Meeting the river folk!

Cristian

Cristian (The one with less hair)

I feel that one last post on traveling the inland waterways is warranted as my previous comments appear to paint a bleaker picture than reality. As with any lengthy journey there are ups and downs and one of the ups was the time I had to make friends.

It was with great pleasure that I’d catch up with Cristian and Babette from Carpe Diem on my weekend marathons as they took their more leisurely journey to the Mediterranean.

Babette

Babette

I still miss the numerous pleasant evenings we had catching up on canal gossip over drinks and a meal in quaint riverside marina cafes.

Cristian and I would talk about boats, interrupted with frequent allusions to how many fish he had caught in my absence, while the girls….. hmm now that I think about it… I have no idea what the girls would chat about. ;-)

Another truly memorable experience was meeting a local of Fontenoy le Chateau.
I’d woken up before sunrise to drop off my crew at the train station in Epinal. Upon my return I met a local fisherman and we exchanged greetings before I returned to my boat to make a cup of coffee.

morning

Misty Morning

It was a fairytale misty morning but still rather chilly. As I poured my coffee (fortified with a dash of Amaretto) I thought to make a second and offer it to the fisherman. I made my way back to his camp and he readily accepted the cup (especially when I hinted that its content was somewhat strengthened!).

What followed was a very pleasant chat about fishing, the history of the area and his work in a cordage factory. I had very little to contribute to the conversation but he seemed happy enough to have an attentive ear. As he prepared to leave I was taken aback when he insisted I take a beautifully spliced rope he had made for towing. It now has pride of place in the pulpit and serves admirably as part of my ground tackle.

When things go wrong!

Boat Lift at Pont-a-Bar

Boat Lift at Pont-a-Bar

I’d just left Namur and it was raining. Eva, my mother and Chester were accompanying me for the short trip to Dinant which was the last leg of my trip through the Belgian canals.

For no good reason (but certainly a bad hair day!) my mood was even darker than the prevailing weather. I wanted to get moving and everything was conspiring to thwart my plans.

A slipping drive belt was not helping to calm my nerves. After struggling through the first lock I made the impulsive and in hindsight, rash decision to stop at a deserted but newly constructed marina featuring several finger pontoons.

I didn’t give much thought to why it was empty but I’d have no peace ‘till I put an end to the infernal drive belt squeaking. It continued to rain as I edged closer to the jetty. The strong current made my approach difficult and a miscalculation on my part had me positioned too close to a pontoon to abort the attempt and try again.

kitty

Argh!

I did not come to a complete stop as Eva leapt to shore with the forward warp but we still risked being taken by the current, taking hold of the stern line I jumped out onto the narrow pontoon to assist. Slipping on the wet surface I fell flat on my back and while Eva made valiant attempts to hold the boat, Eileen drifted forward to touch the solid sounding quay.

The result? Just a smallest chip to the gelcoat well above the waterline, which I immediately covered with electrical tape, but this being my first little mishap, I was in agony. I imagine I now know what it’s like to be a parent witnessing their only child fall off a bicycle and break an arm.

Workshop at Pont-a-Bar

Workshop at Pont-a-Bar

This would not do, I’d have to have Eileen looking good as new as soon as possible, but there are very few places on the Meuese to do repairs. The only yard where I could take Eileen out of the water was a good three days away at Pont a Bar in France!

Adamant that I would keep Eileen in nothing other than the immaculate condition (how naive) I resolved to make the necessary detour and visit the nearest maintenance yard. On to Pont a Bar.

Inevitably things go wrong while passage making, but other than the above-mentioned cosmetic bruise my only real challenge came in the form of a faulty fuse.
I make a habit of taking a peek at the engine while underway and during one such survey I observed the water intake tube was somewhat flattened. It was obvious that the filter was blocked and I thought to stop the engine and clean out the sieve at the first opportunity.

What a surprise when I found that the kill switch did absolutely nothing! Tracing the wiring I found the solenoid and the lever that allowed me to manually cut the ignition but it took quite a while to find the little fuse by the alternator that was the cause of my problem.

Carpe Diem follows!

Carpe Diem follows!

A week later, our regular traveling companions in Carpe Diem (pictured here) suffered the same fate (though it was a loose wire to the same fuse in their case).

Naturally I astounded them with my brilliant electrical troubleshooting skills and silenced their runaway Volvo Penta Diesel in minutes.

I guess I was lucky, other boats had much bigger problems to deal with.

