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BARGING THROUGH EUROPE

                                                             5 years exploring Europe by barge

                                                                                        Jay and Maureen McDaniell

BOOK ILLUSTRATIONS

 

Copyright AJL McDaniell - all rights reserved.

No copies may be made of this book except in part for education or academic reason.

This book may not be sold or rented for gain.

INTRODUCTION

 In 1999, Jay and Maureen McDaniell, an Australian professional couple in their 50s, decided to close down their Public Relations business in Perth, Western Australia, sell their house and travel to Europe to live and explore France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany on a barge.  In June 2001 Jay set off to buy one.

 A ‘barge’ in Europe is somewhat different from the unpowered floating metal boxes that carry large loads of  sludge and other materials on waterways in other parts of the world.  Natural waterways were used in Europe from early times to transport delicate, large or heavy loads, since most important towns grew up on rivers, their source of water, and their interconnecting roads were little better than muddy quagmires in winter and dusty, bone shaking, load breaking tracks in summer.  The original open boats eventually developed into owner’s homes and shelter for the valuable animals that pulled them.  From the early 1600s, canals were developed and built to link cities and rivers together in order to supply food and to speed manufactured products to markets safely. 

With the availability of cheap diesel engines following World War One, these boats, now made of iron rather than wood, were powered and re-designed to provide proper accommodation for their crews, often families.  Known as Luxemotors (for the comparative luxury accommodation and motor power provided), many survived the ravages of Nazi use during the Second World War and the downsizing of waterways trade in the 1950s through to the 1990s.  The latter decline was caused by cheaper and faster trucking and rail transport that could pick up and deliver direct, door to door or centre to centre, where canals and rivers did not exist.  While some older barges continue to be used for commerce, newer, much larger models were built to continue commercial transport into the 21st Century while many of the remaining, older and smaller models were converted as live-aboard ‘homes’ for explorers and locals alike. 

 Our barge, Van Nelle, the star of this story, was a nearly 90 year old veteran of the Dutch trade, built by the Van Nelle tobacco, coffee and tea company of Rotterdam.  Sold out of their service in the 50s, she carried drinking water and mail and eventually was sold into private use in 1991.  80% converted to live-aboard use during 1999 to 2001, we bought her where she lay in Loosdrecht, the Netherlands, in June 2001 from the young Dutch carpenter who had partially converted her.

 What got us interested in this unusual way of life ?  We had taken a holiday with two other couples on a rental boat in France in 1999 and loved the experience.  Returning to work, it took me only months to work out the financial and practical plan that would take Maureen and I back semi-permanently.  Our decision was based on the premise that you only live once and you have to ‘do it’ while you are physically able, so why work 7 days a week just to pay staff.  Our 30 something year old children were capable of looking after themselves, they had provided no grandchildren so far and while my parents were long gone, Maureen’s were independent and very healthy. There were no insurmountable barriers.

 We sold our house, in part to pay for the boat, leased out our office building and arranged for the rental income from that and other investments to pay our way.  Then we crossed our fingers and jumped.................

 This book is dedicated to my long suffering and loving crew, the chef, the deckhand, wife and mother of our children - without whose agreement, forbearance and patience this voyage could never have happened - despite the fact we disagree with some of its detail !


 

 

                                                                  CONTENTS

NOTE: Click on Chapter numbers to go direct to them and then on the next Chapter heading to get back to the top.

  Introduction.............. Page  2

 Chapter One - 2001 - To the Netherlands............................................................................... Page 4

 Chapter Two - We own Van Nelle......................................................................................... Page 25

 Chapter Three  - The Voyage South..................................................................................... Page 47

 Chapter Four - Burgundy...................................................................................................... Page 69

 Chapter Five  - 2002 - Cruising the Centre and Going South........................................... Page 101

 Chapter Six - Burgundy to Paris......................................................................................... Page 130

 Chapter Seven  - Down the Rhone to the Canals Entre Deux Mers................................. Page 148

 Chapter Eight - Winter in Montech..................................................................................... Page 170

 Chapter Nine - 2003 - Cruising the Midi and Lateral a la Garonne................................. Page 180

 Chapter Ten - Winter and Italy........................................................................................... Page 203

 Chapter Eleven - 2004 - Back to Burgundy and All Points North.................................... Page 209

 Chapter Twelve - End of 2004 - A Trip to Australia......................................................... Page 239

 Chapter Thirteen - 2005 - The Netherlands........................................................................ Page 242

 Chapter Fourteen - Heading South..................................................................................... Page 252

 Chapter Fifteen - Back to Burgundy................................................................................... Page 264

 Chapter Sixteen - Swansong................................................................................................. Page 272

 

 

Chapter One - To The Netherlands

Monday 11 June, 2001.

The day after my 52nd birthday was a panic.  I had to be at the airport at 1.30pm but before that, pick up and install a computer in our office for our lessee, install a run-off gutter on the top step of the office basement to stop the rain flooding our stored records, furniture and effects, get travellers cheques, pick up and deal with the mail, deliver office keys to the office leasing agent - and the house keys to Nina, the agent who had sold our house, then pack for the trip, shower, change and get a taxi to the airport - and hopefully say goodbye to my wife Maureen on the way !  (She was to join me in Holland but not for a couple of months).

Shortly after 1.30pm I was there. I had my front row seat allocation on the plane (unfortunately in economy class), the blood pressure was diminishing somewhat - but the hangover from my previous day’s birthday party and send off at the yacht club was not. I bought some writing paper to reply to a couple of incidental letters (one to my favourite aunt) and settled in to the café to wait for Maureen. She arrived at the airport to farewell me after her morning motor bike lesson and left shortly after for a 3.00pm meeting in Fremantle, Western Australia’s sea port. Long farewells at airports are unhappy things best left for demonstrative Europeans, so ours were short and sweet.

We had both decided to get motor bike licenses as we figured one or two of them would likely fit on a barge, whereas a car was impractical.  I had ridden bikes for years but not legally and Maureen had never tried.  I had taken my test a week before the trip and failed - miserably - while Maureen passed at her first attempt.  Since the waiting time for tests was in the order of two weeks it looked likely I was to ride illegally in Europe as well.  Fortunately the examiners found a cancellation in a different testing office and the day before departure I was ‘helped’ to pass.  This should have been taken as a portent for many of the challenges ahead.

I had a great flight as usual on Singapore Airlines. The choice of good, recent movies, quiet, efficient and generous service, quite good food (but how come it always spills on your shirt), and I was off at Singapore about six hours later.  The cyber cafés at Changi Airport are free and efficient and my email was received, read and replied to in less than fifteen minutes. The one and a half hour connection also allowed time for me to buy some necessities at the airport supermarket since I had left all my toilet articles in the bathroom at my father and mother-in-law’s house.  They had kindly taken us in from the time our house handover had been completed a week before and despite their very real reservations to this mad adventure, had managed to avoid bringing up the subject of ‘responsibility’ in the “how could you be so irresponsible” context.

To be safe I used the efficient connection desk at Changi airport to ensure my front row seat allocation had not been gazumped before boarding.  All was well and on finding my seat I found a young Dutch couple in the row with me which was very useful for finding out some pertinent information about the country I was about the enter. This was a pretty full flight of some 11-12 hours to Schipol in the Netherlands, but a quick snack, a good movie and 3 sleeping pills sent me off for 4 hours. Another few of these very non toxic, no hangover sleeping pills gave me another 4 hours sleep until about 50 minutes before landing. I was feeling much recovered from the hangover now, ready to take delivery of the hire car I had booked on the internet and brave the early morning Dutch freeway traffic.

I should note here that almost everything I did in preparation for this trip was done on the internet.  Looking for barges for sale, finding a broker I was comfortable with, learning about the business of buying and running a nearly 27 metre boat on narrow canals, booking hotels, hire cars, banking, mail, paying accounts, planning routes, booking rail and air tickets, booking moorings, finding boat parts and places for service and maintenance, planning sight seeing - all had been done and continued to be done on the world wide web.  Fortunately my 24 years with IBM and Lexmark prepared me for the technology challenges incurred.

Tuesday 12

I had been to Holland before.  ‘Holland’ is just part of the tiny country more correctly called ‘The Netherlands’ which is only some 200 by 300 kilometres in size !  I came a year before to see barges and to take my ‘Certificate de Capacite’ in northern France so I had a slight idea of what I was in for.  On the previous occasion however I was met by Tony Charman the barge broker and driven everywhere.  This time I had to do it myself.

I arrived at the amazing Schipol airport (which is more of a city in itself) at 6.30am and got through customs pretty quickly. Outside I took off to the wrong end of the terminal to find the rental car guide who, when I retraced my steps, was waiting patiently just near the customs exit. Once found there were some quick formalities and I was on the way to Utrecht and on the first ride into the great unknown, on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and without much of a map.

Maps don’t help much if you are driving without a navigator and therefore can’t read them while driving. Fortunately in Europe, road signs are plentiful and if you see them in time and believe that you should stick to the road you are on until you see a new one re-directing you, you will find your way - which is why I am writing this in my hotel and not from Siberia. I have been ‘lost’, or should I say, temporarily misplaced, most of the time I have been driving the car here and also on foot.

However - my first task was to find the accommodation in Utrecht I thought I had arranged. I should have known from the cryptic email replies I had received that it was going to be a dud and it sure was. A couple of laid back middle eastern people in the house, the front room of which had been hastily converted to a breakfast room / office / reception room / cyber café / whatever. It was very grubby and not at all me. I read the riot act to all and sundry, including one very startled back packer trying to eat a not very appetizing breakfast and I was hastily redirected to ‘the house with a green door’ on the other side of Utrecht.

This address proved to be up a one way street, the entrance of which was blocked completely by road works. After an age of creeping forward - there was no going back - I eventually found the ‘green door’ and got inside to be met by the chaos of a building site. The man in charge directed me to a stair case that was nearly vertical (I kid you not) to the fourth floor that revealed an unfinished room. I would probably not have been able to get the suitcase up the stairs and certainly would never have been able to get it down so I left, now in a bit of a panic about accommodation. It was lucky I didn’t have an inspection to do that day since I was now into the afternoon. I came, I saw and I capitulated - cancelled my booking and set out to search for a better deal.  This was probably the only dud experience I had using the internet.

I retreated to the Centrum of Utrecht (all town centres are called Centrum) found a parking station and headed for the Tourism Office. Normally I would have checked the accommodation with them but in this case I had not been able to get a reply to my email inquiries. In person they could not have been more helpful. I explained where I wanted to be and the price I wanted to pay and within 4 calls they had a hotel in a more convenient town and a chalet at a camping ground as a backup choice, both close to Loosdrecht, the town near several of our preferred barge targets.

While I was in Utrecht I also set off to start a bank account. The first bank was unmanned except on Fridays (look out Australia if that’s the trend); the second provided a set of forms to fill in and then gave me the directions to a competitive bank which was manned (and lady'ed). They couldn’t have been more friendly and after a few little computer glitches (which included issuing me the account number of a huge European conglomerate which happened to have set up an account at exactly the same time), I had an account at the ABN AMRO bank of Utrecht, the Netherlands - my first overseas account !

Flushed with success, I decided it was also time to organise a phone card for my mobile phone to reduce the local call costs. This was also dealt with quickly and efficiently as most Dutch speak exceptionally good English. Unfortunately the first time I wanted to use the phone, having left the assistance of the phone company employees, I was assailed by Dutch instructions from a robot on the other end which proved a major challenge. But now it was time to set off for the adjoining town of Houten and my hotel.

Road works are a regular thing in Holland it seems. One way streets abound, some with only one exit, many completely blocked by road works. The same is in evidence in the town of Houten where I eventually found the really pretty little hotel they had arranged.  It is on a town square surrounded by old churches, cute shops and plane trees. However to get there, the entrance from the ring road was completely blocked and necessitated an 11 km drive to approach from the opposite side of the town to the only other entrance. This could be hilarious at peak hour if one was still in reasonable humour after a day of being trapped or going the wrong way on massive freeways.

The hotel was really a beaut little pub, cheap, at about 35 Euros per day, but the sting was in the cost of meals - 30 Euros and beer at 3 each. This seems a bit strange since the food and wines are not expensive when bought at supermarkets and wine shops - one of which is just next door !  Dinner was pleasant but lonely and the bed was soft and warm.

Wednesday 13

Today was the first boat inspection day so I was up early and off to Aalst to look at ‘Vrijheid’.

At this time of course we did not own a boat.  We had seen several we were very happy with on our separate inspection trips, mine taken in October the year before this, and I knew from the broker there were several more that fitted our requirements.  I had seen Van Nelle the year before, a 27 metre ‘Katwijker’ type that had been about 80% converted.  Frank, the owner, had promised it would be finished by April 2001 and I had been dismayed to see the price on the internet rising.  An indication of the increased value as it approached completion I thought.

With the confidence of my convictions I had convinced Maureen to pack and send our furniture and belongings by sea in a container in June and they were to arrive in late July, so I actually had to find a barge that would fit the refrigerators, tables and chairs, sideboards and stereos, washing machine and dryer and all the other goods and chattels we had sent to live with.  I had better get on with it.

I started early as I was waking up between 4.30 and 5.30am, brain already racing. Breakfast was preset the night before so it was easy to get off to a good start. As a side issue, breakfast is made up of slices of bread, cheese and ham, butter, coffee, chocolate, jams and condiments.  No wheaties, no vegemite.

I ate some and made a sandwich of the rest and decided I would do some recce’s of the camping ground and the location of the main target boat ‘Van Nelle’ before my first inspection at 11.00am. I found both - not without driving dramas - and arrived at Vrijheid, my first appointment in time to video outside of the ship to the accompaniment of the large guard dog on the passarelle (gangway).

Maureen had seen Vrijheid on her trip a little over a year before and had video taped it so I was already familiar with a lot of its features. This ship had a lot of benefits but also some show stoppers, such as its size. It was just too big for the job we had in mind, with a 5 metre beam and 3.2m air height that was not reduce able by lowering the roof, as it was a one piece steel construction. However, I had a good 2-3 hour inspection from the bilge to the decks and from the bow to the stern in order to get some experience before Friday - Van Nelle day.  It also gave me a recent boat I could compare, in negotiations on price and conditions with Van Nelle’s owners.  In the end that worked well for me.

This day I also came to grips with solving some phone problems.  The phone was key to my communication strategy for both the internet (connected to my lap top computer) and voice to the broker and home.  It seemed to just cut out from time to time, and had a constant and infuriating email problem, not being able to send messages out, which turned out to be a missing phrase in the code line for the outward mail server.  Finding a phone company shop was key in solving the problem.

On the way back to Houten I came across a very flash boat sales yard and marina and went in to inquire if they had any leads - they came up with Mijnheer Maurits Horst (who you will meet later) and so I arranged to meet him later in the week in Amsterdam.

Wednesday was Rotary night in Houten so I went to make some acquaintances. A pleasant meal with some of the meeting conducted in English (for me), but the guest speaker presenting in Dutch. He spoke for 40 minutes about concrete. I didn’t think there was that much to say about the subject and by the looks on the faces of the rest of the audience, they agreed ! The highlight of the occasion however, was that they introduced themselves and their professions and I introduced myself to a lawyer who may have been useful in legal work for the boat.  He had the unlikely but propitious name of Helm Osse. It sounds to me like he is meant ‘to steer, this Aussie’, a good omen I think.

Thursday 14

I went for a run this morning (this being before my knees and ankles protested too much and sent me biking instead) and found the railway station was only a ten minute walk (or a five minute run) from the hotel. Trains ran to Utrecht every 16 minutes, so I decided I would take the train to meet Maurits in Amsterdam. Now, I had seen something on TV about a train derailment, but since it was in Dutch I had not put 2 and 3 together, so when I arrived at the station I was informed that the rail to Amsterdam from Utrecht was out and the train / bus / train combination would take about 2 hours. I decided to drive instead - to Amsterdam - I must have been crazy !

Getting to Amsterdam is not too much of a problem as the freeways are great and mostly lead to the city - if you get on in the right direction.  It is when you get into Amsterdam - city of canals - and need to find your way through the ring roads blocked by canals, road works, bikes, tourists and one way streets, that you have the problem. Amazingly I found the meeting place quite easily as it was just off the freeway, and was soon lambasted by Maurits’ favourite philosophies of barging, none of which I agreed with, as his ideas started at $US 500,000.  This lasted about and hour before I could get him to take me to see some ships he had in preparation at ‘his’ shipyard. Strangely he had trouble finding the place where ‘his boats’ were.  That should have said something but I was distracted by seeing the sand blasting and coating that was under way on a couple of hulls before we made up with a herring sandwich and the inspection of a new boat. 

Farewelling the garrulous and far too expensive Mynheer Horst I began my return to Utrecht.

I took every wrong turn possible in Amsterdam, becoming more and more ‘misplaced’ and turning a 5 minute connection to the A2 freeway a 40 minute un-conducted tour of the back streets, unfortunately not the interesting ones !  I finally made it to the freeway and into Utrecht where I circled the block three times trying to find the entrance to the main city car park. In circling the block I found I was actually using a ‘bus only’ street into the central bus depot at the central station. Thankfully I was not pounced on by the local police but I was looked at strangely by locals waiting for their busses as I passed them several times.

Once I had parked and left the parking station I found myself in a really confusing shopping mall that linked buildings with the central station, the town centre and the huge music theatre and concert hall. I was so concerned I would lose the car by not being able to find my way back to the subterranean cavern that I retraced my steps immediately to assure myself I knew where to find it. Even then it was touch and go.

Then it got worse, I really couldn’t remember where the bank was that I had set up my account just two days earlier, and forgetting I had the address on the manager’s card in my wallet, I had to go to the ever helpful tourist office to get directions. I also went to the phone shop to get the message numbers changed so that my instructions were now in English and also to check out why one of the top up cards was faulty, since it was not accepted by the robot voice. It actually was not faulty, the boy in the shop (they look young enough to be boys), had already installed it for me. How he did that without taking it out of its wrapper and scratching off the code number protective layer I have no idea. I guess that’s why you get the kid from next door to programme your video !

By this time I was again fuelled by stress and unfuelled by food. The herring sandwich, which was very small, had been hours earlier and breakfast had been a long time before that. Solution, 100gm of chocolate. They have great confectionery everywhere to tempt you. After this quick refuelling I was off to find the car, fingers crossed. I found it - surprisingly just where I had left it ! Following that triumph (small wins were now assuming grand proportions) I also found the way back to Houten and my hotel.

Just to add a bit of spice to my life, while having dinner and watching the Boule Championship that was staged in the square in front of the Hotel Roskam, the owner wandered over to ask at what time I would be leaving the next day. I was stunned since I believed I had a couple of weeks reserved. We discussed the issue which she explained was brought about by the hotel being fully booked and agreed that she would ‘see what she could do’ and inform me the next day - Van Nelle inspection day. Surely I didn’t need that to add to the mounting apprehension of the inspection and negotiation for our new home.  I really needed to buy a boat - and not only a boat - but the right boat.

By this time I had convinced myself that Van Nelle was going to be the best bet.  When I had seen her in 2000 she had everything we needed and more but she was just not finished.  She had three ample sized bedrooms, a large and comfortable saloon with dining and galley en-suite, leading to a spacious office area just outside the large bathroom which was complete with full size bath.  Up stairs she had a huge wheelhouse suitable for meals on the move and in inclement weather, and a huge open and unobstructed back deck.  Forward of the wheelhouse she had a wide, flat cabin top and plenty of walk around deck with an unobstructed foredeck for mooring, anchoring and just observing.  She was in my mind - perfect. 

The broker, Tony Charman, had been very reserved about her when we inspected her a year before as she then needed a lot of work to finish her.  The engine room was a mess, plumbing was rudimentary, wiring had not been connected to lights and pumps, the finishing touches of door and window surrounds were unfinished or missing, she was rusty, unpainted and covered with scrap iron, wood and junk.  I believed I could see through the mess to the finished boat and with the rising price I had seen on the web, I had the expectation she would now sparkle.

Now just to put buying a barge into perspective.... When negotiating you must have a number of equally acceptable alternative solutions in order to strengthen your hand. I had eliminated the only other major immediate contender the day before and now had a win or lose situation facing me. It was critical that I not only secure Van Nelle, if she was suitable, but also do it at the right price or we could not afford to run her. If we missed securing Van Nelle and could not identify and close an alternative in the next week or so, we had a limited future in the canal boat business ! Pressure was building.

Friday 15 - the BIG day, Van Nelle inspection day.

How to keep the stress, excitement and nervousness down to acceptable limits was the major challenge. First, a run in the morning to get the brain and body under control, then breakfast. Next challenge, to keep the breakfast down.   

Since the inspection was scheduled for 12.00 noon I had some hours to kill so I decided to check out the alternative accommodation which I had confirmed was available from the 16th of the month. This was a self contained cabin in a camp site less than 7km from Van Nelle. I found my way directly to their office, now with the assistance of my GPS which I had logged onto the area on the previous visit. My inquiry was met with the response that they were so sorry but they had let the cabin yesterday - I had not called - what could they do. So now I had nowhere to live and possibly no boat. Things were starting to look grim but in my short conversations ‘home’ I sounded upbeat and confident - thankfully we didn’t have video phones !

I drove to the yacht harbour where I thought Van Nelle was located and made a quick change of clothes into inspection gear.  Wandering about I could not find her.  Frank deJong, the owner, arrived shortly after and was full of friendly enthusiasm as he guided me to his ski boat for the ride to an anchorage out on the huge 5 lake system that is the Loosdrechtse (pronounced loose-drect-sea). We had a pleasant slow trip out through the labyrinth of channels along the shore line until finally we came out onto the lakes and then, at great speed, on towards two barges, Van Nelle and Franks new Tjalk, a hull very much under conversion.

I asked for a couple of slow circuits of the hulls to inspect the paint and hull state of Van Nelle and the bow, anchor, chain and stern, before pulling alongside and climbing up on deck. I was devastated as I was met by the sight of the boat in basically the same state as I had seen it 8 months before but now looking shabbier for the passing of time and lack of work on her. I felt a more than a slight sinking feeling.

I started the inspection with a run through a check list of ‘must haves’ with Frank and then sent him off to find the ship’s papers while I checked some critical measurements. Wheelhouse up - 3.2 metres, down 2.8. Not perfect but workable. Depth 1.25m - a bit deep for a few places but OK for the majority. I checked the bow height - 2.8m, the same as to the top of the wheel. (Note: With the wheelhouse folded down the steering wheel is now the highest point and another 10cm or so could be reduced by removing the wheel and using the tiller steering).  The dimensions just fitted our requirements and as the standard French locks are 38 by 5.05 metres and the depth of their waterways 1.8 metres, she would take us where we wanted to go.  Being able to reduce the height by taking down the wheelhouse roof and folding down the wheelhouse windows would enable us to traverse the Canal du Midi in the south of France where a max height of 3.0m was required.

A walk around the deck showed what it could look like when finished as Frank had done a bit of quick work the day before, painting the inside of the bow area which looked quite smart. The rest of the deck and superstructure and fittings would all have to be done. The glass skylights, hatches, outer top sides and deck equipment was covered with primer but needed scraping back and repainting and the wheelhouse was desperately in need of varnish.

Inside the wheelhouse revealed some cracked glass panes, curtain material just wrapped over foam as cushions, grubby carpets and incomplete wiring. No major problems here but again a fair bit of work needed.  I began to agree with Tony Charman’s professional advice when he said she would cost a lot of money and time to bring up to standard.  This was not what we had planned for our first summer.

Down stairs we went to the saloon which had inbuilt furniture that had not been finished off and walls that did not quite meet the floor. The bathroom needed a shower and curtain but the bath, sink and toilet were OK.

Though the saloon to the bedrooms.  The first needed a bed as it was used as a nursery, the second had a double and was OK but the third had an inbuilt single bed which would need to be taken out and replaced by a double.  All the rooms needed finishing.  The walls needed to be taken to the top of the ceiling in the front cabin, the water tank under the main cabin bed needed to be resealed and lights and fans installed in each bedroom. Windows and doors needed finishing and painting and the walls painted.

The electrics appeared basically modern and functional, but needed to be finished off professionally and the dirty water system had yet to be installed in the engine room. The generator and main engine  appeared basically sound but the Baudouin main propulsion engine had an old generator unsecured and hanging off it that need to be secured or replaced, the engine wiring and gauges need to be connected and a start stop switch installed.  Frank started the main engine by jamming a couple of wires together !

The boat had great basics and potential but needed effort, expertise, time and lots of cash to make it great or even good.  Despite all the disappointment of the state it was supposed to be in and was not, I could see the potential for this down at heel thoroughbred to be a proud leader on the waterways and a great platform for the lifestyle we planned to have.

Frank and I got to talking and I wondered whether he was ready for an offer. I had been preparing him by pointing out the problems as we discovered them and he had contributed by adding things he felt needed to be done in order to hand over a ‘completed’ ship. I asked him what he wanted for the boat. He hedged, saying that he was always aware that the price would have to come down to allow for the work but that he had a bottom line in mind. I then bit the bullet and put a very low but realistic offer to him.  I held my breath as it was well below the amount now advertised on the website and even below the original ‘take-it-as-it-is’ price.

After a bit of a hiatus in discussions I started on about the other great boats I was about to buy and started showing off some photos of Vrijheid (translation - Freedom). I added that I really liked Van Nelle’s potential but that I would only be interested if I could get her at a reasonable price and with his assistance to finish the major items.  He hesitated, obviously thinking deeply, and then - joy of joys - agreed !

I could have hugged him. No quibbling, haggling or hanging out for more. Just the offer and acceptance. I was thrilled. The price was well below what I had thought he would want and gave us room to move with refit and finishing costs. We had a drink to the deal and to the fact that it was Frank’s birthday. We then went cruising.  I was delighted and now wanted to take over.  That was not quite in Frank’s mind initially as he manoeuvred the boat expertly away from his new project and onto open water.  We took the boat all over the extensive lakes, putting her though her paces and through extensive manoeuvring, stopping, starting, turning and reversing. She performed very well, albeit heavy on the steering since she does not have a balanced rudder or power steering. I felt that could be worth considering as part of the many items starting to mount in my mind and on my notebook pages.

After a couple of hours (time flies when your messing about in boats), we had to call it quits and head back. I took her all the way including a sharp turn behind his Tjalk and up alongside it - coming alongside smoothly. I could see Frank was nervous and he made a comment that the boat was still not mine yet and that he would have taken a different route but he quickly admitted that the manoeuvre was well done and that he was pleased a good skipper was taking her over. We then checked the engine, which had not even raised a sweat, and went aboard the Tjalk to meet his father, a jolly chubby chap who was busy doing the carpentry.

We called the Dutch broker to complete the deal and it was now time to put me ashore. We arranged a meeting for Sunday, reiterated and wrote down the basic agreement and headed back to the yacht basin. I drove back to Houten to ring Maureen with the news, check if I still had accommodation and to celebrate. The next morning I had a slight buzz in the head from the very pleasant meal and wine - albeit enjoyed in lonely mode, thousands of miles from Maureen and friends.

Our main consideration in choosing a barge to live on was space.  Since we were to on board live for some years, we wanted to have sufficient space to enjoy life, not merely to exist.  This meant reasonable sized bedrooms (for us and guests, as we planned to have plenty of them), living areas - lounge, dining, deck and working areas and preferably a good area to watch the world go by when underway.  It was important that we have enough space for each of us so we were not tripping over each other and to have room to do things separately when appropriate. 

Van Nell provided everything we wanted in regard to space.  Three double sized cabins, a huge open plan saloon with dining area and galley, leading on to an office space and quite large bathroom with a full size bath and shower (to be installed).  Upstairs was a large wheelhouse with room for 6 to eat at the soon to be installed revolving table that fitted perfectly into the three sided settee that looked forward, leaving plenty of space for the helms-person when we were underway.

Outside was a huge deck, fore and aft, especially behind the wheelhouse.  We had packed a large jarrah table and a gas barbecue and needed space for them and some easy chairs, the bikes and other paraphernalia.  In front of the wheelhouse was a large flat deck over the living areas into which were let huge skylights that illuminated the saloon.  All around the cabin top was a wide walkway making it easy to access all areas of the boat when needed, for access to the wheelhouse, mooring, locking and cleaning.

Importantly, our furniture, including two refrigerators, a washing machine and dryer, computer system, sofas, chairs, tables and sideboards, would all fit comfortably, in fact with room left over for some comfortable chairs to be sourced from Ikea.

There were however more serious considerations which actually should have taken priority but which fortunately came together to complete the perfect package.  These included the integrity of the hull, the condition and reliability of the engine, gearbox, prop shaft and propeller, the generator, battery system, electrics, plumbing and steering systems.  As the process of inspections, trials and survey would indicate however, these basics were adequate or better, with only some modifications, maintenance and upgrading to make them excellent.

Winter was a big consideration as well, so heating and insulation were important and well taken care of by an oversize Kabola diesel water heater and central heating system plus full insulation between floor and hull, walls and hull and ceiling and roof.  Heating was reinforced by a lovely pot belly stove set into the saloon.

The galley was small but adequate, but was without an oven, a requirement of the chef which was soon sourced and installed.  A mid size refrigerator was also sourced locally to run off 220v rather than 24 as it was more efficient and a good deal less expensive and would run well from the 220v inverter system supplied by the batteries.

We were not initially concerned by the history of the boat but this aspect soon became a key aspect of our ship as we learned more about it.  It was some years before we had the full story, which became clear as we travelled back to Holland from France in 2005, visiting the boatyard where she was built 90 years before.

The Van Nelle coffee, tea and tobacco company was a large and prosperous importer and manufacturer whose owner was influenced by an Indian guru to provide the best working conditions for his employees.  As a result he built a huge factory complex in Rotterdam and had visions of a fleet of ships to gather and distribute his product.  Van Nelle 1 (as she was originally known) was the first (and sadly the last) as the company shrivelled under the ravages of cost and war.

Van Nelle was built in 1905 in Alkmaar by the Nicolas Witsen Shipwerf.  Exceeding it’s original quote in cost, she was originally 22 metres long and powered by a coal gas consuming Landaal engine, soon to be replaced by a Brons diesel, as the original continued to break down.  The original captain was also replaced soon after launching by a Captain Slingerland, as his predecessor hit a bridge with the ship during it’s first year of service.  Slingerland was to guide the ship until she was sold in 1953 when she was engaged to continue carrying drinking water and mail. 

Her history during World War II is unclear but she continued with Van Nelle after having her name changed to Water Victory.  She was decommissioned from the company in 1953, before being sold through several companies and in 1991 to several private owners in Amsterdam who used her for excursions but did not convert her for living.  During this time her wheelhouse was extended and her engine changed to the current Baudouin, obtained from a ‘Spits’ barge which was about to be broken up.  In 1998 she was sold to the carpenter and decorator, ‘80% Frank’ as his 5th boat conversion.  And in 2001, I arrived.

We were later to meet the previous private owners and indeed, the grand daughter of Captain Slingerland, visit the ship’s birthplace, discover photographs of it just after launching, find her original order and her history through the Kadaster, the Netherlands titles office.

Our journey of discovery was not to begin for some time however as there was much to do just to get to own Van Nelle and there was obviously much to do in preparing the ship for it’s travels.

Saturday 16 June

I now decided I would have a bit of a holiday since the hard part of the project was now completed with just the formalities to arrange. I hoped !  Today I would relax and look around. That idea lasted for about an hour before I changed tacks and started on the to-do list, my mind too excited to just wander and sight see. I wanted to compare the cost and condition of scooters to motor bikes, do some laundry, change phone plans to see if I could reduce the communication costs and visit furniture shops (especially Ikea) for essential furnishings like beds.

The scooter investigation turned up a shop in Houten that sold new and used Peugeot, Piaggio and Honda machines. A new Peugeot Sportline scooter will cost less than a 15 year old 250cc bike and comes with a 3 year, Europe wide insurance and parts guarantee. Sounds good but the machine cannot be used on freeways so will be best left until I move closer to Loosdrecht and Van Nelle.

I then drove into Utrecht for the other items except, once again I missed not one by three turnoffs and entered the town from the north. It took some time to get to Centrum and the parking station, a different one since I still can’t find the first one which I thought was really convenient. I headed off to the Tourist Office to find out where the laundrette and Ikea could be found. They obliged with maps for both and I went off to do the washing, going via the phone office where I changed the phone plan. About an hour later I was at Ikea amassing a shopping list and shortly after I headed back to Houten - but first of course I took the wrong turn on to the freeway and had to reverse my direction some 5-10km later.  Once on these European super freeways you are on them for up to 15 km or more before you can reverse directions.  I decided then to make more use of my GPS.

Once back in Houten I went off to the supermarket to get some writing material. None were available but on the way out I spied racks of Van Nelle Tobacco. The company that built our ship is still in existence and according to Frank had just spent large amounts refurbishing their historic buildings. This was a bit of a revelation as it meant we could get information on her provenance. 

I took the contact details from a tobacco packet in order to contact their PR people for any detail they may have on the ship. Walking back to the hotel I passed the tobacconists shop where, in the front window was a photo of the shop in 1930 with the words Van Nelle emblazoned all over the windows. I immediately asked the owner if I could borrow the picture to be copied. He was happy with the suggestion and I made arrangements with the local photographer to do the job on Monday.

A simple meal that night was found at the deli around the corner - a hamburger.

Sunday 17 - Contract negotiation day.

This turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax as Frank had arranged to meet at a restaurant and my juices were flowing - but it wasn’t to be lunch. We met at the restaurant at 1200 but immediately went out to the ship on the lake - Van Nelle that is. We sat at his table, without food, and agreed and disagreed about who would pay for the extra bits and work and how much - and guess what - I ended up paying for most of the items. But that’s what I expected so it was no great surprise.

After we agreed the detail for the contract I returned to Houten. An uneventful night except that I tried a new place to eat which turned out to be the best of the lot. They were full so I had to sit at the bar - that was great because I could see all the meals going out and choose the best. Sitting at the bar also gets you involved in the banter at the bar so you feel you have some company - even if it is all in Dutch.....

Monday 18 - A fill-in day that went up like a balloon.

I agreed to meet Frank at Loosdrecht to seek out dinghies and motors since I was going to need both to get out to the ship which would be anchored out at the lake. We met and transferred to his Land Rover and headed off to a couple of new and second hand equipment shops.

We sussed out a couple of likely boats and engines, finally bringing the cost down to about €1800 from nearer €6,000. The choice of both engine and motor are to some extent contingent on each other so I made offers and gave my phone number to receive acceptances or negotiation. Then we made some calls to book surveyors, insurance companies and a ship yard for a survey.

To cut to the chase - the shipyard contacted by Frank immediately said "come tomorrow",  the insurance company said they could supply a surveyor and were happy to insure an Australian - and so, we were off to Amsterdam THE NEXT DAY !!!!  Yea - a real trip in the boat.

That of course caused all sorts of considerations, not the least of which was that Frank and Louise and their two kids needed to relocate to her mother’s house on shore and therefore shift a whole bunch of personal belongings overnight since they were not coming for the week long trip. I was invited back to Van Nelle for dinner and to go over the plans for the trip before I went back to Houten to extricate myself from the Hotel Roskam and its owner, the Madam from hell!

This rather large, self important lady had been a pain when I checked in since I wanted to see the rooms and negotiate for a better one at a lower rate. She apparently had a low view of me from that exchange.  I had paid a week in advance and she definitely did not want to give any of the money for the four unused days back. After trying to be nice for a while I lost it. We had a stand up fight in the bar / restaurant before I threatened to go to the VVV with threats about her license. At that she tactically withdrew to the office and when she re-appeared, threw money at me - not enough to cover the four days but enough for me to feel really good since I had been perfectly willing to go 50 / 50. As it happened, I had found another hotel right in Loosdrecht which I could use after the Amsterdam trip so I was not phased by not being able to return to the Roskam.  After packing I went to bed that night with a delicious apprehension, waking at 5.00am Tuesday, ready to go.

Tuesday 19 - The cruise to Amsterdam

I managed to contain some of my early morning excitement by going for a run and packing the car before having breakfast.  I then headed for Loosdrecht having given the Hotel Roskam and its owner an Aussie salute.

Now you know that I take at least one wrong turn on every journey, well, this time I didn’t ! On arrival at the roundabout just short of the boatyard however I was confronted with more of Holland’s road works which completely closed off the only road into town from this direction. Now I not only had to take another route - but I had to find it and not get so hopelessly misplaced that I would be late. I was actually about an hour and a half early but that gave me no comfort as I meandered the Dutch countryside. I actually tried following other cars that had also been stopped at Loosdrecht but they had apparently decided that they were NOT heading in my desired direction.

Thank God for GPS. I have been wearing out my little hand held Magellan since I arrived and it had saved me hours. Unfortunately it is not (yet) programmed with all the roads and towns of Holland - but it soon will be !

I arrived an hour before the meeting time of 8.30am and called Frank to advise. He was early also and arrived a half hour later with his daughter Cosette, who goes to school just across the road from the yacht harbour. We then went off to the boat and were received by a hassled looking Louise - his partner and mother of the kids. Boxes were loaded into their biggish dinghy and she set off for shore as we started the engine and headed off towards the Vecht - the narrow canal out of the lakes.

What can I say - this was bliss - it just doesn’t get any better. Sun shining, lots of boats - big, bigger, small and HUGE. Small canals with tiny locks and big canals with huge ones and Amsterdam harbour, full of ferries, barges and ships, and I drove Van Nelle (almost) all the way....BLISS.

There is a cute custom here where the lock keepers and bridge operators swing a clog attached to a pole by fishing line out to the boats going through for donations. You don’t have to pay - but don’t come back this way if you don’t, since they have long poles and longer memories.

On the way, we were behind a Locaboat 1260 (the boat we had in France on our last trip with David and Judith Reed and Gary and Dianne Prattley) and a private cruiser. After being held up by the obviously inexperienced Locaboat operator for a while in small canals I pushed the throttle fully forward and breezed past at over 14 km/h, that’s nearly 9 knots, pretty amazing considering the size of the boat and the fact that it only has a 150hp engine.

We took 4 hours to get to Amsterdam and after about an hour’s wait we came out of the water.  This was achieved by manoeuvring Van Nelle on to a submerged cradle that is hauled up a slope by a powerful electric winch.  It is important to get your ship perfectly aligned with the bearers that support it or damage can be caused to the hull and important parts such as the rudder and propeller.  Fortunately the yard crew and Frank knew where to position Van Nelle and it was all soon aligned, secured and the tow out completed easily.

Now bear in mind that seeing the bottom of the boat for the first time is fraught with apprehension as its condition is critical to the future of your ownership.  She was just beautiful. Absolutely beautiful !

I became very emotional as it was such a momentous occasion as our magnificent ship rose out of the water, straight, true, huge and elegant. It was a hell of a feeling and a hell of a good day.  I had however some work to do to prepare for the conference with the yard manager, set for the next morning, to agree the extent of work required and the costs, so after a couple of revolutions around the boat I hopped aboard to get organised.  This was a strange environment for it was my first time on the boat alone and it was now on a pronounced angle, down at the stern on the slipway.  And since it was out of the water , I could not use items such as the shower, the toilet and the sinks.  Fortunately the ship yard had facilities nearby for just that eventuality and so for the next few days I was to climb up and down ladders on a regular basis.

The next day came quickly and a lot happened.

The boat was pressure cleaned early and the surveyor arrived to mark the hull in about 40 places where his hammer indicated he should test hull thickness.  This is done by cleaning the hull of paint down to shiny metal and applying an electronic measuring device.  If the thickness of the plate is less than about 4mm a new piece of steel has to be welded over the top.  Fortunately this was not the case and he reported as such to his insurance company.  They however got stroppy that I didn’t have a Dutch address.  We therefore gave them the flick and found another barge insurance company, Schepen Onderling, which was happy to take our money. The costs are 0.7% of the value of the boat with a 1,000 Guilder excess to insure the boat for 300,000 guilders with a 2 year no claim benefit provided.  At this time the Euro had not been announced.

I had to go off to Utrecht to transfer money after a conference with Mijnheer Post Brouwer - the stately and lovely owner of the yard - about the jobs and costs. I requested a list of jobs, including painting and antifouling below the waterline, painting the freeboard (the top part of the hull above the waterline), putting handles, locks and props on all the skylights, providing and installing a double gas box (I ran out of gas that night and having only one bottle could not cook the chicken I had bought), building a new front hatch, putting double horns on the bollards and fixing a leaking water tank.

I returned from Utrecht to find the boat painted. If I thought it looked good before, you can imaging my delight at its shiny new appearance when I returned - and that was only the first coat !

This is a great place to do these things. The professionals are helpful and skilled and not avaricious or devious. The slipways are good and there are showers and toilets plus shore power and a key to the yard provided for car and pedestrian access. Of course they had plenty of time to do the painting since I had travelled almost to Arnhem and Breda before I got onto the freeway in the correct direction - well, I didn’t know the Dutch geography and you have to make decisions very quickly.

As the evening arrived I was in a pretty good state of mind.  ‘The Police’ were giving me their best hits from the CD player, I’d had cheese and bickies with a couple of Leffe Blondes (beers) from Belgium and since I could not cook my chicken dinner as I had run out of gas, I had to go out for another cheap meal. It was Indian last night but there were plenty of other choices as the area was dotted with lots of small, inexpensive restaurants.

Oh yes, the mouse ! (Maureen loved this).

Apparently Frank and Louise’s cat loves catching mice and rather than eating them he brings them onto the boat. This morning as I slept on the sofa (since the beds have been pulled up to fix the tanks) I heard and saw a small movement. A little mouse with big ears scampering about the saloon floor looking for crumbs. Cute but condemned ! Mouse traps have been added to the shopping list. We have ants too. These things and more WILL be fixed over the next month.

The next night I was woken by the feeling that someone was tugging my hair.  As I snapped on the torch I saw and heard a mouse running away, across the floor.  In one movement I picked up and hurled a boot at it and miraculously hit it.  Exit one dead mouse and enter several traps in which I caught his mate.  That was the end of the mouse plague and my hair thinning experience.

The next day I conducted some full power supervising and got some personal work done on the preparation to revarnish the wheelhouse that was to make a big difference to the appearance of the superstructure. The other big jobs were the preparation and painting of the decks and roofs and the cleaning out and painting of the engine room. That had to wait till we went back to Loosdrecht.

Head Jobs. No I’m not starting on the pornographic sections of a yet to be written novel - or talking about work on the toilet - I’m talking about the number of times I have battered my bean on low objects. As every boat owner knows, there are always areas on boats where you can bump your head. It takes a few months and bumps until ducking projections becomes sub-conscious and since I’m now talking about it - yes I had a growing number of small head wounds accumulating. That is not to say that you have to be a midget to enjoy Van Nelle - hell it has more than 6'6" (2.06m) head room - but there are a couple of head bangers in unusual places.

Just a final note on that day. The banks are very efficient I Holland but they got this one wrong. I went to the bank in Utrecht to transfer Van Nelle’s payment to the broker’s account and to pick up my cash card. They had the card but when it came to activating it with the pin number I had been given - no go. That caused lots of teeth sucking at the bank and a suggestion I should check in Australia for the letter that has the original number on it. Nope, Maureen hadn’t seen it. Only one thing for it - either a new card or a new pin number. How do you get it - by letter - another week before that can happen. Ah well, its good to have Visa and traveller’s cheques.

Footnote: I went to another branch after Maureen advised the number had arrived and it was processed without a hitch. The only glitch was when the issuing centre activated the new pin. Oh well, tomorrow was another day of excitement, fun and fulfilment. How’s your tomorrow looking ?

Thursday 21

They say things have to get worse before they get better and that seems to be the case inside the boat.  The water tanks had to be fixed as they apparently overflow when filled and since they have timber surrounding them it all has to come out. The welding work on the bollards, windows and skylights made them all look like they were under construction and added worker’s boot prints all over the deck. The wheelhouse had the carpet lifted and I installed a two way radio, all of which added to the confusion.  

Today the electrician I had asked for came to be briefed and to prepare a quote. 36 hours was a guess at 90 guilders an hour plus parts. I wanted him to restore the original engine control panel, provide a new alternator and do some work on the batteries, starter, engine stop and other miscellaneous, but obviously expensive items. He indicated that work would not be able to be started for a couple of weeks, by which time I would obviously be back at Loosdrecht.  However, it was possible to return when the container of our household goods from Australia arrived and to be able to unpack it directly onto the boat at that time.

I had previously found a great chandler and had to drag myself away twice after buying a two way radio and three fire extinguishers. I saw and wanted to buy a cable connection for the GPS plus its European data base and some brass portholes but I went quietly after talking to myself severely.

The purchase of the radio raised a few questions at the shop. Did I have a license ? The radio is capable of some functions not allowed by the licensing bureau in Holland, did I want them enabled or disabled ? Will it be exported ?  Radios were at that time still tightly controlled in Holland and subject to your holding an operator’s licence.  Once I gave appropriate answers their response was ‘Primo ! (Ok then), if it is to be sold to an Australian who will take it away and who has an Australian pilot’s license then we can program it to your wishes and you can leave with it now’.

The Dutch have a very formal side and another side which tries to avoid regulation, tax and taboos at every opportunity. You have to listen to their questions carefully. For example, when I was presented with a quote for some work I was asked if I was happy to pay the 19% GST. Naively I said Yes I was OK with it - since I didn’t believe it was optional. It was later explained that had I said no, the final account would not have been formally written and the amounts altered accordingly. I wondered whether this was an acceptable alternative to claiming back the VAT / GST at the border which foreigners can do. Probably not !

Today, having been able to A) get rid of Frank’s 4 bags of garbage from the deck and B) get a new gas bottle, I would have a night ‘at home’ on the boat to cook the chicken and vegetables I had bought yesterday. There were no signs of any more creepy crawlies or four footed friends since I sent Mickey and Minney to mouse heaven so I will be eating alone.  Oh yes, I almost went to Amsterdam last night as the black Rastafarian living on a nearby ship was off to a reggae jam session with about 20 muso friends. He mentioned Amsterdam and ‘back at about 2.30am’ so I felt it was best to wish him well and not chance the local breathalyser since I had already had a couple of Leffe Blondes in town and noticed they were 10% proof - and we think our beer is strong. By the way, I sought out light beer and have been assured it is available but haven’t been able to actually find any.

Tomorrow they pressure test the tanks and finish the windows, skylights and other small jobs and I get to clean the engine room bilge. Oh well.

Friday 22 June

Filthy, disgusting, atrocious, smelly, gunky, slimy, black, cloying - what other words can I find to describe the accumulated detritus of three or more years of an owner who obviously doesn’t care what is in the bottom of his boat. Wood, wire, plastic, paper, oil, water and God knows what else I fished, dug, picked and scooped out of the engine room bilge. Two hours and three sets of rubber gloves later, I had four, 20 litre drums of oil enriched water and three buckets of bits to dispose of. This is the kind of job that can only be done effectively in a shipyard which has the facilities to dispose of this muck properly.  Van Nelle was standing next to a huge steel tank that had been acquired by the yard to hold bilge water and old oil.  It was close enough to lay a plank across to it from the deck and thereby easily dump container after filthy container of contents straight in.  This made this job almost bearable despite the height off the ground from the precarious plank bridge being about 5 metres.

Feeling somewhat dehydrated at 11.00am after starting before 8.00, I decided to take a break while the workers got on with the windows, skylights and water tanks. I went to the hardware store - where else does a bloke without a shed go ? What wonders you can find in these amazing temples to DIY. New doors for the bathroom, shower screens and shower extensions with five speed water delivery, paints, brushes, scrapers, silicone, plastic rubbish bags and rust preparation paint were all on the shopping list and all were here. These huge markets also have a wide range of kitchen bench tops for example and they will cut them perfectly to your specifications at no charge !

I wandered lonely as a cloud until I passed their cafeteria where I bought a Sprite lemonade from a young girl who, after looking at my Albany Festival tee shirt said "sailing ?" "No" I replied trying to find a way to explain the Centenary of Federation Festival and ANZAC Day to a Dutch girl in English. "Explain it anyway you like" she said, this time with an English accent. Seems she is the girlfriend of a boy born in Australia who has lived and worked on boats in the UK most of his 20 something years and has now bought a ex fishing boat which they are converting. So far, the five month project has been ten months in the making and hence the girlfriend’s job at the hardware supermarket. I chatted boats for a while and headed back to do the balance of the bilge and to fix the glass into the new front hatch.

The problem with the water tanks has now been resolved. Both the main and auxiliary tanks inspection plate bolts were loose allowing water to spill over the top and look like it was coming from the welds. I had another boat with leaking tanks welds but this was a simple answer. After securing the bolts, about 20 minutes of testing proved they both held their pressure - so that was that - another tick in the done column and much less expensive than expected..

I decided I would celebrate by having another Indian meal in Zaandam, the nearby town. Another night in another town, another meal in another restaurant and another beer in another bar. This town is canal side and has a lot of history attached to it. It has a preserved early version lock - non operational - and a super new one alongside. It also has a couple of town squares lined by cafes and restaurants. Perfect for the single man to check out the locals whilst imbibing a couple of restorative beverages.

Postscript: Having purchased some very mean mouse traps and having eliminated the other mouse, I set them again - just in case. This time all the cheese was taken. Drat, there’s another mouse in the house. I reset the traps and went to town for dinner. When I returned the traps were all set and the cheese still in them except one - the trap has gone ! This is mousegate, war is declared with the score 2:1 to me.  These  little field mice have a short life span since I am going to win this war of attrition. The ants however are a different issue. We had some ants on Tension Cutter, our boat in Western Australia and I can’t remember how we eventually got rid of them. A gas bomb I think. Anyway I will try the poison mixed with sticky alcohol. If it doesn’t work we can all just have a party, me the mice and the ants.

Tomorrow is the return trip to Loosdrecht and return to hotel life for a week until Frank and Louise leave the boat on Saturday next. The shipyard invoice has been delivered (including the VAT - drat) and the boat is in all respects ready for sea - or the canals anyway. I have to return here for the engine rewiring job and the installation of a ‘blue flag’ later if I choose to do so in Amsterdam. (Note: A blue flag is actually a blue board which sits outside the wheelhouse and rotates 90 degrees to indicate that you will pass an oncoming ship on the wrong side - starboard to starboard. This occurs where an upstream ship can choose the side of the channel it wishes to hold to. This allows it to avoid beating into the heaviest part of the current by swapping from slack side to slack side of the channel).

I will try to coordinate the next trip down with the availability of the container so our belongings and furniture can be loaded directly onto the boat. I wonder what chance there is of that ?  It would also be nice to have Maureen arrive at the same time. Lets see, the container left about 11 / 12 June with an expected 6-8 weeks transit. This would have it here between 23 July and 6 August. If I come up on 23 July for a week it could be OK since M arrives on the 25th. On the other hand we could end up empty, waiting for a couple of weeks for tables and chairs, plates, cooking stuff and eating irons, bed linen etc. Interesting. The other complication is the availability of the electrician. We will just have to wait and see.  10.30pm, time for bed. There will be a few complications in the morning with the change over of cars, launching time and so on. So far I am also unaware of the time the ship will be launched and have to be on her when she is.

Saturday 23

About 8.30am the workers arrived to start things humming at Sheepswerf Brouwer and shortly after announced that Van Nelle would be launched, but first, I had to show them grease coming out of the stern gland, a point I had not considered. This is a wise precaution of all shipyards as it is detrimental to their reputation to have a boat sink just after it has been serviced by them.  Frank had muttered something about getting a new grease gun (there is one permanently attached to the stern gland) but I had not been involved so had paid little attention. Now however I had to locate it, and having done so, make it work. I soon discovered that it was sans fat or ‘without grease’ so the hunt was on for a refill. Two refills later I had grease coming out of the stern gland and they were ready to lower the boat. Frank was not in evidence, as we had to do a relay with cars each time we take the boat to or from the yard, so I took charge and into the water we went. Simple really and she floated right on the new water line we had established.

At this stage I had to drive to Loosdrecht to bring Frank back to the yard, leaving one car at each end. On arrival, with the boat in Loosdrecht we would normally have to drive Frank’s car back to the yard to pick up mine but on this occasion he arranged for his father to drive us, and the kids - four of them including a couple of cousins - back to the boat. It seems Frank is in the dog house with Louise for having deprived her of a home before properly providing a new one, so he had the kids for the weekend. He loves his kids and enjoys being with them so it’s no chore for him. He also mentioned to me that his philosophy was one of semi independence in a relationship, something I’m not all that sure Louise agrees with.

Travel relay finished we joined Van Nelle, started the engine and headed off back to Loosdrecht. Saturday morning found Amsterdam harbour less busy and it was again a pretty day so the cruise back was fun as I ran the boat and Frank went to work to repair the bed he had almost destroyed in order for the water tanks to be repaired and tested. Having made good time on the harbour and Amsterdam-Rhine Canal we meandered once we joined the ‘Vecht’, the small canal to Loosdrecht, as there were plenty of small pleasure boats making their way up and down the waterway.

We were ‘dirty’ on our way to Amsterdam but had cruised effortlessly at 9-12kmh with seemingly little power applied and very low revs and now ‘clean’, with the throttle pushed as far forward as possible (but still with some power unavailable due to the adjustment of the throttle cable at the engine end), had made 14kmh. While this may not sound fast, most of the cruising waterways are restricted to 8kmh or less to avoid washing out the banks and few boats on any of the major waterways exceed 15kmh. It is good to know that we can cruise effortlessly and economically at speed with no strain on the running gear, or slowly to enjoy the passing scenery.

By about 3.00pm we were back on the Loosdrechtse heading for ‘the island’, a small uninhabited low piece of land with a small marina built to service the many day-tripper boats that flock to this and other locations on the water.  Here, the city crowds become the weekend crowds. Good weather, together with an almost complete lack of wind, meant the lake was littered with scores of small sailboats drifting aimlessly, some filled to capacity with young and old, many stripped to the skin to absorb the thin filtered sunlight.  ‘Number three your time is up’ in these conditions requires the hire company sending out a power boat to tether all the small yachts in strings to tow them back to the marina. They look like mothers and chicks.

Now that the bilge and engine have been cleaned, my chief issue on this trip was to observe the engine room to discover where any engine oil or water leaks are, how much oil is used and how the temperatures and pressures change under load. To my great pleasure, apart from some spillage from the rear of the block after I ran the oil pump, there were no problems evident. This ancient engine has a press lever on the side to operate an oil pump that sends fluid to service the tappets, valves and assorted springs at the top of the engine.  This is done every 2-4 hours depending on how hard you are running the motive power. Since the block slopes, surplus oil runs to the lowest point and some leaks out the back end. I will just send less oil up there in future.

We arrived at the island marina and took up a position almost obliterating the view of half the boats, due to our imposing size, and the kids went off to swim while Frank and ‘Pop’, his father (who had joined us at the island), went off to fetch the Tjalk (his other barge still under conversion as his new home). Since I had taken all my gear to the hotel on my trip to pick up Frank this morning I had no shorts and was now sweltering in the afternoon heat. I commandeered a large towel which made an acceptable sarong (something I think we will need plenty of) and settled into a rickety cane chair on the huge afterdeck with a beer to observe ‘hollandius femalus strippen’ - bare breasted, blond, Dutch maidens slowly sailing past on hire boats.

Some time later the Tjalk and crew arrived and after securing her, Frank departed for food. I paid for a Chinese takeaway for us all to have on the boat.  This was accompanied by kids games and a few Dutch language lessons followed by an eventful trip back to shore and the cute hotel I was in for the week. Eventful since the bow line disappeared under the boat shortly after leaving the island and became secured to something, but not the propeller. I held it all the way into the jachtharbour and left Frank to do the underwater business as Pop and I departed.

Reopened just last week, the Heineke Hotel’s rooms are the size of our former walk-in wardrobe but are very nicely renovated and decorated and have tiny but functional en-suites. This is bliss after the shared bathroom in Houten and the primitive facilities at the boatyard. I showered and repaired to the street front terrace for a drink before bed, only to be accosted by the owner who doubles as maitre ‘d and waiter. This episode must have been my fault to some extent as I had asked for an explanation of the Dame Blanche - a dessert I was unfamiliar with. Walter, the owner / waiter (to the great amusement of the other nearby patrons), proceeded to tell me that no self respecting person would eat shaved ice with chocolate sauce while drinking beer, as I was. He then disappeared briefly, reappearing with a fresh beer and a glass of red wine - which, he explained, was the only acceptable drink to take with Dame Blanche. Then, he thanked me for buying him the wine and drank it ! At this the rest of the guests roared with laughter and the only course of action left to the unfortunate butt of this huge joke was to go along with it. We saluted each other and the other guests.

A few moments later a small group arrived, settled at a table and after a brief look at the menu, made an inquiry about one or more of the items or conditions on it. Wrong option guys !. Walter then gave them the treatment, had another free glass of wine and we all had another big laugh.  New arrivals sorted out, he then sat beside me and asked what I was doing in Loosdrecht. I replied I had come to buy a ship.

‘No, do not buy a ship, buy a smart car and a nice house’.

‘Too late’ I responded, ‘the deed is done’.

‘Then we need another drink.’

‘A carafe then ?’

We proceeded to make short work of the small carafe of red while he and the other waiter questioned me about Van Nelle and what we were to do with her. They were satisfied that this was a good ship and it had gone to righteous new owners, especially if she was to stay under Dutch registration and carry the pride of Holland abroad. We drank to that, and seemingly to lots of other things.  Walter had done about four tables with the free red wine trick and had half a carafe with me before, somewhat unsteadily, he announced he was off home. His wife had left earlier with a sniff at him and with their dog in tow. I guess he was heading for the dog house too.

Loosdrecht is actually only a large dyke running between too large bodies of water, one of which is the lake system for which the town is named. The dyke is quite wide and has this hotel and many other buildings, shops, homes and boat yards on it. A road runs through the middle which the hotel fronts onto. On both sides of the road are boat related businesses and restaurants. According to photos and documents framed on the wall (including one of the original owner’s very beautiful wife), the hotel was a pensione / camping ground and water-sport facility from before 1900. At that time it probably fronted the water, some of which has been reclaimed to make provision for the growing number of holiday-makers who flock here. Much is within walking distance, including a cash machine, but like the road, it is closed for repairs, requiring a 3km drive to the banks.

It is holiday time in Europe so there are lots of couples and families here for a break. You recognise all the types, disgruntled teenagers with over happy parents, disgruntled parents with sullen kids and happy young families. Then there are the couples and small groups, both happy and non-communicative.  I’ve been writing this for a short while now and am now disturbed by Walter who is yelling at a couple who brought their dog into the terrace and now want to steal bones off the dinner tables of other patrons to feed it. It’s turning into Faulty Towers here tonight - a small waterside hotel with an erratic owner and six different ways to serve potatoes, even mashed if there is time !

Tomorrow is Sunday. Frank is going to spend quality time with his kids at the island and I will discover the markets and other places of interest. I can’t believe that it is only two days short of two weeks. So much has happened in that time.  I am delighted and uplifted when I think that this adventure does not have to end. It is the first time I have had an open ended opportunity rather than a finite time in which to achieve something. This is totally unlike a holiday or an overseas assignment where, eventually, you have to go home to return to work. It’s a bit scary and exhilarating at the same time. Now when I look at my watch it’s for interest more than anxiety since if I don’t do ‘it’ today, there is always tomorrow.

Sunday

It’s amazing how quickly your world can come crashing to a stop.

Maureen’s email today brought news that her mammograms had show tissue that would have to be investigated by biopsy. As much as both of us believe and hope they will be nothing to worry about, the fear grips like a vice. She wanted me not to call her and I tried for an hour but couldn’t. We connected and really couldn’t say anything much to each other for minutes. I felt wretched, a long way from her and amazed at how brave she is at times like this but also how brittle.  It will be terrible if this problem becomes a major issue as it will affect her deeply. We have both invested so much into this project, to have it come to a halt by such a random act of biochemical viciousness will be a terrible act. It will be Wednesday before the results of tests made on Monday will be known. The wait is already creating stress which can only increase as the time drags inexorably on to Wednesday.

It seems that this adventure is to be one of incredible highs and lows. We had a long wait and several reductions of price on our house as the time came closer to our deadline - and then a satisfactory sale.  Then the realisation that there was only one suitable boat - and  the purchase at just the right time. We have watched the Aussie dollar go through the floor, then rally just when we needed it to and I had the stress before the survey of Van Nelle’s hull, and then it’s perfect score. Even relatively minor things like the engine test have been marked by days of apprehension followed by minutes of elation and relief - but nothing as momentous as the possibility of breast cancer.

I wanted some company today of all days and it was the day when I did not even have Frank. Now as the day draws to a close, I really don’t want to have to wait until Wednesday but I know I have to. I don’t want to go ahead with decisions on the outboard motor and dinghy and the Peugeot scooter but I will have to and going to the bank tomorrow to arrange payment of Brouwer’s invoice will seem like a waste of money.  Most of all I don’t want Maureen to be distressed or disfigured. She has a lovely, shapely, soft and curvy body which does not deserve to be at the mercy of some surgeon’s scalpel or to have to face the other ramifications of this dreaded curse.  So all we can do is wait and hope. It will be whatever it will be, nothing can change that. I believe more and more that fate of some kind is guiding us to a destination that we have little influence over and maybe no knowledge of. We can only hope it fits with our plans.

Monday 25

Well Louise has made her position clear according to Frank. Van Nelle is her home until she has to leave on Saturday and so no work will be done by me. The baby has sleep times and will not be kept awake by some Australian wielding a rust hammer. I can’t blame her. According to Frank he is no closer to finding a home either.

I spent the day going to Hilversum (a largish regional town/city) twice to find a motor scooter, pay the shipyard via the bank transfer system (they have no cheques in Holland) and finding the laundry. I did the latter two on the first trip and in between I bought the outboard motor - a Mariner 4hp for those interested, and the dinghy - a little clinker sailing boat in fibreglass with a bit of work required and a tendency to travel with its nose in the air as if to say - ‘I am the vehicle of the owners of Van Nelle and all you piddling little pleasure boats better watch what you do or I’ll have my big brother fix you up’ !

I had to buy a piece of timber for a seat since to sit in the stern would court disaster of the wet posterior kind and also a length of poly pipe and some tape to secure it to the hand throttle, since when I now sit in the centre I can’t reach the throttle without it. I could do Rod Cummins’ trick and put a little centre console in - except that this is a sail boat and that would stuff it right up. I have not yet tried or even picked up the mast, sails, centreboard and rudder as they won’t fit unless rigged and that is too hard. I will just borrow Frank’s big dinghy to transport them to Van Nelle later.

Everyone is very helpful. I tried to find a short thin piece of timber to use as a spacer in order to point the prop further down and therefore lower the bow. As I was poking about in the boat yard, one of the guys from the workshop asked what I was doing and then selected a piece of his bosses prime timber, cut a piece off to my specifications and handed it over, affecting a pained look when I offered money. I later went to the office of another yard that is conveniently placed opposite the hotel to ask if I could leave my dinghy there overnight.  ‘Is it secured with a chain - there is no insurance ‘ he said and that was that ! I immediately rushed off to the boat shop for a length of chain and a lock - and also asked if they had instructions on how to splice ropes.

‘No, but come back early morning and he will teach you, he has better English’. The owner said pointing to his son.  Amazing. Who said the Dutch were difficult. Expensive at times, but so far very helpful is my experience. Maybe I’m learning to smile as I ask  - who knows ?

So. The lady at the Wasserette wants to do my washing -‘just come back one day later - all finished’ - the bank are happy to do the transfers in person - none of this machine stuff, the yacht yards are happy to oblige, the scooter man offered the right model with extra options at a much lower price than the company in Houten and the only problem today was not getting to play with the boat. By the way, the scooter man offered to order in the correct model scooter so it could be ready for Saturday even though I am not prepared to commit to it till after Wednesday.

Walter the crazy waiter was in full flight again tonight, drinking the health of everyone with my wine, good, bad or indifferent, and there was an English couple (East enders who now live in Spain but caravan to Loosdrecht each year) who he put next to me for company. We talked boats and houses in Spain and other bits and pieces till Walter finished our drinks and we all went off to bed - or to write a journal or whatever.

So it is now 2 weeks since I left Australia. I have inspected a number of boats, selected one, made an offer and had it accepted, sailed the boat to Amsterdam and had it surveyed, insured and substantial work done on it, brought it back, found and bought a dinghy and motor, a scooter, a hotel better than the previous one, several hardware markets, Ikea - and - in the last two days I have not been lost ! I am even starting to understand a bit of the written Dutch - but the spoken words are still on the horizon. It’s the accent. Its terrible. Someone ought to teach them some elocution.......

Tuesday 26th

The next four days were mostly repetitive but at least I could work on Van Nelle. Scraping old varnish off the wheelhouse windows and doors and preparing the timber for re-coating was relieved by short trips to Hilversum and Oud Loosdrecht for supplies and bits from the hardware store.  Well, you have to have bits from a hardware store.  Someone told me once that every job needs another power tool !

Life is pleasant at the Heineke Hotel where mad Walter reigns supreme and I have now found a café where good cheap food can be had nearby. The young guy in the office of the marina was busy at the time I confirmed my dinghy parking space and he just told me to park it, chain it and he would check later. He hasn’t and I haven’t asked. However, I move to the ‘lighthouse’ marina after Saturday when I move onto Van Nelle permanently. It’s the place where Frank has his mooring and I can leave the dinghy and scooter there when I am out on the lake.

Wednesday 27.

Test results showed the lump in Maureen’s breast was a benign cyst and the relief was overwhelming.  We were both pretty emotional and happy and full of enthusiasm looking forward to her arrival.  Work took on a different, happy aspect.

Thursday 28th

This was another of the repetitive days except I took Frank and Louise to dinner. Frank was to have booked a table at ‘de Otter’ restaurant where jazz is played on Thursday nights. I found out on Thursday morning that he had forgotten and the restaurant was fully booked. We went there anyway since they have an outdoor area which they don’t take bookings for. It rained as we arrived so I suggested a small restaurant at the marina where I keep the dinghy. They had a table and a great menu.        

I ordered a red and a white. The white was just OK but not really to my taste as it was a bit tart but the red was awful. I reluctantly called the waitress over to suggest the wine was corked and after a quick sniff of the bottle she agreed, accepted my request for a different wine and happily left advising that the wholesaler would take it back with a refund. It is unusual to get bad bottles of wine in Australia but apparently not here.  We ended up back at de Otter after dinner to listen to the last hour of music. Frank disappeared and I chatted with Louise until the music finished and Frank reappeared. They don’t seem to spend a lot of time together.

Friday 29

We all faced Friday and the move of the deJong family off the boat with hang-overs. Frank had hired a couple of young guys to assist him with the work on the Tjalk but today they were roped in to removal duty. I came along to help out as well and to put aboard my big suitcase in order to make my move onto the boat on Saturday easier.

 

We spent the day removing items, boxes, furniture etc and carting it to the warehouse where Frank had negotiated some space. Hot work as it was a boiling day, but it all went according to plan. I was thinking as the boxes came off that they seemed to have fewer than we have to go on ! I’m sure ours will all fit - somewhere ?

Friday night was Beach Party night at Heineke Hotel. Crazy Walter had arranged a ute load of sand (very gray and grainy), lots of umbrellas, candles, beach balls and other paraphernalia. Everyone was greeted with a paper flower lei and a glass of Sangria, which tasted a whole lot better than their house wine !  I suppose this was a party for locals as they all seemed to know each other. Lots of loud music and even louder shirts, some dancing, mostly talking (Dutch, so I picked up little) and drinking. It seemed that it was planned to end at 1.00am but about 12.30 I slipped away to bed.

Saturday 30

I had arranged for Frank to pick me up at Schipol airport since I had to return the hire car by 10.30am. That was done efficiently and Frank arrived at about 11.00 to take us into Amsterdam to look for portholes. I need a couple of a particular size which we have not been able to locate at any of the usual shops. We went to a barge moored in Amsterdam which, below decks, is an amazing store of boat accessories - mostly brass and copper portholes, wheels, bells, lights and other hefty stuff.  The operator of this emporium is a slip of a girl who apparently started her working life as an air hostess but moonlighted by bringing in brass fittings two at a time in her bags. She made contacts in Singapore and India where these fittings are made. She now brings in container loads of the things, selling them in large lots to shops and boat builders. Unfortunately she did not have the size I required but Frank bought 3 for his Tjalk.

We headed back to Hilversum for me to buy a doona, doona cover, pillow, sheets and towels so I could sleep properly on Van Nelle. I bought the items in a rush as Frank had arranged for two young guys to be ready on board for a days work at 1.00pm and it was now 12.45. He left with my sleeping accoutrements (which I hope will fit with Maureen’s decor plans) and I headed of to the scooter shop.  The scooter was ready but it still took nearly an hour to arrange the license plates, insurance etc. I then put on the new helmet, started the awesome 50cc engine and puttered off to Loosdrecht. It’s a cute and very manoeuvrable little machine and once it has been run in over the first 500km (nothing over 50kmh and please do mostly city driving - no long country trips) it is supposed to be capable of up to 70kmh. I can’t wait. However it is a good choice as it is quite light and should be easy to winch onto the boat.  It can carry two adults for reasonable distances on the smell of an oily rag. I had an extra luggage box installed on the back so we can even take a spare pair of knickers for an overnight stay away from Van Nelle - or buy a dozen bottles of wine to take back to the boat.

On arrival back at Loosdrecht I arranged to leave the scooter at the Heineke Hotel and took the dinghy out to the boat after a quick trip to the local supermarket for some necessities. Its amazing that when you move into a new abode you really have to restock everything and there’s a lot of ‘everythings’. I guess by the time Maureen arrives I will have just about got it all.

Saturday night was the night for a fight with Frodo.

Frodo is the de Jong’s cat. A male, black cat, quite young and now on its third boat. Except its not on its third boat, it is still on Van Nelle. Now how did that happen ? Well apparently there is no room for it in Louise’s mother’s home with all the other lodgers so Frodo gets to stay at sea. Its supposed to be on the Tjalk, which today is still tied to Van Nelle. The cat however hates the noise of engines and the Tjalk has its generator going most of the time - so Frodo, even if it liked the Tjalk, would not stay on it. However, while its food is on the Tjalk, now that I am cooking on Van Nelle, Frodo has arrived for dinner

.I pick up cat and carry it (carefully since it is kicking, fighting, wriggling and trying hard to disembowel me) to the Tjalk and dinner. Once released, Frodo is off. I retreat to Van Nelle’s kitchen and some hours later become aware that Frodo is back. Despite me closing doors and windows, this cat can find its way back in a snap. Another traumatic trip to the Tjalk - now quiet since the boys have finished work and departed. The cat this time reluctantly eats some of its food after being stroked into submission. I leave again and all is quiet.

At about 3.00am I become aware of movement in the bed. An exploratory hand encounters a furry, purring object. Purring abruptly ceases as Frodo is sent hurtling towards the door by a well meaning lift of one leg. We all settle down again with Frodo now convinced he is not welcome in close proximity to the strange creature now inhabiting his home. He is found the next morning, asleep on the office chair, the only soft item apart from the bed.

I wouldn’t mind if the damn cat would just catch and kill the mice he has so generously introduced to his home but he doesn’t and I am allergic to cats. The scratches I was unable to avoid are now red welts that itch and threaten to precipitate hay fever or worse - asthma. Frodo and I are not going to be friends. Later the next day I find him curled up in the extreme point of the bows. I take a peace offering of a bowl of milk but get little in return.

Sunday 1 July

Varnishing. Will it ever end.....not in my lifetime I suspect. I had started the varnishing by starting to sandpaper and scrape back the old, peeling varnish while in the yard in Amsterdam.  Some further work had been done on return to Loosdrecht but was intermittent due to the other inhabitants on the boat till the weekend.  So now I was able to really get to grips with this and other time consuming (and sometimes painful) jobs.  There is one consolation, I now have no leaves to rake as I am on a boat not in a house !  I can take the varnishing since I know that once done, it will not need more than a touch up here and there for some years to come unlike the weeding and leaf raking back in Perth at the now sold house. (And hope springs eternal !). Another day of varnishing punctuated by a trip to Gamma (the hardware store) for some parts to make showering possible.

One can buy a shower kit to convert a blank wall and a bath into a shower.  A two metre hose, a chrome adjustable shower head holder, a soap holder to fit and presto.  The bath (yes folks this ship has a full size bath) now has a shower as well, with full head height and full pressure, very hot (and cold) water. Mind you we still have a few little details to work out - such as a shower curtain (the new shower screen is on order) and some towel racks. These would have to be bought and fitted Monday as Gamma closed at 5.00pm Sunday, too early for me to get back there for the additional bits as I was also slaving over a hot varnish stripper.

I celebrated my little achievements with a snack dinner of Camembert, a French red, some sausages and potato salad. Yum.

Monday 2 July

Its now three weeks since I left and in record time I am living on our little ship and it is starting to show the effects of the work I have put into her over the past week or so.

A trip to Gamma the hardware store for the shower was followed by atrip into Hilversum for some kitchen things, like a draining board and washing rack thingo. I found the shop, it had all its chairs and things out on the pavement but the woman in charge ran me out onto the street declaring they were shut until 1.00pm. As it was only 11.30 I was not about to wait around but was somewhat bemused by the open shop that was shut. Strange ways these Dutch. They close shops for a day or two each week but not all on the same days - so its pot luck as to whether the one you want will be open on the day you visit. They also start very late (1.00pm) some days and close at 6.00pm normally but earlier on some days. ????? I guess I will get the hang of it just before I leave.

No sign of Frodo today as the Tjalk has moved to the nearby island marina for Frank to do some painting and the boys to finish off smoothing the hull. I pottered over there a couple of times during the day to sharpen my varnish stripper on Frank’s wheel and to chat with Ben, Frank’s father. He is a lovely, jolly chap, a retired bio-chemist, now working long hours on his son’s boat.

I achieved a fair bit today. I installed the shower curtain, the towel rack, a Dutch power plug on the computer power cord and finished stripping the old varnish off the outside of the wheelhouse. I even put on the first three undercoats of new varnish on the exposed teak windows. Inside, I still have 2 steps on the staircase to strip and all the timber to put two coats of finishing varnish on, I feel like I am near the end of this bit of this job and am now kicking myself for having rushed some areas.

There are still a bunch of jobs to do. Install a working foul water tank and pump system, build a bed in the forward bedroom, install kick boards in the saloon, scrape rust and tar off the decks and repaint them, scrape rust off the coach roof and repaint it, fix the mast so the light cable is inside and it lowers to the height of the folded down wheelhouse, finish the walls in the forward cabin and arrange ventilation for the 3rd bedroom. I am leaving much of the interior work for Maureen but will probably start on some areas where the walls need repainting and some lights need to be installed. I have also to cut off the improvised rear flagstaff and created a new one plus welded crosstrees to the mast for the raising of the ship’s pennants.

So, to bed and to look forward to some varnishing tomorrow - what joy !

Tuesday 3 July

Today is the day of the BIG PARTY. Before I arrived, Frank had arranged with a friend who runs a party boat to provide Van Nelle as the deck for some kind of a buffet, so a whole bunch of things had to be finished in time for the fit out and the arrival of the guests. His friend was arranging the catering so all we had to do was provide the ship and hang around for free food and drinks.

I worked from 7.00am until lunch time (lunch is a variable that often gets either forgotten or put off until 4.00 or 5.00pm), doing some painting and finishing the varnish work on the wheelhouse. Frank had gone off with the Tjalk to put it in the yacht harbour and left me with instructions to start moving the boat to the yard where the caterers would load their equipment. I began the process, starting the main engine and raising the anchor. Once I had done all the serious work and was about to enjoy sailing the boat for a while on my own, Frank appeared. Maybe he was hiding around the corner of the island until the anchor was up - a heavy and sometimes grubby job.

We got under way and soon arrived at the yard where there was just enough room for Van Nelle to slide quietly between the rows of moored pleasure craft to the Tami lift (boat crane) at the end of the pier. Standing on the jetty was a rather large Douwe Egbert coffee trailer, resplendent in its company colours of red, yellow and white. A bunch of nervous looking PR people stood around as the party boat operator, caterer and exhibition manager discussed putting the cart onto Van Nelle. It would have to be winched over the bow onto the coach roof and settled to one side so people could access the service side for coffee, but the mast was in the way.

I had suggested to Frank some days before that the mast was a problem that needed fixing since when lowered it was still higher than the wheel house and would therefore be swiped off at the first low bridge. He now saw the wisdom of my request but try as he might, was unable to do anything about it since he now found that the deck power point was not connected. (This was s stroke of luck for me since it guaranteed it would get fixed, which it did, the next day).

In the end we were able to move the boat sideways a little and edge the caravan past the mast onto the boat. Once secured and when the caterers had loaded tables, benches, food and other assorted boxes, we set off for the island, ‘Markus Pos’. We arrived soon after and began setting up sound equipment, lights, tents, tables and chairs and other items essential for the party. While part way through, the Douwe Egbert’s exhibition contractors called a lunch break and handed out thick soup, broutjes (small rolls with ham, cheese or salami) and drinks. Things were looking pretty good, especially in the personnel department as the girl running the show stripped to a short top and shorts and started moving furniture around.

Pretty soon it was all organised and the crew settled down for some serious beer drinking. It was then that the coincidence of the situation began to be discussed and Dick, the enormous man who runs DE’s exhibitions offered to get their museum to send whatever information they could find about Van Nelle to me at our ‘official’ European address, Maureen’s aunt’s house in Glasgow, Scotland. I hope he follows through.

