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.



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! 🙂

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