The weather has picked up. Not sure how many times we have complained about being too hot recently, when a few weeks ago we were worried that we would never warm up again! The thermal underwear has been stuffed in a locker and the summer skimpy gear has now been donned. It’s hot, damn hot and there’s nowhere to hide. We have taken to early starts (early for us anyway) and are trying to make some distance before the worst of the afternoon heat, when we prefer to hide in the boat, open the few hatches that we have, and fight over the little 12v fan that is the only cooling device on the boat.
The main topic of this week’s blog will probably be locks. These are now becoming our specialist topic, although we have not yet fully mastered them. This is mainly because the French like to design them all slightly differently. Also, they break down a lot. Most of the section of canal we are on was built around 1865, so 100 years before Fraser and Kerry were even born. The age does not seem to be the issue though, as they were built really well. The issue seems to be lack of maintenance and lack of use.
Most locks are now automatic and the lock keepers have to manage long stretches of the canals on their own, racing up and down the towpaths in their wee white vans, fixing problem after problem. The canals are not busy, which is part of the issue, as without many users it is difficult to justify maintaining the locks. We have not seen any commercial barges at all on this latest stretch. There were plenty closer to Paris and the Seine.
When the canals are not used regularly the weed takes over and grows to the point where there is only a narrow channel for boats in the centre of the canal. This has been the case on the latest stretch. If we stray to the edges of the canal, as is necessary if another boat is coming, then our propeller chops up the weed (sometimes becoming badly entangled) and we also need to ensure that it does not get sucked into our engine cooling intake, with the risk of engine overheating (we need to clear our intake strainer of weed at least twice a day). All the chopped up weed from all the boats then drifts into the locks and builds up, so the next time the lock opens the gates get jammed with weed and either can’t open fully or can’t close fully.
This seems to be the main cause of lock breakdowns and the cure is for the lock keeper to zoom along in his/her van and pull out the weed with a rake. This is hard, heavy work and they do their best, but often there are delays at the locks as there is not a lock keeper available. At a few locks we have been delayed by an hour or so, waiting for a lock keeper to come to our aid. The best thing we found to do is to not set too ambitious a schedule for the day, otherwise it can become frustrating.
We are loving the French canals and feel very privileged to use them, we just worry about how many years they can stay open for, with all the maintenance issues, plus the concerns about water supply. Locks use millions of gallons of water each time they fill and some canal systems in France are having to close in the peak summer months due to lack of water. If they do keep them going, then they tend to be run quite shallow, which means that sailing boats, with their deeper keels, cannot get through them. The reason we have chosen the route we are on is to avoid some of the canals that are have having issues with water supply. Kerry did a lot of research on this!
Enough rambling on about canals and locks- sorry about that! So, as Kerry mentioned, we arrived at Chalons-en-Champagne on Wednesday 24th May and stayed two nights, mainly because there were showers and a nice restaurant in town. Actually there were lots of restaurants, but Kerry found one that did stuff that she really liked (lumps of meat) so she had a lump of lamb the first night and a lump of ham the second. Fraser had a burger, twice, as he is not so into the lumps of meat.
We also took another boat trip around the canals of Chalon. This included yet another big tunnel, this time with added cinematic sound effects and colourful images projected onto the roof of the tunnel. Kerry got a bit spooked, but Fraser was fine. When he touched her leg in his reassuring manner she nearly jumped out of the boat!
The following day we went shopping for food supplies (perhaps not buying enough, as we were feeling full from breakfast) then set off, not really knowing how far we would get, with locks and heat being the main challenges. We managed 6 locks, plus a lunch stop where Fraser disappeared to fetch another 20 litres of diesel from a local fuel station. We were really starting to feel the heat in the afternoon but kept plugging on, which was worth it, as we found a lovely stop at a small village called Couvrot. There was nowhere to tie up the boat, so Fraser dug out the metal stakes and lump hammer he had brought along and used these to secure Barberry to the bank. There was nothing in the village, not even a boulangerie, so we made do with the cold meat and salad we had bought earlier. We’ve stopped making hot meals, as we don’t feel like them when it’s so hot.