Van Nelle is a coffee and tobacco company and so is Douwe Egberts. Some time back, the Van Nelle company was bought by Douwe Egberts which in turn was bought by Sarah Lee. So now, here was Van Nelle, the original ship of the coffee and tea company and Douwe Egberts coffee cart, united by happenstance. The situation was explained to the company executive who had come to the island to address the guests, (university graduates the company was out to recruit), and he used it in his speech.

The guests seemed very impressed with Van Nelle but less so with an hour and a half of speeches, some of which were illustrated by expensive looking placards that had so much information on them they could not be read. What made the situation appear more like a "how not to give a presentation" were  the actors who were hired as MCs and general people movers who now picked up the placards and wandered through the crowds with them. The graduates looked like they were trying not to laugh at the situation while we hid until it was over.

Presentations, music, great barbecue food and free drinks were supplied with great enthusiasm and the party went on until midnight. The guests boarded their party ship and sailed off as we, the crew, loaded the logistics back onto Van Nelle and headed back to the ship yard. By 1.00am we were free of the gear and the yard and were heading back to the island. My suggestion that their brilliant, huge umbrella with the Douwe Egberts logos would look great permanently attached to Van Nelle went unheeded but some company sweat shirts were presented and then the BIG PARTY was over.

 

Chapter Two - We own Van Nelle.                                                   

Wednesday 4 July

This day is the official transfer date of Van Nelle ! I can’t say it felt all that different from any other day since I was living on the boat and had to all intents and purposes taken delivery of her, but still, there was the reality of it to be considered and savoured. I did get a kick out of it later when just by chance our dear friends Ian and Helen Palmer called from the Red Herring restaurant in Fremantle, Western Australia where they were with Maureen. I had the chance to mention it to Maureen and chat with Ian and Helen quickly about the fact that the dream was very much a reality.

I have not previously explained how we managed the process of the purchase, so perhaps I should do so here.  In searching for a suitable barge during the previous two years, I had discovered the recommendation of another buyer in Blue Flag (the Dutch Barge Association’s magazine), of Tony Charman, an English broker.  I had contacted him and he had kindly met me in Holland and driven me to a number of potential buys in the year before I came to buy.  When I had definite plans to return and buy I had contacted Tony, who was unavailable to come personally as he was moving his office at the time.  He recommended his Dutch counterpart - Sander Doeve - and Jitse, the son of Sander, was appointed to assist.  Tony had recommended against Van Nelle as he saw a lot of work to be done against a high price.  I felt I had negotiated a great deal for the boat I really wanted and so Jitse sprang into action to get the boat transferred into our name.

Sander Doeve, the father and founder of the company that bears his name, is also a notary so they were able to arrange the legal issues in-house and quickly do the searches and transfers on the Netherlands Kadaster - the register of property.  They check for mortgages and loans made against the boat, any other registered owners and then transfer the boat to your name/s on the Kadaster.  Once done, the boat is yours.  Since we were going to continue to register Van Nelle in the Netherlands, it made the use of the Kadaster relevant and made low cost, wide coverage insurance and legal protection available.

I had told Jitse I wanted the transfer to happen within a month and he pulled out all stops and achieved it in a week less.  I had made the offer on June 15 and here we were on July 4 with the deal complete.

This day I also finally received the quote for electrical work on the engine. I think they want to get rich on our dwindling resources ! 6,900 guilders plus 19% VAT, and a little clause in the quote that said that any items not specified would be added later - call it 10,000 - 11,000 all up. I balked at that.

The guy who had done the quote had really impressed me with his knowledge and advice and the fact that he also had an old ship and appreciated my desire to keep the look of the old with some new technology to back it up.  On the other hand, he assumed he and another tradesman would take up to 45 hours to do the job at 90 guilders an hour plus the 24volt alternator and some wire, it. Seemed a bit on the high side, so I deferred action on that front till I could get a second opinion.

Frank and his father Ben arrived this morning to do the finishing jobs Frank had agreed to.  We had negotiated one ‘free day’, after which he would charge me at least 45 guilders per hour plus parts. We headed off to Gamma, the hardware store, to buy the timber required to finish the walls, create a bed in the front cabin and do the skirting boards. Frank’s father Ben was left to start the wiring and the preparatory timber work up front.

I have to give it to Frank, he’s a good carpenter. A bit slap happy, but good and quick. He rounded up a bunch of different sizes and shapes of boards and we headed back to the boat. He then took most of the day to do things on his boat which was moored nearby, while his father did some of the real work on Van Nelle. To be fair, he did arrive at about 3.00pm and built the bed and finished the walls in about 3 hours flat.

Thursday 5 July

Work progressed on the upper hull with preparations for paint work and I also did some little jobs like fixing the navigation lights. On the Big Party night we were traversing the lakes without any lights, something I was not at all happy about but Frank was uninterested in, so I decided to fix the problem myself and had it done without much hassle. I now not only had working nav lights but had also placed the cables through the centre of the mast to the riding and top light, much tidier, and I now knew how they worked.

This process of actually finishing the conversion on Van Nelle was very valuable in that it gave me the opportunity to really get to know the entire workings of the boat - under the skin - that would be invaluable later when maintenance and repairs were required.

The day was filled out with the normal routine of scraping, scraping and more scraping. My hands were now pitted and scarred and stiff as two boards when I woke each morning. Not that I’m complaining mind. While I have my irritations and hours of fairly boring, repetitious manual slog, its not a bad life being out in the fresh air and seeing the results appear before you. Pity I’m not that good at it.

Friday 6 July

This was sort of a hand over day for Frank and myself. We went around the boat as he explained this and that and we checked that it all worked. Frank is an 80% guy. He starts a job but when whatever it is that he is making works - that’s where he loses interest and moves on the next job. Everything is about 80% finished. The bits I am now working on may bring it up to 95% but only a skilled tradesman would really finish it to 100%. My philosophy therefore is to have good tradespeople do the important jobs on engine, electrics, gas etc and for us to do the simple things like scraping, painting, varnishing, decorating etc. Well, some of the other things have to be done and I’m the only one here - but the really important ones......

I am frustrated with the exhaust fan for the bathroom. Frank has supplied one that appears to blow instead of suck, is 220v whereas the bathroom is normally 24v and it is not wired up or supplied with a switch. I started its installation by connecting the cable to the unit, placing the unit on the vent supplied and tracing the cable back to the fuse box. I now have to wire it into the fuse box and install a switch near the 24v light switch and then remember to have the inverter, generator or shore power going when someone takes a shower. There are no other ventilators to the bathroom. This is probably OK when all around you is frozen and you are plugged into shore power but no good for 6 people constantly using the bathroom. A problem to be solved. (Oops - I’m becoming an 80% guy).

Today I began painting the top of the outer hull in a sort of royal blue. I need to use standard paints and standard colours so we can patch up with the same paint when necessary. Any made up colours will invariably not blend in, requiring complete repaint jobs later. Unfortunately I think the standard Epiphane 29 Blue is a bit dark and tends to blend in with the black hull. Perhaps a white stripe would lift it.

I also ordered a steel wire harness to lift the dinghy onto the boat and bought a lifting strap for the scooter. The addition of a 300kg breaking strain stainless wire for the winch will bring it all up to a safe level for swinging these heavy, precious items aboard.

Frank departed the island Markus Pos where we had been for some days to take up his position in the jachtharbour Vuuturen (Lighthouse). That left me finally on my own. I now will definitely get to know the machinery and other operating systems. It leaves me however with a dearth of tools since I have been relying on Frank’s extensive range of power and manual equipment, huge store of nails, screws, wiring, sharpeners, files etc. His Tjalk is a carpentry shop and warehouse.

I weakened and went to Gamma for some basics like screwdrivers, pliers, a shifting spanner and a two handed Black and Decker drill with bits and screw heads. This and the ‘nipple ripper’ is to be my great labour saving device.

The ‘nipple ripper’ I have named because of it’s appearance and it’s use. This is a double wheel of a sort of hardened rubber, impregnated with metal nipple like extensions around both circumferences. It has a central axle which fits into a normal electric drill, thereby rotating the wheels at a frenzied pace, allowing the nipples to rip away old tar, paint, rust and other materials foreign to and coating the underlying steel. It really works well and makes cleaning areas of rust a breeze - but noisy - more like a howling wind.

A German guy and his nephew had arrived on a 28 foot yacht during the day and we had chatted a couple of times, so at the end of the day I invited them aboard for an inspections and a drink. He accepted and brought a very pleasant German beer along for me to try, said very encouraging things about the boat and explained that he had been coming to Loosdrecht for 32 years since he had bought his first boat here back then. He worked for Bayer, selling pesticides and importing chemical components until recently. I gathered he was not all that happy about being unemployed but he was certainly old enough to retire.

A plate of pasta with some French red wine and eight e-mails waiting. Looked good until I opened the mail - mostly business about the boat. Bah.

When Frank took the Tjalk away he overlooked taking Frodo the cat who was onshore at the time, hiding out from the terrors of the generator engine, which he hates. So, at 11.00pm, just after going to bed, I heard the meowing of a very hungry and frustrated cat. I guess he had discovered that the boat had gone, waited until nightfall and then decided that living in the wild was for the birds and every self respecting cat needed a home.

I got up and allowed him in, gave him a meal and some milk and instructed him that the wheelhouse was as far as he could go, and went to bed.

Saturday 7 July

No Frodo. Oh well, probably off in the wilds of the island.

It rained. I decided to go to Hilversum since I couldn’t do any painting. I had two pairs of broken glasses that I hoped could be repaired and a few other things that you can only do in a town bigger  than Loosdrecht. The trip on the scooter takes about 15 minutes and is quite pleasant since the bike path takes you through farm areas before entering the industrial part of the town. Hilversum is the video and TV production centre of Holland so there are many production companies and service companies here.

I was breaking glasses (spectacles that is) since I was wearing them around my neck in order to have them handy.  Unfortunately this also makes them likely to get caught on protruding objects as you work and as you stretch up, presto, a pair of broken glasses.  Later I found the cheap $25 specs that are just magnifying glasses that are just fine for general work and retired my expensive prescription sets to reading and computer work.

I found a willing optician who would fix the glasses into new frames in the next one and a half hours so I had some time to kill and spent it window shopping for beds, refrigerators and so on. It seems that everything closes down here in three weeks for the summer holidays, so if you don’t get items ordered and delivered now you could wait up to 10 weeks ! Beds and mattresses are OK price wise but getting the right sizes in the right types is the trick as they come in a range of sizes and I was not sure that 80% Frank had made the beds to standard sizes.  I did not want to have to have mattresses specially made !.

Sometime after arriving back on board Frank passed by for a chat. I mentioned the cat. "No problems" said Frank, "I called by at 11.30pm last night. Frodo recognised the outboard motor noise, raced out to meet me and I took him away". Great. I am finally free of Frodo the mouse delivery cat.

Sunday 8 July

More rain, so more inside jobs.

I started work on the bathroom door since it does not shut properly - just 80%. Not having a power sander I took the scraper and sand paper to the door jam. Made a nice mess and absolutely no difference to the door closing efficiently. That looks like a job for the first mate !

Today I discovered a whole array of old machinery in the store area behind the wheel house. Obviously Frank, generous to a fault, had decided that Van Nelle could use it far more readily than the Tjalk. Pity he didn’t ask me what I thought. There are big bins on the island that are emptied almost every day - great place for a half tonne of unusable generators, pumps, valves and twisted steel.

Frank had done some welding for me, fixing the mast so it lowered completely, but in doing so had disconnected the battery monitor metre and it had reset itself for 12v power. I now had to discover how it worked and reset it to 24v so it accurately told me the state of the battery bank. The instructions were (I think) translated out of American to Dutch and then back into English in Holland. The text was somewhat tortured but after experimenting with the equipment I think I got it right. I then had to charge the batteries to capacity in order for the metre to calibrate itself. I ran the generator 4 hours Sunday, three on Monday morning and another three on Monday night before it flashed the signal that all had been accomplished. I hope I set it right !

This piece of equipment was key to trouble free cruising as we had to provide our own power for essential equipment such as refrigerators, fresh water pumps and lights and other nice to have equipment such as the stereo and computer.  The battery monitor told us how much power we had in the batteries, how much we were using and how long we had left before recharging was necessary.

We generate 220v power using a 9kVa diesel generator situated in the engine room, running it two hours morning and evening or at times when using the washing machine and dryer or power tools.  This also stores 24v power in the battery banks which in turn is inverted to 220v power when the boat is not connected to shore power or running the generator.  Our final configuration of 4 large 12v batteries gave us up to two days electricity without recharging.

Monday 9 July

I have received news that the container will arrive in Rotterdam on the 31st. The local shipping company sent me a whole bunch of forms by e-mail to fill in and attach to official local council forms showing I was registered as a new immigrant, had a job and an address. This would exempt us from paying the customs duty of up to 32%.  What customs duty of 32%.......???????

This was now the disaster I had been waiting for since everything had been going so smoothly.

Off I went to the local council to see if they would register me. Not if I was on a boat and intending to travel. What if I intended to stay ? But you don’t intend to stay, you have told us that ! Catch 22.

I put a call into the shipping company. How much are we likely to be up for ? They didn’t know. Why not ? It depends on which items you have to pay duty on and what rate the customs people decide to charge. And so on. What is the worst case I finally asked and they told me they would consult their associates and get back to me.

Some time later they came up with a number that was 32% of the declared value of the whole shipment. I could have done that. The advice now is to supply a copy of the inventory with very low but believable values so the amount will be as low as possible. More work that we were not made aware of when employing Grace Brothers removalists in Australia to ship the goods.

At this stage I was still moored to the wooden jetty at the island Marcus Pos.  This was convenient as the little island is not regularly used except during the summer holidays which had not yet started and it gave me a solid, stable platform to work on the outside of the ship’s hull. 

Yesterday I had been able to complete one side of the ship’s royal blue topside paintwork and the white stripe down the side. The job is a bit rough because it is going over 90 year old, somewhat careworn iron and the number 29 royal blue hasn’t faded in the thin sunlight (which does appear briefly between cloudy or rainy skies) but over all, it looks pretty good. Now for the other side. For this I have to turn the ship around 180 degrees.

Start engine, undo lines, there’s a fair breeze blowing so take care not to lose control of the ship as the wind takes it. There is also a pole near the bow on the outside of the boat which I have to reverse to miss. Watch I don’t crush the dinghy or demolish the jetty, a bit forward, a bit back. Van Nelle slowly, majestically swings 180 in her own length with me controlling it all from the wheelhouse. My first single handed manoeuvre ! Reattach the lines and we are secure again, snug against the jetty.  Now to paint the second side.  I started up the nipple ripper and immediately drew the ire of an old gentleman who had just arrived on his 22' yacht. He glared at me and I tried to ignore him. He moved closed while his mouth looked like he was trying to say something, which it did eventually - in Dutch of course.

"I’m Australian" I said "I don’t understand. I’m sorry if the noise is disturbing you but I will only be 10 minutes or so".

"This is for recreatie, iss not a yard for shipverk. I call police". He replied in quite good English.

"Please do as you wish but I have arranged for this work with the harbour master and I will be only about 10-15 minutes".

 

At that he stomped off to his boat and I continued the howling, ripping, dust storm provoking, rust removal. True to my word I took about 12 minutes to complete the job (about 80%) and cleaned up then began to apply rust preventing paint. While doing this I felt a presence behind me. I stole a glance under my armpit (crouched as I was daubing paint at a low level) and there was the old gent. A minute or two later and a gentle prod and his finger pointed to a place I had missed. I apologised for the noise and we began a dialogue that lasted over the next two days. I invited him to look over the boat.

"Iss permissed ?"

"Of course, please help yourself".

He climbed slowly onto Van Nelle and disappeared inside as I continued painting. Some time later he re-appeared and chatted about what a great ship it was and how perfect for discovering France - especially with such a big bed. I got the feeling he had some pleasure in lands south of Holland.

He advised me that he had bought a steamer when he was 59 (he was now 72), in order to travel through Europe, but before he could get away from his work he had a heart attack. The ship had to go and he had to stay. As he stood there looking blankly out at the lakes I could see that he was already driving the ship away to adventures with the big double bed.

He spent two days on the island Markus Pos and sailed away as he had arrived, quietly, dressed immaculately in jacket and tie.

During the day the ’pirate’ had arrived. A rather wild looking fellow with grubby clothes and an explosion of bottle blond hair. His ship was similar in appearance to himself. An old 60', timber, power cruiser that had seen very much better times. The ‘pirate’ said the boat was very glad to have met him since when he took it over it was a wreck. To my eyes, nothing had changed. Since I was working just across a narrow jetty from him he set to as well. He chiselled and hammered and pottered about, trying occasionally to get his equally wild looking cat to get out of Van Nelle as he joked that he had trained it to steal but the damn cat would only steal food, not video cameras or Rolex watches. I began to worry about my video camera and watch.

Night fell and the pirate and his very South American girlfriend (he had told me earlier that he owned a barge in Argentina that was used for tourists) left in their rubber ducky for the delights of Loosdrecht. I went to bed at 11.00 and at 11.30 heard them return. Then began the concert.

The pirate would have been able to hold rock concerts on his boat since his stereo sound equipment would have powered a heavy metal band. Reggae at 11.30 until 1.30 or so. No chance of sleep as I was only some 4 metres from the sound source. What was really irritating however was that he would allow the song of the moment to get about half way through before stopping it abruptly and starting a new one. When he got tired of reggae his girlfriend (I assume) went for the South American love songs. I wondered what another old gent who had arrived earlier in his neat sailing boat tied up just in front of the pirate felt about that sound source.

Tuesday 10 July

The harbour master had visited the day before and since he spoke no English we had an interesting time getting through the rules, the key one being that you cannot spend more than 3 consecutive days attached to the island. Van Nelle had been there for more than a week, so he had been very patient but had to be seen to be doing his job. I had negotiated that I would leave today when I finished the painting and so I set to on the other side and on the coach roof which was scarred by Frank’s steel detritus. Of course I had to A) run out of paint and B) get more rain - but by the end of the day it was done and it was time to leave.

Some time earlier in the day a small boat had arrived with a 30ish couple and their 13 year old daughter. The fellow was pretty chatty and since he had moored where the Pirate had been, directly opposite me, I had spent the afternoon chatting and answering his questions. He was interested in Van Nelle and since he was on a small boat with two women, in need of a bit of male company. I invited him to come for the ride out to the place I had selected to anchor and he jumped at the chance.

We set off, cautiously departing the jetty and looping around to come head to wind in the lee of the island. Gales and rain were forecast but had not yet arrived although it was looking threatening so it proved time to move. Of course, as soon as you decide to take action requiring outside work the rain comes and it did on this occasion. Into the bargain I threw the anchor out to secure Van Nelle in the lee of the island and found it was hopelessly twisted inside the chain locker.  That required the need to run back and forward from the wheelhouse to the bow to alternatively put pressure on and take pressure off the anchor in order to release the chain and give it a chance to straighten out.  That was a half hour of exciting physical work with an element of danger from the winch, a heavy chain and a heavier boat.

We, Sebastian and I, completed the manoeuvre safely and retired to the wheelhouse for a well earned drink. A few restorative beers later we agreed to meet after dinner for a glass of wine before retiring and I took Sebastian back to Ellen (his partner not wife) and her daughter Michelle.

Sebastian had an interesting history. He told me his father had died when a drunk driver hit him on one of the local roads. Sebastian was six at the time and his mother later took up with another man who had ‘loose hands’. This it transpired means he couldn’t keep from using them to beat Sebastian’s mother. As a kid, he said, he took the beatings he received but told the man that he would return the favour when he grew older. He studied martial arts and gained strength and when seventeen, arrived home one night to find his mother with a cut head requiring 16 stitches. Sebastian took up his hockey stick and sent his step father to hospital in a critical condition. He asked his mother to get rid of the man but she was scared he would come back to beat her up so Sebastian gave him the option. Stay and die at his hands or leave and never return. He apparently took the latter. Shortly after, Sebastian left for Germany, Italy, Spain, France and England, working as a DJ, bouncer and finally a pub owner in Luxembourg.

His Irish / Dutch pub went well but Sebastian thought all the income was his to spend and when the tax man caught up with him he lost the lot. Again he went out to work for others and bought a computer. He learned quickly, became interested in the internet and now has a small company making and maintaining web sites for the Amsterdam sex market and one stock market company.

Ellen, his partner, is a nurse who is recovering from her sixth operation to remove cysts that grow to the size of grapefruit. The last operation removed the latest cysts and the rest of her womb with it.

They are a happy couple that obviously like each other a lot. They share their three room apartment, and on this holiday, Sebastian’s aunt’s boat, with a lively Australian sheep dog.  We made arrangements for a barbecue on Van Nelle for Wednesday night if the weather was suitable.

Wednesday 11 July - a month since I left Australia. (My, how time flies).

I woke this morning to a full force 6 or 7 gale (40-60 knots - 70-100kmh) with rain squalls and occasional heavier fronts battering through the lakes of Loosdrecht. White topped wavelets are racing down towards me from the expanse of water to the south west and causing Van Nelle to roll gently when swinging from side to side.

Unfortunately, the area I chose to anchor is not fully in the lee of Markus Pos island, just slightly to one side of it, but since there are reed banks 50 metres to my port side I could not tuck further under. Everything is holding securely so far and I have taken the day to catch up with this journal.

I’ve just been out on deck, over which the wind is whipping at what must be over 40 knots. This is like one of those winter gales off Fremantle. All grey seas and skies, white tops blowing forward of the waves and rain sheeting down from time to time. It is the kind of weather that invites a fire and a view of the sea, a long roast lamb lunch with a good old shiraz and a warm body to cuddle up with. No such luck here unfortunately, just close the ports and doors, a few nervous glances from time to time at the position of the boat in relation to the island, a 2.50 guilder Argentinean white wine with week old pasta and a hefty pillow (kussen in Dutch) to lie a-bed with later.

Just had a call from Jitse Doeve, our boat broker, to say he had received the second power of attorney document from Maureen - they lost the last one in the post - so he can proceed with the final arrangements.  Also had a call from the shipping agent to clarify if we were planning to stay 6 months (in which case a temporary clearance would be possible with no import duty) or 5 years (in which case the tax has to be paid). At least there are some people on our side. Unfortunately this option seems to have been started from more misinformation from Grace Brothers the removalists in Australia.

So now it’s 3.00 in the afternoon and I am wondering when this storm will abate. It’s been blowing now for at least 12 hours.

Today I have also arranged for two mattresses, one for the front cabin and one for our cabin. They can be delivered on Saturday week or the following Tuesday. If I don’t order them now and pay by Friday I will have to wait for up to 10 weeks. Not a good option. At this time I am going to leave the third bedroom vacant to save funds and give Maureen some decisions to make. I had better make her a list of things to do - that shouldn’t be hard - there are plenty of them.

At least this really strong wind and rain have shown me where the little leaks are - they all seem to be around the forward facing kitchen skylights that have no rubber seal around the rim. Another thing for the shopping list for Gamma, the hardware warehouse. Will the shopping ever end ?

Thursday 12 July

Today I discovered engine coolant in the sump as I did a regular engine check. This is not good news, indeed it could be a disaster as coolant in the sump normally means leaks around the cylinder liners in the engine.  We had a similar problem in our boat in Australia which necessitated removing the engine, stripping it down completely, applying new O rings to the top and bottom of each cylinder and rebuilding and re-installing the engine.  This is a huge task and expensive.

I called Jitse to ensure the broker is aware and that any actions now regarding this catastrophe are with his knowledge. I then called Frank who arranged to come over with a sump pump to pump out the oil to check for contamination. That would have to wait till tomorrow.

I picked up the harness I had designed and ordered from Vrijheid, the best boat supply shop in Loosdrecht. It worked very well despite the low ratio on the hand winch and the number of turns required to raise the jolly boat (as the Dutch call a dinghy) onto the deck.

Friday 13 July

Frank arrived and we pumped out about a litre of green coolant and then some oil. Once that was done, the oil, which had disappeared completely from the dip stick, re-appeared. Frank recounted that the previous owner had reportedly rebuilt the engine but had then discovered he had a very small coolant leak but was not able to trace it. Frank is under the impression that this is a build up of four years of operating but I am waiting for a technician to inspect the engine to be convinced. Jan, the local motor tech is apparently going to do a house call next week. We will see.

We also discovered that external cooling water was not getting through to the engine easily at low revs. We took the screen out of the main engine water filter and found it almost completely blocked. It took me 20 minutes with a wire brush to clean it off. Replaced, the water rushed through and the rather heated engine of the past was reduced again to a very cool 40-50 degrees indicated.

For the rest of the day I managed to contain my anxiety regarding the main engine - our only motive power - and do, guess what, more scraping and painting!

Saturday 14 July

Among the regular round of chipping, scraping and painting, today I decided to take the ship for a run around the lakes to test the engine and have a break, and to do what I am here to do, have fun in the boat. Van Nelle and I travelled happily for a couple of hours touring the edges of the five interlocked lakes and checking out the route to freedom - the entrance to the Vecht (almost impossible to find without knowledge) to the Nieuwsluis canal to the Amsterdam Rhinecanal. Several checks of the engine ensured that all was working fine so far.  I celebrated this evening with a trip into Loosdrecht for spare ribs and Californian Chardonnay - V. Good.                     

Sunday 15 July

Having been away from the island for a few days I figured it was safe to go back to do some more painting with the aid of the jetty that I tie Van Nelle up to. The relocation completed I actually got a fair bit done but I despair at my impatience and lack of skill on the end of a paintbrush. Wiggly lines point to me becoming 80% Jay. Every part I paint will require going back to tidy up the edges - Oh well, something to do for the next 10 years.

I had a bit of a panic today as the generator shut down soon after I started it. Over temp read out and no water being exhausted. A call to Frank to confirm that it was probably a shredded impellor, the little rubber part that pushes water through the cooling water pump. Fortunately Jan, the local engine man, was working and had the required impellor for the pump. What a performance to get to the impellor installed in the pump however.

The pump is on the hull side of an enclosed generator which cannot be moved. The panels come off on top and front and back but you cannot get your hand in the back and getting in through the front or top gives very little room for movement and almost no line of sight. Having worked on this kind of pump before I knew that if I dropped a screw the pump would be useless until the screw was replaced. We had a Jabsco version of the pump on Tension Cutter (two in fact) and I had replaced impellors on a number of occasions when they wore out, but this was a real stinker. It took an hour to take the face plate off the pump without losing any of the 6 screws. Fortunately the impellor came out quite easily and I made sure I noticed which way it rotated as getting that wrong can mean having to redo the job.

The new impellor was not so willing to go in since it was in pristine condition unlike its limp predecessor. After worrying it for some time and with the careful use of objects such as a screwdriver to assist, it finally slid onto its shaft in the right configuration. No mean feat since it was liberally coated with detergent to allow it to work initially without water since there was no way I could prime the pump in its position. Now to get the plate and screws back on.

It was about that time that the local water-ski school decided that Van Nelle was an excellent object to circumnavigate and did so incessantly, creating a wash that rocked the boat, sometimes quite violently. This is not the best condition to work in when attempting something as difficult as brain surgery on a difficult pump with no vision, greasy hands and tiny screws. It took forever but one by one they went back in and finally, with the help of a short screwdriver I borrowed from Frank, it was all back together and ready to try. I primed the line from the filter to the waterline with the hull water cock shut and went to the ‘office’ to start the engine. This procedure required starting the engine from the remote panel then dashing up on deck and down into the engine room to open the shut off valve to allow water into the system. Fortunately that worked, I made it before the impellor shredded again and water happily spat out rhythmically to the beat of the little Yanmar engine. Power was again at my disposal.

I had mentioned to Frank while we were with Jan at the marina office and workshop that a non return valve would solve the problem and he was quite mystified when Jan produced one for me to fit. I did that the next day when I was able to get the parts I needed from the chandler Vrijheid to fit the existing inlet valve and water pipe.  Apparently non return valves were outside Franks sphere of knowledge - one up on him then !

Monday 16 July

I woke this morning to quiet and one of the most beautiful vistas surrounding the boat. Still, slightly misty water and reflected images of the shore line clearly visible all round. I took some digital stills (I thought) with the video camera, only to discover later that this model, despite having the picture button which makes impressive shutter noises and actions in the view finder, apparently does not have still picture capability - Bugger!

Today I decided to ask Wetterwille Jachthaven if I could come in to the very restricted space of the marina to fill the water tanks. This would give me a rehearsal for the day the container arrived which I had already had them agree to. They readily agreed to let me come in and tie up to another barge on the end of a jetty. It was such a beautiful still day that this somewhat nervous skipper, on his own, actually made a masterful job of coming into the harbour, manoeuvring almost sideways up to the other boat and snugging up without scratching a millimetre of paint.

I then spent 2 ½ hours watching and listening to water refill the tanks, 150 litres at a time, driven by 1 guilder tokens for each 150 litre allowance. I thought 12 ought to be enough, after all, if their gauge was accurate that would be 1800 litres. In the end it took 15 tokens before a rush of water escaped inside the boat from the transparent sight tube used to keep a check on the level. That required a quick mop up and another drying session for some dampened clothes on racks near the sight tube.

I decided I had enough excitement for one day and after taking Van Nelle back to its anchorage about 150 metres off the shoreline, I took out the maps I have of Holland and the north of France to start working out how to get out of here. A very pleasant break from the monotony of scraping and painting.

I felt a bit guilty not doing a solid 10 hours manual labour today so I worked out a to do list for Tuesday.

Tuesday 17 July

On my list were a number of phone calls. First to the import company to find out what progress they had made with our container and the duty issue. Practically none and they did not sound very helpful about ways to reduce or eliminate the payment of import duty. The way it works they explained was that Customs take the value of the goods - say $A 6,000 (if they believe your values) and charge 12% - that’s $ 720. They then add the 720 to the 6000 and charge 19% VAT - that’s 1277 plus the 720 - that’s about $ 2,000 times 1.3 for conversion to guilders - presto 2,600 guilders. Not a bad day’s work for nothing on used goods that are not even staying in the country. At their lowest rate of 6% the figure is just under 2,000. Bugger !

Second call was to Mynheer Post of Brouwer’s Shipyard.  I had decided not to take Van Nelle back there for the electrical work since a local named Johan who Frank had introduced to me had offered to do the engine work here.  Jan from the Jachthaven had also agreed to supply and install the new Bosch 80 Amp, 24v alternator, the second part of the electrical requirements.  So I explained to Mijnheer Brouwer that the quote they had provided was far too much and that I would later come down to pick up the double gas cylinder enclosure I had already paid for. He agreed - reluctantly.

Third call was to Frank to see if he could arrange for Van Nelle to be in his Jachthaven for the installation of the alternator and engine check by Jan.  ‘No deal’ he insisted, the yard manager’s mother had just died and now was not a good time to ask.

I decided to go to Hilversum to buy a pillow for Maureen (who was about to arrive), arrange a hire car to pick her up and to get citronella to dispel the mosquitoes, since none was available locally. I did all these things as well as calling in to see Jan on both the outward and return journey. No Jan. There were people in the yard office however and they agreed immediately to let the ship in for the work. So much for Frank’s help.  I will take her in on Thursday.

I then set to work on the aft deck and the scuppers. I cleaned the rust and old paint from under the rails along both sides of the deck and treated the areas with rust preventer. I cleaned the back deck, moving everything (mostly Frank-junk) to the bow and then wrestled with stupid piddling little paint rollers that were hopelessly inadequate for the task, ending up on my knees painting the very pitted and uneven back deck in its new colour, just off white. (It looks good and it will be cool underfoot but may also show dirt very quickly and may be slippery). I then painted the scuppers with black tar-like paint obtained for the job from Mynheer Post at Brouwer’s. All in all a pretty good day.

I also received some e-mails including one from son Sean, now in a much needed job working for Michael - bless his heart - Kiernan, a friend with a big mining business in Australia.  There was another from Helen Jordan who, with her family, are on their barge Mea Vota on their return trip from the Midi to St Jean de Losne where the ship will be laid up for 10 months as they return to Canada to their real lives. Helen had shared the highs and lows of the Barge Handling and PP courses in Cambrai the year before when part way through a year on their barge with their kids.  I suspect a few tears will be shed on their departure from France back to Canada.

Wednesday 18 July

Rain - HEAVY RAIN. If I thought I had seen it rain here I had only experienced the overture. This was the real thing and caused me to quickly tour the boat to close windows, ports and skylights to quell the drips. Van Nelle has proven to be a dry ship under the most drenching conditions except for a couple of spots where a rubber liner will sort out the problem - and there it’s only drips. ( As I write this on Wednesday night, the deluge has started again).

Jitse Doeve came by in a small tugboat he was doing sea trials on for a prospective buyer.  I had recently given him an earful about getting the ownership details finished and delivering the papers (which he wanted to mail or for me to pick up), so this was a perfect way for him to combine delivery with face saving all round. We had coffee on a really atrocious morning and he and the other two men with him went off again into the rain.

I decided that there was no chance of painting or a trip to town (it was blowing a fierce 20-30knots (40-60kmh) and the waves were big enough to toss Little Nellie (the name I am trying out for the dinghy - suggestions gratefully received) around with me in it. I decided therefore to install some lights (three done perfectly thank you) and again go back to the maps whilst trying to decipher some of the Dutch Almanac - one word at a time from the dictionary. The Almanac is the Dutch maritime bible and must be known if questioned by the authorities.  It is in two volumes and contains all the rules required for safe boating plus timetables for locks and bridges and navigation information. 

The more you see Dutch in written form the more words become understandable but not enough so far to understand more than a phrase let alone a sentence.                     

Only 3 days ago I bought 80 guilders worth of phone cards which topped my account up to 111. Today my check revealed only 26 left - where does it go ??? We have to find a less expensive communications channel.

This Saturday and Sunday see two days of festival in Loosdrecht - street theatre, Roaring 20s music and markets - could be fun. Saturday is also the day the mattresses are being delivered but Jachthaven Wetterwille has agreed to store them until I can pick them up.

Thursday 19 July

More rain today but despite the weather I decided to move the ship to de Drektakker, a yacht marina some distance away where the boat was located when I first saw it and where Frank has his Tjalk. This means I am closer the source of tools, advice and bits and pieces - all of which Frank has on his boat.

Jan, the engineer, came by at 1.00pm to install the alternator. We needed to make a new bracket for it so after issuing instructions he left. I made my way to Frank’s boat to make up the parts for him to weld into place. Fortunately the arm that is used to tension the fan belt fitted the new set up perfectly and so some time was saved. I could not finish the job until I bought a few minor but significant electrical bits that will have to wait till tomorrow.

I had ordered professionally made name transfers of ‘Van Nelle’ and ‘Loosdrecht’ from the local sign writer to apply to each side of the bow and on the stern over the new paintwork.  The names for the ship arrived at the yacht shop Vrijheid so I picked them up while getting some bits and pieces needed to finish the starter and alternator installations. Unfortunately I ordered the names in a type style that came out much too small. Ah well, another set to be ordered tomorrow before the sign man goes on summer holidays for three weeks.

I also bought a switch panel for the wheelhouse electrics and took fright when I looked at the underneath where it is all wired up waiting for connection to gauges, lights and radios etc. Another challenge - electrical installations.  Fortunately I have Johan coming to do the main engine electrics soon and can call on his expertise to assist.  He is an electrical engineer with a local television production company but spends his spare time messing about on old boats.  Very useful chap I hope.

Friday 20 July

Another soggy day but a good one for doing electrical work inside. I also arranged for the mattresses to be delivered today to the marina which made the job a lot easier for the bed shop and me, since Saturday is festival day and parking will be prohibited in town.

I caught up with Jan who inspected the work on the alternator, made a couple of small adjustments and declared it ready to run. I turned the motor over and all the things Jan expected apparently happened so he declared it done. Now off to the bank to pay the man his 900 guilders for the alternator and labour.  So far this is working out much less expensively than if I had gone to Brouwer’s yard.

 

The rest of the day was spent deciphering how the switch panel worked and therefore had to be installed, doing the necessary carpentry and wiring to fit and testing the result. Everything worked except the navigation lights, a series of red, green, and white lights situated around the boat. I tried different combinations but no luck, I then decided to check them one by one to find out which was upsetting the rest. They all worked individually so I connected them back together and presto - they all worked. I have no idea - its all abracadabra to me. I have to confess to being just a bit proud that I was able to make the installation and have it work - another one to me !

Saturday 21 July

A dismal day for a festival with rain and cold prevailing - still, it doesn’t start till 6.00pm so maybe things will come good in time.

Today I worked under instruction from Frank to fabricate the pieces of steel that will make up a bracket for another two batteries. First do the measurements and plan, then select and cut the steel to size, with 45degree angles, ensure it all fits together and leave it to Frank for the welding - I’m not up to that yet.

Metal work completed it was time to spruce myself up for a night in town with some of the usual suspects from the Heineke Hotel. These include a bunch of guys and girls who live in town and are generous enough to allow me to hang around on party nights for some company.  They are also kind enough to use English most of the time.

The festival is basically a series of market stalls along the main street - well the only street really - with music in various places and bars and restaurants open along the strip. We plan to look until eight then go back to Heineke for dinner. All great plans ..... The others decided to have a few drinks first so the tour didn’t start till seven and a bit. By 8.00 we were less than half way so a quick rethink had the table booking altered to 8.30. We eventually got back to the hotel a bit before 9.00 and I could have ripped the legs off the tables and eaten them. However, a pleasant meal and then another sortie to check out the music - disappointing. The main stage had pre-recorded backing tracks for a series of pretty lack lustre acts - male singers - one with a couple of go-go dancers to liven up the event. Boring - even the boot scooters were more interesting. However, Sunday is another day - if the rain holds off as it did during the street festival.

Sunday 22 July

What unbelievable luck - a sunny day ! Things are looking good for the day’s outing. We planned to take in the sights on the water on Van Nelle as the day consists of a series of locations where vouchers in a program allow you to taste wine and cheese or participate in silly games and competitions at different moorings around the lake. There is also jazz to be found at the Niewersluis, a pretty, almost semi-circular lock on the Vecht, the canal that leads to the Amsterdam - Rhine canal.

All aboard at the local marina and we made it to the first stop where we tasted a couple of indifferent wines and some good brie, then continued cruising on to the Niewersluis. By the time we got close there was a kilometre long queue of boats waiting to get through.  That, according to others in their boats in the queue apparently required a two hour wait. We reversed along the canal to an appropriate spot, tied Van Nelle up and hitched a ride to the lock on a passing ski boat.

This is what it is all about. A sunny day, good jazz, a passing parade of boats and people to gawk at and some good drinks plus the odd smoked eel to nibble on. Jacques, Anke, Corry and I had a lovely afternoon in the sun watching the TV personalities parade around, completely upstaged by the mad lock keeper.

The Niewersluis lock keeper is famous. A real personality, he was wearing a pair of over size shorts held up by braces that featured naked women, a shirt featuring 40s female film stars in underwear, one red and one green sock and a little straw hat. He had, for company, a couple of mannequins dressed in suits that were positioned to oversee the operations of the lock. He earned his money today with an unending stream of boats in both directions. It took about two hours for the boats we were with in the queue to appear and get through.

We finished the day with a barbecue on shore after our return to the lake and wove off to bed - me hurtling down the dark road on the new and trusty scooter.

Monday 23 July

Cloudy but dry - a good day to paint the decks grey.

I have to admit to being a bit worse for wear this morning so I decided I would do mindless things like going to Gamma for switches, Berepoot for a fan belt and Morpheus for some mattress covers. Being Monday most of the shops are shut or do not open until 1.00pm. I got the first two errands done and headed back to VN to fit the switches and locate a spare power line Frank had laid in the bathroom to connect the bathroom exhaust fan. Good work for a hang over.

Mission accomplished. I now have an exhaust fan that works, a spare wire located and ready to attach to a light, a couple of appropriate mattress covers and a dubious fan belt - I think the lad in the shop measured the outside rather that the inside of the fan belt - ah well - another thing to exchange later.

I checked up on Frank and the welding. Nothing done as he was a bit slow this morning as well and was off to the funeral of the mother of the marina manager. By 5.00pm I had decided it was time to paint the decks grey. (It should be remembered here that the days in this part of the world start at about 4.30am and end about 10.30pm with the passage of the summer sun). An hour later I was about 1 square metre short of paint and Vrijheid had just closed - oh well, I can finish it tomorrow before I go to Hilversum to pick up a hire car I had booked and get the things only a station wagon will carry.

Only one more day to wait for the arrival of the ship’s real captain - Maureen.

Tuesday 24 July

Very good weather today - sunny, light breezes and no sign of nasty fronts on the way in. Perhaps this is in preparation of Maureen’s arrival. It would be just right for her to arrive into blazing sunshine after I had been describing how bad the weather is here. Credibility zero.

Today I have to pick up the hire car, actually a station wagon, and do some shopping for heavy, bulky objects like the outdoor chairs. They are on special at Gamma for about ten guilders each. I’ll buy six and who cares if they break.

A scooter trip into Hilversum through the meadows, bordered by narrow canals in which the locals float about aimlessly or dash from one end to the other and then return in the same haste. I travel down the cycle / scooter path next to the main roads. The Dutch have developed a good system with their small roads accompanied by bicycle paths and main roads having wider integrated or separated bicycle / scooter tracks.

After securing the scooter in the hire car agency garage I did a bit of shopping. I needed a haircut and I wanted to make additional inquiries about refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, carpets and so on. I soon discovered that a haircut was out of the question unless I wanted to make an appointment for the next day. Oh well, I’ll just have to use the kitchen scissors.

After hiking to a couple of white goods shops in town I have however now found a frig of the right size that is an A performer in the energy efficiency stakes.  It is a Bosch, and the price is 700 guilders. With two extra batteries for the ship to provide sufficient power at a cost of 750 guilders, total cost is about 1500 - about the amount I suspect Frank would want for his old 24volt model I am borrowing and about 1500 less than a new 24v model. All my inquiries had suggested a normal household frig would use only an extra 1-2 amps per hour energy consumption, a figure well covered by the extra batteries and we would get extra power on top for other requirements.

I spent the afternoon shopping and squeezing bulky objects into the Mitsubishi Spacewagon I had hired at the rental agency. Really comfortable and very spacious but still economical. Being at Jachthaven de Drektakker is also a boon as I can load the items onto their barrows to go straight out the dock and onto the boat.

Wednesday 25 July

Again great weather - so that’s my cover story about being tied to the boat shot to pieces - but it’s a good day for an arrival. I had been worried about fog diverting the flight to another European capital as it was as thick as pea soup a couple of days earlier, but this day it lifted quickly as I drove to Schipol airport at 6.00am.

I arrived at 6.40 and parked exactly where I thought I could, right outside departure gate 1, just above the arrivals area but unfortunately at the opposite end of the terminal. Now the quandary, do I stay with the car or go to the arrivals hall to try to intercept Maureen. I decided to try arrivals. Of course it was pandemonium down there with a large number of people spilling into the area from multiple early arrivals plus all the visitors there to greet loved ones. Plan B - go out to the exit area upstairs which is the most likely route someone would take if looking for the departure area.

Bingo - got her in one. A stray figure anxiously scanning the car park area with her back to me.

"Can I be of assistance madam ?" - in a heavy Indian accent from me.

A slightly annoyed look over the shoulder as if to say "Piss off, I can look after myself thank you" which quickly turned to relief and then joy at being met. After the inevitable greetings and the odd tear it was off to the car and Plan A for the day - Amsterdam for charts and a look around.

Now it was back to my hit and miss navigation system. Follow the A2 to Amsterdam then the elephant signs that direct you to the zoo, turn right for the central station and then left into the little car park. Pretty good - just one wrong turn that took us through the bus park in front of Centraal Station, through an amazed crowd of commuters and tourists and back onto the main road towards the car park. It’s a good thing that there are no Politie (police) about while I am driving here - I would be in jail.

By the time we parked it was only about 8.00am so off to coffee through the red light district - not much action at this time of the day but a few shops open with their thousands of videos and improbable looking ‘toys’ and lots of signs for pot and ecstasy. A continental breakfast on the main street, purchase of a tourist map and a decision to go to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’s answer to the Louvre. We took the No2 tram and got off a stop after the museum since we were past it before we decided it was indeed our target. On arrival at the front door we found the opening times for the day were at 10.00am which would leave little time for looking as the car park voucher was only good until 11.00 and fines in Amsterdam are very expensive. Back onto the No2 tram and back to Centraal for a quick walk to the chart shop.

We were the major customers for the month I suspect when we bought nearly 1,000 guilders worth of charts of Holland, Belgium and France. Better now that not at all. We carted the goods back to the car and set of for Utrecht to Ikea for additional furniture.

I had sussed out chairs and other necessary items so it was a quick visit that turned long as we added things to the list like a table for the wheelhouse. Ikea can be good for putting bits and pieces together, the problem is that after you buy the stuff you have to put the bits and pieces together and some end up looking very strange, especially with Dutch instructions. We found all the things we needed and actually managed to fit them in the car. Time to head back to the ship.

I had to giggle when Maureen decided she had to take the dinghy ashore to the shops and on departure banged all the way down one side of Van Nelle and up the other, ignoring my instructions on how to handle the little boat and motor.  I was threatened with mutiny until I shut up and she disappeared shorewards.  Returning was conducted with greater aplomb and no instructions.

The rest of the day was taken up with Ikea construction games, dinner, champagne and bed !

Thursday 26 July

Weather fine - credibility going further south.

An early start as we had the car only until 2.00 in the afternoon and we needed carpet, a longer list of small items from Ikea and lots of other useful stuff. Eventually it was all bought and installed back on the boat and we went back into Hilversum to return the car, except that on arrival at the rental agency I discovered that I had forgotten the scooter keys. Back to Loosdrecht and return - 20 minutes round trip (fortunately no Politie) and then off to the shops to confirm the frig and vacuum.

A rather vague chap at the ‘Modern Electronics’ store assured us all would be well for purchase and delivery and we headed back to the boat.

Having spent most of the afternoon completing the Ikea constructions, carpet cutting and fitting and other make and install tasks, the harbour master gave us the unwelcome news that we would have to vacate. The area we were on was not his and big brother would prosecute them. So, back to the lake, off shore power and extensive use of the dinghy was to be the order of our future days.

Friday 27 July

Weather OK today for our move out of the Jachthaven and onto the lake so I decided we would make a trip of it to see the lake system and run the engine a bit with the alternator now in place. But first to leave.

De Drektakker is a marina accessed by a narrow entrance off a narrow canal. Getting Van Nelle in and out is a great feat of seamanship - well - it ain’t easy. To get in you have to first get through the canal and then take the very sharp corner into the marina. The width of the canal is about three times Van Nelle’s beam and the entrance two times. Once inside you have to turn 180 degrees in an area about 5 metres wider than Van Nelle’s length. It is indeed fortunate that Van Nelle, like most barges, can turn almost within her length since manoeuvring is done by the power of the water from the propeller pushing over the rudder rather than the stream of passing water caused by speed.

Getting out requires separation from the bank almost sideways since there is little room fore and aft with boats tied up in front and behind. Again, Van Nelle’s characteristics assist since when put in gear in reverse, she almost walks sideways by the propeller grabbing blade-fulls of water and throwing them away.   This moves the stern outwards to the port side (left) - so - as long as you are moored starboard (right) side in, you can get out relatively easily. If moored port side in you have to revert to forward thrust and rudder or the huge boat hooks we have inherited. Remarkably, it takes a lot less effort to push and pull the boat manually that I expected.

We made the exit gracefully, trying not to stir up the shells and rotten leaves on the floor of the marina since they tend to get sucked into the engine water inlet and reduce the cooling water flow.  We slowly headed off for a pleasant trip around the lake, with a bit of steering instruction thrown in on the way for the new crew.

Once back in place and anchored securely in front of the main street marinas, it was time for more shopping - especially for the correct colour grey paint, which unfortunately was still not available.

A note about the anchor. This is a huge object of great weight that hangs from the bow, or more accurately, its shaft fits neatly up the chain pipe that leads up to the deck winch from the outside of the hull. The anchor is secured by a very heavy chain and the whole is operated by a simple lever and ratchet winch. Since the lake is only 2-4 metres deep, about 10-12 metres of chain suffices to keep Van Nelle in place securely against all winds (so far up to about 60knots), so pulling the anchor up is not too hard. You pump the lever back and forth and it rotates the axle on which the chain pulling gear is located, securing each increment with the ratchet. About 20cms each pull has 12 metres up in about 60-100 movements. If it gets too heavy, you just wait, since the boat starts moving forward when you start winching and taking the swing caused by the wind into account, you can complete the operation in about 10 minutes. Once the anchor is off the ground you have plenty of time to secure all forward before having to get to the wheel, since VN stays where she is for minutes despite quite strong winds before slowly paying off and drifting. My experiences so far in handling her have all been pleasant and full of admiration for the characteristics of this early transport technology.

We decided it was time to take in a meal in a restaurant and so headed off to the Hotel Heineke for spare ribs and fish with some nice French white wine to wash it down - and of course an introduction to mad Walter the waiter and his trick of delivering the wine - partly consumed.

Saturday 29 July

Weather still very good so some indoor and outdoor activities planned for the day.

Under strict instructions that ‘a boat has to have an oven’ I had been able to locate a very nice maritime model at the boating second hand shop and we had bought it on the way back from Utrecht in the hire car.  Today was the day for installation. One can buy all the necessary gas fittings at various shops around Loosdrecht where I inquired for a gas fitter, only to be told there were no installers. This is a DIY country.

Access to the installation position was good and the cook top allowed for a ‘T’ piece to provide gas to the oven from the cook top. So, apart from one wrong move causing me to have to get a replacement coupling, it all went together easily and on test proved secure. We used the door of the cupboard into which we placed the oven as its new surround so it fits in perfectly and works a treat. Its so good to have alternatives to frying and boiling.

Maureen went scootering (wobbly at first but with greater skill and confidence coming with the mounting kilometres), off to the hardware and supermarkets to soak up oils and lacquers for various bits of furniture and flooring and to buy a chook (Australian for chicken) to roast for dinner - with real vegetables.

An afternoon of painting for me since I had managed to find the correct colour grey deck paint at a rival boat supply shop after having waited a week for Vrijheid to get it in. Maureen applied lacquer to the bench tops which unfortunately rejected it since they had previously been oiled. Back to oiling them then. The new finish worked a treat on the new wheelhouse table which now looks very grand and fits perfectly for lazy meals out of the weather with a 360 degree view. It also rotates, making it easy to get people in and out and for use as a coffee or work table when turned 90degrees.  We eat all our meals there and really have a million dollar outlook. I can’t wait for the now familiar Loosdrecht scenery to be exchanged for that of French countryside !

We found a good little wine store in town and so laid in a supply of French wines - Bubbly at about $10 per bottle (Café de Paris), Bordeaux red at 10-15 and various others between 8-15. Also some very old Dutch Genever (forerunner to gin) and Schipper Bitter, a sort of local spirit based aromatic schnapps. Very good start to the exotic onboard cocktail cabinet and wine store.

Sunday 29 July

A beautiful day on the water, hot and sunny.

Up early for a quick morning of work - Jay to paint grey decks and edges, Maureen to strip the bench tops of the unfortunate lacquer and paint the bathroom door, in which we have cut a solid section out and installed a louvred section in to allow better ventilation. With the ventilator fan and the louvres it improves the airflow enormously, eliminating mould entirely.

We had a late brunch and an afternoon siesta - that’s a first - and then off to the waterfront bar ‘Ottenhome’ for a few afternoon beers and a walk through Loosdrecht before a hamburger and a few more beers... Well, why not (as Sir James Hardy is wont to say), it is Sunday !

Monday 30 July

Things were moving too slowly on a number of fronts so today was whip day on the phone. The brokers about the ships papers and insurance, the import company about the furniture, Brouwer ship yard about the gas box, Piet Huebe about the dirty water tank and Vrijheid about pump kits and safety gear. Those calls completed it was time for the arrival of Johan, the TV electrical engineer who is to rewire the engine and control panel.

Johan, all 6' 7" of him, arrived at dockside with his tools, ready for work. He is a character. About 35ish, a bachelor workaholic who travels all over Europe troubleshooting TV live event coverage crews and equipment. He lives on a sailing barge (a Tjalk) which he has been converting for 15 years. It still looks as though it needs 15 years work so it must be true that he spends most of his time doing things for other people.

My dinghy is small and unstable, so when someone like Johan jumps in it is like circus time trying to keep it right side up and everything inside. We managed - somehow, with he sitting right on the bow making the boat very unstable as he unconcernedly rolled a cigarette and chatted about how nice it was to have good weather and a nice job to do. Somehow we managed to get to Van Nelle without a swim and installed him and his gear onto the deck. Coffee first is the order of any business activity in Holland so the kettle was fired up as we discussed everything but the job.

It can be very frustrating trying to do things efficiently here. Maybe it’s the place (Loosdrecht is a holiday centre) or the timing (this is the summer holiday period) but everyone I have contracted comes at least a day after the appointed date and then three hours after the appointed time. None of the jobs have been able to be finished in a day, all requiring a return visit or two for parts forgotten or not foreseen or to be changed for other sizes or capacities. I am definitely worried that we may be forced to spend more time here than we would like in order to get the jobs completed, like the dirty water tank, engine wiring, gas box and blue flag.  Not that Loosdrecht and Holland are poor places to be, it’s just that we had a plan to go south for winter and we were not getting close to leaving.

When Johan got to work however it was a different story. He does great work and is really happy doing it. I’m very glad this is not Tension Cutter (our previous boat in Australia) since he would never have been able to squeeze into the spaces in the engine room. Fortunately on Van Nelle there is enough room to walk around the engine unhindered. Just watch your head (whack).

While Johan wired, I scraped. I’m getting quite good at it. He finished the day but not the job and left, promising a return on Tuesday.

Tuesday 31 July

Weather now is turning grey again - phew !

Into Hilversum today to pay for the frig and its delivery and to pick up a few bits and pieces from Gamma. On arrival at Modern Electronics I was not surprised to find that our refrigerator - the last one in stock, had been sold to someone on Saturday. The salesman, who had Saturday and Monday off, was apologetic and somewhat cowed at my controlled rage. He immediately got onto the computer and the phone to secure the absolutely last one in Holland at some place in the remote north. I paid and left him to arrange immediate delivery after also enquiring about the vacuum cleaner we wanted.  This I found out was a superseded model for which they had no bags.

Hmm.

Off to the specialist vac shop up town. Yes they had the bags.  I bought their supply (enough for a couple of years boat use and returned to the electrical shop to pay for the vacuum and delivery to Jachthaven Wetter Wille where we will hopefully load all this onto Van Nelle in a week’s time.

On return I retired to the engine room to clean areas of the roof and bilge that had been waiting to spread their oily blackness on me and quite forgot Johan’s return. Some time after immersion in bilge water I emerged to see Johan patiently sitting on the edge of the jetty, some 80 metres across the water. Maureen had taken the dinghy ashore sometime earlier and had not returned so, a quick call to Johan by phone, he then found the dinghy, loaded himself and his gear into it and headed out to Van Nelle.

I have to say I felt very bad about that incident. Here was a guy giving up his spare days to travel 45 minutes each way to do the work for me and I left him dangling on the side of a jetty. To his credit (and my shame) he made light of it remarking what a nice day to have time to sit and enjoy nature.

By the end of the day the wiring on the engine was complete, numbered and secured, cut to length and ended with beautiful connectors. I can’t wait for the return visit next week, complete with rewired control panel and eventually, the connection of the two.

Piet Huebe had promised to come today to start work on the dirty water tank. He was a no show and had the phone switched off all day. Worry ! I also arranged for a visit by a metal worker who had agreed by phone to build the ‘blue flag’ but he also did not show up. More worry.

‘Blue Flag’ you ask. When a downstream commercial vessel chooses to travel on the wrong side of the channel in order to make the most of the current, he shows a ‘blue flag’ (actually a blue board) on his starboard side. If you are the upstream boat affected by his choice you acknowledge that you will pass starboard to starboard rather than port to port by also showing your blue flag. It is essential to have the equipment for the busy major canals, so one has to be built for the boat.

Wednesday 1 August

A slow day with unremarkable weather. Lots of little jobs inside and out - mostly with me painting the edges of the various different colours where the lines were not straight and touching up areas where paint had spilt or run. Maureen refurbished an old deck table to use for cocktail hour. It is now a very handsome item with varnished top and blue legs. Unfortunately it was also our paint table so now that paraphernalia goes on the deck.

Thursday 2 August

The day seemed overcast and seemed to be going from bad to worse with the phone call from Modern Electronics.

"Good news and bad news" he said "The frig in the remote north is not the same model. The good news is that it is the later model, same size but higher price. The good news is that we will deliver it for the amount you have already paid". That sounded better. I worry about the salesman’s commission check or tenure in his job but that’s his problem.

No visit from the various tradesmen so I continued work on the stern locker and store area taking some four vacuum bags of grit, dust, paint flakes and rust out. It then received a liberal coat of anti rust oil.

We went to Gamma. Maureen had heard so much about the place I’m sure she was expecting some huge hardware hyper market but  it’s really more like a smallish Bunnings. We wandered about looking for hanging rails, hooks and things and found a big umbrella that they arranged to deliver, complete with a concrete footing.  This is for the back deck on hot, sunny days.  I see myself lounging on one of the layback chairs, cool drink to hand, a pot of pâté close by and white fluffy clouds occasionally casting shadows over my closed eyes.

Later in the day we heard from the import company - the cost of duty was just below 2,500 guilders. I asked for the account to be sent ASAP so I could arrange payment from my bank and keep to their schedule of delivery next Friday. We are hanging out for some familiar items, furniture, books, linen, clothes etc - but for me - mostly some music.  We have about 200 CDs to be delivered, unpacked and listened to.

Friday 3 August

I was becoming concerned about fuel and an enquiry to Frank proved that we had little more than 100 litres left. So today was the day to refuel but not completely. Fuel here is expensive, about 15% more than from the bunkerships in Utrecht. Since we will go past them in a week or so, I plan to fill there before completely filling the tanks with really cheap red fuel in Belgium on the way to France. All I have to do is ensure we don’t run out of fuel on the way. My calculations required about 100-150 litres for the next couple of weeks so we decided on 300 now and the rest later.

We went up to West End marina where the fuel is dispensed and went alongside for fuel (calibrated into the tank in 100 litre lots and water (about 1000 litres). That took till after 2.00 pm after which we went out to anchor in this much more protected and quite pretty area.

This is at the extreme west end (hence the name) of Loosdrecht and is an area favoured by water ski and junior sailing schools. Flat barges filled with little sailing dinghies are towed out in the morning and back in the afternoon for the instruction and amusement of lots of very small Dutch children. It is also the location of the Chinese restaurant and the aromas of delicious Chinese meals from lunch time on had us deciding to go there for dinner that night.

Meanwhile we were running the generator as usual to charge the batteries and when it came time to stop it, it would not. The automatic fuel cut-off was not operating completely, leaving the engine just ticking over and causing great vibrations. After a few unsuccessful attempts in the office using the remote I went to the engine room, took off the covers and manually halted the beast. Another worry. I had an experience once before in an ocean race where the engine would not stop and even if forcefully stopped would start again. We had to disconnect it from fuel and electricity to stop it. I called Frank.

Yes, he had it happen "a couple of times but it always worked OK afterwards " and "no, he had not done anything about it". I called Mase in Holland and got the number of a local servicing agent who came the next day.

The Chinese food was excellent - two for a banquet at 68 guilders, a bottle of French Blanc de Blanc (sparkling) for pre dinner and a reasonable red for the dinner. About 7 courses including soup, satay, pork, chicken, steamed and fried rice, lychees and other small dishes. Excellent and only a 2 minute dinghy trip.

Sven Krook, the Blue Flag man - had still not showed up despite repeated promises.  Does his name suggest something ?

Saturday 4 August

Piet Huebe turned up at 2.00 after promising eleven and started on the dirty water system. Slow and methodical, he has great tales about the ships he has wired, plumbed, fixed and built. I took him on the recommendation of Vrijheid who imported the very expensive minimum and maximum water sensors for me on his recommendation.  He did a nice job of setting up the tank on timber bearers and with new piping to and from it, also securing the pump which previously had lain on the floor. I cleaned the area and treated the steel work surrounding it for rust and painted the timber with grey deck paint. Seems a waste not to use it.

He left for the day with the job looking about 3/4 done. A jolly chap with a thirst for beer rather that tea or coffee - which he will drink only under sufferance.

The problem with the generator brought out the issue of water and dirt in the fuel leading to my job of emptying all the filters and getting literally gallons of water and muck out of the systems.

We felt quite satisfied with progress today and after dinner had a read of the Navicartes for France, and then to bed. We were woken at 3.30am by loud music and horns blaring. A party ship circling us for half and hour having a real good Dutch time of it. Pity we don’t yet have the mini cannons installed.

Sunday 5 August

Windy today with lots of rain early.  I know that since we have an excellent rain gauge - the dinghy.

The weather is sure to put Piet off who promised to come at eleven again. He actually turned up at 12.00 and finished the job - except that the new switch (the very expensive ones now substituted with a time delay model instead of the auto minimum water level version) does not talk the same language as the others and therefore nothing works. Fortunately there is a manual override which we can use until he returns to fix it - maybe Monday if the parts are in stock.

Maureen scrubbed all the floors while I installed hooks, reinforced the front bedroom bed legs (80% Frank installed) and installed a board on which the bath pump now is secured. It was lying on the floor as well as the dirty water pump. They, and all their hoses are now organised, tightened and secured.

This evening we received a phone call from home. It was really great to hear the voices of Ian and Helen Palmer who had just returned from a camping trip in the North West, mustering cattle and tramping the gorges. I reckon Helen would only have to give ‘that look’ and the cows would all stand in line and salute.

A great end to the day and the week.

Monday 6 August

The weather looked good to start with but deteriorated during the early morning. We rose to ring Miria Cummins for her birthday and finally got through to her in her company’s office in Australia. It’s funny how we think we are privileged to get calls from friends at home but when you call someone like Miria the effect is great. She loved receiving the call and we were all quite emotional at being able to wish each other the best, but especially to wish her a very happy birthday.

It was also Simon (our younger son’s) birthday in Australia and we called him to get his news and wish him a happy birthday too. He was busy rushing around to cook for the occasion so we chatted briefly and left him to enjoy his day.

Surprise of surprises when Peter Hoobee (as his spelling turns out to be) turned up with the parts to finish the dirty water tank system and within a couple of hours it was working a treat. We celebrated with a beer - what else ?

 

We also called Jitse who was holidaying in Norway or Sweden in a caravan (brrr) to inquire as to the progress with the insurance company. We cannot proceed to France without full insurance cover for the ship as they insist on it for entry to commercial marinas. He agreed to chase it and called a few hours later to advise that the company ‘had sent the papers to our address and could not retrieve them, we would just have to wait as there was nothing else he could do’.

I decided to take further action, rang his father, elicited the name of the insurance clerk dealing with the account, called them and they agreed to furnish the papers by fax to the nearby Jachthaven - Wolfrat. Later in the afternoon the papers had not arrived so they received a further call, following which a letter arrived stating that they had taken the ship on an all risks policy with a hefty discount. Some progress at least. I then tried to arrange to pay their account at the local branch of my Dutch bank. No they said - you’ll have to do that at your branch in Utrecht. Difficult.

I decided then that the easiest course of action was therefore to go to Utrecht on Wednesday as a round trip to Amsterdam.

Tuesday 7 August

Weather indifferent but worsening

Johan was a no show at 10.00am, the time appointed to complete the engine rewiring. Bah. A call advised us that a colleague had gone sick and he had to cover for him. We agreed to meet on Thursday instead as we were off to Amsterdam on Wednesday.

The day was a sort of a knock-about day after that with a trip to the shops and some bits and pieces about the ship.  We decided to go for a drink at the nearby café / restaurant but on arrival found it was closed Mondays and Tuesdays. We went up the shore a bit to the Chinese and enjoyed a bottle of French Brut de Brut and some Chinese dim sum nibbles - all very nice, but at 70 guilders a bit expensive as we try to throttle back on the expenses to meet our budget targets.

Wednesday 8 August

Wow - the wind had come up to 30-40knots overnight and was howling in the morning.

We got the dinghy underway at about 8.50 to get to Hilversum by scooter for the train to Utrecht and the bank visit. A pretty easy arrangement with the ticket lady selling us reasonably priced round trip, second class tickets. Only about 1 minute’s wait and a 15-20 minute trip and we were at the bank shortly after 10.00.

Disaster. The account was overdrawn. How ? The inquiries clerk got on the computer and right away I spotted a double payment to Nijmen, the import company of 2454 Guilders each. The bank, having made the error could not undo it so I had to call Nijmen’s and have them raise a payment to my account. I also put some cash in and gave them a cheque from the ANZ to boost the funds - that will take a week at least but we may need the pin card capability when it comes to paying for a couple of thousand guilders worth of fuel. And, there is the insurance bill to pay.

That completed we set off to show Maureen the sights - Utrecht Cathedral and some of the charming city squares and canals running through the central district. A market was on the in the main square also, adding to the bustle and cluttering the sight lines. We grabbed an applebak (cake) on the run and headed for the station for the train to Amsterdam. A 10-15 minute wait and we were off on a 25 minute trip to the centre of Sex City. A number 2 tram and shortly after 12.00noon we were at the Rijksmuseum - Amsterdam’s Louvre.

We were not disappointed as the vast building is crammed with Dutch master’s paintings and other beautiful crafts such as furniture, glass, silver and pottery. Two hours of wandering and we retired to the restaurant for some brootjes (rolls) and drinks before heading for the Volkspark nearby where a troupe of Dutch Wiggles wannabees were entertaining about 1,000 little kids with huge amounts of electronic amplification.

Out of the park to the tram stop and on to the Palace Museum. Built for the kings and queens of Holland, this impressive building stands next to the Niew Kirk, also from the 1600s and also a museum, but both buildings are still used for state occasions. Inside, the main hall was set for a state dinner with fabulous flatware and silver, crystal and silver centre pieces. By now (about 4.00pm) the legs were starting to complain and we needed to get back to Hilversum to pick up the scooter so we headed off through increasing crowds of soccer ‘fan-imals’.

The Irish were in town dressed in green and white, guzzling beer, singing loud, unintelligible songs and generally starting to get rowdy. The police numbers were increasing down the main street and we were frankly pleased to get out of town. We made it to the station and then had to try to decipher the railway timetable to catch the right train to go to the right destination. With minutes to spare I managed to get to the front of my queue to inquire and was given the same information that Maureen had been able to work out on the big plans set on the platforms. We made it to the right platform only to see trains come and go with conductors shooing people away until finally the right train arrived and we all raced on and settled for a quick ride to Hilversum.

Maureen shot off to get some Velcro for wheelhouse cushions while I tried to address the service problems with the scooter shop. Complaints were a bit pointless as it was near closing time and we had no time to wait for them to fix the tuning. They did adjust the very sloppy brakes (which they had caused during the service) and a rattle in the exhaust but the poor little thing is a bit wheezy and has a bit of a cough. We will have to wait till France to get it sorted out.

It was still very windy so we were glad to get back aboard into the comfort and warmth of the cabins.

Thursday 9 August

The wind has blown itself out but the morning started with rain.  Shortly after 10.00am Johan rang to say he was arriving at West End with the parts. A few minutes later, Maureen was off on the scooter to do a major shop, Johan was aboard and the final leg of the engine rewiring saga was taking place. Some hours later he asked if I would like to start the engine as he had finished in the engine room. A small ceremony and turn of the key -  nothing ! OOPS.

Some quick checks with a multimeter and a change of wires then another turn of the key and the engine vibrated into noisy life. Beams all round as we watched lights lighting up and waited for temperature and pressure gauges to react, which they all did ! Great effort and a great relief. Only one thing left to do, run a multi-core cable from the block in the engine room to the wheelhouse and screw the wires in place and it will be finished - except - Johan did not have the right cable (of course) but a colleague had one and he would just head off to pick it up. He left and 3.00pm and by 6.00 was still not back.

Meanwhile, I worked on some new taps, a shelf, changed the ends on some electrical cables and adjusted the auto stop on the generator. Maureen investigated the under cupboard floor and went to work in the front cabin on a few rough spots that need finishing.

Tomorrow is the big day - the arrival of our goods. There is great anticipation here and some concern as to where it will all fit - but that is for tomorrow.  We had decided that we were going to leave Loosdrecht to begin our trek south on Monday, after this weekend and therefore set about getting everything finished by Sunday.  No mean feat.

Friday 10

Of course it had to rain today. We pulled anchor early and navigated into de Drektakker, up the narrow channel and through the impossibly tight turn into the haven, made the 180 degree turn at the entrance and reversed Van Nelle back to tie up against Frank’s Tjalk to unload his remaining gear before again heading off to Jachthaven Wetter Wille to meet up with the moving team and our belongings.

We were on our way at 9.30 as the phone rang. Ellen at Wetter Wille to advise that the team had arrived with their truck and that the mooring was free. We entered cautiously, took the 90 degree turn and nudged up against the dock. Maureen made some gestures at the truck and managed to coax the team out in the rain to take our lines. We were soon secure and I briefed the team about access. We tied open the skylights and got the process under way, Maureen checking off the items and the men lowering them into the hull. How was it all going to fit ?

More and more boxes piled up against the furniture and wrapping. By the middle of the exercise it looked like a mini disaster but slowly, order emerged from the chaos. I sent Maureen off to collect the scooter from West End, a pretty long walk, and helped the team with the deck and other items. Pretty soon we were finished and Maureen had not re-appeared - she had to have gone to the shops after collecting money from the bank. By this time Sven Krook had arrived with a truly beautiful ‘blue board’ to install on the starboard side of the wheelhouse and it was starting to get embarrassing about the moving men hanging around who obviously wanted to get back to Rotterdam. I sent them off to get lunch at the café up the road and tried to slow Sven down.

Eventually Maureen arrived back after the truck had been taken to find her. She had completed a truly remarkable shop, coming back with groceries, a sledge hammer, mops and other assorted items, all piled aboard the scooter.  She looked like an Asian family on holiday. On her arrival the guys lifted the scooter onto the deck where I secured it and they departed hurriedly. Sven was paid with the cash Maureen arrived back with and also departed, we plugged in to the shore power and turned on the frig, unwrapped more and more items and tried to find logical places for them. This took until about 4.30 when with some guilt I prepared to do the impossible, take Van Nelle out through a crowded marina backwards, negotiating a 90 degree bend and in so doing, not destroying the other exposed boats.

It was surprisingly easy in the end. Done slowly and deliberately the ship responded well to the thrust of the prop and the press of the rudder and we emerged to make a final 180 degree turn and head back to West End.

We spent some hours unpacking and putting away and collapsed over a scratch dinner of pasta. Shortly after we received a call from Frank who said they couldn’t do dinner with us on Saturday but could come for a drink tonight. Ok, were not tired, please come. They did and we had an enjoyable few hours with some drinks, nibbles and talk of politics and music. They left at 1.30am and we went off to bed, strangely to toss and turn for an hour or so before sleeping fitfully.

Saturday 11

The weather was bright and sunny on this Saturday and washing was the first order of priorities, not only to test the machine but also to get the mounting loads under control. It was also a chance to test the dryer on the generator and put everything under load to see what sort of power consumption we would have.  The process began and all seemed to be progressing well, surely it could not be this easy ? The amps consumed were a few more than I had expected for the frig but it was just trying to chill the huge load of goods it had been presented with.

Despite the odd hiccup, everything had been resolving well and I had been lulled into a bit of a false sense of security - especially in regard to the engine problem we had discovered before.  We had had several local ‘experts’ look at the engine, inside and out and they all declared it a minor issue.  However, coolant leaking into the sump only meant one thing and that could be a show stopper.

I checked the engine and got a case of the chills again. There was evidence of the dreaded cooling fluid in the sump. I determined to get a vacuum pump from Vrijheid and check it out. In the end it was a small amount but never the less it was still there and something will have to be done about it, the question is where and when. I don’t relish the thought of staying here for another day let alone another couple of weeks. My inclination is to arrange a settlement with Frank for his contribution to the cost and head south. Maybe in France we can get a Baudouin specialist with access to all the parts and accessories required to fix the leak and service the engine at the same time. We’ll see.  I called Frank also to propose a cash settlement from him of 2000 guilders for the engine problems and he said he would consider it.

Sunday 12

Really lousy weather at the start that just got worse. Another storm with high winds, rain and whitecaps on the lake - and we need water after our washing machine gobbled up about 250 litres in three loads yesterday.

I called Ellen at Wetter Wille to see if we could get in to fill up and was advised to tie up to the outside breakwater. We arrived and against strong winds managed to moor securely. Maureen went off to get money and shopping bits preparatory to leaving tomorrow and I supervised the watering while checking the bank accounts by internet.

We completed the watering and the weather had really deteriorated. I pulled the dinghy up to the side of the boat, it was on a short line on the stern.  It looked secure where it was and would not be exposed. What a huge mistake.

I had briefed Maureen that I would put Van Nelle ahead with the wheel hard to starboard as we were tied up on the starboard side. That would push the stern into the wind away from the breakwater we were tied to and from that position we could reverse out, since in reverse Van Nelle pulls to port. That worked well until I put the boat into reverse to pull away from the breakwater. The strong winds were threatening to push us straight back onto the wall and pin us against it so I gave the engine a fair bit of throttle and we moved away. The first 10 - 20 metres were touch and go and I applied more power to keep us heading away from the wall.

Maureen, having done a great job with ropes and fenders on the bow in the driving rain, went aft to check the dinghy. I saw her look over the stern and turn to me with a horrified look. The dinghy had been sucked against the rudder and prop and was pinned there as the prop carved off the outboard motor as though it was cutting paper not aluminium and started on the hull and stern of the dinghy. I couldn’t stop and anyway was not aware of the extent of the damage at that stage as Maureen could not see clearly enough to report what was happening in detail.

We had now moved far enough to put the ship into forward and turn before we again hit the wall. I carried out the manoeuvre as quickly as possible and headed back to the West End. Maureen came into the wheel house and told me to check the dinghy. What a mess. Poor Little Nellie had suffered mortal wounds from the hugely powerful engine and prop. She was in a sinking state, just held up by the tow line that kept the water flowing out of her double hull by the venturi effect while in motion. It was clear that the engine had been carved off, leaving the mounting bracket in place. There was a huge gash in the stern and into the inner hull and Nellie was half full of water with the oars floating just below the gunwales.

There was nothing I could do in the middle of the lake and with a sick feeling I took the wheel again to get us to anchor in West End. We arrived and anchored in the rain and then I knew I had to get into what was left of Nellie to try to get her body back onto Van Nelle. I jumped in and she immediately threatened to capsize and began to rapidly sink. I attached the snap shackle to the ring of the harness and tried to get the fourth clip in place on the starboard side, the other three being attached already.

It was no good, she was going down with me in her while Maureen tried desperately to winch her up. As the water closed over my knees I leaped up the side of Van Nelle and scrambled aboard the mother ship having tied the bow line of the dinghy to the lifting shackle in a last gasp attempt to keep Nellie from the deep.

Slowly we winched and as the bow raised, the water receded out of the huge gash in her stern. She came up to the deck level, as far as the winch could take her since she was not coming up level. We waited until she emptied and then hauled her aboard. I could have cried at that moment. This shattered wreckage was once a pretty little carvel shaped hull with a cheeky tilt to her bow and cute lines. Sure she was heavy, unstable and falling to bits, and I had been naive in thinking I would get her back into sailing shape, but that was now a wrecked dream, lying broken on the cabin roof. The outboard, a game little 4 hp Mariner was at the bottom of the lake at the entrance to the Jachthaven Wetter Wille.

I called Ellen with the sad news. She immediately offered the services of their contract diver for 150 guilders to search and 200 more if he found the engine. I refused, thinking that the engine would probably be a battered wreck and anyway if necessary I could haul out my scuba gear and find in myself, if the weather turned. For now though I just wanted to lick my wounded pride and castigate myself for once again ignoring the smarter voices in my head that had told me at least three times to bring Little Nellie on deck.

I spent the rest of the day in a black funk castigating myself for my stupidity. I retreated into some minor jobs around Van Nelle as the rain beat the outside mercilessly, just as I was doing to my insides. Hopefully this re-telling of the saga will purge my soul a little.

Oh well, it’s all part of the grand adventure. I hope we don’t have to try to row ashore from a mooring in the near future as we don’t have the means to.

 

Chapter Three - The voyage south

Monday 13 August

I had become so entrenched in the Loosdrecht life that the decision to actually leave was a bit of a whim. I knew we had to get going at some time but there were still so many things to do. After thinking about it, discussing it with Maureen and rationalising the desire to get underway against the conservative philosophy of staying put in an area where I had access to resources, I just decided that we had better get on with it and fix the ‘to do list’ on the way. Besides, after almost cutting ‘Little Nell’ in half, we had no way of commuting to shore.

We woke on the Monday morning and with a great deal of trepidation, prepared to leave. Before getting underway, I had to check that there was no damage to the prop from the Little Nell mishap, so an early morning swim was called for. Bear in mind that you cannot see anything in the waters of the Loosdrechtse and it looks (and was) cold that morning with grey leaden skies and a keen wind. I put some tyres down as ladders and carefully slid into the water, feeling my way to the stern and the prop and rudder. Since I could not see underwater, the inspection was by feel and I rotated the prop carefully feeling the edges and the shape of each of the three blades. To my fingers and hands there were no marks, cracks, nicks or gauges, Van Nelle had cut through an outboard motor and a two hull fibre glass dinghy without feeling a thing.

