained hot and humid. We moved on the following day to travel the 45km (and 1 lock) to the port du plaisance at Chalon-sur-Saône. Another fascinating place as the port is situated behind a large island in the middle of the river. Beside the port was a large retail park with everything at hand, and Carrefour. Again, hot days with thunderstorms at night.

Saturday 20th August saw us travel the 30km, and 1 lock, to Tournus. The guide says there is a new 160m pontoon, so we were hoping for an easy berth, but we found it choc-a-bloc with hire boats. The alternative was the public quay, which was also full, but a kindly Dutch holiday péniche allowed us to raft alongside for the night. We moved on the following day to travel the 29km (no locks) to Macon. After the gusty and wet entrance to Auxonne, the weather for the past fortnight had been glorious but getting hotter during the day. The 30°C or so was generally bearable with the slight breeze caused by our movement, but now the temperatures were on the way up. The forecast was for 38°C for the next few days so we decided to sit it out at the large port du plaisance at Mâcon. Lucky for us we did, as the sweltering heat with no cooling wind was overbearing. It was a relief to be told that the temperatures were not normal, as the locals were suffering just as much in the heat wave. Macon was notable for another reason – our very first stern-to berth. I must admit it was not expected when we turned into the port and I had that colly-wobble you get when you have to try something for the first time. Yes, I’d read up about it and in my mind knew exactly what to do but, having to do first-hand…..mmmm! As it happens these were the type that you tie onto a buoy and go astern to the pontoon. Somehow, it went problem-free -  Sno’ Rush behaved like a perfect lady, not once but twice, as the Capitan wanted us to move berths. He took our stern lines on the second occasion and even remarked how well we moored up. A proud moment for us all, particularly when we watched the locals make complete hashes of their attempts at mooring.

On Wednesday 24th August we slipped the mooring and headed back out onto the Saône. After 43km and 1 lock we found a solitary riverside pontoon that was the halte at Jassans-Riottier. A holiday péniche and small motorboat were already moored leaving plenty of room for us to tie up. A pleasant surprise was the free electricity and water. Strange how some of the French rural areas do that, I presume it’s to attract customers to spend at the local shops. Jassans is a small town in the shadow of its neighbour on the opposite bank, the much larger Villefranch-sur-Saone. We didn’t venture over the bridge, just being content having a meal, wandering around and finding a Carrefour close-by.

The sun sets over the pontoon at Jassans-Riottier

We left the following morning to travel down the Saône and to the big city of Lyon. I must admit we enjoyed the travelling on fresh flowing water, watching the riverbank scenery and riverside life pass by, all under a warming sun and cooling breeze. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy the day. The Saône seems to have worked its magic on us both.

The widening Saône stretches out before us.

The approach to Lyon is spectacular. The Saône, which has its path blocked by Massif Central, meanders below the foothills until it finally merges with the Rhone. Lyon grew around this point way back in history and now spreads down the slopes of the hills, over the land between the two rivers and then over the plain that leads towards the Alps. The approach along the river reminded me of Paris, with its twists and turns and innumerable bridges between firstly, the residential part and then the commercial town centre. What it didn’t have was the hustle and bustle of Paris - far more enjoyable, even though we still had to dodge the odd péniche and passenger boat. In the past, there has been no official mooring places at Lyon, boaters having to risk a dubious mooring somewhere on the quayside that runs through the city, or stopping at halte’s before or after it. In recent years, Lyon have invested heavily in the Confluence, or spit where the Saône joins the Rhone, and within the water sports area is a small, but well equipped marina. After a journey of 39km and 1 lock we tied up in the midst of ultra-modern architecture, apartments one side and conference centres on the other.
The new halte at Lyon

We stayed more than a week at Lyon exploring the city. An absolutely fascinating place with its mix of historic and modern buildings. Its transport systems are incredible – a railway, tramway, metro, trolley bus and normal bus system all interlinking at various points throughout the city. I could go on and on…. But I must just add that the views are stunning, on a clear day the view from the Basilica on the hill overlooking the city is awe-inspiring – our first view of Mont Blanc and the Alps.
Lyon, with the Alps in the distance.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chaumont to Auxonne

This last section of canal before the Saône comprises of travelling up the remaining part of the hill, through the Bellesme Tunnel, then down the other side, a total of 128km and 70 locks – we’re not really to look forward to it but at least we will exchange stagnant canals for flowing river water, a sort of milestone that is keeping our spirits up.

Chaumont Port

Chaumont was one of France’s big defensive cities built on a hill overlooking the surrounding land. It is only around 5km from the halte but all up-hill to walk. We took a bus to have a look around and when there, was pleasantly surprised at the views it gave. The halte itself is not expensive at €7 per night and provides all the services needed. But all these services come at a price extra to the bill. Water, electricity, showers, washing and drying machines are all separately billed and our three night stay cost us €45.30. Still it was pleasant enough, and with LeClerc’s a twenty-minute walk away, we couldn’t complain. Wifi was a problem, I could connect but it kept dropping out every few seconds – no one knows why.

We left Chaumont on Monday 1st August 2011, and travelled the 10km to the first lock at Luzy to be met by our friendly VNF lads. Apparently another boat was some distance behind and they wanted us to wait for it to catch up. The VNF are very reluctant to allow single boats through the locks for the obvious reason of water shortages. I’d heard from a fellow boatie that the Bourgogne Canal had been closed a few weeks earlier due to low water levels on the canal - he had to change his route to along our canal. Anyway, the second boat was going to take an hour or so to catch us up so we entered the lock, tied up and took lunch. A lovely moment, the sun just peering over the lock wall onto us and a waterfall cascading over the top of the up-lock gates providing a cooling back-drop, very feng shui!

Lunch in Luzy Lock

We continued in convoy throughout the day and stopped at Rolamport for the night, 29km done with 15 locks. The following day we set off at 0900 hrs to make our way to the last up-hill halte at Langrés. Only 10km and 7 locks but it was another hot and sunny day. Langres is another hill-fort similar to Chaumont. Another bus ride took us to the walled city and the spectacular views of the surrounding land. From the ramparts a noticeboard pointed the way to the Bellesme Tunnel way off in the distance (at the foot of the hills, below the pylon). Langres, or Champigny-Langres as the halte is called, is the last halte on the up-side – only one more up-lock to go, whoopee!

The view from Langres ramparts – Bellesme Tunnel is at the foothills, centre.

At 1000 hours the following morning, we left Langres to tackle the last up-lock then follow the reach to the tunnel and start the long downward wind. However, the last lock turned out to be more memorable than we thought as we had a bit of trouble getting out of it. The lock cycled through to fill but failed to open the gates to let us out. We waited, and waited, and waited until it was obvious something was wrong. After all the days with the VNF lads with us, today, at an automatic lock, not a sole around! I rang the VNF mobile but no one answered. I went to the lock-keepers hut and used the intercom but no one answered. I pressed the fill button on the remote again but nothing happened. I tried the mechanical lift rods, just in case one was stuck, but nothing happened. I was running out of ideas to contact the VNF – and then I saw the alarm button on the remote. This is a situation for the alarm surely, so I pressed it. A loud clunk came from the two lock gates and the alarm light flashed on the indicator poles – at last something worked. I then went back to the intercom and someone answered. I told the woman of the problem which she seemed to understand and she told me to wait until for someone to arrive. Lo and behold, ten minutes later, a VNF lady that we met the previous day arrived. She tried various things but seemed dumbfound at being unable to open the gates. Then, out of the blue three vans arrived together in a screech of tyres on the dirt path. One of them, obviously the boss man from the noise he was making, came to us and, I think, began telling me off about something, certainly he wasn’t happy with me, waving his arms and talking loudly. I was now getting the impression that I should not have pressed the alarm button, as this clearly brought in the life brigade. After much, finger-pointing, moaning, cable-checking, walking to and fro, handle-turning etc., the ‘response team’ (I guess) got the gates to open. The boss man had calmed down by then, I think he realised that I had caught his drift and accepted his admonishment. We parted cheerfully, but I left the lock far quicker than I usually do!

