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