I clambered back on deck and showered the muddy Dutch water off, put on new socks and warm clothes and started the motor. Just the day before, I had a meeting with Frank to discuss the cost of fixing the engine coolant leak and we had agreed his contribution which he paid, but I was still greatly nervous about this aspect of the boat’s performance on a long and challenging journey. Everything sounded and looked right however and we winched up the anchor and set off for the Nieuwersluis exit from Loosdrechtse to the Vecht. No flags or bunting, no waving crowds or wailing, abandoned lovers here, just a quiet and unseen departure from our anchorage outside the Chinese restaurant at West End.

The trip down the Vecht, the narrow and very pretty waterway out to the Amsterdam Rhinecanal, was uneventful except that Maureen forgot to have a coin ready at the first bridge and was quite startled by the sudden appearance of a clog, supported by a fishing line. This is the method by which the lock and bridge keepers augment their incomes and the normal charge is a guilder in the shoe.

As we slowly made our way towards one of the world’s great waterways I resolved to fix Little Nell. She sits on the deck ahead of the wheelhouse, bearing her broken stern and gashed under body with a certain wounded dignity and reminds me each time I look forward of the stupid oversight I made in not bringing her on deck for the watering procedure.

After a couple of uneventful hours I was starting to relax a little as we turned left into the Rhine Canal. This is a man made, long, wide, busy stretch of water that takes huge commercial boats and passenger vessels from Amsterdam through to the Rhine and Germany. We were a small addition to the bustling population of oil carriers, work ships, tugs, cruisers and official boats plying the route.

To get to our destination required a turn south off the canal onto the Waal River which we did some hours later. This is a different kettle (or canal) of fish altogether. A broad, navigable river with a current running at 5 km/h against us and commercial ships still doing 15kmh against the current bearing down on us from behind and speeding towards us from ahead. This was the first big test for Van Nelle’s propulsion equipment, engine, gearbox, shaft and prop. All performed beautifully and Johan’s work on the gauges allowed me to monitor the engine and gearbox performance constantly, a great comfort when the dials reported good operating conditions without change for hour after hour.

We pushed on until about 7.00pm arriving at the entrance to an overnight harbour for commercial vessels. We entered and over the radio negotiated a berth at the far end behind a small tug. There was nothing nearby to excite the explorer in us so we prepared dinner and went to bed. A long, tiring but very successful day punctuated once by a large gas carrying ship suddenly turning across us in the channel. He and we managed our affairs suitably and passed with room to spare but with a slight quickening of the pulse.

In a day of ten hours travelling we achieved approximately 75 kilometres.

 

Tuesday 14 August

A lovely day dawned with sunshine and a total lack of clouds. This was to be the prevailing pattern as we headed away from the Low Countries of the Netherlands. I don’t want to be down about their weather but the Dutch have to be used to rain, rain and more rain. In more than two months I had only about 6 days of warm sunny weather in Holland and in the following two weeks, only 2 or 3 days without sunshine.

I started the day by thoroughly checking the engine and running gear, oil levels, fluid reservoirs, pipes, connections and stern gland. Everything passed with flying colours. Confidence boosting !

Engine started at about 0800 and on to Venlo. We travelled on the Waal River again for some time before passing into the Maas River, less current and somewhat less traffic but still busy and bustling. After a day of about 88 kilometres we arrived at Venlo and into the Jachthaven where, by phone, we had arranged a berth. When we arrived we found to our consternation that another couple of boats had arrived unannounced before us and taken our position. We had one choice, the back side of the jetty with the bows firmly on the muddy bottom and a number of fenders required to keep us from sharp protruding edges.  We took the option since there were no others.

The Jachthaven was well founded however with a restaurant and boat repair facilities, power and water supplied in the price of an overnight stay. We settled up and set off on bikes to explore the nearby town. After some distance we had found little of interest and as it was getting late, decided to return and go to the marina restaurant for dinner. This was in a building up a hill on the side of the marina with a nice view of the boats below. We found a table on the balcony and ordered steaks and local wine. Everyone there were ‘boaties’ so conversations flowed across tables between ourselves and other couples widely different in ages, backgrounds and outlooks. Sated we headed for bed and the thoughts of another long day at the wheel in only a few hours. So far however, despite the few locks being enormous (100+ metres long and drops or rises of 10-12 metres), there were few of them and were easily handled.

Canals and canalised rivers work by their water levels being maintained by a series of locks.  These are enclosed sections of the waterway with huge gates at each end.  Boats enter at one end and the gates are closed, water is then allowed in or out depending on which direction you are going and the gates at the opposite end are opened once the water level is the same as that outside.  The boats then exit at the new level.  By this means boats can ‘climb’ or ‘descend’ to the levels maintained outside the locks on the intervening stretch of river or canal.

On rivers like the Waal and Maas and major canals such as the Amsterdam Rhine canal, the locks can be 100 to 300 metres in length and 20 or more metres wide.  Many different sized boats and ships can use the locks at the same time and their placement is arranged between them and the lock keeper by radio.  This is difficult for a private boat with limited fluency in the local language but the willingness of all to help overcomes many problems.

To start with, a new owner / skipper and crew can be overwhelmed by the enormity of the locks and the vessels using it which he or she have to navigate close to in front or behind, often fitting their boat into narrow spaces between.  You soon get used to it however and begin to enjoy the break from driving and the chance to meet and chat with other boaters.

Maureen finished the re-covering of the wheelhouse cushions today as we travelled. Dark blue velvet - looks magnificent.

Wednesday 15, Thursday 16 and Friday 17 August

Wednesday as we arose was a HOT day. With the sun and light breezes, the temperatures these days are regularly above 30 degrees. We departed Venlo at a leisurely 11.00am and headed for Maastricht, some 65km south, where we arrived at 3.00pm.  These large waterways are great if you want to get somewhere in a hurry.  There are few locks and they operate all day and some into the night.  Being deep and broad allows us to travel at high speed (relatively) whereas smaller canals reduce speeds to 6kmh as suction and bank damage occur if you try to use too much power.

 

Maastricht is a pretty town and we were quite overjoyed to find three choices of moorings. There is the ‘New Basin’ which is a rebuild of the old original commercial port and very pretty but quite expensive, then there is a wall running between two bridges (which was filled with small plastic boats) plus there was the town wall just behind the Shell bunker ship and boat shop. We chose the latter and after tying up securely began a three day break to explore this lovely little city.

Maastricht is set on the river Maas, overlooked by a fortress, populated with lots of old, picturesque buildings and lovely shady squares filled with tables, chairs, umbrellas, busy waiters and cold glasses of beer, wine and spirits. We felt instantly at ease and at one with the world. It doesn’t get better than this !

The first day we explored the town, the next we rode to the top of the fortress hill on a cooler and sometimes rainy day and were dispatched underground by the guides at the top, into kilometres of tunnels from which limestone had been excavated for buildings throughout the district and for larger towns abroad. It was a day reminiscent of one we had experienced in France while canal cruising with our friends the Reeds and the Prattleys years before on the Nivernais Canal as we explored some caves at Bailley, but this one was without the sparkling wine produced there.

A highlight of the sightseeing for me (but one Maureen swears she didn’t see) was the female who appeared out of a boutique in town and walked ahead of us for a hundred metres or so. This was no young model but a very slim (skinny perhaps) 50 year old woman. As is the fashion in the Netherlands and Belgium (but strangely not France) she was wearing a ‘thong’ otherwise known as a ‘G string’ but that was all - under a completely see through dress. Stilettos and a poodle completed the outfit. Quite an eyeful.

We decided to stay overnight to see two museums the next day - an art gallery and an exposition of life ‘under the bridges’ with quite an emphasis on the river life and times of the old port town.  These were thought provoking as they contained much about the life we were now experiencing.

Friday morning was taken up at the museums and then the nearby supermarket where a large store of excellent wines were purchased at ridiculously low prices. Another highlight was a visit to a branch of the ABN AMRO bank where they could not tell me what my account balance was, whether a couple of transactions had been processed, or any other useful information. I guess the Dutch banking system suits the Dutch but I would not recommend it elsewhere.

This night we had a couple from an adjoining boat over for a barbecue on our back deck with the huge umbrella guarding us from the late sunset and the slow moving river traffic a passing parade of sights as the wine and local produce quenched our appetites.  This was to become a pattern of life for the next five years as we would arrive in a town or village and be assisted to a mooring by other boaters or bargees.  The inevitable discussions comparing notes and boats would be followed by drinks on theirs or ours and often that would drift into a BYO BBQ where each couple or group would bring whatever they had to contribute to the dinner - food of course but mostly wine.

Saturday 18 August

We departed at 10.30am for Liege on a cool and slightly wet morning and travelled the 15 kilometres in three hours. While it was only an hours cruising, we had to wait for entry to a couple of locks and in between, settled for a much slower cruise speed to enjoy the scenery.

The yacht harbour entrance at Liege was narrow and manoeuvring room very restricted so we chose the outside wall and settled in. This led to a contre-temps with the harbour master as I argued we were not in the harbour and had no access to their facilities or protection from passing vessels and therefore should not pay, or at least be offered a discount for the overnight fee. They disagreed and enlisted a resident yachtie to try and convince me. It was a war not worth winning at about $12 so I caved in and paid.  They then made an effort to get us power and water.

Our trusty mountain bikes took us through the town to the inevitable cathedral, old town, shopping streets (the shopping in Belgium is very good) and out to the Palace (huge) and the main town square (even more huge).  We soaked up the sights and later some pizza and pasta, wine and a beer or two and settled in for the night.

 

Sunday 19 August

We went to the catholic cathedral for the mass since it was advertised as a sung Eucharist and we had not had a chance to experience any musical performances so far. The choir consisted of two female and about five male singers, enthusiastically led by a thirties something female with a glorious voice and a very insistent baton. We had a quick energy recharge (coffee and cakes) following the service and set off for the town of Huy at 12.00, arriving there at 2.00pm.

We arrived at Huy to find a large carnivale in full swing along the river just across and up from our mooring. Our bikes sped us to the centre of the festivities and we wandered through the slightly frowsy set of ‘side show alley’ attractions before buying a bottle of wine made from flowers. The seller’s daughter had spent a year in central America - which is apropos of nothing really but a reflection on the sort of useless information one gathers in these wanderings.

The first week of travel had seen us travel 278 kilometres of canals and rivers, uncounted towns, villages and several cities. So far, so good.  I have to say that I was having a great time.  In charge of a great ship on the waterways of Europe, mixing with commercial and pleasure boats, gaining terrific experience and in the main, with no pressures or hassles.  This has to be a great life.

Monday 20 August

We had decided to pick up cheap fuel in Belgium where it is something like half the price of diesel in France and had nominated the town of Dave as the target. Unfortunately on our arrival at Dave we found the fuel stop had closed, permanently, so we continued on to Namur and picked up a mooring on the riverside in town right in front of the Casino.

Once again a town overlooked and dominated by a large castle which demanded investigation. The views were stunning from the area at the top which offered both a parfumerie and a couple of free museums. Well worth the effort of the climb.

Later, we explored the town, again picturesque with lovely town squares and a plethora of restaurants, cafes and outdoor eating. We enjoyed a beer at one and returned to Van Nelle for dinner before a wander over to the Casino. We dressed for the occasion as the building appeared quite swish. On arrival and after a slow look at the art exhibition in the foyer we made for the entrance to the gaming room. Stopped at the door for our passes we were surprised to learn that you need a passport and 150 francs ($A40) for entrance. As we contemplated these facts we noticed the lowly calibre of those inside and decided we would skip the experience - back to the boat.

Tuesday 21 August

On to Dinant where we arrived early in the afternoon to an absolutely delightful scene. This is a very pretty riverside town dominated (again) by fortresses on the heights above.  The town boasts a lovely church, old buildings, narrow streets and cheerful people. It is also the birthplace of Alfred Sax, the inventor of the saxophone !  We secured a free mooring right in front of the Leffe restaurant and the church and immediately headed off to the bar for a refreshment. As it was nearing dinner time and the meals appearing around us looked fantastic, and since we had chanced a great table on the balcony overlooking Van Nelle on the river, we decided to stay for a meal. We ordered and received the biggest pork hocks and steaks we had yet seen. These were accompanied by frites (chips), roast potatoes, salads, beans and other garnishments. A bottle of the local and a hour or so of dedicated feeding and we were well past caring.

I should point out that ‘French fries’ were actually invented in Belgium but are called ‘frites’

Wednesday 22

We decided to stay for a day or so to explore and enjoy - one can’t be always on the move!

Shopping, riding, walking, communicating in French, this is all very tiring work for the traveller and requires equal amounts of rest and refreshment. We decided on the long lunch and went to the ‘King of Moules’ Restaurant for Moules Frites. This is a signature dish of Belgium although it has been exported to other nearby countries.  This is mussels (in your choice of over 20 sauces) together with bread, butter and frites (French fries). Carafes of Rosé (perfect accompaniment) completed the repast that stretched from 12.00 till after 2.00 and prompted a bit of a lie down to follow.

I’m prompted to comment and compare our voyage so far with the diarised experience of the MacLean- Jordan family in their travels through Belgium in their luxemotor Mea Vota. Their path took them through the industrial heartland of Belgium, complete with stinging, sulphur laden air, black water and industrial overnight stops. Ours has been blissfully beautiful and enjoyable via the eastern side of the country rather than the (possibly) more industrial west. If you, the reader, are planning a trip north or south via Belgium - I can absolutely recommend our path.

We stayed through Wednesday, Thursday and reluctantly left on Friday for Givet and France.

Friday 24 August

Beautiful one day, perfect the next. The saying is of Queensland, Australia, but can be used to describe the weather and scenery along the river Meuse through Belgium and the north of France. As we meandered into canal country, the width of the waterways decreased together with the number of commercial vessels also becoming limited, the weather was kind and the boat performed beautifully.

We had taken on water, fuel and power in Dinant and arrived at another beautiful town with no pressing needs. We set out to explore this quiet river stop at Givet, it’s historical interest, the centre of ceramic artisans, the old Charlemont Castle and the restaurants, cafes, street side bars and shopping hideaways.

We arranged a French phone card in the ubiquitous local phone shop and enjoyed the 30+ degree heat from the shade of the umbrella and the waterside trees. This was our first taste of France on this momentous voyage of discovery and we were well pleased with it.  Passing the border was uneventful as the customs building still exists but had been abandoned for years.  Arriving in France at Givet was simple and welcoming.  The mooring was serviced with power, water was available nearby and the riverside was a garden in full bloom.

Each night the locals stroll down and along the waterfront, chatting quietly as the younger contingent buy pizzas and frites from the mobile café that arrives at five and departs at ten.  They all smile and acknowledge you as you sit on your boat, or near to it on shore with your picnic.  It is calm and idyllic.  While we were there it was also warm, even hot and with kids and their dogs splashing in the river shallows the scene was of a time best captured in a French impressionist painting.

However, other ports and meetings awaited us so we decided to caste off the next day for Fumay on our way to Champagne.  Who could resist the urge not to hurry toward the sound of the bubbles.

Saturday 25 August

Our first tunnel was experienced this day. It is not a long one but narrow and made somewhat disconcerting (if not difficult) by the light from the entrance reflecting in the wheelhouse windows and the light from the exit stabbing the eyes from the front. Our powerful little floodlight on the mast was overwhelmed at times but we made it through.

We were now in the country of the Freycinet ecluses (locks) a standard 38.5m long and 5m wide.  Monsieur Freycinet has a name that rings in the minds of Western Australians as he was on a patrol of French frigates commanded by Boudin that explore the Western Australian coast in the early 1800s.  He became France’s Minister of Transport, inheriting the hotch potch of privately built and owned canals with their differing gauges.  He therefore decreed they should be standardised and as a result, France was able to develop a nationwide network of intersecting rivers and canals, all able to be cross-navigated by a standard sized barge.

Getting Van Nelle’s 4.5m width into a 5m space is a bit difficult at times despite slow approaches and the judicious use of power over the rudder. Small eddies, currents and wind can push the boat off the centre line when close to the entrance, sometimes resulting in loud (but not damaging) noises from the steel hull and rock walls.  We soon learned that judiciously placed fenders was the answer.

These close encounters were another motivator to achieve higher levels of proficiency in the skills of steering and operating the engine to accurately position and manoeuvre the boat.  Wind and current complicates the procedures learned from experts and only experience overcomes most challenges.  The new operator has to keep in mind that doing it slowly will allow more time to get it right and that it will also lessen damage if you get it wrong.  Not that damage is a large concern since Van Nelle is a very solid vessel. Besides, one should not ever come into contact in anything other than a slow glancing blow, at most requiring a small application of the relevant paint.

There is a need for the crew to be able to secure the boat by throwing the mooring lines over the bollards in locks and moorings.  There are time tested ways to do this which I learned and practised at the barge handling course run by Tam and Di Murrell in Cambrai, northern France.  I had taught Maureen the art and left her to perfect it and she spent considerable time practising rope throwing with increasing frustration as her efforts did not seem to be rewarded by success. She would not give up till she got it right however and her work on the foredeck at times saved much ‘face’..

Fumay, like the towns before it, was pretty and enjoyable. We wandered through town making small purchases of bread and lettuce. A wedding passed us as we wandered the streets before we retired to dinner on board.  Weddings,  like christenings and funerals, town celebrations and the like are a joy to be caught up in as they tend to be very public in the smaller towns, often leading visitors to become guests or at least close members of the extended audience.  A French town that is having a local or national celebration is one to be in at the time.  Tables and chairs are arranged in the town square and food, drinks and music are as generous as the country people who just accept etrangers (foreigners) who appear and join their throng. And, they love Australians.

We decided to stay at Fumay to enjoy a long lunch on the river side on Sunday. Chicken, pâté, bread, cheese, wine, sun, fun ! A passer by mentioned that the weather would deteriorate later but it showed no signs of change. We went to bed that night feeling pretty good.

3.00am and we woke to the full fury of a massive thunderstorm. A wall of noise and the sky rent by livid flashes of raw power in lightning bolts that created instant black and white pictures of frenzied activity inside Van Nelle as we raced to close skylights, portholes and windows from the onrush of solid water pouring out of the black sky. What an excitement, then to be warm and dry in bed with the sound of the fury passing over and receding into the distance. A memorable performance for us and one that brought back Johan’s misgivings of being in the wheelhouse of a ship during a storm.  He is one who believes you can be fried if you are caught in the wheelhouse and always retreats below during storms.  We have never heard of such storms actually causing casualties and often have watched the fury of a good storm from the wheelhouse - especially the hurricane that caused so much damage and death in Bordeaux in the summer of 2003 - but that was two years ahead.

Monday 27 August.

The day started overcast but rapidly cleared as we headed away from Fumay to Charleville Mezieres, two competing towns brought together only 20 or so years ago and now offering a range of facilities. This beginning to the third week has seen us cover 387km and puts us in our third country - La Belle France.

We are now definitely ‘en Francais’ with almost no-one but other boaties speaking English. The wide river waterways have given way to narrow canals that are increasingly shallow and the speed restricted to 6kmh. While this slows our progress it is enjoyable and we have only Maureen’s appointment with Adrienne Keen in Paris (a friend from Clean Up Australia) and our week with Laurie and Marlene O’Meara, who are joining us in Reims for a cruise to Epernay to get to.

The country towns are now about 10 - 15km apart and each has its charm, its facilities and its secrets for us to unlock.  French provincial towns and villages grew up on the canal sides to service the boats just as much as for the boats to service them.  No town in the country is more than one meal away from the next by foot.  This makes exploring a delight since it takes only 2-3 hours barge cruising to pass from one town to the next.  Not that you should only travel between towns, the country side is pretty, expansive, very quiet and free.  One can stop almost wherever the fancy takes you except for obvious exceptions such as under bridges and if obstructing corners.

Charleville Mezieres boasts the Musee d’Ardennes, the Place Ducale, the centre of puppetry (marionettes) in Europe (with a marionette clock much bigger than London Court), expansive markets and modern facilities. We moored first in their new marina but it was isolated and deserted so early the next day we moved to the riverside, closer into the town centre. 

Getting in and out of the new marina was a challenge as they had constructed a low, arched bridge across the entrance and I was not at all sure we would fit.  I inched Van Nelle forward under the bridge until the wheelhouse was a few feet away from the span.  We could then tell accurately that if we stayed right in the middle we could just get under.  Inside were huge new floating pontoons, all wired and plumbed for power and water for a hundred boats of all sizes and shapes and not one but us.  As the marina had not been officially opened, none of the facilities were operating, so after staying the night we retreated the next day.

Nearby was Johanna, a Luxemotor I had seen advertised as a hotel boat in the Blue Flag (the magazine of the Dutch Barge Association). We met John Wilson, her owner and shared a couple of nights discussing boats and other associated topics. Meanwhile the great weather prevailed, prompting John to comment it was the best summer in three years.  We have seen John several times over the intervening years as he travels slowly around France with groups of passengers on his do-it-yourself Luxemotor barge.

Tuesday 28 August

We were feeling pretty guilty about the lack of work we had undertaken in the past few weeks so began this day with a rush of resolutions and actions.  Jay - the bath pump, engine works and some painting, Maureen - painting the study / office and the front cabin. Consciences appeased we relaxed over dinner with John and drinks later with a couple from Belgium.

Wednesday 29

The lost day. Somewhere we got out of whack with the diary and the actual days and this day appears to have been lost somewhere. It happens like that I guess.  I am sure we enjoyed it, there were no calamities and it formed part of the important march of time we experienced on our journey.  Its just that we lost it somewhere - it was not the last day to be lost - indistinguishable from its neighbours in a drift through time and place.

Thursday 30 August

On to Pont a Bar and Le Chesne, arriving there at 4.30pm to find a small town with a boulangerie operating (great - fresh bread), a small supermarket (no fresh milk) and a locked church. We looked for the restaurant but decided that we would eat rations. Tough choice given the great food we have on board from the lovely small, service oriented French magasins (shops).

We also decided to have a health night and stay away from the customary bottle of wine with dinner. We actually managed two health days in a row with the next day also ‘on the wagon’.  These AFDs (alcohol free days) were taken occasionally to prove that we could do it.  It makes you feel better in one way but is a waste if you have great food and wine to enjoy.  One just has to go with the other - especially in company.

Friday 31 August

The day of the locks. 26 of them in only 8km !!!!! This is a true test of boat and crew as you idle from one lock almost straight into the next. We were caught behind a large, slow commercial barge and therefore had to wait at each ecluse for the water to return to our level in order to take us down the 2-3metres to the next lock. For the last 7 or 8 ecluses we also had the company of a small yacht that just fitted in behind us.

Doing that number of locks in a day is not recommended but once into a system like that you just have to continue.  If you entered the system late in the day you would have to stop mid way and start again first light the next day as it is possible in such conditions to block traffic.  However it is a tiring way to spend a day as it is all stop start, operating gates and ropes, stop start and repeat.  It can also be a dreary pastime in rain or really hot weather.  Fortunately there are not many places where such runs of locks exist.

Commercial barges have right of way on the canals and rivers as they are trying to make a living in difficult conditions.  There are fewer of these Freycinet barges plying the canals of France these days as the cost of fuel and the fewer available cargoes make life precarious and penniless.  We don’t decry them their priority - except if they are truly unreasonable - which can be the case.

We made our way to Attigny after the 26 locks, just a few more to get there and found a nice park beside the river with bollards, water and lighting. Unfortunately it was Friday night and the local teenagers had adopted the park as their drinking place (despite the police patrol - from which they hid their ill gotten gains), so the noise level and threatening presence was felt until about midnight. Made for a good night of reading ‘20,000 Thieves’ a book about Australian Diggers at war in Africa - they also caused headaches for the English officers.

This being Email night we were frustrated by the lack of reception and the inability of the Email program to get mail. We resolved to fix it when reception improved.

Saturday 1 September

A new month, my fourth in Europe. We departed Attigny for Asfeld and was met with a rather disappointing place. The river stop is isolated from the town and despite the town’s best efforts to provide a reasonable mooring, the facilities are a bit glum and distant from shops - of which there are few. We walked a fair way looking but decided it was a night at home.

Sunday 2 September

Cruised from Asfeld to Courcy where we arrived at 6.00pm. We decided we were too tired to explore and besides there was not much on offer so a quiet night at home. Van Nelle performing as beautifully as Maureen, the queen of the crew in the locks. My performance was a bit scattered at times.

I called the email service to find that the subscription to Ipass - the internet service overseas, had lapsed a couple of days before and that was the problem with the mail. Also, the phone credit was almost expended and the new card was not amenable to any of my attempts to load it. Very frustrating business, especially when the instructions both written and from the phone are in French, spoken so fast it is impossible for me to gather more than a fraction of their meaning.

Monday 3 September

Departed at 9.30am for Reims after calling Ozemail and getting Ipass reinstated. Another of the problems of communication here is the time difference and the appalling wait times imposed by service companies such as Ozemail. Most times their wait time for service or technical support exceeded 20 minutes. They will find that they will be deserted when there is a better service available. Perhaps we should emigrate to Hotmail with the rest of the world.

Arrival at Reims was through an industrial area and we contented ourselves with the thought that at least when we get to the Port de Plaisance there is sure to be a pleasant harbour in the centre of town. We arrived to find the only spaces for big boats taken and therefore power and water were not to be provided to us. We moved past the big commercials that dominated the port to the far end and moved in to the wall to moor. Maureen was gesticulating at me with a physical hieroglyphic that appeared to mean shallow water and it was. The boat came to a gentle halt, firmly held at the bow by the underlying mud. A quick prod with a boat hook confirmed about 2-3 feet of water at the wall, insufficient for Van Nelle’s 3-4feet.

We withdrew and heeding the advice of an old gentleman on the river side, moved past the marina to an area of low walls, bollards and a four lane highway. We were the only ship in the area but we tied up and went forth on bike to explore other possibilities. There appeared to be none so we decided to strike out for town and consider the future later. This we did with a visit to the Reims Cathedral - truly an awe inspiring building. Unfortunately, it is succumbing to the ravages of weather and car exhaust acid and can be seen to be disintegrating. Fortunately, large efforts are now being made to restore the crumbling exterior.

It slowly dawned on us that we were in our first important French city.  We have travelled from the Netherlands through Belgium to France and in France to Champagne, with all the glamour and excitement that promises.  We don’t know much about it yet as we have only seen the canal, the port and the freeway frontage from our mooring.  Our brief visit up the road from the port to the Cathedral has just opened a crack on what we were to learn and discover by bicycle, scooter, taxi and multiple visits to this truly great city.  And then there is the champagne. 

We will be in or around Reims for the next week or two as Maureen goes off to Paris to meet up with friends and explore with them their wedding trip while I wait for our first guests - the O’Meara’s.  Naturally one of my priorities was to visit and grade the champagne houses so we would not waste time visiting less than excellent places with friends. It was a tough job but one that I knew had to be done so I just got on with it !

Once again the phone had stopped working. This is a constant irritation that just adds to the frustration of the cost and the poor areas of reception. Fortunately we are in an area that has a French Telecom office with an English speaking assistant so we will be able to sort it out, but it does raise the question of continuing reliability or periods of lost communications. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing sometimes....

Maureen arrived back on Thursday having met up with Adrienne and Kerry, the newlyweds in Paris and having been with them to visit Monet’s Garden, house and a nice restaurant the previous day. 

Picked up from the station (Gare) on the trusty Peugeot scooter we were back at the boat to discuss what we would do for some 10 days before the ‘first guests’ arrived. We decided that since we needed water and could do with some shore power to take the pressure off the generator for a while, we would travel up to Sillery where those services were apparently available and then come back to Reims for the welcome and beginning of the champagne tours.

We spent another four days expanding our knowledge of Reims (pronounced Razz strangely), making bits for the boat (Maureen made a sun cover for the skylight and I installed some light and pump switches) and doing some more exploring. We also had the phone problem fixed.

It seems that people try mixing up the fourteen numbers on the pre pay phone cards in order to try to get free time. I tried to enter a card that was suspect and so had used a number of attempts (you only have a certain number of unsuccessful tries). I bought another card and tried it a couple of times without seeming to have success and took it back to the Tabac (a small shop where such useful items as well as papers and tabacco can be bought) and the shopkeeper tried as well. This had seriously put me in doubt with France Telecom which had then suspended my number.

The assistant at the shop was sweet and helpful and finally got through to their service department and had the service re-instated. I was not too sure about the longevity of the fix and indeed it cropped up again a couple of days later. (As I wrote this from a distance of some weeks, we had no further problems and so were keeping our fingers crossed).

It may seem that what this trip exposes are all the problems of living and travelling in a different country and culture. These are however just the things that stick in the mind and should be balanced by the great feeling of joy that one has every day discovering new sights, sounds and tastes.

A couple of other activities brightened the otherwise cloudy environment.  Our visits to try out the various champagne houses had us choose Mumm as our favourite and Piper Heidsieck as the most extensive tour.  Pipers was just up the hill from us and for some 60 francs ($10) offered a tour with an English speaking guide who explained the process of champagne production in detail as you wandered their extensive tunnels under the streets of the City for an hour.  It was then up to the tasting room for several small glasses of their product.  Good value and very educational.  Mumm (pronounced Moom) on the other hand was some distance away and the tour was conducted in electric chariots with a CD recounting the story as you passed mannequins in staged setups to illustrate the process.  Then the trip to the tasting room and afterwards the exit through their shop.

We liked the brevity and range of product at Mumm, especially their ‘Extra Dry’ which is actually made slightly sweeter exclusively for the American market but is on taste and sale here at their head quarters.  All in all we liked the product, the environment and the opportunity to explore at leisure.

While we were moored in Reims a commercial barge arrived and tied up right in front of us.  I introduced myself to the owner who appeared to be on his own.  I was itching to see the inside of these big commercial boats and offered him a look at ours if I could have a look at his.  He somewhat reluctantly agreed to let me see his the next day and appeared to go into a flurry of activity to prepare his boat for my inspection.

The inside of the cargo area appears large from the outside but you really get to feel the enormity of it when you get inside.  The equivalent volume of nine of the largest trucks is available for heavy, bulky material which the EU is keen to get off the roads.  Into the engine room, confined but well organised and with a powerful and well tended power plant.  Then into the living space which is really a small apartment with a bathroom, kitchen / dining / lounge and a couple of bedrooms, all very tidy.  The surprise was that he had a wife and six year old daughter who we had not seen in several days.  The owner does all the shopping and errands, outside work and running of the boat, his family appears to be almost hermits.  I later discovered that her blackened and rotten teeth all had to be extracted which was a primary reason for them to be in Reims, not out working.

They came on a visit to Van Nelle and were spell bound by the comparative space and luxury of our facilities by comparison.  I was saddened that these hard working people had so little opportunity to improve their lot.  Bargees cannot earn enough for retirement in many cases and the French government allows them to live out their lives on their slowly deteriorating boats. 

I learned a lot from that encounter such as, he had bought the barge for a great deal of money some years before as his father and grand father had both been barge operators. He admitted now that he could not sell the boat for a fraction of its original cost and had to keep operating it to just stay on top. The niceties of life such as medical and dental care, schooling for the boy and any kind of social life had long since vanished, not only because of cost but also since they were always on the move. When we left he was still at Reims without further work to go on to.

Tuesday 11 September !

We headed off to Sillery after seven days in Reims and having said goodbye to the family on the commercial barge, but just before we left the wife returned from a visit to a state dentist looking greatly relieved. It brings into focus the personal cost of these people keeping barge commerce alive.

A short cruise to Sillery and we were met with what was to become very familiar.  Here was a new marina with water and power facilities standing empty with lots of berths for boats from 5 to 15 metres and none for boats of 20 to 30 metres. We improvised. First we had to turn around since the only place we could access the water and power was against the land on the inside of the marina - was it too shallow ? We edged towards the pontoon, Maureen on the bow with the short (5 metre) boat hook. When Van Nelle was abeam of the outer jetty Maureen took to the air with a water defying leap onto the pontoon and raced off to test the depth.

Thumbs up and I was manoeuvring the ship in reverse into the land side area which was fortunately free of small boats and (with the removal of a fisherman) just big enough for us to squeeze into. With some to-ing and fro-ing we squeezed Van Nelle’s bulk into a spot that should have been taken by a boat half our length and tied the bow to a hedge since there were no bollards that far from the mooring. We were however able to extend our electrical lead to the power outlet but since our water tanks are near the bow, our hose could not reach. I noticed the boat on the other side of the jetty had a hose, maybe we could borrow it, join them and get the water we now needed.

I approached the woman on the boat who nervously refused saying that her husband was not here and she could not give permission. Nothing for it I thought but to crane the scooter off the deck and ride back to Reims for a bricollage/quincaillerie (hardware shop) and buy an extension plus some different sized tap fittings. We had identified no possible suppliers locally so the trip was on.  About an hour to get the scooter off, get to Reims, acquire the hose (which has now been use a couple of times - justifying its purchase) and back to Sillery. On the into the city however I was confronted with a sign that would lead me onto the motorway - a place a scooter, only capable of 60-65kmh was not supposed to go. I kept going round the round-a-bout and found another road leading traffic to the exposition site. I hopefully took that turn-off and was rewarded with the road that ran right beside the canal and past our previous mooring.

Sillery is a small town with a couple of champagne makers so we went to the most promising for a degustation (tasting) and a poke around. The patronne (a woman) was most accommodating and having tried their brut, we had to buy. For the rest of our stay of four days, we reverted to a round of odd jobs, a bit of exploration and a couple of conversations with the young and very friendly harbour master, who also had the job of community activities development for the town.

Maureen also gave me a hair cut ! A very attractive job it was too.  That set the pattern and while away I never needed a hairdresser.

We went to the pub ( a local bar / café) on our first night and was surprised to see the men all glued to the television screen which had very bad reception. It appeared to be a horror movie or a special effects documentary with the same scenes being repeated over and over we thought until we tuned our ears into the spasmodic French phrases of the three or four patrons.

New York, 11 September, 2001.

With mounting horror we realised the planes destroying the twin towers was not an act of fiction and learned some of the facts from the bar flies but needed something more static to learn the details. The next morning we bought the two French newspapers and read the details as best we, and our dictionaries, could. We joined the rest of the world mourning the senseless loss of innocent lives in this divisive conflict and wondered what the eventual outcome would be.

During our time in Sillery we also visited a WWI war cemetery. About 1,000 neat graves are laid out with headstones for both French and Algerian troops. Behind the cenotaph however there are two concrete monoliths under which, proclaims the inscription, lie the remains of some 12,000 unidentified soldiers. These two elements of our time in Sillery seemed to underline part of the motivation of our journey of adventure.  Life is short - make the most of it !

Saturday 15 September

Laurie and Marlene O’Meara are confirmed to arrive tomorrow and so we are off to Reims, and back to within metres of where we had left - having been urged along by the VNF (the French department responsible for canal navigation and maintenance) who wanted to repair the intervening section of canal. Our friend, the commercial bargee was still there and he happily leapt off his still empty behemoth to assist with our arrival and mooring. He was still waiting for news of work from the local agency which coordinates such matters.

That night we received a call from Helen and Ian Palmer, remonstrating us for forgetting Ian’s 60th birthday - Bonne Anniversaire Ian (again) and I was able to report that a special bottle of Palmer Champagne was on its way to him.  I had found Palmer’s on the way to the main post office and on inquiry found they made a very high quality Millesime Brut which I bought, took to the Office de Poste and suitably packaged, sent to Perth.  It was about a year later we discovered it had arrived but the bottle was smashed.  Surprisingly the bottle top was not in the box and the accompanying brochure was undamaged by liquid.  Much later we learned of the wholesale plundering of mail items by Australian postal workers.

Sunday 16 September

GAD - or guest arrival day - and after a phone call to confirm that they were safely on the train from Paris to Reims we planned for the meeting at the Gare de Reims at 2.00pm. We would go on the scooter and I would bring them back in a taxi while Maureen took the scooter to get baguettes for a late lunch. All was in readiness (as we had had several weeks to prepare).

The arrival was joyous but with a strange twist - they had arrived in Paris the day before from Spain and it being morning had thought to just transfer trains and come straight on to Reims - a day early. Their repeated calls to our phone (which was on) had no effect and they decided to take a hotel and come on the next day as planned. We still had not received the voice message left on the French Telecom service !

After a quick lunch - pâté, cheese, baguettes, salad and of course a Champagne, we headed out to the St Remi Basilica and on to Piper Heidsieck for a tour and tasting. St Remi’s remains are still in the sarcophagus in the Basilica which is in itself a beautiful church on a lovely park located up the hill from the canal. It was in this church that the early kings of France were crowned. 

The champagne houses of Maxim’s, Taittinger and Piper are just a stones throw away so the journey by foot was easy and the rewards great as we signed up for the three taste special - the Brut, the Rose and the Millesime (vintage). The tour is conducted in remote control carts which take you through some of the 10 or so kilometres of underground caves (tunnels) that are filled with champagne slowly ageing and undergoing the second fermentation, the time the bubbles grow.

We learned that after degorgement (the time the dead yeast is removed from the bottle and the replacement ‘liquor’ - a mixture of old champagne and sugar - is added, the champagne actual begins to deteriorate since air is inevitably added. Drink champagne as soon as you buy it since a non vintage is good for a maximum of about 5 years and a Millesime about 10. The Millesime or top vintages are only pronounced in outstanding years and are still hand turned for a month or so to move the sediment to the neck before degorgement. The standard wines are rotated and raised to vertical by machines, but machines are not involved in picking, which is still done by hand.

We saw later the itinerant grape pickers at Epernay and a couple of the other small towns along the way. Gypsies mostly, dark, swarthy men, small, timid children and brazen, flashy women, all emerging from cramped caravans, van sized vehicles and squatter camps along the rivers and canals. Pickers are becoming harder and harder to recruit and we wonder what will happen when they are no longer sufficient in number to pick the crops. Perhaps machines will be tactile enough by then to take over but many of the vines are growing on what appears to be very steep hills on which it would be impossible for machines to operate. We will wait and see.

The vendage or picking season began on the 25th so we were still in the region to see the grapes start to move to the village crushers and then by truck, the juices transferred to the champagne houses in the cities or the hundreds of small producer’s ateliers in the villages. But that was later.

After sight seeing through the main areas of Reims for two days, we treated ourselves to dinner at Au Congres (a restaurant Maureen and I had enjoyed on our first night) and looked forward to our departure the next morning to Conde Sur Marne, our first stop in a champagne village with guests.

Tuesday 18 September

This was a BIG DAY. Some 28 kilometres to navigate with eighteen locks and a two and a half kilometre tunnel ! The O’Meara’s were up bright and early, looking forward to the day’s cruise. The weather was overcast and pretty cool but the rain held off - mostly. We left the mooring and went straight into the first of the three locks that take you out of Reims. With that experience Laurie and Marlene were keen to assist and soon learned much of the requirements of locking a big boat. Pretty soon Laurie was at the wheel displaying a remarkably good touch in keeping Van Nelle in the middle of the channel.

The canals look straight and well ordered to the novice but under the brown, murky waters lie shoals, rocks, discarded rubbish and banks of silt from collapsed banks. It is a foolish helms-person that strays too far from the centre - except when having to pass other boats coming in the opposite direction, and then it is done with much trepidation.

We arrived at Conde Sur Marne with the expectation of staying at the indicated pleasure boat stop. On arrival it was taken up with randomly moored boats of much smaller proportions that were all deserted. The opposite side of the channel looked promising as it was a VNF depot that now, at 5.00pm was deserted - we thought. It was a difficult approach and some to-ing and fro-ing was required to line Van Nelle up. Once we were almost ready to moor a VNF ‘Bonaparte’ emerged from a hut and in no uncertain terms warned us off. We left, thinking that he could have saved us a great deal of activity by coming out in the first place. Just around the corner however there was a fine wall at a silo with adequate bollards that suited us very well for the night

We had been without an Australian flag until now - except for a huge 3 metre version too big for a flag pole - but Laurie and Marlene came to the rescue with a beautiful small Aussie flag that fitted exactly on our mast.  We decided to have a formal flag raising ceremony, and with the strains of the National Anthem playing the flag was raised.  Surprisingly the CD player / home theatre system hiccupped a few times while blaring out the tune.

We settled down to a champagne and a quick walk through the village before dinner and bed.

 

The next day the stereo equipment decided to totally quit as did the Discman and the Walkman - no music.  I assume they just did not like the power output from the inverter which apparently issues a rather square sine curve that some electronics can’t cope with !

Wednesday 19 September

A quiet and easy cruise this day took us to Tours Sur Marne and after rounding the corner into the town we saw the barge of Tam and Di Murrell, my barge teachers, here to conduct barge handling courses and rest in between students. I had taken my operator’s course and been guided through my Certificate de Capacite (French barge driver’s qualification) by the Murrells and was keen to introduce them to Maureen, Laurie and Marlene and to get up to date with the Dutch Barge Association of which they are stalwart supporters.

We locked through and tied up to the canal wall just in front of the town’s biggest employer, the cardboard box factory, leaving enough room for approaching and departing barges to pass, and quickly renewed our acquaintance. Tam and Di were expecting students the next day and had a dinner to go to that night so we agreed to meet for a drink later and have some more chat time at a later date. We also took their advice to visit the champagne house L’Amiable and possibly join them and their students the next day for a tour of the establishment.

We took the Murrell’s advice with a quick visit to L’Amiable and bought some of their product for later consumption. We checked out the nearby hotel’s restaurant and Laurie and Marlene booked us in for dinner. After drinks on board we had a very pleasant dinner and prepared for another day of exploration and tasting.

Thursday 20 September

After breakfast the gang took off to explore the village and look for the grave of Dom Perignon, who started this whole champagne industry back in the mid 1800s. The search for Dom was unsuccessful but we were rewarded by the views and a taste of the grapes growing abundantly near the village. We later discovered that the Dom’s grave is at a small village up the hill from our next stop in Cumieres.

At 4.00pm we met Tam and Di’s group of students and walked up to the champagne house of Dr L’Amiable with them. The youngish and very plump receptionist took us through the caves and production areas with her commentary in French being processed by Di and the students. Finally to the tasting room which warmed up considerably with the arrival of the winemaker and Patron himself. Not only the champagnes but also the Marc (a powerful digestif spirit) and Ratafia (an aperitif) were tried and much bought for later consumption. We retired to Van Nelle for dinner and preparation for out travel onwards to Cumieres the next day.

Friday 21 September

A sunny day but quite cold as we headed up the canal and onto the Marne river, now swollen by rain and carrying large amounts of debris, including whole trees. As we were travelling with the flow of the river, avoiding the logs, branches and other piles of flotsam was relatively easy and we made good time with the current running at about 8 km/h and Van Nelle’s engine adding another 8 to it.

A short distance through the champagne countryside, Cumieres swept into view around a corner. First we passed a doubtful paddle steamer, apparently used for tourist river trips but with the paddle a visual but not useful addition and then a rather abandoned looking small boat tied to the town pontoon.  At the pontoon reserved for plaisancier’s (pleasure boats). we found positioned a large hotel boat. We had hoped to have the pontoon to ourselves but so long as the crew of commercial boats are helpful, being tied on the outside of them is not too much of an inconvenience.

We made a 180 degree turn as the current swept us past the pontoon and made out way back to ‘Lilubele’ the hotel boat. The crew appeared and helpfully took lines as we secured Van Nelle to her side. We were soon secure and the side door of the hotel boat was made available for us to move on and off our boat. Simon, the matelot, scurried up onto their roof to take our hose and electric cable which were soon in use topping up the water tank and the battery bank. Our crew then set off to explore as I stood watch over the water operation.

The crew re-appeared after an hour with fresh provisions for lunch and tales of great numbers of champagne houses throughout the town and even vines right down to the edge of the centre ville. The grapes, they reported, were plentiful and ripe and later we discovered they were the Pinot variety, used to add character and body to champagne.

Their search for Dom Perignon’s grave was unsuccessful but while they were out, Simon invited me to meet the crew and have a Pernod with them. A pre lunch aperitif. The boat was managed by an English girl, Charlie, and piloted by Daniel, a dark Frenchman. They were all remarkably young and very keen on the boat and their jobs. They planned a shopping expedition for the afternoon and soon headed off by taxi to shop and further fortify themselves for the arrival of twelve guests the next day. The company they work for, Continental Waterways, had twelve similar boats operating from Holland, Germany and France.  The effect of 9/11 was to almost destroy the business as American tourism switched off overnight.

We planned another expedition for the afternoon and a roast that night as the local restaurant appeared expensive and plain.

Saturday 22

This morning we were met on waking by the sight of an impenetrable fog ! It looked like we would be in Cumieres longer than the day we had planned. Another issue for us was the fact that a tree had lodged itself across the bows of both boats during the evening and with branches locked on both sides of Van Nelle’s bow was not looking an easy task to remove. The combined strength of the crew of both boats was insufficient to budge it with ropes and boat hooks working hard to roll and push or pull it away against the still fierce current.  We stopped to consider the options and my decision was to ease the lines so VN would slowly retreat away from the log which could be held by rope to Lilubele. As we were agreeing the precise detail of the operation, Laurie took one of our massive boat hooks and prodded on of the tree’s branches. As it appeared to move a little he gave it a more substantial push and managed to hit the pivot or key spot, as it dislodged itself fully and sailed off down stream. Relieved, we set about clearing up and getting our hoses and cables aboard as the sun was now burning the fog to mist and it appeared that we would be able to depart after all.

At noon the way was clear and we set off, now heading upstream through the turn-off to Epernay. We made good time with Van Nelle able to exert most of her 150 horsepower to push us along at 11 km/h against the now 5kmh current. Soon we had passed into the Epernay environs and we carried on upstream into the heart of the city and to the Society Nautique harbour. It appeared to be a fine place with tennis courts, a club house, boat house and facilities. We tied up and looked forward to a pleasant stay.

The obligatory exploration took us past the station (Gare) where we soon arranged the O’Meara’s train tickets for Paris for the next morning and then past the fine gothic church to discover the restaurant which had been recommended both by the Gault Millau Guide and previous customers. We booked for dinner and headed off to the centre of town, its markets and shops.

Epernay appeared to be a pleasant small city, very much the centre of champagne production, overlooked by the imposing tower and factory of de Castellane. Further back from the river bank we discovered Moet and Chandon. Where de Castellane appears to be the major force in town, boasting production of 3,000,000 bottles per year, it is dwarfed by the Moet & Chandon organisation which is at least 3-4 times the size producing 10 million per year. De Castellane has about 10 km of underground tunnels (caves) whereas M&C has some 24 in Epernay and large numbers of additional facilities outside the town.

We also called in to a Phillips showroom to see if there was a reasonably priced amplifier available to replace the broken sound system. They showed their wares and suggested that we might get a less expensive model at Carrefour the supermarket across the river. A quick trip there had a replacement Sony system bought and installed - we have music again !

That evening we headed out to the restaurant La Table Kobus for a very pleasant gourmet meal, accompanied by excellent wines and very graciously provided by Laurie and Marlene. We were starting to miss them already as their departure hour of nine the next morning grew near.    The next morning came too quickly and soon we were walking to the station, trailing their suitcases and bags to meet the 9.00am train. As we arrived early we actually had them on an express train about 15 minutes earlier than their booking and they were soon installed in a compartment with luggage and all and we waved as they drew out of Epernay for their trip to Ireland.

We headed back to the boat and spent most of the day tidying up, doing washing and then taking a trip to de Castellane for a tour and tasting. It was the only drink we were to have for the next two days as we decided that a couple of health days were in order after the full on week we had just enjoyed.  It is fair to say that we enjoyed the week as much or more than our guests who were a delight to have aboard. They left happy having been part of a working boat for a week gaining new experiences as they took up a generous share of the tasks - on the helm, the ropes and the operation of locks and mooring.

That evening an Email arrived from the lawyers who were handling a spurious claim by a disgruntled Kwinana woman who claimed - against the evidence of security and staff - that she broke an ankle at a concert managed by us some years before. That required a number of answers to add to the body of evidence mounting rapidly as the wolf pack of legals got into their stride for and against the claim.

Monday 24 September

We had decided to depart and so settled the account with the captainiere of the small port, an expensive place to stay as we discovered, as they charge 10 francs per metre per day. For Van Nelle that would have amounted to 540 francs - about $120 for two days mooring, some water and power.  Fortunately the captain, a young woman, questioned our length suggesting 14 metres was more likely, so the eventual cost was almost halved.

We departed Epernay at about 8.30am with the plan to cruise south unless we met Tam and Di Murrell en route and had the opportunity for a meal with them. That was exactly the case since, as we arrived in Tours sur Marne, they were tied up at their previous mooring and had room for us ahead of their boat Friesland.  They were resting between classes, were free of students but free for dinner. We issued our invitation and I set of to Epernay to buy supplies since Tours was shut. The scooter had me to Ay, on the way to Epernay, where the excellent supermarket and boulangerie were open. I was there and back within an hour with fresh supplies of food and wine and we prepared for a delicious dinner aboard.

Tuesday 25

An early morning fog the next morning delayed our start to noon but we set off into a lovely day en route to Chalons which, in the chart books, boasted fine facilities for pleasure boats. On arrival we passed through the town lock and turned into the lake like harbour somewhat cautiously as the other large boat moored outside looked as though it was on the bottom. Maureen prodded the bottom with the boat hook to discover a water depth of less than a metre. We had no option but to back out, turn around and head back through the lock to the disused commercial harbour we had passed on the way in.

We entered the channel and passed the point where we would tie up, disturbing some fishermen as we prepared to turn 180 degrees to enable us to depart easily. Unfortunately we discovered that the overhanging trees into which Maureen on the bow disappeared, really were on the side of the bank not overhanging it and the channel was not wide enough to allow Van Nelle to swing around. We very nearly became stuck fore and aft as our counter stern overhung the concrete dock but a determined shove by myself and a student from the nearby University had us back in the channel, now sporting a few broken branches.

We reversed back to the mooring and tied up with the prospect of having to reverse the boat through the channel, under a bridge to the stone entrance and without damaging the prop and rudder then to turn near the lock in order to carry on. We shelved our concerns until the next morning and set off to explore Chalons.

This is a thriving town at the extreme end of one of the three principle champagne growing areas and it sports a couple of wonderful churches, a busy covered marketplace and lots of old wooden framed houses. Very medieval and very pretty with a beautiful park, complete with statues of a pretty girl in various stages of dress (or undress) for the seasons she was portraying. Nearby this ‘Petite Jardin’ was a beautiful floral clock and one of two small rivers, the Mau, complete with swans.  We stayed overnight and planned a visit to the market the next day.

Wednesday 26

Market day in Chalons brought out all the stall holders with a huge range of fresh food in the market hall and racks of clothes and bric-a-brac outside. We wandered through and waited until almost closing time to grab some bargains including a plump roasted chook and a coffee grinder with a ‘special discount’ and a bag of chocolate covered beans thrown in.

After lunch on the boat we returned to town to explore the small but interesting town museum with it’s statues by Rodin, lots of cathedral exhibits, a huge room full of stuffed birds and a gallery with a range of indifferent paintings. We were tailed by one of the three attendants who were having a pretty slow day as we appeared to be the only visitors.

On our way back to Van Nelle we decided to try a French movie and booked for The Officer’s Room which we saw at 6.00pm. A poignant story of young officers terribly disfigured by action in WWI and their recovery in a hospital at the patient hands of a skilled surgeon and dedicated nurses who helped them through the terrible mental and physical struggle to recovery.

Thursday 27

This day of departure had the challenge of the big reverse ahead of us. As it happened, with careful planning and gentle manoeuvring, the task was achieved a lot easier than expected and we faced up to the lock which had opened for us. A commercial barge was approaching us from the rear but was well back and another occupied the lock but was emerging. The two commercials obviously colluded over the radio however as the departing boat slid out of the lock it was positioned, very slowly, to cut us off and allow the other to pass us and go first into the lock.

Maritime rules require pleasure boats to make way for commercials if they are both waiting at the same time. In this case I was prepared to wait and had moved to the canal wall to secure VN but when the tactics of the two became apparent I became somewhat irritated and when the blocking barge made the mistake of opening up a small gap I took Van Nelle through it and into the lock.

As I slid past the blocking boat there was a lot of waving and shouting and the helmsman attempted to steer his stern in our way. Van Nelle and I however are made of solid stuff and I allowed out stern to give his boat a good whack as we passed. The other approaching boat now had to apply full reverse in order not to get caught up at the lock entrance.  Meanwhile the eclusier - the lock keeper - who witnessed the whole event, shrugged, smiled and helpfully took our lines to assist us in.

Soon after the lock was closed and the filling process started a crew member of the other barge came rushing up to the eclusier to try to get him to put in a report against us - not that we had preceded them into the lock, since they knew that argument would not wash - but because we were using tyres as fenders.  The rules state that you should not use tyres as they sink in locks and can cause damage to boats, but if you DO use them, then they have to be secured by two opposing lines - which ours were. So that didn’t wash with the lock keeper either. After a bit of mutual abuse the crewman left and soon after, we left the commercial well behind.

We arrived outside the Halte Fluviale (small boat harbour) in Vitry-le-Francois at about 6.00pm and found it was a small enclosure with facilities for about 4 small boats, occupied by two, one of them a Dutch couple we had met in Epernay and seen a couple of times on our travels. The only place available for us was on the outside of the harbour, opposite a factory and commercial boatyard and across a boat launching ramp. We moored up, putting additional fenders at the points likely to be in contact with the steel wall that protruded out from the canal side.

Once secured we departed on foot to explore the town and decided to have a drink at the Irish Pub and dinner at the grillade which offered pizza and pasta that was delicious and very cheap.

Friday 28

The next morning we chatted with Markus and Else, a Dutch couple we had met earlier and who were on their delightful boat in the little marina and made plans for a drink at 5.00 on board Van Nelle. As we planned lunch however another boat approached - a Beneteau First 30 with Australian and Japanese flags displayed. It became clear that the Aussie male skipper and Japanese girl crew were not going to have an easy time of mooring as they went aground on their approach. We came to their assistance by hauling them across the mud to tie up alongside Van Nelle and invited them to lunch.

Some hours and three bottles of wine later, we had learned that they had met in Kosovo where they worked for aid agencies and were taking a well deserved break. Steve, an ex property developer who had gone bust, taken up photography and finally reverted to his engineering background, had ended up in Kosovo.  He bought his yacht in Holland and was heading with Akeyo to the Mediterranean for some warmth.

They, like us, had thought there were facilities like showers at this mooring and were disappointed. We offered the use of the shower and Akeyo took full advantage, staying under the hot water for some 18 minutes and 300 litres - about 6 times the amount we use for a shower. Steve was a great deal more economical and soon it was time for drinks - which inevitably turned into a takeaway pizza dinner with more wine - lots more wine.

Saturday 29

Rain - lots of it, made a hangover partly bearable and I stayed in bed till about 11.00am without any guilty conscience. We had apparently partied until after 1.00am and I had then fallen asleep in one of the chairs listening to music, a bad habit of mine after parties !  Once up I considered joining everyone’s hoses together to try to get water from the distant tap to our two boats but Markus and Else quietly departed before I got the plan into action and I’m sure our two hoses and Steve’s one would not reach. We both had sufficient water for the next couple of days so would wait until the next port to refill.

Some time later, I was disturbed from writing this journal by noises outside and popped up in time to see the barge Wilanka slowly head past. She is a big Dutch barge that had been in our sights at one stage as a possible purchase. Unfortunately they passed by without stopping.

We ventured out to the market later - just to allay our guilty consciences about not having had any exercise - but it was a desultory affair and we returned to the boat empty handed.

Sunday 30 September

Time to leave our somewhat haphazard mooring here on the outside of the little harbour, with the added challenge of getting Steve’s yacht out of the mud beside us and into the channel. It actually was a lot easier than we had anticipated and some shoving with a boat hook or two and a few extra revs of his little Yanmar engine and they were off towards the first of the locks.

We took our time to get organised to allow them to pass through the lock and have it ready for us to follow as we cannot fit in together. So about 30 minutes later, as we turned the corner of the canal on our approach to the lock, we were surprised to see their boat tied to the railing underneath the very wide railway bridge that guards the lock entry. We pulled alongside the towpath to the railing and went on foot to find out what the delay was. Their report was that the lock was not only shut and unmanned - but secured with a padlock !

We made phone calls to the local and Paris office of the VNF (Voies Navigable de France) only to be told that it was Dimanche (Sunday) and so the lock was closed. This is not what is indicated in any of the navigation books and is a new one to all of us as it certainly does not occur anywhere else. So, we made our way back to the outside of the marina and Steve’s yacht was again pulled alongside through the mud and we hunkered down for another day in Vitry.

Maureen and I went for a long walk with cameras and a bag to collect leaves for her new artistic arrangements. We explored the nearby dry dock for barges, where two behemoths were sitting high and dry being painted (actually low and dry) and took some pics of picturesque nautical wrecks on the side of the canal. We had Steve and Akeyo over for dinner and planned an early start for the morning.

It is very unusual to see Japanese on the water but Akeyo and Steve became an item in Kosovo and so she followed him as he went on his nautical adventure.  Steve was a fit and energetic 50+ and Akeyo about 30, tall with extremely long, lustrous black hair, much of which found its way into our plumbing from her two very long showers aboard Van Nelle.  Their little yacht did not have such a convenience.  God knows how she kept her coiffure in condition in the wilds of Kosovo at that time of war. 

Steve had never owned a boat let alone sailed one but bought a yacht since it seemed a practical choice for the Mediterranean.  Much later we heard that while in one of the Med ports he befriended some American naval types and took them out sailing.  Actually it was the other way around - they took him sailing and he observed, learned from them and soon after - sailed off into the sunset.

Monday 1 October

The day started out rainy and windy as we set off for the first of about 15 locks for the day. Getting Steve’s yacht off and running again proved easy and we followed soon after. Unfortunately, despite our early start a couple of other boats had started earlier and there was now a delay before every lock. We wanted to make St Dizier that evening but as the day wore on it became a race against the clock as we were last in the line with a painfully slow commercial in the lead, not giving anything away.  Most of the day we spent leaving one lock and then just drifting towards the next one at no more than steerage speed and still having to wait up to 30 minutes before our turn. This sort of travelling is painful and not really all that good for engine and gearbox as you have to engage and disengage the gears frequently. VERY frustrating but the Baudouin motor and gearbox responded without complaint.

 

About half way through the afternoon we allowed a yacht with a German crew past us to team up with another yacht ahead to eliminate one extra locking and that ended up slowing us down by just enough so that when we approached the last lock of the day - the barrier to St Dizier - it was 10 past 6.00pm and the lock was shut. We were therefore the ONLY boat stranded in a section of canal alongside a French air force base. The sides of the canal were shallow with a gravel base at about 1 metre or less and the only suitable place to moor for the night appeared to be a turning area back about 300 metres.

I reversed Van Nelle the 300 metres and attempted to turn into the turning bay. The wind, which had been strong all day and had caused a lot of manoeuvring already was now at full blast and not shielded by trees. It took a great deal of backing and filling to get lined up and then as we approached the wall inside the area we ran onto mud that had been allowed to build up over time. Fortunately we were not stuck hard as I had approached the area cautiously and we were able to back out and head across to the other side of the canal to the shallow wall. I managed to get the bow into the wall and Maureen secured us to it while I went in search of a log to prop the stern out from the shallow gravel. I found a suitable branch, secured it at the stern and tied us up for the night using our two 3 inch diameter water pipe mooring stakes driven into the clay banks with our new heavy sledge hammer. That worked a treat and nothing would have moved us - if anything had still been moving on the canal - which of course was not the case.

Tuesday 2 October

I was up at 6.00 and after a 10km ride into town to discover where we would moor, we were through the lock at 7.30. I had discovered a large concrete pier with suitable bollards just through the third lock just past the place where Steve and the German yacht had stopped for the night. This was a good find as it enabled us to call up a fuel truck which arrived at 2.00pm to fill our tank. But first....

Having arrived and secured the boat we set off into the rather pretty town to get cash to pay the fuel company which we had contacted by phone.  They did not use credit cards and at this stage we did not have a French cheque account.  I found a bank with a cash machine and put in my card. The transaction was nearly complete with the machine having accepted the card and the pin number.  It sounded like it was counting the money when a notice appeared saying "your card has been retained for security reasons" and the machine shut down. At this stage I had not checked to see if Maureen was nearby and when I looked I realised that I must have turned the corner to the bank unseen by her as she was not about. I couldn’t leave to find her as I had to enter the bank to retrieve the card.

“Sorry”, said the teller, “the card has to be returned to your bank for security reasons”. “But I am Australian, on a boat and this is the only means of getting cash - besides the fact that my bank is half a world away”.  ‘Je suis desole’ was the reply ! I was getting ready to scream (or cry since I had observed that seems to work for girls) when the younger teller referred me to the manager who reluctantly took his keys into the security room which held the machine. After some time he re-appeared, red faced and without the card and then hurried outside. Some time passed and I sighted Maureen on the other side of the square, disappearing in search of me. I still couldn’t leave.

The manager re-appeared and conscripted another colleague and they split up, one inside observing while the other went outside. Time went by but no card. I went outside to watch and the other chap told me to stay at the machine (now ‘Out of Service’) and to grab the card if it re-appeared. Some time passed with the machine offering only a symphony of clicks, whirrs and whistles. Eventually the edge of the card popped into sight and I grabbed it and fought the machine for possession. I won fortunately, and took the card into the bank to do the transaction over the counter. Nope - no way - see ya later !

I left empty handed and searched for another bank to try again as I had to have the cash for the fuel.

Just down the road a CIC bank was open and I made my way to the counter to ask for assistance. Fortunately I found a sympathetic assistant manager who took me into her office to transact a cash advance. A phone call to the credit company and four thousand francs was mine. Did I want more ? She inquired - I decided to take what I had and try to find Maureen. No luck there - so back to Van Nelle to leave a note. While writing the note a somewhat confused - not to say distressed Maureen turned up and, having explained and settled down we set off back to the supermarket to purchase lunch and other necessities. It was now 10 to 12.00 - almost time for the shop to shut so we were given a stern look and reminded as we entered that we had no time to lose.

Back on the boat I had another challenge to overcome as I had discovered that the fuel filter was now leaking and I needed a new washer to stem the dripping. First to find a workshop, then to explain what I wanted. A few minutes with the dictionary and I had the words I needed. I had seen a shop that appeared to have what I needed on the road to town but my inquiry revealed he had no suitable washers. He did however point the way to another atelier (small factory) which I found and explained what I needed. They kindly rifled through their stocks and found a couple of small but likely matches. I tried to pay but they would have none of it.

This was to become a repeated experience belying the denigrating comments often made of the French.  Through our five years we had many similar experiences where locals would assist without expecting anything in return. I headed back to the boat to change washers.

Unfortunately the hole in the middle was too small. I tried drilling one out and only succeeded in wrecking it. The other one acceded to my insistent drill and I managed to fit it. Unfortunately it still did not seal sufficiently and I was presented with a continuing drip. This would have to be rectified later.

The fuel truck arrived at 2.00 and delivered the 500 litres I had ordered. There was room enough for another 50-70 litres and I suggested taking more but the driver refused saying that the office only gave him enough to fill the order and no more - Oh well. I paid and he left. Now all we needed was water and we would be completely replenished. No taps at the back of any of the factory buildings that abutted the canal so we would have to wait for another opportunity.

We visited the local hotel for lunch and were served the biggest rolls filled with ham and chicken with chips on the side. Later we visited a canal side bar with the name ‘Navigator’s Bar’ for a couple of beers until another customer arrived with a dog big enough to eat both of us and our sandwiches and still have room for the puppy that had been frolicking on the bar floor. We left before pooch became interested in us rather than the barman.

Wednesday 3 October

We departed at 0800 as arranged since on this and subsequent stretches of canal we were to be accompanied by a travelling lock keeper. It was not much fun for the two young guys who took it in turns to open the lock gates allowing us in and then operating the sluices to fill and empty the locks as we made our way through a dismal day of rain. We paid each a small tip and gave one a banana and the other an orange at lunch time. They made the day very easy and very quick for us so that we arrived at Joinville - our chosen destination - at 3.00pm.  On arrival we were met by Steve and Akeyo who had arrived not long before us.

Joinville boasts a port which has a wall with bollards (not enough) and water (from an ancient pump). Getting the water required stuffing a hose into the enormous delivery pipe and filling the area around it with cotton waste, well packed into the void. Then, after connecting a number of hoses together and watching over it all for about 4 hours the water was slowly delivered. There was no power here nor showers so Steve’s girlfriend Akeyo was not a happy girl. We had a curry dinner and a chat with them and discussed future moorings and meeting places as they planned to leave the next morning.

On a walk into the nearby industrial area the next morning I discovered another factory that had copper washers and again they handed over two, refusing to take payment for them. One did the trick pretty well and the slow tide of dripping fuel was stemmed.

Thursday 4 October

Steve and Akeyo left but later in the day Richard and Linda Neville arrived on their very pretty barge. Richard had been on Tam and Di Murrell’s PP course with me at Cambrai the previous October. They have a lovely Tjalk which had seen them through a winter in Bruges and a cruise through the south of France.  They were now en-route to their second winter in Bruges. We looked over each other’s boats and arranged for a scratch dinner on board theirs.

The next day at the Tourist Office I tried to book a conducted tour of the town’s historic buildings, as their brochure advertised three different walking tours. Sorry they said, we only do them in French and not in October and besides the monuments are all closed for winter. Fortunately that was not the case with the Chateau de Grande Jardin so we headed there to wander happily through the magnificent gardens and beautiful old building.  Built as a pleasure house for one of the Dukes of Joinville, it had been converted to apartments and finally abandoned before being bought and converted into a performance facility by the prefecture. The interior of the building has been turned into a large room with smaller galleries at it’s ends and underneath, a sort of bar for intervals. We were able to just wander about unheeded and afterwards found a marvellous wine map of France in their gift shop. We left and went on to wander the town shopping squares and discover the pretty church with it’s monuments to Jean d ‘Arc and the Dukes of Joinville, who unfortunately died out with the death of the final (five year old) descendant.

Above the town are the ruins of another fortified chateau so we bravely rode up the steep path, having to leave our mountain bikes half way in order to ramble over the ruins. Unfortunately there is almost nothing left of the chateau and I suspect the locals have carried away the stones to build or extend their own houses as they did from many estates during the revolution. We discovered some low walls but not much of a view as trees have overgrown the site.

Roger and Linda, another English couple arrived on their pretty wooden, clinker built boat Hoivande. Roger we discovered operates deep sea submersibles (remote submarines) from oil rigs in the North Sea and, as he works a few weeks on and a lot of weeks off, he and his Canadian wife have plenty of time to cruise the canals.

We also tried my Visa card in another bank cash ‘distributeur’ but under the watchful eyes of the bank manager who was amazed to see it be swallowed up and then to send the machine ‘Out of Service’. He managed to open the machine and retrieve the card which he then tried on his desk top card reader. It was given a very bad report and he suggested we have it replaced. Fortunately I had kept my previous duplicate card which now stands between us and starvation.

We spent the rest of the day taking pictures and buying a few odd bits and pieces for forthcoming meals.

Friday 5 October

His was a lovely day to do a long cruise as we had 50km and 20 locks to navigate to our next planned stop at Chaumont. In this part of France the eclusier (lockkeeper) accompanies the boat by scooter or car and we were accompanied on this sunny day by first an older, very quiet woman and next by a younger, quite chatty femme. Despite the lovely day, scenery and easy time through the ecluses, navigating 10 hours from 8.00am until 6.00pm without a break is a tough day and by the end of it we were just able to get a meal and hit bed.  It was on occasions like this that we praised the quality of the Dutch mattresses we had furnished Van Nelle with.  Many of our guests commented on how good the beds were.  Semi sprung foam mattresses on a slat base in every case.

As we arrived at the next port it appeared that due to earlier arrivals, there would be little room for Van Nelle and we actually tied the boat at an angle behind a VNF tug on the outside of a projecting part of the steel wall. This area was just outside the rather pretty (but pricy) marina quai which had power and water supplied. There were no facilities near us so Maureen tactfully negotiated for a couple of the other boats to move to make room for us. That was quickly done and Van Nelle moved to a far more suitable place, next to all facilities.  An annoying habit of many part time boaters is their insistence on leaving half a boat length between their boat and the one fore and aft, effectively reducing the number of boats that can fit.  This seems to be especially prevalent among those from large populations in very small countries.

Steve and Akeyo were here as well as our new Dutch friends Markus and Else and Roger and Linda. This looked decidedly dangerous from a health perspective as we had previously discovered how keen this lot were on tasting ‘just another bottle’ late into the night.

Saturday 6 October

Refreshed by a good night’s sleep we emerged to explore. M set off on the scooter as Chaumont  is some 3 km distance, up a somewhat forbidding hill. While she was away I fiddled with grease guns as I had noticed a small amount of water coming into the bilge from the stern gland.

My first mate (read captain) arrived back with descriptions of a town with pretty, old buildings, small squares, a pretty church and a market. We mounted the scooter and set off up the hill in search of new discoveries. Parking the scooter outside the Jesuit College we wandered through the main part of town and admired 16th century houses and shops and ornate, other buildings. We heard sounds of an organ from the church and entered to find an organist rehearsing for a 3.00pm concert on Sunday. We decide the concert sounded like a thing to attend and wandered through the church, inspecting the reliquaries of their St Jean and others. 

Reliquaries are something I had not encountered before.  Many churches and especially cathedrals have vaults which hold jewel boxes or crosses with glass inserts displaying within a small fragment of hair, bone, dried skin or other grisly body parts.  These are said to be parts of the dead saint, dissected and distributed to provide heavenly blessings on those who observe and pray to them.  A bit primaeval I would have thought , if not irreligious, worshipping body bits.

We went back to the boat after buying supplies at a supermarket and lovely cheeses and sausages at the market to arrange drinks with the gang at 5.30. This inevitably turned into dinner at the nearby restaurant, a merry affair which left me with a hangover and an admonishment from my captain about the amount of ‘fun’ (wine) I was consuming. I will have to curb my thirst in future - although to be fair it was the two glasses at lunch, added to the three aperitifs and four at dinner that had me undone - or was it just that last glass ?.


 

Chapter Four - Burgundy

The pattern of life is now starting to emerge. While we are still in far too much of a hurry, the key ingredients of this life are; travelling, discovering new places to stop, exploring, meeting people and developing stronger friendships, food, wine and fun. Interspersed in all this hedonistic pleasure are the occasional problems with boats, le systeme Francais and the resources we depend on such as internet, phones, banks and mail. But the key and best ingredients of this life are definitely the people and the times spent with them.

During this part of our journey we had by chance come upon a group of fellow travellers who were to play a part in our lives for the best part of the month as we leapfrogged each other down the canals and river to St Jean de Losne. Occasionally there would be additions to the group and sometimes a couple would be missing as they went ahead or stayed behind, but by the time we had meandered into St Jean de Losne the group had reformed and added a couple of extras.  Several of these characters were to intertwine through our lives for the next four years and longer.

But I digress from the day to day occurrences aboard Van Nelle.

Sunday October 7.

I woke on this Sunday to a somewhat painful hangover and almost no recollection of the last half of the preceding night. I found later (to my advantage) that most of the others were in a similar state and (to my disadvantage) that Maureen was not one of them. Eminently sensible, M had slowed her intake during dinner so that she could adequately be my conscience in the morning, a job she excels at. I had been admonished for my waywardness earlier, even before I ventured off to the scene of the previous evening’s fall from grace, the restaurant where I was to pick up the croissants that we had ordered for breakfast. This ability to order bread and other pastries, milk and some other stores from isolated restaurants is a useful arrangement found in a number of waterside stopping places. The local restaurant lures you in one way or the other for mutual benefit. 

We had a slow day attending to the accumulated emails and then headed off to town for the organ concert. It turns out that this was the annual concert of the children taking lessons from the village organist and the talent included 6-8 year olds, hardly able to reach the keys let alone the pedals and an older child (sex unidentified) with quite a well developed technique. On balance however the ‘concert’ was akin to an end of school performance, but fun nevertheless.

Before heading back to the boat we wandered the streets and came by chance on the municipal museum which, like many French town museums, had an archaeological section and a special area representing local industries. This town’s industry had been glove making, at which hundreds of local people were employed. Unfortunately, with the demise of gloves as a fashion necessity, the factories had closed and the town diminished. After taking in the history and technique of glove making in detail we headed back to the boat to try a cure for the previous evenings revelries.

As we were all planning to leave the next day the group gathered on the canal side garden to just spend some time in the sun chatting before retiring for an early night.

Monday 8 October

We departed at 0800 for Rolamport where we arrived after a long day at 1600 (4.00pm for those not up on the 24 hour clock so loved by the French - except there it was ‘seize heures’). We had time to explore a little after arrival at the town jetty which was furnished with power and water outlets.  We had come to understand that many of the French towns encouraged boating tourism by the provision of water points and electricity outlets at their petite ports.  This is not so in many other countries and is a welcome feature of cruising in France as it takes the pressure off your boats systems and reduces noise and pollution.

Rolampont is a small ville set in typical farming countryside, quite pretty and useful as a stop en-route to some of the more inviting towns in the region. Steve and Akeyo were already at the halte fluviale so we had a pasta dinner and a few local wines on board Van Nelle.

 

Tuesday 9 October

We departed Rolampont for Langres at 0900 and arrived at 1200, lunchtime for the French, just in time to see the shops all shut (why is it that this happens over and over again?), The boulangeries however take pity on all and sundry and stay open most of lunch time (dejeuner) - obviously some French let business get in the way of lifestyle.

Langres was a key target as the guide books all gave it high points. The downside is actually an upside here since there is a 2 kilometre climb up hill to the town which is mostly inside the old fortifications which are in extremely good condition. This is fortunate for the inhabitants as you discover on reaching them that they provide the outer walls of many homes which circle the town. Ranged along the walls at intervals are medieval gates and towers where armies of the past fought off attackers with boiling oil and bundles of arrows. On the far side of the town is a large building, proudly proclaiming itself a foremost museum of 14th century histoire - closed of course !

We rode our bikes up the hill to the town, quite a feat and only made possible by the 21 gears provided by Mr Shimano the great god of bicycle gears. Actually we would have rather taken the scooter but we moored with the starboard (right) side of the boat against the quai so were unable to use the winch to get the scooter off and it was too far to reverse to a turning point, this part of the canal being too narrow to turn Van Nelle. 

Later we developed a technique to address this shortcoming, using our passarelle (gangplank) from the cabin top to wheel the scooter off.

Having bikes enabled us to see a great deal in a short time and at close quarters but access becomes a problem when streets become pedestrian malls, tiny narrow streets chock full of boutiques, boulangeries, pharmacies, tabacs and other specialists - plus the people of course. We chained the bikes in the centre ville and set off on foot to visit the eglise (a wonderful and big church with another grand organ, being tuned).  Outside, a renaissance house and the shopping precinct dominated the scene.

We ran into Steve and Akeyo in town and suggested having a lamb roast that evening so set off to the boucherie to get a led of lamb. We discovered  that lamb was not so easy to get at the butchers and is very expensive when found. On this occasion we found a small leg in a boucherie and asked for it. The ‘serveur’ rattled off some French and disappeared out the back door to reappear after a few minutes with the lamb meat parcelled up with string but sans (without) bone ! They had boned the leg making it almost useless as a leg of lamb. We paid with rather wooden smiles and immediately set off to search for another leg.  Fortunately we found a supermarket and in looking for vegetables and other necessities I discovered a freezer chest full of New Zealand legs of lamb !  Et Voila !

Having completed the exploration and shopping we set off - now rapidly - down the 2 km hill, back to the boat. Terminal velocity is reached at about 35-40kmh after about 100mtres so the downhill trip was both a lot shorter and a great deal more exciting !

That evening the lamb (both parts) were welcome by us and Steve, as he had not had a roast for ages.  Akeyo was very polite.  I’m not sure whether she enjoyed it or just hankered for sushi.  The wine however was enjoyed by all.

We made a point of laying in some very good wines from the major vineyards of France for special dinners.  Burgundian Pinot, Bordeaux Merlot / Cabernet Sauvignon and the big shiraz wines of Chateauneuf du Pape for the reds and the Montrachets, Sancerres, Chablis, Mersault and other Chardonnays of the Bourgogne region among others.  These are brought out, the reds decanted a couple of hours early and all enjoyed from big tasting glasses with some of the rich foods of France.  Succulent lamb, rabbit, beef and chicken.

Wednesday 10 October

Steve and Akeyo left at 0800 as they were still racing against the schedule of chomages (closure of locks for repairs and maintenance that are carried out from November through to March) in order to get to the Mediterranean. This strategy was not all that successful however as after a couple of days, Akeyo would get a strong need for a shower and since they did not have one on the boat, Steve would have to stop for a couple of days at a civilised halte fluviale to honour her wishes. By that time we would catch up and another couple of days would be spent having a good time.

 

We (foolishly ?) took the bikes back up the hill to Langres, since the phone had thrown another wobbly and we needed a France Telecom office to sort it out. I left film in the one hour shop and took the phone off to be fixed while Maureen took one of the bikes to the bike shop for new brakes - guess whose ?  The idea off speeding out of control down the hill had provided the motivation.

On return to the quai, the power was not working and investigation identified our power cable had been cut through by the action of a passing barge squeezing it between the quai and the ship. There must have been a bit of a pop when it cut but as we were not there we didn’t notice it. No other damage being a result, the cable was spliced and put back to work.

Langres is the home town of Diderot, the French philosopher, but there is little on show to give the visitor an understanding of his work. The regional museum was however open on this day so we spent a couple of hours among Roman ruins, the town collection of art and explanations of the development of the town and region architecture and industry. We also spent some time photographing the surrounding district from this imposing hill, from which - they say - you can see Mont Blanc on a clear day. I find that a bit hard to believe as Mont Blanc must be hundreds of kilometres away.