Bellesme Tunnel was a few kilometres down the canal. It is 4.82km long, lit throughout and operates on a traffic-light system. We saw a péniche exit the tunnel and a boat enter as we rounded the bend towards it. Unfortunately the lights turned to red before we got near and we had to wait an hour until another péniche came out of the tunnel. We were then allowed to enter. I remember this tunnel as, about half-way through, Hil suddenly burst into song. I thought she’d hurt herself on something but apparently she was singing a love song to me. The Dutchman’s insanity had finally worked its miracle on Hil!

We were aiming to stop at one of two halte’s on the down-side before the myriad of locks, but found them both full. Rather than enter the sequence of six automatic locks, we tied up on a bank side somewhere in the middle of nowhere (well actually at PK 175 but no one would know).Another 26km and 17 locks done.

When we woke up on Thursday 4th, both Hil and I felt done in. Although this down stretch was shorter and had fewer locks, they were a metre or two deeper and after all the up-locks we’d gone through we decided to have a break for a day or two. We travelled the first series of locks to Cusey Halte and settled in to chill out. Only 7km but 7 locks today.

Cusey Halte

Cusey was a nice place, once again miles from any serious inhabitation but it did have its own chip shop. Yes, a real, live, on-site static caravan fitted out to serve a range of meals based on chicken kebab and chips. What I didn’t know was that on Friday nights this was THE place to be, as the place was heaving with locals – all good fun though.

On Saturday 6th August we left Cusey and trundled our way down the canal. After the past few days of good weather, the heavens opened after lunch so we moored up at a one-boat quay to sit it out. Saint Seinne/Vingeante was supposed to be a picnic halte but obviously the locals didn’t pursue their plans. Only the short concrete quay was there. The rain persisted so we stayed there overnight.

We wanted to finish with the canals, so the following day we put a spurt on to get to the Saône. We left at 1000 hours and 16 locks later at 1700, passed out of the canals onto the Saône at Hueilley sur Saône. We’d hardly seen a boat since Cusey so wondered what it would be like. We soon found out as we waited in the first Saône lock, a motor boat, speedboat and hire boat joined us to drop down into the river Saône proper. The short distance to Pontailler opened our eyes to the Sunday evening pandemonium on the river. Pontailler is the only marina in the vicinity so everyone heads towards it. It is also the tourist hot spot and attracts fast boats and water skiers - a bit of a shock from the desolate canals! After queuing to get into the marina, we rapidly lost water inside and skimmed the bottom. The second ‘skim’ was on something solid so we backed out the entrance channel and rafted against an empty boat. It wasn’t empty for long – the owner quickly arrived and gave us the big heave-ho! Back outside on the river the only other mooring place was the public quay which we found was not much deeper than our draft. This became clear when a speedboat passed us and we dropped onto something solid. Luckily, we managed to keep a metre or so away from the quay with a ‘fenders/fender board/fenders’ concoction that gave us a bit more depth. As evening was drawing in, the traffic on the river went quiet so we had an uneventful, but nevertheless worrying night. 31km travelled with 17 locks.
The public quay at Pontailler-sur-Saone

It was clear that we could stay alongside the quay so we left the following morning to find a berth further downriver. I had seen in the Fluviacarte Guide that there was a public quay at Auxonne but whether it was better than that at Pontailler, I couldn’t find out. As it happens, we rounded the bend into Auxonne to find a brand, spanking new marina just waiting for us. Blow the high winds and rain, this place is where we are to spend the next few days!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Vitry-le-François to Chaumont

Vitry-le-Francois is at the crossroads of three canals, predominantly the commercial one connecting Paris to the Rhine and Germany, but also connecting two centres to the Saône, Rhone and the southern French seaports. These days, the route south has lost most of its commercial importance although some péniches do make the journey. It is this route that we shall be following.

We arrived at Vitry on Saturday evening and decided to stay an extra day, continuing the journey on Monday. I can’t work out whether Vitry is a small city or large town. Certainly it has a large conurbation, but its centre-ville is only small, and on Sunday there are few shops open. The glamorous Capitainieré, in good English, had pointed out a number of shops local to the port, a Supermarché, a LeClerc’s, a MacDonald’s for wifi etc, but failed to say they were all closed on Sundays. Sunday morning saw us walking aimlessly around the local area looking at closed shops. There were few people about, but those who were carried baguettes so a boulangerie was open somewhere close. A darling old lady took pity on us and led us across town to the only shops open, a bakers, a butchers, a SuperU supermarket and café/bars. Both Hil and I were puffed at the speed she walked – what a remarkable old lady.

Vitry-le-François centre-ville.

We returned to the boat and spent a lazy Sunday afternoon doing nothing much more exciting than reading, sudoku and generally enjoying the day.

The following morning, we warped out Sno’ Rush’s stern into the open area of the unused pontoons and easily made out of the port. We were now going over the last hill before the Saône. This final canal is not only the longest on our route, but the most heavily locked. It is 224km long with 71 locks up to the central plateau at 340m above sea-level, a 4.8km tunnel and 43  locks going down to Heuilley-sur-Soane where it joins the upper Saône. The facts are a bit daunting, especially when we had not yet found an easy way to tackle the locks. Still, it is the last canal and that is was drove us forward. There aren’t many stopping places marked on our guide, in fact only two for its entire length, St. Dizier and Chaumont. Luckily, the lock-keeper at Châlons-sur-Marne had given us a booklet detailing the canal and its stopping places. This canal was formerly known as the Canal de la Marne a la Saône but has recently been renamed as the Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne (the canal between Champagne and Bourgogne). I guess there has been an advertising campaign to promote the regions wine producing areas as the pamphlet was subtitled ‘the enchanted canal’. We found this guide particularly useful to plan our day-to-day travel.

On Monday 1st August, we travelled the 30km and 14 locks to St Dizier. The Châlons lock-keeper had also given us a ‘télécommande’ (remote control) to operate the locks and this was particularly useful as now filling the lock was a button-press on the remote. No jostling for position near the push/pull bars made life much easier as we could chose the best position in the lock and just sit tight while she was lifted up. St. Dizier was a disappointment though. We motored straight past it at first, but, not finding any bollards or mooring place up to the next lock, had to return. It is long quay, with bollards, next to a large car park in the town, and nothing like the picture in the pamphlet. I get the feeling that in typical French fashion, all is not as it seems. Failing it’s scenic beauty, it was quiet night and, as we found the following morning, only five minutes walk to the centre of the town and supermarkets.

St. Dizier (couldn’t resist a picture of that cloud).

On Tuesday 26th July we left St. Dizier and travelled 32km and 13 locks to Joinville. We were now encountering swing-bridges across the canal that automatically sensed our presence and lifted to allow us through. It was usually a short wait for us, longer for the cars waiting to use the bridges. The canal itself was much cleaner and we could actually see the mud on the bed either side of the boat. Whether this was the recent rain or not I have no idea but it was distinctly different to the usual muddy-brown stuff we’d been travelling through up until now. We were certainly back into the farmland area with cereals and sunflowers growing behind the tree-lined canal. The land was also becoming more undulating. We hadn’t noticed this gradual change in landscape until we rounded a bend before Bussy Lock. What confronted us was something we had not envisaged. I had to take a picture.

Bussy Lock

Now we knew that we were really heading away from suburbia.