As I left Charmes in France I was amazed to see a hole large enough to put my head through at the bow of a rental cruiser. I’m sure someone could write a book on the misadventures witnessed as these white hazards bump their way through the canal system reeking havoc. On occasion horrified spectators would desperately climb aboard in order to stave off an imminent mooring catastrophe and take the controls away from panicked wide-eyed holiday-makers.

You can’t pay for this kind of entertainment! :)

Getting my Yarmouth-23 safely through 200 locks!

Gianluca - Trusty crew

Gianluca - crew

Technique, Tips and Tricks

  • You can never have enough fenders (and I’m not taking about guitars Gianluca!) I used five a side and one bent around the bowsprit. I would have liked to have more.
  • I carried four good warps at least 15m long (one for each quarter), plus two boat hooks.
  • I always secured both bow and stern within locks and kept the engine on idle, tiller lashed.
  • For locks without floating bollards, I’d motor up to the access ladder and my crew would use a warp off the Samson-post to hold fast. Moving quickly I’d carry the stern line up the ladder with me and loop it around whatever passed for an attachment point before making a better arrangement for the bow, activating the lock, and returning to help haul on the ends.
French Lock-keeper!

French Lock-keeper!

  • Managing locks is rarely a one-man job, especially when ascending. Descending was easier, and if necessary I’m sure I could handle it alone, but for insurance purposes and relief from boredom, I always invited additional crew.
  • The real danger for descents is if a rope gets caught. This happened once but in a desperate rush I managed to work the line free without resorting to my trusty bread knife.
  • There are still numerous manually operated locks and inexperienced students often man them (woman them in many cases, much to the delight of my male crew) during the summer months. At these locks I found it was always best to follow your own routine despite offers of assistance.
  • For planning purposes, if all goes well, consider that it takes on average 15 minutes to cycle through a lock.

French Lock

French Lock

Logistics

I did most of my travel through the Belgian and French canals on weekends. As the commuting distances grew I used my holidays to have three-day weekends. On a Friday night after work I would drive to my boat, sleep on board, and spend the rest of the weekend cruising. Passage times of 12 hours a day were not uncommon but I probably risked mutiny on more than one occasion. :-)  On the last day I’d search for an appropriate location to leave the boat and train, bus, taxi, or hitchhike back to my car to drive home.

Overall, this method worked, but it wasn’t always easy. Some stops were poorly serviced by public transport and the cost of driving back and forth could easily be prohibitive.  Mind you  it was amusing, especially when sitting on a train watching all I had passed with the boat (over a period of three days) go by in reverse order in a matter of hours.

Belgian and French inland waterways

Dinant Belgium

Dinant Belgium

I had read that the canals would take me through some of the prettiest countryside in Belgium and France and this was largely true as many of my photographs will attest.

But I also saw some of the ugliest industrial zones, junkyards and nuclear power stations in central Europe.

It turns out (not surprisingly) that traveling on a canal is much like driving on a highway.

Industrial Liege Belgium

Industrial Liege Belgium

The banks are usually raised (limiting visibility) and even when they are low, the vegetation often restricts views of the surrounding countryside. Following these waterways often frustrated me, (mind you I’m easily miffed), but I’m now claiming that no sailing vessel should suffer the indignity of canal travel for too long. Being chained to the tiller hour after didn’t help to endear them to me and when it rained (which it does quite often in the Lorraine district) I felt and looked miserable.

Enough complaining…. on the plus side, I’ve come to know towns I’d never have thought to visit and found many to be truly splendid. The slow pace gave me time to appreciate what I saw and to unwind (between torrential downpours!). Once the dreaded locks were mastered (lets say… managed without too much anxiety) they served more as a welcome distraction rather than the hurdle they had seemed at the start of my journey. The best bit was being able to invite my landlubber friends for a great weekend without worrying that they would be bored or seasick.

The routine in France went something like this:

  • Motor along until you see a sign indicating “remote control receiver is here…”1

  • Take out the mysterious yellow control box and…. “Push the button Max…”2 A yellow light flashes above the sign indicating receipt of your command (if you are lucky).

  • Wait… wait some more…..sometimes quite a long time… usually because someone on the other side has pushed the button first!

  • Eventually an alarm bell rings and the lock gates open.

  • Dodge the oncoming traffic.

  • If you are feeling antisocial or just want to take part in what must now be a local tradition, race for the lock to ensure no one else gets a chance to squeeze in.

  • Desperately seek the elusive bollards, and failing that… do the unthinkable and attach your lines to the ladder (be prepared to be told off for doing so).

  • Risk life and limb climbing up the slippery access ladder and back to adjust your warps.

