Saturday 11 September 2021

 “You’re at the wrong lock.”, instructed the Continentally accented voice of the lock-master/traffic controller; “At weekends, we only have the big lock in operation.” This: whilst my sight was filled with the vision of the biggest lock-gate I had ever beheld!!!

Lyn and I had pushed through frustration; high winds, recalcitrant Belgian lock engineering; stubbornly closed lifting, hinging, swinging, turning bridges of greatly varied design and construction; all totally deficient of bollard or mooring-ring: all manner of hindrances; taking twenty-eight cruising hours to traverse from Dunkerque to Zeebrugge, via Oostend and Brugges.

We waited 2 hours for this (pedestrian) bridge to allow us through. During that time one gentleman cycled across!!!

This 'rocking' bridge was easily the most spectacular we passed.

A journey which, in more benign circumstances, might have taken less than fourteen hours. Now; finally; we were at Zeebrugge … but not IN Zeebrugge! Though we were behind our self-imposed schedule of arriving on Friday, in time to avail ourselves of the Wednesday sailing (two per week: Wednesday and Friday) of the Zeebrugge to Dublin ‘freight’ ferry, but we had achieved our objective … or so we supposed!

“Make your way back along the canal, turn to Port at the first opportunity, and come down to the gate of the ‘big’ lock. I will let you through there, into the outer harbour.”; intoned our unseen controller.

Casting off again, we proceed to back-track and turn as instructed to be confronted with a craft, similar in size and construction to the (Suez Canal blocking) Evergiven!

This vessel was being pushed and pulled by a pair of attendant tugs. Like a zealous collie: on sighting our tiny craft: one of these dropped her lines and rushed in our direction, to shepherd us away from her charge: so we made an inelegant manoeuvre and did our best to make ourselves inconspicuous, until the behemoth was safe from our predations!

On looking around for a lock gate, none appeared to be within sight, so we kept proceeding about a kilometre, in a Westerly direction, along a quarter kilometre wide waterway. Being, finally, stopped by a black, steel construction: stretched between the quarter kilometre-wide walls of the dockland: we contacted our invisible, Belgian patron. “We are ready to enter the lock.” we announced. “ You are IN the lock.”came the response: “There is another craft mooring behind you, and then I will open the gate for you.”

For about five minutes, we had been traversing the length of a GIANT lock, and bearing down upon us, was the previous gargantuan vessel’s even bigger sibling!

Though our pulses were discernibly elevated: the presence, again, of a pair of marshalling tugs gave us some degree of reassurance that we would not be squashed, unnoticed, like a bug! Once the huge black wall slid into its recess, we came to the realisation that we had been moored in what may well be the biggest lock in the world! Thankfully: we were instructed to vacate the lock ahead of the larger occupant, and we scuttled – with as much dignity as we could muster – into the outer harbour, in the shadow of the lifting device which would hoist us from the water onto the boat-transporting trailer.

After yet another in the inevitable series of delays, we were informed that the hoist would not now take place until the Tuesday mid-morning. Though we were keen to observe the procedure, we had plans to take advantage of our (relative) proximity to Amsterdam: wherein reside a couple of dear friends:  whom we were determined to visit. This prevented our presence at the lifting operation, and kept us unaware – until a couple of days thereafter – that the weight stated on VDN’s papers was a wild underestimate … nearly twenty-five tons, rather than our assumption of under twenty tons!!! This misapprehension was to cost us dear, in both time and finances … but that’s just part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’!

A successful, flying visit to both our American and Dutch friends in Amsterdam was followed by a rail odyssey back to our car in St. Jean de Losne, via Paris and Dijon. After one, final, night of great social cheer with our new-found (but dearly appreciated), multi-national boating community, we departed, en-route Cherbourg and the ferry to Dublin.

That extra weight engendered further delays in delivery but finally … FINALLY … we are safely and comfortably ensconced in our mooring at Tara Marina.

It's been the journey, and adventure, of a lifetime. The 'year of the plague’ will forever be the year we found Vent Du Nord, and cruised her through France!

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Gallic Peregrinations #4. Zeebrugge or bust!