Another exciting ride down the hill - now somewhat safer for M with her new brake pads.

Marcus and Else had now arrived and as Roger and Linda also showed up is was time for another dinner aboard VN.  While everyone brought stocks there were still significant holes in the house wine stocks on the morrow. This dinner went on till 1.30 - but what the hell, there’s no pressing business to be done on a Thursday.

The Morrow was Thursday, 11 October - a foggy day.

This week has been mostly brilliant weather with cool clear days and only a few drizzly patches to cloud otherwise fine conditions. The morning fogs however are becoming a regular occurrence and can delay departures for some hours on days scheduled for travel. We had decided to slow down a bit so had to ride to the next lock to advise the eclusiers.  Explanation. In this region, for some reason, each boat is accompanied by an eclusier on a moped (scooter). They scoot ahead and prepare the lock and operate it as you enter and leave, then repeat the performance. This happens all day if you are travelling some distance but at certain points a new eclusier from the distant town will take over from the one who has started the trip with you. This way they do not get too far from home.

We started off paying a tip at the end of each sector as the weather to start with was pretty vile and while we could duck into our wheelhouse, they had to stay outdoors during the whole trip. This practice however looked like getting quite expensive so we quit paying when the weather improved. Since the service did not reduce we figured we were in the clear and continued not paying.

So I was on my bike to advise the VNF that we would not be starting early when on arrival at the next lock I found 3 eclusiers and 2 frogmen, a couple of VNF officers and other odds and sods all standing around a half open lock door. Seems there was something blocking the door from opening or closing, so we would not have been going too far anyway. Turns out it was a tyre being used as a fender by a commercial boat !  I explained that we would not be coming through at the time we had previously arranged and, all being happy with that, we agreed to meet the next day. Actually, they are pretty flexible about schedules but it is best to keep on their right side or long delays can result.

We spent the day doing beaut things like washing and shopping (only half the way up the hill) at a closer supermarket.

Friday 12 October

I was woken at 4.00am by the sound of a loud pop and gurgling running liquid noises. God I thought, what’s leaking ?  Are we sinking ?  Has the hull been breached ?  That is not a sound you want to hear on a boat !

I leapt out of bed and searched the boat for a leak or broken water pipe and came up dry. This mystery had to be solved as those sorts of sounds can often lead to a case of very wet feet ! I redoubled my search until I slipped on a patch of floor boards in the gloom. Snapping on all the lights I quickly traced the problem.  The bottle of ‘flower wine’ we had been conned into buying at a local fete some days and villages earlier had obviously undergone secondary fermentation in the bottle while on board. The standard wine cork was unequal to the task of containing the now pressurised liquid, which ejected across the floor. Some time was spent mopping up and washing the area to eliminate the somewhat strong floral and alcohol smell before returning to bed at 5.00am.

Up at 7.00 for an early start only to be met by impenetrable fog. We would have to wait till there was enough visibility, which occurred just before 1000 and we caste off for Dommarian where we arrived after a long day, at 1700.  While commercials operate through fogs, they rely on radar which we don’t have.  It would be more than a surprise to be met by an oncoming boat at a distance of a few metres on a foggy day.  Better to stay in port till you can see 50 or more metres ahead.

This section of the canal included a tunnel of 4.8km, a flight of 8 locks with a total of 17 in the day over a distance of 25km. As we approached the tunnel I asked M to switch on the floodlight that is installed on the mast. Nothing. 500 metres. Check the power outlet with a lamp. OK it works. 300 metres. Try the floodlight again. Nothing. 200 metres. Take off the cover off and check the filament. Broken 50 metres. Well, I hope the tunnel lights are working.

At a previous tunnel the lights were significantly absent during our passing and turned on full as we exited. I switched on all the navigation lights and issued a powerful torch. We entered the tunnel and as we did, fluorescent lights extending the whole distance flicked into life. M was much relieved and we sailed through the cold ‘sous terrain’ experience with only one or two light contacts with the side walls.  These contacts are not a danger as the walls are liberally coated with grunge but can be an issue if the arched roof of the tunnel comes in contact with the overhand of the boat’s wheelhouse roof.

It is extremely difficult to keep concentrating 100% through a long tunnel and the conditions are more taxing than a normal canal.  The passage is only 5 and a bit metres wide and the hemispherical shape threatens the coach roof. Suction, caused by the propeller sucking water from under the boat, affects the stern, pulling it to one side or the other as soon as you stray off dead centre and applying power makes it worse. Once glued by suction to the wall and rubbing down it’s side, it takes what seems like ages to get the boat unstuck by reducing or cutting power to angle the boat away.

Finally we were through but almost immediately came face to face with a ‘flight’ of locks. This is an area where a great height has to be scaled in a short distance. Normally the standard Freycinet locks are spaced at least a couple of kilometres apart and rarely exceed 3 metres height each. In flights, a number of locks (in this case 8) are placed one immediately connected to the next and their wall height can be 5 or 6 metres, making them difficult to secure the boat to as you have to throw your ropes onto bollards high above your head and sometimes out of sight.

Once, while idly walking along a lock wall to observe a boat come through, I was almost hit by the end of a rope thrown from below. The thrower could not have had any idea of where the bollard was.  It was nowhere near me and when their rope had been thrown he was not aware of my existence, he was just trusting to luck. On another occasion I was greatly amused by a rope, tenuously held aloft by a boat hook being poked over the edge from below. Again, the owner was trying blind luck since he had no idea of the placement of the bollards. I would love to put a fish in the loop at the end of the rope and throw it back onto the boat below.

Arriving at Dommarian we took our usual walk through town but everything was shut, including the church. We retreated to the boat and planned the next day’s trip while eating stored rations.

Saturday 13

A sunny day with a trip planned of 24km and 24 locks. This is a busy kind of day. At 6kmh, 24 km without locks would take 4 hours. Each lock takes a minimum 15 minutes without delays, therefore 24 locks are going to take about 6 hours for a total trip time of 12 hours. Locks shut at 1800 so that requires a start at 0600 to achieve your aim, or, you have to beat the averages. We cheat by slipping along at about 8kmh, cutting the time by an hour and scorch through the locks at better than average time as we are prepared to assist the eclusiers.  This doesn’t work however if held up by boats in front or coming towards us.

 

On this day we left at 0800 and reached Blagny on a beautiful day without delays. On arrival we found absolutely nowhere to moor with the time after 5.00pm. We had less than a hour to find something further along. After 2 more locks and some 7km we came to a silo with a solid concrete wall inhabited by two fishermen. Looks lonely but safe - we’ll take it. As we approached the fishermen raised their feet, pulled in their holding nets and recovered their lines but did not move - rather like someone being vacuumed around. We manoeuvred the boat past them and secured for the night. The area and the time precluded an exploration so we settled in to make a barbecue dinner and rest.

After retiring we were woken by the sound of torrential water gushing somewhere. Was it the water tanks ? A hole in the hull ? Fortunately neither. It seems the town has a pump of some kind that lets loose about a thousand gallons every 40 minutes from an outfall situated right at the side of our boat. I decided to live with it and settled down to a somewhat noise interrupted night’s sleep.

Sunday 14 October

On to Pontailler - a distance of only 14km with only 5 locks (ecluses), a nice day’s travel and if timed right, the perfect way to enter a good mooring as those who have decided to move on are now gone from the quai, leaving it vacant for your arrival. We arrived at 1130 to find a small opening to the Port de Plaisance with a sign boasting a head height of 3.0metres and inside a single long quai on which we could have moored.   Since the entrance was on the river and the river level was low, the head height looked OK, so long as the river did not rise, trapping us inside with our 3.4 metre head height. 

We considered it for a few minutes before deciding the whole thing looked dubious as the only way out for us would be to reverse through the small entrance.  So what was the answer ?  The alternative was a terraced concrete quai fronting onto the river with what appeared to be adequate rings, stanchions and bollards. Obviously a halte for barges in the past so we chose the quai and headed in cautiously, checking the depth. It was just OK for us at one end of the structure so we came alongside and secured Van Nelle before closing her down and heading off to explore.

It was lunch time and while the town obviously had some features to discover, the cute hotel right at the riverside had a restaurant which looked inviting pretty inviting for a long Sunday lunch. We considered that option for about a millisecond and soon were settled into a lovely 5 course set menu.

The menu (cost 120 francs excluding wine - about $A 30) had some options.  I chose the pate de maison followed by a meat dish, cheese and desserts. First arrived an appetiser followed by a big basket of bread and a whole pot of pate. It was an invitation to eat as much as you wanted and was only reluctantly returned to the kitchen when the main course arrived. The wines were pleasant and the service friendly and country slow. I committed the same faux pas I had done in Cambrai a year earlier substituting the word pres for pressé in the sentence "Vous et tres pres Monsieur" to the wait person meaning ‘you are very busy’ but actually saying ‘you are very close’. Maureen swore he didn’t hear me but I believe he stood well back from then on and seemed reluctant to serve more wine. Ah well the vagaries of a different language and its indifferent user.

We had to take a very long walk after lunch and turned up many delightful views in this bustling little village. As we rounded a corner we came upon a group of men and boys playing boules (AKA petanque). We watched for some time and were asked to join in but never having hefted a boule, decided against it. There was a young boy they brought in from time to time to smash the opponents boules away from the jack. He could not have been older than 14 but was devastatingly accurate.

This is a simple game where players toss up to three heavy steel balls at a smaller ball that is thrown out on stony, level ground by the winner of the previous round. He decides the order to start or follow and each player can decide to throw one or all of his boules in his turn or wait for the next turn in rotation. It looked like a great deal of fun and not too complicated or requiring high skill levels so we decided we had to get into this game at a later date. Later in the day Roger and Linda arrived in Hoivande and wandered over for a chat before retiring.

 

 

Monday 15 October

Shortly after rousing ourselves the next morning, Roger and Linda departed. We had planned to stay a day or two but having seemingly exhausted all the town had to offer, we decided to follow them to the local capital of Auxonne.

This part of the trip marks the end of a canal section where you go onto the river Saone, so conditions would be different with the boat able to do up to 15kmh, unfettered from the 6- 8km limits on the canal. A chance to blow out some carbon from the low revving engine and get some heat into the engine head.

It didn’t take us long to catch up to our friends despite having left a hour after Hoivande but as there was only one lock to negotiate they were not about to slow us down. We both enjoyed the relative freedom of the river and Van Nelle seemed to enjoy the speed as well. We arrived at Auxonne at 1600 having left at 1230, a short, fun trip.  On arrival under the guns of the fortress near the bridge we found three long pontoons with water supplied nearby but no power.  There was a small hut with signs indicating it was a tourist payment station but it was firmly shut with no instructions as to alternative payment places.  Like many towns, Auxonne provides facilities at a cost during the peak period of May or June to August and before and after allows anyone silly enough to be travelling free access.

This was the town that Napoleon received his artillery training and it boasted a Napoleon Bonaparte museum - which we found had of course shut for winter a couple of days before our arrival. The fort is still there but time, fire, accident and vandals have caused a great deal of damage and the use of parts of the buildings for local clubs (petanque etc) has not been equal to the task of up-keeping the fabric of the crumbling structure. The town itself has some interesting features but none of the bustling outdoor life that many of the others had which made them so hospitable.  We were later to re-discover Auxonne as a place of some repute for its festivals as it was within an easy drive from our winter port of St Jean de Losne.

Tuesday 16 October

These days were marked by beautiful sunny and warm weather - perfect boules weather for the itinerant boatie so we went in search of the hardware, eventually finding the steel balls and other accessories by asking one of the local players. Turns out the balls are sold only at the electrical store since the proprietor is a member of the boules club. We bought a set and went out during the afternoon to practise.

Prior to gaining world class expertise at heaving steel balls around the countryside I decided that since A) we were moored port side in allowing the use of the crane to get the scooter off the boat and B) we were now close to St Jean de Losne, I would scooter over there to suss out the moorings, as that was our next main destination. It took only half an hour to get to St Jean and find (very easily) the boat harbour and town jetty - the Quai National. It seemed pretty obvious that the marina, while large, had positions only for small visiting boats and, since I discovered rings attached to the quai suitable for us to tie to we would moor there. There were no boats at the quai and no signs prohibiting its use.

St Jean and its neighbouring town of Losne across the river are the centre of pleasure boating in France as they sit on the Saone River at the start of the Canal de Bourgogne and near the Canal Lateral Saone a Marne.  It is sort of the meeting point of many major directions and is near the legendary Burgundy wine district governed by the city of Dijon.  Not a bad place to spend the winter period from November to April.

I made inquiries about a winter mooring as Maureen was not convinced that to run down the more than 600km to the Mediterranean was a good idea and everyone was getting nervous about the imminent closure of some of the key canals for the chomage (annual maintenance period). There are two organisations owning moorings at St Jean de Losne. H2O and Bosquart. I inquired first at Bosquart and was advised that it MAY be possible on the outside of another, Swiss owned, barge but that the owner would have to be asked and would have to agree. On that wharf, which runs inside the canal de Bourgogne off the river Saone, work on major refits and repairs are carried out, causing a great deal of noise and mess. Additionally the water is cut off during winter as pipes freeze. I was not encouraged.

At H2O there was a quite different story. If I wanted to look at an area slightly out of town I could have a mooring there for 860 francs per month ($A 245) but I would have to cut the grass. A map was provided and I left for the road and gravel track that leads to the area. On arrival I quickly found the spot, in a disused canal inhabited by other stately barges, most of whose inhabitants live aboard permanently. The vessel directly in front was the property of Matthew Morton, an airline 747 captain and his partner Caroline Price.  The Directeur of H2O also had his barge moored there as his home. I was won over by their interest and kindness and agreed to bring M to look and agree when we arrived at St Jean in Van Nelle.

Wednesday 17

At Auxonne we assisted a Scottish couple moor their boat and soon had boules partners for the next day. Further exploration was carried out in the morning and we warmed to the town to some degree.

The afternoon boule game was humorous and lots of fun so we agreed to do much more of it so long as the weather held. Brenda and Hugh Fraser had given up life looking after holiday makers in Nairn, Scotland, and since Hugh had built their steel ketch they had decided to sail to Australia to see friends, going via Europe and then the Americas.

We barbecued on board Van Nelle and had a few laughs before planning further world boules championships for the morrow, Brenda being especially keen as a past curling champion.

Thursday 18

This morning we decided to head for St Jean de Losne but before leaving offered to assist Hugh and Brenda free their boat ‘Scotia’ which had become high and dry on its keel as the river level had lowered. They had moved pontoons in order to take on water and having done so had become stuck. Hugh did not want to pull the boat off the rock they were on so we departed at 1000, arriving at 1400 at the Quai National, where we moored next to some rental paddle boats, in front of ‘Beatrice’, a river cruiser / restaurant and just behind a hotel boat which was moored centrally.

Hotel boats use the quai as a place to deliver and pick up their washing as there is a laundry operating right on the waterfront, together with three bar / cafes. The English crew are friendly but busy on the Continental Waterways hotel boats as this is a turn-around destination where they change passengers and embark on weekly cruises.  We were to come across a few of their boats and crews in the next few years with mixed results.

Just behind the river front boulevarde is a maze of small streets with all the shops generally needed for a long and pleasant stay. The Presse (newsagent) has English newspapers, fresh milk is in all three supermarkets, there are several boat shops for parts and advice and many other facilities such as a dry dock and extensive boatyards. The Tourist office is located near the marina and is equipped with showers, a laundry and a PC for 10 francs per half hour of internet time. Twice a week a room attached opens as a book exchange - at no cost.  Boaters bring in the books they have read and exchange them for ones they choose from the three thousand donated tomes in stock in various languages.

Later in the day Marcus and Else arrived with their Dutch friends and guests, Lane and Bayer.  Marcus planned to stay for some time as he wants H2O to service his engine. As it began to rain further local, immediate exploration was curtailed but we now had a desire to stay in one place for some time and this appeared to be the place. From St Jean we could explore the Burgundy wine region (Beaune and Nuits St George are only 40km distant) and we are apparently only an hour from ski able snow.  The main regional capital of Dijon is a half hour away by train, Lyon an hour and Paris 2. We can take the boat to Dijon which boasts very good facilities and ride the scooter to many other small villages in between.

We were however not keen to tie up permanently just yet as it seems that we may be here until March or April. That being some 4-5 months distant we would prefer to keep exploring until it becomes too cold, wet, windy or freezing to continue - perhaps November, just before the final locks are shut, closing off the canals.

Friday 19

A beautiful sunny, warm day. We cannot get over how one day can be cold and wet with winds that seem like they are off the arctic and the next requires you to wear shorts and tee shirts.

We took the opportunity to get a couple of 10 hour power and water tokens, connect to the services and do some washing and cleaning. While the drying was in progress we took off on the scooter to inspect the two possible moorings and Maureen was sufficiently impressed with the distant one that we agreed to confirm it as our winter mooring which I did by letter to Charles Gerard, proprietor and Directeur of H2O.

Steve and Akeyo had also arrived at the marina before us and we had seen them a couple of times for dinners aboard. These are fun occasions with each couple bringing something - pasta, salads, bread, wine, cheese, etc and us all sitting round the big dining table and just cracking on for hours about rivers, canals and stuff. However, they had their somewhat inflatable timetable to keep to so they bade us all farewell and headed off south, down the mighty Rhone River through Lyon to the Mediterranean.      

Drinks on board started at 5.00pm with Lindy and Roger, Marcus and Else and Lane and Bayer, which inevitably turned into dinner at the Asian (?) restaurant followed by dancing on Van Nelle till 1.30 or so. We actually tried a couple of the small restaurants first but unless you arrive early or have a booking - it is ‘je suis desole mais nous n’avons pas le diner’.  No food or space or wine or service or whatever.... Anyway there are plenty of choices and we had a passable meal but not very Asian. Marcus and Else’s friends enjoyed the raucous fun we all seem to have and came up looking pretty second hand the next morning - which was unfortunate timing since they had to drive the 7 hours back to the Netherlands for work Monday. Poor people !

Saturday 20

Cloudy with some rain - one of those cold days. Still, since it was a hangover day for some it was probably the best weather combination. Time to hunker down with a good book - or someone who has read one !  We actually went out looking for a much advertised mushroom exposition but didn’t find it !

Sunday 21

We found the mushroom exposition in the Maison de Mariniers and looked in wonder at the 360 types of mushrooms, ranging from edible to dangerous. We actually found behind the mushies an exhibition about barges, which they had unsuccessfully tried to cover up, more interesting and probably worth another trip. The expo was held in the Mariners Building, a small street front shop on the Rue Principale which is dedicated to the many water people of the region. 

A beautiful luxemotor barge arrived with its owners Robert and Wendy. I invited myself aboard to look over the boat which is gorgeously fitted out and maintained. I guess I have a yardstick to ensure that Van Nelle continues to be upgraded and not allowed to go backwards. Unfortunately they left early the next day for their winter mooring in Dijon - but that’s not too far away and they left an invitation for us to visit when we are in Dijon.

In the brief conversation I had with them I discovered they had taken four years to get this far south from the Netherlands - a distance we had travelled in some four months. I was beginning to feel the need to slow down.

Monday October 22 - Monday October 29

Being in one place for over a week makes for very thin content on a day to day basis.

The week has been marked by good weather, mostly sunny and warm but with early morning fog and some days that feel like they could snap freeze you. Just when you think that winter has arrived however, the sun comes out and smiles at you as you clamber out of ‘grown up pants’ and into shorts. It has made for great opportunities to have games of boules, generally in the afternoons since no-one seems to get going till lunch time, followed by a few drinks - which almost inevitably leads into dinner and crack (the Irish for talking).

Sunny days also leads one to the occasional Sunday lunch, outside on the boulevarde - well street really - even if it’s not Sunday. One of the nice things about this life is that you can a declare a day to be any day of the week you want and if the day feels like Sunday and is sunny - well then, its time for a long Sunday lunch in the sun.

Time gives one the opportunity also to get into the lists of jobs requiring attention - and this week I have actually tried to catch up on writing (like this journal), email as well and some more important boat jobs, I actually got around to painting out the scrapes and scratches we have inflicted on the rubbing strake and port side of the hull yesterday. Couldn’t do the starboard side as I don’t walk on water but it can wait till we turn around some time. Seems I bump the port side more often that starboard - I wonder why that is ?  I also however had the time (and access to Lane’s van) in order to get 4 glissoires (a kind of long, hard rubber fender that allows the boat to slide past objects) and took the time to splice ropes onto them (two each) to hang them on the hull.

I did some washing also the other day and found that the water had spilled out of an overflow pipe I didn’t know existed. That took some time and a portable bilge pump to clean up from the engine room and to put into the river. I guess I will have to figure out how to avoid that ever happening again but in the meantime I just need to ensure that the dirty water tank is empty before washing, as the outlet pump gets beaten by the washing machine emptying.

The toilet has given us a few moments recently. It seems that just occasionally the non return valve on the outlet side does not fully close and allows some water back into the bowl. If the bowl is already quite full, this can mean an overflow, but generally only means an instantly cold wet bum and a very surprised reaction at 4.00am when a nocturnal visit in the dark discovers the fact by feel.

We are constantly on the lookout for bargain wine. Wine has to be good - life just isn’t long enough to drink poor wine - and there are bargains to be had but finding them is a constant challenge.  Recently I discovered a trove of Cotes de Rhone - an easy drinking light red - packaged three bottles per plastique. The sign (I’m sure) said buy two and get one free - gratuite - prix 33.  I had reached the end of the weekly wine budget but raided the bread jar for 33 francs - mostly in very, very small change - and charged off to the supermarket before one of our barbecue nights. This was going to be a way to cut the rising expense of big dinners. I was very surprised to have half my money given back to me by the check out lady (no chicks here) which meant I had 3 bottles for 16 francs. At 3.6 francs per dollar that equals about $1.50 per bottle. We tried it and it was very good. Eat your heart out (or is that drink you heart out) in Australia where the WET (wine equalisation tax) is ruining the industry.

We went to Dijon and decided to take our bikes along as Dijon is a big city and we could see more of it on bikes. Wrong !   Dijon is a maze of very narrow, mostly pedestrian streets where bikes are a real nuisance. We also had a really hard time fitting them in the train and got some nasty looks from the porters at Dijon on our return. It was only my ‘Ne parlez pas Francais’ that enabled me to stay on the train. It also meant we could not carry back a bargain TV / VCR combination we need for making video programs with our digital camera and editing suite, so all in all - don’t take your bike to town boy, leave your bike at home boy, don’t take your bike to town.

Dijon is fabulous. Very old and well preserved. We had been there very briefly from 2.00pm till 10.00pm on one day two years ago and had not seen anything of the extent of the vast number of medieval streets and beautiful old, historic buildings. We went to the Musee and glanced next door at the fabulous Palais de Ducs, roamed a few cathedrals (more organ music being played) and quickly looked into a hi-fi shop and decided we could spend at least a week exploring. That’s OK though since they boast a big marina for visiting boats and we can go back next week.

We visited another marina near St Jean de Losne - St Symphorien - where people we know have a boat wintered and could not believe what we saw. No water. All the boats were sitting, not quite high and dry but actually stuck in the mud. I cannot understand how one could live on their boat like that over winter. No water means no toilets and while showers and sinks empty into space, no cooling water for generators means no power ???? It looked quite desolate and we were very glad we were not there for our first winter. I’m not sure if the lack of water is a result of design or accident, perhaps it is the chomage ?  There was no-one to ask so we were none the wiser. One of the nearby canals - the Canal de Centre - is without water since the reservoir sprang a leak and lost its storage.

The way canals work is that a reservoir higher than the highest part of the canal feeds the top section (bief de partage) and that water flows down through the locks on either side of the summit sector to be replaced by water from the reservoir. No water in the reservoir - no water in any of the locks or biefs in between and therefore no movement in that area. People planning a trip through such affected areas to their winter mooring have a problem - they can go around - sometimes a journey of hundreds or thousands of kilometres and if no alternative routes to their destination are available - they have to make other arrangements.

The town of St Jean de Losne has most things - there are three supermarkets, two electrical stores, a couple of tabacs, boucheries, boulangeries, pharmacies, marinas, restaurants, plenty of bars, a couple of clothes shops, a shoe shop, a couple of fuel places - but it doesn’t have a place to get computer bits. Ink cartridges, read / write CDs, cables, these things are not available here. One has to go to a nearby town, no bigger than St Jean de Losne, to find such items. The town of Blazey is only 15 minutes by scooter, but 40 minutes by bicycle and not on the bus or train line. Terrible to ride all the way there and find you left your wallet at home. No I haven’t done that - yet !

Similarly, the train runs from St Jean to Dijon, but it only runs twice a day. It makes for planning a day out and being mindful of the time to come home. We found ourselves in a hi-fi store 15 minutes from the time of departure of the return train with no idea where the station was or how long it would take to get there. Once out of the shop and pointed in the right direction, I made the mistake of following the signs to the Gare SNCF. Right station but the signs were for cars on a one way street layout. It took me twice as long to get there as it should and I arrived with a bike in hand - to get up and down steps and through the station with thousands of commuters all going in the opposite direction. I made it but it could have been a long ride home.

Monday 29 October

We have now been in one place for 12 days. This is a record of course but it is also very pleasant. It brings home the brilliance of this opportunity. Where else can you move your home into the very heart of Europe’s most inviting and beautiful cities, be right on the doorstep of their best attractions and pay almost nothing for the privilege.

There is also a difference in the openness of people, or is it just me ? For most of my adult life I have found it hard to connect with people and take them to heart. Maybe it was because I was in a work environment where one tends to judge and be reserved or in a social environment laced with competitive aspirations or was it because we just didn’t have - or take - the time to connect ? Whatever the reason, I had no contact with people living next door despite having been there for more than a dozen years. In four months in this environment I have met and become very friendly with more people than I had in the past 10 years. Will the friendships last or are they just ship board acquaintances. I have heard from those who have been at this lifestyle for ten years that they do last, that people travel the length of Europe regularly to catch up with their friends in all corners of the waterways system. These friendships cross nationality, creed, colour, language and religious barriers and give no heed to distance or time. Perhaps its because in this life we have the time and are looking to share it. How, why or where did that aspect disappear from the other life ?

This place France is beautiful. It has beauty in itself and also the beauty of difference - and we have the time to take it in. Words cannot convey the sight of perfect mirror images of tall trees being reflected in the absolutely still water lying ahead of a slowly cruising boat. Look back and see the quicksilver fluidity of the wake of the boat shattering the mirror but causing new dimensions to it. Imaging a wide, still river at crimson sunset, rent by the wake of a slowly moving barge that sends shimmering waves across in fan shapes that are so perfect their lines could not be replicated by hand.

Tall slow grey birds wait at the side of the canals and as your boat approaches they crouch and gracefully leap into flight with long slow pulls of their wings, swooping almost at water level, slowly gaining height with each beat of their long supple wings. They cruise ahead and with a slight upward movement of the leading edge of those long wings, stall their flight as their feet touch the banks. No extra movement, no jump forward or hesitant movement back - just one moment in flight and the next still, watching and waiting for a fish to rise at the passing of a barge.

Streets here appear to have been left almost exactly as they were when Napoleon rode through on his way to Waterloo or returned from Egypt or Russia. Stone and wooden beam houses, half timber and lathe and plaster buildings, homes and shops and offices now inhabiting buildings put in place hundreds of years ago. In the art galleries you see pictures and photographs of the streets then and now and the only difference are power lines and garish neon displays in the now glass front facades.

Public buildings are in use now as they were then. Huge or small, well kept or unkempt they are all here in joyous profusion. Not just one or two like Cadman’s cottage in Circular Quay or the facade of the Barracks in St George’s Terrace, but row after row, street after street, district after district, town after town and city after city. Its not just the cathedrals and the art galleries that overwhelm the senses after a week of leg aching visits (all those stairs) but it’s the fabric around them, the environment that they live in.

You need to spend time in street-side cafes, sitting, reading papers, glancing at passers by, sipping espressos, Pernod or Leffe Blonde beers. This time is as essential as the time spent frantically rushing to beat crowds lined up at the Louvre or the D’Orsay because it is this time that allows all of the other things to settle into perspective. It is the time to reflect on where you have been and what you have experienced.

Since we left Loosdrecht in the Netherlands (don’t say Holland), we have travelled 988 kilometres by my reckoning. It has taken 77 days of which 37 have been travelling days and we have clocked up 111 engine hours. We have passed though three countries and have visited just over 40 towns having passed by or through more than 100. Mention the name of a town, even the ones we have spent 2-4 days in and I find it almost impossible to remember what it looked like without resorting to references, where we moored, the main street, the major attractions the site or layout of the fort - or even if it had one seem to blur together except for occasional highlights.

We have slowed our life to a walking pace but it is still too fast. We have come off a jumbo jet onto Van Nelle, trading 640 knots airspeed for 6 kilometres per hour boat speed and we are still flashing by this experience. I reflect on the unhurried character of Robert and Wendy on their beautiful ship Maria, who have taken four years to get to St Jean de Losne from Holland (didn’t I say not to say Holland, it’s the Netherlands !) and I begin to realise that time is now on our side but that it may take even more time to slow down sufficiently to realise the benefits.

We went to a supermarket today and found in the delicatessen section (no, the French don’t call it that but I’m not sure what it is exactly) all the parts of a meal we had on Sunday at the Café de Navigation across the road. The entre, main course and cheeses were all there looking exactly the same as they presented them - albeit not overcooked as they had made them by forgetting them under the convection microwave. Attitudes are changing, McDonalds are now in prestigious places in most capital cities and if not, the French version ‘Quick’ is. There are ‘sandwicheries’ and the boulangeries and patisseries now serve fast foods of some kind - all be it ‘pate en croute’ rather than ‘meat pie’. However, the meal experience was not created by the elements bought the day before from Casino supermarket and served without style on the road front, it was the position, the sunshine, the local beer and wines, the jaunty attitude of the lopsided waitress, the conversations of the other visitors to the café and the arrival and departure of the bikers and their molls who dropped in on their huge shiny machines, stripping off their leathers to reveal tighter leathers underneath and having a couple of beers before terrorising the freeways again with their roar and hurtling speed.

For us however it was experience and discussion and sunshine and rough local red mixed with the hoppy aftertaste of  Kanterbrau beer and the heady aromas of powerful cheeses. Just in front the river sparkled and reflected sunlight onto our faces and the background sounds of talk and whispers in French and English and Dutch caused a buzz that was better than the tinny music coming from inside. It was a Sunday lunch - an experience, another day and another opportunity to just let it invade your senses rather than having to buy a ticket to stand in line to have it thrust at you.

30 October - 16 December

I was writing this on the morning of Sunday, 4 November, which, it surprises both of us, was our 18th day in St Jean de Losne. Not that we were unhappy about this turn of events from flat out travelling to flat out relaxing. There was nothing holding us here except that we have made the decision to stay near where we are for the winter and we have been in the company of some very lovely people whose time and company we wanted to share while we could.

Marcus and Else left yesterday afternoon for all ports south on the Rhone and eventually the Mediterranean for a coast hopping adventure back to the Netherlands. We first met them in the Society Nautique port at Epernay, where we also met Linda and her daughter. We arrived and went exploring and when we returned, Linda’s daughter was standing on the walkway at the waterside, holding a large bag of shopping and looking aghast at the gap between the shore and their boat. While they had been out shopping the level of the river had risen, covering the jetty that ran alongside their yacht and placing a very wet moat between them and their waterborne home. We suggested moving the boat to the section of the port we were moored since there was ample room and the walkway was well clear of the river but since Lindy’s husband Roger was away on business they were concerned about moving the boat on their own and resisted our suggestion.

Marcus and Else were ahead of us and I offered them the use of our hose to refill their water tanks as I had discovered a source of water well away from the jetty but in reach of my two connected hoses, the waterside facilities having been turned off. On approaching their boat I had been met by a fusillade of barking from their diminutive dog, a sort of demented Jack Russell. Over the next 6 weeks, despite me feeding the dog scraps under the table and generally being a nice guy, the greeting was always the same, a sort of semi ‘mechant’ (angry) concerto of great volume. We decided they were OK but their dog ‘Hout’ was not.

Marcus and Else are Dutch and have recently sold their successful company which placed temporary technicians into companies with manpower (sorry labour) shortages. Worn down by the 7 / 24 nature of the business keeping demanding clients happy, they were quick to take the opportunity to leave the new owners behind as they sailed south in their Dutch Cutter, a 36' steel ketch, especially designed for inland waterways. Marcus is a tall, blond 40ish guy with a ready smile and quick sense of humour. Warm and intelligent, he makes a great partner for the tall, brunette Else, 30 something and languid. She also is quick with a smile and endlessly charming and these two had worked their way quickly into our friendship.

On the way south from Epernay we had stopped at the obvious ports to take time to explore the towns, fortifications, chateaux and shopping as they had. In this we were also joined by Steve and Akeyo, Roger and Lindy and occasionally others, leading to some long lunches, pleasant afternoon drinks and riotous dinners. In St Jean de Losne, since Roger and Lindy and we had arranged to winter and Marcus wanted the boat company here to do some minor servicing, we seemed to just stay on together to enjoy each other’s company and the delights of this small town. Boules, lunches, walks, wine, cheese and discussions, dinners and dancing, all came into the gamut of our rapidly developing routine.

I ventured out this morning in the fog to inspect Little Nelle on which we spent considerable time yesterday placing fibreglass matting and gel coat and found that the job had gone much better than I expected. All the external wounds including one large hole, some 30cm in diameter, have been successfully patched. The large hole will need another 5mm packed over the top to strengthen it but all the others have cured rock hard and smooth.  One more day of fibre glassing, the replacement of some internal seats and the rubber strip around the gunwale and a coat of paint and it will be difficult to see where the damage has been.

Its been a week for traumas.

On Wednesday we travelled to Dijon by train to investigate the cost of replacing our seche linge (clothes dryer) which threw a tantrum and expired in a small puff of white smoke. We took it apart and found a switch burned out leading to heat damage of the motor. Being an Australian made Hoover, none of the French repair shops wanted to know anything about it, especially since it was on a boat. We decided that since I had already repaired it once, it would make more sense to replace it with another, more at ease with the power system in Europe than the higher voltages of Australia. We also wanted to buy a combination televiseur / magnetoscope (TV / VCR) to both watch videos on and to record edited copies of our video recordings for replay in Australia. We have a digital video camera and an video editing program on our PC so we are keen to get into the business of creating some mini documentaries for folks back home but also as training and orientation aids for visitors.

We took the 1.00pm train from St Usage (a short distance from St Jean) for the 30 minute trip to Dijon and set off on a walk to locate and inspect the harbour for subsequent visits by boat. Having walked for some considerable time we stopped by a major intersection fronting a park to check our rudimentary tourist guide. I had some trouble making out where we were and where we should be going. It seemed to indicate taking one of three roads that circled the park in order to get to the Port. While explaining this to Maureen (of the well developed ‘sense of direction’ school) she pointed to some barges clearly visible through the trees of the park and suggested we simply cross the road. We did.

The Port in Dijon is large and well developed and our friends Hugh and Brenda were there on their yacht ‘Scotia’ on which they plan to sail to Australia via the USA. We had tea with them and discussed the various aspects of the trip to Dijon.  The fact that the canal was to be closed in a week decided us, we would not come to Dijon in Van Nelle. The clock was running however so we took our leave and went in search of the video store where we had seen a combi for sale at a discounted price, maybe they had seche linge’s as well or could point out where we could find them.

After a couple of missed turns we eventually found the store and found they also had dryers. They started at 2400 francs and went astronomically upwards from there. I had seen a model in the electrical store in St Jean for only 1790 so we were not about to buy one at 50% or double the price. The manager kindly took out his catalogue and showed us all the models available in France, none of which excited my miserly spirit so we settled on the TV, an indoor aerial and another connector for the PC to the VCR, wrapped the device in my overcoat inside a carton and headed off in a near run for the station, the departure time of the train fast approaching.

Hefting the box with the newly purchased equipment, I followed ‘her of the invincible sense of direction’ to a point about as far as you can get from the station, and then, recognising where we were and where we had to get to, took the box at a near run for the next couple of kilometres. We arrived at the train about 1 ½ minutes before it’s scheduled departure and then sat aboard for some 12 minutes at the station as its departure was delayed !

On arrival back at St Jean, Maureen took off on her bike in the rain to get cords for me to tie the box to my bike for the walk back to the boat. As she departed however I discovered the box was just small enough to be wedged into the carrier basket on the back and so I also took off for the boat - and beat her back. Since she had the key I accepted Marcus’s invitation to board his boat for a beer, much to the surprise and consternation of M who arrived some minutes later.

Hurrying aboard and down the steps I was gripped with fear as the hand-made handles on the box broke away, spilling the box and its precious cargo down the steps and crashing it onto the floor below. I was distraught and rushed to open the box. The plastic case of the device was cracked from its impact, right through the base and up the side, past the loading door for videos and up to the screen. It looked horrible and with trembling heart I inserted the power cord into the socket and hit the button on the front of the device. Nothing. I hit the remote control stand by switch - nothing. I was crushed.

Having been so far to buy this machine, the trauma of the rush to get it to the station and finally getting it to the boat, to have it broken before it delivered one minute of program was devastating.

I croaked a reply to M as she inquired gently about its condition and set off to take it apart to see if there was any first aid I could apply. In doing so I came across a well hidden master power switch on the device’s side, well camouflaged under a speaker grille. I pressed it - nothing - I put the power cord back into the outlet (electricity helps sometimes) and the screen burst into life. I inserted a video - pictures - no sound. ‘Oh’, said M - ‘that’s a silent movie Dad took of us kids.’ I started to breathe.

After some time operating the menus (translated from French until we found the menu option for English) the device was tuned to the available stations and provided us with live coverage of a French TV quiz show, a French Church service (transmitted by an Italian TV network) and a German soap opera, slim pickings. We decided to borrow a couple of videos from Lindy that night and have a TV night - our first in over 4 months ! It worked a treat and we really enjoyed the movie ‘Matrix’ but thought ‘A feeling for snow’ was a bit pathetic.

The final trauma occurred yesterday - Saturday. It was time to check the e-mails and I also needed to transfer money between accounts on the internet - always a trauma as the bank’s E-business network takes from 40 minutes to an hour to do simple things like check balances and transfer cash across accounts. The email seemed quite simple at first. We have to check our incoming email first on an internet program since we get lots of junk mail - some of it huge picture libraries of naked women being subjected to every possible sexual act - and repeated copies of offers for everything from private business investigations to weight loss programs. Once these are deleted I can then use our email connection to download the notes from and to friends and family. While our own server had responded to the internet program it was damned if it was going to connect to others to download - so I received only mail from my personal email address. I then tried the bank connection. After 40 agonising minutes it timed out and so did I.. I resolved to try again later.

 

At 8.00pm I again tried the bank connection and bit my lip as the minutes ticked by. The reason it was so slow on this occasion was their 5 megabytes of terms and conditions that was downloaded (at 9600kbitsps) TWICE ! Infuriating. I finally got the banking done after an hour (at 160 francs per hour) running me out of phone credit. Bring on the day we have access to a land line.

This turgid repetition of errors made and traumas encountered will probably have most of you wondering why we are doing this. None of the above (which in reality are very small problems) match the wholesale, daily grind of the working week in the ‘land of diminishing returns’ we call the business world of Australia. Besides, we also have all the glorious positive aspects - the brilliant days filled with time to explore our new French surrounds, the markets, the language, the culture. Just to be able to wake up and know that the things you will do today are the things you want to do today balances these little trials. And then there are the unexpected acts of kindness and friendliness that cheer you.

I went to the Hotel de Ville (town hall) to inquire about a long stay visa (Carte de Longe Sejour) which I am about to apply for in order to gain residency for 5 years or so. The lady at the Mairie was very kind and very helpful and so subsequently was one of the directors of H2O, the place we will be wintering - as she had to provide me with a certificate of address. It would seem that this process may be easier than I have been led to believe.

Besides - we now have a new clothes dryer, TV / VCR, money in the bank and a long list of emails from friends and family - and - it appears that French Telecom have refunded 40 minutes of telephone time.

I bought the seche linge (clothes dryer) at one of the two St Jean electrical shops and inquired as to when they would deliver it and take away the old one. The response was to put the price up 210 francs. Since the boat is only some 500 metres from the shop I elected to borrow their trolley and do the delivery / return myself and enlisted Marcus’s assistance to take the old machine down the stairs into the saloon in order to hoist it out the coach roof skylight and replace it the same way with the new one. That was done very quickly and efficiently and led to Else doing her laundry in our machines after M had done ours.

There is a very good feeling to be able to offer friends the occasional shower, meal or washing facility since we have a ‘mother ship’ as one of them remarked. It costs us nothing while making life a little better for those with limited facilities.

We have played boules quite a few times recently - not with great skill - but certainly with a great deal of dedication and enjoyment. Its interesting how many of the locals who, on their daily stroll past the boules ground we discovered, stop and chat or just watch with an experienced eye. It’s also strange that very few actually play here. Almost everywhere you go in France, the older men are at the boules ground with their friends, exchanging and repeating the same exclamations and endlessly changing ends and turns as they try for the perfect pitch before wandering off to the café or bar for a Pastis to recount the glories of the game.

It’s a simple game - well especially as we play it. The man who sold us the six hard and heavy steel balls in a natty plastic holder complete with two jacks or marker balls of plastic, explained that there are no rules. You can play with two or three balls each, you can play over a distance of say 3 metres for women and 6 for men, you can pitch your boules all at once - one after the other - or one at a time in turn.  The one who gets closest to the jack wins and throws it out for the next game. He or she can then also determine who leads the play in order for them to be able to throw the last boule and therefore decide the outcome.  There is of course the option to aim at the opposition if they are close to the jack and hit them out of the way.

There are no set number of games or players and one can play as an individual or in a team. You change ends at the beginning of each new game and just chatter away during it. You really have only two choices - to get your boules as close as possible or to bowl at the opponent’s boules to knock them away. Simple but fun and a great way to get gentle exercise while enjoying the thin sunshine of the autumn under the plane trees. Actually the most exercise involved seems to be sweeping away the mounds of leaves that accumulate from the over arching canopy of trees, which in Autumn are changing colour from deep green through yellows and oranges and even a red crimson before falling into drifts on the ground and being whisked away by the motorised street sweepers on their daily rounds.

This is not a hard place to be in. We were situated on a wide bend in the river Saone, in the centre of the two towns of Losne and St Jean which are on opposite sides of the river, our side being St Jean. Fronting this part of the river is a 200 metre wide set of terraces leading up from the river to the road and extending from the bridge to the grassy banks at the end of the terrace. The terraces are made of stone set in concrete and have a soft brown colour, very attractive to the eye. Set into the stone are rings to which we and the other boats moored here tie up. Above the terraces is a one way street fronted by shops, café / bars and houses. It is shaded by trees and well lit at night and every 50 metres along the road side are plinths which provide electricity and water to visiting boats, whose owners insert a token of 10 Euros for 10 hours use. We used them about once a week to give the generator a rest and to top up the water tanks. For the past week we have shared the facility with Marcus, our Dutch friend, who has taken power from our bow power outlet and attached his water hose to ours to get water when we are connected to the tap.

The road above us runs perpendicular to the main street of the town of St Jean which runs through both villages in a straight line across the bridge. On the St Jean side it is fronted by the boulangeries, magasins, boutiques and agents de presse. It is also the location of the Eglise and the Hotel de Ville, a small musee concerned with barging and the river life (once the site of an exposition about champignons where some 300+ varieties of mushrooms were displayed), This main road also leads from Centre Ville to the Port de Plaisance, the Casino supermarket (always a bit of a gamble) and the Office de Tourism (or Syndicate de Initiative as it’s called here for some reason).

Along both sides of the river front are a number of barges. It is said that when professional bargees decide to retire, they can pick where they wish to tie up their barge and live aboard it for the rest of their life. This has apparently been made law as the boats are now almost impossible to sell, such is the marginal income available from working them, and this is the only way a bargee and his wife can provide housing for themselves in retirement.

Near the Port de Plaisance are the ateliers (workshops) of the two or three boat building, repair and maintenance yards here in St Jean. The yards are busy rebuilding old working boats into hotel boats or luxury floating homes for new owners. They also repair current owner’s boats and do regular maintenance work aboard. The port itself harbours over 200 boats of all sizes and shapes including a large fleet of Crown Blue line hire boats.

We did not stay in the port itself as all the places were taken, especially for large vessels like ours and the resources were stretched thin. About 3 or 4 km up river there is a small, disused river lock and branch canal which is now an outport of the company H20 and the home of more than twenty big boats. It is here we were booked to spend winter, first having to tend the 40 metres of ‘garden’ provided. We hoped that, like the other boats, we will have power, water and even a land line telephone service, enabling us to rest our onboard systems until spring brings our departure for ports south, north or both.

Sunday, 4 November and I have been at the desk writing this part of the journal for some hours. Maureen has made potato and onion soup and, it now being 1.15pm, has served it. The fog has not lifted, indeed it has not moved and the other side of the river is still invisible as are most features more than 50 - 100 metres away. We were up at about 9.00am having read till 11.00pm last night. We planned to do some more work on the dinghy but cannot while it remains damp as the gel coat that fixes the fibre glass will not set properly in these conditions. The generator is running, recharging the batteries and powering the computer, lights and pumps that are part of everyday life. The heating system, which is very efficient (but never turned up high enough for Maureen due to my miserly nature), is not programmed to run during the day and as yet we have not laid in a store of wood for the pot belly stove, so the cool damp air of the fog is trickling in through small gaps in the doors and windows of the wheel house above.

Maureen made curtains for the staircase to stop the cold night air getting down into the saloon and with it in place, the door to the bedrooms closed and the heating turned to 21 degrees, it is very warm below when it is freezing cold outdoors. The heating is provided by a series of radiators, warmed by hot water from the diesel boiler that also provides our hot showers and washing water. This is an extremely efficient system and thankfully one that 80% Frank (the previous owner) did not economise on.

We may go out later, possibly to visit our Canadian friend Lindy to borrow one of her videos, or to play boules, or just to take a walk in order to justify still being here and not doing anything much at all. In truth, we need the rest after 6 weeks of non stop socialising.

Monday 5 to Wednesday 21 November

It was with a sense of loss that we stood on the Quai Nationale yesterday and untied Marcus and Else’s mooring ropes, letting their lines and friendship slip through our fingers. We exchanged hurried promises to meet again and to write e-mails, even for them to hire a car and come back to visit and for us to take the train to the Med to meet up with them and then they were gone.

We returned to the job of repairing Little Nellie, the disfigured dinghy and to letting time heal the rending of the companionship and the deep seated hangovers it had caused.  Seemingly to seal the trauma of loss in some natural way, the fog has rolled back during the early hours of the morning to totally obliterate everything formerly in sight. We are no more than 100 metres from the bridge and less that distance to the opposite shore of the river but we can see nothing. Even the commercial tug, which arrived yesterday and tied up 20 metres in front of us is obscured.

While the weather holds and conditions at the Quai Nationale are suitable, work continues on Little Nelle our damaged dinghy. Indeed, I believed I had placed the final coats of fibre glass on the little sailing boat and was ready to test her when it all dried. That was not to occur until Monday the 19th when we rowed the boat up and down the ancien ecluse (the old lock canal port up river) without getting wet feet - all seemed well until we tried to get her out of the water.

I put the stainless harness that connects the dinghy to the winch and began to wind her out of the water. For some reason the bow dipped down rather than the stern and nothing Maureen could do would pull it level. We put her back in the water thinking I had put the harness on the wrong way - it having a short and a long end. We tried again. This time the bow came up almost vertically and as Nelle rose the water trapped between the two hulls came spouting out of every small and large hole - gallons of it. None had affected us as we rowed since the inner hull is apparently watertight, but obviously the outer hull has some way to go before it stops water flooding in between the two hulls.

This was the week I finally put my papers together to apply for the Carte de Longue Sejour, but am advised by the staff at the Hotel de Ville that it is rare to get 5 years and that I should probably count on one year initially. The papers went in on Tuesday, four copies of ID pictures, marriage certificate, birth certificate, income statement, address particulars, insurance information etc. I am advised it will be sent to Dijon for processing and will be returned on or around the 20th of December.  They stipulate that the processing period is six weeks.

I also applied for a bank account at La Poste and was swiftly granted an interview - in two days time, at which the account was opened with 1500 francs and a credit card and cheque book arranged. They arrived a week later at our mail box at the office of H2O. Meanwhile a member of the town council staff arrived at our doorstep politely advising us that our stay at the Quai Nationale had been too long. Please note; that there is no information anywhere that advises the time allowed is limited, but the man was insistent the Quai was only for occasional visits of short duration.  How can you argue - especially since the language barrier was at the time, impenetrable, so we decided to go to Chalons sur Saone, some 70km down river. Marcus had called with intelligence that the port at Chalons was very pleasant and the town excellent for both sight seeing and eating. The shopping, he added, was spectacular with a huge shopping centre right on the doorstep of the Port Fluviale.

We left after my banking interview at La Poste and spent 5 hours cruising down river, through pleasant countryside, two locks (very large for commercial vessels) and thence into Chalons, a large riverside town with major facilities. The Port is on the inside of an island which is right in the middle of the town. The entry is approached by passing the island and coming into the port from downstream. On arrival one is met by large floating pontoons, supported by tall steel piles some 20 feet high (7 metres). The floating pontoons are attached to the shore by long flexible walkways. The need for this elaborate setup was revealed by Marcus who met us on entry and guided us to a suitable mooring, adjacent to power and water. He pointed out that the pontoons had risen some 3.5 metres last winter, a distance that would have put more usual fixed jetties about 2 metres underwater.

We were entertained on ST53 - Marcus and Els’ boat - to a rabbit dinner with trimmings and far too much wine as usual, after which we slept till wakened in the early morning by wind and drizzle noises. And our first ICE. Actually it was a heavy frost with ice patches that had built on the deck and walkways. The wind was cutting and the moisture in the air turned body extremities to icicles within minutes. Too bad, we had arrived and had to explore the town.

We dressed in our heaviest clothing and set out like two Michelin men to check out the Centre Ville. Across a pedestrian bridge to the island and through narrow streets, crowded with old, leaning buildings, mostly part of the town’s major hospital which takes up most of the island. Across the main vehicular bridge from the island to the far shore of the Saone and the main part of Challon sur Saone. Most of this area has been closed to traffic, allowing pedestrians free rein to roam and enjoy the spectacular array of shops, restaurants, churches, cafes, markets, museums and town squares (places). Most of the town is hundreds of years old with some half timbered buildings still in use from medieval times. A large and bustling market offered up warm hats (one with ears for me), gloves and other warm accessories while at the nearby park a circus was installing itself for a short season.

We visited the main museum and the two biggest churches, one a cathedral, the other a church actually bigger but strangely designed to compete with its senior associate, both dominating their respective ‘places’ and provide imposing settings for the cafes that were definitely not operating outside on this day. We visited the huge shopping centre - a supermarket with some 30 checkout aisles that stretch 100 or more metres, plus hardware, electrical, sports, and other stores nearby, right next to the marina.

We also discovered that there is a sting to the facilities here - the cost. Being a 27meter boat always imposes extra burdens on us, not just in operating and manoeuvring but also in the cost based on length, IF the place has facilities big enough. On this occasion the cost was 130 francs each night (about 20 Euros), a total of $A 100 for 3 nights. While this may sound inexpensive compared to hotel rooms or apartments in the middle of these towns, it is serious money when extended over a year and is far more than the 860 francs ($A 250) PER MONTH we pay in St Jean. Having paid for three nights we were dismayed to find that Marcus and Else had to leave suddenly as their French language lessons began the next Monday in Lyon, some 200km down river. As a farewell celebration we booked one of the many restaurants that stand, side by side, on both sides of one of the narrow streets of the island. How many farewells do they get ?

Saturday arrived and we left, to return against the current to St Jean. The five hour trip down river turned into a six hour trip up river but time passes easily when you are cruising and the scarcity of locks means you can stay warm inside the wheel house. We returned non-stop since the two reasonably large towns on the way were both lacking in facilities for a large boat. Both had excellent little harbours for small craft, 10 - 15 metres maximum, but nothing for us.

We had to obtain fuel and confirm arrangements with H2O before we could take up residence at the ancien ecluse but we arrived after both had closed for the weekend and so settled back into life at the Quai Nationale since the bureaucrats don’t work on the weekend and there would therefore be little chance of being evicted.

Since buying the VCR / TV combi we have been fortunate to have Roger and Lindy as friends, as they have an extensive video library which they have been kind enough to share with us. On the cold nights when you don’t want to read or write, a few hours with Pride and Prejudice or Far from the Madding Crowd can be a very pleasant diversion. We indulged on the Saturday as we prepared a really excellent curry for the Sunday Lunch - a feature we plan to make a habit of, inviting different and interesting people to join us for some fine food and pleasant wine as we swap intelligence about the area and the lifestyle.

Sunday, November 11 was the French Remembrance Day and on my way to the supermarket to pick up a couple of last minute ingredients for lunch I saw the beginnings of a parade. I dashed back to the boat for a camera but unfortunately when I returned it was all over - I thought - certainly at the place I had seen them they were dispersing. As I later welcomed Lindy, our lunch guest, we saw the parade march on to the main street, not 150 metres from us. Again a rush to get the camera and to get to a vantage point - alas - on arriving in the centre of town all I saw were the bank employees and the pompiers (firemen) wandering off to their cars and their own Sunday lunches.

 

 

Monday 12 November - The Ancien Ecluse - first week

This was the day to move to our semi permanent mooring for winter at the ancien ecluse (old lock). First I needed to advise H2O and to get fuel. H2O was easy and the arrangements made quickly. I headed back to Van Nelle to start up and cruise to the fuel barge at the entrance to the Canal de Bourgogne and as we did, observed another barge taking the refuelling mooring. Drat - Oh well, just a short wait and then it was our turn to take in 750 litres of diesel fuel at 5.7 francs per litre ! I will really have to get the red diesel tank operational as the price of red fuel for winter is about 60% of the cost of white !

In Europe there are two colours of diesel fuel - white and red. The white is taxed and therefore 40 % more expensive than the red, which can only be used for commercial vessels or by plaisanciers for heating and electricity generation. Use of red for the main engine is subject to heavy fines. We actually have a spare fuel tank of about 200 - 300 litre capacity but it has not been plumbed in to the generator and furnace and I have no idea of the condition of its interior. - Another winter job for the growing list.

After fuelling I cruised slowly down river past the ancien ecluse entrance to a wide area of the river in order to turn Van Nelle so I could approach the branch canal slowly and in the correct direction.  This also allowed time for Maureen to ride the scooter from town to the mooring. As I arrived so did she and as I slipped Van Nelle through the old, disused lock near the entrance she leaped aboard to assist in the mooring procedure. We moved slowly through the narrow passage between the two lines of moored boats making sure we did not create suction or wake to disturb the people and valuables on board the permanent boats. Turning at the end of the Ancien Ecluse in the wide turning bassin, we retraced our route back to our pre determined mooring and slowly manoeuvred in.  A few minutes of manoeuvring and we were at our new home.

Pretty soon we had the power connected with the help of our neighbours, Matthew and Caroline. Struggling through the undergrowth brought to mind my undertaking to do the ‘gardening’. Charles Gerard the Directeur of H2O with whom I had negotiated our stay, had suggested I call at his barge at 12.00 noon to pick up the tools necessary - specifically a lawn mower or whipper snipper. It was soon obvious that a lawn mower would not be able to handle the overgrown tangle that we now began to call ‘The Park". Fortunately the mower was not in working order and a couple of days later he arrived with a whipper snipper which, after two days and a complete new length of cutting cord, had beaten the grass and weeds into some sort of submission.

Apart from the need to clear ‘The Park’, we also had to get to know the neighbours and this was undertaken at once with drinks at Matthew and Caroline’s barge ‘Vixit’ on the Tuesday, and on Van Nelle with Charles and Patricia on Wednesday. There are more neighbours but as yet we have not been able to catch up with them.

Other pre winter tasks include getting firewood, setting up the chimney extension, changing a gas bottle and arranging for the phone. The firewood (at 200 francs) was pretty easy with Caroline’s help as she contacted the firewood supplier who turned up on Friday with a van-full for us and a couple for them. The Dutch gas bottle was rejected around town and required a new bottle to be taken from the supplier at huge cost - 300 francs for a gas bottle (exchangeable from now on) complete with gas fill. We will need to change the second Dutch one as well, leaving us with three useless bottles and two new ones at extra cost. The phone arrangements were conducted with the help of the young tourism official who made the call, explained the details and arranged for France Telecom to attend and install a phone land line in a week’s time, on a monthly account.

A chimney extension is necessary as normally we travel with the pot belly stove chimney reduced in height to clear bridges and lock entrances.  When in use in winter however, you need to ensure the smoke does not blow into the wheelhouse, the outlet height is sufficient to ensure good draft and also that the whole part outside is fully insulated to stop foul smelling condensation dripping into the boat.  This occurs as the exhaust condenses in the super cold air outside if the pipe is not wrapped.  We arranged the extension but baulked at the cost of the insulated version, a decision we were to regret.

Checks made of the use of wood, vs. electricity vs. diesel heating has the economy of wood use running number one with electricity next and diesel a distant third and very expensive. After a week we have been able to balance the use of wood and diesel so that we are running reasonably economically. We will need more wood and could do with some electrical heating devices - but these are  heavy on power consumption and we pay for the power here. More investigation is required.  One of the down sides to wood burning however is the attendant thick, brown, smelly sap-like condensate which oozes out of the chimney (it’s joins were installed upside down by 80% Frank) into the boat and also onto the deck. We have tried a few ‘fixes’ but have not yet overcome that little issue except by keeping the fire roaring rather than smouldering - very expensive.

The other feature of life here is the temperature and the attendant conditions of frost and ice. The temperature overnight has been -2 to -4 C each night for the week with ice forming on the land and the boat. Each morning we are covered with a thin (getting thicker) layer of ice on everything and on the days the sun cannot get through the mist, it stays all day. The Park looks quite beautiful in the early mornings with the golden sunrise glowing through the white tendrils of ice that decorate each bough and leaf but the downside is that the decks become very slippery.

The easy part of our ‘moving in’ here was the connection to electricity and water. Having been through a number of different countries and diverse places that were supplied with water and power, we have built up quite a ‘library’ of different connectors for both the electric cables and the hoses. While we did not have a perfect electric cable to start with, our originals having had Dutch ends, we soon had the necessary bits to join together to make a working connection. The other great thing here is that we have a choice of 16 or 22 amp outlets, this means the power will not cut out by over use - something that happens too frequently elsewhere. We have taken the 16amp feed as we don’t use more than that even when everything is on. The only problem with the water connection so far, has been that it freezes occasionally and needs a liberal dose of hot water poured on the end that comes out of the ground to free it up !

There is quite a pronounced drop from the road to the park at the boat level which requires steps of a weather proof kind to be constructed. Now that we have cleared the worst of the undergrowth and the debris left by Bernard, the previous inhabitant, we have been able to make a start on civilising the facilities and have laid a few of the steps in with rubber mats covering the mud. We plan to lay gravel on the steps but will need a vehicle to cart the necessary materials from the local ‘bricolage’. We also thought to plant a tree or two, so people would have something to remember us by. Eucalyptus sounds like a good idea if we can get one or two at a reasonable stage of early maturity in order to withstand the winter cold. It’s killed our long suffering flowers that came with us from Holland I fear.

Week of 19 November

Now that we are here, I have had to face up to the jobs that were not completed in Holland before we left. These include scraping and painting the engine room, completing the refurbishment of Little Nelle and finishing the interior trim of the boat. Pretty soon (like the beginning of the new year’s good weather) I will also have to repaint parts of the deck and hull and there are a few patches of varnish to be done as well. There will definitely be little time for getting fat and lazy. Fat yes - lazy no.

This second week started cold and became colder until about Thursday when the clouds came over and the ice melted, to be replaced by light rain on Friday night and Saturday. We were hoping it would be fine on Sunday as the town has planned a major celebration of the 100th year of the installation of some canons and a Legion d’Honneur, granted by Napoleon, but delayed until delivery was made in 1901. Several Generals and Emperors were involved (as best I can make out) but the canons could not be spared until their technology was well and truly outdated. They were won by the town for its gallant defence against a siege laid by thousands, held off by hundreds.

On Sunday there will be a parade and an unveiling, a ‘Grand Vin’ and a banquet (price 150 francs) all attended by Le Ministre who arrives and departs by train. Given the precarious nature of labour relations on France’s railway network and the state of the weather, it’s a toss up as to what might spoil the plans. Anyway, we have a Sunday lunch planned so we resisted the urge to join the banquet but we will attend the ceremonies, to return to Van Nelle afterward for celebratory toasts accompanied by the pop of Champagne corks rather than canons.

Frustrations have been to the fore at the latter part of the week.

 

The land line phone was to be installed on Thursday and when the technician failed to arrive by 3.00pm Maureen set off for the tourism office to have them call and inquire. They asserted the man had been, could not find the boat and left and would not be available for another week. Then, the next morning the Motorola mobile phone rang but would not allow Maureen to hear the other party, identified as Lindy or Roger by their number which was programmed in the phone. I bought the flip phone in Hong Kong some years before and as it has been hard worked, the connections between top and bottom have become worn or broken.

Neither the headset or the flip would respond to any of the old ‘fixes’ like banging it on the table or turning up the volume to flat out, so with a great deal of swearing I risked taking it apart. It has been professionally fixed twice previously, replacing the connection from the speaker in the top of the flip to the microphone in the body. I was not sure what I could do but after quite a few frustrating minutes I managed to get it apart and after breaking a delicate locking device for the strap to the flip, also managed to get it back together - and it now works again. For how long I am not sure or confident. I fear we will have to purchase a new mobile.

As the time had gone by with ice and sleet a daily occurrence, it occurred to us that just sitting around in St Jean had its limitations and perhaps we ought to think about exploring further a field - but how.  A car was the logical choice of transport but what to do with it when summer came ? We decided to canvass other’s ideas and see if there was a syndicate that might be interested.  No-one seemed too enthusiastic and meanwhile we had discovered that one of the H20 staff wanted to sell her Renault 21 for 6,000 francs - about $A 1,000.  It seemed a good deal.

Having made arrangements to buy the car I need to amass the cash to pay for it. Since there is a limit the amount one can take out of the ‘wall’ each day, I have to spread the withdrawals from the Visa card over several days. We have had quite a few frustrations with Visa and the ANZ bank and this was another. Despite the card being loaded with a large credit balance, it also has lots of credit available, none of which was able to be turned into cash on Saturday, despite having been OK on Friday. On trying I received messages like ‘We have been requested by your bank to return your card’, or, ‘Transaction not available’. I even tried calling the 24 hour service to get the block fixed - ‘We apologise, the phone banking service is not available at this time’.

This banking frustration follows our constantly enraging task of trying to transfer funds via the internet with ANZ internet banking. Since we have to use the mobile, and the bank programmers insist on loading the system with cute graphics, the process takes over 40 minutes and exhausts our pre-paid cards. The fact that the phone only transmits and receives a total of 9600 bits per second is a big hurdle.  What made it even worse this week as I was transferring funds in preparation to buy the car, was that they also insisted on sending down the line their standard terms and conditions, all made up with cute (and large) graphics - twice. This timed out the system and turned the 40 minute odyssey into a 1 hour 20 minute nightmare.

The positive highlights of the week however outweighed the frustrations and included our first group French conversation session at the Tourism Office with the really helpful and pleasant young girl who runs the place, followed by coffee at the Bar Navigation on Quai Nationale with ‘the Gang’ These ‘lessons’ will hopefully correct our pronunciation, clear up the questions we have about when and where to use certain phrases and give us a great deal more confidence in general. We theme the sessions around shopping, boat maintenance, restaurants, train travel and other regular activities. It is fun and very inexpensive as we just decide on an amount to donate to the Tourism Office, which delights them.

We had dinner on the 38 metre peniche, Vixit, during the week as guests of Caroline Price and Matthew Morton, the jovial English 747 captain who also invited Bill and Laurel Cooper, who have achieved fame writing books about barging, and Mike and Carrie whose surnames are unknown to us.  Bill is pretty hard to take as he constantly dominates the conversation, really not allowing anyone else a share of the time. I, inevitably, took the aggressive contentious approach and challenged him on just about everything while Maureen worked the evening with charm and tact. The others seemed amused at some of the interchanges and we left the best of friends with Mike and Carrie while Bill seemed not to have noticed and Laurel quietly followed in his path. Bill is ex Royal Navy. A big man with a big ego and one who, according to his own account, single handed-ly won most of the actions and operations the Brits were ever involved with on the water during WWII. He fed and supported the Jewish migration to Palestine, mapped Cocos Island, saved the Indians from whatever and still had time to be an intelligence officer, mixing action and endeavour with 007 like derring do - according to Bill.  Whew.

I was still concerned about the leak of coolant into the sump that I had discovered on buying Van Nelle.  I knew it could lead to serious problems and wanted it fixed.  So, during the week we also had a visit from Phillipe Gerard, nephew of the Directeur and head of maintenance and a technician from H2O to inspect the main motor, decide what had to be ordered and arrange the maintenance work I had requested. They were quiet and efficient and left after a short time with the books (that are in French) and a parts list to order.

A couple of days later Phillipe informed me that the parts would arrive within days and the work could go ahead next week. This is good news as I am sure the engine has not been serviced since Frank bought the boat more than 4 years ago. I have to say that I am impressed by H2O. I think it is the influence of Charles Gerrard and Catherine Rault who both are pretty laid back but very helpful. Much later I was to reverse that opinion.

It was our 29th wedding anniversary and a few of the Gang were coming to lunch. We will pop the roast on, shoot off to the Canon Parade and come back for the big booze up here. I bought Maureen a big bunch of roses to celebrate and they are now nicely arranged in strategic places about the saloon.  The French love flowers and use them extensively to decorate and celebrate.

Lindy and Roger arrived on Saturday morning with the shopping for the lunch, just as I  was fibre glassing Little Nelle - and just as it started to sprinkle. Why does it always rain when I have started either painting or fibre glassing ?

Sunday arrived - the grand parade and ceremony of the Canons day. We arranged a lift into town with Caroline and took both the video and stills cameras to record the event. We arrived just as the parade snaked up from near the fuel barge to the bridge and took the sharp left turn (tourner a gauche) into the premier rue de la Ville de St Jean de Losne (main street of the town of St Jean). Here the dignitaries met the ancien voitures (old cars) carrying the Ministre (government minister) and other celebrities as the rain began to drizzle on everyone.

The town band, a rather raffish mixture of young and old, discordant but enthusiastic, looked marvellous in their medieval costumes of crimson and gold, instruments polished but now dripping with the increasing rain. The soldiers from the Armee de Terre (Ground Army as opposed to l’Armee de l’air or la marine) stood stolidly at ease under the dripping plane trees that line the edge of the Place de la Liberation where the monument and the canons are presented. The crowd was quite large given the temperature (near zero) and the rain, but they were quiet and interested. The French love ceremony.  Our friend Giles, owner of the Brasserie L’Amiral which is situated right on the square, looked on impassively from his doorway, calculating just how much the celebration would bring to his cash register.

The president of the Syndicate de Initiative (Tourist Office), immaculately dressed in black tails and top hat and resplendent in his flowing white hair and beard, began the ceremony with a speech welcoming the dignitaries, the important town folk and the public, outlining the history of the canons granted to the town to mark the heroic successful holding off of the siege troops in the 1600s and again in the 1700s. It seems this town, at the confluence of two rivers and several important canals, was much sought after during the time rival ‘kings’ sought to increase their lands and income.

We watched as the huge French flag was drawn off the canons and another General, this time from the Air Army, followed the mayor and was followed by the Ministre in making their speeches after which the band struck up and the parade again moved off in search of the ‘Grand Vin’, to be followed by the Grande Banquet (at ff 150 per personne sans boissons). We moved off to the boulangerie to get fresh baguettes, then to Caroline’s car to beat our own retreat to the ancien ecluse for lunch.  After suffering the extreme cold at the dedication of the canons it was a great relief to turn up the heat in the boat and relax over an extensive curry lunch - with an even more extensive wine list.

The next week was busy. It was to be the week of the telephone installation (again) the car purchase and drinks with Bill and Laurel. The rain continued during the week, completely screwing up the fibre glassing I had done on Little Nelle.

We decided we had been so busy, Monday (known to us as ‘ferme lundi’ as everything is closed on Mondays) was to be a holiday and I spent an extra hour (or so) finishing a book in bed in the morning. Maureen was good enough to bring the odd bit of toast and a cup of coffee to stave off the hunger pangs as I read. The balance of the day and the next seemed to disappear in the minutiae of daily arrangements. Collecting wood, cleaning the inevitable mud off everything and putting new mud on, checking and maintaining important pieces of boat equipment and shopping.  These small jobs seem to take whole days but I did manage to get a couple of hours working in the engine room, scraping off old paint, rust and dust in order to prepare it for a new coat of grey paint.

Tuesday night included drinks on board Bill and Laurel Cooper’s barge, Hosanna. It turned out to be a very pleasant night with no stinting on the Beaujolais neauveau. Bill tends to be a bit overbearing on conversational rights but he was pretty good this night, giving each of us a few opportunities to put in the odd anecdote. He has actually taken his barge though the Mediterranean to Greece - several times. I don’t know if that is brave or foolhardy.  Interestingly, when his main engine died some years before he found it less expensive to replace it with three identical, smaller motors, each with its own shaft and propeller.  He uses all three at sea and just the central one in canals.  Unique.

Wednesday’s highlight was again the French conversation classes we had organised at the Syndicat d’Initiative with a few coffees afterwards, while the big event of the week was Thursday’s arrival of the telephone technician to install a land line to the boat.

I was up early and rugged up, took the scooter to the H2O bureau (office) at 7.00am to meet the man and guide him to the boat. I stamped up and down for two hours - no technician. By this time the office was open and Catherine (one of the directors of H2O) assisted by calling France Telecom to find out what had happened this time, the second time they had not shown up. They were most apologetic as they admitted they had not given the contractor the correct instructions, leaving him waiting at the nearby Bourgogne canal while I waited at the office. They arranged another appointment that afternoon at 3.00 and at that time he arrived. By 4.00 we had a phone and about an hour or so afterwards also had the PC and modem connected - no easy feat as the wiring in Australia and France are different and the correct connectors impossible to get in St Jean (I later bought the correct ones in Dole for 1/3d the price in a local shop). However, with my multi meter, small screwdrivers and some super glue I connected the modem and the internet leapt into life on our PC screen. E-mails, which previous had taken half an hour to collect now took seconds and the opportunity to update our web site was possible. Now all I had to do was find the correct codes to connect to our domain.

Friday was the DAY OF THE CAR which Catherine reported on Thursday night had been fixed and was ready to test. We picked it up before lunch and by mid afternoon had it paid for, paperwork completed at our end and insurance arranged. We now need to get the paperwork, plus an inspection report, to the prefecture at Dijon within 2 weeks to make it all legal. Here’s hoping the technical inspection will be OK as the car is a little old and has a few minor faults - but nothing to do with safety and hopefully less to do with reliability.

We picked up a couple of mates and went out for a drink to celebrate. As we did so we arranged to go to nearby Dole the next day. Dole is a pretty medieval town with a ‘centre ville’ preserved and closed to cars. It was the home of Louis Pasteur and was a tanning centre hundreds of years ago. As a result many tanneries, small riverside ateliers (workshops), one of which was owned and operated by Louis’ father, make up the buildings along the waterfront.  They are now apartments and shops and all have water entrances as the river provided a ready source of one of the more important elements in the production cycle. Pity for the people downstream.

We set off to pick up out friends only to hear the most awful noise from under the car. Calamity ? I stopped and looked. A mud flap provided at the front to keep debris off the engine had obviously come loose and been bent by the undergrowth we have to park on. I could not fix it where we were and so went on to collect the couple and set off for the local garage. All the way there the citizens of St Jean looked nervously at this car that made such an awful scraping noise. ‘Tres cher’ (very expensive) they muttered. Arriving at the garage we found even more interested bystanders who had picked up the approaching noise and who gathered around to check the origin as we arrived. Much advice but no help was forthcoming as the patrone was out. Roger suggested we fix the thing back at the marina so we back tracked and jacked the car up at H2O. A couple of quick drill holes, some plastic ties and presto - good as new. I hope it passes the inspection come Monday at 3.00pm.

Car fixed we set off and arrived about 30 minutes later after a pleasant drive through the surrounding countryside. Saturday markets in Dole provided us with the makings for our Sunday lunch.

There is a place called Bresse in France which is the centre of production of the finest eating poultry in the country. The Poulet de Bresse carries its own ‘controlee’ certification and is renowned as THE eating chook of the French Empire ! We just had to try one and so ordered one at the markets in Dole. After selecting one with a suitable pedigree for Australian etrangers (foreigners) the butcher indicated the head and legs and his chopper and we readily agreed for him to prepare the bird for cooking.  This included cutting off the head and legs, removing the entrails and delivering the bird cauterised where cut, and ready for the oven. You can take away the parts that are taken off if you like. They are retained up to the point of sale to prove the bird is what it claims to be. We picked up and paid for the bird, some veal and a pork roast and headed off for lunch.

Its amazing that whenever you look for a restaurant in a town full of them you cannot find one. We went round in circles until a friendly passer by directed us to a nearby café where paella and rabbit were the order of the day. A quick visit to the art gallery and some more shopping and we left Dole for St Jean, pleased with our first motorised outing.

Week of 3 December

Two major projects occupied my mind and my time during the next week - the continuing effort to repair Little Nelle and the preparation and painting of the engine room.  However there was also the matter of the car registration to complete.

Buying a car in France requires one to have it inspected by a specialist company, very thorough, and, having overcome any discrepancies (in our case emission adjustment and new tyres), to submit the report, together with an insurance certificate to the Dijon Prefecture which then takes your money and issues a transfer and ownership certificate - a Carte Gris (Grey Card because it is printed on grey card). This was done with very little pain, except financial, as the kindly Catherine Rault at H2O assisted by making the appointments and arrangements for the technical inspection by phone. Having come from H2O, a major client, made all the difference and the technicians were ‘tres sympathetique’.

Little Nelle was a more difficult project as the fibre glass seems to have cured porous. I checked the hull integrity by filling the void between the hulls with water and it leaked through several areas. The dinghy can wait therefore until I feel like cutting back the last layer and finding and applying a good waterproof paint.  I had better results however with the engine room.

80% Frank had not caused but also had not cured the mess in the engine room.  A spacious area below deck, it contains the huge Baudouin main engine (the size of an upright piano), a large generator, a huge fuel tank, a workbench, other tanks, pumps and spare fluid receptacles - all with room left over to walk upright around the centrally placed engine.  The mess was caused by the extensive welding that was necessary to remove the old engine and install the Baudouin in about 1993.  The deck was cut open and the Brons two cylinder taken out as it had a broken piston and head, to be replaced by the then 20 year old engine from a ‘Spits’ type barge that was being broken up.  No-one took the trouble to clean up after new deck plates were welded on and all the overhead paint was split, burnt and peeling off.  The rest, on side decks and bulkheads was discoloured.  It all had to be scraped off and despite the great working space afforded in the room, getting to much of it took some amount of stretching and contortions - for hours.

Having scraped the burned paint off all the areas I could reach (I thought) I prepared my painting equipment and over two days, painted the ceiling and upper walls. The grey paint went easily over the prepared surfaces, including those I had painted with Owetrol, a rust inhibitor. It also went easily over me as I was painting above my head, and, as I had omitted to wear a hat, I acquired even more grey hair. I tried combing it out unsuccessfully (very painful and very ineffective except to remove large clumps of my remaining tresses) and therefore resorted to washing it out with turpentine (even more painful).

 

The engine room changed dramatically.  Once dark and menacing it was now brighter since the lights have something to reflect off rather than be absorbed by, and it appears a lot cleaner and more efficient. Maureen’s new vacuum cleaner was put to the task of sucking up a couple of kilos of paint chips, dust, rust and old hardware doing it much more efficiently than a pan and brush.  In completing the task I also had to clear away the remaining vestiges of Frank’s reign. Kilos more scrap onto the junk pile.  I found stuff everywhere - old bits of steel, pipes, bolts, nuts, tins, wood, rubber, paper, concrete and other unidentified debris.

During this cleanup and painting binge I rediscovered the tiller - a grand iron affair, weighing about 100lbs (40kg) about 9' long with a beautiful curve to it, ending in a keyed slot that fits over the top of the rudder post. I look forward to trying it but hopefully not as a result of the failure of the wheel steering gear.  This tiller was obviously used when low bridges required maximum reduction in height.  Dropping the wheelhouse reduces the air height from 3m 20 to 2m 80 but taking the wheel off reduces it further to 2m 40 - obviously enough to get to places the Van Nelle coffee, tea and tobacco company, wanted to distribute its products.

During the week, Charles Gerard, the Directeur of H2O brought his front end loader down our way to pick up a speedboat owned by the former resident of our mooring. He had left in a hurry and had left his boat in the water. Matthew Morton, our neighbour, had tried to beach it without success but had managed to get most of the water out of it and had secured a tarp over it. This made the job a little easier for the front end loader. Unfortunately the period in question followed some considerable rain and the ground was muddy underfoot. This did not deter the tractor on the way down the bank but caused it to leave some pretty deep furrows from its massive tyres. We secured the boat to the front scoop which then raised it from its watery home.