Joinville lock was not much further away from Bussy, after which was a lovely, wooden quay nautical stopping point as described in the pamphlet. As we left the lock, we saw a boat moored and, on drawing closer, saw the halte was much shorter than its photograph depicted. A British couple were already berthed there and enjoying the early evening sunshine. They helped by taking our lines and after settling in we chatted for some times. There were no charges for berthing, only for electricity usage (by kilowatt) and a small charge for a wifi connection. It was a beautiful spot and we had an excellent overnight stay. Before turning in, we had a visit from a VNF official. He wanted to know when and what time we were leaving. It appears that from this point onward, some of the locks and low-level bridges were manually operated and he wanted to arrange our passage. We told him we were making for Froncles the following day and he said that he would arrange for someone to travel with us to operate the locks and bridges. Our twenty-year-old Fluviacarte mentions this but I didn’t believe it was still current practice.

The following morning we were charged €2 for the electricity and €1 for the wifi. As we pulled away, we wondered whether we should stay an extra day with Angus and Pamela. Strangely, as we rounded the bend to the next lock another mooring quay came into view. This one however, had a large VNF sign showing ‘Joinville Halte Nautique’. It appears that our ‘Joinville’, was an enterprising individual cashing in on local demand. Good for him, as we were well pleased with our nights’ stay and the official halte was ominously empty of boats. It took us five hours to travel the 23km and 9 locks to Froncles, a very picturesque Nautical Halte. It also doubled-up as a motor home ‘halte’. Electricity and water pods were on the quayside with showers and toilets in the Capitainieré.

The Halte Nautique at Froncles.

The VNF man paid us a visit late in the afternoon. In our pigeon-English conversation, we understood that a number of locks and bridges ahead of us were manually operated. In order to save water, we had to follow a holiday péniche into the locks that would be operated by VNF staff. We had to give a time of departure so that he could plan the passage of all the boats using the locks that day. We went to bed that night wondering what was in store for us.

At 1100 hours the following day, the péniche ambled past us right on queue. We recognised it as the one we had seen at Vitry. I call it a holiday péniche as is was similar in construction but I guess it is correctly called a Dutch barge, particularly as it was flying a Dutch ensign. He was dawdling at around 6km/hr, which is a little above our tick-over speed, making slow progress. The first lock was already open for us and we both entered – carefully, but with sufficient room between us. The VNF chap was there with a couple of lads and mopeds. We had seen moped-riding teenagers buzzing up and down the towpaths on previous days and not really took any notice. A we later found out, these are the ‘Vacancieres’ – kids employed by The VNF during their summer holidays to do all the ‘dirty work’, and this meant winding the lock gates open and closed and cranking the paddles (to allow the water in or out) up and down. Not a good job on a hot summers day. Two lads accompanied us on their mopeds for the whole day. From what I could see, the locks on this section were only now being automated.

We carried on for a few locks, meeting pairs of oncoming boats, and all seemed to be going according to plan. But then we started waiting at locks - for a working péniche travelling in front of us to lift and clear the lock and then oncoming boats to enter and fall to our side. Having to wait more than an hour was becoming tiresome. Our objective was the port at Chaumont, which should have been easily achievable but as the day drew on, it seemed more than likely that we wouldn’t make it. Later on in the day, the Dutch barge moored up and we waited for a posh French motorboat to join us in the locks. We were following the péniche by this stage and he was travelling no faster than 4km/hr. It becomes very weary travelling on tick-over then coasting to avoid getting too close to the boat ahead, and péniches really churn the water up. Two locks before Chaumont, the Vacancieres announced that we wouldn’t make the port as they finish at 1800 hours. The lock we were in would be the last they operated that day. The French couple were not impressed as they wanted to go further, and pointed out that the locks should close at 1900 hours. They were met with dumb silence, which, in any language means ‘tough’! Fortunately, Hil had spotted a disused silo quay on our fluviacarte so we knew we had a berth for the night. As we left the lock the boys arranged to meet us the following morning at the next lock. We motored out and up the reach towards the silo a few bends away. As we rounded the second bend, I looked back to see the French couple in the distance attempting to moor up on the canal side – not a place I’d have chose, but there you are. We moored against the silo quay and bedded down for the night. In nearly eight hours we had passed through 9 locks and travelled 24km only to run out of time. Chaumont was only 1km away on the other side of the lock. To make matters worse, the péniche ahead of us was allowed to pass through the lock  – what a day!

We woke up the following morning to a thick mist surrounding us. The lock was barely visible at ½ km away. The French couple came alongside shortly before our pre-arranged 0900 meeting time and, as the gates to the lock were opening for us, began to moor up on the quay ahead of us. The impeccably dressed pair from the day before now looked rather dishevelled as they left their boat and walked towards the lock. We carried on down and entered the lock which closed behind us. The boys told us the French couple were walking to a supermarket behind a short distance away. Obviously they had changed their minds about going through the lock – or was it just a case of bloody-mindedness. Anyway, that was the last we saw of them as when we got to Chaumont port we went straight back to bed.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reims to Vitry-le-François.

We didn’t spend too long at Reims for two reasons. The first being that we had promised our grand-children that we would have them for a couple of weeks in August. We had promised this when our initial plan was to blast down to Seté but our slow speed made that arrangement a non-starter. The new plan was to have them when we got to the Saône and spend a few weeks with them there. To do that we needed to step up a gear, or two, as we hadn’t really got out of first gear. The second reason was that a cheaper and far nicer port was only a short distance down the canal. Friends had recommended Sillery to us and we wanted to see if it lived up to its reputation. At 1030 hours on Thursday 21st July we left Reims to travel the 10km and 4 locks to the Port du Pleasance at Sillery. 2½ hours later, tied up to British-style pontoons, we weren’t disappointed. Although the rain on the way down had dampened our spirits, the sight of Sillery, located in a wide bend of the canal, and its long pontoons jutting out from the bank and boats tied up beam-on to the bank soon raised them. Although crowded (with many British boats), a berth loomed out in front of us and we just drifted into it. Sillery was up to expectation, with all the facilities of Reims but at €8.40 per night. And then the sun came out to make it a very pleasant afternoon. A short stroll around the area found shops offering all the basic needs.

With our new-found vigour, we left Sillery the following morning to travel through three locks up to the summit (at 96m), pass through the Mont-de-Billy tunnel (2.3km long) and then down a series of eight locks to Condé-sur-Marne (a total distance of 24km). Condé is a Port du Pleasance formed from a widening in the canal near to its junction with the Canal lateral a la Marne and is comprised of finger pontoons very tightly packed together with electric/water pods at the head of each berth. Typically designed for shorter, shallower and more manoeuvrable pleasure boats, we found it difficult to take one of the inside berths between the live-aboards already moored there. We were greeted by one of the British residents there who gave us the ‘low down’ about the place. He and his wife had been at Condé for eight years and used it as a base to tour the canal system. They were very informative and above all, a very pleasant couple. The village is a 10-minute walk away and has the usual bread/cake shop and bar/tabac. We popped in the bar/tabac for a coffee and found that it was also a hotel and restaurant of, lets say, meagre means. It was run by a middle-aged woman and two young girls that followed her around wherever she went. Indian-file springs to mind. By here appearance they were grand-children or nieces helping out in their summer holidays as she took time to show them what she was doing. The only patrons of the place were a group of Australians who we recognised from Sillery. As we chatted they told us they were moored near to us at the port. We spent the rest of the sunny afternoon chatting with them. As we were leaving, Hil noticed that the lady was offering evening meals and, since it was too hot to cook (as Hilary said) we booked a ‘plate de jour’ for the evening. As it happens, the Ozzies had done the same so that when we returned at seven o’clock, the small restaurant was soon bristling with eight people. This was a meal we shall not forget. A starter of home-made quiche lorraine, a main course of boiled chicken in butter sauce with two veg and couscous, bread and cheese, a sweet comprising of a chunk of possibly chocolate brownie with another chunk of soft meringue on a custard base, all followed by coffee and a large flute of the local sweet champagne. Superb value at €18 each. All eaten on one knife, fork and spoon and served by very polite children. And of course there was the banter, started by the Ozzies but soon to spread throughout the room. By the end of the evening, everyone was laughing and joking and strangely being able to understand each others’ language – I blame the champagne! As I say, a night to remember.