Several folks have asked for some sort of map, to assist their visualization of our route, from the junction of the River Soane with the Canal du Bourgogne, to Zeebrugge, in Belgium. Appropriate images are not easy to come by (old dogs ... new tricks, etc.) but herewith are a couple of stabs with which I am attempting to fulfil such requests. I don't really have the technical skills or the apps/programs to do this stuff. This, to the right, is a very basic outline of the most major French inland waterways.

This, to the left, is concentrating (more or less) on the area through which lies our route ... 

 ... and below is a screen-shot of our actual route. Make of these whatever you will!

At this juncture, I must point out that this section of Watery Peregrinations is by no stretch of the imagination in 'real time'. Cruising days have often been quite extended, and after a long day a meal and couple of glasses of something restorative were the most we could achieve, before dropping - exhausted - into bed.

For those of you with a mind to construct a more detailed overview: you might make a chart for yourselves, along this (far from exhaustive) list of places ...

Plombiers les Dijon - St. Jean de Losne - Auxonne - Dampierre - Balsemes-sur-Marne - Langres - Rolampont - Foulain - Chaumont - Froncles - Joinville - St. Dizier - Vitry-le-Francois - Châlons-en-Champagne - Condé-sur-Marne - Reims - Compiègne ... which brings us onto the Canal-du-Nord

 ... where we got to play with the 'big boys'!!!

(Well we thought they were big boys, until things like these hove into view.)

"Ye're not on the Leeds/Liverpool Canal now, Tommy!"

(Spoiler alert ... wait 'til you see what's coming towards us in Zeebrugge!)

These were the average size boats we met, heading northwards along Canal latéral à l'Oise  until we joined the Canal du Nord, proper.

However: the pay-off for us was at the northern end of that canal, at Arleux, the home of the world-famous SMOKED GARLIC!!!

Thusly: next morning, between 'petit-déjeuner' and casting-off, we went on a hunt for the fabled Smoked Garlic. It being quite early (unusual for Lyn and me), not many grocery shops were open, but we eventually chanced upon 'A La Petit Ferme'.

Although it was too early in the year for the town's annual 'Smoked Garlic Festival., we purchased some of last year's crop ... and now VDN has an aroma redolent of a French sailing-ship's rope locker!!!

Continuing with our odyssey: rather than go on the River Lys - through southern Belgium, where the recent floods had not long subsided - we decided that the coastal route: through Dunkerque and the Low Countries, past Niewpoort, Oostend and Bruges; would be the better route.

In retrospect: this could be seen as a poor decision. From the western outskirts of Dunkerque, through the Belgian (coastal) canals, and all the way to Bruges: we were dogged with a litany of faulty locks, non-opening bridges, high winds, and un-cooperative waterways personnel (we're not talking about you, Patrick, in Dunkerque!). A journey which should have taken about ten hours, took two and a half - stressful and aggravating days ... best glossed over.

Zeebrugge is a tale of woe unto itself. Next time ... 

Monday 9 August 2021

Gallic Peregrinations #3 Being chased by a hydraulic pump!

I did, previously, mention that the erstwhile owner of VDN is no longer sharing this earthly plane with us . . . leading to the almost complete lack of any sort of hand-over, from a person knowledgeable about the workings of this boat. This has engendered multifarious frustrations, which I shall: occasionally as we go along; enumerate (in no particular order) as M.F. #1, etc., etc..

M.F. #1 - Only some, about 50%, of the 12volt switches: on the power distribution panel; are labelled/identified . . . and some that are marked, are marked incorrectly!

VDN is equipped with a bow-thruster mechanism of the hydraulic kind; driven directly from the 5-cylinder, 64HP, Beta Marine diesel engine; and a fairly powerful beast it is! That's when it is working!!! It hasn't be in the best of health for quite some time, and if we're going to have this piece of kit, 'twere best it works correctly. The engineers (I use the term loosely) at Atelier Fluvial, diagnosed an incorrect alignment of the pump coupling; requiring a new coupling and heavy-duty bracket, plus - what appeared to me to be - a brand new pump! I had my suspicions about its operation and, as the first few days of the trip progressed, my suspicions grew to near certainty. By the time I made meaningful contact with A.F., we were nearly at St. Dizier; to where young Guillaume was dispatched, to deal with the issue. 

