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.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Grand Trek

The general plan to reach the Mediterranean is to travel along the mêlée of canals by the shortest route. By all accounts, this is not quite the quickest, but the most scenic of the routes. The quickest involves taking the commercial canalways through Paris and then towards the south. These have a higher speed limit (12 km/hr – 6.5 knots) but carry a high volume of commercial barges (péniches) that frankly, frighten the life out of me. We encountered them some years ago when we travelled up the Seine to Paris – they remind me of the old ‘Bo-Bo’ steam trains as they forge their way up and down the waterways. They are 300tonnes bulk containers which are more than 35 metres (115 ft) long and travel generally throughout France and Belgium. The locks on these routes usually accept 4 péniches at one time, so you can imagine how insignificant an 11 metre-boat looks beside them in the lock. Didn’t like ‘em last time, not looking forward to ‘em this time. So it helps taking the ‘scenic’ route.

For some time I’ve been gathering books, and charts but have found only a few websites that give an insight into the voyage down. One website has recently been overhauled from the journey of a boat named ‘Grehan’ into an encyclopaedia of French canal cruising. It can be found at http://www.tagweb.co.uk/french-waterways/ and is an extremely useful reference. In fact, I contacted the author by email a few times and have purchased my canal charts (Fluviacartes) through him. I wanted to ensure I had the most up-to-date editions, and he supplied all but two. As is the French way, instead of continuing to sell current editions whilst preparing a new one, they stop all sales until the new edition is published. This leaves me in a quandary as the publication of Picardie and Champagne-Ardennes are continually being extended. I can obtain a Dignon or Breil guide, but of course they don’t ‘butt’ up to the Fluviacartes in areas, and none of them are that easy to read for all their colouring. I’ll have to rely on my 1990 edition of Champagne-Ardennes and a 1984 edition of Imray’s ‘Inland Waterways of France’. Perhaps I can buy, beg or borrow a copy on the way.

The route I’ve pencilled in takes us along eleven canals to reach the Rivers Saone, then Rhône, and get us to the Med. Some of the main towns we will pass through are Calais, Cambrai, St Quentin, Reims, Chalon sur Saone, Lyon, Valence, Avignon and Seté. A total of 1226km (761 miles) that includes 230 locks and 5 tunnels, one of which is 5.6km (3½ miles) long. Its gonna be fun!