Charles then attempted to reverse his tracks back up the bank to the road. Given the sloppy state of the earth this task proved more than equal to the tractor’s power, repulsing it not once but some three times in different places.  This meant mass destruction to the gardens, including our bank, the neighbour’s steps and Caroline’s bamboo patch.

Charles finally acceded to the suggestion to drop the boat on the road and take the tractor up without it, a feat that was achieved fairly smartly. The speed boat was again hoisted by the scoop and deposited ‘tout suite’ onto it’s trailer.

Chagrined, Charles and the tractor reappeared an hour or so later with a big scoop of gravel for our pathway which then turned my attention to the creation of a reasonably mud and water free entrance through the park to the boat. Over a couple of days I managed to cut steps into the bog, reinforce them with tree timbers and cover them with gravel - both Charles’ present and 8 bags of commercial river stones. The effect was dramatic and a path of some attractiveness and efficacy was created.

During the week we did not ignore our social obligations, having Charles, Patricia, Bill, Laurel, Matthew and Caroline for drinks on Thursday night - until we poured them out after 10.00pm.  We had a delightful rabbit stew on Friday, courtesy of Lindy and Roger. Sunday morning saw us at breakfast on ‘Amacita’, Charles and Patricia’s 38m peniche home after which we headed off to St Jean to check out the St Nicholas Day markets, parades and entertainments and finished the week with a wonderful dinner on Vixit, guests of Caroline and Matthew. Whew.

Each of these weeks provides adequate occasions to test a wide range of French wines, of which we are becoming at last, familiar. The hunt is on for the best wine at the lowest price. I found a beauty - a Beaujolais Nouveau at 5 francs a bottle (about $A1.00) but when I went back to buy up the whole supply it was gone - the whole pallet load. The locals also know a good deal when they taste it. However we are still finding many good wines at the 20 - 30 franc level and some ‘quaffers’ at 10 - 20 francs.

We don’t have to wrestle with the French Franc for much longer as the change to the Euro is on January 1 and is all over the TV, radio and newspapers. The petrol stations are converted and while the pumps give the price in Euros, for now we have to pay in francs. Come New Year’s Day we will be on an equal footing with the French in understanding their monetary system.

 

Our Wednesday French lessons continue but my progress in them is not great. I take heart however that I have years to go and the words, phrases and verb conjugations are becoming clearer. We can now hear the words spoken by newsreaders - now all we have to do is understand them !

We finished the week with a visit to Nuits St George ! This is the centre of one of the world’s great wine growing and production areas with famous names such as Nuits St George, Vosne Romanee, Mercurey, Pouilly-Fuisse and many more in the great Bourgogne Region. The town itself is quite large with a burgeoning industrial area on the outskirts feeding the production houses that scatter over the landscape and the town. The centre of the town is quite picturesque with a central pedestrian region connecting the Hotel de Ville, many caves (wine cellars), the marketplace, restaurants a small hotel and lots of shops selling - wine ! We attended a Xmas market in the marketplace, a two storey building used for exhibitions and markets. The two floors were furnished with booths offering local products and produce. A four piece band played American country and western tunes with a few regional folk tunes thrown in for punctuation.

We tested this year’s Nuits St George at the degustation booth and pronounced it drinkable but a bit young and thin. I have been surprised by the lack of solid body in the wines we have been predominantly presented with in this region and further north. All of the red wines are made from Pinot Noir around here but we have also had a lot of Beaujolais and Cotes du Rhone (Gamay). I made comment about it at a dinner with Matthew and Caroline, just as Matthew poured a Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux - what a difference ! Here was the body and the strength. The exploration continues.

During the next 4 years we developed out knowledge and appreciation of the wines of France, realising the way grapes are proscribed in each area by the committee of the Appellation Origine Controllee as a result of centuries of experimentation linking grape to soil to wine making methods.  Interestingly, the cold fermentation methods from the new world, notably Australia which pioneered the chilling of tanks, are making inroads, improving marginal wines and even improving the grand marques.  During our time in France we came to love the lighter bodied Burgundian reds, Vosne Romany and the like and the beautifully lush Chardonnays of the same region, especially as demonstrated at Montrachet.

We drove out of town to the north west looking for a break in the buildings and an entry into the rolling hills that were covered with vines. We soon found a side road that led up the hills and through a small village (6-8 houses and a restaurant !) Through which we drove slowly marvelling at the houses that look as though they have not been changed for hundreds of years. Its only the presence of tractors and farm machinery that gives a clue that we are actually in the third millennium. As it was very cold we decided that the reconnoitre was completed and that we would return to stay overnight at the small one star hotel in the centre of town with some friends and take the chance of a couple of days without having to drive to really do justice to the local food and wine.

Week of 10 December

If the new week starts on Sunday we started the week with breakfast on Charles and Patricia’s 38m peniche Amacita just 5 or 6 boats down the canal from our mooring. This was the day of St Nicholas’ arrival, his parade and the Christmas markets in St Jean but since we were at a brunch first up we missed his waterborne arrival parade. We went to town at 12.00 and wandered through the street stalls, lots of French bric-a-brac with some very cold looking stall holders. Enticed by the chocolatier we stopped long enough to buy a bag of truffles which we later presented to Caroline as we had dinner with her that night.

5.00pm saw the second parade, made up of St Nicholas, the children, the town band and hosts of parents, grand parents and well wishers. It was absolutely freezing as there was a lively breeze adding a wind chill factor of about -12 degrees to the ambient temp of 0C. We saw and left quickly to warm up. St Nicholas is the patron saint of barge people and schools so it is a big occasion in this pre-eminent waterways town. St Nic was played by the President of the Tourism Office (Syndicat d’Initiative) and was most appropriate with his flowing white beard and hair - all his own !

On the advice of long time resident and fellow barge person, Caroline Price, we decided to trek off on Monday to Louhan which boasts a mega street market. We were advised to arrive early and thought 10.30 was pretty good for us as we are tending to get up later and later as the days get shorter and darker. We saw why the advice was given as when we arrived all the car parks were full with cars abandoned in the most unlikely and inconvenient places. I adopted the stop and wait approach which paid off quite quickly with a couple arriving to extricate their van after about 5 minutes. We took their place and strode off towards the noise and the crowds. Streets full of stalls greeted us. Food, wines, animals, produce, products, leather goods, clothes, shoes and boots, CDs and tapes, mattresses and millinery, cheeses and meats - a huge array of fresh, good quality product at reasonable prices - including some room to bargain if you have a mind to, in French !I stopped off at the France Telecom shop to buy a replacement phone and was able to advise the clerk that I wanted to retain my number but interchange the sim card from the other (now mortally wounded) Motorola mobile as we can still use the Motorola for connection to the internet when we have to leave our land line behind. 430 francs later I set off with a smart new silver mobile in search of  Maureen who had gone off to find Christmas presents.

We needed to find appropriate but small gifts for just the closest family, preferably things obviously French and ones that would fit into a smallish postal pack from ‘La Poste’ to go to Australia quickly. We had previously tried to send a bottle of Palmer Amazone Champagne to our dear friends Ian and Helen Palmer with the result being a box carrying a smashed bottle. Not wishing to emulate either the cost or disappointment of that foray we chose small solid items of good value and attractive appearance and later put them into a postal pack for mailing.  That done we hunted out a few choice food items and drove our trusty Renault back to St Jean.

Caroline had gone to the UK to see her parents and friends before Xmas for a week so it fell to me to look after the daily requirements of Puss, her orange cat. Puss is not a great socialiser as I found out. I tried all my charms, even going prone on the floor to try to offer some TLC (as requested) to no avail. After three days of trying to give a very reluctant cat a bit of a stroke I decided to treat it as it was treating me and replied to its somewhat rude miaows with off hand remarks. It seems that is the best approach with Puss as it now stays quite close as I arrive to freshen its food, water and kitty litter.

Wednesday saw us attend our weekly French ‘lesson’ at the tourism office but I despair at my lack of progress, I guess I really need to work on it 7 days a week as repetition will be the only way I will progress. I seem to forget everything as quickly as I learn it. I hope however that now that I seem to be able to identify individual words among the torrents of French directed at me by shopkeepers and the TV, at sometime in the future I will understand what the words mean. In my defence I have to say though that I have been able to achieve all the tasks I have been set, buying goods, getting service for the engine and other such projects.

It has been far too cold to work on Little Nelle but I did finish the steps to the boat with another three bags of gravel which dries quite white. I now plan to put some lights in strategic places so visitors and ourselves will not fall off the boat into the icy water - or as it was this morning, onto a sheet of ice surrounding the boat.

Thursday night saw all the boat people we could muster gather at Petit Louis’ Café Nationale on the Quai Nationale for drinks. 5 couples from a range of boats squeezed into the diminutive, smoke filled bar for three hours of house red and white wines and ‘pression’ beer (on tap). Represented were a British narrow boat ‘Back of the Moon’ owned and operated by Alan and Denise, a new canal cruiser ‘Blackbird’ from the UK owned by Jan and John, Lindy and Roger (timber yacht ‘Hoivande’), David and Diane of Glorinda and a yachtie named John who had driven his campervan up from the Med to look for a barge to replace his 50' motor sailer. Unhappily he refused the offer of power for the night and froze his van, bursting the water pipes and destroying his heating system on his overnight stay.

The meeting was an uproarious one with no let up to the flow of pichez de vin and verres du pression. At the end of it the bill was only 80 francs per couple - a remarkably cheap night. At the affair we discussed the planned beer and skittles night which had started as an idea of Bill Cooper’s to get all the boating fraternity together for a cheap meal and lots of talk. The idea of a dinner at L’Amiral was rejected unfortunately in favour of a journey out of town to a bowling alley. Since we have hired out our car to friends for a week I am not sure at this point as to how we will get there as the nights are far too cold to take the scooter.

The week ended with a few nasty surprises. The Kabola water heater and central heating system refused to work on Saturday morning resulting in the temp inside the boat dropping to about 8C instead of the relatively warm 16C that it is set to. That discovered it was made worse by Maureen’s discovery that the water surrounding the boat was solid ice. Had we frozen the system ? Had a component broken ? How would we repair it and stay warm ?

I started the process by testing the obvious symptoms, working from the operating instruction book - if the green LED light is blinking do the following. After a call to the office of H2O, the marina management company, I managed to get the machine operating. Called off the mechanics and set about topping up the closed water system of the central heating which had dropped to .4bar, less than the minimum .5 or maximum 3.5 bar. I managed that reasonably easily but was unable to bleed the system. I will wait for Phillipe to reappear with the torsion wrench for the engine and apply his skills to the problem. Meanwhile Maureen thought the 'frig had stopped working. After removing it, setting spacers on the floor to stop it rolling back on the wall it started quite happily and purred away.

Had I been in a better frame of mind and had the heater and all been working perfectly this morning it would have been a great adventure to discover the ice and play with it as Maureen did by skidding nuts across its surface.  As it is I’m sure I will have plenty of opportunity to play on every other morning this week - or month - or season. Perhaps this is an unseasonable run of cold weather and the balance of winter will be warm. And, was that a pig that just flew by the window ?

December 16 to February 16

Sunday, December 16 dawned bright and clear and we, as usual on these dark nights that don’t dawn until around 9.00am, rose late - or latish, at about 9.30. A busy day with preparations for a curry lunch with Bill and Laurel Cooper. Sunday lunches have become a bit of a feature of our weekly life and a way to get to know some of the locals and other blow-ins like us. On this occasion it was the turn of the Coopers. Bill, an ex British Navy officer has been retired for some years as he is now over 70.

The lunch was a great success with a very good range of chicken and meat dishes accompanied by a wide selection of condiments. Laurel also brought some pappadums which added to the authenticity and flavour of the meal after which we waved them back to their boat as we drifted off to an early night and woke early to a toilet that had decided to fill itself up and spill a quantity of water into the bilge. We have made a study of the ins and outs of the toilet now to the extent that we think we have it sussed and can overcome these small inconveniences. 

Boat toilets are a constant topic of conversation among boaties - and with good reason.  Our model is a Lavac with a one way pump which works brilliantly - most of the time.  When it decides to become tetchy it is a real pain causing repeated trips to the engine room to adjust the size of a small hole made in the filler hose that carries flushing water from the canal to the bowl.  It is fitted with a large loop that rises above the water level so the hole allows air to break the siphon effect which on the previous occasion, flooded the bathroom bilge area.  That problem was to recur at all the wrong times - especially when we had guests aboard.  Operation of the vacuum system required closing the lid (to effect a seal) and pumping, first eight times and then six after a five second wait.  This effectively emptied and refreshed the system - most times.  Sometimes the hole would block causing water to continue running into the bowl and overflowing and other times it would cause the lid to stick in the closed position.

Having had a fairly indolent Sunday we decided that the long walk to town was in order rather than making use of our other conveyances - the bikes or the scooter - since the car was still on money earning duties having been rented to friends. These walks are the only real exercise we get during the winter months and we really need to do a lot more of them, as inconvenient as they may be when there is a quantity of shopping to be brought back to the boat.  The trip allowed me to get the bits I needed in order to fix the outside light that guides us and our guests on and off the boat after 5.30pm when it gets dark to the extent of pitch black.

Getting on and off these boats on an exposed mooring that collects ice, rain and snow can be hazardous and the exercise needs to be taken slowly and carefully with lots of light and preferably, something solid to hang on to. We have a narrow, slatted walkway, perched about a metre and a half above a sheet of ice under which is freezing water, guarded by a steep bank. A dousing in the canal after a fall off a boat or walkway would not be conducive to good health.

During this period we had also contracted a virus - in our PC - which had not been fixed properly by our Norton anti virus software leading to a string of worsening problems. In order to exorcise the little devil I had to erase some system files which could only be done from a DOS boot as once the PC booted into Windows these files were used by the system and therefore protected by it - ergo - they could not be erased. Having overcome that problem and once the system had automatically replaced the files (as it was supposed to) we still had the virus and worse - had sent it on to others. This called for more drastic action, so more files were deleted and copied from Bill Cooper’s clean copy on his PC as these are not files that can be copied from the Windows 98 CD. I’m not sure how other less experienced people would cope with all these problems - or is it that I create them as a result of a little bit of knowledge being a dangerous thing ? Finally the PC was back up and running and so far, touche bois (wood), we have had no other problems. We celebrated by having drinks with Matthew, recently returned from a week or so piloting 747s around the world, or at least to Fiji and back, and Caroline who had returned from the UK.

The next morning, Maureen decided to ride the scooter to Dole to find some jars in which to put her special Xmas chutney and lime pickle as presents to the locals. She departed well rugged up and with lots of advice as to safety and mechanical issues. Out of the mist some 5 hours later emerged the scooter and Maureen without the jars - none to be found in the big town of Dole ! (They would later turn up on the shelves of the local supermarket). I’m sure I did something useful that day but for the life of me I can’t remember what it might have been.

Wednesday is the day we have our French lesson and this we did at the Tourist Office in St Jean under the expert tutelage of the girl that runs the office - Corrine. This is always a fun time as we have a group of roughly the same capabilities and it’s fun to try to half understand and half guess what it is that Corrine wants us to do. We get through with humour and some knowledge being passed on at the same time. This was also a BIG DAY since Bill had some time before suggested that we should get all the boaties together for a fun night before Xmas and this suggestion translated itself into a night of bowling and saussices et frites (sausages and French fries) at a nearby bowling alley.

We had taken over the place with its very narrow 4 lanes and a very different type of bowls than any of us had ever seen. Similar to the American setup but with only 8 pins, smaller bowls with no finger holes and a VERY undulating set of wooden lanes. This added to the challenge and the 21 of us were divided into teams to fight it out for the championship, after drinks and dinner. Dinner was simple, a barbecue type sausage and a portion of a much larger ‘worst’ type sausage with a large pile of frites and some crusty bread, all washed down with some very inferior Cotes de Rhone or a bitter white that tasted more like retsina than wine. All of this was taken in fine humour however and the night was a great hoot and an outstanding success. Caroline and Matthew provided our transportation in their ‘old charabanc’ a somewhat disreputable Renault 25, a larger size than ours.

The next morning Matthew and I set about getting our two boats re-supplied with water from the supply line across the canal, since our side was completely frozen.  I had the job of heaving the line, weighted with a small wrench in a sock. Some found this somewhat amusing but it would not have been very funny if the wrench, unprotected, had gone through the window of the boat that Matthew was standing on across the canal from Van Nelle. After a couple of tries I managed to get the weight and its line close enough to Matthew for him to reach it and drag the attached hoses across. A few hours later and we were both filled. Unfortunately by this time it was late and Matthew disengaged the hoses but left them stretched across the canal, mostly underwater. The next morning, predictably, they were frozen. I extracted them and laid them on the ‘park’ on a downward slope for a few days with the vague hope that they would thaw and empty themselves of the frozen water inside them so they could be stowed for later use. Some days later they were completely rigid, so with a great deal of effort they were coiled and relegated to the engine room where they eventually thawed out.

Friday called for a quick trip into town on the scooter for the mail, fresh bread, some Xmas shopping and a trip to the bricolage for some research into hardware to do some jobs on Van Nelle. I had travelled slowly to start with, feeling my way on the frozen track when from a completely hidden position behind Charles’ wood pile came the flock of geese his wife Patricia keeps. I had a split second to react in order not to seriously damage one of these wretched birds and automatically hit the rear brake. Wrong ! A scooter had very small wheels that give it very limited stability. Attached to the wheels are tyres with a very smooth pattern. When the rear brake is locked up on icy roads the inevitable conclusion is scooter and rider in a prone position following loud crashing and sliding noises.

This occasion was no different and I lay dazed for a minute of two as I counted the bruises and sprains and hoped to hell I had not damaged the Peugeot scooter mortally as it had stopped and smelt strongly of fuel. To Patricia’s worried inquiries from one of the windows of her barge and to the screeching accompaniment of the rapidly retreating gees, I arose, with dignity, picked up the bike, straightened my somewhat muddied clothing, re-mounted and tried the starter. The scooter responded after about 3 or 4 tries, and reassuring Patricia I was alive and not in need of immediate hospitalisation, I continued my trip to St Jean, shaken not stirred. As I rode I started feeling the onset of the minor injuries I had sustained, an obviously well sprained thumb, a bruised hip and a wrenched ankle. Oh well, it could have been much worse. I inspected the bike on arrival in town and found a fair number of scratches on the plastic side panels but nothing more serious. More experience I don’t really need.

Bad things come in threes they say - I had crashed the bike, now I received a notice that I had only three days to use or lose the current phone credit of 174 French francs. The way the system works in this country is that you buy a card with a denomination of 160 francs or one hour - or a lesser amount and apply that to the phone. You have one month to use it or lose it - a scandalous arrangement by comparison to the 12 months given in Australia ! While we depend on the mobile, the cards don’t last more than a week or so of normal use but now that we have a land line and hardly use the mobile, it works very much in favour of the phone company.   The third issue came when I picked up the mail which included a bill for the first month’s use of the land line - 865 francs. We had expected about 500 but 865 was a shock. We will just have to be more communications efficient.

It was also exactly six weeks since I had submitted my application for a Carte de Longue Sejour, my long term visa, and this morning’s post contained a note from the Mairie requesting more information to back up my application. I decided to flood them and so printed piles of information from my bank and insurance companies, pages of nonsense and all in English. I delivered the documents to the Hotel de Ville only to be asked for Maureen’s passport as well - that was predictably on the boat - requiring another trip back to the ancien ecluse and back into town.  It was explained that since she was a European passport holder (being originally from Scotland) it would ease the way of my application since she did not require one and was entitled to be here.

Christmas presents bought, wrapped and delivered we began to look forward to Christmas and to drinks on board Hosanna with Bill and Laurel, Caroline, Charles and Patricia and another couple just arrived for Xmas on their boat ‘Passe Pierre’‘ John and Rosemary with their teenagers Oliver and Sophie. A strange time for drinks I thought - the invitation was to join Bill and Laurel "At Home’ from 1130 to 1300. This was not lunch but substantial nibbles were provided and much Xmas news and cheer exchanged along with the mulled wine, champers and orange (Buck’s Fizz) and a new one on me - hot buttered rum. I didn’t try it but Maureen swears by it, and she ought to know, having consumed most of it !

We had a rabbit that night - very nice - cooked in a big pot on our pot belly stove. The fire is a great stove and is being used often now for the traditional ‘pot au feu’ cooking - boeuf Bourgogne, coq au vin or lapin au feu.

It snowed this night as it had for a few days now but the falls are getting heavier and the countryside looks gorgeous until the thin sunlight melts the covering in the mornings.  The ancien ecluse being separated from the town by some kilometres, it is very much a rural environment and looks lovely covered with soft powder snow.

Since we had to get rid of the phone credit we took the opportunity to ring friends before Xmas and ended up speaking for far longer than the credit allowed. We fortunately have generous friends who rang us back ! Thanks Ian and Helen.

The beginning of the week also saw us get the car back so we could join Roger and Lindy on Xmas day. We had previously provided them with the car as they have taken a ‘gite’ or apartment for a couple of weeks since their two girls were joining them for the holiday period. They picked it up by riding bikes over to us, putting the bikes in the boot and driving off into the sunset. This time they drove over to us, picked us up and took us to their temporary home for lunch after which we drove back to St Jean.

 

Caroline was to head off to spend Christmas with Matthew the next day and since I have the job of feeding her cat while she is away I suggested that we get together on Vixit so I could get a better relationship with the cat, which had avoided me like I was plagued the last time I had the job. We went over for a pre Xmas drink and I spent a few fruitless times trying to cosy up to a cat which had very different ideas. Oh well, we will just growl at each other again I guess.

XMAS DAY

We were up reasonably early to make (and receive) phone calls from Australia and to tear into our presents and then to prepare and drive over to Roger and Lindy’s for a very traditional lunch of turkey with all the bits ! M’s mother rang early to wish us a merry and a happy and let us talk to our son Simon who was lunching with them. Given the 7 hour time difference it was late in the afternoon there but early in France. We called Sean (our other son) who was having a somewhat simple and lonely day near the pool in Port Hedland - a somewhat difficult ‘outback’ mining service town in Australia (really a mining sea port some thousands of kilometres north of Perth).

Wrapping paper removed we found that we had been very similar in choosing presents for each other - warm, waterproof boots, scarves, gloves, socks - the sort of things that we definitely need in the current weather. A quick breakfast and a pack up of sleeping things for the overnight stay and we were off about 11.45 for Seurre, the town where Roger and Lindy have their gite. About 20 minutes later we arrived at their place and shortly afterwards had glasses of bubbly in our hands, the Cullen’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Rosemount Chardonnay we had procured from Australia were breathing and the turkeys were being finished off. All preparations having been successfully completed we sat down to a sumptuous lunch shortly after 2.00pm and got up some hours later.

It was a very pleasant Xmas - made even better since it was our first in Europe and it was a white one, the snow had not let us down and was dusting the fields and houses all around. Great to spend time with fun people including Annie and Jennifer, Roger and Lindy’s delightful daughters.

The next day we were driven back to the shops at St Jean to change presents for the right size and back to the boat for a very quiet boxing day where a long walk (about 8 km) to Esbarres was the highlight. Even 24 hours after Xmas I have to admit I was still feeling it’s effects and was pleased to take a long healing sleep and rack up the first post Christmas AFD (alcohol free day). Thursday was predictably a slow day but positively early by comparison with Friday when it took all our energy to get up before lunch. The pace is telling on us !

We walked into town the next morning as we had a few things to do, like picking up the mail, which including a couple of beautiful jumpers sent over by M’s mum, Mary.  Thanks Mary, they fit really well and being 96% lambs wool, were very warm. I spent the rest of the day watering the boat - not to make it grow but filling the water tanks as we had about 5 loads of washing to do. That required heaving the line over the iced over canal again, and since I did not have Matthew on hand to assist I used a much heavier spanner as the weight and thankfully threw it well clear of the boats on the opposite side.

The boat immediately opposite is an ex rental and has positively lethal decks - very, very slippery. I nearly went into the water (or onto the ice) twice, once getting onto the deck and once negotiating the walkway to it. The watering was done by 5.30pm just as it was getting dark and I elected to leave the heaving line in place, reckoning that no-one was about to take their boat through the ancien ecluse during this period of deep freeze. So far that has proven to be correct but I will take up the line after Caroline returns on the 29th and refills her tanks.

We accepted a suggestion from friends in St Jean that we attend the New Year’s revelries at L’Amiral, a ‘bistro’ in St Jean where the owner at least tries to put on meals that are not straight out of the deli counter at Casino, the supermarket. (Another ‘restaurant’ has daily specials which can be found at half the price in the ready to eat section at Casino). Giles, the owner, is also progressively more friendly and generous as the nights progress in his restaurant as he imbibes at twice the rate of the guests. This often  works in our favour as he starts dealing out large quantities of liquor onto desserts or just into glasses as the end of the night approaches. For 200 French francs (about $A54) we are supposed to receive champagne (it will probably be a blanc de blanc) all drinks (his house wine is just bearable) and a three course dinner (??????). With the kind of crowd that normally attends L’Amiral it should be a hoot.  I should finish this explanation with a description of Le Patron - he is short, rotund, very dark and has the most incredibly rasping, gravel based voice - basso profundo. He is always dressed in pants that look like pyjama pants and slightly grubby tops - tee shirts mostly, despite the weather. He is funny, kind, irascible and much loved by his regulars, themselves a motley lot, his children and the ever present dog.

Friday saw us wake late, get up even later, study French for a bit over an hour, clean the pot belly and re-stock the wood inside from the pile outside and then ride into town. A few pieces of business had to be transacted like paying the huge first month’s phone bill and, in order to do it without overdrawing the La Poste account, putting money into that account. I had planned for the bills to be paid automatically from La Poste but somehow this has been overlooked by France Telecom and we now receive an account which can be paid by just signing it and returning it with an authorisation form (after which they will deduct it from our account) or sending a cheque.

I had written out a cheque - all correct in French and with all the bits in the right places but had to tear it up when I had the option of the authorisation explained to me by our very helpful friend Catherine at H2O - she sold us her car and has been helping us with details of bureaucracy ever since. However - this was my first Euro bill and payment - I suppose that is something to remember.

One of the downside results of the ride into town unfortunately was that our bike wheels, which do not have mudguards, splattered mud over the backs of our newly washed jackets - bugger !

The snow has all gone since we had a big change of weather overnight - it rained pretty consistently all night, washing snow and a fair bit of ice away and replacing the surfaces with mud. As already reported, the mud around here is magnetic - it is attracted to everything, especially boots and gets right into the carpets and all over the decks and walkways. We take our outside shoes / boots off as soon as we come into the wheelhouse but it still manages to gravitate into the boat. Fortunately it dries and can be vacuumed. A task that happens more and more regularly.

I have the task of feeding our neighbour’s cat while she is away in Amsterdam with her bloke, Matthew the pilot. He has a three day stay-over there. They don’t call them lay-overs in these days of political correctness ! Puss has had every opportunity to become a mate but has steadfastly refused to take up the option despite my continued acts of kindness, so we have a sort of stand off relationship. I unlock and enter and Puss streaks past on his way out of their boat. He returns late in the afternoon unless it is very cold, in which case he stays close to the boat and returns before I finish cleaning and replenishing the various cat dishes and bird seed containers and cleaning out his kitty litter. The other day the cold must have affected him as he lay still enough for me to give him a bit of a scratch behind the ears before giving me ‘the look’. If he stays in doors and I try to approach him to dish out a ration of TLC he normally just stalks away, giving me a studied view of his backside - a thing cats do to show their disdain, but on this occasion I think he was not prepared to let his cushion get cold.

I spent some time today breaking ice around the boat - no mean feat despite the small change of temperature we have recently experienced. I used the heavy deck bucket, a solid piece of black plastic with heavy rope attached, filled it with water from an area that was melted nearby and dropped it from a great height onto the ice beside the hull. This had two effects. The first was to shoot a geyser of water straight back up at me and the second was to break off a small section of ice. It was from this exercise that I was able to measure the thickness of the ice sheets surrounding Van Nelle. It is pretty consistently 6 - 8 cm thick - about 3 inches. We are fortunate here in the ancien ecluse since we seem to be a fair bit warmer than the Gare d’eau (marina) in St Jean and the section of the Bourgogne canal that makes up the Port Fluviale as our ice has not been as early or as thick. Theirs had human footprints on it, across the canal through the snow !

We had been told by Charles that there would be a warmer period - this seems to be it - even the weather forecasters predicted most of the changes we have seen today although they disagreed about the extent of the rain or the variation in temperatures.  Some predicted up to 7 degrees the others about 4-5C. The good outcome of all of this may be a reduction in the rapid use of both diesel fuel and wood as we maintain a reasonable temperature in the boat.

 

For anyone interested in some operating statistics - very rough ones - we have been operating on an overnight and morning working temp of 15C and pushing that up to 20C at night using the pot belly stove. On that basis we are using about 65 - 70 litres of diesel a week, about 60 pieces of wood and about 70kwh of electricity (we do not have electric heaters). This adds up to a weekly cost of ff 650 or $A 200. At say $A 800 per month plus $A 250 for the mooring cost and $A 150 for the phone - that’s about $ 1200 per month. We spend about ff 1,000 on groceries per week and another ff 500 on wines and meals out plus ff 500 for fuel in the car for a grand total of $ 3,500 per month.

Well that’s enough to depress me at the moment so I will suspend this session of the journal for another week or so as it is Friday 28 December.  I will take up the tale again after the New Year.

Weekend 29 / 30 December.

Rain began Saturday and the news that night told of floods in the north-east of France. No doubt we will get some run-off from the rain further north of us as it drains southwards through the Saone River valley (which we are on) on it’s way to the mighty Rhone and finally emptying into the Mediterranean. Since it seemed to be a stay at home day we spent it re-pressurising the water central heating system and designing the third and final bed which we will manufacture ourselves. This bed, in what is currently the third bedroom acting as a store room, will be 2 metres long but only 120cm wide. That’s about the size of a rental boat double bed and big enough for us while we have guests in the other two rooms. This will not be a frequent occurrence but having the third room available gives us much greater options.  It will also be a very generous single.

With the increase in local temperatures that are associated with rainy weather, the ice on the ground and around the boats in the ecluse is beginning to melt. No doubt this will add to the increase in river flow and the possibility of flooding in this region.

Sunday saw us on Passe Pierre, the boat behind us which is owned by a couple of British teachers, Rosemary and John Bullock.  It is only occupied at Xmas and their term breaks by themselves, their daughter Sophie and sons Oliver and Tim. Their third son is currently working in Egypt where he announced his engagement to his partner of 5 years as a kind of Xmas present to his folks, which he accompanied with airline tickets for them to visit when appropriate. A nice way to get some sun during these cold winter months.

The meeting on Passe Pierre was another of these English "at home" drinks sessions, apparently a tradition in the UK as people head home from Church and stop en route before finally going to their own hearths for the roast beef Sunday lunch. I am not comfortable with them since they generally start at 11.00 or 11.30 and go on to 1.00pm with nibbles and drinks taking the place of lunch in our case. We will stick to having people over for Sunday lunches.

The news told of extensive additional flooding north of St Jean.

Monday 31 - New Year’s Eve

We are to dine and carouse at L’Amiral this evening and in preparation I went into town to obtain some cash from the ‘distributeurs’ and found that not one of the cash dispensers was doling out money of either kind - Francs or Euros. I hope Giles at L’Amiral has a credit card machine. The few little bits of shopping therefore had to be done using the credit capacity of the La Poste plastic card I have and that worked fine. Thank goodness for our French bank account.

Later in the afternoon we received a phone call from Lindy and Roger, who, with their daughter Annie, were having lunch at Autun, a picturesque village about 70km from St Jean. After their lunch, our car, which they were renting from us, refused to start.  Roger suspected the starter motor and asked if we had roadside assistance. I advised we did as part of the insurance and directed him to the card on the windscreen. Another call some time later advised that the assistance number had refused to assist since we were ‘not registered’. They caught a bus to Beaune and a taxi to Seurre. This is one of the risks of loaning / hiring an oldish car to friends and was a great aggravation. We arranged to recover the car later, which we were able to do the next day, courtesy of Caroline and a short tow that jump started the car and enabled Roger to drive back to Seurre, where we left it at the Renault dealers yard for repairs the next day.

Meanwhile, we attended the soiree at L’Amiral that evening with 9 other disreputable boaties. A five course (coarse ?) meal consisting of a plate of appetisers (oysters or escargots), sorbet swimming in a lethal liquor, boar or river fish, cheeses and mixed desserts. All this was washed down by house red and white wines, cocktails, champagne and liqueurs plus thick short black coffees. I can’t say that the quality was ‘gourmet’ but the effort was there and the result a hilarious and appetising evening that we left them to after dancing till well past 1.00am. The whole evening was provided for the fixed price of 200 francs per person, approx $A 55. As you can guess, the next morning and afternoon was taken fairly quietly except that we dragged ourselves off to Autun to rescue the car.

That done it was time to wonder at the water level which had started to rise the day before and was now undulating upward. How far would it go we wondered and what effect would it have on the boat and the moorings.

 

Chapter Five - 2002 Cruising the centre and going south

Over the next few days the water level came up about a metre to just under the level of our passarelle, the walkway or gangway to the boat from the shore. In preparation for the gangway to be inundated I moved concrete blocks that had been provided during last year’s flood, onto the passarelle. This would give us approximately 9 inches or about 20cm extra height, after that it would be a matter of wading ashore or staying on the boat ! The region now has considerable flooding over the low lying paddocks and fields but the roads and bridges are all well clear.

The VNF, the French bureaucracy responsible for the inland waterways, adjusts the settings of the locks and barrages up and down the major rivers to ease the probability of flooding - but sometimes gets it wrong. Last year they held up the head waters too long and when they could no longer contain the water it created the worst flooding at Avignon the town had ever seen. Perhaps they should just let it do what it has done for thousands of years, spread out into the country side, thereby providing it’s own relief and spreading the threat onto farm lands that are lying fallow during winter anyway.

Thursday saw us invite the Bullocks aboard for drinks since they were to leave for the UK on Saturday morning, thereby being unable to attend our next Sunday lunch. Caroline was also invited but as it was the night she had to pick Matthew up from the Dijon station, she was unable to attend.

We woke on Friday 4 January with the boat on a decided list to starboard (the right side as you look forward from the stern towards the bow or front of the boat). During the night the water level had dropped about a metre - perhaps the VNF had opened the sluices allowing the waters to subside on the river. Our ice pack on the starboard side had crowded the boat against the mooring and the steel pile was under our substantial rubbing strake which caused the port side of the boat to be held up and the starboard side to drop, hence the list. I had re-arranged the rubber glissoires I had attached earlier to the piles at the end of the passarelle to avoid the boat being hooked up but had no influence over the water freezing against the side of the boat and therefore pushing us hard up against them. We spent half an hour or so armed with our two mammoth boat hooks, long poles with vicious iron hooks attached to their ends, breaking up the ice immediately alongside. This allowed the boat to move away from the piles and righted the ungainly angle.

This evening was Caroline and Matthew’s annual Christmas Eve party, postponed since Matthew had a period of flying duty that had finished only the night before.  About 20 people attended on Vixit, their barge. A lovely spread of mostly vegetarian curries and a wide array of other appetising morsels accompanied by a fine selection of reds, whites, sparkling and still wines. We stayed till about 2.00am before retiring for another sleep-it-off late morning.

By Saturday 5 January, the weather had improved dramatically with sharp, clear, sunny days and clear cold nights. Ice was reforming but the days were a delight to be out walking, riding the bikes and even braving the wind chill factor on the scooter. A couple of visits to town had the shopping completed for the Sunday lunch to which John and Jan and Caroline and Matthew were to join us.

Sunday was a clear, bright day for which Maureen had prepared a Moroccan lemon chicken dish accompanied by couscous, while I arranged the entré of Jambon terrine and the wines, a 1998 Medoc and 1999 Bordeaux plus a couple of Champagne and several bottles of Saint Veran, a lovely Burgundian Chardonnay. Caroline generously brought over dessert that had survived the hungry hordes at her party and John and Jan contributed crusty fresh bread and a pleasant red wine. Lunch slowly wound up at about 4.00pm but Caroline and Matthew stayed on till 8.00pm, chatting and flying a Boeing 737 through Hong Kong on my PC based Flight Simulator.

Monday dawned with heavy hoar frost and the sun struggling to get out from behind heavy clouds. It would be a cold day and I gathered some of the few remaining logs for the fire and left a message for Caroline to see if we could get a re-supply of fire wood as soon as possible as we have less that a week’s supply left. We will need another two ‘stehrs’ (approximately the capacity of a small French van) to see us through to March and we will also have to re-fill the diesel tank as we have now used half our supply through the central heating furnace. Electricity remains a minor item with about $ 20 per week being the current (‘scuse the pun) expense in that commodity since we have no electric heaters and the lights and pumps all work off the batteries which take little current to recharge.

Week of 7 January

We have just returned from a quick trip to Switzerland ! While that sounds pretty exotic it’s actually only 100km from our base and even our old Renault managed to make that in a couple of hours. We went past the border into to Lausanne and had to convince the border guards to stamp the passports - essential for our visa legality since without a Carte de Longue Sejour I have only three months at a time and I have been in France for about 5.  We stayed overnight in Montreaux, the scene of the famous annual Jazz Festival.

On the way to Montreaux we passed through Lausanne, a large city and fairly industrial on the outskirts.  It was OK in the city centre as it was untouched by the wars that destroyed French and German towns and their old buildings. It's on a huge lake and has lovely old hotels and shops right along the waterfront, which is extensive and punctuated by many marinas with large numbers of (mostly) small yachts.  We stopped off for lunch in Lausanne and to do some site seeing. This was made very easy since there is an extensive underground car park adjacent to the largest waterfront hotel which is right in front of the best part of the old city centre. The shops were all displaying sale signs and some of the discounts were extensive - more than 50% on many designer labels. We could have saved a fortune if we had an equally sized one to spend, but we held off the urges and headed for a pizza / pasta restaurant up some narrow stairs, near the city square. We were served by a humourous middle aged waiter who wanted to speak English as we greeted him in Italian and switched to French to order. We really are becoming quite multi lingual.

I also wanted some cash and seeing no dispenseurs on the streets, made my way into one of the large and beautifully furnished Swiss banks.  I found no gnomes - but then we were not in Zurich.  I did find a very helpful young clerk who had cash for us tout de suite.

The road between Lausanne and Montreaux runs along the lake and has amazing, steep terraces filled with grape vines. I had no idea that the Swiss had an extensive wine industry. (We tried a white at dinner and it was very drinkable). We passed the Nestle Headquarters and were amazed by the number of Swiss watch brands on sale in the jewellery shops, once we had a chance to wander past them. That, their famous chocolates and the amazing vistas of high mountains ringing the lake, plus snow capped majestic peaks rearing through the morning mist, made up an unforgettable memory of the Switzerland you expect on your our first day in the country.

On to Montreaux and our pre-booked accommodation, an old house that looked like a Frankenstein castle in the gloom of the late afternoon.  The building was obviously the former home, now converted into a small hotel, of an old woman who was extremely helpful re the walks and local sights.  Not so accommodating regarding breakfast as ‘the staff are all home for the holidays’.

After we arrived and unpacked we took the walk she recommended along the waterfront to the town centre. There is a pedestrian road along the lake that has been carefully made into a continuous garden with the most amazing creatures created out of some kind of thin vine. Dragons and elves, horses and small furry creatures are intermingled with the shrub pots and flower beds, currently sleeping through the winter chills. It is a good half hour walk into the town where we sought out a restaurant for dinner and sussed out the Casino and shops. Again, the shops were full of discounted goods with designer labels well to the fore. Again we resisted and taking advantage of the bus pass we had been provided by the old lady hotelier, we took the frequent bus service back to the hotel.

After a short rest and a change we drove to town for dinner and a look around by night. We had chosen an Italian restaurant up a small cul-de-sac and were not disappointed with the service or food. The place was run by a young man and woman who spoke excellent English and presented us with an extensive menu and wine list, advised us about the Swiss wines and the food to go with them and were quick and courteous with the response to our requests. We tried a Swiss white wine which was named the Eagle but strangely had a picture of a lizard on it’s label. It was pleasant, unassuming but fresh and well complimented the entrees. The main courses were accompanied by a Valpollicello, an Italian red.

We wandered to the casino after dinner but were turned away since to gain entry one needed a passport. I had mine but Maureen had left hers in the hotel. It was not a disappointment however as we were close enough to the action to realise that the one room was filled with slot machines, one armed bandits as they are known, and we had no great desire to stand around pushing coins into their voracious apertures.

Returning to the hotel we tried to get the two single beds to resemble a double with no luck and went to sleep, only to wake the next morning to the realisation that my jacket had disappeared.  We both searched the room several times, sacking the bed and wardrobes with no luck.  As it was the only one I had brought with me, this was going to be a cold morning as we had planned to visit the castle.  Leaving Madame with the unwelcome news we took the car to the Chateau Chillon (pronounced chee-oh) and I froze as we explored this extensive and beautifully preserved fortified castle, built right on the lake. Armed with a guiding pamphlet, visitors are directed through the many rooms, dungeons, stores, kitchens, halls, balconies and courtyards. Many of the huge rooms have huge fireplaces but unfortunately none were lit and we became steadily colder. Fortunately there were a few places where the sun could get through and I took advantage of these to keep from freezing completely. It took about an hour and a half to get through the Chateau after which we returned to the Hotel to take our final belongings into the car and head off. But first the confrontation with Madame.

I had checked back with the restaurant to ensure I had not left the jacket there at dinner but was assured I had not, so it was with the added assurance from Maureen that we had definitely left it in the room and that neither of us had been able to unearth it that I re-entered the property. Madame rushed out and almost danced with indignation as she announced that she had discovered the offending article of clothing under the pillow !  I made it my business to grovel convincingly for some time to calm her down before we got underway to return home.

The trip back gave us another perspective of the farm and ski fields along the way, not grand in this part of Switzerland (and later France) but pleasant and inviting - especially to those becoming a bit too old for the ultimate thrills of the black downhill runs - the advanced terrifying ones. We enjoyed an easy drive back and arrived at Van Nelle in time for a late lunch.

The weather turned really warm, by winter standards that is, reaching about 6 or 7C outside, so we turned our thoughts to outdoor activities and went for some long walks and even did a bit of work on Nellie. Unfortunately this just turned up the errors I made originally so we ended up stripping off much of the previous fibre glass repairs. Then the rain came so Little Nelle is back to being holy.

Week of 14 January

This week we decided to manufacture the third bed and I began by making extensive and careful plans to ensure I didn’t waste the effort or the timber bought for the purpose. We also had to organise Australia Day since I had repeatedly threatened a Fete on the 26th of January and was going to be held to my word by the expatriates - none of whom are Australian. But first, we received a parcel from my sister Sandra which contained a book about Great Grandfather - CY O’Connor and a set of videos of the WWII Changi Prison camp in Singapore in which my Father was interned for some time before apparently assisting the Emperor with the Burma railway and ending up in Japan as labour. These were great gifts as the nights are long, dark and cold and reading or watching good English language videos are a great way of diffusing their effect.  I should comment that at this time we were only receiving French, German and Italian TV programs via our satellite system. Later the BBC changed satellites and broadcast five channels free to air as did ITV.  But that was well in the future.

The bed we were to make had to fit into the smallest of the three bedrooms and because of the inward swing of the door, the overhang of the interior, hull side wall and the presence of a radiator, it was only able to fit one way. The bed had to be higher than the radiator, narrower than the doorway and tucked under the overhang to allow its proper length and the greatest width possible. The dimensions therefore confined the size of the bed to 1.20m by 2.00m, a bit narrow but just OK for two. Being the third bed, we don’t see it being used often and if needed, will be used by us so that guests have full sized beds to spend their leisure hours in.

The room also was not quite square which required a bit of planning but soon we had a platform secured against two walls with slats across the bed frame and boards on the front and side to secure the mattress. A mattress, or ‘matelas’ as it is in French, was bought from a ‘literie’ - bed shop - in Dijon and furnished with a new doona and covers. Being quite high it enables lots of items to be stored underneath and so the room continues to be useful in absorbing items not required everyday. Some furniture items stored here such as the second refrigerator (a bar frig) and a large set of drawers were re-positioned in other parts of the boat.

Australia Day, we decided, would be held at a restaurant, since it is too cold to hold as an outside barbecue, our original idea, very Aussie. We chose L’Amiral since Giles, it’s owner’ is a character, offers great value and is very willing to assist. I had a conference with him, partly in English, partly in French and we decided the following.

Saturday, 26 January at 7.30pm will see an all inclusive three course meal comprising mini meat pies for entree, rack of lamb accompanied by mashed potatoes and peas for main course with Pavlova to finish. We have been able to purchase Australian red and white wines and a dozen cans of Fosters beer to start off the evening with. Entertainment will be Australian songs (by me) recitations (Maureen) and jokes (everyone). We have a set of Two-Up pennies which may well come out into the open later on.

The list was prepared, marketing strategy considered, flyers produced and circulated and sales calls organised. A week later we reported to Giles that we had 17 people booked and he admitted to another 2 or 5 depending on whether or not they are double bookings with our RSVPs. So all is ready for the big night.

The other highlight of the week was the loan of a digital satellite TV set up from Roger and Lindy that we eventually set up and coaxed into action, attached to our TV. It gives us a range of shopping, health, travel and middle eastern programmes along with CNN and ITV news, a Turner Movie channel and a couple of documentary channels - all (except the middle eastern) in English. We are madly recording movies to watch when R&L take the set back in a week or so.

Our next Sunday Lunch was a decorous affair attended by two New Zealanders, Alan and Ann, who have a boat which was stuck in the mud at St Symphorien but is now afloat.  Anne’s sister and a friend plus their son Charlie and Maureen and I of course made up the numbers. Roast Pork with cherries and veg, pate as the entre before and an apple pudding with ice cream to finish. Very pleasant. Beaujolais Villages to accompany together with a bottle of bubbly (the local Bourgogne cremant) and a white, the Macon Blanc rounded off the offerings.

Saturday 19th was Judith Reed’s birthday back in Oz. We had sent a card and tried to call on the day but had no reply so left a message. It was also the day that I got to drive Matthew’s Cobra, a brutish sports car assembled from a kit by he and his son some few years ago and now mostly kept in their garage in St Symphorien. With their workmen refurbishing the house, the garage is needed for tools, so Caroline had arranged for the Cobra to be stored in a large shed on a neighbour’s property in St Symphorien. She however did not want to drive it so I was recruited. What a great thrill. It is an extremely attractive and very powerful open sports machine with controls that feel more like a racing car than a gentleman’s vehicle. Unfortunately the distance was short and the weather cold but the experience was very hot.

During the week we also resumed the French lessons and had to apply for a Carte de Longue Sejour for Maureen. The prefecture at Dijon is being difficult about mine and the Mairie at St Jean advised this way would expedite the process - the alternative is to have to leave the country and apply from Australia, a thought that escapes description.

As we are now entering our 11th week in the Ancien Canal at St Jean we have used a fair amount of the diesel fuel we had aboard and will have to arrange a truck to refuel us in the next couple of weeks. We also will have to buy yet another gas bottle as we are now using the no 1 French one and as they will not take the Dutch ones we had we must refit our boat with the French version to have a spare to take over when the primary bottle runs out.

Week of 21 January

We started this week on a beautiful sunny Monday with a car trip to Seurre to pick up Lindy and Roger and then on to Beaune, Nuits St George and Vosne Romanee, all great French wine producing towns situated only an hours drive from St Jean.  We had the chance to inspect the Hotel Dieu in Beaune, a truly amazing and beautifully restored Hospice for the poor and now a tourist treasure and also the wine museum and the ramparts of the old town. We passed through Nuits St George fairly quickly as the wine houses wanted huge amounts for a degustation and went on to climb the ancient hills of the Vosne Romanee area where we located the original and still the best plot of historic vines.

The Romany Conti, a rather light pinot noir, is sold for between 1,000 and 2,000 Euros per bottle, making it the most expensive wine in the world at first release.  I have yet to taste one.

The nearby Clos de Vogeot is another large, beautifully restored chateau (castle), created by the Cistercian Monks who used it to produce wines for centuries until taken over by the committee for public safety during the Revolution it was sold and finally passed into the hands of the Chevaliers de la Tastevin, a 10,000 strong association dedicated to the promotion of Burgundy and it’s wines. The buildings feature huge wine presses and halls where large and important dinners are held to welcome new members of the wine fraternity.

On Tuesday the rain started the day so it has been declared a day for preparation of the material for Australia Day and other small tasks.  While there is some rain, the ice has mostly melted here and in St Jean.  St Symphorien has water back in the canal and all the water points at the garde eau are defrosted and working so people are starting to emerge like moles to look around and see what is on the go for fun and entertainment. Tonight is Harry Potter, the movie, in French, at the nearby Salle de Fetes in Losne.

Wednesday - We saw Harry Potter last night. While I did not understand the subtleties, the plot was easy enough to follow - even though it was in French. Since Maureen had read all the books and this was only to cover the first, she understood a great deal more than I and explained small points quietly. The movie was held in a local village hall where the travelling cinema man brings a projector and sound equipment and everyone comes at the same time - kids and adults. The little ones sat on the floor at the front while the adults huddled together further back to keep warm. It actually became quite hot towards the middle of the film with more bodies packed in to the room than they had ever had before. Quite popular this Hairy Pottair - as the French pronounce his name.

The next day I had some running around to do for the up coming Australia Day Dinner.  Decorations were required and so I had an assortment of Australian flags to decorate the restaurant, a huge one of ours - about 3 x 1 ½ metres, another half that size from Matthew and Caroline and a boxing kangaroo flag from them as well. I went to the Australian Flag entries on the internet to get a small one that we duplicated and printed in colour then cut out and attached to barbecue sticks for each place at the tables.

Bookings reached 28 by the time the dinner was held on Saturday 26 January. With a squeeze we managed to fit everyone into the front room of the restaurant with just enough room for Giles and his off-sider to serve and clear. During the week I also went onto the internet for the words of Waltzing Matilda, the Road to Gundagai and Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport. Stupidly I forgot all about I Call Australia Home, although I suspect it might have been a bit difficult to perform, partly due to my very rusty guitar skills and partly as a result of my preponderance to emotion at times when such sentiments are expressed.

The balance of the week passed normally enough with the French lesson on Wednesday after which Roger and Lindy borrowed the car to move back to their boat after hibernating at Seurre in a couple of gites - the name for small apartments rented out for holidays. We also had a very enjoyable lunch with John and Jan on the Thursday which left Maureen with a migraine for the next two days, only just clearing sufficiently for her to partly enjoy the hilarity of the Australia Day Dinner.

During this time we had been waiting for a transfer of funds direct to our French Bank and after two weeks it still had not appeared. By the next Tuesday I arranged a meeting with the visiting bank manager and gave the problem to him to sort out as by then the Australian bank (Macquarie) had proven that they had transferred the money to Bank of America who had claimed to have sent it to the Bank of France and they to La Poste. Why the number of steps I have no idea. However it turned up late the next week after having been used by the banks for some three weeks. We won’t do that again but it is annoying that something so simple can become so complicated.  We normally have money deposited direct to our Australian bank from which we can transfer it to our other accounts - such as onto the Visa Cards as a credit balance to draw locally from the cash distributors here. We can also pay accounts in Australia by this method but prefer to send cheques since they provide us with a direct audit trail. Why the French system has to include Bank of France and why Macquarie has to go through Bank of America is beyond me, even transfers to our Dutch account go direct.

Friday arrived and at 7.00pm people started to arrive at Chez Giles. The evening shot past in a blur - more blurry later than earlier - as everyone got right into the Fosters aperitif and then enjoyed the Kangaroo Ridge Chardonnay and Barossa Shiraz that we had been able to get from outlets locally and in Dijon. The songs went over well with most of the revellers using the song sheets we had printed to join in and sing along.

The meal was somewhat hysterical and left the non-Australians wondering at our culinary preferences. Giles had created several meat pies rather than a lot of individual ones but unlike Australian versions, these had real meat and flavour and the slices were huge. The chops that followed were a sort of large butterfly chop, very tender and again with a great deal of flavour but not barbecued and burnt as we had suggested. The mashed potato was real and served in huge bowls passed down the tables and the peas were the tinned variety. The piece de resistance was his Pavlova. These consisted of two small cake sized swirls of meringue, a slice of Neapolitan ice cream, a large dollop of whipped cream and a small pile of chopped Kiwi and other fruits. These ingredients were tastefully arranged beside each other on individual plates. The end result in the tummy was the same but the normal vertical arrangement was missing.

Giles supplied the meal and any additional house wine at the cost of 89 Francs (about $A 25) along with coffee and a great deal of white rocket fuel which found it’s way into the room later in the evening - this is his own brand of Eau de Vie or Marc - a distilled spirit from grapes that the French call a digestif - something to clear the stomach after a large meal. It does more than that ! Everyone had a great time and surprisingly, left the restaurant at a reasonable hour. We had Caroline with us so we were home before midnight - quite an achievement. Spoilt somewhat by me staying up to listen to music until after 2 am.

Sunday was spent writing articles for our sailing club in Western Australia, the Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club.  I wondered what they made of them as I am sure I didn’t edit them after drafting but on my return to Perth years later I was assailed by many members demanding more.

Week of 28 January

The beginning of week 12 in St Jean - almost three months. It doesn’t feel at all strange to be here, we have settled into the pace of the place, doing jobs on the boat as they present themselves or when they start to niggle at the conscience. These include small bits of finishing off - painting, sewing, screwing hooks into place, tidying up bits of unfinished timber and so forth and also the bigger jobs servicing engines, splicing new lines, re-doing plumbing and wiring and of course, patching Little Nellie.

The beginning of this week was taken up finally sorting the bank transfer, getting bits and pieces together to make up a flag pole for the stern of the boat, buying oils and filters for a service on the generator and the steel pieces for attaching our mooring lines to steel reinforced canal walls when we take ‘wild moorings’ in the country-side - more on that later.

My sister Sue in Australia had cheerfully agreed to order and send us a more reasonably sized Australian flag which we will fly from the stern when we can carry the long flag pole I am about to manufacture. At about 3 metres long and 1 ½ wide our current large flag is too big for anything but ceremonial occasions and is sure to be the target for petty thieves so it will be prepared for use but only brought out to steam triumphantly into important harbours or celebrations. It is also too light to spend it’s life in the elements. We have a pole step in the deck just forward of the rudder post which will allow for a 14 cm circumference (4 cm diameter) flag pole. The poles supplied in the local bricolage (hardware shops) are almost exactly that size and are about 2.4m long - just perfect for our needs. The purchase of a reasonably straight example of these was arranged along with suitable hooks, cleats and varnish from the boat shop at H2O. A day or so was spent varnishing the pole and fitting the hook and cleat and sewing a strong line into the hem of the big flag. By Friday the work was completed and the new pole and large flag were unveiled for the first time. It stayed in position until very strong winds descended on us on Sunday and the flag was then taken down and stored for suitable use. We await the arrival of the smaller version with great anticipation.

I began the service on the generator, which had not been run for the 12 weeks we have been attached to shore power, by assembling all the items I would need and use for the purpose. Special high grade oil, a vacuum pump, a new filter and a drum into which I could put the old oil once the engine had been run for some time to thin it. Having given instructions to M to start the motor from the control panel in the office, I went to the engine room to monitor the running, especially the water pumping from outside the boat to cool the engine. The generator started, somewhat reluctantly after having been ignored for three months, and ran. I quickly established that water was not being pumped from the river through the heat exchange system and shut the engine down to investigate.

The inflow hose is fitted with a non return valve at the hull fitting to stop the cooling water receding after use but this had obviously not been able to retain the correct water level during the long break, so I now needed to prime the system in order to ensure that the rubber impellor (sort of a propeller) in the pump did not shred itself since it was not being lubricated and cooled by the water it was supposed to pump. This was not an easy task as the pump is at the top of the system and right at the back of the sealed generator engine, accessible only via a top inspection hatch. After a while of pondering I worked out that after priming to the filter, if I took the pipe to the heat exchanger off and raised it above engine height I could fill it while attaching another hose to the exchanger I could blow water into it and probably almost all the way to the pump. Then, if everything was blocked and the action quick enough, I could re-attach the correct pipes and hoses and start the engine before the water agreed with gravity and flowed out. A couple of dress rehearsals and with the first mate’s assistance the deed was done and the engine quickly switched on. Water gushed out of the outflow pipe on the side of the hull ! Success.  I have to say that this underlined our opinion of 80% Frank’s design skills.  Fancy putting a water pump that is not self priming at a height of about a metre above the outside water level - just silly.

The next problem was that the vacuum pump hose would not fit into the sump of the motor, rendering it useless for extracting the oil. Since I could not drain oil from the sump plug as that is unreachable and anyway the oils would just flow into the insulation under the engine, I had to use the pump supplied on the engine. I had not planned to use it as a special fitting was not supplied to attach a hose to carry the hot oil away from the top of the motor and into a waiting receptacle so I had to undo the pump from its permanent home and bend its hoses such that the oil would flow safely out and into the waste receptacle. None of these things prove to be difficult but overcoming the challenges gives one a reason to feel useful. Hopefully it does not pass on to the reader a sense that boats are a constant source of challenge and problems. Far from it, Van Nelle works very efficiently and reliably, but like any mechanical equipment, will continue to do so only with good regular maintenance. Unfortunately, little thought was given to the need of the operator to regularly work on items such as the generator and so little room to move was provided in key areas.

Some time and experience later I discovered far easier ways of both priming the water system and emptying oil for services but for now I had succeeded and could clean up and take a well deserved aperitif.

Wild Moorings. Living on a boat on the waterways of Europe gives the owners a number of options of where to stop.  Towns, with their attendant facilities; marinas, with their clutter of other boats and boaters; and the countryside, with its quiet and picturesque outlook. A wild mooring is our description of a countryside stop. This can be for an overnight stay, for lunch or just to inspect a canal-side attraction while travelling through. Often, there are beautiful places along the canals and rivers where one would like to stop but these are passed regularly by other vessels which presents a problem. When a boat travels through a canal it creates a powerful bow wave that pushes ahead of it causing moored boats to be pushed onto the bank. As it then passes, the movement of the water being drawn through it’s propeller creates a large suction, accentuated by the narrow canal, that will pull your boat off the bank and into the side of the passing vessel if it is close enough and you are not securely moored.

In order to attach the boat securely to the side of the canal, a number of methods are used depending on the conditions of the bank. Some canal sides are reinforced by sheets of interlocking steel plates which generally have small holes cut in their tops. These holes give the opportunity for secure places to attach ropes if you have suitable tackle to attach to the holes. You cannot put ropes directly through the holes as they are frequently too small and having very sharp edges will quickly cut though valuable lines.  Therefore some form of attaching bracket is required. The best bracket is one that swivels flat to pass a section through the hole and then opens out behind the plate to hold itself in place with a ring left out on the canal side to attach your rope to. We have not been able to find or have these made but have manufactured different sized T pieces that should slip through and lock in place. They are galvanised and have large rings attached for easy attachment to the ropes. Several of these for bow and stern would hold Van Nelle securely.

The other method is to hammer large steel stakes into the bank and attach lines to these. This works well if the banks are sufficiently dense to resist the stakes being pulled out with the suction of passing boats but loose enough to be able to sledge hammer the spikes in. If suitable trees or roots, rings or bollards are available, one would obviously use them but they are rare to find away from the proximity of the locks or recognised mooring places. One must never tie lines across the tow path that lies alongside the canals since the paths are used by walkers, bicyclists and VNF (canal management) vehicles.  Some time this week was used locating suitable raw materials, making up the attaching brackets and testing them on the steel plates near the town of St Jean.

We did not ignore our responsibilities during the week to food and wine tasting either. We enjoyed a beautiful piece of rib beef on Monday, a pasta dinner on Van Nelle with Caroline visiting while Matthew was away flying on Tuesday, Jan and John visited on Thursday and ended up dancing to loud rock and roll music until after midnight (and then were suitably terrified by my driving them home along the tow path). One great benefit of the spaciousness of Van Nelle’s saloon (and in summer months her huge flat top deck), is that they make great dance areas.  Several notable dance parties have been held to celebrate various occasions - both in ports and in the country - to the amazement of nearby people or cows.

Jan and John invited us back to their canal cruiser ‘Blackbird Fly’ on Saturday night which was a lovely three course meal with a raft of white wines (unusual) which we followed up on Sunday by taking them on a drive to Beaune.

Beaune, centre of wine production for the Burgundy region, is a large town with a medieval centre, complete with a beautifully restored and maintained set of historic buildings. The key attraction is the Hotel Dieu, a huge complex with amazing patterns of multi coloured tiles on its tall roof. Provided to the town after the Hundred Year War by a benevolent Duke and Duchess, it has served the community until recent times as the town’s main hospital and retirement home. The hospital has recently moved to a modern facility but the older generation remain in a separated section of the grounds, away from the front half, now a tourist attraction.

This is a magnificent structure, totally re-furbished and re-furnished as it would have been hundreds of years ago, complete with models of the nurses, patients and doctors.  The cost of this great work, including the building of the modern hospital, was completely covered by profits made by the extensive vineyards bequeathed to the Hotel Dieu by its original benefactors.  Indeed, each year, the most important and largest wine auction is held here after the harvest.  Wine from the estates of the Hotel Dieu are auctioned to negotiants who bottle, label and sell the product at handsome profits.  The least expensive variety (based on which quality level of ground it comes from), sells for more than 40 Euros.

Nearby is the Musee du Vins - the wine museum of the region, explaining the soil, vines, cultivation and lifestyles attached to this mammoth wine producing area.

After visiting these attractions we retired to a nearby restaurant which offered teas and light snacks as well as full A la Carte meals. This was an occasion where my limited language and lack of concentration caught me out. I noticed others having apple pie and ice cream and so looked for tarte de pommes avec glace on the menu. The nearest thing to it was a fouillette de pommes avec blah blah blah and so I ordered it. The waiter cross questioned me about whether I wanted the glace with the pie. I replied in the affirmative and pointed to a nearby table where the occupants were enjoying the very same (la meme chose). He left and the teas and coffees arrived. No food. We were about to leave when all at once a woman appeared with a hot meal which was made up of a couple of different small pies - mushroom and onion, with salad and sliced apples as a garnishment. In a separate bowl a dollop of ice cream was put next to the plate on the table and with a haughty look she left. Well, I was obviously stumped so I gracefully shared the very pleasant snack and we left with some level of amused embarrassment

On our arrival back at the ancien ecluse sometime later, we found our scooter lying on it’s side in the road, obviously felled by the now very strong winds raking the area. Another job of minor repair for next week as this accident had cracked the plastic fairing that makes up the front of the scooter  Thank goodness for duct tape (gaffer tape to some and duck tape to others - the grey material like variety).

 

Week of 4 February

A windy and mostly wet week13 of our winter saw me finally bleed the central heating system, look after Caroline’s cat for a week and fix the broken plastic part of the scooter.  Further work was done on Little Nell, we rode to the nearby town of St Symphorien, assisted a friend to get a quote for a Bimini top for his canal cruiser and discovered a slow leak on a rear tyre of the car and had it fixed.

The Kabola heater has a bleed screw which allows trapped air out of the system, therefore allowing the pressure to be regulated and eliminating unusual noises and unnecessary wear on pumps and other working parts. The screw had been so securely wound shut that all my previous efforts to loosen it were to no avail. I was following the instructions in the manual and turning it, against all odds, clockwise. Now that this was starting to bother me and since the folks at H2O were no help, I rang Kabola to check. They put me right as to the direction of the screw - it should have been anti-clockwise (not what is indicated in a clear diagram in the manual). Knowing that all my efforts had just tightened it further convinced me to try the last resort - using a screw driver against the edge and gently tapping it in the direction required. This worked and I was then able to use my patented new semi round screw driver (an Australian 20c piece held in a clamp) to do the rest. Hey presto, the Kabola job was completed.

The scooter needed a retaining piece re-attaching to the fairing face plate and some super glue was perfect for the job, but first I had to get the face plate off. I quickly realised that required an Allen key, which I have lots of, but once all the seemingly correct sized ones failed to fit in the screw heads I further realised that it was a non standard type. Going to the next size up I took a file to the pentagon head of the key to modify it and after a few attempts had the screws out. Then one fell into the well of the machine requiring all the external panels to be removed in order to reclaim the errant part. This completed I was able to glue the part back in place and leave it to set overnight. A week later it appears to be nicely fixed.

John Johnson wants a Bimini on the top of his canal cruiser and left the UK in too much of a hurry to have it done there. There being a contractor here in St Jean however, he decided to arrange a conference on the boat to discuss it with the local bloke and get a price. He asked me along to cover any gaps in his French vocab. Saturday morning and we all gathered on the top deck of the aforementioned boat and began the rather stilted discussion, aided by paper and pen to sketch where fluency was insufficient. We managed to get the design explained and asked for an estimate. The result was somewhat shocking - 5,000 francs (some French people still have not converted quickly to Euros) which is about $A 1500 for the material part of the front section and another 2,500 francs for the extension - excluding the stainless steel frame on which the material would be hung - and - before the scalloped trim was added. All in all John will not see any change from perhaps 15 - 20,000 francs, $A 4500 - 5500. At that price John started to seriously consider buying a big market umbrella or two.

Rain hampered work but did not exclude it entirely and by the end of the week, little Nellie was re-patched with two gel coats over the finished areas and just one new area to gel coat when the rain stops (I had completely missed one hole altogether). A coat of paint away from being a new dinghy.

Saturday night was the night of a big choral concert in the church at St Jean. The choir of the military academy at St Cyr - the equivalent of Australia’s Duntroon, were joined by two local choirs and a small orchestra. Predictably, the local choirs had to ‘strut their stuff’ first, went on too long and tried just a few too many difficult pieces which had their sopranos hunting for the high notes with mixed success. The choir of St Cyr was marvellous. One diminutive blond girl surrounded by about 25 very healthy and handsome young male officer cadets in marvellous 18th century uniforms.  Feather topped kepis finished off the dark blue jackets and trousers decorated with gold braid.  The solitary girl had exactly the same with the exception that the trousers were a sort of culottes come skirt. They looked and sounded marvellous and received the sort of enthusiastic and patriotic applause at the end that they deserved. Heart-warming. All the choirs joined together at the end to be accompanied by the slightly off key and out of time ‘orchestra’ in a credible rendition of Mozart’s Te Deum. A pleasant end to a workaday week.

Week of 10 February

Roger and Lindy had set off a week ago to explore some of the other ‘areas fluviale’ - places in France with waterways, and had returned on Saturday. We were eager to know what they had found in their travels south so went to afternoon tea on Sunday. They recounted their train trips to Roanne, a barging town in the centre of France at the end of a canal specially created to enable Roanne to import and export its goods. This town is larger than St Jean and has a large and comfortable harbour, priced reasonably. Spread around a large open Port de Plaisance, each mooring has water and power (the electricity supplied direct from EDF, Electricite de France), therefore probably cheaper than we pay here through H2O. On one side are large boats like ours and the other side is inhabited by yachts and small canal craft.

They next headed south towards Marseilles but turned right to explore Carcassonne and other ports along the Canal de Midi. This area is undergoing change with the towns eager to move on old boats that have been there for years and get some new blood in along with the attendant fees. If one wants to get moorings there, the scheme apparently is to write to them, supplying details of your boat and then wait for ever for some kind of response. The other theory is just to turn up when you want to settle down for the winter period. We will continue to make inquiries for our next year’s port as we plan to spend the winter 2002 in the south.

On Monday I had a number of jobs to do including the last gel coat on Little Nellie, a trip to the Stand de Pneus to get a tyre repaired. since it has been leaking slowly for the last 5 days or so, and to take delivery (or not) of the fuel that had been ordered.

I woke in a bit of a sweat on Sunday night realising that it was quite possible for Caroline, who had ordered the camion (fuel truck) to have overlooked the fact that we should only have white fuel on board as we have only one usable tank currently and you have to be able to prove that red fuel has not been used for anything else but heating and power generation. The tax is taken off red diesel fuel since it is an essential service. I had not specified any type to Caroline and it was only when I thought about it from their point of view that I realised that they probably only needed red. Nothing could be done until Monday morning anyway so at 9.00am I was up and ready when the truck arrived. I explained to the driver that I could only take part of the 700 litres I had ordered for me because that was all I would use from now until the end of our winter period. He explained (I think) that there was no need to worry between October and March as during that period the official belief was that red fuel was taken for the correct use as no-one travelled and that only after March would it be a problem.

If only I had known this when we first moved here, since at that time we bought 750 litres of white at 0.8 euros per litre rather than at the 0.375 euros per litre for red. I could have legitimately saved myself some $ A 1,000 in fuel bills. Bugger ! Well at least I have saved some $A 200 by taking the 300 litres of red today. Hopefully there will be no problem but in any case, I will need to take on 500 litres of white soon for the next season’s requirements which will bleach out the colour in the remaining fuel.

Having sorted out the fuel issue I set off for the tyre shop in Blazey, only to find on arrival that it was closed Monday mornings. No problem.  I took a quick trip on to SaoneAuto, a friendly garage where they had assisted me with a need for a new part some months ago.  They couldn’t do the tyre but I needed to have the underside of the car and the brakes checked. The owner is really nice and for nothing, checked the brakes, the suspension, the gears and clutch and took the car for a test drive. Some of these people are princes. I booked the car in for a service with all the trimmings for a month hence and headed back to town.

A friend I ran into at the bricolage while picking up a few paint brushes suggested I take the tyre to the local garage which I did and it was repaired immediately for 9 euros. Quick, cheap and hopefully efficient. Having a tyre repaired is quite remarkable. The mechanic hunted for the leak with a corkscrew gadget which he used to fish out a nasty piece of screw. He then used it to ream out the hole and being satisfied that he had done a job as good as some of my old dentists, took an oversized bag needle gadget into which he threaded a gooey, pink string thingy which he then plunged into the tyre. Pushing it all the way to its ends he then wound the goo until it was at breaking point and quickly withdrew the needle, breaking its hold on the gooey string. That was it ! I put the wheel back on the car and drove off - after paying of course. I hope the plug stays in on some of our longer and faster trips ! (It did - for years !).

On return to Van Nelle I checked the last gel coat which had almost completely set, thankfully, since rain threatens. The surface of the dinghy is now smooth and seemingly waterproof. It has a somewhat checkerboard appearance but that will be well covered by a judicious coat of paint at a later time. Tomorrow, if the weather is dry, I will launch Nellie and leave her floating to check whether she is waterproof.

Tonight we have John Johnson’s birthday dinner with a return to L’Amiral - Giles the patrone is doing well out of us - but tonight he will get one of his gift vouchers back and no orders for his exotic and very expensive bottled wines - we will suffer the vins du table ! Oh yes, I also had to pay the latest invoice from H2O - always a painful parting of money but I feel better afterwards knowing that all the accounts are up to date.

17 February - 27 March

A week of dreary weather with some frosts, drizzle and wind saw the car dashboard lights go on the blink - or off it actually. The fault was a light in the boot shorting the fuse it shared with the dashboard. Annoying but not a safety hazard and soon fixed.  I’m becoming quite a mechanic.

We actually went for our first cruise in something over three months on the Monday. Admittedly it was only to St Jean for 300 litres of white fuel to balance the 300 of red we had accepted the week before but it felt great to be on the water and underway again. Getting clear of the mooring lines, unplugging the phone connection and the power cable was easier than expected and we were soon on the river. It did not take long to get out of the ecluse and down to the fuel barge and even less to fill up with 300 litres of fuel. We dawdled on the way back to enjoy the experience.

With our friends David and Judith Reed and their daughter Jennifer expected to visit for a short cruise soon, we had a few little jobs to be done to make our visitor’s life more pleasant - like putting strips of foam rubber protection on a couple of low points in the boat to ensure we avoided damaging anyone’s heads - and these jobs were quickly done. It took somewhat longer to try to clear problems on our neighbour’s computer which had been a gift to them from a relative but which has an unusual hotch potch of programs and operating systems loaded. I spent some hours firstly understanding and then cleaning a lot of dead software away to try to get it to run. It seemed successful at the time but apparently has relapsed since.

Some three days before the Reed’s arrival, Maureen found herself in agony with kidney problems. She endured a night of intense pain which continued into most of the next day until her appointment with the doctor who immediately proscribed a series of tests and a lot of pills. A couple of days later and the test results showed the probable passing of kidney stones followed by a slight infection. Within a week the anti-biotics had done their work and the first mate was on deck for the arrival of our friends.

Week of 24 February

Monday this week saw the arrival of David and Judith Reed, with their daughter Jennifer an excited addition. The SNCF (French train system) was running true to recent form in that the TGV (fast train) was an hour late into Dijon. After a day on trains from London however they all arrived, were bundled into the Renault and driven back to Van Nelle for a dinner of Boeuf Bourguignon. The evening was a relatively early one and the next morning they were all up early for the tour of St Jean, Aisery and St Symphorien by car. We dined at L’Amiral that night and prepared for the cruise departure on Wednesday for Chalon-sur-Saone, some 60km to the south.

Still displaying its winter character, the Saone river was in flood and running at about 4-5km on our outward journey so Van Nelle made about 15km per hour on about half throttle. We left St Jean a bit after 9.00am and arrived at our mooring in Chalon by 2.00pm. Both David and Jenny had turns at the wheel which was a big thrill for a girl who had never steered a boat of any kind before. After a quick look around the town we prepared for a night out at La Gourmand restaurant, a favourite, in Chalon’s street of restaurants.

The next day gave everyone a chance for some power shopping at Carrefour (a giant supermarket) plus the boutiques of the old city area. David found a lovely gold scale, that is an antique set of scales to measure gold - he being a specialist gold stock broker - and Judith bravely fought off the urge for a six pack of decorative plates. We had a very late night that night with our noise continuing till about 3.00am. The next morning was very sedate with Jenny not rising till the afternoon. The museum and the imposing church near the Mairie were the focus of the day’s adventures and some serious cooking followed for a pasta night on board. Fresh mussels, prawns and pasta were expertly mixed by the three lady chefs and we rounded off the meal with fine wines and cheeses of the region.

Friday was the day for our return to St Jean, now against the current. I had expected the trip back to take some 6 hours but with the throttle fully open, Van Nelle pushed back against the stream in just over 5. We were back in time for the preparation of another on board meal (barbecued chops) and the next day headed off to Beaune for the markets, lunch and the Hotel Dieu. Following the sights of the town we wound our way back via the wine areas of Nuits St George and Vosne Romanee, the (unhappily closed) Clos de Vogeot and the Cistercian Monastery where several items were purchased at the re-opened shop of the monks. Dinner that night was another excellent meal at the Auberge du Paradis, a hotel and restaurant near Losne, just across the river.

Sunday saw us heading for Auxonne (where Napoleon completed his artillery training), for the town’s annual Carnivale. Thinking it may have started at 10.00am we were some 4 hours early for the actual festivities which really began at 2.00pm so we spent the time exploring the town and feasting on pizzas. After lunch we (and a couple of thousand other spectators) assembled on the main street for the parade of floats, people on horses on foot and on the heady vapours of the local liquor. This very colourful and humorous parade started at 2.45pm after a few false starts and was still winding it’s way past our vantage spot after 5.00pm, at which time we quit the area to avoid the traffic on our way back to the boat.

Sunday night was for packing, an excellent meal accompanied by a bottle of the beautiful Hospices de Beaune red wine that David bought and we packed it in for the night in order to get an early start for Dijon and the Reed’s 10.21am train to Paris. We arrived at the station as quickly as possible as a quick check before we left revealed that the train ticket for the three guests had been misplaced and needed to be replaced or their connections to Paris and London that day would be jeopardised. With about 10 minutes to spare we arrived at the station, bought new tickets and had the three travellers on the correct train just before it left - unbelievably - 15 minutes EARLIER than scheduled. I have never seen that happen before !

A terrific week had been spent by the five of us, our guests thoroughly enjoying the boat, the beds, the tours, the food and wine and the kind weather. It had not done more than a quick drizzle throughout the week they were with us and the temperatures were quite bearable, despite it still being officially winter.

Week of 3 March

On my return from delivering the Reeds to Dijon, Maureen advised there were papers to be collected from the Mairie regarding our requests for Cartes de Longue Sejour, the French long term visas. We expected to have to undergo medical examinations and worse but on arrival at the Mairie the secretary had two temporary permits. These, she explained, would be followed up in 6 weeks with further requirements and paper work. We however were delighted to receive the breakthrough (temporary) visas which promised a happy ending to our visa saga.

That night we overcame our unhappiness at having waved goodbye to the Reeds with a barbecue on the back deck with John and Jan, Lindy and Roger.

The next couple of days saw me putting my muscles where my mouth had been when I volunteered to fix the road to the anchorage. The gravel road had become badly pitted and pot holed by rain and traffic during the wetter parts of the winter and a large new pile of gravel had been acquired by Charles of H2O to repair it. I was given an off-sider, a young apprentice at H2O named Mikhael and together we filled quite a few potholes. It took me that day and most of the next to make a complete job of it and we can now drive comparatively smoothly over the road to town.

Wednesday saw us at our usual French lesson with Corrine at the Tourist Office and on Thursday I was able to stand on the decks of Vixit (our neighbouring ship) as it majestically travelled down river to St Symphorien where it’s owners, Caroline and Matthew, have a house. Matthew wanted both the opportunity for a short cruise between flights (as he is a 747 captain) and, having the barge near the house they are renovating made it possible to get a lot more work done. I was even given the opportunity to drive the boat for a distance, an opportunity I grabbed with both hands. Mooring the boat alongside the river bank was an experience as we took some time to find a nearby area with sufficient depth to enable their gangway to reach dry land. It was managed after some backing and filling and Maureen turned up for lunch aboard and to drive me back to our own ship.        