The following morning when we went to pay our €7 berthing fee, we were told, quite politely, that the book was full and we didn’t have to pay. A full receipt book was produced and it appears that without a receipt, no money could be paid. The man had a large grin on his face as he told us so I’m not sure really what was going on. But, as the man says, no receipt, no pay. We didn’t argue, and gingerly manoeuvred out off the berth.

A short distance away was the Canal lateral a Marne where we again turned east and headed towards Vitry-le-François where our last canal before the Saône started. This was a lovely warm sunny day and the trip, although not scenic was enjoyable. This canal is the direct link between Paris and the upper Saône and follows the River Marne where, in its upper reaches, has been widened into a canal. The ‘canalised’ section is the one we were travelling and its long straight stretches between locks soon identified it as being constructed later in the networks history. It took us 7½ hours that day to travel the 48km and 11 locks to Vitry.
 The Port du Pleasance at Vitry-le-François

The port du pleasance at Vitry is another designed for the smaller craft. Located in an un-used section of the old canal, the finger pontoons are on one side, leaving access from the main branch down the side of the cut to moor bows-to in the berths. It’s a bit tight and a it short of water but, as we found, accessible if took cautiously. My only concern was that there would be enough room to warp the stern round to get back out – we’ll see!

Chauny to Reims

On Saturday 16th July we left Chauny and travelled the short distance to enter the Canal de l’Oise à l’Aisne. This would take us up to the Souterrain du Braye and then down to Bourg et Comin and onto Canal à L’Aisne. Again the scenery wasn’t that spectacular, and now the warm weather had left us with grey skies and showery rain. We were heading for an overnight halte called Pargny Filain which was 35km and 9 locks way from Chauny. About halfway the skies darkened and it pelted down with rain. Luckily, Sno’ Rush has both interior and exterior helming positions so we quickly changed over. What a dreary time it is ambling along with the rain pounding on the coach roof! Made even worse when you have to go back outside to helm when a péniche comes towards you. It stayed like that for most of the day, however we did stop off at a place called Pinon, a picnic halte that had a large Carrefour behind it – civilisation at last!

The rain was still bucketing down when we arrived at Pargny Filain. The halte consisted of a pontoon suitable for about three boats, an electrical pod with two plug-in points and a water tap. Unfortunately three boats were already moored up with another rafted, so we rafted against a steel motorboat that looked as if it had been left there for some time. Two of the boats had connected together to use one socket whilst the cable from the other trailed off towards the bank. A plug was loose on the ground and was clearly coming from the abandoned boat. I asked the third boat about the supply but he wasn’t connected and didn’t know whose the single cable was. I then wondered whether that cable was supplying the rather large péniche that was moored someway further along the bank. I always thought they were self sufficient with their own generators – anyway we’ll soon find out. I took my 2-in-1 connector to the pod, unplugged the single cable then plugged it all back in to share the supply. It was the péniches supply as I saw three heads pop up and look directly at me from then deckhouse. No shout of abuse or anything, so I just waved to them and went back to our boat, fully expecting a knock on the hull. I thumbed through our French phrasebook to get my argument together, but no one came.

The following day it became clear that the péniche was a liveaboard, but, even though the occupants were around and about, no one came to speak to me about the electricity. In fact no one came to see us about the mooring charges either even though they were clearly displayed at €7 per night on a display board. I guess that whoever took charge of the halte had been driven off by the rain and didn’t work Sunday’s. As morning turned to afternoon, the sun came out and the place took on a far more hospitable ambiance, even though it was in the middle of nowhere. We took a short walk along a nearby road but, other than a crossroads, a few houses and a closed warehouse of some sort there was nothing. Nevertheless, the warm sun made the afternoon rather pleasant.

Monday morning saw us cast off and head towards the l’Oise entrance to the Braye tunnel. This is the high point of this section being only a small hill at 66km above sea-level. The tunnel is almost 2½km long, and lit throughout its length. Again, it is operated on a traffic light system which seems to work well as we encountered no problems at all. I wondered if the slow progress through these tunnels would evoke some base, claustrophobic instinct but, I’m glad to say I had no reaction at all. I think the wonderment of how these places were dug overcame any fears of that kind. We left the tunnel and began the short descent through 3 locks to Bourg-et-Comin. Here the canal joins the Canal lateral à l’Aisne at a ‘T’ junction and since we were not heading towards Paris, as all canals in this area seem to, we turned East toward a halte marked on the VNF guide at Maizy, only 6km away. Well, the halte wasn’t there. It may have been some years ago but it isn’t any more. Luckily, on this section there are no locks, so we carried on to the next halte marked at Berry-au-Bac, a further 14km away. Had the canal banks been anything other than overgrown and totally unsuitable for mooring, I’d have tied up sooner as the showers had started again. It was becoming a long day.

Berry-Au-Bac is another ‘T’ junction where the Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne starts its southerly track, leaving the main canal to head off towards Belgium. When we arrived there we mistook the halte for a lock waiting area (no signs) and went through the automatic locks onto the l’Aisne à la Marne still looking for somewhere to tie up. What we found was a large section of canal bank with péniche bollards outside a granary silo. A péniche was being loaded but behind him there were two bollards just the right length for us. Having done 6hours, 6 locks and 35km, we plumped for this opportune mooring. Well, it seemed opportune at the time and watching the péniche being loaded with tons of fresh wheat was intriguing. What I hadn’t considered is that the quay had spilled wheat grains along its length, which obviously attracts all the little beasties. We found out the following morning when Hil opened the door to the deck. The sight of a dozen earwigs scampering around made her freeze. She doesn’t like earwigs, neither do I, but someone had to kill them. It must have been a odd sight, me jigging around the deck trying to squash the little horrors! We cast off as soon as no more could be seen.

Due to the forced (and energetic) early start, we decided to make for Reims, 24km away, and have a few days there. This meant going up 6 locks and would make for another long day but, for all that, we were now back on the charts. Our Fluviacarte guide for the Champagne Ardennes region charts our journey from Berry-au-Bac to Pontailler-sur-Sone, and the end of the canals. The journey to Reims was uneventful apart from the occasional flurry of earwig stamping. More had boarded overnight than we had thought and were settling in all sorts of places. They had even ousted the spiders from the stanchion guard rail holes. Hil tackled the cull on these by pulling the guard rail to one side to crush them, each successful kill accompanied by a squeal of joy.

It soon became clear we were entering the suburbs of Reims when the scenery changed from rural woodland to urban concrete. Disused warehouses and works, graffiti-covered bridges, allotments, all the outer trimmings of a big city. Just before the centre we had noticed a Commercial Centre in the guide and when we passed by, part of it was a purpose built péniche loading port, some years old now but still working in a smaller capacity. Some twenty péniche loading bays and associated warehousing and storage trailing back from the quays. In its heyday it must have been tremendous. Only four or five péniches were loading when we passed.