Under skipper Kerry’s orders the crew made ready for an early start the next day (without breakfast) at 0750, since skipper wanted to make good progress in the cool of the morning. This did not work out well for her as the first lock was broken and not fixed until 0900, and also her crew was feeling mutinous and done out of his normal leisurely breakfast.
Things went from bad to worse as two locks later there was yet another delay. We were entering the new canal system of Champagne and Bourgogne and needed to collect a remote for use with the automated locks ahead. It’s like a TV remote, but with less buttons and a bit better range.
A local Frenchman kindly shouted instructions to Fraser as to how to collect the remote. Fraser mainly followed his hand gestures as he did not have a clue what he was saying. This directed him to pressing a button at the lock which did not deliver the remote, but rather called a distance lock keeper on an intercom, who proceeded to question Fraser in French. Fraser attempted some random responses to the questions until the intercom voice finally went quiet. Then nothing happened for a long time after that so Kerry phoned a number displayed at the lock and was told that someone was coming, apparently from 30km away. Around two hours later the lock keeper appeared and unjammed the remote dispenser, so finally we had a remote and could continue.
A few locks further we decided to call it a day and stopped at a little place called Orconte. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, but there were a few other boats there and we actually found a little hut with a shower in it — so paradise! Fraser went for a wander around the village and found very little there, accept one very unexpected thing.
Remember back in the 80’s, when cash machines started to appear? You could just go up to a ‘hole in the wall’, put you card in and get money out. Wasn’t it amazing? Well, there is now something even better. A machine you can put your card into and a pizza pops out. In fact we popped two pizzas out and had them for dinner — they were actually great! We still can’t work out how this clever machine does it.
The next day we headed on, aiming for St Dizier, a slightly larger town, although, with it being a Sunday, we were not sure if anything would be open. We managed 8 locks in a day, with only one faulty one, which did delay us a bit. We also got stuck behind a very slow boat. Kerry started to get a little frustrated, but there was no place to go past them and we thought that maybe they were having some engine trouble, so we gave them space. It turns out that there is actually a speed limit of only 3 knots in this part of the canal, which Kerry only looked up afterwards and then felt a bit bad about her speeding antics (at 5 knots!).
Despite travelling at less than walking pace we got into St Dizier in the early afternoon and moored very conveniently close to a bar/café so decided it was time for our first ice cream and/or beer of the entire trip. We had both! I didn’t think Kerry knew much about beer, but she ordered the strongest one, at 8%, so clearly I’m wrong. The convenience of the bar turned against us that evening, as we were both now tired from our one beer each and in need of an early night. The loud, live music at the bar started at 6.30pm but went on until around midnight, so the early night idea failed!
On Monday we made it to Joinville. Not very far, but success is now measured in number of locks, not in distance and we managed a record 13 locks this day (although we just found out that the guy moored next to us managed 23 the same day, and all on his own!).
We tried a new lock technique with Fraser cycling ahead on faithful ‘foldupy’, carrying the boat hook. This worked well, as he could grab the lines off Kerry at each lock (using the boat hook) and tie them to bollards from above. Some of these locks had a depth of 3.9m so it is very difficult to reach the bollards from below and the only other option is a very slippery ladder.
Kerry was having a great time on her own on the boat, without Fraser constantly nagging about when we should stop for lunch. Although she was wondering about when she might be able to pick him up as he had no water with him and it was very, very hot. As it turned out there was nowhere suitable to stop for lunch due to the weed and shallow banks, so a hungry, hot, grumpy, slightly sunburned Fraser was eventually brought back on board at the final lock.
There were lots of fish on this stretch of canal. Some monster ones, maybe catfish, perhaps 5 foot long, also what looked like very fat carp and plenty of trout. Never seen so many fish, but the fishermen did not seem to have much success, other than one lad, who caught a fish so big that he struggled to hold it in two arms for a photograph. By the way, fishermen seem to think that canals were built for fishermen and not for boats. This is why they do not pull their lines in when boats come along.
Joinville seemed peaceful, except for the frogs, but I’ll give Kerry the pleasure to telling you about that!