 

Our new year plans included a planned trip north east through Besancon towards Mulhouse and Germany.  Friday saw the sun emerge hot and bright so we took the opportunity to drive to Besancon, some 60km away to explore some of the likely mooring places along the way. We discovered a number of delightful spots, lunching on delicious rolls en-route before arriving at and exploring the large town of Besancon. It has a central island which we traversed and two inferior mooring places, between which is a long quai (quay) area that we thought might do us for a night or so in the near future.

We have decided a general course of action for the year which focuses on the central areas of France including the Burgundy Canal, Paris and the western group of canals before heading south towards the Mediterranean about August. This should satisfy the visitors who will be joining us during the summer, staring with Gillian Ragus just after Anzac Day and including the Princes and the Palmers, friends from Perth, Western Australia.

Thursday night saw us drive to Aisey for dinner with Mike and Memory, a Canadian couple who spend a few months each year in France on their canal cruiser.  We ate at a small restaurant which was high on quality but low on quantity. The house wine also was pretty awful and as our company included Matthew and Caroline who had (surprisingly) given up alcohol for Lent, we decided not to increase the stakes into the bottled varieties. Mike is an ex Canadian Air Force jet jockey who transferred to their navy after breaking his neck. He retired to a life of coin auctioning while his partner, Memory, writes for wine journals.

Week of 11 March

Sunday saw an eventful lunch aboard Jan and John’s lovely ‘Blackbird Fly’, especially when Jan walked straight off their boat into the water while chatting on her mobile phone. Unhappily, the phone and a pair of spectacles were lost, as was a fair amount of pride on Jan’s part. Fortunately she was not hurt and was swiftly returned to dry land and after a cuddle or two to comfort her, was warmed by a hot shower and continued the pleasures of the day.

Mike and Memory came by for a few pre lunch drinks. They were planning a long bike ride but I think the drinks put them off. We agreed to meet the next Thursday at L’Amiral for dinner to introduce them to Giles, his wife Sylvie and their estaminet.

I promised John and Jan I would take my SCUBA gear over to their boat in the Gare d’Eau (marina) on Monday to look for the glasses, a vacuum tube they had lost earlier and their phone. As Monday turned up a hangover from the Sunday lunch, I took some time fulfilling my promise. Some 20-30 minutes in the freezing water was quite enough and though I could see absolutely nothing through the impenetrable silt and sludge of the 2 metre deep anchorage I did manage to find the vacuum tube. No luck with the phone and glasses unfortunately, but we did try.

Tuesday saw me off to Brazey en Plaine to have the car serviced.  While that was being done between 2.00pm and 3.30pm I went for a long walk about the town. I discovered a number of previously hidden buildings which look to have had very interesting histories. Unfortunately there is no tourist office in Brazey and I was unable to ascertain the information on the architecture.  Nor was I made any the wiser regarding the inhabitant of a coffin that was the chief interest of a large number of mourners at the Church. Most shops and businesses in the town appeared to have been closed for the event which kept me from inspecting the church.

Wednesday was our last French lesson with Corrine at the Tourism Office in St Jean. She has been a great help and a willing teacher for which the office gained by 3 Euros per person per lesson and she gained only the bunch of flowers Maureen bought for her on this day.

After lunch, made up of pastries bought at the supermarket deli section and eaten riverside at St Jean, we detached Van Nelle again from the mooring to cruise down river to assist Matthew get Vixit off the bank. The river level had risen during their stay near their house but subsequently dropped again, leaving the boat stranded on the shelf. We arrived to see much action but no result from Vixit’s own power and so, after attaching our lines (Van Nelle’s that is) to Vixit, we added the strength of our 150 horsepower. Our second manoeuvre, pulling at an angle rather than straight away, was successful in pulling Vixit’s stern into the river and away from the bank, after which she was able to continue on her own power, back to the ancien ecluse, our shared home.

On our arrival back at our mooring with a stop for a beer at the Quai Nationale in St Jean, we were invited to a delightful dinner by Matthew and Caroline taken at L’Esperance restaurant in Aisery.  This delightful (but very slow) restaurant was quite near the church I had been unable to inspect earlier in the week.  It was also just over the road from a large, swiftly gathering crowd of show ground people, now preparing for Aisery’s Fete on Saturday - we must go.

Maureen walked into St Jean the next morning and arrived back with a notice from the Mairie regarding our Cartes de Longue Sejour. Believing that this would be our invitation to have documents translated, medicals undertaken and costs paid, we went to the Hotel de Ville to hear the worst. Imagine our surprise when we arrived to find our 5 YEAR Cartes already there and ready for us to take possession of. Not only that but mine allows me to work at all professions while in France for the period. This was REALLY GREAT NEWS and we had to show off as soon as possible, which we did with Jan and John immediately after picking the cards up and signing for them.

This evening we were again to be at L’Amiral for the introduction of the Canadians to Giles and Sylvie and for us to become better acquainted with four Australians who have arrived in town to take their boat cruising soon. This will be a big night ! Some 14 of us boaties will gather and imbibe singing syrup in quantity. Tomorrow will be another slow day !

Now that we have our Cartes de Longue Sejour, we were able to go off to Dijon and sign up for a mobile phone ACCOUNT rather than have to constantly buy pre-paid cards that are twice the price of a regular phone service. The necessary documents were handed over to the Phone Orange people in Dijon and a new SIM was presented - yet another phone number - but the phone we had bought some months before was able to be converted for use with the new SIM.

We visited Doras the bricolage (hardware store) on the way back to the boat to pick up the ladder we had ordered, their stock items being too long for our purpose of converting it for use as a gang plank (or passarelle as they are called in France). This entailed also buying a length of plywood cut to size to fit in between the uprights and be screwed in place on the rungs to provide a walking platform supported by the rungs.

We also bought grey paving paint with which to mix sand to provide a non-slip surface. These were all packed into the car with some difficulty, the echelle (as a ladder is called), hanging out a front window and we headed back to the boat to put the passarelle together. The paint is a quick drying version so it took only a few hours to place the screws, paint the board and assemble the whole piece, which is now a very effective gangplank.

Brazey-en-Plaine is a small town near St Jean. It had advertised a fair to take place on the Saturday so we picked up our friends John and Jan and went off on Saturday afternoon for a look. A really small fair started operations an hour after our arrival so we headed for the nearest café for a beer or two before taking to the bumper cars and then to the shooting gallery where John and I each scored sufficiently well to be awarded small furry animals as a reward. We handed them solemnly to the girls and headed back to St Jean for a BBQ on Van Nelle.  These fairs and small circuses are a feature of France in particular and resemble the side show alley variety in Australia with tawdry prizes awarded to noisy customers by seedy operators.  All in all quite colourful and fun.

Sunday was a beautiful sunny day and St Jean was hosting a kayak competition with competitors from as far away as Strasbourg so we packed a picnic and went to the Quai Nationale to join a few hundred supporters watching the young boys and girls labouring heartily around the course on the river Saone. A large, heavily laden barge threatened to interrupt the proceedings as it sailed through but the competitors were not greatly inconvenienced, just darting around the ponderous bulk carrier and the program continued without delay.

The next week - 18 March, was to be our last full week in St Jean as we planned to depart on the Canal lateral Saone au Rhine in the direction of Strasbourg on Thursday 28 March. We had a few ‘jobs’ still to do before departure so the week was mostly one of working on the boat and provisioning for departure. We did have one major social engagement however - the inaugural meeting of the new boating association, dreamed up during a previous dinner with John, Jan, David and Dianne. At that event we foresaw a loose association of non financial members being those people who were ‘serious plaisanciers’ - those who lived substantial parts of the year afloat. The idea was to incorporate during the dinner at which a name and a list of objects would be considered together with forward planning for additional meetings.

Those at the dinner agreed that the name should be the Red Bandanas as we had previously agreed that the identifying mark of the members would be the wearing of a red bandana, scarf or neckerchief. On a visit to Dijon’s shopping area Maureen and I had bought 6 metres of red and white check cloth which Maureen sewed into triangular shapes and which were distributed at the dinner. The event was conducted at Chez Giles - the L’Amiral Brasserie, accompanied by a three course meal and wines included for just 16 Euros (about $A 24 per person). Some 20 boaties attended including two new Finnish friends and some Australians.

I arranged to pay the accumulated mooring account for electricity, purchases at the chandlery, labour for the engine service and work on the stern gland and engine head but was unprepared for the enormity of it and had to sit down when Robert Bond presented it to me in the H2O office. Some 1700 Euros or $A 2,500 rather took the wind out of my sails and a large lump out of the bank account. Labour rates in France are high and 19.6% tax is added to them.  As it was the work on the engine had achieved exactly nothing which made it all the worse.

I had engaged H2O to work on discovering why we had a few oil leaks and to see if we could discover the source of the coolant which was finding its way into the sump.  They had removed and replaced the engine head and achieved nothing.  H2O’s cost - 1,200 Euros.  To add injury to insult, H2O charged 360 Euros for a couple of engine filters I later found out to be worth 30.  They refused to refund the difference claiming they had paid almost 300 for the items.  I thought they ought to have known the cost was way over the top as they are supposed to be expert boat chandlers and repairers.  More ‘experience’.

All in all we had been at St Jean de Losne for some 22 weeks, about 5 months, most of which had been spent in the ancien ecluse. We have met some wonderful and eccentric people, most of whom are committed to this water borne lifestyle. We had experienced our first white Christmas, been entombed in ice some 7cm thick around the hull, burned a tonne of wood and 1000 litres of diesel keeping warm and had discovered many of France’s low cost wines, some high priced ones as well, local delicacies and much of the surrounding district. But the adventure had really just begun.

From 28 March - Departure day from St Jean de Losne

The day dawned bright and clear.  The weather had been terrific for the last week or so and now it is not only sunny but also warming up. We had seldom used the pot belly stove for the last couple of weeks and had re-programmed the central heating down by degrees. We had enjoyed a farewell dinner and Jan’s birthday at Giles’ L’Amiral restaurant a couple of nights before and fortunately had a day to recover from his largesse.

On this lovely sunny spring day we had only two jobs to do after casting off all the attachments to the shore (power, water, phone), they being to hoist the scooter aboard at the entrance to the ecluse and then to stop at the fuel barge to take on some 450 litres of white fuel before heading off down river to St Symphorien and the lock that ushers you into the Canal Lateral Saone au Rhine.

We had decided to head off in the direction of Strasbourg to see how far we could explore this little used canal before having to turn around and retrace our steps back to St Jean and then up the Burgundy Canal to Dijon to pick up Gillian Ragus, our first visitor of the new season. We had of course had David and Judith Reed together with their daughter Jennifer on board during February, but that was considered part of the winter period rather than the now burgeoning spring / summer / autumn season.

While we had not planned to become a B&B operation, we were keen to invite interested parties aboard for a week or so at a time to teach them the skills and knowledge needed to enjoy this wonderful lifestyle, and therefore had added an invitation section on the website.  We knew most of the skills but at this stage had gained only a modicum of experience navigating from Amsterdam to St Jean but we knew enough to start.  Besides - the best way to learn is to teach.  (During the few years we ran Van Nelle we accumulated lots more experience and shared that with more than 50 interested people, many graduating to their own boats soon after travelling with us).

On the canal Saone au Rhine lies Besancon, once a Spanish town. That surprised us since it is well north of the centre of France but such were the borders of Europe during the period 1000 to 1700AD that parts of these countries often changed hands with wars or strategic marriages. Much of the canal to Besancon is based on the Doubs River which sometimes provides the waterway and sometimes runs parallel to it. It is a fierce river when carrying the run-off from the spring thaw of snow from Switzerland but at this time of the year it is reasonably slow flowing. This will be important when we get to Besancon as when we drove to the town to check out moorings we found the river flowing at about 6-7km per hour in the centre of town, too fast for comfort.

This time of the year was also immediately before Easter and we had been warned that it was likely the locks would be closed until the 7th of April, but our Finnish friends Ula and Olieboy had called the VNF in Dole who had insisted it was open. We also called up and were satisfied that all would be OK.

We drew away from the fuelling barge with our friends John and Jan waving frantically, all of us wondering where and when we would meet again. Into the 3 km/h current, Van Nelle forged ahead with little effort and we turned the corner of the Saone leading to the entry lock of the canal just before the time we had elected, 10.00am.

As we arrived at the lock we saw through the open doors that another boat was already inside. Since the ecluses are only 38.5m long and we are 27m, that leaves only 11.5m for other craft. I pointed this out to the eclusier who was unconcerned, unlike the occupants of the other boat as we towered over them on our approach into the lock. It turned out they were only 9m long so we had a whole 2.5m clearance for the stern of Van Nelle to the rear lock gates now closing on us.  With some helpful coaching to the occupants of the other boat (a very black woman and a very white man), they were able to hold their rental boat fairly still and avoid banging the lock gates or us. They preceded us for the balance of the morning until they stopped to do a spot of fishing. We passed by and continued through to Belvoye where we stopped for the night.

I had begun to refer to the shiny white plastic hire and private cruisers as ‘fenders’ (those objects used to cushion boats from unwanted contact with hard and rough surfaces), as they will fulfil that purpose in the hands of the unskilled as we come together in enclosed situations. Our 50 or so tonnes of iron and steel will be well protected by the crumple rates of such lightly built boats, handled by people who seem incapable of holding a straight course. We saw a boat approach us in the canal later where we had stopped for the afternoon and night, performing the most unbelievable changes of direction and almost but not quite, hitting each side of the canal as it rapidly tacked down the length of the bief (area between locks). We were sure it would bounce off us as it went past but it straightened just for that distance, avoiding us, and our ire.

We had decided that our cruising this year would not be at the same frenetic pace that we had adopted last year. The countryside was brilliant from St Symphorien through to Dole but especially for this first day of cruising in the new year. The change of scenery from semi built-up to fully rural with its soft greens and overhanging trees, the accompanying bird songs, the slow movements of the cattle and the slowly changing scenes of grand chateaux and rustic barns, was a great way to start this new year of travel and exploration.

The previous day’s travel mates, the hire boat with the checkerboard crew, accompanied us through the next three locks as they had caught up in the morning, until we reached a lock inevitably closed for lunch.  We secured Van Nelle to our mooring spikes, iron water pipes manfully beaten into the bank by the first mate Maureen. Following lunch the black and white team stayed put, indulging in some recreational fishing and we continued on to our overnight mooring, just past a huge cement factory. We were fortunately just around the corner from a bellowing, smoky factory, at a spot marked as an ‘aire du picque-nic’. It is not a great site for mooring in our estimation as it is lined with rusting hulks and is still within earshot of the factory-cum-mine-cum-power station. Our mooring, a little further along, was on the side of a toilet seat factory, a number of seemingly abandoned buildings and home to a large community of curious cats. I think they all came aboard during the night for a bit of an inspection but fortunately did not insist on bringing their meals with them or indeed staying aboard for the continuing journey.

 

We finished the day walking up to the nearby town, a couple of kilometres uphill, to find an absence of romance among the modern shops and supermarkets of this village. School came out as we passed on our way back to the boat and the sound of primary school children meeting their parents who were waiting to take them home, split the quiet air with Easter joy. Their school was festooned with bright pictures of Easter, clearly visible to the passing traffic through the school room windows.

The night was peaceful and quite quiet despite the proximity of the factories and we barbecued some chops and sausages, enjoyed a couple of beers and a glass or two of the latest cheap red - a Minervois - and so to bed.

I should add that our taste for wine is normally of the more refined end of the market but we had decided to explore all varieties to establish some good ‘quaffing’ wines while at the same time building a respectable cellar of the best.  We were to discover that the temptation of raiding the cellar outstripped our ability to keep it full, especially when guests were aboard.

Friday started quite early as we both woke before seven and so started preparations for our rendezvous at the next ecluse at 1000. The boat was doing everything right, engines and systems all working fine. We had only three or four locks to Dole, a large town in this region and one with a pretty port de plaisance, so we set off before 10.00 and arrived at about 11.30. The country we passed through was a mixture of wide open rural scenes, bordered with slight hills on which was the occasional grand chateau interspersed with some more mechanized scenes as we passed under huge motorways and railway bridges.

A word about locks.  In order to traverse the countryside, locks are built into the canals to keep the water levels adequate for transport and to raise or lower boats to pass over hills.  Reservoirs above the highest point of the canal feed the top section and this water flows down the system by gravity, feeding the locks as boats pass up and down.  If you are proceeding up the canal you arrive at a lock where the upstream gates are closed to stop the water flowing through and the downstream gates open for you after the water level in the lock has been allowed to subside to your level.  You enter and the downstream gates close behind you.  Water from the upstream side is then allowed to flood the interior of the lock by gravity, rushing through sluices in the main gates by the use of winches attached.  When the water level in the lock has reached the upstream level and the pressure on the upstream gates has equalised, the gates are then opened with the help of winches or operated by hydraulic rams.  You can then proceed on the next section of the canal.

Many locks are still manual but the VNF (the Voies Navigable de France - the responsible government department) has been progressively upgrading them in the major canals to automatic, hydraulic operation.  In many canals now you are issued with a battery operated switch, much like a garage door remote control, that you point at the lock from a distance and which initiates the automatic system.  Fine when they work ! 

The canal in this area is narrow and since it is not used for commercial traffic, not repaired to the same level as the more popular or populous ones. It has some very narrow corners and I thought forward a couple of weeks to the time we will be returning and wondered what it will be like infested with ‘fenders’, the pretty white hire boats of the Nichol’s fleet. We will find out I’m sure. I also thought about the phone call we had as we were leaving St Jean. Marcus Leguijt called to advise he was on his way by car to Lyon to pick up his boat, left there at the start of winter, and to take it back to Holland (sorry, the Netherlands) with his father-in-law as crew. They plan to use the Rhine to get back quickly so we will have to pass en-route. We made plans to keep in touch and to party on contact.

Meanwhile we arrived in Dole and took some time to moor the boat securely against the shallow and very sloping side wall opposite the floating pontoons of the town port de plaisance where the finger wharves are far too small for Van Nelle. This has it’s advantages since it lets us off the financial hook of the cost of mooring at the port. We quickly noticed our black and white friends of the first day, and right across the road from us, an enormous and elaborate fair ground, filled with side show alley attractions.

The fair was strangely quiet and remained that way for the day, the night and all the next day. It seemed strange to us to have their capital tied up for so long during the holiday weekend without any activity, save the children of the show families playing in the dust around the rides and games. At the extreme end of the fair is ‘trailer city’ where all the showmen and women have their caravans, their washing, cooking and children - oops - forgot, and the dogs, lots of mangy dogs. We have since been to the Tourist Office to find out that it will open tonight (Saturday) and will operate for the balance of Easter.

After a bicycle ride through the city’s sporting ground behind us and along the tow path to the next lock, we reversed our direction to investigate the huge shopping area on the opposite bank to the city, back in the direction from which we had come. It is a big shopping complex with a giant Geant (a chain similar to Target) together with accompanying hardware and other stores. We of course had to worship at the temple of Brico and there bought some fly screen material to cover windows later in the season when the mozzies get an urge to feast at ‘chez McDaniell’. Maureen also found the volcanic rock that turns the empty cage of the barbecue into an efficient griller. We retired for pizza and beer on the boat, since right next to us is moored a floating, wood fired pizzeria. Another early night gazing at the spectacular church which dominates the skyline and is lit, fantastically at night.

This is a very pretty place and one worth exploring as the historic centre of the town has been preserved as a medieval walking space, now filled with opulent boutiques, magasins de cadeaux (gift shops) and restaurants. Dole also boasts the birthplace of Louis Pasteur whose birth house is preserved as a tanning and Pasteur museum (his father was a tanner). Tanneries line the edge of the watercourse that is diverted into the town from the river Doubs which flows fulsomely right in front of the rows of medieval timbered houses and ateliers (workshops).  The old tanneries are now smart townhouses and apartments.

The markets were open and full on Saturday mornings, covering the square and the ‘place’ in front and around the huge church which is adjacent to the permanent covered markets which open every day to sell foodstuffs. Outside, the market place is for cheap jeans and ladies underwear, trinkets, haberdashery and knick-knacks. Interesting and colourful with meat, fish, cheeses, pates, salads, vegetables and fruit.

The restaurants here are also wonderful and varied, many specializing in the regional specialities using fresh local produce. Roasts and thick stews of rabbit, beef and chicken are washed down with Burgundian red and white wines and are followed by the rich and fantastically decorated pastries and chocolates that are on display in many shop fronts. Many of the restaurants entreat you to dine in or take away ‘plats de emporter’, an alternative to BYO perhaps since almost nowhere in France can you take your own wine - a common practise where we come from. Take-away restaurant food is a great way to have a feast on the deck of the boat in warmer weather without the formality of the restaurant.

Maureen found and bought some local pate-en-croute (terrine encased in pastry) and jambon persile (ham chunks suspended in a parsley flavoured gelatine) for lunch which was accompanied with the bitingly delicious local lemon cordial and fresh round loaves of bread, with salted butter of course. The French enjoy mostly unsalted butter (doux) while we peasants prefer the salted variety (beurre au sel).

This afternoon we will visit the Mediateque which is housed in a big and very beautiful 17th century building.  This promises to be a showcase of audiovisual and written records of the city. We will also explore the city museum, visited briefly once before on a car trip and filled with a rich array of art and archaeology. It’s a good day for indoor pursuits as the sky has taken on a slight overcast and the temperature has failed to rise much since morning.

Well, the Mediateque turned out to be a bit of a damp squib as it was really just a library with a couple of PCs connected to their data base. Mind you, it’s a very nice library but not as ‘tech’ as we expected so we moved on to the Musee de Beaux Arts.

The Musee has a very good range of paintings and sculpture by a surprisingly well known collection of ‘masters’ so we took our time to explore all the rooms and exhibits. Among the wide range of styles and ages, including many gloomy religious works, were some really stunning pieces. A huge picture of Napoleon’s army retreating from Russia featuring an obviously spent and dispirited officer sitting on the flank of his expired horse, one of his boots missing and the long line of soldiers behind him, dragging their weary bodies through the snow back to France. I have forgotten the numbers but there were something like 400,000 troops sent to Russia as part of Le Grande Armee but only some 40,000 returned. The Russian policy of scorched earth and the ravages of winter defeated the great force, expertly recorded in this painting.

There is a section containing impressionists including Picasso, Lautrec, Van Gogh and others. This section also was stunning and kept me involved for much longer than I had expected. On the way out, down the grand staircase I also came across a whole collection of exquisite paintings and statues of female nudes with the ages of the pieces going back 200 years and reflecting a wide range of subjects from legend to modern opera.  The French love exhibiting the female form ‘sans vetements’ (without clothing).

On our return to the boat we noticed a duckling which had obviously become separated from its mother and siblings. Crying plaintively it swam back and forth the length of the port against and with the current before disappearing downstream towards the barrage. Some days later, on our return journey through Dole we noticed the duckling’s mother was reduced to 5 ducklings from her original 7. That’s the way of nature. Unfortunately we were unable to do anything about the orphan we saw as it was well out of reach and we had no way of catching it.

That night we attended the fair and chose a four story, walk through, chamber of horrors as our entertainment. It consisted of narrow passages with moving floors, blacked out sections and mechanical spiders etc. It was great fun to abandon adult gravitas and just laugh through this rather childish fun palace as we continued on to the bumper cars and shooting gallery.

Sunday saw us packing a picnic to take by bicycle to a part of the river we could not get to by boat. This was a branch of the river that flowed over a large barrage, all of it running along the camping and sports area of Dole. There were a few other wanderers including a man and his 4 year old boy who waded across the barrage to a couple of the little islands standing along the dam. It looked pretty dangerous and certainly something that would be prohibited in Australia but the two explorers made it out and back, the young boy enjoying his ride on his dad’s neck.

During the picnic we had a call from Marcus and Els who advised that they were now not doing the same canal and therefore we would not have the chance to meet them on their trip back to the Netherlands. This was a great disappointment as we had been looking forward to renewing our friendship since they left St Jean in November for Lyon. I agonised about it for some time before coming up with the solution. We would take a taxi to St Jean to pick up our car which we would drive to Pontailler, their next stop. There we would pick them up and bring them to Dole for a night on the town and an overnight stay on Van Nelle. We would take them back to their boat the next morning after breakfast and return the car to the ancien ecluse before getting a taxi back to Dole and continuing on our way. Expensive but fun. We called them and they agreed so we packed up the remnants of our picnic and headed back to the boat to make arrangements. We soon had a taxi at the car park and were on our way.

The taxi driver turned out to be a bonus as she spoke quite good English, allowing us to practise our French with her as she corrected our verbs. This worked both on the way to St Jean and the next day on the return as we booked her for both trips. As the drive was something approaching 30 minutes each way she had a bonus as well, since the weekend was turning out to be slow for her business.

All worked well and we picked up Marcus and Els (and Hout, their tiny dog), which was given a stern warning by Maureen as it had bitten her in November. Hout behaved very well for the next 24 hours as we made our way to Van Nelle, settled our guests in and then all headed off to dinner at the Templiers Restaurant with them. This being Easter the restaurant had devised a special (more expensive) menu for that night and we dined on sumptuous local specialities and wines. I really must keep good notes of the meals and wines we have had at restaurants but it seems too onerous at the time to work, while we are enjoying the cuisine.

Templiers is a very smart and efficient, but friendly place, which has an air of formality among the starched white table cloths that are placed on various sized tables distributed under medieval arches.  This could have been a feasting hall or dungeons, given the stone walls and high arched ceilings supported by spidery stone pillars. The owners and staff are courteous and helpful with suggestions about the best wines (and not the most expensive) to compliment the foods chosen from the 6 course menu. We were all in very casual dress but that didn’t faze them as it does in some (to be avoided) restaurants in Paris. We had a mixture of foods including fish, lamb and pork main courses, all beautifully cooked and sauced and arranged ‘a la’ nouvelle cuisine. The wines were young local whites (quite acidic with a taste of resin) and reds (soft, fruity and quite light) after starting the meal with an aperitif of a wine liqueur made by distilling wine to a spirit and blending it back into a sweet wine.

We headed back to the boat and went to bed early as we all had journeys to make on the morrow. By 11.00am the next morning we were heading back to St Jean from Pontailler, having dropped our two Dutch friends back at their boat ‘ST53' aka ‘Something Else’ and at 12.00 the lady taxi driver picked us up for the return to Van Nelle. We spent the afternoon reading rather than cruising and had a BBQ before heading to bed to rest for the next day’s adventure.

A quick trip to the supermarket in the morning preceded our departure to Ranchon, a place we had picked out on our recce by car. This is a small town with a lovely quai for pleasure boats in a narrow section of the canal. We were lucky and on arrival were the only boat there. That did not last, as by the evening there was a 27m luxemotor tied alongside us and two ‘fenders’ (white hire cruisers) at the end of the quai. We had enjoyed the cruise to Ranchon as it takes you through really beautiful countryside along a narrow and winding canal which, from time to time, gets quite shallow. We met a loaded barge heading towards Dole and went crunching over the loose gravel bank as we slipped past its huge bulk.

One of the key reasons for staying a couple of days at Ranchon was a restaurant we had discovered on the main road a couple of kilometres before the town. When we drove past, it’s ‘car’ park was full of huge trucks, some 30 or 40 of them. Any time you see a restaurant with a full car park, especially if the vehicles are trucks, it means you have found a place of exceptional quality and value. We had decided we would lunch at the restaurant on our return and so on arrival we unshipped the bikes and headed back to make a reservation for tomorrow’s lunch. We had a couple of beers and chatted to a lady who had recognised us from a visit she had made to St Jean some months before. She thought we had a small dog - actually it was Marcus and Else’s ‘Hout’ that had accompanied us all to a waterfront café where the woman had been drinking with friends. Our luncheon booking made and beers consumed, we headed back to Van Nelle.

The next morning, in order to work up an appropriate appetite for what turned out to be a large meal, we turned up the scrapers and sandpaper and stripped back the front of the wheelhouse in order to re-varnish it’s sun and ice affected coverage. In a couple of hours we had stripped, sanded and applied the first three coats of Deks Ole No 1 varnish and a coat of the No 2 to the timber. We washed and dressed in our cleanest dirty jeans and set off on our bikes for the Restaurant de la Maritime. On arrival we were ushered towards the dining room, all pretty with table cloths and nice tableware. We were having none of that and insisted, to the amazement of the portly woman maitre’d, on going into the laminex wonderland that was the adjacent truckers dining area.

Maureen was the only woman in the room which was filled with some 30 or 40 burly truckers, and perhaps it was her presence that kept the noise and behaviour subdued, but no-one complained. The menu was four courses with several choices in each. We chose Oeufs Mayonnaise and Charcuterie - both huge entrees, followed by Coq au Vin and Filet de Dinde with Frites and Choufleur. These generous plats principale were followed by the plat du fromage and then dessert, pastries and fresh salad de fruits. All this was washed down by a litre and a half of ‘Le Vin Rouge’. The whole cost 27 Euros or $A38 - for two !

We waddled out to our bikes as the truckers headed off to all points European and wove our way back down the tow path to meet the two Swiss men who arrived shortly thereafter on the beautiful luxemotor Baron de L’Ecluse, which we invited to tie up beside us, a manoeuvre that was inevitably followed by drinks on their boat. Four people from Basle in Switzerland own the boat which was to be kept at St Jean. On board at the time were retired art teacher Ulrich Boni and maritime entrepreneur Beat Heydricht, who had a supply of crisp white wine from Switzerland.

M and I had been very surprised on our visit to Lausanne and Montreaux to find huge vineyards lining the roads to those Swiss cities. We had tried some of the product at an Italian restaurant in Montreaux and had brought some back to St Jean, now here was another opportunity to broaden our tasting experience. We exchanged the favour with a South African white after which both boats were inspected by each other’s crews. The next morning I delivered fresh baguettes to them and adjusted their lines as we were passed by another loaded peniche. That I had to take pictures of, since it was improbable that these three barges would be able to fit side-by-side in the canal at the same time. Somehow it all worked and shortly after, Baron de L’Ecluse and two of it’s four owners steamed off - direction Dole. We left soon after - direction Besancon.

Actually we had chosen to stop at a place called Thoraise which boasted a pontoon, aire de pique

nic and a couple of Chateaux. At the end of the short stretch of canal after the ecluse leading into this attractive dell was a tunnel which we would have to navigate the next morning. As we arrived in the lock we noticed a couple of people fishing on the pontoon and as the lock filled I went ashore to explain that we would be occupying their fishing spot for the night. They accepted this news happily and moved off to an area further up the canal as we manoeuvred Van Nelle against the pontoon and tied up for the night. A quick check of the mooring and we took the bikes off to investigate why a commercial peniche that we had been following all day was now seemingly stuck in the end of the tunnel ahead.

We rode up the tow path and through the tunnel to discover that they had stopped and tied up with their stern in the tunnel and the front 7/8ths of the barge out in the turn-around that confronts you as you leave the sous-terrain (tunnel). Just big enough for a 38m barge to take the absolute 90 degree right hand turn, this section of the canal is another challenge for boats like us without a bow thruster. If you get the angle of departure from the tunnel wrong, you end up ingloriously hard against a rock wall, pushing with boat hooks to give your vessel enough room to continue turning. However, that challenge was for the next morning, right now we wanted to know why the boat had stopped, whether it would be there for long, and why the VNF and the Gendarmes were there.

The rather formidable wife of the skipper explained in broken English (as they were Dutch) that they had seen rocks falling as they approached the end of the tunnel and had stopped short to investigate with a camera. She had discovered a number of youths throwing large pieces of rock into the canal at the end of the tunnel from high overhead and had photographed them in the act. She now wanted the Gendarmes to take the evidence and capture the culprits. We left her to it and went off to investigate the town and the Chateaux.

A steep hill climb on the bikes made somewhat easier by our 21 gears had us at the top of the village to find no useful shops but a salon for ladies hairstyling (they exist in every town in France even those without any other commercial enterprise) and a Mairie that opened occasionally. Some council workers were cutting down the only grand looking tree in the village square so we went on to the gates of Chateau Thoraise. Unfortunately the place was shuttered and barred but we saw enough to be impressed. This is a grand residence with commanding views and cultured walks through home fields littered with ancient trees and arbors. The turrets and vaulted windows add to the splendour of the symmetrical architecture and one can vividly imagine the ladies with low cut, long silk gowns carrying their song birds and lutes to a shady spot as the men in hose and doublets watch their falcons preen, waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting dove.

We let the brakes off and rode like the wind, back down the hill to the grotto in which we would spend the night. As the sun set, the few people sitting in this delightful spot gathered up their belongings and their children and wandered off to hidden cars and their homes. We lit the oven for a roast New Zealand leg of lamb for dinner and popped the cork on a local red wine to accompany it.

The next day we expected to make Besancon and so set off reasonably early as we needed to investigate various mooring options on our arrival. During this phase of the cruise we used a mixture of manual locks served by eclusiers of both sexes and the ‘telecommande’, the little battery powered transmitter that operated the automatic locks. This device seemed to be varied in it’s performance as sometimes it would trip the electronic switch at more than 100 metres and sometimes not until we were some 30 metres distance. This made us somewhat cautious on our approaches to the ecluses as Van Nelle is easier to handle while moving than at a dead stop, especially in cross winds. On our voyage to Besancon we also had to pass through some narrow passages, bridges, garde locks and channels, some which curved or deviated mid-stream. For these, the best approach is the slowest, and Maureen stood by with a tyre on a rope in case part of the boat came too close to the stone edges. We survived without noticeable ‘adventure marks’, as the scuffing is called.

We arrived at Besancon at about 1.00pm and took the left channel through the loop of the town to the main quai in the centre, rather than the right channel through the tunnel that cuts off the town. This was a bit of a gamble as when we had reconnoitred the moorings, the river current was quite strong, and if it had remained that way we would have an uneasy night. We passed the place where our Swiss friends had said they moored, adjacent to the lock and below the walls of the huge citadel that is perched high above, admiring this imposing fortress which has guarded the city for hundreds of years, and cruised slowly around the loop to the quai. There were no other boats and the onlookers on both sides of the river, gazing down from the high embankments, were amused to see a boat appear and moor, right in the heart of their town. For the next couple of days we became a focal point for tourists with cameras and young passers by who use the area as a recreation and drinking spot. Fortunately we suffered no inconvenience from the mostly good humoured girls and boys who passed by and who often called out various comments to us about the boat or encouraging us in our meals. One young girl stood looking at Van Nelle for some time and then put her thumb out as a hitch hiker would. I wondered how serious she might have been.

We walked through the old sections of Besancon that afternoon and the next morning before we departed for adventures further up current. This city is a centre of watch making and many shops concentrate on watches and clocks. This was an opportunity to get the batteries changed in our two Tag Heuer watches as Maureen’s had stopped months before and mine would certainly stop soon if I ignored this chance. As other shops in Reims had been unable to get the back off M’s watch we wondered if they could here and if they would re-pressurise the watches for our SCUBA use. They could have it done they explained but it would take up to five days - obviously a job for specialists in some other location. We opted for the 9 euro battery change only and would chance the water tightness of the current seals.

Besancon was a Spanish town in the sixteen hundreds and was ‘liberated’ to the French by one of the King Louis - I believe the 14th - the Sun King himself. It has little Spanish influence now but it does boast an extensive ‘old town’ that has been preserved, as so many European centres have. These are a joy to walk though and a great place to take in the changes of architecture and building in the various quarters of the town. Timbered buildings with bulging walls and overhanging second floors seem to defy gravity as they continue into their 4th or 5th hundred year of useful existence. Grand stone buildings are now museums or Hotels de Ville (town halls) and there are the galleries, museums, grand bridges and boulevards, all here for the eyes of the traveller - and there are many travellers. As one walks through the towns you can pick up the conflicting cadences of different national languages, obviously French, but also American, German, English and Italian. Many young people are here, travelling cheap or studying in the Lycees and Universities that have taught for hundreds of years.

We spent some time in the Musee de Beaux Arts in Besancon and were rewarded by a rich collection of art, both ancient and modern, the most striking being those of Cezanne and Matisse and some grand historic pictures together with the more sombre religious works. They also have many pictures showing major historical events, such as the sieges of the principal nearby towns by successive armies, these leading to the ultimate unification of France as we now know it. Maureen noticed one ‘the Crossing of the Rhine by Louis 14th’ where the various banners leading the troops were one of white, one of red and one of blue. These later merged into the symbol of French nationality - the tricolour- just as the towns and regions did, to make up La Belle France.

After leaving Besancon and heading further north-east I did a regular engine check and discovered a small leak of coolant from the side of the engine block that I suspected had begun after having had substantial work done in St Jean. This was a huge blow as it could have presaged a catastrophic break in the outer casing of the engine, an engine I was still somewhat hesitant to fully trust as a result of the coolant leaks discovered originally in the sump.  I had a very sick feeling over this, as an engine change would be a huge and very expensive undertaking, despite the fact it was insured under the generous terms of our Dutch insurers.  Rather than allowing this to prey on my mind and possibly increase in severity further from help, we turned around just north of the city and returned through the tunnel and back to Thoraise on the way back to St Jean.

This day was Maureen’s birthday so a special effort was made on arrival at Thoraise’ leafy glade that we had enjoyed a couple of days before. Our last bottle of L’Amiable Grand Cru Champagne was chilled, wild flowers picked and presented, presents opened and a special meal prepared. We sat up and enjoyed the location and the occasion. While in preparation for the repast, a large converted peniche came through the lock. I inquired if they wished to join us at the pontoon and was brusquely brushed off by a very bossy British woman who indicated that they were on their way to a much better spot, and they passed by. ‘Potagoo’ was the name of the barge and I guess that’s an indication of what holds it and her crew together.

The next morning I took the first swim of the season - unintentionally. We prepared to leave Thoraise by first operating the electronic device at the lock which rewarded us by beginning it’s operations to automatically let us in. In such calm conditions very close to a lock we normally use the substantial boat hooks to gently push us away from the pontoon and line us up with the ecluse but on this occasion I used a thinner, shorter pole since the amount of push needed was not great. Unfortunately I put it against an insubstantial ledge of the pontoon and it slipped as I was extended and I found myself unbalanced and heading for the gap between boat and pontoon. I made an instant decision to leap for the pontoon and changed it in mid flight with the result that I landed in about a metre and a half or so of water having bounced off the pontoon. The boat of course was now free and drifting away. It’s funny how super human you become in such situations.  I was back on Van Nelle within seconds, using a tyre that was hung off the side as a ladder and I swiftly stripped my wet clothes off, put the boat in gear and made for the lock.

It was at that stage that I realised that some interested passers by were approaching to take a better look at this boat going into a lock - if they did they would get a shock since I was now completely naked !

I needed some clothes urgently which Maureen, still in a state of shock rushed off to get me. I was shortly thereafter clothed and Van Nelle was safely in the ecluse. It was all a bit sudden and silly and shows just how easy it is for these events to happen. On this occasion it was funny but in other circumstances it could be tragic. I had a substantial and painful bruise on my ribs to remind me for the next few days.

We made Dole that day and enjoyed a quiet night before departing the next day for St Jean de Losne where, after having to take lunch in the penultimate ecluse, we arrived back in the ancien ecluse at around 3.00pm. Home again. 

By phone on the way I arranged for a conference with Phillipe, the maintenance director of H2O, for the next morning regarding the engine and was satisfied that a course of action was suitable after discussions with he and Charles, the senior director of the company. The outcome of that issue came some days later, after the local Baudouin engine expert, his offsider, Phillipe and Charles all arrived on board shortly after 8.00am for a look at the leak and caught me still in bed. Once joined in the engine room, the expert was somewhat dismissive of my concerns regarding some minor oil leaks from the head gasket as these engines apparently all leak to some extent. The slight coolant leak he said could be fixed simply with an additive and the other issues should just be monitored. The additive, Holt’s Soudure block moteur (a sort of liquid solder added to distilled water and replacing the antifreeze coolant), was ordered for the following Monday when I will mix the potion, drain the coolant and replace it with the Holt’s, then run the engine hot for some time to have it take effect. We will see what this does.

Our combined inspection of the crack also discovered scratches marking the extent of the crack which had been painted over.  Obviously this was not a new occurrence.  (We found that to be true as some years later when we met the previous owners we were advised the crack had occurred when the engine was left on deck in winter before installation.  It had operated perfectly for years before our ownership).

So. We are back in St Jean and over the next couple of days we drove back to Dijon to recce the port and to catch up with John and Jan with whom we have planned another dinner at L’Amiral for Saturday - tonight. We have a couple of weeks still before our next guest, Gill, arrives which we will spend doing the bits and pieces of painting, engine jobs and manufacturing mosquito proof nets for the various window and skylights we open in summer to keep this big boat cool.

8 April - 26 April

Well the next three weeks were pretty uneventful. I spent much of the first and second week preparing the engine for its new treatment to eliminate leaks and then administering the treatment, mostly just a matter of draining coolant and replacing it with Holt’s Soudure Bloc Moteur, then emptying it and refilling it again with the same after receiving a new thermostat as I found during this whole process that the original was not working.

In all this maintenance (why didn’t we do it over the winter period ?) we also found that the engine temperature gauge is very accurate measured against a thermometer on the engine head. We can now run the engine a lot warmer than it has been to date as a result of the new thermostat and trust in the gauges. To test and make sure the Soudure does it’s work we needed to run the motor and did so on some little cruises up and down the river.

The final week before heading off to Dole to pick up Gill Ragus, we decided to do some painting. That turned out to be - repaint the entire ship. Cabin tops, wheelhouse roof, decks, parts of the hull and the blue and white trim running the length of Van Nelle. Why did we start this ? Anyway, the ship looks brand new and hopefully the paint will cure hard soon. The deck paints seem to take ages to cure to a walk-on hardness.

Also during this time, Maureen struggled with netting to make mozzie screens for some of the skylights and port holes. This proved to be a thankless and difficult task which has not yet reached completion.

We arranged a "Happy Hour for Boaties" during this time to which about a dozen, mostly new arrivals, turned up. Tall tales and true were told over a few beers in the spring sunshine on the Quai Nationale.

Towards the end of the three weeks we had a couple of little car issues, like the driver’s seat breaking free of it’s anchorage, collapsing while in motion.  It was replaced in half an hour from parts obtained from the local car scrap yard. One of the immobiliser activating keys has also decided to die but thankfully we have a second which continues to operate the doors and ignition. In trying to fix the other I discovered I had left the electrical tester on for some weeks so it was flat and needed a new battery. It’s never straight forward when it comes to minor repairs - there always seems to be something that needs fixing before the original problem can be tackled. Why is that ?

Our neighbour, Matthew, was off to fly 747s around the world for his employer, Korean Airlines, and asked me to run their Zodiac while he was away. This is one of the larger units with a very powerful motor, full remote steering and engine controls and a semi-rigid hull, and it goes.... I took it up river to the Gare d’Eau in about 5 minutes, a distance that takes Van Nelle half an hour. While there I stopped in on David and Susan from South Australia, who are working on their boat ‘Wanderer’. Their engine just stopped on the way to St Jean just before winter and they were semi-marooned in between towns on a canal. Now they wait for May to have the engine repaired and while doing so are installing a shower, extra water tanks and doing some inevitable painting jobs.

Maureen is making yet another bed, a sort of emergency conversion for the wheelhouse settee and I have installed another fire extinguisher since some of our others (just a year old) have run below their green pressure markings and we have no time to have them re-charged here. But, apart from those little ‘make work’ items, we are ready to head out tomorrow (Friday) for the trip to Dole to pick up Gill. We made contact with her and suggested the change which has us travelling in one direction through St Jean to Dijon from where we can continue on up the Bourgogne Canal.

It is ANZAC Day today and I remember the stirring Dawn Service and City Parade we helped bring about in Albany just a year ago. All this was still a dream at that time. This is a good place to remember the ANZACS as so many of them perished in France in WWI, fighting for a Mother Country few had seen. Lest we forget !

25 April - 12 May

St Jean - Semur en Auxois

So, after our false start to Besancon, we are now properly on the. Not that I can complain about St Jean since it was there that we were able to get the car and our Cartes de Longue Sejour plus update the website and establish ourselves as French residents. But now the serious business of cruising is on us and we are on another positioning trip to Dole to pick up our first guest for the new season.

We departed St Jean for Dole on Friday 26 April and immediately had a problem, in that a commercial barge happened along as we were waiting for the lock to the Rhone au Rhine Canal to open for us off the Saone River. Since we have to give way to commercial boats, this meant a wait of what turned out to be an hour an a half. Big Bummer as we had arrived at exactly the time we had advised them. Anyway, we used the delays to monitor the engine temperature range now that we have taken to limiting the water flow to the exchanger. The engine runs better and hotter and the temperature gauge is remarkably accurate, as measured against the thermometer on the engine itself.

The commercial being ahead of us slowed the trip down as they travel at a sedate 2kmh but we arrived in plenty of time at about 6.00pm and passed through the port in order to turn Van Nelle around. We managed that OK and went back to our original spot near the Pizza boat.

Next day was ‘Gillian Ragus arrival day’ so we finished our final jobs preparing her room and the boat and waited for the taxi to pick us up to go to the Gare (station) which is too far to walk with baggage. The car arrived on time and so did the train so we were back on VN shortly after 7.30pm and after a bottle of welcoming Champagne, off to the restaurant (Le Bec) at about 8.30. Delightful meal and wines.

Gill had a bunch of washing to do as she had been travelling for weeks with a different place almost every night so the next morning was spent doing a bit of domestic work before heading out to see the sights of Dole. We walked and talked, took in the town sights in the morning and the musee after a pleasant lunch on board. That night we prepared for our departure on the morrow to St Jean de Losne.

We had an easy cruise the next day to St Jean with a stop for fuel at the bunkership in town on the way to the ancien ecluse where everything was just as we left it. The car was perfect and started without any problems so we were soon off for a trip into town to check out a rumour regarding the closing of the lock system on May Day, Wednesday. We planned to have a day in St Jean on Monday and two days cruise to Dijon for a day there before Gill had to leave for Switzerland and Italy. The VNF confirmed the closure so plans were altered. A one day cruise to Dijon would take place on Tuesday.  This would be a bit of a stretch but possible, it normally taking two days pleasant cruising to achieve the distance.

We dined at L’Amiral with Giles being his usual ebullient self and set off the next am early to hit the ecluse at St Jean right on 9.00am. We were ahead of the game until lunch time when we did the right thing and stopped before the lock for lunch. We were really tee’d off when a hotel boat - Continental Waterway’s Hirondelle passed us and went into the lock. It then proceeded to meander for the next two hours holding us up and nearly costing us the entrance to Dijon since we arrived at the last lock with only 20 minutes to spare. They had been stopping to receive deliveries of foodstuffs from their chef along the way, thereby delaying us as well. Really bad manners !!!!!

Hotel boats often exhibit arrogance on the canals, especially to hire boats which they toss off moorings.  They have the right to do so but exhibit an arrogance that seems to come with their culture.  We had several face to face encounters with hotel boat managers who insisted, quite without any basis or rights, that we should move from areas we were entitled to be in.  It was cold comfort when some years later that company went to the wall, bankrupted by the huge downturn caused by terrorism, Bird Flu and other factors which kept millions of Americans tourists at home.

Arriving finally at the Port Fluviale in Dijon we moored up to the quai where we spent the next three days without cost and without any services. Time for Gill to explore the city, do a fair bit of shopping, and also some planning for the trip on to Switzerland and Italy.

Gillian was an employee when I ran Lexmark in Western Australia and an elite athlete, training for her chance for the Commonwealth and possibly Olympic teams.  She had come to Europe to compete in several first class competitions which were now over and stayed on for a bit of sight seeing.

Wednesday was May Day so we expected some demonstrations, marches or rallies but saw nothing. Didn’t see much of Dijon either as, despite it being a holiday, everything was closed, and I mean everything !. Well we caught up on a few of the sights as the visitors centre was open and had a walking tour itinerary which we followed, finding some new and interesting spots along the way, including an antique shop where I saw (and subsequently bought) a couple of old champagne glasses and two crystal wine glasses. They are both of a very chunky old faceted design and are quite pretty while being solid and functional. They probably came from a hotel and restaurant supply shop originally, but they look and feel good so I’m happy with them.  (This began a five year collecting spree of old wine glasses and antique silver.  We bought it bit by bit all over France until we shipped back to Australia a 10 piece setting of almost matching crystal and silver.  A pleasant an inexpensive way to bolster interest in shopping and pleasure in ownership).

We had the next day to check out the art gallery which was undergoing some renovations, so the big picture I wanted to photograph was not available - the retreat of Napoleon’s army from Moscow. I’ll probably discover it is in the museum in Beaune and not Dijon if I keep looking.  (Actually it is housed in Dole so I was not going to find it on this trip).

We also went to the top of Phillipe Le Bon’s tower which offered magnificent sights of the surrounds of Dijon. That night saw us enjoy another roast lamb to celebrate Gill’s stay after which we played cards and Trivial Pursuit. Seemed like a fun thing to do.

Gilly left us on Thursday night for her continuing trip through Lausanne and on to Venice and Rome. We had an early night and prepared for our departure the next day in the direction of the Pouilly tunnel, some 20 or 30km up the Canal de Bourgogne. This section of the canal is over populated with locks so a full days travel is about 12-15km with about double that number of locks. We made Fleury the first day and had an uneventful night after a pretty pleasant but energetic day’s cruising.

Rivers formed the best transport routes through early Europe, especially for large, heavy materials and precious and fragile cargoes of crystal and china.  The important towns grew up on the banks of major rivers as they formed not only transport links but essential water supplies, the raw material for life and manufacturing.  To link rivers and major towns to other rivers and markets, canals were built, starting at one river, rising over the intervening land to descend to another river on the other side of the range.  In order to climb and descend, locks were built into the system.  Capable of raising boats about 2-3 metres each, meant 10 or more locks to climb 30 metres .  In this stretch of the Canal de Bourgogne the rise is more like 100 metres - so more than 30 locks.  You travel maybe one kilometre for each lock, sometimes only 500 metres and each lock has to be flooded, opened, closed flooded or voided and opened for you to travel through.  This normally takes about 20 minutes if there is no-one in front and the lock is available to you.  If you are following another boat it will take 20 minutes for him, 20 minutes to turn the lock around and 20 minutes for you - an hour.  So a stretch of some 29 locks in a day is a big day out !  We have done that number several times in order to make a deadline arrival of guests but its not something you want to do every day.  It can be exhausting.

The next day we moved on to La Forge where, after a kilometre walk we discovered the Abbaye de Bussier. This is truly remarkable restored abbey with grounds that sweep down through trees and water features to the road that fronts the extensive property. Built by the Cistercian monks it was taken by the Revolutionaries but restored to the Catholic Church diocese of Dijon which now uses it for retreats and small group conferences. A group of young girls were being welcomed as we toured the grounds, which are free to visit so long as no conference sessions are in progress.

The next day we passed on to the area just below the fortified town and chateau of Chateauneuf which we had seen on a car recce to the area months before to check out the Pouilly tunnel. This is another fabulous place. Built in the 13th and 14th centuries it was taken from the woman owner who murdered her husband and given by Louis 11 to Phillipe Pot, his courtier. The chateau contains two residences, one in ruins but originally for guests and the other in quite good condition, furnished as it might have been during the 17th century.

Remarkable for me was the fact that the toilets are preserved, two ‘en-suite’ to bedrooms, but with very cold stone seats. Perhaps they had cushions. They are the ‘long drop’ versions, sort of just hanging out over the side of the building - a bit draughty. I think they are remarkable since toilets almost never appear in historic buildings, having been destroyed and turned into broom cupboards or whatever as if they had no need for such things hundreds of years ago. The village is very well preserved but now going through what appears to be expensive renovations. There are a couple of pleasant 2 star hotels made from local houses - all 12th - 14th century but modernised inside and I’m sure, complete with WCs.

The trip to Chateauneuf is up a very long, steep hill. We took the bikes but walked up 3/4s of the distance -  the ride down was exhilarating. We went up twice since on our first day everything was closed -‘ferme lundi’ We should know not to trust guide books, all of which said it was closed Tuesday ! Anyway, it was no great effort to stay another day and repeat the climb in order to be able to roam through the buildings and streets. The Chateau has extensive furnishings and the chapel has, in Phillipe Pot’s crypt, a copy of the original coffin supported by cowled monks, the copy made by the artisans of the Louvre so they could have the original.

Getting to Chateauneuf by canal is a delight, despite the number of locks experienced on this hilly part of the ‘systeme fluviale’. The countryside is all rural, dominated by rolling meadows of deep green pasture, interspersed by paddocks of bright yellow crops. We have been advised that these are rape seed but also told that they are mustard. Perhaps they are both. Whatever they are, they are a surprisingly bright yellow, standing out vividly against the background of the pasture’s deep greens and the nearby forests of trees in all shades of green. Through these placid fields the canal meanders, joining town to town and village to village.  Villages are situated about a meal’s distance apart on foot - less than 10 km - but many are shrinking and disappearing as the young migrate to the cities and the old go to les maisons de retraite (retirement homes).

Boat speed here is limited to 6kmh to ensure that the already eroded banks are not further damaged. The canals are about 15m wide but due to erosion and the subsequent collapse of the walls (once proud examples of the stonemasons art), the navigable depth of about 1.8m is only found close to the centre. For a boat of Van Nelle’s girth it is both dangerous and potentially damaging to stray of the centre line as parts of the original rock walls can shatter propellers while the boat’s suction, caused by the large prop sucking water from ahead and abeam, can cause large waves to wash away further parts of the banks if this speed limit is ignored.  Van Nelle is a very ‘clean’ boat with its very shallow, curved shape and flat bottom, quite different to the deep square shape of commercial boats, so at 6kmh in canals we create very little wake and suction.

Suction also causes difficulty steering large boats in the canals, as it tends to drag the stern toward the nearest canal side. Countering this action causes the stern to swing toward the opposite bank and once again the suction acts to drag the stern even closer. A zig zag course can be the result of too much power or of the helms-person not concentrating on keeping a central course. Another potential hazard is the approach of another large vessel, since their size requires a diversion from the centre line and their propeller also causes suction that affects your boat, as yours does to them when passing.           

Imagine if you can, a long U shaped channel about the width of two and a half large barges, the sides of the channel eroded so they are very shallow near the edge and underlaid by thick mud and large rocks. Now introduce two barges approaching each other. Each barge’s propeller is sucking large amounts of water from the confined space below and to it’s sides and it’s bow is projecting a sizeable shock wave forward. The boats approach bow to bow, both keeping to the centre of the channel for fear of becoming stuck or hitting submerged objects. As they get within half a boat length, both turn slightly to the right so that the angle allows them to miss each other until about abeam. At that time they turn slightly left so that they head back toward the centre of the channel. As they approach each other, their shock waves tend to push the bows apart, but as they begin to pass, the suction tends to pull them together. Meanwhile, the length of each causes their sterns, and therefore propellers and rudders, to swing close to the edge of the canal and the possibility of damage. Both skippers reduce power and hold their breath, waiting and listening for the inevitable scrape of gravel down the side and the kick of the wheel that indicates the rudder going aground. Once past, each lets out a long-contained breath and fights his boat back to the centre of the channel.

We have seen two boats become hopelessly stuck while passing, coming to rest on both sides of the channel and completely blocking it. Long minutes of maximum power ahead and astern normally sucks and blows enough of the base of the canal aside in order for the boats to refloat and continue.....but not always.

We departed after lunch on Tuesday for Escommes, the large port before the Pouilly Tunnel, for which we have to take down our roof. These boats are built with the wheelhouse made up of folding panels on the sides, removable doors and roof panels. We had not had a rehearsal of this de-mounting procedure so we wanted to have a clear morning to be able to ‘play 9 and adjust’. As it turned out, it took us just a half hour to take down the three roof panels and their supporting aluminium sections, remove the doors and fold down the front, back and two side window wall panels. Everything worked very easily and fitted neatly on the front deck. The roof sections are a bit heavy but nothing that we couldn’t handle with a bit of a grunt.  Actually Maureen always complained about the weight of the roof sections and so in 2005 I had the roof rebuilt to reduce the weight).

Then for the Pouilly Tunnel...... This is a low, dark, cold, long tunnel. It is 3.3km long and no boat over 3.1m high at the centre and 2.2m at the sides may enter. One must have lights, fire extinguishers, floatation jackets, boat hooks and a bucket ! Exactly what you do with the bucket I’m not sure but the rules are strict and the equipment inspected, especially the operation and power of your spotlight.  I had planned for this by installing a small but very powerful floodlight on the mast, which while folded down, gave an adequate base for our headlight.

We started at 11.00am and were through at 12.00noon to the port fluviale at Pouilly at the other end of the tunnel. The traverse was cold but easier that I had expected, the hard part being to keep your concentration on steering in the centre of the narrow, dark hole. The tunnel was actually much bigger than I had thought however and we ended up with lots of room - well about 50-70cm all round, more than the 30cm I had planned for. We had attached timber rubbing boards extending outwards from the rear bollards, a trick passed down from generation to generation, to act as fenders against the wall but only touched one side once through the whole trip. We were very pleased with ourselves.

The Port at Pouilly was unmanned so there was no cost and no water or electricity on offer.  We had filled out tanks in Escommes to do 5 loads of washing and topped up the water tanks there for 3 Euro however so all was well. It was a shock another day on, to arrive at Port Royal (a private port) where the cost was 8 euros per night without either water or power. But back to Pouilly.

It was a holiday the day we arrived and the shops were open only until 12.30 the next day as that also was a holiday (Ascension) so we stood in supermarket queues for hours with lots of other people as we had to stock up for the next week or two. There are almost no shops near the canal on the stretch after Pouilly, so water, food and things like milk, have to be stocked or gone without. We did a couple of big shops and carried the stuff back on the scooter.

Another boat arrived later - a Luxemotor named Fryslan - which we had seen at St Symphorien and had noticed since it was a different version of the spelling of that Dutch town where many similar boats were built. Tam and Di Murrell also have a boat named for the town - but the other spelling Friesland. We offered our power since its owner Russel, was short an alternator, but he managed to get his system up and running so we offered drinks instead and spent a couple of hours chatting about things fluviale.

We left Pouilly after a couple of days and arrived at Port Royal at its expensive Halte Fluviale, leaving there the next morning after a ride around to explore and a beer at the café during the afternoon. The next stop was Marigny which boasts a nice harbour which we couldn’t use since it was to be the site of the next day’s fishing competition (funny - I thought the canals were for boats), a chateau (we didn’t get to) an epicerie (a small convenience store - we did get bread at twice) and 11 km away, the preserved 12th-14th century town of Semur.

It was raining the morning we went to Semur-en-Auxois, but despite the discomfort, we took to the mountain bikes and pedalled the distance. We were met, after passing through industrialised suburbs, by cobbled streets, a 13th century church and tiny streets passing through impossibly narrow arches that hold buildings up, and apart. Pressing in on all sides are half timbered houses and shops with modernised facades, but in all other respects, ancient.

We arrived just at the end of the eleven o’clock church service and entered that amazing structure to hear the end of a long processional piece being played on the 17th century organ. Choir boys came back into the church from an attached room, bearing their vestments for a mother to collect and freshen. Parishioners stood about companionably, chatting before wandering off to their Sunday lunches. We took advantage of the English version of the guided tour notes to investigate this priceless relic, which is once again undergoing renovation. The notes advised us it had been renovated by the great French architect Viollette-le-Duc in the middle of the 19th century. While the main part of the building, and some of it’s stained glass, is over 800 years old (correct me if I’m wrong), it is in a town where Charlemagne presented it’s castle to the monks during the 7th century ! These little snippets of longevity keep surprising me as I think about our own 200 or so years of history and especially of the time I talked about a ‘really old building in Perth’ to a French person......

We missed looking in at the fishing competition since it was raining and we wanted to get back to the boat and light the fire - which we did. Roast chook and vegetables for dinner - and perhaps a glass of white wine.       Why not ?       

The next day, after a lengthy visit to the church and it’s surroundings in Semur, we retired to a local restaurant for the Boeuf Bourguignon and some Bourgogne Passetoutgrain, a light blended red wine of exceptional flavour but without any of the heaviness evident in so many flavoursome Australian wines. I am constantly surprised by the light character of many of the local reds, easy to drink with few side effects. Perfect for lunches, especially with meats, pates and cheeses. We are finding many of the lighter local red wines are the traditional Pinot Noir but now blended with Merlot to lighten and freshen the flavour, something the Italians do as well.

 

One of the other local traditions is to mix the rich red cordial Creme de Cassis (a local product), with the astringent local white wine - Bourgogne Aligote to make Kir, or with the Cremant de Bourgogne to make Kir Royale, or with Champagne to make Kir Imperiale. These are popular aperitifs along with Macvin, the sweet white wine blended with the fiery wine spirit, Marc de Bourgogne.

As the temperature has been increasing and as we have been worked harder on the more numerous locks in this area, we have also come to enjoy the local ciders, of which there are quite a few, with colours and flavours from very light and ‘apple-y’ to deep yellows and ambers with stronger more smoky character. All of these are only about 4% alc by vol, less than beer and very refreshing. Since we have to stop for lunch as the eclusiers take the hour from 12.00 to 13.00 (the French operate on a 24 hour clock), cider is a good alternative to wine for lunch.

Daylight is now from about 6.30 to about 22.00 (10.00pm), which means the evening meal is later and walks afterward are a joy. The sky is still light and the canal sides are full of bird song. Just the thing to take the edge off the meal before turning in to the quiet of the country-side. Our days start at about 7.30, we get underway at 9.00, stop at 12.00 for lunch and stop at our next destination normally at about 15.00 (3.00pm). This allows us about 10-15km distance and up to 15 locks in a day’s travel, each lock taking about 15-20 minutes if we don’t have to wait for boats ahead.

At this rate we ought to be in Paris by mid June.

 

Chapter Six - Burgundy to Paris

13 May - 2 June

Semur en Auxois - Tonnerre

Just as I thought this amazing country could not get more scenic or historically crowded, we spent the next two weeks almost silently gliding through the sun dappled, still waters of the Canal de Bourgogne, turning it’s corners to be confronted with new visions of the past - chateaux and villages cradled in soft green undulating hills surrounded by lush fertile meadows and fields, populated by slow moving Charolais cattle and fine, energetic horses. The pace of life has now settled to a slow rhythm as we slowly descend from the high point at Pouilly en Auxois to the next river, the Yonne.

We tend to travel for two or three days before stopping for longer than a day at major points of interest. The next, on our voyage of discovery, was the port at Pouillenay in order to visit the Abbaye de Flavigny, now the place of manufacture of the Anise de Flavigny, a small round, anisette flavoured candy. The company actually makes about 10 different flavoured sweets of the same construction and exports them around the world in a variety of decorated tins and old style boxes. To get to Flavigny, one has to ascend 5 km of very steep hills, punctuated often with false crests - a real ‘heartbreak hill’ for those who, like us, attempt the climb on mountain bikes. Despite the excellent gearing of our bikes, the climb was laborious and exhausting, taking nearly an hour. We arrived to find that, as usual, Monday was the day they were closed. We walked through the village that surrounds the old Abbaye and descended the hills to the boat in about 10 minutes.

We were determined to see the ancient crypt of the Abbaye and it’s more modern processing procedure which is housed in buildings a couple of centuries younger than the crypt but still hundreds of years old. These buildings are now inhabited by noisy machines rather like cement mixers, churning out the little white pills that has given this ancient village it’s current lease of life. We unshipped the scooter the next morning and put it to the test of carting the two of us up the 5km hills. We arrived in about 15 minutes ! No more will we drag our tired bodies up daunting hills on our bikes while the little silver Peugeot is available to do the work for us.

The effort was well worthwhile as this is another of ‘the most beautiful villages of France’, the other we had seen recently being Chateauneuf. Built between the 12th and 15th century, most of Flavigny’s buildings are original from the end of that period and remain clustered together with narrow streets separating their inward leaning second floors. Steep walks up and around the centre of town (to an imposing 15th century church), mark the places the monks and nobles would have mingled during the feasts and famines over the centuries of medieval life. Plagues, pestilence, wars, famines and harvests have rolled past the stones of these buildings as now, in air conditioned busses and cars, the tourists roll by. Some Australians even come on bicycles!

Only 5km further down the canal stands Venarey les Laumes, the jumping off point for the Chateau Rabutin and the ancient Roman ruins of Alise. Roger de Rabutin was expelled from the court of Louis 14 to his property near Bussy for writing a book called ‘The Amorous Adventures of the Gauls’. Based on and exposing the scandalous antics of the best known members of Louis’ court who hopped from bed to bed, the manuscript was feloniously borrowed and copied by an ex lover who then made sure the King was given a copy. As Louis, his wife and mistresses all featured in the book, he took umbrage at Roger’s writings and after letting him languish for eleven months in the Bastille, sent him to exile for 27 years. Finally pardoned, Roger had only a few years to enjoy the Sun King’s company again before dying just before the end of the 1600s. While in his prison home, he spent the time decorating his chateau with witty pictures and writings based on the key figures of the day. These amusing and somewhat cryptic creations are now the points of inte

The nearby ruins of the almost complete Roman town of Alise are laid out neatly for the visitor. Issued with a written guide, you follow the point by point description as you walk through the theatre, the market, houses, offices and public buildings, all laid open to their foundations. This site is very near the battlefield where a young Julius Caesar overcame the last defence of Gaul by Vercingoretex and his army of about 40,000. Caesar put in place a fortified encirclement and starved them into submission, thereby taking control of the vast and fertile Burgundian plains for the next 500 years or so. (NB: Serious historians will certainly point out minor factual errors in my descriptions, spelling and numbers here as I only have my somewhat addled memory to go by).

This area of France is lush. It is heaped in beauty, rich foods, supple and delicious wines, pungent cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables and the most amazing arrays of ‘deli’ foods I have yet to see anywhere. The markets and traiteurs, the boulangeries and the charcuteries are stuffed with produce and pre-prepared dishes and pastries filled with pates and meats, cheeses and eggs, vegetables and fruits. All of these can be accompanied by sumptuous creams, sauces and seasonings. Cured hams and sausages hang from hooks and in the patisseries the trays of tarts and cakes overflow the counters onto tables and stools. Everywhere are regional products with an amazing range of brands, names and appearances. It will take years to understand and taste this vast selection of sensual pleasures.

The sun has been shining for days and we now look forward to the heaped, white, fluffy clouds that slowly scud across the nearly unbroken pale blue sky for some relief from the escalating temperatures. We are uniformed in shorts and tee shirts, with heavy sandals to protect the feet from the heat radiating off the steel decks of Van Nelle. Although especially painted light grey, the outer decks can get as hot as the tar streets of Subiaco used to when that hot black topping would stick to running young feet during primary school days - several (?) decades ago.

Another day, another departure and so, on to Montbard and it’s chief point of interest, the Abbaye Fontenay. This collection of buildings was constructed by the Cistercian monks from the 10th century, begun in 1118 and helped along by an exiled English bishop who escaped persecution across the channel with his fortune intact to build the large church at Fontenay. Now a world heritage site, the Abbaye covers a great area and includes the first iron manufacturing facility in Europe, where locally mined iron ore was forged and, with the help of water power, hammered into sheets by the world’s (?) first hammer mill. This collection of buildings was kept in remarkable order since it was taken from the Cistercians during the Revolution and sold. After several other owners, it was bought by the Montgolfier brothers (of hot air balloon fame). The grounds are beautifully manicured with stern warnings to ‘stay off the grass’. Several of the buildings are inhabited by management and staff.            

Montbard was also the home of the Count Buffon who elevated the area to national prominence with his work in forestry for the king, the building of a (then) modern iron foundry, and his amazing work in writing and editing the ‘Natural History of the World’, a series of over 30 encyclopaedic volumes. He endowed his home, now a park overlooking the town, to the commune at his death at an age of something over eighty. We were able to take a private, conducted tour of the park and the several buildings left standing by Count Buffon. The guide was the ‘guardian’ of the area, a bright and highly amusing young woman with some English, who delighted in shocking her guests with descriptions of the awful things the soldiers of the fort (that had originally stood here) threw down on invaders. She also insisted we looked out and down from the top of the tower, through the portals from which their mess was delivered, a truly frightening experience as it induced the most intense vertigo.

The next village along the sleepy canal, still very quiet as the European holiday and summer period has not yet begun, is Ancy le Franc which boasts yet another amazing Chateau.

By this time we were starting to blur all the chateaux, churches and abbayes together, so that when asked by a couple we invited aboard for drinks, ‘where had we been and what could we recommend to see ?’, we constantly confused one place with another, putting buildings in the wrong towns. After a while, it’s a bit like seeing the paintings of the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay in one day and trying to remember which was which.  (Of course the d’Orsay is contemporary and impressionist).

The social life continues apace of course with a lively interchange of gossip among the boaties, many of whom wander up and start conversations which end up as ‘end of the day drinks’ or a meal on a boat or at a nearby restaurant.  The enduring pleasure of this life is the meeting of similarly enthusiastic and motivated people.  On arrival at a mooring it would be unusual if someone did not come to help you tie up, taking your lines and attaching them helpfully to the rings or stakes available.  They then point out where and what is available in the way of boulangeries etc and leave you to it, unless a suggestion is made to gather later for an aperitif - more usually done quite quickly.  You of course do the same as others arrive and soon your name and address book fills with the identities of those from around the world who have decided to take time out to enjoy Europe by its waterways.  Meeting such people is done quickly as time is limited and you know you will soon move on, but there is always the thought, and often the act, of meeting them again somewhere else a week, a month or a few years hence.

The next town was Ancy le Franc - and yes - it’s amazing Chateau. This, along with some other chateaux throughout France, was bought by an investment company which partly subsidises these semi-self reliant businesses, funding the massive costs of restoration. The buildings are used for tours and functions, weddings and state occasions, art exhibitions and concerts. Unfortunately, as waterborne gypsies, we have yet to fluke arrival at the right place at the right time to be involved with such revelries as concerts and state occasions - but that will come.     

The Chateau Ancy le Franc was restored and added to by it’s high-born owner back in the 1700s with the aid of an Italian architect and as such is considered a priceless example of Renaissance architecture. It boasts the most regular features in its structure, a perfect square of wings enclosing a handsome courtyard about 50 metres on each side. The outer wings are three stories and are packed inside with art and furniture of the period. There are huge bedrooms, dining rooms, entertainment halls and smaller vestibules and other useful facilities such as kitchens (again vast).

20 kilometres down stream is the town of Tanlay and again - it has a chateau. This is still owned by the original family, although it is now almost all turned over to tourism, as the heirs of the estate live and work in Paris but often return to their private wing for weekends. Queen Juliana of the Netherlands was the last official guest of the owners in the 1960s. She was hosted by the then matriarch, the Marquise, who was the French Ambassador to several European and Asian courts during her life. The Marquise’ photographic and painted portraits dominate the entertaining rooms, showing her in a succession of designer gowns and lavish diplomatic decorations. These jewelled decorations from many countries can now be seen along with those of her forebears in a presentation case in one of the many foyers of this huge and gracious home. When I say home, this building is as big as a hotel and stands on a park that holds a golf course, a private section of canal and stables

extensive enough for Bart Cummings. One can still see where the 17th and 18th century carriages chipped and wore off the stone edges of the gates and entrances to the massive forecourts of the chateau.

After exploring the chateau we entered a restaurant in Tanlay as its hoarding advertised an 11 Euro menu (three courses for about $19), available every day except Sunday. When confronted with the regular menu inside after being seated, we were advised that the menu de jour was not available on Fete days. This day was a Monday and named for some obscure Saint. We left, not interested in paying more than double for the same menu as a result of St Fidgit’s day or whatever. We returned to the boat for chilled Chablis, pate, avocado and smoked ham, pastries filled with goats cheese and peaches with ice cream... and a second bottle of chilled white... total cost, less than 10 Euros each.

It is not that we are cheap or miserly - we have happily paid princely sums for gorgeous meals throughout Europe - but when you live and work in the area and just want lunch, and when the sign says - lunch for E 11, you are rightly indignant when that is merely used as a trap to get people in to pay much higher prices.  Besides, paying mooring fees and restaurant prices every day here would soon deplete the working capital and dull the experience of a good meal, occasionally prepared by someone else.

That evening as the sun slowly settled toward the hills, the peace of the late afternoon was disturbed by a large compressed gas burner filling a hot air balloon as it’s crew prepared it for the guests of the hotel barge that was tied up behind us at the small port. Once opened up and partly filled on the football field adjacent to the port, the burners were turned up to full, completing the filling and giving the craft it’s lift. The passengers climbed into the cane gondola and after a few more bursts of heat, went into the almost still evening air, floating serenely over our boat. We toasted them and set the barbecue to heat the flightless birds we were to enjoy that evening as dinner.

Departing at 9.00 the next morning we cruised slowly towards Tonnerre, a mere 9km and three locks distance where we arrived at 11.45, just before the locks closed for lunch. Our luck was out though since the water in the next pound was at such a high level that we could not fit under the small bridge which marks the end of the ecluse. The eclusier took to his van, speeding off to the next lock to open it’s sluices and allow the water in the intervening pound to reduce, thereby letting us out. We emerged to find a perfect spot in the centre of the shaded section of the port with access to free electricity and water. We used both to do a load of washing, using our clothes dryer to complete the task.

Exploring this town was somewhat hampered since they do not open their tourist attractions until June 1 - and this was May 22. The next day it rained, no it poured. We didn’t mind in the least since we took the time to catch up with writing and reading and had an AFD, alcohol free day, a rare experience here.

The third day dawned cloudy but dry and we took to the scooter to explore nearby Chablis - famous for its dry, crisp, white wine which comes in 4 varieties - Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Petit and Bourgeois. This again is made from Chardonnay grapes whose original vines were wiped out by phylloxera in the 19th century, but fortunately have been replanted with virus resistant stock from the New World, in order to please the palates of millions. It is quite different from the ‘Chablis’ produced in Australia as it has more flavour and is more delicate - not as dry and astringent as some by the same name at home. In tasting the different Crus (grades) we discovered that there was a sameness about them (as marked as say all reds from the Hunter River) but also distinct differences in acidity, length and fruit flavours.  Note we are now starting to use real wine terms.

We arrived at a 13th century cellar just ahead of a pre-arranged tour group and thereby gained the benefit of a tour and wine tasting. The petite manageress of the establishment spoke excellent English, albeit with an Irish twist. Since her name was Maureen, we could only imaging she was either Irish by descent or her French parents had some close affinity with the Irish. Whatever the case, she explained that the original 40,000 hectares of the Chablis appellation was now reduced to something over 6,000 with the best plots (Grand Cru) located nearest the centre of town on the flatter, lower ground, surrounded by the Premiere Crus further out and the Bourgeois and Petit even further up the hillsides. She then gave us two Bourgeois or crus ordinaire and a Premiere. Since we showed interest in buying after the group left we also got to taste two of the Grand Crus, one of which I remarked could have been opened for perhaps too long for it to be in the best of health. She immediately opened a replacement bottle and was (I think) pleased that I could tell. We bought a Grand Cru and her recommendation and one more at another Cave in town.

On arrival back at the port at Tonnerre we discovered that some English friends in a similar type and sized boat were in town having been following us for some days. We ended the day with several G&Ts (gins and tonic - unusual but a nice change), a bottle of white and a good goss (gossip) with them and their Kenyan friends.

We are now approaching the end of the Burgundy canal and nearing our rendezvous with guests at Auxerre. Gary Prattley and his wife Dianne were with us on a hire boat some years ago which we took through Auxerre, so it will be a double reunion. But first we have to pass through St Florentin, Migennes and a few smaller towns along the way.

June 2 to July 15

Now that I don’t have a regular job, I wonder how I ever had the time to fit work into my life.

Certainly I have a lot to do keeping an 86 year old barge with its motors, pumps, electrics, plumbing and other complex systems working properly, but I don’t seem to have the time to do all the other things I should be doing, such as writing. It’s been more than six weeks since my computer was attacked by the three fingers I use for typing and in that time we have travelled quite a distance and experienced a great deal.

Summer has arrived, but it is a different season from it’s Western Australian counterpart. Hot and humid 30 degree days are interspersed with cool 17 - 20 degree days, while clear sunny vistas are regularly replaced with cloudy, brooding, and even threatening skies which frequently drop quantities of rain on us. We explain to those planning to come to Europe and who ask for the best time of year, to plan for rain whenever they come, since Europe spreads it’s rainfall almost equally though the year but concentrates it on the days visitors expect clear skies. There is a benefit to it of course - it provides good clean water to wash the decks.

At the end of May we were at the confluence of the Yonne River and the Canal de Bourgogne, heading for Auxerre to pick up a couple who had shared a hire boat here with us some three years earlier. Gary, past CEO of the Western Australian Planning Department, had left Perth for Sydney in 2001 to take up the top planning job there and was scheduled to attend a conference and meetings in Europe at this time. We arranged Auxerre as the meeting point for their three day cruise for old times sake. Tragically, it was not to be. Arriving in Migennes (where you turn into the Yonne to Auxerre), we were informed that a barrage (a sort of dam that guarantees water levels in the canals), had broken apart and the temporary repair allowed only boats under 20 metres in length to pass. With the magic of mobile phones and e-mails, we were able to reschedule our meeting to Sens, another cathedral town nearby.