 The postcard view of Reims Cathedral

Reims Port du Pleasance, or Halte Relais as it calls itself, is a larger version of Chauny with finger pontoons from a quay wall. It has electricity & water pods on the quay by the pontoons and a Capitainieré nearby with toilets and showers (locked when he goes home – of course). I have no idea why but the rates are high at €30 for two nights (including two showers). We spent that evening and the whole of the following day in Reims, exploring the city and re-stocking supplies from the local Carrefour.

St. Quentin to Chauny

On Tuesday 12th July we left St. Quentin to travel down the Canal Du St. Quentin to its ‘T’ junction with the Canal lateral à l’Oise (to Paris) and the Canal de la Sambre à l’Oise (to Belgium). Here is the small town of Chauny with, as noted in the guide, a port du pleasance. I must admit that since Cambrai I have had no up-to-date fluviacarte to guide me in this, the Picardie area. You cannot by them for love or money, so at Cambrai, I downloaded the VNF version which is current, but very basic. VNF, or Voies Navigables de France, is the French Waterways Authority who regulate, maintain and licence craft on all the canals. It is from them that you have to buy a ‘vignette’, or licence, allowing your use of the canals. I suppose what could be free mooring for 12 months at around €248.90 is not that bad.

We arrived at Chauny after around 6hours, having travelled 40km and down 13 locks. The canal itself wasn’t that interesting, mostly being tree-lined with only a few pleasant villages. We have found that most of these canals, those that allow the péniches to and fro’ are more workmanlike than picturesque.

Chauny port du pleasance was on the canal bank and had finger pontoons perpendicular to the quay, so that boats moored bow or stern-to the quay. It catered for perhaps a couple of dozen boats and had a building that housed the Capitainieré, showers/toilets and boat repair workshop. It had electricity, water, wifi and a small hoist. Basic shops were nearby with the main town a 20-minute walk away.

 Chauny Port du Pleasance

We had intended to stop for two nights but, once moored up, realised that the 14th July was a Fete National or public holiday, one of the biggest in France’s diary – Bastille Day. Fireworks began late on the evening of Wednesday and carried on throughout the day. I hazard a guess that the local council had employed a group to wander around the area setting off Chinese firecrackers. It sounded as if this was the case as the noise was continuous but moved all around the area. I can picture it being a reminder of the peasants firing flintlocks in the revolt. There were events in the town that we missed. A local café owner told us on the afternoon of that day that there had been a live band in the centre-ville the previous evening with more events planned throughout then day and dancing on the evening. On the quayside, other than the firecrackers, the only event occurring was an afternoon dance at a hall some 3-4 km along the canal. We sat the day out on the boat.

We had intended to move off on the Friday but, after my most embarrassing moment yet, decided to spend a further night on the free public quay opposite the port du pleasance. I have to own up to getting stuck in the mud – good and proper! Sno’ Rush prop-walks to the port in astern. I have taken the easy option and moored bows-to in the berth. As we came out of the berth, her stern turned towards the direction we intended to go so, rather than turn in the middle of the canal in a series of forward and astern moves, I decided to make a nice 360° turn in one move. Well it was easy enough as the canal was rather wide, and had I turned further down it would have been no problem, but I chose a place near to where the moorings finished not knowing that it had silted up quite badly and I ploughed my port keel right into the stuff. The assured way of extracting oneself didn’t work. Slow astern only served to turn me broadside to the canal bank and even deeper into the  sticky stuff. I then went for the power cycle – full ahead and full astern. Nothing, except to surround me in a whirling mess of muddy water. I think that both keels had dug in to some extent as no more movement could be had, but at least my stern was now away from the end of the moorings. Shifting weight didn’t work. Nor did winching from the protruding moorings. Two of the local boat owners were offering advice – something like ’I wouldn’t have done that’ or similar, although one did jump into his boat and try to pull us out. No such luck, his engine was far too small, but at least he tried and I was grateful. So we sat it out until a larger boat passed. After an hour or so sitting conspicuously on the canal (it felt as if the whole of Chauny were peeking through their curtains at us), an unsuspecting Belgium holiday péniche came ambling towards us. He saw immediately what our situations was and took our line to give us a bow pull. After three attempts, Sno’ Rush nose dived then pulled free. Our lurch forward obviously worried the crew as they cut the tow line to save it fouling their prop (my best 30m rope cut in half, but it was well worth it). We both moored on the public quay and they later accepted a couple of bottles of wine with a large fruit tart as a token of our gratitude. Hil and I stayed on the quay overnight, the days events being far too stressful (in embarrassment) to continue further.

The following day we set off towards the Canal de l’Oise à l’Aisne and the Souterrain du Braye.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

St. Quentin

The Port du Pleasance at St. Quentin is quite remarkable in that it is very similar to a ‘proper’ marina that sailors all love or hate. The port is based in a disused section of the canal and, for almost its entire length on one side, has typical French style finger-berth pontoons along it. All manner of craft were moored there from live-aboard péniches to day boats, some long-term and others short-term like us. The facilities were marina-like too, including shower/toilet block, laundry facilities and wifi. There was also a small 2.5tonne hoist for the lighter boats.

St. Quentin Port du Pleasance

Amongst the boats moored up was one that we recognised – the singing Dutchman from the Grand Souterrain. No one was aboard, but a short time later they came cycling past and instantly stopped to chat. What a lovely couple! They were wondering what had happened to us and asked what had happened. After explaining our demise, they told us that they were repeating the around trip they had done five years ago from home in Holland, through Belgium, around France then back home through Belgium. They were setting off again the following day having cycled around St. Quentin and the local churches. A sprightly pair they were.

The following day, I set to work out why my beloved engine was overheating. Nothing seemed obvious from the transom backwards – my initial idea of a rat in the swan-neck was a non-starter. I did dismantle the Vetus water-trap but this was clear. All the way back to the heat exchanger manifold was as clear. I disconnected the raw water pump and blew back through the system and found nothing untoward. I had done this a few days ago so wasn’t surprised at the result. What I hadn’t done before was check the inlet port of the pump. Yes, I found the obstruction – nine pieces of impellor blades! Three years ago an impellor broke up and, only finding half of the missing blades, I presumed they had been carried through the system and out the exhaust. No – they had lodged in the entry port between the pump guard and inlet pipe and rattled around since then. Finally they had found a configuration to all but stop the flow of cooling water. I ran the engine afterwards and had copious amounts of water spluttering out of the exhaust and no excessive temperature – problem fixed! I cannot believe I allowed myself to make the assumption they had gone through the system.

For a celebration, we took the bus to the centre-ville the following day. Only a short ride but for €1.25 for an hour (yes – done by time rather than distance) well worth it. The city is larger than Cambrai and again full of history. Tall gothic facades of buildings including the l’Hotel De Ville, church and others, surrounded the centre-ville. The central area of this quadrangle, for the most part, was a made out as a beach with tons of sand, swimming pool, slides and all those beach-like entertainments. Since the weather was superb, we stayed there until the evening and sat at one of the bistro’s enjoying a meal. At eight o’clock, the church centenary sounded, playing what I think was a short nursery rhyme. Then at a quarter past, different rhyme, and so on until nine o’clock when it reverted back to the mundane ‘dong’ again. What a wonderful evening! We noticed the following afternoon, about 3 o’clock, that it did the same - why these times I have no idea and my French was not good enough to ask.

Le Plage de St. Quentin

On Tuesday 12th July, after 5 refreshing days, we cast off and headed towards Chauny.

Cambrai to St Quentin

St Quentin is a larger town than Cambrai and has a port du pleasance. It seemed the ideal place for the next stop. It is 52km (32miles) along the canal from Cambrai but, the canal rises through 17 locks to a central plateau then falls through 5 locks to St Quentin. Although there are no locks along the 20km plateau, there are two tunnels. The Grand Souterrain, also known as Souterrain de Macquincourt, is the longest tunnel in France that still tows boats along its length. Apparently, the tunnel has inadequate ventilation, so still utilises an electric mule to tow convoys of boats, connected by 30m ropes, by drawing on a chain on the canal bed. It is 5.7km long. The Souterrain de Lesdins is much shorter at 1.1km (0.7 mile), and boats use their own power to pass through.