Guillaume is very shy, but the black lump is the star of the show.

Now Guillaume has almost zero English; certainly much less than my acquaintanceship with HIS mother-tongue. But by resorting to the magic of Google Translate, I brought him round to my thoughts that a mating face, on the inlet side of the pump, was allowing the escape of a small drip of hydraulic fluid whilst the pump was rotating, but not working, and a consequent ingress of air when the pump was being called upon to push the front end of VDN, to the right or the left (Starboard and Port, to those of you of a nautical bent). As the joint in question had not been undone since leaving the factory, I certainly did not fault G’s workmanship. Off he went with a huge chunk of cast-steel, whilst we proceeded along our tortuous route (vaguely) Nor'-nor'-west; having first explored the offerings of an excellent Italian restaurant, in Saint Dizier's central square, and the historic fortifications of the town.

Guillaume next caught up with us in Reims, where our greatest challenge was correctly pronouncing 'Reims'! I won’t bore you with our many and various - and incorrect - attempts at articulation, which caused a mixture of hilarity, eye-rolling and lip-curling. The nearest we could grasp was that the ‘m’ is pronounced as an ‘n’, and the ‘s’ as a ‘ce’; all uttered with a throat-clearing kind of bark! A word not totally unlike: ‘Wraunce’, but with a Pythonesque usage of the tonsils!

Back to the engineering issue . . . it was fixed. Nuff said! With all engineering issues having been dealt with (Did I mention the ‘hot battery’ concern? Never mind. I sorted that out for myself, with the e-mail aid of my electrical guru: Jim Latimer; and the removal of one battery, like very heavy piece of dentistry.)

M.F. #2 I'm sure that Jacques had a perfectly sound reason for the meandering, and confusing, wiring around the battery charger and 2kw. inverter, but I shall wait until our Irish electrician: Damian; casts an experienced eye on that particular ball of knitting.

By-the-by; Reims cathedral is impressive in the extreme; though I was enjoined to ‘sling my hook’, merely for rendering the first verse and refrain of John Tams’ ‘Only Remembered’.

(No appreciation of the folk arts, these French security guards!!!) 

At Vitry-le-Francois we had completed our passage on the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne and been making our way (again, vaguely) Nor’-west, on the Canal de l'Aisne à la Marne. The highlight (or, according to your point of view, the low-point) of that was 'Le Tunnel de Billy' - under Mont de Billy - a mere 2.3 kms. Not a scratch! I'm getting the hang of these tunnels.

Now: onwards to the Canal lateral to the Marne.

Wednesday 4 August 2021

Gallic Peregrinations #2, St. Jean de Losne to the top of the hill.

SALUT! (Sounds like: 'sal-you'.) I'm sure I mentioned, earlier, somewhere, that the telling of this tale was likely to be 'non-linear', and thus it shall prove to be.

Prior to starting out where last I left you, gentle reader, I was enjoined to notice that I was far from qualified to be in charge of the boat intended for the journey we were envisaging. Whilst Lyn and I had, prior to leaving Ireland, investigated the qualifications necessary; in large part due to the current world-wide health emergency; no person or organization willing and able to supply such qualifications, was available in Ireland. Turning to United Kingdom sources: we ascertained that the Royal Yachting Association could - in normal times - supply such requirements . . . i.e. an International Certificate of Competence (I.C.C.). However . . . that qualification consists of two, separate parts: the theory and the practice! The theoretical part: the C.E.V.N.I. (Code Européen des Voies de la Navigation Intérieure), and the practical part: in this case the RYA's 'Helmsman's Certificate.

Now, this last, is a qualification Lyn and I received many moons ago. However: where the paperwork for it might be, neither of us could remember. Sadly, upon enquiring of the RYA, they informed us that they only kept records for five years!!! Again: due to pandemic circumstances; testing for this part of the I.C.C. was 'suspended for the duration of hostilities', both in Ireland and the U.K..

