Monday, August 25, 2014


We have been on the French canals for 4 weeks and have made it to Champagne. Along the way we have experienced some very big locks and some very big barges, particularly on the Canal de Dunkerque and Escaut. In fact being in some of those locks was a bit like being in a big watery coffin.
I think we have finally developed a technique for entering a lock and tying up but that may all change once we go to a different canal. It seems each canal has a different lock system (some are automatic with telecontrollers, some controlled by lock keepers and some that require you to turn a wand attached to a pole on the bank some 200m prior to the lock) and the bollards aren't really positioned for smaller boats like ours so each lock can be a bit of an adventure. We just went into our first lock on the River Marne and our knowledge of locks has been increased again. This lock has sloping sides and a floating pontoon.
 As we entered the lock we were approached by the l'eclusier (lock keeper) who, after getting a few details, handed us the mother of all lock controls. This telecontroller even comes with it's own box (like a briefcase) to protect it, as well as having its own battery charger.
Then there are the tunnels. The first tunnel we came across on the Canal St Quentin was unusual in that you weren't allowed to enter under your own power. Due to the fact that there was no ventilation and the tunnel was over 5km long we had to be towed through by a chain tug. We have heard that sometimes there can be as many as 20 boats tied in a queue with the biggest and heaviest at the front and the smallest being swayed to and fro on the back. Fortunately for us, on the day we went through, we were the largest of three so had the privilege of being directly behind the tug. Other tunnels that we have been through are shorter and have ventilation so we are able to go in under our own power. However, they have been controlled by VNF which only allow one boat through at a time.

The prettier canals are those less commercial ones such as the Canal St Quentin that runs through Cambrai. There are more villages on the sides and more places to stop. If you are happy to stop anywhere then the mooring is free and sometimes even those with water and power are free, just to entice you into the village to boost the local economy. We have come across some great little local boulangeries and boucheries along the way. Currently we are moored at Damery. We were surprised when we got off the pontoon to find hidden in the shrubbery an electric hitch up point free of charge as this wasn't listed in our book.
We have also met a great array of people, mostly English, Australian and New Zealanders. In Sillery, between Reims and Epernay, there was quite a little community of expats and most nights we have drinks, or a BBQ and there was even a friendly game of boules. You almost have to leave to save your liver!!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Channel crossing - part 2 - and things that go bump in the night

We were awakened with a mighty bang at 2:30am. Drawers crashed open and we were nearly tossed out of bed. Someone in a nearby boat screamed. Everyone was awake so we turned on the lights to survey the damage and try to figure out what had caused the sudden jolt. All the drawers in the kitchen were open and a wine glass that had been sitting on the kitchen bench had been caught by one of the drawers as it slid open. So nothing broken. We can only assume that the tide had turned at the same time as a large container ship went past and the wake, coupled with the reversal of tide, caused the boat to buck a bit!!
Needless to say we didn't get too much sleep after that. Not a good way to start an epic journey across the channel!
Fortified with breakfast we started at about 10am to head towards France, first passing Margate and then Ramsgate as we headed towards the channel and the current that would eventually take us south near Dover.
We had recently installed AIS (Automatic Identification System is an automatic tracking system used on ships and by vessel traffic services for identifying and locating vessels by electronically exchanging data with other nearby ships, AIS base stations, and satellites) so we were able to identify other ships in the area through our GPS chart plotter and they were also able to see us. I had also installed an App on my iPad which allowed me to see all the ships in the area. Many have descriptions of length, weight, cargo, where they are going and where they have come from. Quite interesting really if you're not worried that one of these behemoths is directly in your planned route. It is even more scary at night time when it is difficult to judge the speed from just their lights. One boat had a draught of 19 meters and was carrying an incredibly heavy load of cargo so Dover Port Authority was warning other ships to allow it a clear passage. (our draught is only 0.76m)
Apart from other ships there is not a lot to see on the trip across the channel although at the mouth of the Thames in the middle of the channel there are observation towers or forts  (called Maunsell forts after their designer) dating back to WWII. These were used to prevent German submarines from entering the Thames. Apparently one of these forts has been taken over by an eccentric gentleman and he has claimed sovereignty thereby, I suppose, evading paying UK taxes. Prior to this takeover it was used by one of the pirate radio stations that operated off the UK coast in the 60s.