As we set out from Cambrai on Sunday 3rd July, I don’t think either Hil or myself had any idea how strenuous 17 up-locks over a 25km stretch was going to be. These one-péniche sized locks were proving to be a nightmare. On the approach to the locks there is often an outfall from the up-side of the lock. After carefully judging speed and direction for a nice coast to a stop in the lock, this outfall often pushed the bows over requiring quick reactions to regain control. The knock-on effect was that each time we were entering the locks our speed and position were out, and stopping Sno’ Rush in a lock, with the amount of pro walk she has, was proving difficult. The in-rush of water was also causing us some concern. After a slow start, the water raced in causing Sno’ Rush to slew about in the lock. Trying to find the most comfortable position in the lock with the inappropriate positioning of the bollards and actuation rods was becoming a seemingly impossible task. After 4hours and seven locks we gave up and tied up overnight at l’Ecluse Masnieres. The following day I was still exhausted and couldn’t face another 10 locks in the 35°C heat, so we took a day off to recuperate.

The Ecluse Masnieres – Canal du St Quentin

On Tuesday 5th, we set off at 1030 hours with new ideas on how to manage the locks. The day was still hot, but we were going to slow everything down and try different lock positions. By the time we tied up at Vendhuile at 1830 hours, we’d had two rest breaks within the remaining 10 locks and finally found some sort of position that was beginning to work. In these locks, Sno’ Rush sat better further back from the up-stream gates. Unfortunately, the access ladder was inevitably near the down-stream gates and on the opposite side of the lock to the control rods. It meant climbing the ladder and walking around the lock to operate the rods, but at least the worry of damaging the boat was reduced.

After another night on the canal side in the back-and-beyond, we rose early to take on the mighty Grand Souterrain. After a short jaunt, we knew we were close when overhead power lines, similar to those on train tracks, started overhead. A queue had already begun to form on the quayside so we moored up after the last craft. We were fourth in line after a working péniche, a live-aboard péniche with a large tiller for steering and an elderly Dutch couple in a steel motorboat. We had some idea of what to expect as we were given a leaflet by the lock keeper at Crévecoeur lock and had already prepares our ropes. As the tows were to be 30m apart, I’d joined 4 ropes to give two 35m long ropes. The Dutchman had been through five times before and freely gave advice on what to expect. I must admit, I was a bit wary as we set off at about 3km/hr (1½ knots), remembering the tales of others being slewed into the walls etc. As we entered the tunnel, I held my breath, hoping Sno’ Rush would behave herself.

 The convoy enters the Grand Souterrain

As it was, she behaved perfectly, keeping a central position without too much difficulty. The Dutchman in front had an awful job trying to maintain a middle position as the péniche in front couldn’t steer properly and, for the whole length of the tunnel, had his bows on the towpath and stern rubbing the wall. The clatter as his doghouse caught the upper walls was deafening. The tunnel was not what I expected, being illuminated throughout and with a walkway and emergency telephones. The only problem was the deluge of rain coming down the vertical air ducts, as I couldn’t steer to avoid them. Halfway through, the Dutchman, who was steering from his stern of his boat began singing. Only quietly at first, but when we waved and applauded, he turned and sang some Dutch song at the top of his voice. All tension disappeared and we laughed and joked between ourselves. At the end of the tunnel the towlines were released and drawn in leaving us to motor freely away.

A short distance away fron the exit, the two péniches waved us on so we both upped speed and overtook them. As I drew away I reduced speed and took a look over the stern to check water and engine temperature. Calamity! The white smoke/steam was a sure sign she was seriously overheating. We pulled in at a nearby mooring to let her cool down and take stock of what was happening  – the extra speed must have pushed her into the red. Mind you we must have been doing 6 knots or more – what a silly thing to do! We limped through the next section and then through the Lesdins tunnel, which was not as awe-inspiring as the Macquincourt tunnel. Lesdins is 1.1km long, lit and of the same size and configuration as its bigger brother. Entry is regulated by a light system, which was green for us. Luckily, the speed limit of 4km/hr kept our engine temperature down.

Both Hil and I noticed that the canal after Lesdins took on a completely different character to that on the uphill side. Instead of being tree and shrub lined for almost its entire length, there were large areas of open countryside providing a far more pleasant atmosphere. Little villages dotted on the canalside with the odd shop here and there, very picturesque.

After a couple of stops for cooling down, it became obvious that we wouldn’t make St Quentin, so we moored up after the third lock for the night. The quaint little village of Omissy, from which the lock took its name, was beside the canal, so after a quick shopping trip for bread and milk the following morning, we set of the pass through the remaining two locks and head for St. Quentin. Luckily, travelling at tick-over speed, we kept the temperature down which left us free to enjoy the sights of St. Quentin as we passed through the city. Looks like a more serious effort to find the overheating problem is on the cards when we reach the Port du Pleasance!


After Hil’s troubles we decided to stay in Cambrai until she was better. The hospital had prescribed tablets for a week and told her to speak to her GP with a view to having a scan on her kidneys. Fortunate really, as she was due to fly back at the end of June to visit her GP in any case. So, the die was cast and we booked a months berthing with the Capitainieré. Not bad really, as the €10 per night reduced to only €3.

The Port du Pleasance at Cambrai is lovely. If you can forget that it is really an overflow pool for the local canal (and all that comes with that), it really is a pleasant place to stay. The pool is quite large and comprises of a stone quay around one side, ending at a road bridge, and then recommencing as a grassed area towards the entrance that forms a spit between the Port and the canal. The stone quay is the mooring side and is equipped with electric pods giving 16 amps. The grassed area opposite serves as an overflow with only one pod but, when we arrived, there were four boats already on here as the main quay was lined with boats and barges, some rafted. A total of perhaps, 16 boats.

Cambrai Port du Pleasance

After spending two nights on the diesel cum water quay at the entrance (diesel here being €1.50 per litre – no I didn’t buy any, the local garage was only €1.28), we moved over the quay and rafted to plug in our electric. In time we slotted into our own quayside berth. The quayside is cobble-stoned and tree-lined. Within 30 paces of the boat is a restaurant/café, with a bar a few paces further. Within a five minute walk is an Aldi, a Lidl and a chip shop (well, fritterie) a little further. All basic amenities close at hand.

As Hil got better, we ventured further and crossed the bridge leading up into the town. A good 40-minute walk for us old ones to the centre-ville, but, as with all French city’s, it’s the place where everything can be found. I was surprised how large the place was, and how old some of the buildings were, clearly a place of history. Apparently (useless knowledge for you), Cambrai was the scene of the first WW1 tank battle, and St Gery’s church still has the bullet holes in its outer walls! We had some lovely meals in the centre-ville, and lunches, and coffee’s. I must say that steak tartar is not the same as in the UK. Having ordered what I thought was a beefsteak with a tartar sauce all over, it came back as rare-cooked, chopped beef and veggies with a topping of a raw egg! Not what I expected, but looks can be deceiving, as it tasted pretty good.

Cambrai l’Hotel de Ville

Over time British, French, Belgium and Dutch, came and went and we got to know the long-stayers quite well, particularly the Welsh barge and Scottish narrow boat. A couple of English motor boaters had over wintered in Cambrai, using their car to travel back and forth, and had a good time. They were now moving on to find another winter berth further south.

