15th July 2016
We saw on the map, a few tunnels before reaching Paris.
Along Canal du Nord, the Grand Souterrain de Ruyaulcourt, with a total length of 4350m where big barges and boats enter simultaneously from both North and South to meet and pass each other in a wider section in the center. Listening to all boaters’ tales on the way, looks we are required to have at least 20m of ropes, in order to be able to go through the tunnel. We hear lots of stressful stories of boats banging against the sides and big barges that are on their commercial route with little or no patience for small pleasure boats. The stories don’t make us particularly excited with the thought of sharing the 4km tunnel with the big barges so we decide for the alternate parallel route along the Canal de Saint-Quentin, the scenic route along the Champagne region.
Along this canal we have the Souterrain the Riqueval with 5670m followed by the smaller Souterrain de Lesdins with ‘only’ 1098m long. At last these won’t have any barges. Should be easy.
We stop for the night in the small village of Venduilhe on the day before Bastille Day. Venduilhe is a weird place, the vibe is heavy, we can’t find a single shop or cafe and can’t recall if we did even cross anyone on the streets during our evening walk and the ones on the houses look slightly suspiciously at us and close the doors as we pass. During the night fireworks to celebrate Bastille Day, suddenly there are lots of people coming from all sides, wonder where these people were during the day… There is a party in town but we don’t join.
Following day is a bank holiday and the tunnel will be closed so we spend the day on an old industrial port, next to a big abandoned grain silo. In the evening we move the boat from the village to the tunnel entrance to get away from town and so that we’re ready first thing next morning. We thought there would be a queue of boats, but looks we’re the only ones when we wake up next morning.
At 7am the tow boat is waiting for us with 2 French guys not speaking a word of English. They look at our boat with a face that clearly shows they have never seen anything similar before. They are suppose to use two crossed ropes from their boat to ours but Hamish is reluctant to fix anything to the sprinkler system bars and we are reduced to one rope fix to the hook in front of the boat. We are not allowed to turn on the engine inside the tunnel in any circumstances, so I stay inside steering if necessary and on the look-out on the back, Hamish is on the roof looking out at the front.
The electrical tow boat starts heading slowly inside. We’re underground for the next 6km. We start bouncing off the sides a few meters later, Hamish tries to shout to the tow boat guys to tell them to slow down, unsuccessfully! The horn doesn’t work as well (we have a bit of a temperamental one that doesn’t work everytime we really need it). He pushes out the front I push out the back when necessary. We’re scrapping along the sides. Ana adjusts slightly the steering wheel which seems to work and puts us on a more steady route. It takes 1.30h to reach the other side of the tunnel, we bring bits of tunnel with us on the tires but no major scrapes on the hull. We’re ready for the second tunnel. We will be able to steer on this one.