Coming to the rescue, allow us to present Steve and Jo Bridges (of Buzet-sur-Baïse, South West France, on the Canal de Garonne) who's lovely, 21 metre barge: 'SOMEWHERE' provides the platform for the requisite training and examination; whilst Steve and Jo provide the training. (Jo also provides excellent hospitality and scrumptious cuisine, and SOMEWHERE does double-duty as a luxurious, and exclusive, cruising hotel.

Check out: So, off we went on a 3-day, 1,200 Km. round-trip to the South Of France. That, in itself, is a tale worthy of telling . . . at some later date. Suffice it to say that I feel relieved to have set out on this voyage, suitably qualified; or at least confident that I wouldn't be arrested for 'driving without a licence!
Here are Jo and Steve, with SOMEWHERE providing a suitably scenic backdrop.

Now . . . where was I? Ah, yes: the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne (that last is 'Burgundy'. to you and me), which used to be called the Canal de la Marne à la Saône; connecting two big rivers, separated by a very large hill. If the name was changed by some tourism consultant, to attract more people to use it . . . it didn't work! There are a lot of locks (42 'up', 71 'down'; in 224 kilometres) and short - average about two kilometres - pounds. On a British canal, this would make for a lot of heavy work; but the French decided there was a better way. At the very first lock/écluse we were met by an éclusier/lock-keeper, who handed us a piece of kit which looked like a 1990's remote control . . . and such (sort of) it turned out to be! Pressing a button, whilst about half a kilometre from a lock, instituted an automatic system to prepare the lock for our entry. Once safely ensconced in the lock, pressing another button closed the lock-gates behind the boat, and instituted the procedure to, appropriately, flood or drain the lock, and: et voila; open the gates in front of the boat at the appropriate moment. Wonderful! On the very few occasions when this technology failed: a short telephone call - in our 'exécrable Franglaise' - would bring an éclusier, in five or ten minutes. This made us somewhat blasé about climbing up through many miles of grain fields, but at least it didn't exhaust us. The weather, whilst we were delayed in St. Usage/St. Jean de Losne, had been glorious, so we, and our new friends, spent quite a bit of time of VDN's upper deck; where we were high enough to enjoy any vagrant breezes, and take advantage of the welcome shade provided our 'bimini'.

Back in Ireland, hopefully, it will do similar service for the 'liquid sunshine. 😉

Three days got us to the top, and the dreaded five-kilometre tunnel. However, it was well lit and well ventilated, so five minutes of terror, quickly became an hour of dimly-lit ennui. (See how my French is improving?) Au revoir, Tom.

Friday 30 July 2021

Gallic Peregrinations #1, Plombiers to St. Jean de Losne.

 Hello . . . and welcome to France!

Above it says: 'Plombiers', which is shorthand for: Plombiers les Dijon; the erstwhile home of VENT DU NORD. It is also the home of Mm. Simone Duval: the vendor of our new purchase; and (sadly) her deceased husband: Jacques . . . a mortal victim of 'le Covid' . . . R.I.P.

Whilst, immediately on our arrival, we found much to like about VENT DU NORD (hereinafter written as: VDN); an ongoing impediment has been Simone's huge lack of knowledge about almost every technical aspect of this boat. (Talk about a steep learning-curve!) However: within less than a week of our arrival in France, we were navigating VDN down the Canal de Bourgogne; through Dijon. This initial foray was greatly aided by the services of a 'captain-for-hire': Scotsman: Johnny Parmetter; a wild man if ever there was one! Johnny knows everyone on the water, but few recognise him, after a twelvemonth of allowing his hair and beard to grow, luxuriantly and unrestrained. His ship-handling talents and generous tuition got me off to a flying start . . .  thanks Johnny!

Being keen as mustard to proceed (See what I did there???) within two days we arrived at Atelier Fluvial, in Saint Usage; in order to have a few essential repairs carried out, preparatory to commencing our northward trek.