A couple of problems have cropped up while I’ve been here. Firstly, I have found that internet access by dongle is not as good as I had expected. I hadn’t changed mine to roaming (the dongle program manager said I had, but Orange disagreed), which can only be done within the UK. And, with Orange at least, the roaming data rates are vastly different, changing from £10 per Gb in the UK to £4 per Mb on roaming. Orange in France do a little better at €9 per 250 Mb, but you need a French address to purchase one – local canal won’t do. Luckily there are free wifi hotspots in the cities, in addition to the usual MacDonald’s etc. SFR (the French Vodafone) is the one I’m using (having been given the access codes) but there is a Free WiFi and Orange (if you can pick it up). I tried to register with ‘Free’ but they wouldn’t take ‘Port du Pleasance’ as an address. I intend to rely on wifi as we travel down – but this may change.

Camping Gaz is also a problem. I have always found in French ports and marinas that Gaz was most easily available. Away from the coast, the smaller sizes used by yotties are relegated to the local B & Q (Monsieur Bricolage over here), whereas the larger sizes are in abundant in variety everywhere you go, or so it seems.

You may remember that I had been having overheating problems with my engine. I was also concerned about the excessive smoke being emitted. In fact, it became a bit embarrassing, as whenever I started up, the poor boat behind disappeared in a cloudy haze. I’d been having thoughts about the problem for sometime but was struggling to find an answer, particularly as no faults were obvious in all the recent work I had done to her. I found an old printout describing injector pump faults, a leftover from the time I’d taken the pump and injectors off for servicing. In the blurb was advice on re-setting the pump timing. When I’d removed the pump, the ‘scribed line’ on the pump housing, the one obtained by special tool blah blah to set the timing, was missing. I think there had once been a riveted plate bearing this ‘scribed line’ but this had long since gone. I’d made by own mark before removal, and was now wondering whether this had been correct – perhaps the overhaul had changed the setting somehow. The method in the article suggested rotating the pump a millimetre at a time until the engine ran smoothly. Since I was at a loss to come up with an alternative solution, I decided to give it a go. Well, after several attempts, bingo! No smoke! It appears that the timing was, on my scale, 2mm advanced, so the exhaust valves were opening before combustion was complete. She even sounded spot-on. Perhaps his was the fault all along – I hope so.

Hil flew back home for the third week of June to sort out her medical appointments. We found a good deal with Flybe, but it meant taking the train to Charles de Gaulle Airport and flying to Birmingham from there. A little more expensive than the alternatives, but a much simpler (and quicker) travel-plan. Within a few days of her return, we were once again transforming the ‘caravan’ into a boat fit for the canal.

On Sunday 3rd July, we set off from Cambrai heading up the St Quentin Canal towards the Grand Souterrain – a 5.7km (3½ mile) tunnel where boats are towed, in convoy, from one end to the other!

Calais to Cambrai

Amongst the stream of boats that left Calais Marina on the morning of Saturday 28th May 2011, three mast-shipped sailing boats left the line and turned towards the Ecluse Carnot for the inland waterways. We didn’t know the boat behind us very well, Laurance and his wife, having only chatted in passing, but the last boat, with Laurie & Kate aboard, we got to know quite well over the past week, sharing thoughts over what was to come. Like us, all were heading to the Med., but at differing speeds. Laurie & Kate were all for spending the entire summer in the waterways whilst Laurance were on a mission to get South.

Ecluse Carnot is the first (or last) lock and separates the canals from the sea. It is humungous and, luckily for us, opens on a free-flow at high water. It leads into the commercial basin where, I guess, sea-going ships transfer their loads to the péniches. The second lock, Ecluse de la Batellerie is only 6m wide but 38m long, which is just the proportions of one peniche. Having had to wait for the lock-keeper to arrive, and ascertained via our pigeon-english that he was the man who would be operating the swing-bridges on that section, the three of us stayed together through the first stretch of the Canal du Calais. We passed through the six swing-bridges within Calais and waved ‘au revoir’ to the lock-keeper at Pont de Coulogne, who quickly informed us that the next swingbridge at Pont les Attaques would be opening until 1415hrs, after the lock-keeper had had his lunch. We arrived there at 1300 so, likewise stopped for lunch.

Pont du Coulogne marks the boundary of Calais from the leafy suburbia that surrounds it. The Canal du Calais is 30km long and winds it’s way down to the River Aa, which has been widenend into a canal to carry traffic from Gravelines. 5km thereafter, the l’Aa joins the mighty Liaison du Grand Gabarit which allows the péniches to carry their goods from Dunkerque to Paris, Belgium and beyond. The Grand Gabarit is the collective name of a number of smaller canals that have been widened and merged to to allow the péniches to operate. These are where we are going to find the big locks – the Fluviacarte gives a minimum size of  145m x 12m wide.

After Pont les Attques, Laurance headed off  whilst we ambled our way along. We’d agreed with Laurie to make for Watten, where the Aa joins the Gabarit and stay overnight. We actually caught up with Laurance at the next lock as they has to wait but after that, they disappeared into the distance. At 1800hrs we arrived at Watten to find the ‘halte’, as marked in the guide, was nothing more than a stretch of concrete quay. After mooring up, using the concrete rails as mooring points, we had a look around and found a branch off the canal ran to some dubious moorings used by local craft. We decided to stay where we were as both of us had gone aground on the Aa and didn’t want to risk getting stuck again.

It was a quiet night, and after the early morning wake-up from passing péniches, we had a wander into the village of Watten, which was only a short distance from the boat. A lovely rural-type village with friendly people. So nice in fact, that we both stayed an extra day to enjoy the atmosphere. On Monday 30th May, both boats slipped their moorings and moved off moved down the Gabarit to meet our first large lock at Flandres. Yes, a big lock with a peniche in it! We both moored up behind the peniche and watched it wander about as we rose 4m. The next lock at les Fontinettes was even bigger. As we entered we saw the previous peniche in what can only be described as the cavenous interior of a cathedral – it was vast, and about to take up 13m. As we both went entered we went to moor behind the peniche, but both he, and a lock-keeper were waving us further into the lock. Another peniche was coming in and we had to moor alongside the wandering peniche of the previous lock! The mooring points in this lock were floating bollards so it was easy to tie on to. When the gates were closed and the water came in, well it actually comes up from the floor of the lock, Laurie and I looked at each other waiting for the peniche to squash us against the lockwall. But it didn’t, in fact it didn’t move an inch, we were the ones thrown about with the upsurge of water. I was so relieved when we finally moved out.

Laurie pulled ahead as we travelled down the Gabarit. I’d noticed that my engine was starting to get hotter than normal, so pulled over to check the raw water filter. It’s amazing how much weed and floating grass-cuttings you can travel through on a French canal! When we moved off we passed Laurie tied up on the canal-side and told them we would try to make Béthune, where a port du pleasance was noted on the guide. They waved us goodbye as we passed. We didn’t quite make Bethune as the engine was starting to warm up again so we’d slowed her speed down to compensate. Luckily, we stumbled on a brand new halte in the middle of nowhere. It was clearly a nature reserve of some kind, but they, whoever built it, had included two wooden pontoons with stainless steel bollards on each. It’s actually marked in the guide as a 'boat cemetery' and I can only guess that the local council had renovated the area. I am grateful to them.


The following day, we motored off into the sunshine heading for the port du pleasance at Bethune. We found it a short time later on a branch off the main canal. What a shock! Somehow it had developed into a peniche graveyard and gypsy-site. The cut to the basin was lined with dying house-boat péniches and in the basin itself, the short quayside was lined with a motley array of anything that just floats. Half a space was left at the end, I presume the regulatory visitors berth, which was short of water and put my bows in the bushes. Had I known for sure where the next water stop was, I would have turned and showed them my stern. As it was, we needed water and tied up as best as we could. Fortunately, the locals were friendly and I borrowed a length of hose to connect to the cobweb of tubing around the single standpipe some 300 metres away. The electric supply was closer – a broken-open electric box on a nearby lamppost. The mass of wires leading away from it was frightening and there was no way I was even going to attempt to connect up. We left early the following morning.