Once we started heading south towards Dover we were also making our way east towards the English Channel shipping lanes. There are two lanes, one for ships heading north and the other for ships heading south. This, in theory, makes it easier for private vessels to cross as in each section you know that ships are only going one way. Once you reach the shipping lane you have to cross at right angles thereby ensuring you are in the shipping lane for the shortest period of time. Of course there are ships heading east west as well because most of the passenger liners going from England to France go straight across.
The water had actually been pretty smooth until we reached the shipping lanes and there was only a slight breeze. However, once we reached the shipping lanes the water was being churned up by the large cargo ships and tankers so it made travel a bit rocky. I went downstairs once and came back telling everyone that I wasn't going to be preparing dinner tonight  (sous chef Kevin stepped up to fill the gap - or should I say everyone's stomachs) and spent the rest of the journey in the wheelhouse where I could see the horizon and also looking at the AIS information on my iPad. Fortunately we had Internet for most of the journey.
As we approached the French coast it was pretty close to 11.30pm and we heard over the radio that the bridge to the marina at Calais was going to be open in 10 minutes - perfect timing as  our pilot had planned the trip so that we would be able to enter the marina on high tide. After getting permission from the Calais port Authority to enter we approached the rotating bridge but had to wait as another craft was leaving the marina. As we dropped the revs of our motor, alarm bells started ringing and the temperature started to head towards boiling point. We had to keep going now as there was nowhere to stop and it wasn't long before we were tied up alongside the visitors mooring. Kevin couldn't believe that the engine had overheated at the last moment. We had been going at a steady speed of 1600 rpms for 14 hours with no indication that there was an issue but as soon as we dropped the revs back there seemed to be a problem. So glad this didn't happen in the dark in the middle of the English Channel!!
We tied up, had a glass of Bolinger champagne to celebrate finally arriving in France then went to bed as we were all mentally exhausted. 
Hotel de Ville Calais
Our route across the channel
The next day we dutifully trotted upto the capitainerie's office to show our papers, passports etc. He only wanted our SSR registration and one passport and charged us a whopping €45 per night. We only stayed an extra night due to the worries about the overheating and then headed off down the Canal du Calais. No customs or immigration checkpoints. We were on the canals in France!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Crossing the English Channel Part 1

I have always said that there was no way I would cross the Channel in our boat. It is bad enough on one of the huge ferries let alone in a 21m flat bottomed barge. After much thought and a bit of a nudge from our insurance company (who wouldn't cover us for the crossing unless we had a pilot) we opted to hire a pilot to take us onto the tidal Thames and then across the Channel to Calais - not Dunkerque as we had originally planned. After speaking with him and looking at the weather forecast for the proposed days I decided that I might brave the crossing instead of taking the Eurostar train. Another consideration by the insurance company was that our cover was null and void if we went across with a forecast of winds at force 4 or greater. So with a forecast of light winds and a low swell we set off from Kingston on Thames at lunch time Saturday 26th July (a month earlier than our original plan).
Kingston on Thames is a great town and we thoroughly enjoyed our overnight stay there. It is an ancient market town where Saxon Kings were once crowned. There were markets on both the Friday and Saturday and it was great seeing all the lovely fresh produce at terrific prices. The atmosphere here needs to be experienced, with market stall holders spruiking their wares and trying to outdo other stall holders with their specials. Five avocados for £1 quickly escalated to 7 avocados for £1 and 3 eggplants for £1 went to 5 for £1. As the day progressed and the stall holders wanted to go home a box of vine ripened tomatoes that was £3 a kilo suddenly became £3 for a whole box!

List of Kings crowned at Kingston

We set off from Kingston at midday on Saturday, with our crew of Kevin, moi, Ryan, cousin Roger and pilot Bill, to meet the last of the incoming tide. Consequently progress was slow but once the tide turned our speed quickly picked up and we were hurtling ( well as much as you can  on our barge!!) down the Thames. Against the tide we were struggling to do 3 knots but with the tide we were hitting 8knots.
Westminster Palace and Big Ben
All was smooth sailing until we reached Westminster and then the water became pretty choppy. I was nearly ready to abandon ship because if it was this rough on the Thames imagine what it was going to be like on the Channel. However, our pilot assured me that this was rougher than the Channel because all the tourist boats were churning up the water and trying to create excitement for the passengers in the jet boats. Certainly, once we got down to Canary Wharf the river was once again quite calm.
It was interesting seeing the sites along the Thames from the perspective of our boat rather than from ground level.

Tower Bridge and the Shard

O2 Arena
Once we passed the O2 Arena, our next hurdle was the Thames barrier but as the tide was still running out there was no issue. As it was now nearing the end of the tidal run and we had been going for about 6 hours our pilot decided it would be prudent mooring on a Buoy off Gravesend. We had to be pretty secure as the tide would turn twice before we took the challenge of the Channel. 
Thames Barrier
The tide is out at Gravesend
Our mooring for the night
Sunset on Day 1
As the sun set on our first day we had dinner and planned the strategy for the coming day - it was going to be a long one with a departure from Gravesend at about 10am and arrival in Calais predicted to be about Midnight.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

French Internet

Unfortunately we haven't had much in the way of Internet so I haven't been able to upload any new blogs or photos. I am currently sitting in McDonald's in Cambrai with a fast Internet but no photos to post. Once we get a reliable internet I will start writing my blog again. I could go on and on about the bureaucracy around French Internet and mobile and the need for a French bank account but what good is that going to do!!! Someone could make a fortune developing easy Internet access for tourists with a large amount of gigabytes. At the moment it is expensive to get just 500 megabytes. Oh well, thank goodness there is McDonald s in most towns. A bientot!