We were fully aware that such reparations would occupy several days . . . perhaps, even, a week . . . but A MONTH??? I'm being kind . . . five weeks and two days!!! It's not correct to say that the work went slowly; it was getting it to go at all which was the frustrating part. For a start: Atelier Fluvial - and its proprietor: M. Philippe Gerbet - has bigger (much bigger) fish to fry or, rather, boats to repair.

If M. Gerbet had an actual list of priorities, we didn't feature anywhere near to the top of the first page . . . or anywhere on any page, insofar as we could perceive. Please be in no doubt that Philippe - as we came to know him - is anything other than a charming and honest character; but he is the 'busy' in businessman! Multiply that by the complications of the impact of the pandemic, on everything from spare-parts location and delivery, to absentee essential workers, and . . . well . . .

Mind you, compensations abounded. There is a small, but lively and interesting, international boating community, semi-resident in and around the Quai de Canal du Bourgogne. Italians, Germans, Scots, French, Irish (me) and even English. (Counting Lyn, there were five of them!) There was Alberto: a cheese and wine expert from Parma (cheese, geddit?), Italy, and his partner: Ursula; an opera-singer from Munich. Paul and Mal, professional boat-deliverers and house-sitters, from England; and generous with knowledge of all aspects of European waterways. The gorgeous Monica, from Bavaria, and her Scottish - but very generous, with it - (career, ex-British Army) electrical specialist 'toy-boy': Jim. France was very graciously represented by brand-new boaters (and almost brand-new 'couple'): Mylene and Antoine. Whilst England was also represented by 'volunteer' European refugees: Vanessa and Spike (my YouTube guru; of whom I made mention in an earlier missive).

Each and every one of these 'new-found friends', are graciousness personified; and are the reasons why our long-awaited departure from Saint Usage was bitter-sweet.

After replacing the hydraulic pump for the bow-thruster, bringing  the 'black water' tank into usable status, routine servicing of the 5-cylinder main engine and 3-cylinder generator (both Beta Marine units), fitting a new rudder-angle indicator and recommissioning the lower steering wheel back into use; we were finally . . . FINALLY, ready to commence the journey to Zeebrugge. Ursula and Roberto acted as our 'matelots', to get us through the 'écluse' (that's French for 'lock') onto the River Soane, and tie-up at the floating fuel pumps, to take on over 1,500 litres of diesel; THEN we were ready!

Bawling 'Bound for the Rio Grande' at the tops of our voices, we headed upstream on the Soane, with 25 kilometres and three more écluses in prospect before our initial overnight stop, just short of the entrance to la Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne; with its daunting one hundred and fourteen locks, two hundred and twenty-four Km. length and one hundred and seventy metre rise, before entering the five kilometre tunnel at the summit . . . but that's another story!

Thursday 22 July 2021

Gallic Peregrinations.

“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”  . . .  with those words (then) Prime Minister Teresa May not only disenfranchised me, but also lumped me in with heartless employers, wide-boy corporate raiders, terrorist enablers, and tax-dodging ultra-capitalists . . . a ploy by which to obfuscate behind a smoke-screen of half-truths and outright lies. She was, I felt, very deeply: aiming her venom directly at me. Well . . . here are Lyn and I, in France . . . I, riding on my Irish passport, and she on her Canadian identity.

We have just taken ownership of a new boat: VENT DU NORD; 

    and are about a couple of weeks into the tortuous process of bringing her to Ireland. This will involve a journey - through French and Belgian waterways - of more than 750kms., and passage through no less than 203 locks!

Whilst (the never-to-be-forgotten) MOONSTONE was transported from Yorkshire to Knockvicar by road haulage; the bridges and power-lines of France are low enough to present expensive impediments to such a continental odyssey. Significant funds might be saved - we were informed - by starting the road journey at the ferry-port of Zeebrugge. Thusly: the watery expedition upon which we are currently engaged.

I am writing from the historic town of Saint Dizier, but the journey - not uneventful, occasionally frustrating, but satisfyingly social - begins; about six weeks ago; in the tiny Burgundian town of Plombiers les Dijon; and relation of the journey will commence in the next chapter of this blog; as soon as I can find more spare time. For the nonce . . . au revoir! Tom.