Arriving in Sens, we pulled in to what looked like a rickety walkway / jetty and made fast, just behind a couple of commercial barges that were dressed gaily with flags and bunting for a wedding. Through the rest of that day and night, relatives, friends, bridesmaids, and the bride, groomsmen and the groom, came and went. It seems the boats and an adjacent marquee, were used as a meeting place, while the ceremony was elsewhere. We were not invited but watched and listened with amusement as the young guests formed car-borne cavalcades and drove through the town with their horns blowing - a very French custom.

Gary and Dianne arrived off the Chunnel (channel tunnel train) in their hire car, and so with company from home, we explored this beautiful cathedral town with it’s narrow twisty streets leading up a steep hill from the river, exposing 14th and 15th century, timbered houses. Their exposed, thick oak beams, are carved into stories. One shows the genealogy of Christ while another tells the tale of Cain and Able. The cathedral is a magnificent blend of Romanesque and gothic architecture and on the Sunday was alive with organ music at the end of a colourful service, complete with choir and masses of clergy. Outside the cathedral’s doors lies the main town square, surrounded by sidewalk cafes, all basking in the sun, just waiting for thirsty Australian bargees. We took advantage of one brasserie’s 20 Euro menu and dowsed the food liberally with local wines, Crisp Chablis whites and rich but delicate Burgundian reds make excellent partners to local meats and, a favourite, mussels imported from Brittany - moules frites - mussels and chips.

The next morning we set sail for Pont-sur-Yonne, just 20km and several large commercial locks down river, direction Paris. Our guests revelled in the quiet of the cruise mixed with the bustle of locking the boat and steering it through the river traffic of private and commercial boats of all descriptions. Too soon we arrived at Pont-sur-Yonne to find that the advertised port de plaisance finger jetties, attached to the large mooring pontoon, had all sunk. We found one end of the pontoon serviceable enough and tied Van Nelle securely to it’s floating remnants. Since our guests had another appointment in Nice to get to the next morning, Gary and I set off back to Sens in the local train, a ten minute trip, to recover their car. That done, we explored the town and prepared for a gourmet meal accompanied with Premier Cru wines, onboard Van Nelle.

Mousse de Canard washed down by Sancerre was followed by Boeuf Bourguignon and Nuits St George. Dessert was a selection of pastries from the nearby patisserie accompanied by Macvin, the mixture of wine and grape spirit. Everyone sleeps very well on Van Nelle with no complaints of night borne noises !

We waved goodbye to Gary and Dianne the next morning after a sunny breakfast of fruits, breads and local confitures and as they drove south, we untied and headed for Paris.

We needed just two overnight stops en route to the City of Light, which we took at a lovely Halte Nautique at St Mammes, a centre of commercial barging that boasts a beautiful pleasure boat jetty with all facilities, and at Corbeil Essones, where we stopped at a commercial barge loading dock. St Mammes provides it’s facilities free for two nights and then at a moderate rate for additional nights. Power and water are available for each boat, also at moderate rates.

Opposite the port is a fuel depot where the next morning we took on 500 litres of diesel. Since they did not take credit cards, Maureen set off for town to withdraw cash from a distributeur (tin teller). Unfortunately she used the wrong pin number three times and the machine swallowed the card.  She arrived back at the boat distraught, in tears, knowing what the loss of a card meant to us. Explaining why we could not pay for the fuel and leaving Van Nelle as security we returned to the bank on our bikes.  Fortunately the bank had a technician arriving at 11.00am to do some maintenance who could open the machine and they kindly returned the card rather than following procedure which demands sending the card to Australia.  Unfortunately that principal card now would not work since the code had been violated. We had a back up and were able to use our reserve card to get cash, pay for the fuel, retrieve Van Nelle and, somewhat later than planned, left St Mammes.

 

Corbeil Essones promised a Jazz Festival on the day we were there, but try as we did, we could not find any of the performances. After walking the town we arrived back at Van Nelle to find a commercial barge had arrived and asked us to move up the quai as they expected to begin loading building materials early the next morning exactly where we had moored. A few minutes of man handling and everyone was happy for the night. The next morning we would arrive in the heart of Paris, so that evening was spent studying the charts to ensure we would make no wrong turns into prohibited or one way channels. We also rang the Arsenal, a marina right in the heart of Paris, to make a booking.

The Arsenal has room for some 200 boats, being an old ‘bassin’ where commercial boats used to wait to enter the Canal St Denis via a canal and tunnel under the streets of Paris. With the slackening of commercial trade, the area has been made into a very popular marina right in the centre of town. We had previously inquired, only to be told our ship was too big, but when you just arrive they often manage to make adjustments. Mind you, at the amount they charge - 50 Euros plus another 12 for power and water - their adjustments make good money for them. They encouraged us to turn up and the next day at 1.00pm, we did.   

On arrival outside the lock that takes us off the River Seine and into the bassin I got on the VHF radio and requested entry. Some discussion was followed by a long wait - some 25 minutes. During this time we were buzzed continuously by a great number of passing barges and ‘bateau mouches’, the tourist scenic cruisers that seem as big as battleships. Manoeuvring Van Nelle against a 4km current in order to stay out of the channel and avoid ramming the river banks or other boats, poses a moderate challenge since there seemed to be no obvious places to moor up while waiting on that side. We finally made another radio call which elicited the information that they had decided there was no room for us, so we would have to go to their other marina situated under the shadow of the Tour Eiffel. We headed off in that direction only to arrive at the bridge at the end of the Isle St Louis which was showing a red light.  The bridge has traffic lights allowing downstream boats only 15 minutes passing time from 25 minutes to the hour. As it was 5 to the hour, the lights were red. We pulled over to the left bank, on which we now had seen bollards and used this mooring, adjacent to the University park and the Academy Arabe, to secure the boat.

We had a late lunch and discussed the options. The other marina we knew from other travellers to be pleasant but constantly washed by passing traffic, since it is actually on the River Seine. It is also almost as expensive as the Arsenal with few of it’s advantages. Other marinas are much further out of the heart of this magnificent city, so cheaper, but less attractive to those who plan to spend days wandering the streets and boulevardes of this magnificent locale. We figured that where we were was convenient - free, and by the lack of signage indicating otherwise, allowable. We decided to stay put, 5 minutes walk from the Notre Dame cathedral on the Left Bank, right in the heart of Paris.

Some six days later and just before a weekend fishing exhibition to be held at the park, along came the river police and a city official in an inflatable with a stern warning for us to leave the area. Apparently it was only to be used for boats waiting to pass through the bridge with the traffic lights. They produced a book of rules which did not explicitly support their argument (which became even more flimsy when they admitted that several fishing boats would be there for the exhibition and we were taking their space), but as they pointed to their police badges and started threatening fines, we elected to make a tactical withdrawal with a moral victory. It was only on our way out of Paris on a later visit that we saw one ‘no parking’ sign, some 300 metres up the left bank.

Meanwhile, however, we had a week of front row seats to the magic and marvels of what must be the most beautiful city in the world. Paris was spared bombing during WWII and no other war has marked the town, so it’s fabulous buildings and monuments are all intact. Additionally, since Napoleon gave carte blanche to Colonel Hausseman to eradicate the slums and remodel the boulevardes and central streets, Paris has had every opportunity to become and remain the showplace it is.

We revisited our favourite gallery, the Musee d’Orsay (once a bustling railway station) which is now the home of the Louvres’ fabulous collection of Impressionist art and statuary. We discovered Rue Mouffetard, a narrow student market street on the left bank near the Sorbonne with wonderful food and wine shops and its intersecting streets filled with small, inexpensive restaurants. We wandered through the Tuilleries Gardens and up and down the Champs Elysee. We climbed the hundreds of steps to the top of the Arc de Triumph and took innumerable metro trains through the underground labyrinths to sections of Paris we had not had the time to explore on previous trips. The sun shone and, as we took the open topped double decker bus (L’Opentour) through Paris to discover even more of it’s secrets, we enjoyed the freedom of not being on a timetable and having the time available to just sit and watch the world (and their dogs), walk by.

Free Jazz concerts were advertised in the Parc Floral every Saturday and Sunday afternoon during June so we jumped on the metro and headed out to Vincennes where one of Frances’ King Louis had built a huge Chateau (which we wandered through). It’s parklands are now the Parc Floral which houses a large stage and audience seating area, used extensively for free concerts. Saturday saw an American male jazz singer followed by a very experimental trio and Sunday, a fabulous double bass player (shades of Tommy Emmanuel) followed by a Django Reinhardt type ensemble, complete with electric violin. All the performers were world class and the production marvellous. We took picnics, enjoying the expansive lawn areas and then took our places in great free seats in the open air auditorium for the three hours of entertainment. We were accompanied by up to 10,000 others.

Before we were asked so graciously to leave our free mooring, we had decided to go through the Arsenal bassin and it’s locks, onto the Canal St Denis. We had heard that there were places for big boats in another bassin some 3km up that channel. The Canal St Denis runs through busy Parisian streets - quite a novelty, and emerges at the Isle St Denis, downstream of Paris centre. We radioed the Arsenal requesting passage and they opened up the lock for us. Through the 200 boats crowded on both sides of the narrow bassin we crept, heading for the lock at the other end that was immediately followed by a long tunnel under the streets of the neighbourhood, including the Place de la Revolution where many heads rolled after the storming of the Bastille. They say that even oxen would not pass through the Place during that time, since the smell of spilt human blood was so strong.

7 locks up the canal we entered a huge bassin with almost no boats. We were directed to the far end where there were bollards and shady trees and so spent another three nights in Paris centre.

Paris boasts a Science City that is situated right next to the Bassin de Villette where we moored. This is no single building but a complex of huge buildings and other exhibits including a submarine and a 360 degree geodesic cinema. The exhibition buildings house space labs, whole aeroplanes and collections of cars, with many mini theatres and computer based interactive displays to keep adults and kids busy. It could take days to go through, but we tired after 4 hours and wandered back to the boat to spend the afternoon wandering through Montmartre.

Our third night there was unfortunately interrupted by drama as Maureen, who had stayed up reading, heard what she thought was noise on the deck. People were still wandering about at midnight and we had occasions where young people would jump on board to get their friends attention or to get a photo taken. On this night however it was our stack of four mountain bikes the local kids were after and they had already cut through three of the four safety chains securing them ! Maureen yelled at them and they walked nonchalantly off the boat and away into the night, watched by more than half a dozen onlookers in the park. We moved the bikes into the wheelhouse and the next morning bought a huge chain which now secures them. We decided to depart for the balance of the Canal St Denis and ports north of Paris after our ten free and easy days in the capital.

Departing at 9.00am, we travelled through the mostly industrial canal to the last lock before the opening to the Seine where the lock keeper demanded about 12 euros.  It was explained that 3 euros per night was the fee in the bassin and the balance was for transiting the Canal - the only place in France where a separate fee existed.  Not a bad price to pay for a week and a half. 

Taking my official receipt back to Van Nelle, we started the engine and entered the river, turning right to head downstream towards the sea to the port of Conflans St Honorine, centre of commercial barging in France and a place that houses the premier museum of water life. We arrived there a day or so later to find it was the first day of the Annual National Grand Pardon de Bataillers - their Blessing of the Fleet festival weekend. We had finally arrived somewhere in time to take part in a major festival.

As we cruised past the hundreds of commercial barges tied four and five deep on both sides of the river, we despaired at being able to find a mooring anywhere near the action. As it happened, the boats had been arranged in such a way that they had left a 30 metre gap right at the town centre. Since commercial boats are 38 metres and need about 40 to fit, it was a spare space that was perfect for our 27 metre length. We quietly slipped in to the space and no one blinked. For three days we were right in the centre of the festival.

That Friday night saw all the restaurants alive with music, from French folk and busker performers to slick rock and roll bands. Saturday was taken up with ceremonies and grand lunches while we explored the museum. That night the grand spectacle was promised in the town park at 10.30pm. (They start such things late since it is light until 10.30). We took low folding chairs to the park and had centre seats, just in front of the sound technicians (always the best place to be as they arrange the sound to suit themselves). Shortly after we arrived, the spectacle began.

The ‘Commandos of Percussion’ entered from behind the thousands of people crammed into the audience area and from the start of the show we knew something very special was going to happen. It was electric. Six semi naked men with science fiction electric drum kits secured to their waists played their way through the huge crowd as they made their way to the stage. Fantastic rhythms from loud and frantic to soft and dreamlike. As the tempo increased, one of their number shed his drums and set to work on a keyboard mounted on the stage. It was an electronic firing mechanism for spectacular fireworks.

In perfect timing with the complex rhythms, the multi coloured jets of fire erupted from just behind the stage to explode immediately over the heads of the audience. It was so close, so immediate and so well coordinated that it was absolutely thrilling. An hour and a half flew by as if seconds and then they were finished. The crowd had other ideas however and as the band tried to play themselves back to their dressing room through the crowd, they were mobbed, surrounded and forced to a standstill - so they just kept on playing. Eventually they stopped, exhausted and soaked with sweat, as was the crowd which had danced itself to a standstill. Tired but still excited, people trooped down the hill from the park to fill up the cafes and brasseries, to sing and dance into the small hours of the morning.

We were up early enough the next morning, Sunday, to bicycle along the riverside to the confluence of the River Seine and the Oise, for which the town was partly named. ‘St Honorine’ being added in remembrance of the saint who came from the district and who had rescued mariners from drowning in an ancient legend of the area. This morning the area was the site of the Grand Pardon Mass and the beginning of the Blessing, which took the Bishop and the officials by boat down the river, past all the barges, to sprinkle the route with holy water as part of the ceremony.  They passed Van Nelle on the way out and back so we were twice blessed.

By Tuesday, June 18 it was time to depart Conflans for Paris again and then to head south to pick up two more sets of guests, booked to cruise on the upper Seine and Canal de Briare. But first, we planned to cruise slowly through Paris itself, under the famous bridges and by the landmarks of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame and the city’s islands - Isle de la Cite and Isle St Louis, and then to turn right at the confluence of the Seine and the River Marne, to head back to St Mammes for our rendezvous.

En route to St Mammes we took a left turn into the Petite Seine to visit Meaux, a town with a ‘Spectacle’ that takes place every Friday and Saturday night. The production features 500 actors - all town’s people, 3,600 costumes, horses, vehicles, special effects and fireworks.  This production traces the history of the town from medieval times to the Second World War with music, action, drama and comedy.  Placed between the town cathedral and the museum in a town ‘place’ it has grown over the years to include professional scripting and production and semi-permanent sets and props and stadium seating for over 1,000.

The town’s marina is free, including power and water, so on arrival we attacked the pile of washing that had accumulated over a couple of weeks. We were no sooner into the first load when the power dropped out. While we were accused by the Dutch couple alongside of having caused the problem, my investigation showed that our circuit breaker was intact but I went to the tourism office where the officials arranged an electrician. After a brief investigation he discovered that the Dutchman’s friend on another boat was using defective power tools which had taken out the electricity for the whole marina. No-one apologised to us and in fact one guy suggested we should leave, since our boat was too big. I pointed out that the rules of the marina did not exclude us but stated that the maximum stay was two days, and since they had all been there a week, perhaps it was they who should move on. At that the Dutch community shut up and left us alone.

The next day a few more Dutch boats arrived, having to share moorings with their mates who now had to make room for them as they had previously taken a whole jetty per boat. Obviously it was an arranged holiday for a group who resented the Brits and Aussies at the harbour and by taking most of the room tried to keep it for themselves. This was an unusual occurrence since most of the boating crowd are very open and welcoming. As it happened, it didn’t phase us as we just turned on our generator and completed the washing.

The next night we attended the Spectacle, which was - spectacular, and just shows what a town can do when it works together. The script, scenery, seating, lighting, sound effects and acting were all first rate and the whole production bigger than Ben Hur. It was conceived, written, recorded and directed by the town’s artistic community.

A couple of days at Meaux were enough to enjoy the Spectacle, visit the ‘American Monument’ (a huge statue for the dead of the first world war paid for by Americans) and to farewell two English friends (John and Jan) whom we had followed into Paris and Meaux and with whom we had many adventures in St Jean de Losne. They headed east towards Strasbourg and we headed south.

Several days later we were back in St Mammes and ready to take our next set of guests aboard for a four day cruise to Montargis on the Canal de Briare. Penny and Rob were leaders in the computer industry in Perth and were looking forward to a relaxing break from kids and work on the way to Italy for the main part of their holiday. They arrived off the train after Rob had flown direct from Australia to London to be met by Penny and taken immediately to the Eurostar train to Paris then a change of trains to get to Montargis - about a 36 hour, non-stop trip. We welcomed him with the traditional glass of Champagne and set about relaxing them both with some light cruising, some excellent meals and top shelf wines. Interspersed in that routine came the bicycle expeditions ashore to suss out the ancient villages and churches and several games of Boules on the banks of the canals. Boules are small steel balls which are thrown underarm at a smaller wooden or plastic ‘jack’. The nearest boule to the jack wins. Very simple but endlessly entertaining.

While the now rested Rob was eager to drive Van Nelle, play boules and ride bikes, Penny was more content with an easy chair a glass of white wine and the same page of her book, read over again before falling from sleepy hands.

While we often stay in the excellent little ports and marinas built and maintained by the waterside towns and villages, we prefer when possible to just stop in secluded and shady areas along the sides of the canals. A couple of metre long, 3 inch water pipes form our mooring bollards, to be hammered into the soft soil adjoining the canal.  The sounds of the birds twittering and the fish plopping in the water are not drowned out by the sound of cars and commerce.

Canal-side stops or ‘wild moorings’ as we call them, are usually accompanied by barbecued meals of Saumon Atlantique, Carre d’agneau, Charolais Boeuf and accompanied by the white wines of Chablis, Sancerre or Pouilly and the reds of Burgundy (Vosne Romanee, Nuits St George) or Chateau bottled Bordeaux. There is also, of course, Champagne in it’s many forms and the excellent Cremant de Bourgogne, a cheaper and very good substitute. Champagnes range from $A25 to $50 while good cremant starts at about $ 10. Throughout France, cheeses proliferate in many forms from soft white Brie and Camemberts to the strong blues of Roquefort and the goat’s cheeses or Crottins. They smell like hell and taste of heaven and are best washed down with a good strong red wine.

The European Union parliament has tried without success to date to curb the French producing cheeses from unpasteurised milk in small village and farm factories.  Here’s hoping they never succeed in causing the demise of these wonderful, healthy, tasty fromages.

Our arrival in Montargis saw the re-emergence of Penny and Rob as a couple of rested humans who had spent sun dappled afternoons snoozing on the banks of the canals in big easy chairs and the mornings helping with locks or driving the 27m (88 feet) of Van Nelle through the quiet waterways. They headed off in a hire car for a couple of days of slow exploration towards Dijon and then an overnight train to Florence and their villa in Tuscany.

We had a couple of days to do the washing, vacuuming and restocking of the wine cellar and food pantry before welcoming our great friends and yacht club mates, Ian and Helen Palmer, known to us as the Admiral and Lady Helen. They were to spend eleven days aboard, learning to become experts at big boat barging through Europe.

Our itinerary was to depart Montargis for Chateauneuf, Rogny, Briare, Sancerre and eventually, Nevers where they would take the train back to Paris and the Qantas 747 to Perth. We spent the first day acclimatising them to the boat and the town of Montargis and set off the next morning for the first of some nine days of morning or afternoon cruises, midday stops for a resupply of fresh bread when the locks closed and then completion of the days travelling to our planned destination for the evening - be that a canal side wild mooring or a small port in a town.

The first couple of days saw us visit a number of small villages and while travelling between them, Ian took long hours at the wheel, experiencing the effect of canal suction on the boat and fighting the resultant swing off course with the huge wheel that is attached to the rudder by chain and steel rope - no power assistance here. From basic steering in the canal channels our new helmsman graduated to passing other boats, entering and leaving locks and setting the boat up for long waits at the threshold of closed locks. This can be a demanding enterprise as wind and outfall from the lock pushes the boat off centre and judicious use of the engine and wheel are needed to keep her on track while stopped. 

The deck work of handling ropes, arranging them correctly for the position of the boat in locks and especially, controlling the boat when we share the locks with another boat, were also part and parcel of the experience gained on Van Nelle. Narrow bridges and locks set on angles to the approach channel are also challenges that are faced several times an hour by our helms-persons. Time drifts past and hours seem like minutes while the long passages of quiet reflection are interrupted by short bursts of activity.

Briare was not the first town on the trip but with it’s Pont Canal designed by Gustav Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), probably the most spectacular. Arriving here brings the boat into a wide bassin with a fully serviced port on one side and a bank suitable for mooring Van Nelle on the other. At the opposite end of the port, the exit is a bridge some 600 metres long, over a wide river bed, carrying the canal. It’s a weird feeling to be piloting a big boat across this suspended canal, which is exactly what we did the second day after arrival. First though was the need to investigate the extensive and very pretty town of Briare to find a suitable restaurant to celebrate Ian and Helen’s wedding anniversary - no specifics but something over 30 years. We could not find a better place than the Café de Marine, right by our mooring, so that’s where we went. An excellent French meal, brilliant wines, obsequious service (including leaving the wine pouring to ourselves). A perfect place for a great evening of provincial food and wine.  Pate’s and ragout, rabbit and fowl, fresh market vegetables, succulent sauces and to finish, fresh fruit and cheeses.

We spent a day exploring the town’s ceramics museum and maritime museum, then wandering through the regional photographic competition exhibition. The next day we headed off across the pont canal, the long Eiffel decorated aqueduct. We had originally planned to make Sancerre the end of this cruise but having found out at Briare that Sancerre did not have a major rail station, we extended the itinerary to finish at Nevers. That required a fair bit more daily mileage so the next morning we were off to Sancerre early.

The wine town of Sancerre is actually some distance away from the canal but two towns on the canal are suitable for stopping at as jumping off places to visit this famous white wine centre. We passed the first, St Satur, which was crowded, and so continued on to Menetreol which had a suitable port. This is a very picturesque town with a huge rail viaduct, now disused, overlooking the town. It has many tiny, twisted houses and some very friendly and helpful inhabitants who gave us the contact number of the local taxi service. The next morning we arranged for Christophe and his taxi to take us on a tour of the local chateau, Bue - a nearby village, the best hilltop lookouts and then into the ancient hilltop town of Sancerre, surrounded by its famous vineyards.

Sancerre has a subsoil similar to that found in Champagne. It is made up of a chalk base which holds in the warmth and moisture during the winter months, thereby protecting and nurturing the fragile vines. The product of these valuable Chardonnay plants is a flinty dry white wine of great character which can be kept for 10 years. Nearby the wines of Pouilly are created on a flinty subsoil and these also have become world famous. We bought a number of the regular vintage and some of the aged specimens to try much later.

 

All too soon it was time to start the big Baudouin DK6 diesel and head off towards Nevers, with a stop en-route at a wild mooring. Dinner that night was succulent chicken pieces, long marinated in lemon, wine, herbs grown on the back deck, and oil, and slow roasted in the covered barbecue. We put the stereo speakers on the deck and danced as the sun slid behind the trees.

The short distance to Nevers was quickly covered the next morning and a suitable mooring place found adjacent to the Café de la Marine, opposite the small jetties of the Port de Plaisance. Nevers is up a trunk canal off the major route and it was a welcome sight to see a large bassin, suitable for turning the boat. We would not have enjoyed the challenge of reversing several kilometres and through two locks to get back onto the Canal de Briare !

On the way to Nevers a flight of two locks is encountered. Rather than each lock being separated by a short section of canal, these two adjoin each other with the upstream doors to the first admitting you directly into the chamber of the second. This is no more of a challenge than going through two separate locks but it does restrict the traffic as boats heading in the opposite direction cannot pass between the locks and therefore have to wait until you complete both. To add to the challenge however, the locks raise you 10 metres each and are followed by another Pont Canal. As regular locks rarely exceed a gain or lowering of more than 3 metres, this is quite an experience. Fortunately the lock keepers here are very experienced and take your lines via a rope with a hook, dangled over the wall of the lock. Ingress of water to the locks are controlled to ensure boats do not thrash about causing damage to themselves and the lock walls.

So, we arrived in Nevers. Sad farewells to Ian and Helen were preceded by us arranging their trip to Paris, some shopping for last minute gifts for folks back home, an excursion to the Palace of the Ducs de Nevers and the large church that dominates the skyline. The church was half destroyed by allied bombing during WWII but restored following peace. It now boasts very modern stained glass with only two panels of ‘old’ glass, re-created from photographs of the originals.

As Ian and Helen left on July 11, we decided to stay in Nevers for Bastille Day on July 14. This promised to be entertaining with a free symphony concert at 6.00pm and fireworks at 10.45pm. Two other Australian boats and crews were there, an Albany couple Geoff and Lorna Steer and a Melbourne couple, John Doughty and his wife Jan. All of us have a connection, as St Jean de Losne was our common wintering port. Thereby hangs other tales, since the year before, both couples, travelling together did not reach that safe harbour as engine trouble with John’s boat caused extensive delays.  Winter ice overtook them as they waited for repairs, forcing John to leave his boat next to a lock some 30km distance from St Jean during the whole winter. On the other hand, the Steers rushed through the forming ice and had their boat craned out of the canal at St Jean, leaving it on shore as they went back to Albany for the European winter - that being the Australian summer.

This had indeed been a busy time with some 600 litres of fuel consumed in some 120 hours of engine use (the fuel also powers the water heater and generator) at a rate somewhat less than 5 litres per hour. During this cruise we had covered more than 800 kilometres at an average speed of around 6kmh. I have not counted the number of locks but it would have been over 200 !

During the next month we cruised south to Roanne, a busy port for many expatriate boaters, back to St Jean de Losne for a visit and an engine service (some 400 hours since leaving there), and then turned south towards the Mediterranean and the Canal du Midi via the mighty Rhone River. We looked forward to another raft of friends from the UK, Australia and Canada joining us and many more confrontations with beautiful foods, wines and scenery.

July 15 to August 17                                                               

Decize - canal-side fuelling; Gannay - music and parties; Bourbon-Lancy - night markets; Disappointing Digoin; Briennon - canal musee and Charlieu monastery; Paray le Monial - basilica, art and old friends; Digoine Chateau and Theatre; Montreaux; Montchanin and hangovers; hotel boats and aggravation.

During the next month we had no live-aboard visitors and so devoted ourselves to travel and exploration. That is not to say that we were without company, quite the opposite. When you travel the canals you meet more people in a month than you meet in a year at home !

We departed Nevers after a week, having made our sad farewells to the Palmers shortly after our arrival there. Our next stop was Decize, a fair size town with a cosy canal-side ‘halte fluvial’ just across the street from a large supermarché that had a service station attached. We noticed here that the fuel prices were low this week (they fluctuate 10c regularly) and so decided to try to arrange a fuel delivery.

There are two ways of obtaining fuel in large quantities for a boat like Van Nelle. The first is to buy at canal or river fuel bunker-ships or shore installations, of which there are less and less as commercial barging declines. The second is to arrange for a fuel distributor to send a truck to wherever you are. We chose the second method since there are no fuel stops within days of Decize and, while we had sufficient fuel for another couple of weeks, I choose to keep the tank more than half full whenever possible. We needed 600 to700 litres to fill the tank and since we have only a glass sight tube and dead reckoning as to the exact amount I ordered 600 litres by phone. I did this at the tourist information office, whose staff were kind enough to find a suitable distributor with the right fuel at the right price - delivered.

Quite often you find that while the street price of diesel is (say) 80 cents at the Supermarché service station, the ‘boat price’ is over 90 cents at a bunker-ship at the same time. We had enquired at the nearby boat rental station and they had offered us the same fuel at 1 Euro per litre. We arranged delivery at 70 cents per litre ! One needs to ensure the correct fuel is used since there are three varieties. Gazoil is the diesel for boat engines, red gazoil (at about 34 cents per litre) can only be used for heating and power generation and diesel fuel is a derivative (at about 50 cents) used for domestic heating systems.

We fuelled up, causing quite a stir among other boaties who had not come across that method of obtaining fuel and were all eager to enjoy the price benefits. Unfortunately, unless there are more than a couple of small boats adding their total to more than 500 litres, the distributors are not keen to send trucks running around the country for an occasional 50 litres. The other trap is that, if you order 500 litres, that’s all you get. You cannot extend the amount with the driver, although you probably can refuse to take the complete load if you have over ordered. The trucks have on-board invoice machines but not remote credit card devices, so it is cash or local cheque. We use our French cheque account for the purpose.

While at Decize, we explored the ramparts of the town (early 12th century) and the various waterways that join together there. Decize is the start of the Canal du Nivernais, a beautiful meandering waterway that is punctuated by small, pretty towns and picturesque country vistas. We had explored it about three or four years before with two other couples, on a hire boat from the Locaboat company. Also at Decize is the confluence of the Loire River with the town occupying a sort of island with canals on two sides and the river on a third. Old churches, a monastery turned into a school and narrow streets bordered by half timbered houses make up the scenery, together with a kilometre of walkway between huge plain trees, planted a couple of centuries back.

Garnay was our next stop and by comparison, this is a small village. The little port however is a gem with good water depth at the quai side, plenty of long walls to tie against, electricity and water available free, a toilet and shower block and a port side bar and restaurant. Nearby is the town with a boulangerie for fresh bread, a boucherie for barbecue meats and a small supermarché for other necessary supplies. It was here that we met some new friends and enjoyed music and parties.

On our arrival we were met by a tall, greying, and very cultured Englishman who jumped off his boat to take our lines, injuring himself slightly on a piece of wire near the bollard as he did so. ‘No trouble’ he insisted and disappeared back to his boat after we were settled. Shortly after, as we were fussing over springs and resetting the bow and stern lines, we were accosted by a very playful and very, very shaggy, black dog with an old plastic bottle, much chewed, in his mouth - obviously wanting a game of catch. We indulged him for a while, which automatically meant meeting his owners, a Dutch couple with a 25 metre Tjalk - a converted sailing barge. Huib and Door Winkel have been floating about for 20 plus years, and like us, were just going where they were pointing, unless something or someone came along to provide a reason for a different plan - or indeed a plan at all.                       

That evening we were entertained by the Englishman, Bob Fellingham, and one of his crew. Bob turned out to be an accomplished accordionist and his crew member played a cut down cello which he had made. They made excellent music ! We ended up staying several days during which we shared convivial times at the local bar and on the back deck of Van Nelle. Barbecues took precedence over formality and parties started at the drop of a cork. We were sorry to leave but as it happened, we leapfrogged Huib and Door for the next couple of weeks, continuing to enjoy their company and getting some exercise by throwing pieces of old kindling for their dog. We also had time during the days to prepare and revarnish parts of the wheelhouse, which was starting to show signs of grey through the gloss.

Leaving Garnay we arrived shortly after at Garnat, another small village, but near to the town of Bourbon Lancy - a beautiful medieval town that was recommended by our Dutch friends as a place to enjoy lunch. We rode the nine kilometres to the town on our Peugeot scooter and were entranced as soon as we arrived. They were right about the beauty of the old town which was like a small historical world with tiny streets and tiny buildings. In one of the streets we were confronted by live music at an outdoor restaurant which not only looked very romantic but was friendly, inexpensive and had delicious charcuterie (plates of meats and breads), omelettes, salads and cheeses. A bottle of Sancerre (chardonnay) was excellent too ! We enjoyed a lazy lunch and wobbled back to the boat after a suitable wait and walk to reduce the effects of the repast.

We decided to continue that day to the next town as it was highly recommended, and, after arrival at Diou, found signs pointing to a night market (Fete Nocturne). We explored a bit and then set off for the field next to the camping area where all was in readiness for the night’s entertainment. The local marching band was seated in the centre, playing their obviously very familiar tunes about three times through, since their repertoire was not extensive. Even we became familiar with the tunes during that concert. Nearby was a rotisserie with huge hams being cooked while next to that was the bar and wood fired oven truck that was turning out loaves of peasant bread (pain paysanne). All around the perimeter of the field were other local produce stalls, beer, honey, cakes, meats, woodwork, wines, cheeses and artefacts. We tried the beer (not very good), the cheeses (very gamey), the wines (pleasant) and then dined on huge plates of ham and frites (chips) after meeting locals in the queue.

Queues are not taken very seriously in France and this becomes a matter of some frustration for us disciplined etrangers. I have arrived at places to be (say) fourth in the queue, only to find that more and more people arrive who know numbers one, two and three in the same line. Soon you find you are number sixteen in the queue and getting further away from the delivery point by the minute. It is at about that time that I take the attitude that ‘good for one, good for all’ is the way to play it, and walk to the head of the queue. You hear some muttered comments occasionally that include the words ‘etrangers’ and ‘connaisance’ and believe that they have recognised that the stranger realises the system and has taken his own action to circumvent it.

No one argues in public but sometimes in crowded boulangeries in bigger towns, and certainly in any La Poste agency, things can get a little heated. In La Poste (the French Post Offices) they now have surveillance video cameras and signs that say "Welcome to La Poste. Our staff are pleased to help you. Please do not commit acts of aggression towards them". I have waited for an hour in a queue of only ten people, as those in front try to outstay those who have made them wait before. When you do get to the top of the queue, the girl puts up a sign "Ferme" and closes the section for lunch. Fun !

We shared a table that night with three French people, a woman and two men who ran the nearby Renault Foundry, making parts for cars and trucks. Conversation in French was simple but very satisfying and we talked for over an hour, understanding most of what was being said. We parted as friends, with offers of tours of the factory if we were ever in the neighbourhood.

Digoin was the next stop. A biggish town and much written about. We found most of it closed or predictable and stayed only long enough to discover there was very little to discover and so moved on to Briennon.

At Briennon you find a very neat port, overlooked by a story book village furnished with very modern looking red brick buildings. Each little two story brick house and building seems to be decorated by boxes of flowers, all in harmony with the layout of gardens tended daily by employees of the Ville. Near to the port is a very neat Musee du Canal, comprising a full size Peniche (38m barge) which has been lifted out of the water and converted into a museum. It is set in a garden that contains a complete miniature canal waterway, complete with locks, pont canals (canals across rivers), ascenseurs (lifting docks), sous terrains (tunnels) and radio controlled model barges. I itched to get my hands on one of the control boxes but feared I would not have the skill of the six year olds currently piloting their boats about the mini-fluviale. We retired from the heat to the air conditioned museum to listen to an hour of very rapid French explanation.

On to Roanne. I should mention that at this stage we had been travelling down the trunk canal that goes off the main North - South route, to the terminal city of Roanne, once a very busy barge port. The port at the end of the canal is vast as it originally had to handle hundreds of busy barges taking coal and other products out of town and bringing supplies and raw materials in. Since the railways and roads took over the job that was once done by barges, the port has converted itself into a popular and well occupied ‘home port’ and wintering harbour for many private boats of all sizes.

Our friends Lindy and Roger Tindley from St Jean de Losne, an English couple we had spent much time with during the past winter, had chosen to move here earlier in the year as Roger spends weeks away piloting remote control submersibles in the North Sea oil fields. Roanne offers better facilities for Lindy, who is left minding the baby - baby boat in this case. We were looking forward to meeting up with them again after a separation of some three months and so looked for their boat as we entered the harbour. We saw it at the end reserved for smaller boats but there was no-one on board at the time. We turned and headed for our berth some two hundred metres away, just near a large marquee that had been erected on the shore side of the port.

We stayed at Roanne for five days, catching up with Lindy (Roger was away working), having grumbling teeth checked by a young and very competent dentist, visiting towns and dams in the area by scooter, and attending the karaoke night market that was held every Saturday night, right next to our mooring (hence the marquee). We invited two new American friends plus Lindy and her daughter to join us on the deck of Van Nelle for a barbecue, and to watch and enjoy the nights amateur entertainment. Fortunately the karaoke finished at 10.30pm so we had no problems having a quiet night sleep.

Our new American friends, Bill and Francis were about to pack up and leave their boat in the care of Jackie the harbourmaster, since Bill had work to do in Dubai. We had other things to do also, especially since the word was out that the Canal du Centre was about to close. This is the canal that we were to take from the top end of the Canal du Roanne to Chalon and thence on to St Jean de Losne via the Saone River. If it were to close before we exited at Chalon we would have to return to Paris and go south via Germany or the Canal Marne et Saone, a detour of about 1,000km. We headed off, ensuring that we made good progress each day so that we could get clear but still enjoy the places of interest still in front of us.

Returning along the Roanne branch canal we again stopped at Briennon and rode our bicycles to the town of Charlieu to see it’s musee and monastery. The town was spared bombing in WWII (unlike Roanne which suffered extensively and has virtually no old buildings), so it offers a beautiful and extensive old town with many venerable ancient buildings set in wide avenues. It also has a beautifully restored Hotel Dieu (hospital) built in the 11th century but updated over time. This closed as the town’s principal hospital only some 10-15 years before and now serves as a dual museum - of silk, a local industry - and of the hospital. Run by nuns until very recent times, this was the maternity, surgery and general hospital for the district. It’s wards are large open rooms which, like dormitories in 1960s boarding schools, were furnished with iron beds around the perimeters of the rooms with only curtains for privacy. The original wooden beds were burned in 1950 as ordered by the Mairie since they were infested with ancient bed bugs !

The town still produces fabulous silk materials that are used in haute couture and in decoration. All the big fashion names are represented by examples of their gowns and in the many pictures of ravishing models, wearing the clothes made from the diaphanous or highly ornamented materials. These, and the methods of production, are all carefully explained in English language written guides.

The nearby monastery is one of the 1600 organisations once managed by its ‘mother’ house, the Cistercian monastery at Cluny. This extensive network of property and production was run, managed and staffed entirely of non salaried monks, making it possible for the gathering of wealth which was the envy, and finally the property, of the revolutionary government of France. The monks owned huge land holdings, the income from which fuelled the growth of their orders. During this period, the French Kings, wanting part of the action, used the rules of the order to install their own management, usurping the right of the monks to choose their own leader, and thereby making it possible to divert much of the income to their own coffers. This cosy system was however upset by the revolution when the committee of public safety ordered all religious buildings and lands forfeit and sold them off to the highest bidders. Since they were at the same time cutting the heads off most of the nobles (who held most of the country’s wealth) it was pot luck as to who ended up owning the lands and chateaux, many of which were vandalised with their buildings ruined by locals plundering the stone and timber to reinforce or build their own homes.

While the museum is the best we have seen in explaining the origin, daily routines and orders of the monks, much of the original monastery was ruined at the time of the revolution, so that while the cloister and some rooms remain, most of the evidence of its passing is told by the foundations that have been unearthed.

On we went to Paray le Monial, a large religious town with extensive facilities for water borne travellers. One approaches the town centre down a tree lined canal, as long as it is straight. On both sides, seemingly for kilometres, are bollards and straight sided walls of deck height. We chose to stop before one of the town’s bridges in a shaded area that proved unfortunately to be exposed to the traffic on the main road. We tied up and explored forward on foot, finding another port section after the bridge in a quieter place. We moved and explored even further forward, only to find yet another port - this one with water and power on tap. We chose not to move a third time as we didn’t need the facilities and were quite happy with our new position.

Paray has a large Basilica which housed the artefacts and remnants of the life of Saint Marguerite Mary who had a vision of the heart of Jesus and started a custom of pilgrimage to the town in the 1800s that has not died out since. The town is geared for pilgrims and religious groups, mostly in the one star category lodgings. They arrive by train, bus and car, to stay in the extensive one star hotels and pensions, camping areas and church owned boarding houses. They attend the basilica and other churches and chapels, where services are conducted, often in languages other than French. There are extensive meeting and exposition facilities, both permanent and temporary. We saw an area furnished with canvas structures such as are used for major temporary events around the world but at least 5 - 10 times the size and extent - acres - hectares of area under modern aluminium framed canvas.

We went on the basilica tour and were learning much about the architecture of churches when a funeral procession entered the church and forced us out into the streets. The one hour basilica tour turned out to be fifteen minutes with the balance being made up by the guide taking us through the old town to the other main attractions. The rest of the town is just as interesting with old streets and buildings predominating. Gustav Klimt, a ground breaking artist of the last century was recognised by a fascinating exhibition of ceramic art, held in the converted tower of a church which had fallen victim to the Revolution, the tower being the only part left standing. We pored over reproductions of his work, made by gluing small pieces of ceramics on a base, instead of brush strokes. Remarkable and very beautiful.

Some New Zealanders from St Symphorien (a marina town near St Jean de Losne) had been to one of our famous Sunday Lunches in St Jean and they turned up here on their 24m Luxemotor barge with a family of paying guests. We chatted, but since they had paying guests (PGs as we call them), we had no chance to party. Just as well, since the last time we had they left us with serious head injuries of the self inflicted kind. There is a clear and present danger of such occupational hazards in this life style and it has a lot to do with liquids - both red and white.

Paray le Monial is an interesting town worth some time to explore so we spent a couple of happy days before setting off to keep ahead of the canal closure deadline, arriving at our next port of call - Digoine - with an E. This is not disappointing Digoin - it is lovely Digoine and features a beautiful chateau that has it’s own theatre and is still occupied by the original family !

The Chateau was a short bicycle ride from the canal where we had stopped in the company of George and Maggie Pringle, a Scots couple who are cruising on ‘Bengta’, a reproduction Luxemotor then 15 years old. The canal side stop is in a quiet location, occupied occasionally by a few fishermen who never seem to catch anything, but if they do, they throw the results back into the canal. Having made fast we took to bikes and arrived at the chateau just before 2.30pm, at which time a conducted tour was about to start. We bought tickets and were shown over the property by (it is rumoured by George and Maggie), the existing family’s grandfather. He certainly knew the whole history of the place, treated it like home and ruled over the property’s stray children just like a grandfather - but perhaps that comes from being the owner of a theatre.

Built purely for the entertainment of the original family, they have a reproduction Italian opera house which is a National Trust monument (but is in need of visitor’s Euros to effect much needed repairs). One can see through the dust and mould to what a gem it was. It would seat about 80 if they were crushed in to the red brocade padded benches in the stalls or the same in the gallery, to witness the Counts and Lords who, as friends of the family, were invited to stay at the Chateau and act out parts in the amateur productions put on for fun. The orchestra pit would fit perhaps three musicians if they played very small instruments, while in the front and centre of the stage is a large prompters box, which, one assumes, was probably much in demand by the amateur thespians who once graced the stage. A couple of programmes, casually pinned to the walls, show that Sara Bernhardt and Offenbach visited. They would have enjoyed the surroundings, as the chateau and its French gardens and English park are very beautiful, tranquil and sumptuously furnished.

On to Montreaux les Mines, a centre of mining - although the much vaunted museum of mining is situated in another town some distance away - and, since I have seen extensive mining operations in Kalgoorlie, I was not enticed away from the canal to visit it. Montreaux offered a market operating right alongside the harbour as we arrived and, at the local three screen movie house, was offering a movie that we wanted to see. That night we went to the movies and while we watched we concentrated as hard as possible on translating the rapid fire French dubbed onto American actors’ lips, but it was too quick and we left the theatre wondering what the nuances of the plot were.

The day we arrived in Montreaux however was also the day of two important person’s birthdays - our son Sean, who had just relocated to Port Hedland, a mining town in the north west of Western Australia, and Miria Jane Cummins - great friend, well known yachtswoman and member of our yacht club. Happy Birthday greetings were made by the magic of the mobile phone. The usual surge of homesick nostalgia was also a result.

We departed Montreaux for Montchanin early the next morning as we had been warned there were nine boats heading in the same direction and we wanted to be ahead of the pack. Following boats without a suitable gap can cause great frustration as many inexperienced water borne travellers can cause havoc with automatic locks and in narrow stretches of the canals, cause long delays. We left promptly and were fortunate to be the first into the stretch ahead that featured a flight of seven locks in one town (7 locks end to end) and a total of 20 for the day’s travel. We went only about 15km in distance but with 20 locks, it added up to a 6 hour travel day. 6 hours is quite a long time to stand at the wheel. Water suction caused by the propeller moving huge quantities of water between the shallow bottom and the hull causes the boat to swing irregularly from side to side, even at very slow speeds, and it becomes tiring fighting the boat back onto a central course. We were pleased therefore to arrive at our day’s destination, Montchanin, in the mid afternoon.

Here we saw the unforgettable outline of a small boat we had encountered at Sens, many weeks before. The owners of the boat, called Chapter III, are Dwight and Fran Fisher, an elderly American couple who reckon that Chapter I was their life before boating, Chapter II was their 30' sailboat on which they navigated the Panama Canal and Chapter III is now their canal boat in Europe. Not bad for a couple well into their 70s ! They introduced us to Bill and Betty, another American couple who have a very small Luxemotor which they believe must have been built to take farm produce to market in the upper reaches of the Netherlands. We invited them all over for a barbecue dinner, after having already had an extensive lunch with Dwight and Fran. Much damage to the brain cells resulted as the ‘water’ stories - good and bad - were recounted.

While everyone accumulates their own experiences, these sessions also pass many shared experiences around so that you often hear the same tales coming back in slightly modified form. Mostly, stories are self deprecating tales of your own misfortune or misadventure, but often they are about accidents and unfortunate occurrences witnessed en-route - and about the arrogance and downright bullying activities of some of the hotel boats plying the waterways.

We were in St Leger later and when we arrived there were a number of large and small boats in a line down a quai outside the town’s port de plaisance. During the afternoon a young man arrived demanding the boats between us and the bridge all move - four boats including two over 25 metres. Several of them were secured with their own stakes that have to be hammered into the ground when there are no bollards available. There already was a suitable area for a hotel boat, with power and water alongside, just 100 metres down stream but this guy wanted to put his boat next right next to the nearby bridge. Why ? So his aged American passengers did not have to walk 100 metres to their tour bus or the nearest bar. The other boats all moved. When they looked like demanding the same of us I demanded proof that a) they had the right to be here at all and b) that they had a particular place reserved for them by the town. They could not produce proof, just bluster, nor did they offer to assist the other boat owners despite having half a dozen young crew members doing nothing. To make matters worse, the hotel boat subsequently arrived and its helmsman, while hanging in the centre of the channel constantly applied power, creating wash and suction, bodily thrusting the moving and untethered boats out into the canal - unnecessarily.  This is just a case of arrogant bastardisation which experienced owners will not countenance but inexperienced people acquiesce to.

We have all had experiences with hotel boat crews demanding other boats leave or move since they insist they have precedence. Most times they have no such rights but they work on the gullibility of the hire boat users and part time privateers. We have developed a technique to handle them which consists of politely agreeing to move - after they furnish written proof of their authority, from the Mairie concerned. If they cannot do so, we don’t move. They learn eventually that they are not the owners and rulers of all they survey. In places where there is such priority, signs are displayed with schedules attached, showing which hotel boats are expected and when. We are all happy to accept such provisions.

Many first time travellers to France are convinced they will be confronted by similar arrogant and unhelpful Frenchman. While I’m sure these fabled ogres do exist (and have actually encountered one or two, mostly in not very good restaurants), they are very rare and are greatly outnumbered by the rest of the population, many of whom go out of their way to be helpful and friendly. We were stopped at a lock when approached by a young man who had been explaining the operations of the mechanisms to his two young children. He enquired shyly whether we were Australian, having seen the flag, and chatted about his son’s (his ?) fascination with boats. He was originally from the area and was on holiday with his family. He pointed out his very pretty wife standing by their Renault vehicle nearby.

"Would we perhaps consider taking them on board for the short trip to the next town ?" he asked, and we readily agreed with the usual warnings about the dangers to young children on big boats.

It was a hot day and we offered cordial and cookies as we departed the lock en route to Briennon. The kids crawled over the hot decks and the young father quietly kept them well under control as we slowly meandered through the countryside. Around the final turn the next town and its port lay ahead. I advised the father that we would stop at the port to let them off and then continue to our preferred mooring just around the next corner. While we were tied up he explained he was now living near Bordeaux at the great wine town of St Emilion and if we were ever near we should contact him. He was, he explained, a clarinetist with the Bordeaux Opera and he would love to reciprocate our hospitality by arranging a concert or a visit to the opera. We delightedly exchanged names and addresses with promises to contact them.  A small exchange leading to an opportunity to experience the real life of France. Opportunities like that happened often to us and to others. One couple who moored canal side in front of a house were even asked if they would like to stay at the house during the heat of summer as it was air conditioned and the family were off for a week’s holiday the next day. They were given the key to the family house having known the owners for just two days !

We were now on the home stretch for St Jean de Losne, our jumping off place for the next big adventure, the trip down the mighty Rhone River to the Canal du Midi. First, we had to get to St Jean, service the engine and catch up with 4 months of accumulated business mail and other bits and pieces, plus the social life that flavours our lifestyle there. To do so meant travelling through Chagny, on to Chalon sur Saone and then the 60km trip to St Jean.

Chagny offered a market on the morning after our arrival which we took in and then prepared to depart. As we untied the boat we saw Bill and Betty arriving. We were tempted to do a Sunday lunch with some of the delicious ready-to-eat foods on offer at the market - but resisted and left them to it. We headed off in slightly overcast conditions but had a mostly dry trip to Chalon. On the way we were some times held up for half an hour at a time at unmanned locks that were not programmed for a stream of one way boats. Lock keepers arrived in cars and with long discussions on mobile phones, kept the procession of hire boats and ourselves slowly moving on.  

The final lock into Chalon is a monster by comparison to the en-route locks in the canals. This one drops the boat more than10 metres into a dank and humid pit, towered over by the huge guillotine door and chains that raise it above your boat as you pass through the exit to the river. We have been through other, larger locks in Belgium and Holland but this one, after so long away from the big commercial waterways, is one that awes.

We were not keen to go into Chalon and also wanted an early start for the 12 km per hour dash to St Jean on the Saone River the next morning so we asked the eclusier if we could remain overnight at the floating pontoons used by boats waiting for the lock. He agreed and we secured Van Nelle after exiting to the river side. Fortunately only two more sets of boats passed through in our direction before the ecluse closed for the night so we were virtually uninterrupted by the huge amounts of water that exit the locks as it operates. This ecluse is 40metres long and 7 wide with a depth of 10.5m - almost 3,000 cubic metres of water coming our way - is that 3,000 tonnes of water ?         

We were up early the next morning and took the short trip out to the river at slow speed to let the Baudouin engine warm up before throttling it up to achieve 12 km/h against the current. Only three locks separate St Jean from Chalon and they are all huge in size but not in depth. They take a while to operate since they measure about 100 metres by 20 with a rise or fall of about 2.5m, but there was little other traffic on the river so we made the distance in 5 hours. As we arrived, so did our friends, Caroline and Matthew, who had been in the UK for a week celebrating birthdays and had just driven down from Dijon where they had left their car while away. A great piece of timing.

That night we had drinks to meet their guests, daughter Sam and boyfriend Ben (another pilot) and to plan the rest of the week. It was to be quite a schedule.  Dinner was arranged for 8 people on Van Nelle for Wednesday, water skiing on the river for Thursday - a holiday in France for Assumption - with a visit to town for the fireworks on Thursday night and, a dinner at the local Brasserie, L’Amiral, on Saturday. Other friends were returning to or passing through St Jean during the week so there were more dinners and drinks to be arranged and weathered. By chance, a couple of the people I had taken my barge operators license with were also arriving within days so the pace was guaranteed to be fast and furious.

The next week then was filled with servicing the main engine from the sump of which I scooped out about 10kg of the accumulated sludge of 30 years and into which I poured 40 litres of specialised heavy duty diesel oil.  We revarnishing parts of the wheelhouse; stocked up with necessary parts and supplies, there was new cordage to be bought, spliced and applied, and some areas of paintwork to be renewed.  We updated the website with new pictures (and these simple musings), and caught up with the business mail and other routine matters, while between, before and after such tasks lay the real jobs of socialising and circulating. Very important stuff.

While we worked and played we thought about our coming journey on the mighty Rhone River of which we had heard so much.  The section of the Rhone we were to navigate is about 450 kilometres long with six major locks that retard the flow from the Rhine, the Saone, the Doubs and the Rhone itself - into huge hydro electric systems and thereby tame the ice melt and summer rainfall. These watery inputs can raise the speed of the current to 8 km/h, a speed at which it becomes difficult to stop big boats and dangerous to manoeuvre in when approaching bridges, locks and moorings. It does have the advantage of speeding up the trip however. Add the current (at this time about 4kmh) to Van Nelle’s cruising speed of 12 and we will travel at about 16kmh - we might be able to water ski.

Last night we had Matt and Caro’s crew over for dinner and this morning they arrived to take me out to ski on the river. I learned originally on two skis at the age of 12 and had my next lesson in Acapulco some 18 years later when I achieved the feat of standing on a single ski. I think I had been invited as an object of fun - ‘lets see how the olds can fall off’ sort of thing. Fortunately it went according to my plan not those of the young Turks. I got up on the first run and on the second, shook off the second ski and stayed upright, crossing the towing boat’s wake at speed.  Victory was sweet. The crew in the boat, excellent skiers all (including the ski instructor boyfriend of Matthew’s daughter), were full of praise so I guess I scored a point or two. One for the ‘olds’.

So, life was pretty good at that moment, especially since the sun was out, friends abounded and an adventure lay ahead. We can’t wait.

 

Chapter Seven - Down the Rhone to the Canals Entre Deux Mers

August 18 - September 14

The last week at St Jean de Losne before heading onto and down the River Saone to the Rhone River presented us with some quiet and some raucous times. We had waited at St Jean longer than planned since we expected Helen and Ian McLean, a Canadian couple to return from Strasbourg on their 24m luxemotor barge Mea Vota. I had taken my French barge masters ticket a couple of years earlier in a group that included Helen so we were keen to meet Helen’s husband and their three children.  Alister 12, Wendy 8 and Eleanor 6 had previously accompanied their parents for a year on Mea Vota, which the family had just sold. Their return to St Jean was planned for the 24th so we had about a week to finish the small jobs around the boat, varnishing, painting, splicing new lines on fenders, and catching up with friends before meeting up with them. The work periods were quiet but the social occasions were raucous as usual.

Rounds of lunches, dinners and drinks were punctuated by visits to other people’s boats and even some outings to fairs at neighbouring towns, since we had access to our 14 year old Renault 21 voiture (car). August is a period of fairs and religious celebrations and many nearby towns had organised and advertised events. These normally take the shape of a centrally placed market with stalls offering local produce; wines, honey, cheeses, meats and breads; and entertainment in the form of parades, musicians and firework displays. In many cases an outdoor café serves simple but inexpensive meals while the bar does a roaring trade in beer, kir (white wine and cassis) and soft drinks. Entertainment carries on through the evening until 10.30 when the sun finally sets and fuses to the fireworks are lit.

Eventually the revelling ended with a ‘grande feu d’artifice’ (fireworks) over the river at St Jean followed by a long dinner at Gilles restaurant ‘L’Amiral’ and we were off, early on the morning of Saturday 24 August.  We had a date to make, to meet our guest, Grace Piccardi, in Avignon on Monday, 2 September, only 9 days away. This meant a journey of some 550 kilometres, some of which was to be current assisted as we were travelling downstream but the first section of the trip was to retrace the passage to Chalon sur Saone through which we had recently passed on our way back from Paris. As we did not want to stay there we made an early start, went straight through and onto the River Saone, travelling all day to reach Tournus by 4.30, after an eight hour cruise.  The trip south was first to be on the Petit Saone at St Jean which turns into a long bypass canal taking you to Chalon where it becomes the full River Saone.  This channel takes the waters of the north down about 240km to join the Rhone river at Lyon whence the Rhone continues some 250km south to the Mediterranean.  Here starts the Canals Entre deux Mers - the Canal du Midi to Toulouse and the Canal Lateral a la Garonne from Toulouse to Castets whence it empties into the Garonne River to allow navigation to Bordeaux and onward to the Atlantic Ocean.

Arriving in Tournus we passed the first mooring, a quai with no services near the bridge that spans the wide river at this ancient city, and drifted downstream to check out the Port de Plaisance. As usual, it was full of small and medium size boats taking up far more room that they needed by leaving over generous space between themselves. Even with extensive movement of a number of small craft we would have been too big so we turned 180 and went back to the old quai. Here too the boats were spread apart (but fewer of them) and after a strongly worded request to ‘please move or have us come alongside’ we caused the necessary action. The only boat that actually needed to move had only to drift up about 4 metres to let us in and provide each of us with sufficient space. This was completed to the muttering of the owner’s wife, who had now lost her piece of shade from the overarching bridge. C’est la guerre !

We took a quick walk through town to get fresh bread and familiarise ourselves with the many attractions listed in the charts. The town is positioned between the coloured roofs of Burgundy and the dun coloured stone and pottery topped buildings of the south and was so strategic the Romans built it up as an important staging and storage centre during their 500 year occupation of the region. Now it is a light industrial base but it owed its development after the Romans to monks who made it an important monastic and religious centre. Then, the French Revolution’s administration summarily took over religious land and buildings and sold them off to bourgeois merchants, so that many remained intact and which can now be visited as museums, while others not attractive to prospective new owners were razed and the building materials used by local peasants for their own abodes.

The next morning we departed early again, eager to make large distances while the weather was pleasant and the river was helping us along without being tempestuous from late summer rain. We received a boost of about 3 - 5 km/h throughout the journey south, allowing us to run the engine at medium power and conserving fuel while still travelling at about 15 km/h. With some 30% of power in reserve we achieved 17 km/h (about 8 knots) at one stage and for long periods cruised at 15 - 16. During the trip we consumed 7 litres of diesel fuel per hour - just under a litre per kilometre, whereas we average just under 5 lph doing 7 km/h on canals and about 10 lph at full revs.

Macon was our staging point for lunch, while we planned to reach Trevoux before shutting down for the night. This would mean that in two days we travelled 170 km in just 16 hours at an average of just over 10 km/h. The lower average speed is explained by the sometimes long waits at the huge locks that punctuate the trip, to allow monster commercial ships to catch up and take precedence.

The monster locks are 195 metres long and 15 metres wide and can accommodate a number of standard 38m peniches, whole fleets of pleasure boats or just one massive inter-country hotel boat. The locks drop Van Nelle in steps of 10 to 20 metres from the higher upstream river level to the lower level downstream. Each ecluse along the Rhone is accompanied by a hydro electric power station that both harnesses the power of the river and provides free electricity. The great benefit to boaties is the reduced current during times of ‘crue’ or flood, caused by rain or snow melt. Despite these barriers, the flow can get up to 7kmh making it treacherous for underpowered boats to stop at locks and to navigate bridges. Despite huge floods in eastern Europe (Austria, Hungary) at this time, we were unaffected, since those flood waters fed rivers that flowed east from the mountains that border France and not into the centre of France and the Rhone.

Macon is a very impressive city and a centre of wine production for Cotes de Rhone and Burgundy vintages. Indeed, it is famous for it’s Macon varieties and the huge national wine fair held each year. Founded in the 11th century, Macon was an independent state until bought by Saint Louis (King Louis 9) in the mid 1200s after a bloody fight with rival city, Dijon. Several changes of management followed as Burgundian lords fought Northern kings for power and prestige but it finally acquiesced in 1455 and as part of France, got on with improving it’s wines. We took a quick walk through the town to discover it’s ancient wooden houses with carved panels decorating and completing the external walls, and even received the bonus of some brilliant organ music as we visited the cathedral during the late morning service, enhanced by masterfully rendered Bach toccatas and fugues.  We departed Macon, determined to spend more time here on our trip back up the river next year, and headed off to meet up with friends in Trevoux.

Our English mates from St Jean’s previous winter, John and Jan, met us in Trevoux and helped us with our lines at the stone quai, as again, the port was full of small boats. We don’t mind being excluded from these ports if there is a safe alternative elsewhere since we carry sufficient water and a generator to provide power if we are not cruising. In this case we stopped at the quai which has a sign at the extreme other end (it is about 150m long) warning of the precedence reserved for hotel boats. There were none at the time so we happily tied up and visited the nearby boules competition that was in swing at the time. I was fascinated by the extreme concentration of the hundreds of four person teams - all trying to win through to the finals to take away what looked like pretty ordinary plastic trophies. The women’s teams were just as focussed and aggressive as the men and provided great studies for close up photos.     

That night we enjoyed a long dinner on board with our friends and the next day explored this fascinating small town that is overshadowed by an extremely old fort. Partly in ruins, the fort still has a couple of towers that when scaled, offer wonderful views of the surrounding country side and the winding river from which it rises. The Saone river, on which we travel from Chalon to Lyon, is huge and the Rhone, from Lyon to the Mediterranean Ocean is even more impressive as it opens out into straight stretches 10 km long and 500 - 700 metres wide.

We were now close to the Rhone which is just 31 kilometres south of Trevoux and we were made aware of the fact when, the next afternoon, we noticed a couple of big carts of linen (sheets, towels, mats) were brought out of a truck and rolled to a concrete ramp very near our wheelhouse. I took this as a clue and looking back realised the port was now nearly vacant in preparation for an arrival and so we moved the boat. Shortly after, a massive inter-country hotel ship arrived.

Now we are pretty impressive in size at 88' or 27 metres and the hotel boats made from converted commercial peniches (barges) are even more so at 38 metres, but the Rhone River hotel boats are really impressive ships. Measuring 110 metres long, they take up the space of more than 4 of us ! They are not the sort of boat you want nudging up alongside at 3.00am, which is possible if you take one of their moorings since they travel at night to allow their passengers the greatest amount of time ashore during the days.

We explored the balance of the town that sunny afternoon until rain stopped play then retired aboard for another fun filled dinner with Jan and John. During our stay here we also met Bruce and Jane Berriman on their 60' yacht Tiger Moth out of Auckland. Bruce is a member of the America’s Cup Race Committee for New Zealand and he lives and owns property now in Newport, Rhode Island, USA with his American born wife Jane. They were heading south to put their boat in storage so he could fly out to Auckland to sit in judgement of the transgressions of the various competing nations. On board as guests were John and Anne, he the past commodore of the Auckland Yacht Club - hosts to the challenge this year. We were to see them again in Lyon, take a table together at a restaurant and have some pleasant hours chatting over drinks on the back deck of Van Nelle. Bruce of course had met many of the crew members from Australia’s challenges including Scottie McAllister and Chink Longley from our club, the Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club which provided many of the winning Australian crew.

Sad to see our friends John and Jan head the wrong way (north and back to St Jean de Losne), we cast off our lines the next morning and headed for the City of Lyon, second in size to Paris. Despite this boast, Lyon is a manageable size with only 1.2 million inhabitants and it is known as a gastronomic centre with great historical significance.  Originally a centre of silk material manufacture, Lyon at one time boasted over 18,000 silk weavers and its buildings were huddled around tiny, narrow alleys through which the finished cloth was carried to the dying factories and the warehouses of the merchants. These narrow alleys, once useful for keeping the silk out of rainy and dirty streets, became pestilent over the ages.  In very recent times, and thanks to the town council and the Minister for Culture in France, the area has been classified a historical monument and is now being completely refurbished. Houses here are now sought after and very expensive and their passageways opened up to tourists to walk through to discover the charms and vagaries of middle ages architecture.

Overlooking the old city is the Fouviere Basilica, the church of St Jus, built to provide divine protection to its donor during the plague. The church is an amazing wedding cake of a building, highly decorated on the outside and positively amazingly over-sumptuous inside. From its courtyards one gets views for 10s of kilometres, taking in the roofs and spires of the city below.

Nearby (a 10 minute walk), is the ancient Roman theatre and it’s attendant museum of Roman history. This theatre, like many others of it’s kind throughout the south, has been rebuilt to a safe standard and enhanced by modern lighting and sound, to provide today’s theatre groups the chance to perform in front of thousands of modern spectators in an ancient setting. Unfortunately there were no plays or concerts that week since the Lyon Festival had finished a week or two earlier. We spent hours in the museum and walking over the stage before again taking the cable car back down the very steep hill to the ancient city and its modern day bars for a beer.

Drinks on board and dinner in town with Bruce, Jane, John and Anne capped off a great day in Lyon, where you moor right in the centre of town under weeping willow trees.

Eager to get down to Avignon on time we set off the next day after shopping and checking our email. Unfortunately, the international roaming internet program I use has been updated with access only to high speed, local toll free numbers. This does not always suit the slow speed of the mobile phone modem and connection is difficult on the move. I found an internet café where the owner was happy for me to plug into his phone line since it would cost him nothing. That way I was able to do the banking, send and receive emails and check our website using our own portable PC.

We departed at 11.00am and now loose on the might Rhone river having left the comparatively smaller Saone River behind. While there does not appear to be a great difference between the two waterways initially, the reputation of the Rhone, especially when in flood, makes you feel somewhat apprehensive.  This day however there was no flood and we slid out into the stream without great effort and faced downstream.

Pushed along by the 4 km/h current we rapidly made Andance, the next town with facilities for boats.  We tied up to a slope-sided quai and made use of one of the three boulangeries for fresh bread. This is a really pretty little town that has considerably enhanced its river frontage which is now a row of very attractive refurbished stone warehouse / homes. Having explored and shopped, (just for something completely different), we dined on home made hamburgers that night - McDaniell burgers with the lot!

After a restful night we resumed our cruise early as we planned to stop in and explore Valence as we had read much about it in our guide books and charts. Unfortunately there was nowhere suitable to stop in the town so we continued on to Viviers, arriving at 7.00pm. Travelling at ‘night’ is no real problem as the few locks stay open until 9.00 or 9.30 and it is still light at that time although the days are now getting shorter. We had grown used to the sun coming up at 5.30 and staying that way until 10.30. To have the sun go down now at 9.30 is a little disappointing as it signals the beginning of the decline of summer.

Viviers is a small river town off the main stream by 500 metres with a (very) small port and a large stone quai. The sight of huge steel mooring piles and the knowledge that this was a very attractive and remarkably well kept historic village made us realise that it was also a probable haunt for the huge hotel boats. We sized up a possible mooring inside the steel piles, allowing for a big boat to be outside us but protected from it by the piles.  There was one problem however, a recalcitrant boat owner who had parked right in the middle of the only available space. We finally moved him to one end, allowing room for us both, and we closed down for dinner.

The next morning we found the tourist office, gained a walking map of the town and spent a couple of lazy hours in the sun, discovering the many charms of this stone village. It has a cathedral on the top of its hill, since a bishop moved in hundreds of years ago. When we stepped inside we were embraced by the sound of the rich notes of the organ. The organist, a young woman, was practising and we took advantage of the fact to enjoy a private concert. Leaving the church we wandered down the main street to discover a pottery where we were able to acquire a matched set of stone bottles, complete with pourers, for oil and vinegar.

On arrival back at the quai we discovered the other boat had gone but standing nearby were 4 huge tour busses. That could only mean one thing as we were shortly advised by one of the drivers - the imminent arrival of a monster hotel boat. We decided that prudence was the best course of action and after scrubbing the decks clean of the sap from Lyon’s weeping willows, we set off for Port L’Ardoise.

After a lazy few hours cruising south there was some disappointment on arrival as the suitable spots for boats our size had been taken. No problem, there was a concrete loading dock opposite, quiet and secure which we took advantage of as it also offered shade which we used in order to keep the drinks cold. During this period the temperatures were exceeding 30 degrees and humidity was also high. We did not bother to explore Port L’Ardoise as it appeared to be mostly industrial and there were no glowing descriptions of it in the reference material on board. The next morning promised another hot day so we planned to set off early to enjoy the cool of the 14 km/h apparent wind caused by our passage.

We left L’Ardoise on schedule and headed down river for Avignon and after threading our way through the approaches under menacing forts and chateaux, were overcome on our arrival.  Avignon is a truly beautiful city. As we turned the corner of the Rhone into the tributary branch that leads back to the centre of town, we were confronted with the ruins of the legendary ‘pont d’Avignon’ the bridge of Avignon made famous by the song. Overlooking this site are the town’s defensive ramparts and beyond them the Palace of the Popes and the cathedral. Spread around the town is a very intact wall, punctuated by guard towers.  The sights as they come into view are breathtaking from the uncluttered aspect of the river and we were truly impressed.

We passed the four remaining spans of the original 22 span ‘pont d’Avignon’ humming "sur le pont, d’Avignon, tous les danser, tous les danser" and rounded the spur jetties of the port which we passed in favour of the fully serviced quais just past the marina.  Finding a suitable spot just behind an ocean going yacht bearing the stars and stripes, we gently nosed Van Nelle into the quai against the current and Maureen stepped ashore to secure the bow line to the waiting bollards. Quickly a stern line and springs were attached with the help of our neighbours from the boats positioned fore and aft, and we were secure in the dress circle of this fabulous place. Within minutes we had connected to the electricity and water and were raring to get to grips with the town.

Catholic France provided the town of Avignon to the popes  fleeing from enemies in Rome but used the river as a strong barrier to stop them breaking out of the town to take over more of La Belle France.  Avignon served as the centre of catholic religion from 1304 to 1377 with seven Popes reigning here as they built and extended the palace, the cathedral and the commerce of the city. The famous bridge connected the papacy to France and was guarded at each end by their respective soldiers. The Popes had been forced to flee Rome over squabbles about land and power but their enemies were not long standing and eventually they left France to take up residence again in Rome, leaving a wonderful heritage in the form of magnificent buildings - now museums.

The old walled city can be bicycled around in less than an hour and bisected in 20 minutes. The streets run at crazy angles out from the major boulevarde that runs through the centre, starting near the huge square that stands before the Papal Palace and the Cathedral and flanked by the Mint. This square is the focal point for tour groups and is constantly alive with free concerts given by street musicians eager to sell their professionally produced CDs.

Running off the square, the main boulevarde is full of the famous name shops of Europe and the little streets running away from it, full of tiny restaurants, bars and boutiques. Around every corner is another sight of antiquity and charm. Outside the walls the modern city has expanded with a new TGV (fast train) station that looks like a modern airport and many supermarkets and large specialty shops. Exploring Avignon could take a week and you would still have much to see and do. Every day there is a fresh food market in a square or under the city walls where new fruits and old favourites gleam, fresh from the gardens and ateliers of the region.

As we had our next guest arriving at Avignon in a couple of days, we chose to leave the interiors of the papal palace and cathedral for a tour of discovery with her and turned our attention to the walls, fortifications, streets and markets. We, together with the crews from the boats moored before and behind us, also rode our bicycles in a convoy to a nearby town to experience the fun of that town’s agricultural and cultural fair. While much of the fete was centred around the impressive displays of local produce and its production, the star turn was the arrival in the arena of the parade of antique horse drawn carriages and carts, complete with passengers and their conducteurs in traditional costumes, including a full wedding party and a priest on his donkey.

Three days passed in a flash as we got to know  Hayward and Charlotte from North Carolina, the American owners of the large luxury yacht, and Arno and Monika from Germany, owners of a smaller but very useful barge. The Americans had sailed three quarters of the way around the globe, also going extensively from south to north on their way here. They came on board for drinks bearing a bottle of Jacobs Creek Shiraz wine, bought duty free in Darwin after they had sailed there from Queensland and before departing for Indonesia. Monika and Arno were on their annual boating excursion and were due to return to Germany a couple of days later to go back to work in order to finance their next year’s travels.

After a day or so, Bruce and Jane, another New Zealand / Australian / American couple arrived, keen to soak up the town before flying out for the America’s Cup.  They also sailed in (not literally as their mast was in storage at the coast) in their beautiful ocean cruising yacht.  Bruce emigrated to the US years before where he bought and ran a hotel in Rhode Island and had become a judge in the New York Yacht Club’s America’s Cup team.

A slight hiccup occurred with our next guest’s arrival.  Grace Piccardi’s train from Rome to Nice arrived late, missing the connection to Avignon. We received a call from her just after the train she should have been on arrived and departed from Avignon without her but with us standing on the platform wondering where she was and what to do next. We discovered there was a train from Marseilles to Avignon in an hour that took less than 30 minutes to cover the distance so we sat at the station restaurant for refreshments and awaited her arrival. 90 minutes later she was alighting from the train and shortly after we had her ongoing tickets organised and were off to the boat in a taxi. The traditional French Champagne was of course served on her arrival on board and since it was getting late, an early dinner also served that extended until after 1.00am as we caught up on news from Western Australia, whence she had come.

The next day we left the boat for the grand tour of the Papal Palace and more.

Visitors to museums in France are given a hand held guide machine like a tape recorder included in the price of the ticket so that at each point of interest during the 2-3 hour tour, a number on the wall is used to start the commentary of that area. In this way you can take your own time and by using the major and minor numbers offered, learn more or less and take more or less time. The palace is enormous and lavish. Mostly unfurnished (since it has had different purposes over the intervening hundreds of years, including being a gaol and an army barracks), it is rebuilt inside and out so that you can visit it’s entirety and learn what each room was used for and by who. It was not only the Popes that travelled here but also their clerks, managers, army and other bureaucrats. The vast Catholic empire was ruled from here and since in those times the church ruled over many monarchies, it was the centre of the Holy Roman Empire. It is said that Rome is wherever the Pope is and he (they) were at Avignon.

The famous pont d’Avignon was inspired by a peasant named Benezet (later sainted) who was called on by God to build a bridge here. He impressed the local ‘king’ by moving a stone that eight men could not shift and laying it as the foundation stone of the 22 arch bridge. Carried away on numerous occasions by the flooding Rhone River, it was rebuilt time and time again until 1668 when they gave up and built elsewhere. Where the song now says "On the bridge at Avignon, all are dancing all are dancing", it originally was written as "Under the bridge...." (Sous le Pont rather than Sur le Pont), since the path on top was unpaved and dangerously narrow. The famous regional dances that were celebrated here were actually conducted under the first span, safe from weather and the danger of falling off or impeding traffic.

All too soon we had to leave Avignon as time was pressing and we had a number of key towns to pass through on our way to Aigues Mortes, from where we had arranged Grace’s onward travel to Italy. We departed Avignon after our 5 days, vowing to spend more time there on subsequent journeys. We headed south once more, this time to Arles where we stopped on the floating pontoon provided for pleasure craft. This is just across the river from the main part of the old town in which is found a remarkably well preserved Roman Arena (where bull fights are held) and an Amphitheatre (where plays and concerts are held). Electricity and water are provided on the pontoon which leads up to the high town walls and a conveniently located bridge on which one can cycle into town.

The day we arrived the markets were in full swing so we spent time wandering through the antique stalls on our way to the Arena. After buying tickets that last three months and give access to about 7 attractions including three museums, we toured the arena, the theatre, the Arlatan Museum, the Van Gogh espace (there are no Van Gogh paintings in Arles despite his enormous output from here) and the huge and highly decorated church in the main town square.

Seeing the colourful posters advertising the bullfights for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I was convinced I had to see one of these bloodthirsty spectacles while they are still allowed and so bought my ticket. In high demand, almost all of the 12,000 seats were sold. Being a single I managed to get a reasonable seat and went away wondering what it would be like.

The weather was beautiful and we arranged a barbecue on the back deck in order to provide the accompanying food to the bottle of Chateauneuf du Papes which we bought at the Avignon palace. The name means the new castle of the popes and the wine is the most highly regulated in the French industry. Famous for it’s flavour and association with the papacy, Chateauneuf du Papes is a full bodied red, full of power but smooth with it, a perfect accompaniment to grilled or roasted meats.

During the afternoon, a neighbouring yachtie advised that the officers of the port had been around and were concerned that Van Nelle was too big for the pontoon (which I later discovered is reserved for boats up to 12 metres). They showed no signs of returning and as we and the pontoon were perfectly safe we thought no more about it until the next morning.

The next day during breakfast saw the return of two men looking very concerned about our size. They had no alternative to offer and I made it clear that I would stay until a suitable mooring was provided, pointing out the lack of available space at the port area which was exclusively reserved for the monster hotel boats. It was decided to visit the offices of the VNF (who ‘own’ the rivers) in order to discover alternatives. Unfortunately the ‘chef’ was absent until after lunch so a meeting was arranged for 2.00pm. Meanwhile I went over the river to the reserve to check out if Van Nelle could take a space there without hampering the hotel boats. I discovered a suitable place (I thought) and took that information to the meeting.

While I was away from the boat however, a customs launch pulled up on the outside of Van Nelle and her officious officers boarded her, demanding the ship’s papers of Maureen. She obliged and they made it known that while we were registered in Holland our Australian flag was improperly hanging off the stern. They take it seriously that the correct flag should be shown to advise the country of registration and on my return warned of the transgression and possible fines if flag etiquette was not adhered to. It is a common practice here among pleasure craft that the country of origin of the owner is shown rather than the registered port but obviously the customs officers have a job to do. They didn’t comment on the fact that we were wearing the blue Australian flag and not the more correct red ensign !

The meeting with the chief of the VNF was unsatisfactory as they could only offer a place outside three commercials (OK for us but not suitable with a guest of cautious nature), or a place at the base of a 30' ladder up the walls (also unsuitable to us all) and they advised that the depth at the commercial quai was too shallow, a fact I had been unable to determine due to the silt in the water. We were advised however that there was a suitable place at Fourques. This town is some 8 km by river as we had to back track up the Rhone to the beginning of the Petite Rhone and then navigate it for some distance. This brings you to the back of Arles about 1 kilometre from where you started. We wanted to remain close since the bullfight was the next day and the girls wanted more time in the shops, so we set off.

Fourques was entirely unsuitable. The quai indicated no longer exists and the alternative was inaccessible due to the current and besides, was far too small. I reckon I can put Van Nelle in some pretty difficult to navigate spots but this one was not worth the risk. We sailed on to make the village of St Gilles by 6.00pm. While St Gilles is a busy rental boat base and winter harbour, the town is not interesting.  As it transpired, none of this turned out to be too bad. We had to go in this direction to make our pre-arranged itinerary and we were now on the canal and off the river system which is protected from floods. The VNF and city officials had suggested floods were on the way which I had felt may have been a ploy to get us to move, but despite this we were actually doing what we wanted to do with only a slight diversion.