  • Lift the blue rod to cycle the lock

  • Do battle with the turbulence to protect your brightwork (probability of success 80%)

  • Relax as you motor on to the next lock

  • Grit teeth when inevitably asked, “Are we there yet?”

  • If answering No….Go to step 1

  • If Yes…. You are in the Med.

The routine for Belgium is similar, just replace the sections about the remote control with… “Gesticulate frantically with the lock-keeper” and “suffer disdaining looks from the commercial traffic operators” where appropriate.

Automatic Lock

Automatic Lock

Note: Locks beyond the Meuse were largely activated by turning a pole hung on a wire stung across the canal. Locks closer to the Mediterranean were enormous and these obviously had operators. Near Epinal, students on their summer vacation operated the manual locks for a bit of pocket money. Cute!3.

Each lock is unique. Just when you think you have a routine sorted out you undoubtedly find yourself in one with an unusual configuration and nowhere to make fast. A Yarmouth 23 is tossed about quite thoroughly by the turbulence in these locks (especially if you are near the front gates of a rising lock). On occasion it required all my strength to prevent Eileen of Avoca from thrashing about. In hindsight it would have been much easier if I had stayed to the back and always insisted on being the last boat in.

1 At Givet (my first French lock) I paid my waterway fee and was issued with a remote control for activating automatic locks.

2 Quote from the movie The Great Race

3 More on this later

Everyone has heard of “road rage” but did you know about “canal rage”?

Canal traffic

Canal traffic

Warning!

I have found that locks can be stressful, especially when shared with cantankerous captains in commercial barges or leisure craft. Let me illustrate with one of my many misadventures…

Between Liege and Namur there are three relatively large locks. I was traveling this part of the Meuse with my mother as crew and Chester my Old English Sheepdog as mascot. We expected nothing less than the usual leisurely cruise and for the most part it was just that.

However, at the last lock of the day,  a large peniche had to take evasive action to prevent colliding with another vessel crewed by an elderly couple. This pair were oblivious to the danger as they set about arguing with each other and other boat crews over precedence.

I was following at what I thought to be a safe distance but as the peniche applied full throttle in an evasive manoeuvre, the resulting turbulence sent Eileen of Avoca swirling back out of the lock like a leaf in a whirlwind.

Only sheer luck (I’m claiming copious amounts of lockmanship here!) prevented me from slamming against the canal walls as Eileen was unceremoniously ejected from the lock.

Learning the ropes

Learning the ropes

Who would have thought cruising these canals could be classified as an adrenaline sport?

I’d  experienced the occasional bout of road rage (in no way related to my excellent driving skills), but I never thought “canal rage” had such a strong following in central Europe.

I witnessed several fine examples of verbal rampaging as yachts aggressively vied for position. I also found that the sport of pontoon hoarding has developed an ardent following at favourite stopovers.

It’s no wonder there were moments I could not wait to be free from the confines of the inland waterways. I was happy enough to arrive at a popular location if I could safely leave the boat at the end of a few days cruising, but until then I did my best to avoid the crush of yachtsmen.

It was best to push on unless forced to stop at a lock (closed for the night), or tie up by a quiet uncharted quay away from the traffic jams at guidebook stopovers.

Friends insist that I’m just plain antisocial. :-)

A farraginous collection of thoughts while traveling through the Belgian and French canals

canal crew

canal crew

Having had very little experience with traveling though canals and locks, it was with considerable trepidation that I first entered the Belgian canal system at Nieuwpoort.

Reading several guidebooks did little to instill a sense of confidence. In fact it had just the opposite effect. I am now convinced that good “lockmanship”  is not something that can be attained through theoretical study.

Judging by the number of bruised pleasure craft making their way through the inland waterways (and I confess to having had my share of bumps), passing “applied locks 101” is no trivial matter.

Belgium provides a forgiving environment for the inexperienced because relatively few locks partition a days cruise. Moreover, help is always close at hand if things go “pear-shaped” because every lock has an operator.

This proved to be an ideal training ground. The experience fortified me for what was to come in the French waterways, where I traversed as many as 32 locks (near Epinal) in a single day.

Turnhout

Turnhout

My route took me through Bruge, Gent, and the outskirts of Antwerp, Turnhout (my registered home port), Hasselt, Liege, Namur and Dinant before reaching France.

There are no official entries in my journal because my original detailed log now resides on a deceased hard drive that despite heroic efforts, has resisted all attempts at resuscitation.

I could still use a professional recovery service but at this point I just can’t justify the expense.