On Wednesday 1st June, we carried on down the Gabarit heading towards Counchy Lock were I wanted to stop for a few hours to visit a cemetery. I thought it would be at the waiting pontoon of the lock but as it was, a dedicated mooring quay was sited just before the lock at the road bridge. My Great Uncle is buried at Camrin Cemetary following his death in the First World War. I know of no one that has ever visited him and it seemed uniquely opportune to stop off. I must admit that I was surprised at how well kept these cemetaries are - bowling green grass, blossoming trees and flowers. A perfect tribute to a generation lost.

We left Counchy Lock heading for the port du pleasance at Courcelles sur Lens. The guide shows it as a lake off the canal that has pontoons, water and electricity – just what we wanted. I remember thinking I’d reserve judgement until I got there. In fact it took us some time to get there as the engine was warming up again. The past few days had been very hot, 30°C or more during the day, and I’d been blaming that on the problems with the engine. She would travel for around four hours at 8km/hr (4.3 knots) but only one hour at 12km/hr (6.5 knots) before things got to hot. By the time we got to Courcelles at 2115 hrs, I was travelling on tick-over (around 3knots) or coasting to cool her down. It was slowly becoming clear that the problem could be more serious than I had thought.

We entered the quiet backwater of Courcelles and saw the pontoons, just like a ‘proper’ marina, unfortunately all were filled with obviously local craft leaving an awkward alongside berth with a Dutch motorboat on it. Fortunately the Dutchman came out and gave us a hand in mooring up. It was while we were talking to him, that we realised that all was not as the guide had showed. Yes there were pontoons – almost all taken by locals, yes there was electricity but switched on by the Capitaine who had gone home, leaving only the water supply without disappointment (and we didn’t need that). A further surprise was the existence of a toilet and shower block, but, as you’ve guessed not quite what we expected. The block was sub-divided into separate cubicles of showers (two), French toilets (two hole-in-the-ground type), an invalid WC (English type) and a communal urinal. Unfortunately each cubicle required a 50 centime coin to gain access and the general cleanliness was abysmal. We went to sleep that night thinking it was, at least, better that the side of the canal.

The following day we spoke more with the Dutchman. John was in fact a naturalised Australian which accounted for his unusual accent. His wife, Josephine was also Australian, but of Maltese stock. They had been marooned a week previously following a steering failure and had taken refuge in Courcelles as the nearest place to civilisation. We got along famously with John and Jo, especially knowing that they live not far north of my son in NSW. It was a shame that his 3-month vacation on the canals had come to an abrupt stop, but repairs were in hand and he was hopeful that he would be continuing shortly. We spent an extra day with them as they were such good company and I think they appreciated being able to chat in their native language.

We left Courcelles on 3rd June intent on making for the port du pleasance at Cambrai where we intended to spend a few days. I’d been mulling over the over-heating problem, trying to fathom a cause. Sno’ Rush had been fine after all the repairs in Dover and I couldn’t put my finger on a cause. I’d decided to have a good look at the whole system in Cambrai. We carried on through Douai with not to many problems in the two locks there, then through the Goeulzin lock further down and passed the entrance to the Canal du Nord which goes towards Paris. I was hoping to stay the night at a halte at Estrum which is a town situated on the entrance to the Canal l’Escaut. This would at least takes us off the ‘M1’ of the canalworld and into smaller but quieter waters. The péniches passed us quite regularly on the Gabarit and although didn’t cause to many problems they were regular and always appeared at the time you least expected them. It makes matters worse when two opposing péniches decided to pass at a point alongside you! We didn’t quite make three-abreast but it came close. The problem with Estrum was that there was no water for us to enter. We grounded on the soft ‘stuff’ beneath our keels on the two attempts we made to enter. Unfortunately I’ve found that the up-to-date Fluviacarte is not so current as I’d hoped. There a halte’s that don’t exist or are not in use, ports that are not what you expect and even bridges that don’t exist (not even a sign of where it was). Still, it’s better than nothing. We reverted to the back-up plan and motored the few kilometres down the canal to tie up for the night at Iwuy Lock.

The l’Escaut is the canal that takes the Gabarit up to Valenciennes and Belgium, but at Estrum it heads towards the Canal du St Quentin and has has not been updated to that of its bigger brother. Surprisingly it’s not that much narrower but the locks are smaller, taking only one peniche at a time. My theory of not seeing another peniche went out of the window early the following morning when one passed us by to enter the lock!

It took a little time to work out the lock as I couldn’t fathom how to enter it. I resorted to walking up to the lock-keepers office to have a chat. Unfortunately it was deserted. It was only when I noticed a sign and intercom system that I realised what to do. I spoke to the lock-keeper via the intercom and a remote control ‘plopped’ into the tray beside me. These are the type of locks that when you approach, a quick press of the remote actuates the lock to fill/empty and open the gates. Once inside two vertical bars are mountedwithin the lock wall which are operated to continue the process. One causes the lock to empty/fill then opens the gates while the other is for emergency purposes. Fortunately the lock-keeper turned up a short while later and we had a pigeon-english chat about how it works. After taking all our details, the French like to do that, he gave me a leaflet in English explaining the whole system. He even helped me through the lock explaining what happens, something I found fascinating.

 Iwuy Lock

So, on the morning of  4th June we set off along the l’Escaut, in glorious sunshine, with a new toy to operate the four locks to Cambrai. As it happens, the temperature rose to 35°C and Hil was suffering badly. I had watched her over the past few days and we both thought she was feeling the heat more than normal. She did have a pain in the abdomen that steadily got worse and we had to stop after one of the locks. She wasn’t happy, dosed herself with pain-killers and took to our bed for some comfort Unfortunately they were having no effect. I guessed it was something more than heat, or trapped wind as she thought, and pushed to get to Cambrai. Reluctantly, she agreed and we continued through the two remaining locks. I could see from her face she was in agony. When we got to Cambrai, we moored up and I walked to the local pharmacy. Here the Pharmacists are the first-stop for medical problems. I was given very strong pain-killers for Hil in the hope it would relieve her pain. It didn’t, and by late evening it was clear something more was needed, so I called for the Pompiers. We spoke through an interpreter and they arrived shortly afterwards, lights blazing and two-tones blaring. I could see the other boaters looking through their windows wondering what on earth - but I didn’t really care. More speaking pigeon-english, jotting down of details and after another phone call we were whisked off to the local hospital. At midnight, lights and two-tones through empty streets seemed a little over the top but once again, I didn’t really care. When your wife is crying with pain, all other concerns fly out of the window. After blood tests and pain-relieving injections came the diagnosis – Hil was passing a kidney stone! More injections and within two hours of entering the hospital, the pain was subsiding. Another couple of hours and the pain was under control, so, armed with a fistful of painkillers to tide her over the weekend we gathered ourselves together to leave the hospital. Unfortunately, the taxi’s stop working at midnight, buses only during the day and there is no patient transport. With Hil in her pyjamas, the boat 5km away and thundering rain outside things were looking difficult. A private ambulance could be arranged for some time later in the morning but at a cost of €120, but we decided to walk it. The rain cleared and since Hil was now ‘high’, we ambled merrily through the deserted streets of Cambrai watching the sun rise above the towering gothic facades. Back on board, straight to bed for some well deserved sleep. Aah, we’ve arrived at Cambrai.