The next day at St Gilles, we craned the scooter off the boat to take me into Arles for the bullfights while the girls took the bus to nearby Nimes, another very historic and attractive large regional town with Roman ruins, which is not on the canal.

We are now of course in Provence, the area made famous to many by the books of Peter Mayle - ‘A Year in Provence’ and ‘Toujours Provence’. The overwhelming impressions are: the change of architecture to low, dun coloured stone and tile buildings; royal blue and yellow dominant colours everywhere; Roman ruins; fortress towns, walled cities; extensive renovation and preservation of historic buildings; people in regional costumes and fresh produce. This is the Van Gogh area (Arles was where he was hospitalised and cut off his ear) and where he produced more than 350 paintings in less than a year. Despite this, there are no Van Gogh paintings in the town.

This is also the area of the Camargue, the famous sprawling wilderness of marshes and wild horses. The people here are darker and speak with a harder, more nasal twang. There is a great deal of Spanish and Moorish influence in customs, clothing, architecture and food and there are tourists everywhere ! Even us.

I rode the little Peugeot scooter towards Arles, eventually joining the extension of the auto route (while being rudely honked at by passing lorries) that led into the historic town. Most of the main streets were cordoned off by hordes of Police Municipale and Gendarmes but as they treat scooters like pedestrians I was able to ride directly to the main entrance of the arena. Surrounding the huge Roman gladiatorial centre, large crowds were taking advantage of the sunshine and the many bars and restaurants, to indulge in late lunches of yellow piles of rice, prawn and chicken paella and jugs of sangria, the Spanish spiced wine. A very loud and not too expert brass band played loud bullfight type music in the square outside the main entrance to entertain the crowd as the time approached 5.00pm and the start of the event.

The arena inside was packed with about 12,000 people and the carefully raked sand floor was decorated with two oval shaped white lines and a large W brand in the centre. Shortly after 5.00pm the big (and very professional) band struck up ‘Toreador’ from the opera ‘Carmen’ and the event started with the parade of the combatants. First, two beautifully groomed horses with their equally beautifully clothed riders shepherding the three matadors, followed by nine junior toreros and then the picadors on their heavily armoured horses. Other costumed participants followed in swirls of brightly coloured uniforms and when the parade was complete they all swirled out of the ring or to the protection of the inner fence that is punctuated by covered entries through which the men can escape the rage of the bull in the ring.

A man enters the arena carrying a huge sign indicating the name of the first matador, the size, age and breeder of the first bull and, as he slowly revolves it so the crowd can confirm the first of six fights, the matadors and toreros engage in muscle stretching exercises accompanied by balletic flourishes of their yellow and pink capes. The main man - the matador - uses a red cape but he is preceded into the fray by the toreros or ‘wanna be’ matadors whose job it is to wear off the bull’s initial energy.

Toreador is an English language invention from the Spanish torero or fighter.  Matador is actually the name for the bull fighter and killer.

The bull is released into the ring and the crowd now erupts into shouts and whistles. The toreros, some six of them, take it in turns to goad the bull to charge them as they step nimbly out of the ring behind the guarded exits. Now the matador enters and does some initial passes of the bull which is at this stage full of spit and anger.

The marks of a top bullfighter are limited foot movement (to move further from the path of the bull or to position himself back or forward) and the proximity to the bull as it charges. I saw three matadors fight two bulls each and two were experts. One, El Juli, looked to be about 19 years old, the other perhaps 20. El Juli had the crowd on its feet with his encounters with both bulls by getting closer and closer and moving less and less, except to pirouette as the bull charged past. In the end, he stood inches from the head of the bull with its horns almost circling his waist as he passed his cape behind his body so that the bull was swinging his head back and forward across the front of his waist. In each ‘fight’ he executed his bulls with a single lunge that had both bulls drop dead instantly. The crowd erupted to its feet with a huge roar, waving white handkerchiefs and cascading flowers hats and garments into the ring.

 

Bullfighting is not, in the end, a pretty sight. The bull is weakened by the picadors plunging spears into their necks and toreros sticking short spears into the same spot. The picadors who sit on heavy horses clothed in armoured skirts wait for the bulls to charge their mounts before sticking them with their spears. In most cases the horse is well protected but once during this day a bull got in under the skirt and the horse had extreme difficulty walking out. Blood streams down the bull’s flanks as they charge again and again at the annoying capes and the men behind them. After a short while the matador takes over, enticing the bull to charge again and again until totally exhausted and then, hopefully with great accuracy, he aims his sword at a small area on the bulls neck and drives it between its vertebrae to kill it instantly.  Those who do are admired, those who don’t are booed and a handler comes to administer the coup de grace.

As much as you can decry the activity, you have to admire the skill and bravery of the bullfighters and the heart of the bulls, which, handled by great matadors, do not suffer long.  I had extremely mixed feelings during the event but in the end I was glad I had been able to witness such an age old, brutal and primitive blood sport before it is banned, as it must eventually be. During the day, attendants were urging the audience to sign petitions to protect the sport. Many did not.

We left St Gilles the next day for Aigues Mortes. This fortress town is described as ‘rising from the plain like a ship, washed up on the Camargue’. One minute you are slowly cruising through seemingly endless, flat plains of reeds and rice paddies surrounded by lakes and salt marshes, the next a perfectly symmetrical walled town, complete in all detail stands before you. It is surprising and stunning. We passed a number of boats tied to the banks of the canal as we approached the town and stopped just short of the commercial harbour for a chance to explore ahead before the option of turning was eliminated. Just as well we did since the port de plaisance was completely full of small rental and private pleasure boats. Not an inch to spare. We untied and entered the port, using it’s space to revolve on our axis before retracing our path to a reasonably flat section of old lock wall, directly opposite a supermarket.

As we tied up and unshipped the bikes for an exploration of the fortress town of Aigues Mortes we exchanged pleasantries with a single woman on board her Dutch Tjalk across the canal. American Kate Hill had been in France 15 years, cruising in her lovely boat 'Julia Hoyt' and conducting cooking classes in her canal-side farmhouse, 'Camont', near Agen. An author and now scriptwriter, she was actively planning a television series about her adventures on the canals and throughout the kitchens of Gascony. Her house featured in Rick Stein’s TV documentary some years later as she allowed him to use her kitchen to demonstrate his art.  We exchanged dinners over the next two days with her coming over for a BBQ that night and her reciprocating with a delicious warm salad the next, preceded by a visit to a little oyster restaurant I had found in town for aperitifs and oysters.

The oysters here come from the Etang de Thau, a lake system about 30km from Aigues Mortes - so they are FRESH and they are HUGE. There are of course five different sizes but I ordered two dozen grande and a bottle of the local Rose and we sat sliding the monsters down our throats for an hour or so. Explosions of sea water and soft, subtle flavour. Absolutely wonderfully delicious.  The serveur of these magnificent oysters is a pert and very pretty French woman of about 30 years who owns the restaurant and runs it efficiently and warmly with the assistance of an ancient oyster shucker.  Outfitted each day with a pair of very short cut off denim shorts, an open sleeveless shirt mostly open at the front and a gorgeous tan, she sells oysters together with the local ‘sand’ wine, lemon and bread and butter.  This is a perfect place for aperitif or entre - you cannot get anything else here.

Aigues Mortes means ‘fever death’, so named as King ‘Saint’ Louis of France bought the land to build the fortified harbour town and imported thousands of labourers who died in their droves from malarial mosquitos which festered in the Camargue swamps. The town itself is now almost exclusively turned over to tourism, especially at this time of the year. Inside the walls are rows of very neat houses that have been there since the crusades, since this was just one of the ports used to launch attacks designed to drive out the infidel moors in the Holy Land and then hold the land for France and God.

The streets that separate the houses are narrow and lined in the centre of town with shops of every description, all filled with attractive clothes, artefacts, foodstuffs and tourist friendly articles. Beautiful designer clothes, bags and shoes are made here and art shops also abound. Every second shop is a restaurant and they mostly offer the specialities de terroire. It is not expensive. Our 2 dozen huge oysters, shucked immediately for us were accompanied by bread, butter, lemon and a bottle of Rose for 30 Euros. If you could get anything like these oysters in Perth, they and the wine would cost at least three times the local price.

The wines here are known as the Vins de Sables - wines of the sands, as they are grown on reasonably poor sandy soil. They have the technique pretty right however since the wines are fresh, drink now whites, roses and reds - perfect accompaniment for the local specialities of seafood and terrines.

We retired to Kate’s lovely Tjalk on the second night for the warm salad, accompanied by the queen of French white wines - a Montrachet. The wine the English queen is supposed to prefer, this is the peak of Burgundian Chardonnay production. It exhibits a long, smooth character of intense fruit and rich oak flavour but not a bit like any Australian chardonnay. I’m not going to say it is better than the great Hunter or Margaret River equivalents but it is different, intensely elegant and leaves you crying that you don’t have more of it (till the next buying spree). We also opened a bottle of Chinon, a very specialised wine from south of the Burgundy area, closer to the Mediterranean. Light and soft and very drinkable. The meal finished with an intense, fortified liqueur wine into which one dips chocolate coated biscots - hard biscuit fingers- that is a dessert of a difference.

We are learning that less is more in some cases. An elegant but simple salad made up of small, full leaf lettuce topped with boiled new potatoes, strips of cured fish and chicken, accompanied by goats cheeses and drizzled with a dressing made of home made vinegar and local cold pressed, virgin olive oil and followed by biscot and liqueur. Simple, fresh, filling, fabulous flavours and fine wines to round it off. Wonderful stuff.

With a Canadian couple heading up from Italy to join us in a couple of days, we decided to stay put in Aigues Mortes (which is only 24 kilometres from the airport they are to arrive at) so that they can discover this amazing place with us.  I love being delightfully surprised by finding areas that exceed every expectation. While most people think of France being Paris, Champagne and Burgundy, I am starting to learn that there are so many areas that are better than the one you just left, that time here is never going to be long enough. Thank goodness we don’t have a deadline.

We left St Gilles, through the first lock on the way to the Canal du Midi on Friday, the 6th of September for Aigues Mortes. We were not to know that our brief planned stay in Aigues Mortes was to turn out to be more of a marathon, brought about by the worst floods in the region for more than 50 years. Our original plans were to move on after exploring the area for about 2-3 days, but as it turned out, we were destined to stay in this remarkable crusader built town - and at a huge nearby set of flood control gates, for two weeks. But that was after it started raining.

The rain started shortly after our arrival in Aigues Mortes and pretty soon it was deluging down. Strong winds accompanied the rain which tended to push the un-seasonally high tides back up the rivers, accentuating the flash effect. It also pushed the rain into the boat through small cracks in the de-mountable wheelhouse structure, an occurrence that accompanies only the most extreme weather, so we knew that we were in for a pretty serious storm.

Our friend Grace had joined us in Avignon on 2 September, had cruised with us to Aigues Mortes and was booked to depart for Rome on Monday the 9th. As Monday dawned the rain was established. Later that day and the next we noticed we were becoming cut off from the shore as the waters around the boat rose, flooding the canal-side houses, shops and hotels. The main road to town was quickly inundated and dinghies started to appear in the place of cars. The Pompiers (fire and rescue) closed roads, diverted traffic where possible and built dikes to stop the worst ingress into nearby houses. People in these parts had seen things like this before but apparently not as bad as this episode for some 50 years.

However before the flood really arrived, and as luck would have it, our American friend Kate, just across the canal from us, had rented a car to visit a chateau near Nimes, where Grace was to take the train to Italy. It seemed like the ideal plan for Maureen and Grace to accompany Kate to the chateau and then to the station, so the girls set off for a day of exploration, culminating in Grace’s departure.

After driving through driving rain for most of the day they found the chateau and admired its grandeur and adjacent vineyards. It is available for accommodation and functions so Kate negotiated a rate to hire the whole place as the site for one of her annual cooking schools and the group headed on to Nimes railway station. It was here they discovered the worst.  The floods had taken their toll and all rail services were now cut. The girls were lucky to get back to the boat as overnight the waters rose, the whole town was surrounded and all main roads were cut. Television and radio news revealed that 16 people lost their lives when flash flooding overcame them in their camping area at night. The area was declared a disaster area and helicopters soon began arriving with supplies, politicians and news crews.

Tuesday saw the floods reach their peak and brought news that no trains were moving and nor were busses leaving Aigues Mortes for any of the exit points such as Marseilles, Avignon or Montpellier. Grace fretted but there was nothing we could do so we settled in to shop and eat. While motor transport was now out of the question we could ride our bikes down the flooded road or through the deep puddles alongside the canal, into town.

At this stage we lowered the dinghy as transport across the swollen canal to Kate’s boat so that she, cut off from the town completely for a day, could also get some social relief. Being in a canal was a benefit as we were subject to only a moderate rise in depth and, as we were tied up to a walled side, we were in no danger of a lack of security. Our only problem was that Grace had to leave and we had friends from Canada expected to arrive on Thursday.

Wednesday came with the heartening realization that the water levels had dropped overnight. Most of the country was still inundated and indeed the road to town from the supermarket we were moored near was still flooded to mid calf level. Kate offered us the use of her car if it would help to get Grace out of town. I made some investigations by bicycle and found there was a network of minor country roads that were open to traffic and the main rail lines were now operating. The girls legged it over the muddy bank-side track to the local station to change Grace’s tickets and we set off in the car for Nimes. We were able to get the car out since the town engineers had moved heavy earth moving equipment in to Kate’s side of the canal to build a dike / roadway re-connecting that area to dry land.

The motorway was barred by gendarmes so in order to get accurate directions we stopped at the roadblock with our map and asked these army policemen to trace the connection of roads to and from Nimes. The officer obliged cheerfully as heavy traffic flowed around his ‘rond point’ in confusion. We now had less than an hour to go more than 60km to Nimes station for Grace’s train, much of it on one lane roads with narrow corners, one lane bridges and slow moving country tractors. After a nail biting drive we emerged from the sodden countryside into the (almost) dry environs of the major city - Nimes. By luck (and the fact that the girls recognised some of the landmarks from the previous trip), we found our way directly to the station, lucked on some free parking and made it to the correct platform with 5 minutes to spare. We were all relieved when the train arrived on time and Grace found her seat for Rome.

Back to the boat and a day of hurried preparations for the arrival (by air) of Randy and Nancy to Montpellier, just a 24km taxi ride to Aigues Mortes. As the waters had now substantially subsided, they arrived on time and settled in. The weather was still overcast with some showers but we put a brave face on it, especially since the flood was now abating quite quickly. We planned a day or two to bring our guests up to speed with the local culture, food and wines and then our departure was planned for a quick cruise to Beziers so that Randy and Nancy could fly back to the UK and then on to Canada.

Back we went to the truly remarkable town ramparts, the towers and the walls of this fabulous medieval town. Back also to the cafes and shops and back to Anne-Sophie’s oyster bar (by now we were well known there).  But the best laid plans....! We had planned for the first night’s aperitifs to be taken at the oyster bar with Kate and our guests but found out early that Randy would not eat anything that ‘still had it’s guts’ so we went to plan B, champagne on board followed by some regional cooking and some great French reds. The next day was spent in roughly the same manner with a change of chef - Randy cooking up a storm with bruschetta followed by pasta and salad, Canadian / Italian style. Maple syrup in the salad dressing, chilli and roasted garlic in the pasta sauce, huge reds from the Bordeaux region. Its hard - but someone has to do it !

Saturday dawned, the day of our departure from Aigues Mortes - we had been in town for a week. We cruised up the canal, making a left turn into the main channel that leads to Beziers from the branch canal that takes you to Aigues Mortes and as we did, so the speed of Van Nelle appreciably increased - we were doing over 10kmh with just over idle revs. I should have twigged there may be a problem ahead.  The current swiftly propelled us to our first barrier - the huge flood control gates.

The flood gates are like a set of two enormous guillotines that are dropped to stop vessels being swept down stream and out to sea.  We noticed with alarm that the gates were down, closing off the canal to the bisecting river it crosses, and was showing an unwelcome double red light - closed - definitivement ! Moored a hundred metres before the gates were a couple of rental boats and immediately against the huge concrete foundations of the gate, a 38 metre commercial barge. As we approached, but quite some distance out, I put Van Nelle into reverse and while we slowed down, we did not stop. Furthermore, as the effect of the reverse thrust took hold, the stern swung (predictably) to port while the opposite occurred to the angle of the bow. We were still moving forward at 6kmh despite more and more revs. This may not sound too quick as you walk quickly at that speed, but with a 60 tonne boat’s momentum together with a 4-6kmh current, this is a potentially disastrous combination against an immoveable object.  As the channel narrowed near the gates, the flow increased dramatically.

Full power in reverse accentuated the movement of the stern towards the port side bank as we rapidly approached the commercial barge and the flood control gates.  Things were rapidly getting serious.

"This is going pear shaped" I called out to Maureen on the bow, "Get a line on the commercial quickly". She looked at me in alarm at the stress in my voice but resolutely took up the bow line and began to calculate angles. All our experience would be needed for this manoeuvre.

In order to straighten the angle of approach to the side of the commercial I had to apply forward power and put the wheel hard over to port as we were now at a 30 degree angle and approaching crabwise. Forward gear predictably increased our speed but it did get the boat straight and running down the side of the 38m peniche. We were counting on our ability to get a bow line on the peniche to stop our 50 tonne headlong rush towards demolishing the flood gates or Van Nelle’s bow. Maureen quietly and deliberately placed the bow line onto the peniche’s mid section bollard as we rushed past and, using both our forward bollards, applied maximum friction. I applied full reverse power, the propeller churning the brown flood waters into a cappuccino froth. The 20 tonne breaking strain bow line screamed in agony and stretched like a piano wire - but held - and as it did, pulled the bow into the side of the peniche, slowing and then stopping our headlong rush as Maureen expertly paid out some line to avoid the resultant resounding crash of our bow into the commercial. While this was a relief, the next result was not. With too few experienced deck hands, we were too slow to get a stern line from us to the peniche and immediately our stern was taken by the swiftly moving current and swung viciously across the channel towards the opposite bank.

The banks of this stretch of canal were visibly degraded and one could see the peaks of the huge stones that had once formed part of the banks, now just below water level, pointed menacingly at our oncoming stern and exposed propeller.  The only control I had on Van Nelle was by using the engine.  To smash the propeller would render us useless and jammed across the canal and the current - a disaster just about to happen.

Caution was tempered by necessity now and the only course of action was to put the wheel put hard a’starboard while the gear and throttle lever was shifted full forward to counter the force of the stream. The enormously powerful Baudouin engine now roared and for probably the first time since we had owned it, it went into full power.  Slowly the pivot of the hull slowed, stopped and reversed and with the screaming sound of the stretching, 20 tonne breaking strain bow line, Van Nelle laboured against the vicious push of the current to come back against the hull of the commercial.

We could get part way but against the middle part of the current we were still being held out at an angle of 30 degrees, away from the side of the commercial barge to which we were tied and safety.  The only course of action was to ease the bow line and get a stern line on to the stern bollards of the commercial as we eased in.  As we were preparing to do so, Randy, who had been holding a stern line fell heavily - but managed to hold onto the rope.

On command, Maureen rapidly eased the bow line out to allow Van Nelle freedom of movement forward.  Another stern line was taken up by the somewhat surprised skipper of the commercial who had heard a commotion and appeared on the deck, and that made fast to his stern bollard. Randy, our guest, took in our end of the line again, taking out the slack as we pivoted. Van Nelle slowly slid forward to come to rest, flat against the commercial’s side.

I hadn’t had time to feel anxious during this five minutes of frantic action but as we secured with extra bow lines and springs I felt a great deal of relief and went about thanking the crew and the commercial’s skipper for their quick and deliberate work together. This was an object lesson in the power of a current over the opposing power of Van Nelle’s propulsion and the requirement for the helmsman to accurately read the conditions in advance and be able to anticipate the subsequent situation. It is situations like these that can turn into a ‘chain of errors’ that can end in calamity. Fortunately, our experience, luck, teamwork and presence of mind prevailed.

What would have happened had we not managed to secure the bow, if the prop had been damaged on the opposite shore, if we had hit the gates ?  I’m not sure. Van Nelle has doubtless had many heavy hits through two world wars and nine decades of commercial rough and tumble so I’m sure we would have survived, but it would have been pretty embarrassing and probably expensive, especially if the prop had come into contact with the stones from the wall and we had become lodged across the current.  Boats have been capsized by similar occurrences.

Now we had to rethink our plans. We were isolated some 4km from Aigues Mortes, in a flooded countryside location, with no chance of turning the boat and returning to the town, and therefore no way of cruising anywhere for the next 4 days ! Ah well - Plan B.  The road to this location was open and the roads from Aigues Mortes to Grau du Roi also. We opened a bottle or three of nerve restorative and contemplated our options.  We soon had a plan and with great good humour (or resignation), spent the next few days cycling quite a few kilometres - into town for supplies - into town for recreation and - into the nearby (12km distance) port of Grau du Roi for its Festival du Mer.

As previously mentioned, the area on which Aigues Mortes was built was bought by King Louis 9 of France as he did not have a port on the Mediterranean and he was keen to prosecute his crusades against the infidel around the Mediterranean’s shores. At the time, the ocean was on Aigues Mortes’ doorstep. Hundreds of years later, the sea has receded some 7km and the port is now at Grau du Roi (The Kings Port). The shore line continues to extend seawards year by year, fuelled by the silt carried down the Rhone and other rivers.

A canal joins the two towns and if your boat’s superstructure is sufficiently low (about 2.0m) you can exit France here into the millpond known as the Med. Mind you, it is not always placid, its just that every time I have seen it over the past 30 years, it looks like the Swan River when there’s been no wind for 3 days. Glassy, oily almost, a heat or sea haze hanging over it so you cannot see more than a couple of kilometres to sea and definitely no waves in sight. Sailing boats move very slowly on the hazy horizon, passed rapidly by the fleets of power boats and jet skis that proliferate this holiday and fishing area.

This weekend, a festival was in full swing with water jousting, bull baiting, street music, parties, picnics and balls. We arrived at waterside to watch the young jousters perched improbably on the backs of strange, purpose built boats with long heavy ladder-like extensions on their sterns on which the players stand, clutching their lances and shields as the boats come together. As the crew of ten row their boat past their opponent’s, one or both jousters are knocked into the water by the other’s lance and another jouster takes his place until the team is vanquished. At this stage (if they are old enough) they head for the nearest bar and get hopelessly drunk on whisky and coke.

We wandered on through the streets, noticing the extra barriers that had been used during the morning to keep the fleeing herd of bulls on the street and away from the shop fronts and tourists, for here as in Pamplona in nearby Spain, they run the bulls through the streets. Each town in this region also has a stadium within which the bulls are fought or taken on in the non blood sport version of bull baiting. Grau du Roi practices the non killing bull baiting attraction where about 12 young men in white clothing enter the ring with the bull and try to take white rosettes from between his horns. The bull meanwhile takes great delight in trying to gore his adversaries. The young men who practise this sport appear to be fearless (or reckless) and are extremely athletic. They flee the bulls charge by leaping the surrounding wall, ending up hanging from rails about 10 feet (3 metres) off the ground just out of reach of the fast following bull.

We spent most of Sunday in Grau du Roi, well you would after having pedalled 12k to get there, and rode the same distance back to the flood gates with a new set of experiences we would not have had if we had been cruising.  There you see, there’s always an upside.

More dinners, more wines, more late night games of liar dice and cards followed as we waited for the VNF to decide when they would open the gates. They arrived several times by small boat, taking measurements and sagely surveying the scene. The most we could get them to admit to was that they would make a decision on Monday - or maybe Tuesday. Tuesday was more likely since most everything closes on Mondays, including the VNF offices.  We continued our daily rides to explore and enjoy the surrounding countryside and the towns of Grau du Roi and Aigues Mortes.

Tuesday arrived, the day Randy and Nancy had to leave. We had arranged for a taxi to take them to Montpellier where they could get a train to Carcassonne from which they could fly back to the UK on Ryan Air. As it happened, their departure coincided with the time the VNF (canal bureaucrats) decided to open the flood gates. Our cruise plan now was to head back into Aigues Mortes since our son Sean was to arrive in a couple of days. He was originally to drive our car from St Jean de Losne to Beziers, but since our progress had been somewhat curtailed, a quick phone call re-arranged his plans.

12.00 noon arrived and with it the VNF, who after telling us we had to move first, the gates began to open. Not knowing how long it would take for us to get through, turn Van Nelle around and get back, we did not know whether our guests should stay aboard for the quick voyage or wait on-shore for the taxi. They decided for shore and we cast off. In the event, it took us little time to about face and moor again, so we farewelled our friends on-shore properly, just as their taxi arrived.

We waved as Randy and Nancy departed, sorrowful that the weather and events had curtailed their cruise - but - that’s life on the canals. We then cast off and headed back to Aigues Mortes. As we entered the old port we saw Kate’s barge tied up at the water point. With a bit of manoeuvring we tied alongside and began topping up our tanks, as we now had some 5 or 6 loads of washing to do and new guests arriving on the morrow.

The next day, early in the afternoon, Sean and his friend Alisha arrived. Welcomed on board with the traditional champagne, we quickly caught up on the news from home and gratefully accepted a gift of Vegemite and the Sunday Times newspaper. Later we drove into town to take in some oysters and rosé (why not) then returning to Van Nelle for Fish (stew) Provencale and more wine - again the local rosé.

The local Vin de Sables - Wine of the Sands, have pictures of rampaging bulls on their labels - not exactly the demeanour of those who the boys tempted to chase them through swimming pools in Grau du Roi - that’s one of the sports of bull baiting.  This area does however breed many of the best bulls used in the south of France and through Spain for bull fighting.

As tourists again we covered old territory, but our new guests were spellbound by the remarkable nature and preservation of this town. We once again wandered the streets of Aigues Mortes and Grau du Roi - unfortunately accompanied by some rain showers - not the best aspect for the placid Mediterranean and a normally bright and colourful fishing village. We began to worry about being caught again by floods and the flood gates and so decided to depart the next day - early.

Finally, we were out of Aigues Mortes and on our way to Carcassonne, via a swim en-route at Frontignan and a crossing of the epic Etang de Thau. The canal travels very close to the sea shore for a couple of days travel, so it is easy to take side trips to the many gritty, grey sand beaches along the way for a cooling dip. The weather improved during our passage of this area so the two younger members took to the bikes and swam at every opportunity.

The actual Canal du Midi begins after, and to the west of, the Etang de Thau, which is a huge lake on which many of France’s oysters are grown. The distance across is about 13 km and with the ever present mist you cannot see your destination’s lighthouse until you are more than half way. Travelling on compass bearings is a good safety factor - we use a GPS. Winds spring up quickly here and since the lake is so shallow (2-3m) it can be pretty uncomfortable for a flat bottom boat so it is worth waiting out any unpleasant weather prior to the trip.

Before our planned crossing we stayed the night and a day in Frontignan, the town before the Etang. It has a bridge that only opens for a short time in the morning and at night and even with our roof folded down we would not fit beneath it so we used this as an excuse to offload the bikes and ride off to the nearby swimming beach where we spent half an hour in the waters of the great Mediterranean.

The next morning we were first through the opened bridge and we cruised on, passing near the gateway town of Sete before leaving the canal for the Etang de Thau. Pushing the revs up we achieved a comfortable 13km/h and made the crossing in less than an hour, leaving a number of hire boats well behind. It was interesting seeing our white wake spreading out behind like that of a liner on an ocean now that we were on a huge, open waterway.

There are a number of fishing villages on the shores of the lake but we chose on this occasion to continue non-stop to make progress towards Carcassonne, a beautifully preserved fortress town dating from the early 1200s. Reaching the other side of the Etang we entered, very slowly, the very narrow channel that is the start of the Canal du Midi. At it’s beginning, its sides are crammed with small sailing boats and canoes as this area is used for water recreation and sail training. 420s, and Optimists are everywhere with flights of Lasers and schools of other, less familiar one and two person sailing boats.

We arrived soon at Agde. This town is famous for its round lock, an ingenious idea that allowed one lock to be used for boats travelling in four directions. A short branch canal heads off at right angles to the main canal here and so they built the round lock to accommodate both directions. It makes tying up a bit hairy for a boat our size as we are too big and too small for the placement of the bollards that favour full size commercial boats or much smaller hire boats. We stayed out of town for a night and then passed through without difficulty, taking on water at the VNF jetty on the other side before continuing our cruise.

It was here at Agde on our overnight stay that Sean and Alisha decided to go night clubbing. They set off at about 9.00pm for a club we had seen during our daytime exploration, unfortunately just as it started to drizzle. Arriving in town they found the advertised nightclub after several abortive searches and were confronted by the advertisement for the evening’s fun.

"50 Euros entry - 100% Gang Bang"

They had a drink at a nearby bar and watched as several much older couples disappeared behind the well fortified front doors and decided that perhaps that wasn’t their scene. We all wondered what happened behind that green door ?

On our way the next morning we approached a rather low looking bridge very slowly to test it’s height and realised that we were not going to fit beneath it. We stopped with the boat halfway through the bridge and reversed out to moor on the banks near a huge fun fair, very much closed. Whether it was the end of the season or a failed venture we did not discover at that time. We did discover however that this was a very good place for a longish stay as power and water were supplied free by the local town in order to attract visitors.  The place is Vias, a very popular summer holiday location.  We moored.  Sean and Alisha made for the nearby beach and on their return we removed the roof sections, folded down the upper walls of the wheelhouse and continued our cruise.

The next couple of days saw us rise early to remove the waterproof canopy we erected at night over the wheelhouse and with the top down, continue through the Canal du Midi. This canal, like the region it travels through, is very beautiful. The plain trees form an unbroken arch over the top of the canal and their roots form the edges of the waterway. The roots also make for secure moorings as they are tough but resilient and allow ropes to be passed around them while they cushion the effect of passing boats.

The canal snakes through quiet pastures and tiny villages and at times doubles back on itself as it follows the contour lines of the countryside. It is quite narrow and the turns in places are very sharp, making life for the helms person very interesting and athletic. As we do not have power steering, turning the wheel of Van Nelle can be a muscle wrenching business, especially when any amount of power is applied. As you travel, suction also affects the boat, slewing the stern in towards the bank at the most inopportune times, sometimes frightening the inexperienced, oncoming, rental boat operators.

The Midi was constructed during the mid 1600s as a way of getting goods from Toulouse to the Mediterranean and vice versa and was constructed as a mostly private venture but with government backing.  Several times the government inspectors were narrowly turned from their intention to stop the project as costs mounted but the Pierre-Paul Riquet, the constructor prevailed, also creating income for his family over generations from tolls made on passing boats.

The wind came up as we cruised. There are several main wind patterns in the south of France. The most famous is the Mistral which comes from the north down the Rhone valley.  It is cold and blows for 3, 6 or 9 days at 80 - 120 km/h. Where we are, the wind from the north west was the Tremontaigne, off the mountains, also cold, also strong. We were glad for the protection the trees provided in most areas but had to rug up with the top of the wheelhouse down.

The south of France is not a place favoured by most travellers to France or Australia - but it should be. While recognising that most people have limited time and want to see the most famous places like Paris and it’s Louvre, Versailles, Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame etc - I would counter by saying that a more intimate, inexpensive, rich and delicious area is the area from Marseilles to Bordeaux. The area is rich in history; villages, chateaux, monasteries; food, wine and culture. Hotels are good, plentiful and cheap (2004 prices for 2 star about 40 Euros for 2 including shower and WC), hire cars can be had for about $25 per day, trains are good and run to most important regional towns, there are plenty of cheap flights from Paris or London Stanstead, and there is lots to do. The climate during May - September is also good and sometimes very hot.

Our cruise took in the towns of Beziers, Vias, Colombiers, Port la Robine. Homps, Trebes and finally Carcassonne.  We came to know several of these towns very well over the next two years we spent in the south, especially Vias, Trebes and Homps which we visited on several occasions.

Carcassonne is one of my ‘Wonders of the World’. The Cité is a perfectly preserved and inhabited, walled medieval city complete with battlements and a chateau (castle). Classified as a world monument by UNESCO, it avoided being wrecked during the Revolution by the concerted efforts of local business, political and cultural leaders. It has had lots of money and expertise spent on it since and is a wonderful place to see and explore. Turned over to tourism, the hilltop city has narrow cobbled streets running past tiny shops and restaurants and the major hotel is spread over some 5 buildings that make up parts of the ramparts. We spent several days going back up to the Cité to discover more each time, especially on the guided tours that take you into the buildings and behind the scenes.

All the way along the Canal du Midi you are confronted with oval shaped locks, flights of two and three locks joined one to the next and, just outside Beziers, 7 locks in a flight.  There are very low bridges, built at the time of the canal’s construction but never raised later and ancient, manual lock mechanisms, still in use. While the wait for these locks can sometimes feel interminable behind inexperienced amateur boaters, the low bridges really slow us down as we must reduce our working height - ‘tirant d’air’ - by taking down the wheelhouse roof and folding it’s side, front and rear panels. As the weather is getting towards winter, we need to get past this area of obstructions quickly and move towards our winter mooring.

This was on my mind as I came up with various schemes to waterproof the boat while being able to see and navigate with the roof off. The first plan was a couple of cross pieces that attached to the decks in front and behind the wheelhouse and to which were attached the long boat hook as the centre piece in a tent-like affair. That worked OK but did not give adequate access to the wheelhouse and below. The later scheme was a series of grey, 1 inch plastic pipes bowed across the wheelhouse to hold up the waterproof cover. This allows one to see and operate the boat and still have access to the companionway and the deck. However, before construction of these arrangements were completed an item of maintenance was necessary.

Our water pump pressure switch began failing. An occasional tap on it’s side cued another short run but deconstruction and rebuilding proved that a component had come loose and its seating had become damaged. Temporary repairs got us to Beziers where I was sure an enterprising local would be able to locate a supplier of a replacement and get it delivered. No Go. We moved on and at arrival in Carcassonne I immediately set off on my bike to locate a replacement mechanism with which to get a reliable source of water. A pump shop was recommended by the local VNF officer. The proprietor showed me that he indeed had two kinds of pressure switch but not the one I wanted. He disappeared into his cubby-hole office and came back with a catalogue from a local pool supply shop. In its pages was exactly the model I sought. With my great thanks expressed I took off by cab to the pool shop and for only 10 Euros had the part I needed. Not only that but they also stocked the water pressure tank I wanted to replace as ours had ruptured its inner membrane and was not working properly. Another 30 Euros and some reconstruction work in the engine room and our water system was rejuvenated.

Arrival at Carcassonne allowed us to catch up on washing and cleaning (all those leaves that blew in through the open roof) and for Sean and Alisha to pack and catch the train for Paris, then on to Phuket before heading back to Perth. Unfortunately Sean’s back went out on the way and he spent the time in Phuket maxing out on pain killers. Perhaps it was all that time at the wheel on these meandering sections of the Midi.

The next couple of days were spent exploring Carcassonne - it is not just the Cité but also the Bastide, the ‘new’ town which is a great tourist and shopping draw, and we also caught a Rugby 13 Test Match between France and New Zealand which France won.

We arranged for the delivery of 500 litres of fuel at our canal side mooring which the truck driver had into our tanks in about 5 minutes flat while also showing his athleticism by climbing up and down the adjacent 5m wall a couple of times. The price was right too at just under 0.80 euro cent per litre - about $ 1.20. On a windy Tuesday then, we departed Carcassonne and headed for Castelnaudary - home of the legendary recipe - Cassoulet.

Cassoulet was apparently first created during a siege of the town of Castelnaudary (the castle no longer exists). After a long siege, the besieged villagers pooled what few rations they had remaining which included some pork, some duck, some white broad beans and sausage, and they cooked it up as a stew. Now you might be forgiven for wondering what might be so wonderful about that but it has grown into a huge industry. You can get it at restaurants, you can get it as a take-away from restaurants and charcuteries, you can get it in supermarkets in tins and jars and you can get it almost everywhere else in this town. It is great ‘comfort’ food and very good winter fare - thick and rich and filling. Not exactly gourmet / nouvelle cuisine but this is the south of France - we are very near and heavily influenced by Spain (which ‘owned’ the area until the middle ages) and it is peasant fare for peasant folk, despite there being a ‘Grand Confrerie de Cassoulet’ with many highly (self) decorated officers of the association.

After passing through one of the most disappointing towns we have seen - Bram - which really had nothing to recommend it, we arrived in Castelnaudary on Wednesday 2 October. This was to be the mooring for Van Nelle and myself for a couple of weeks since Maureen was to join Kate’s crew for a week or so as crew. We had discovered from our regular phone chats with Kate that she was short of a crew member for her impending charter and volunteered our assistance in the form of Maureen. Kate jumped at the offer and Maureen headed off by train to join her near Carcassonne. That left me to start work on the new ‘sports roof’ for our dash to Toulouse and other little jobs such as this journal and articles for my yacht club - Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club in Perth, Western Australia. I also decided that since the TV reception was so poor in most places that we would invest in a satellite digital receiver and dish and so bought a ‘free to air model’ and installed it.

Installing such a device is easy, just unwrap it, connect all the cables, point the dish at the sky and presto - blank screen. You can spend hours trying to locate the damned satellite you want to receive programs from but I had experience in such things and knew there is a better way than by compass and luck. Its called a satellite finder and I had used one with great effect in St Jean when Roger had loaned us their set. I decided to go to Toulouse to buy one after the local installer had called at the boat and took only 5 minutes to check the installation, find the satellite, tune the sets and depart, using his.

The next day I set off by train to Toulouse - the city that’s the heart of Aerospatiale, Airbus Industrie and many other major technology giants. Surely this search would be easy. I asked at the first TV / Satellite sales shop and was pointed in the direction of a specialist shop across the canal (which flows right into the centre of town). It was closed - not just for the day or the holidays - but permanently. Next stop a caravan accessory shop in the suburbs - no they did not have them but they knew who did - an electronics specialty shop across town - Nope they had none either but maybe the Maison du Satellite in the industrial sector. Bingo. Once we got there after a 180- 200km dash on the ring road (Jacques Villeneuve’s brother was obviously my taxi driver), they had three versions and I took the middle one - all of 50 Euros.  Back to the centre of town and my Formula One driver took 72 Euros for the pleasure of my company. Happy with my find I took to the streets, determined to see a bit of Toulouse before taking the 30 minute train trip back to Castelnaudary - Castel for short.

I lucked on the amazing, no - fantastic food market in the centre of town at lunch time. Imagine the food hall at Myer (or David Jones in Sydney if you’ve had the pleasure) and then multiply it by about 20. This enormous hall hosts more than half a dozen each of - fish shops - butchers - bakers - charcuteries (delis) - pastry shops - chocolatiers, pasta shops, bars, lunch bars, pizza ovens, vegetable shops, spice shops, Asian speciality shops, middle eastern emporiums, dessert bars and other outlets. It takes 30 minutes just to walk around the exterior aisle quickly without stopping. I decided this was the place to eat lunch and to buy dinner. I took another quick trip around to find what I considered the best food bar near a good looking wine bar and did business with both. A mini seafood pizza preceded a sea salmon fouillette, both washed down by a glass or two of local rosé. These were followed by a wedge of Roquefort cheese. Total cost 9 Euros but for the atmosphere alone, priceless.

Then, the map shop was raided for maps of the area from Marseilles to Bordeaux and a Tabac (newsagent), for the latest Satellite magazine (they contain all the channels and programs) and it was back to the train and home. On arrival I researched the 80 free TV channels available on the first satellite I tuned to and found three channels with Australian programs ! That channel (Astra 1) also has more than 40 radio channels and the reception is crystal clear. In addition, since it is hooked through our Sony home theatre tuner, we get full surround effects with the movies - eerie !

While in Castelnaudary my days are taken up with trips to the Brico (hardware shop) and construction jobs in the boat, some writing and chats to those people who wander past and see the Aussie flag or are just interested in the boat.  I had plenty of time for all of this as Maureen was to be away for at least a week.  The mooring I had taken was away from the port at a park, opposite a nice wine cave and just down the road from the centre of town, the supermarkets and restaurants, the tourist office and near the industrial centre and it’s attendant technical shops.  Heaven on a stick !  And I had the scooter on shore to get quickly to and from all these delights.

There is a fair bit of traffic still flowing past on the canal even at this time of the year. Yachts on their way to and from the sea, canal boats heading home or for their winter moorings further west. We attract some attention and we pay our respects to those who pass. There are even still some people renting the hire boats that are based here in the (other) Grand Bassin. Life flows on pleasantly, especially with the central heating system making the boat cosy while outside the wind blows and the rain spatters the wheelhouse windows. Since we were in one place for a while the full wheelhouse had been re-erected. 

I was looking forward to a bit of a change of weather for the better as we had to get to Toulouse to pick up Nick Cowley, a UK banker working in Holland who wanted experience with a barge before making his own decision about buying one.  Then by phone, Maureen advised that she will continue on Kate’s boat to help her get to Toulouse and then return for us to move forward again so I was to be ‘batching’ for a second week. There are worse places to take some time out.

Castelnaudary is the world centre of Cassoulet but Kate insists that the best Cassoulet restaurant is outside town - the ‘Cassoulet Imperiale’ at La Bastide and on Saturday she called to ask if I would like to join her party at that restaurant to try their speciality. I agreed of course.

Kate and the 8 seater van arrived at 7.30 complete with four American charterers and her crew, who now had to squeeze into the cramped back row of seats meant for two. We un-tangled ourselves after a ten minute drive to La Bastide and entered a large, barn like room, comfortably furnished with rustic sideboards, tables and chairs and displaying on the walls and horizontal surfaces, wines, local produce and artefacts. Our table was surrounded by hearty groups of locals out to enjoy their Saturday night engagement and birthday parties but the girls serving the tables were quick and solicitous and soon we had ordered platters of local produce (‘charcuterie’) and several large Cassoulets to follow. A range of local wines were brought and uncorked and we began a meal of discovery.

The charcuterie - meats, pickled vegetables, onions and olives - were fresh and piquant and well set off by the local white and red wines - Minervois, Gaillac and Rose. The first course was quickly dispatched and the Cassoulet arrived. Large earthen bowls in which the fare had been cooked were red hot and placed delicately on cork protective mats on the already well scarred tables. The ladles went to work and soon we all had steaming mounds of delicate morsels cascading on our plates.

Cassoulet is comfort food for winter nights. Rich and thick it contains a range of flavours from the meats and beans and a smooth texture, especially from the beans and the preserved duck meats (confit). We moved through the main course (plat principale) at a leisurely pace and, after several helpings washed down by another couple of bottles of the local vins, were left contemplating rich dessert menus. The French down south love their desserts made of local apples in pastry, glaces, rich tarts and cakes, all of which are heaped with fresh fruit flavours and thick clotted cream.

We waddled out into the night and drove the crew and guests back to their boat. I took the van back to Van Nelle to return the next day after lunch to provide the guests with their transport to the airport.

Talking of airports - I had noticed a small aero club sign in Castelnaudary and went to investigate. (I should mention that I have a private pilot’s license). I found a flying school / club with a Cessna 152, two seater trainer and so I made tentative arrangements to take a flight with one of their instructors, an Air France 747 captain. The idea was that I would fly the plane and he would handle any radio communications in French - necessary in this land of interlocking controlled airspaces. I pulled the plane out of the hanger, running through a mental checklist and soon realised I would need an English version of the French checklists for the aircraft, so set off for Van Nelle to find my copy - and my log book, licence and medical certificate. Unfortunately it all came to naught since while I was rummaging through the computer trying to find the checklists the phone rang to advise me that Kate still had a mechanical problem with Julia Hoyt and so I had to head off to assist. Oh well, there will be other occasions to fly.

Several days later Maureen’s crew engagement was finished so I arranged to pick her up from Kate’s boat and we set of in Van Nelle the next morning (after arranging with the local police for our car, which I had picked up from Aigues Mortes where we had garaged it, to be parked right outside the police station for security). We still had not arranged our final winter mooring despite my having driven to several likely ports along the canal, so we had some investigating to do. Additionally, we still had a guest booked for an instruction course and had to check the height of the bridges in the area we would use for his week aboard.

Our target was Castelsarrasin, a pretty town with a lovely and quite large bassin marina with all facilities we had inspected and liked. The town is quite large with a lively social scene and several boats in for the winter including one with a New Zealand couple aboard. Unfortunately, since the VNF had planned to drain sections of the canal for repairs and maintenance, Castelsarrasin was not available for us until January when the water was restored. We departed Castelnaudary, travelling straight through Toulouse for our first overnight at Gardouch.  We were travelling under canvas until Toulouse since we could not guarantee the height of the bridges ahead and did not want to stop half way into a lock or under a bridge on a corner. Predictably it rained all day but our new canopy, devised by using grey plastic pipe bent into plastic T junctions and covered with plastic tarpaulin, worked well, providing good rain protection while still allowing the helms person to see forward and aft. The air draft was a bit cool however but was somewhat reduced at night by the addition of plastic in the voids in front and behind the wheelhouse.

As we passed through Toulouse we noticed the well appointed marina in the middle of the town and wondered why we had not left enough time to stop here for a day or so.  We negotiated the double lock right in front of the main railway station and passed the tunnelling activities of an engineering company contracted to put a subway under the canal on our way out of town.  Toulouse looked like a really interesting place to spend more time - if we could later get a mooring at the town port.  On we went, making good progress towards our planned overnight stop at Gardouch.  Boy were we disappointed when we arrived.  Set a kilometre away from a non entity of a town, Gardouch is not a great place to stay - or even stop.  The only benefit of this area was that we could now re-rig our proper roof as the Lateral has bridges and locks of sufficient height to allow us unrestricted passage.

Gardouch was left behind as we moved on to Montech. This fortunately is a pretty little port with good facilities and the benefit of water all year round. We made inquiries and tentatively booked for the ‘chomage’, the period of maintenance that was scheduled from 6 November to 19 December during which you cannot move. On from Montech, the next port was Castelsarrasin where discussions with the port captain proved successful regarding January, February and March. Moreover, we had not found any bridges too low so far and so also had a workable first half of the instruction week for our next guest.  From this point on we travelled with the roof on.

We moved on to Moissac and found that it was to be drained, so passed on still further to Valence d’Agen where we found a happy band of wintering souls already ensconced. We arranged drinks aboard Van Nelle and became acquainted with the locals and the next couple of month's social programs. Time to turn around and head back to Montech to arrange the final details of our winter months and to finalise our guest’s program.

Our comings and goings had some of the eclusiers (lock keepers) bemused. Why would the crazy Australians be bouncing back and forth along the canal ? We explained patiently to the first eclusier, expecting he would pass on the intelligence to those waiting before and after his lock, only to find that we had to explain again at the next - and the next and again at the next lock. We told them all that not only were we returning on this trip but that they would see us a couple more times before the chomage since we had a student to train for a week - un pilote etudiant -. They still looked surprised a week later when we arrived and several days later returned yet again from the opposite direction.

During our first trip through the area we were several times frustrated with the slow operation of the locks, especially since there were very few other boats moving during this period. On one day I exploded when we arrived at a lock, waited half an hour until almost time for the lunch break (which we wanted to take just before the next lock since it had a historic mill attached) then to be told we had to wait for a restaurant boat to come through before we could be allowed into the unfilled lock. The restaurant boat had other ideas however and did not appear for another two hours.

I told the eclusier what I thought of the delay and he, predictably, reacted badly. I just knew we were in for bad service after that but I was wrong. Not only did the service improve, but the eclusier in question became very friendly, chatting in his VERY strong southern accent (demang - rather than demain, beswang rather than besoin) and at each lock he escorted us through for each of our next three trips.

Lock keepers are far more shy and retiring in the south. It was not until we had seen one jolly chap several times that he tentatively asked if we would like some tomatoes and apples. We jumped at the offer and bought some of each - they were brilliant. The tomatoes were ‘Coeur de boeuf” acid free, huge, sweet and very red.  The apples were very yellow, crunchy and perfect for both eating and making pastry encrusted pies for desserts. We tried to get more from him on the next trip but his bushes had given up all their fruit for the year and he could only offer a pumpkin - which made lots of excellent soup and caused an exchange of recipes between his wife and Maureen to her consternation as she cooks by taste and had to invent the recipe for the Madame - in French.

This period of several weeks was the first extended period we had with the luxury of shore power at every port and for very reasonable rates. Typically we pay 3.50 Euros per night here compared to 10 - 15 further north. The winter mooring has been promised for 90 Euros for the three months plus a surcharge of just 12 for the electricity and water. I’m yet to believe it however, since at Montech I am sure the officer quoted me 92 for the two months, only to present me a contract of 92 per month. Even so, 3 Euros per day isn’t bad. The only drawback is that the power outlets are quite restricted in amperage, 6-8 typically, so that you have to use some equipment serially - that is - use the toaster with the heater off, use the battery charger with the toaster and the heater off etc.

Sunday 27 October was the date we expected Nick Cowley, our final guest for the year.  Nick, a Brit now working for a bank in Amsterdam, found us on the internet through our website and took us up on the opportunity to learn all about barging while enjoying a cruise, great food and excellent wines.

He had arranged for a week of tuition on our share cost arrangement and had trained down from Amsterdam to Toulouse. I drove into Toulouse on the Sunday morning to pick him up and we headed back to Van Nelle at Montech for lunch and our first day cruising with only a slight detour at Montauban where I missed the turn to our village.  Nick was soon on Van Nelle's wheel in the long straight stretches between Montech and Dienpentale where we executed a 180 degree turn and headed back. We had arranged a program of daily cruises of about 15 kilometres that included up to 11 locks on each day, first outward to Valence and then returning to Montech. The first day was in the opposite direction but had the benefit of only one lock on each direction, one ascending and on the return, descending.

Training on the effects of suction caused by the prop, use of power to steer, setting up for entrance to locks and passage under bridges was interspersed with information regarding daily maintenance, rope handling and useful knots, manoeuvring in confined spaces, wild mooring techniques, passing techniques and other arcane but necessary knowledge. Nick picked up the hang of steering this big boat quickly but, predictably, had some problems in lining the boat up to enter the locks in the descent phase.  This is because as you approach descent locks your line of sight is higher than their walls therefore difficult to see clearly, whereas ascending, the walls are well above you and you can use them to line the boat up.

When travelling in the direction of the flow of water (downstream), the boat descends through the locks. Departing from Montech towards Bordeaux is with the current (obviously minimal in a canal) and the levels descend at each ecluse. To add to the degree of difficulty, in this canal there is a lot of excess water which bypasses each lock by means of a sluice above and below. The effect of the sluices, located very near and to one side of the lock entrance, is to slew the boat’s bow just as you approach the entrance since it is taking quantities of water away from the entrance at the top and spewing it into the canal at the bottom.

As the helms-person has spent nervous minutes lining up perfectly on the centre line of the lock, having the boat suddenly veer away by the bow and shortly after by the stern, can be a surprising and sometimes nerve racking experience. The immediate reaction is to turn the wheel hard to oppose the movement of the bow that threatens collision with the outer lock wall, but as you do, this swings the stern away from the centre line and fast towards the wall you are trying to avoid. This movement is quickly added to by the pull of the sluice bypass water to the stern now that the bow is through the affected patch. The boat is now threatening to broadside into the sharp corner offered by the external lock wall and, even at the recommended entry speed of 3.5kmh, this can cause very loud noises, extensive denting or scraping of the boat and the loss of considerable amounts of stone or concrete facings on the lock and paint off the boat.  Not to mention embarrassment.

What to do ? As Nick discovered under instruction, first aim the boat into the lock from the opposite side of the centre line to the push of escaping water (which requires that you know what side the sluice is on - and it changes from lock to lock). Certainly oppose the swing of the bow but then use power and opposite lock to force the stern away from the lock wall. Boats like Van Nelle steer only by the force of water over the rudder pushing the stern in the opposite direction to the intended direction of the bow. One has to know and use this knowledge and power to control the boat and be several moves in front of the boat's movements, anticipating it's action and reaction. Trying to manoeuvre an 88' (27m) single screw boat without power is useless, these barges have flat bottoms and no keels, only power will guide them.

Nick progressed very well, finding ascending an easier task than descending, except in not being able to easily see the lock walls on exit again by now being higher than them. Narrow bridges and low bridges were the other major challenges, especially the ones placed on bends of the canal. It was fortunate that for the first few days there was no other traffic heading towards us from the other side of the canal's bends.

We enjoyed a varied program of cruising, exploring historic towns, finding and eating in new restaurants and on the boat. By the end of the week of instruction I was ready for a three day fast and three AFDs (alcohol free days), the first we had for a couple of months.

During this cruise we cemented friendships with Rolly and Val the Kiwis in Castelsarrasin, Barry and Judy, Niko and Iana in Valence and several of the genial lock keepers and their families on the way. We returned to Montech on the Saturday having had to spend a full day in Castelsarrasin on our return to Montech as November 1 is one of the five days of the year that the locks are closed. This, and the end of daylight saving were two events that we almost missed recognising. Fortunately we were made aware and planned excursions to cover the day in Castelsarrasin.

On Nick’s last day - Sunday 3 November, we drove into Toulouse for lunch at the food markets and Maureen and I  took a look at the Capitole (a fantastic building open to the public - more on it later) and Toulouse's Basilica before heading back to the reality of the next five winter months in this area with definite limits on our canal travels. We quickly headed for a couple of travel shops to check out brochures on Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia and Portugal - all warm contenders for some of our winter time.

The GPS tells me we have done just over 4,000 kilometres since we started in August 2001. Given that there are about 15,000 kilometres of canals and navigable rivers in Europe, and that we have retraced our steps on some of them, we still have something like 12,000km to do. At this rate we therefore have about another 6 years of exploration ahead of us.

In preparation for winter, today I arranged for 500 litres of ‘red’ diesel (about 40 cents per litre versus 84 cents for white - but only for use in heaters and generators) and we have put aboard an electric heater (since electricity is included in our mooring fees) and several sacks of ‘charbon du bois’, (charcoal) for the pot belly stove. Charcoal does not cause the creosote like liquid to dribble from the chimney onto the deck which we get from burning wood and is relatively inexpensive and quite clean to handle. We will experiment with various methods of insulation and heating to get the best combination, although we expect to be somewhat warmer here in the south than we were in St Jean.  The noon temperature today was 10 degrees and it is just the beginning of November.

We had arranged for a mooring at Montech for the start of winter and were planning to then move to Castelsarrasin for the balance of the season, however the Directeur du port at the Mairie at Montech made me an offer that I could hardly refuse.  He suggested I take over the tourist boat’s mooring which came with upgraded power and a nice jetty.  The price was very reasonable and the port, while inhabited only by one other couple, was near the small town and secure with good parking.  I accepted and we settled in for the duration.

Montech is a small rural village of about 500 inhabitants with two churches (Catholic), a hotel and restaurant, a small supermarche, some small specialty shops including two boulangeries and a boucherie, a service station and a library.  We were quickly recognised on the streets as we walked to the shops daily and met with friendly greetings and a few words of acknowledgement.  Some of the townspeople would take walks along the gardens at the marina and check out the new arrivals.  We felt welcome and enjoyed the sensation of being in a town where no-one spoke English - and I mean no-one !

Montech is only about 10 minutes from Castelsarrasin and 15 minutes drive from Montauban, a large rural centre with extensive markets, supermarkets and technical support, and only 40 minutes drive from Toulouse, the region capital, a huge city with extensive engineering, manufacturing and technology industry - example - Airbus Industrie.  Additionally, there are many towns and chateaux, monasteries, wineries and other places of interest in the region.  It is only a hour’s drive from Lourdes and the snow near to that pilgrim town near the Spanish border where allied servicemen were spirited over the Alps into freedom during WWII.

Preparing the boat for winter in these new surrounds and exploring the local attractions took most of the time until Christmas and time for Maureen to depart for her post Christmas trip to Australia as she had decided to visit her parents and our boys during the non cruising winter period.  I decided to stay with the boat.

It was going to be a long winter alone in a small town where I had to get up to speed with the language.

 

Chapter Eight - Winter in Montech

Maureen left on the night train to Paris on Wednesday 15 January for her flight to Perth on the morning of the 16th and so the long (ten week) bachelorhood began. A routine began to emerge as the cold of winter settled around the boat and some evidence of ice forming on the port surface began to appear. Waking later with the sun and doing routine chores on the boat occupied most mornings, while the afternoons were dedicated to writing or exploring local towns.

I joined the local church choir, as much for contact and the chance to practice French as for the singing, which is mostly in unison and all new tunes to me. The choir adopted me after realising that I was capable of holding a tune and reasonably quick to learn the very different hymns and psalms of the French Catholic church. I have not been asked what faith I am and the fact that I do not take the wafer at the Mass does not seem to phase the choir members or the Cure (priest). Maybe they already suspect that I am a lapsed protestant.

My second choir practice was a highlight as the self appointed leader of the choir, a middle aged man with a commanding voice, had taken to directing the practices, much to the frustration of the Cure - who, I suspect, is a bit of a control freak. After telling us to change the phrasing of the start of a particular hymn, the leader was assailed by the Cure in a torrent of virulent French - some pretty fruity phrases being used. There ensued a loud argument which ended with the leader and his wife, departing in a state of ruffled dignity. A subdued discussion followed among the rest of the choir but none were willing to take the Cure on and to point out the very valuable contribution the departed two made to the choir. Some weeks later the two had not re-appeared, so I assume that was the end of the matter.

The choir practice is interesting from another point. The diocese issues the printed order of service pamphlets which include the lessons and hymns but at this church the orders are dramatically changed for the preferences of the local folks. Its no wonder I could not follow the services before I joined the choir, they have almost no commonality to the printed service programs.

The choir is a mixture of elderly men and women with some very good and some very questionable talents.  Very little more than the leading of the congregation is undertaken by the choir which I felt had the inherent skills to be able to take on a more solo role at times.  One or two of us occasionally broke into harmony, purely to add interest to some of the more well known hymns.  The members of the choir were a little reserved with me but at the same time friendly and helpful.  The lack of language skills on my part was really the problem as I certainly did not expect them to learn or try to speak English.

Another form of music was required for I felt I could not get through the whole of the five months of winter without some live music. Sensing that in a town the size of Montauban there must be some live music I took my query to the Tourist Office and was directed to ‘Le Barfly’ a bar / restaurant on the perimeter of the central part of town. Here, on Friday and Saturday nights, real musicians play and sing. There is no cover charge and the cost of drinks are only minimally inflated to cover the musicians, so the only real downer of the deal is that inevitably the place is full of the particularly cloying French cigarette smoke which needs to be washed out of one’s clothes the next day. The upside of the deal is that the music is pretty good, varied and the place provides a chance to meet the locals.

It was at Barfly that I met Laurent. A 30 something guy who mistook me for the father of a couple of 20ish year old girls he had his roving eye on.  He rapidly lost interest in them when he found out I was Australian and had a boat at Montech.

Laurent spends half of each year in Thailand and Cambodia, picking up latex mouldings of the local statues of Gods which he brings back to his parents farm near Montech to turn into concrete garden ornaments. These he executes with some flair and sells through a number of local jardinieres. He is also a decorator who is used often (when in France) to decorate Exhibition displays, having worked on some major expositions in France, Germany and Spain, including the release of a new Airbus aeroplane a couple of years ago.

Laurent’s parents are supposed to be retired but still operate their timber farm which Laurent is supposed to be assisting with and possibly inheriting under the French inheritance laws. His father, a 60 something, gentle, white haired gent, is more like a university professor of philosophy than a farmer and his mother is of Italian stock, a small bird-like creature who cooks a mean dejeuner - lunch. I found this out since Laurent invited me to lunch with them before he left for his next sojourn in Thailand.

Lunch was for Laurent and his parents, their friend Charles - a banker from Montauban and me.  We started with Coquille St Jacques, moved on to soupe a l’ognion, then poisson, some beef on bones -  slow roasted on coals in the kitchen fire, tarte du pomme avec creme and café.  I took some Australian white and red wine of which they complimented me then provided some local reds and whites from a milk jug that were every bit as good.  Later, Laurent took me to the vineyard where for the next three years we bought large quantities of fine, bulk wines.

My other playmates, Val and Rolly the Kiwis and Judy and Barry the Canadian and British couple, have all taken to travelling during this period so we get together at odd times when they return to check their boats. Rolly and Val are based in Castelsarrasin while Barry and Judy are further away in Valence d’Agen. The other couple I have some contact with are Andre and Cathy, the owner / operators of ‘Cathy’ a converted hire boat that is now a tourist day trip boat out of the port of Montech.  This is not the one whose mooring Van Nelle is on.  That is used by an odious man with a large restaurant boat - the one which kept us waiting on our first trip through the area some months before.  His name is Monsieur DuSeau - Mr The Bucket, his boat Pente d’Eau...

The two boats that operate here - Cathy and Pente d’Eau are about to be joined by a fleet of hire boats. My contact at the Mairie, Monsieur Dumas, has informed me that Nichols Hire Boats are moving in here in March with 9 or 10 hire boats. They will take over the operation of the port as well, I am led to believe, but our contact will remain with the Mairie.

So, time rolled on, with me taking on such mundane projects as taking on new batteries, more red fuel (the untaxed version of diesel), shopping for rope and other boat parts, getting pump kits sent from Ireland and visiting the Airbus Industrie plant in Toulouse.  Airbus is the constructor of the A310, 330, 340 and 380 aircraft that are now enjoying up to 50% of world demand, since they have consistently taken a more innovative approach to their designs than Boeing. Parts of the planes are manufactured in the various countries that have an interest in the parent company. They include France, the UK, Germany and Spain. A guppy like transport aircraft fleet is used to ferry the parts, including wings, fuselage sections, tail assemblies etc into Toulouse where they are painstakingly assembled to make completed aircraft.

The tour is about 2 ½  hours and is pretty boring as it is all in French and consists of a bus ride through the grounds, a video about the planes, and a narrative while on the fourth floor balcony inside the assembly hangar for the A340. If you are lucky and arrive for your appointment on a special day, you may also be able to visit Concorde 001, now firmly on the ground and the nearby aircraft museum. The days for those visits are definitely not in February.  The A380 is now being assembled there as well.

Getting a bit bored with my surroundings after 5 weeks of winter single living, I decided I would take a few, more distant side trips.

I really only meant to check out Bordeaux and Castets and possibly the west coast a bit but ended up a week in and around Bordeaux, Cognac and La Rochelle and then when I got back, the weather was lousy, the car had performed brilliantly during the Bordeaux trip and the weather reports looked better south, so there I went. I meant to only go for a day or so but ended up in Barcelona and a few other little Spanish sea side towns, so stayed away a bit longer. This time of the year, if you can find a hotel open (most are closed till Easter), they are cheap and include breakfast or even for a few extra Euros - full board. That cuts down the costs quite a bit and while I felt a bit guilty spending some money on myself, I overcame the feeling and enjoyed myself.

Bordeaux - big (very big), ugly (since they were renewing the whole of the river front which is the whole of the town), and very unwelcoming for boats like ours, I thought.  This was my first impression - later changed when we stayed in the grande bassin for about a month while our generator was repaired.

The river is big, muddy and VERY tidal, and in the centre of town there are a few commercial floating pontoons but nothing for the pleasure boater. However, there is a marina / port which was built for and used by the German submarines during the war where they built a huge concrete bunker which the Allies could not even dent with aerial bombing. This port is accessed only at high tide - so you have to be there and waiting for hours before high tide to get in, and since you have a 5 hour trip from Castets bringing the tide down, I'm not sure how you would be there at the right time. When you get there the port is old, decrepit, full of rubbish and old boats. There are also a few laid up commercial barges in a separate area, right over the other side of the marina, away from the town.

The marina itself is some 2-3 km from the town centre - although where the city centre is exactly, is anyone's guess. The city is the fourth or fifth largest in France and it seems that all the French cars are there. It is impossible to park anywhere except expensive and hard to find parking buildings. The 'attractions' are spread out throughout this big, traffic laden city and therefore hard to access. For my money and on first impressions I thought Bordeaux was a big no-no.  The river front is perhaps 5km long and in complete turmoil and will continue to be as they rebuild it in its entirety, until 2006 or so. This screws up the whole traffic for the city as it extends the length of it. I fought the traffic for a day, found the marina, checked out some ship’s chandlers, looked for a tourist friendly area and hotel, thought the better of staying for an extended time and proceeded to the La Rochelle area.

La Rochelle - entirely different. This is a tourist town built around an ancient fortified port, much of which remains and is now home to visiting boats (from the sea with no connection to the canals unfortunately) and to some commercial tour boats. There is a 'new port' and a 'new fishing port' to the north west of the old town so the central area is left tranquil and is now filled with restaurants, bars and hotels. The 2 star cheapies I found were charging as much or more as the three star 'best in town' hotel which boasted a great central location and a lift. I managed a deal based on the number of nights, no bath but a shower and WC and the fact that they were doing renovations (so it was noisy during the day).  It ended up being very cheap and very comfortable and it, the hotel Jean d’Arc, was a great base to explore the local area.

Here again, the Germans built submarine pens in La Rochelle, in what is the ‘new’ commercial port and there they remain. I don't know what they will eventually do with them as they appear indestructible and certainly were during WWII. I went up to the new port as the chandlers in town did not sell the ‘big’ ropes I needed and found a substitute to our current mooring lines at a reasonable cost. I spent some days in this area, visiting the local towns and looking for the old canals I had been told about. Driving through the country I finally found a few bits and pieces of waterways - especially at Cognac. The river / canal system is pretty run down as are the hire boats that are lying around waiting for the season to re-commence. Cognac was closed till the first of March and therefore I missed tasting the brandies. I went to 3 of the big names, only to be told that at number one I didn't have an appointment, # 2 was not open at all and # 3 ‘come back on 1st of March with a reservation’.  The countryside is quite pretty but no better than around Montech and busier, with trucks going to and from the vineyards to the distilleries and towns.

Back to La Rochelle. Three defensive towers dominate the skyline and remain as they were when the English warships of the 17th century were kept away. You can buy a ticket to visit all three and the German lady guide advised they were good for three days.  Each tower should take thirty minutes or so I was told - ‘but I’m sure I will see you back here in 8 minutes’ she said ! She thought this was a great joke and laughed her head off. I thought she should have been a bit more enthusiastic about her employment. Anyway, I took much longer as one had been used as a prison for (mostly) English privateers and had plenty of interest to keep one amused..

In 17th and 18th century England, if you wanted to supply your own ship and work for the government, you could get a 'letter of marque' that qualified you to legally prey on enemy (French) ships as a privateer. However, you had to share the spoils of war with the government. If you didn't want to share your prizes and you had no letter of marque, you were a pirate. Here, captured privateers were held as prisoners of war while pirates were executed.

Many of the prisoners carved their names and pictures of their ships into the stone walls of their tower prison and these have been preserved for the tourists, some of whom have added their own graffiti. The two towers on either side of the tiny harbour entrance had a chain which was pulled up from the bottom of the channel to stop enemy ships getting in to damage or steal French shipping. Now, they let the many British (and other nation’s) yachts in, all to be fleeced (presumably) by the French harbourmaster in retaliation for the many slights inflicted by Nelson and Co.

The hotel (Jean d'Arc) is right on the waterfront, and while my cheapie small room at the back had no view, it is a pretty place to be and fun at nights, as the restaurants and bars fill up with early season tourists and locals who work in the tourist trade. Behind the port is a lovely old town area worth many strolls. Lots of yummy, cheap food to fill up on instead of three course, restaurant meals.

The car performed really well, purring along the country roads as well as the Autoroutes, which gave me a great feeling of security, so I headed into the countryside and off to the Isle de Re. Connected by a causeway to the mainland, the Isle de Re is a tourist island with some farming squeezed in between the camping areas and beaches. It has a couple of VERY pretty little fishing villages (St Martin the principal one). There are still small fishing smacks that go out daily, some for the local restaurants and some to take avid fishermen. The island is some 15km long and in parts just like Rottnest Island on the Western Australian coast and in others like the surrounding farmland. There are forts on the island since it forms an outer defence for La Rochelle, from both sea borne enemies and the sea itself. The sea during the several days I was there was very placid.

The island and other towns north and south of La Rochelle are where people go to swim, since at La Rochelle itself there is only one tiny beach about 150 metres long and right near the entrance to the outer port area at which stands the 'French Sailing School' with its large numbers of small and smaller dinghies. The Marina on the other side of the port, and some 3-4 km by car, houses the fleets of ocean racing yachts and cruisers from all ports of the world. This is a serious sailing centre of the world with an amazing array of powerful ocean racers.

While the weather was infinitely better than at Montech when I left, it was still not hot enough to swim so I didn't see any Bridget Bardot look-alikes sunning their entire bodies, practically naked on the beaches. Mostly, the tourists at this time of the year are the older folks. Its like they empty out the retirement homes onto tour busses and send them off to the country. That's not bad however since if you see where they are staying and follow them there you find good hotels with very good off season deals.

There were of course other people around, including Russell Wilson and his son from Perth, Western Australia. He operates the Fast Ferries from Hillary's Harbour and was over in France to check up on some new engines which he buys from a La Rochelle company. It also gives him a chance to visit France and get the government to foot part of the bill. I don't know how he manages to get away during summer in WA though - I would have thought it would have been better to come in the WA winter. He was however, having a VERY good time tasting the local food and wine.  The area is great for seafood and surprisingly - Paella - which with Moules Frites is on just about every menu. Good and cheap food, washed down with flavoursome local wines and beers.

I went back to Montech through Bordeaux to check that I had not been too harsh on that great city but was disappointed again. It’s not a town I would then have recommended, there were too many hassles there and not enough to enjoy - by comparison with the much more accessible enjoyments in the smaller towns and cities east, west, north and south.  Later I was to change my mind.

This part of Europe is easy to access, with autoroutes connecting the major areas and good departmental highways linking in the best tourist places. Getting from (say) Montech to Bordeaux (about 200km), takes much less than 2 hours and costs about 20 Euros in tolls.  I returned on the auto route and nervously checked everything on the boat, which I had left locked up and with the electric heater warming the engine room and the central heating set on 12 degrees to ensure nothing froze. Since the weather had warmed considerably it was apparent that the heating precautions were not necessary, the boat was still afloat, power was still operating fine and the batteries working to peak performance.

The water pump - always noisy, grew noisier and then stopped. Checking, it was obvious that the problem was terminal and I happily changed it for the spare I had bought from the Shell fuel barge in Maastricht 18 months earlier. The pump noise, which we had endured for 18 months, almost completely disappeared with the new pump, which is far more efficient and has also eliminated the endless clicking sounds as it re-charges the pressure cylinder. Happiness !

Unfortunately, now that the weather has warmed up, my use of fuel has reduced and the 400 litres of red fuel seems to be taking a very long time to be used. As this is in the main fuel tank and I would be fined heavily if found using it to run the engine, I need to finish it off.  Hopefully we will not be inspected early in the season as there will likely still be a fair amount of 'red' fuel in the system. This is the untaxed version, not to be used for propulsion.

The day after I arrived back - carefully planned to fit in with choir duties and practices, the weather went south - turning to rain and quite a bit of wind. As I had such a good time travelling I decided, rashly, to venture forth again. This time I thought to see where the roads would take me - perhaps to the border to get my passport stamped in case of driving license problems. (You are supposed to get a French license within a year of entry to the country). 

The distances between cities and countries look large on the maps but when you get into the rhythm of driving on the auto route, they shrink quite rapidly, and I soon realised that I could easily make the Spanish border after reaching Narbonne, about an hour and a half after leaving Toulouse. I wanted to get off the big roads and look for Don Quixote's towns so I left the system shortly after arriving in Spain for a small road that pointed towards the coast.

The France Lonely Planet guide (I had not even taken the Western Europe book since I had not thought I would go that far) only extended a small way into the border area of France and Spain so it was not too useful and I found myself on a road filled on both sides with furniture factories and other manufacturing companies. After about an hour however I arrived at Rosas, a HUGE tourist town on the coast. Lots of very large (Surfers Paradise like) hotels grouped together around the bay looking very forbidding and expensive. I kept going and found on the other side of this large bay a smaller centre that was much older in architecture and scale. It boasted 2 star tourist hotels - cheaper than France - and I selected one on the waterfront before venturing out into their Carnivale.   It seems that at this time of the year, all the tourist towns (and others) celebrate Carnivale - which I guess must be linked to a religious basis. It meant lots of wildly dressed locals partying with very loud music in the streets. This led to fun in and with the crowds, a few beers, a few Sangrias and - of course - Paella.

Here again are fortified town buildings and in Rosas, the very large fort quite overgrown, with its walls broken down but easily seen and walked over. The main road stretches around the bay, which has a number of big breakwaters and a brownish, gritty sand. There are lots of hotels and restaurants. The place must be a zoo in the summer, especially since their road network was never built to handle it.  The road leading out winds precariously along the cliff sided coast for some 40km to Tossa de Mar, a tiny and beautiful sea side village that was only accessible from the sea until the late 1800s when a road was finally established through the mountains behind it. It was a centre of cork production and a trading town with sea routes as far as America. Tossa was also prey to pirates and opposing naval fleets and so was fortified by a canon encrusted fortress on its precipitous cliffs.

Most of the town was closed - even the bars that were open were closed. I wanted to watch the sunset from one and was told 'no drinks - closed' by the shapely but sour femme guarding the bar. She seemed to have changed her mind some 10 minutes later however when 6 young French men came by for a drink. They had no trouble getting them. That didn't unduly worry me however as there was another bar right next door where the man was keen to sell me a jug of sangria. Besides - this is seaside Spain right. Hasta less fasta.

I tried a half dozen hotels in Tossa and finally found the one used by the oldies tour company, a big hotel with very good facilities and with undercover parking (free) and full board for 3 euros more than the room cost. That took care of dinner and breakfast and I got a reduction on the cost since I didn't want lunches. The food was cafeteria style stodge but hey - it was cheap and filling and quick.

There are a few little fishing boats in this charming little town. These are colourful, pretty and obviously a local design, and, after catching enough for the restaurants they use huge land winches to return up the steep, gritty beach. This practice, steeped in tradition, plus the tiny size of the waterfront, the medieval fort and charming sea-side atmosphere, made the place a great find, being equal with La Rochelle and its Ile de Re. Being now only a hundred kilometres from Barcelona, I could hardly not go on to see what everyone finds so entrancing there, so I took a day trip, driving there and back from Tossa. With the ever present auto route, it is easy and quick to get places. When you arrive in the bigger towns however it is often a different thing to find your way around and to be able to stop, park and explore the local sights.

The three major sights of Barcelona for me were the Temple de Familia Sagrada - the rather weird looking cathedral building started in the early 1900s (and still under construction), the port area and its Marina, and La Rambla - the pedestrian mall through the heart of the city.

Exiting the auto route in the city, you can see the towering spires of the Temple and following the one way street system it is not too difficult to get close to. There are a number of small parking stations nearby, so it was not too hard to get to see that attraction. It really is a construction site with; good explanations about the way the design came about, the architect Antonio Goudy (now dead) and the future plans for completion. There are credit card donation machines littered throughout the building which is still very much open to the elements and huge cranes and construction things happening under, over and around the visitors. I had to think that it might just be a big money trap with a few actors pretending to be construction workers. I have no idea when they hope to finish the thing but it is very impressive.  Apparently he designed it by tying pieces of string together and hanging them upside down, then copied the curves.

Next, follow the one way streets down to the waterfront and find another parking station near the Marina having circumnavigated the zoo and other large and impressive public buildings. This area is a magnet to all and sundry as it is a bit like Sydney's rebuilt Pyrmont port area behind The Rocks. Big walkways that float on the tidal sea water carry wandering tourists and locals to the shops and restaurants found there. Big, Australian-built car ferries loading and departing for African and other European ports are here mingled with yachts and other boats, all being observed by innumerable tourists and office workers on their lunch break.

Right on the waterfront are the big, old, port buildings, Customs, Bourse, Port Administration, all in fine condition and overlooked by the man (unnamed) on a tall plinth as a memorial to the discovery of America. Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Amerigo Vespucci, whoever. Strangely there appeared to be no name on the plinth - just lots of Spanish declaiming the act of finding the America.

Behind the marina area, across a 6 lane waterfront main road is La Rambla, the wide boulevarde exclusive to the use of pedestrians. This is predictably lined with hotels, restaurants, tourist shops, bars and is thronged with legal and illegal street vendors. Artists doing portraits and selling small watercolours, people acting as statues and men hiding a pea under three match box lids, trying to trick the tourists. One sharp eyed girl kept following one pea game trickster and beating him each time she played. He kept moving on trying to shake her off and she kept following and winning. He gave up when he went broke.

Lots of young backpackers and lots of different languages are in this area. The traffic is more manageable, the sights more accessible and the outlook more serene. However, I felt I had seen enough of Barcelona during the day and wanted to get back to Tossa before heading back to France. The trip back to Montech was uneventful and since it was Thursday I arrived in time for the choir practice that night.  Only one annoyance and one little problem with the car. Annoyance - the little plastic mud flap under the right front had come adrift again (and should be fixable with a plastic tie), problem -  the passenger window has stopped working. The car used a little oil on the trip (less than a litre) and I guess the local mechanic should be able to fix the window - I'll find out.

In between trips further abroad, a sign indicated that there was to be a Fiesta at St Pierre de la Grave a town near Montech. Worth a look I thought, so off I went to investigate. St Pierre de la Grave is a town steeped in history as it is a place where Richard the Lionheart stayed on his way back to England after one of his crusades. The building in which he made his stay still stands and is now a proud monument to the fact. It was in the shadow of this imposing, tower bedecked building that th