Logbook: Breakdowns

July 2017

We have the first break-down, one year into our Boating Europe journey, along the Rhone-Rhine Canal, just before we get into the infamous Rhine River.

The Rhone-Rhine Canal is the last bit of the French Canals System before the Rhine. 237km and 112 locks that takes us 1,5months to go through. Slowly enjoying the french countryside and the small boat world life while we can, as once we get to the Rhine we get into big rivers and big cargo ships world until the Black Sea.

The plan is to stop in Mulhouse, to pick up some plumbing parts we got online and ordered to the local marina. But as we are about to arrive to the big town, a weird clanking noise on the engine, and Hamish realises the coolant box just snapped out off the engine.

We need to stop or we might have coolant spread all over the engine soon and a bigger problem in hands.

We explain our allocated VNF (Vois Navigables de France) lock-keepers that had been operating the last few locks what happened and they promptly offer to help. One of them comes inside, looks at the broken piece and realises we do need to weld it somehow. We stop on the next lock, Hamish and the VNF guy removes the broken bit and they both go to a VNF warehouse nearby to cut a new one. Half an hour later we have a new shinny metal bracket that we hope will last for at least 6 months. Anyway, they get us an appointment with a local boatyard just past Mulhouse to see if anything stronger and long lasting can be put in place. As it’s Friday evening and everything will be closed for the weekend we spend the weekend in town. Mulhouse is the liveliest place we’ve been for the last few months, after the abandoned french countryside, mixed architecture styles and crepes. Always the crepes.

On Monday morning we head to boatyard, but has the boat is on the water there’s not too much to be done. The coolant box is fixed with the new metal angle to the shaky engine, and we just hope this will last us until we take the boat out of water in the winter.

It lasts two weeks! As we set sail from a beautiful anchoring place on the old Rhine to escape an approaching storm, we notice the new piece has a crack on it. The strong winds make us bang against a lock wall as we approach it and the new piece snaps off again from the engine. But we are now so close to Strasbourg we’ll try to make it to town. We take turns between holding the snapped coolant box with our hands inside the engine and driving. After a long noisy ride we make it to the last lock before Strasbourg but as we need to wait for a few ships ahead, we tie ourselves to the side bollards and switch the engine off. When the lock light turns green, indicating we can go inside, the engine doesn’t switch on.

We get stuck on the lock for a couple of days, trying to get either a mechanic to look at the boat, or a tow, both will be very expansive, but we just can’t stay there, tied to the side wall, with the strong stormy wind banging against the sides and huge 200m boats passing just a couple meters distance from us.

We get a mechanic in, hoping he will fix the engine just enough to make us get to Strasbourg on our own, with no luck. the starter motor is gone and nothing can be done where we are. We need a new starter motor and a towe to town. The French speaker lock-keeper gets us in touch with the local marina and we get a “special price” tow with the boat from the marina’s owner.

We get to Strasbourg, tied to a metal pleasure boat, not as we expected, but we get there! Good to be out of the lock and able to go for a walk.

We end up staying in Strasbourg one month. Had to wait for the new starter motor to be delivered, once it was replaced, the starter batteries stopped working needing as well replacement, we still have an on-going electrical issue going on that would be good to sort out as we’re at it, and we need to properly fix the snapped coolant box.

We stayed for free in the marina while waiting for all broken bits. The break-down already costed us near €800 with the tow, new starter motor and new batteries plus the few hours of mechanical service, so was nice not to have that extra cost. Marinas are usually not cheap places.

Hamish gets to know a few nearby live-a-board boaters, during one of his evening walks, doing some welding to their boats and he manages to get a new metal bracket for our coolant box, that same evening. We end up mooring next to Didier’s Peniche, for the rest of the month. A month of vegetarian bbq’s, evening drinks, good talks, and live music with his band every Wednesday evenings and we get help relocating the coolant box to a remote place in the engine where it wouldn’t snap again.

We leave Strasbourg a month later, this time on our own. Early morning start at 6.00am. We’re eager to continue our European journey along the Rhine.

Logbook: Souterrain de Riqueval

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.

Logbook: Calais to [almost] Paris

August 2016

A couple weeks after our channel crossing we finally set out to Paris. The plan is to reach Paris in a month as Ana has to be back in London. We set off from Calais around 12pm on the 1st of July 2016 and we get stuck right on the first lock. Lunch time (we learn locks do close for lunch, usually between 12-2pm). We wait. As around 2.30pm no one arrives we call the number written on a little paper left on the door. The lock-keeper will arrive shortly, if now one had called him, he would simply not show up. This will be our assigned lock-keeper for the next few locks, running on his bike along the canal with us.

The Canal Nord de Calais is a narrow canal, slightly same with as the River Lee in London and takes us along abandoned factories, a few refurbished wharehouses, but mostly big cropped fields, empty little villages and not one single boat. It’s noticeable that this canal was in the past busy with barges, as we pass lots of rusty metal cranes used in the past to load up barges, but now the boats have been replaced by either trains or trucks and these structures are left as a memory, along the canal, one after the other.

1 lock and 4 mobile bridges later, we turn South to Canal de Neuffose. This is a much wider stretch of water than what we are used to, and looks more like a river than a canal to our English standards. Boats are much bigger here as well we soon realise. The ‘Peniches’, the traditional French inland barge originally built in the 19th century, with 89m long do scare us a bit when we first cross them, after all we are only 7m long.. the wash is quite something and pulls us to the sides if we’re not careful. This is a very green canal, the cropped fields give way to long corridors of trees and we find a few WWII bunkers on the way that we stop and visit, small villages and very big locks!

In Betune, the Canal de Neuffose turns into Canal d’Aire, followed by Canal de Derivation de La Scarpe and Canal de la Sensée. We change from one canal to another almost without us noticing, if it weren’t the way the locks open. Some have lock-keepers, on another canal we are given a command to open/close/fill with water/empty with water,  on another one the lock is operated through a rope hanging in the middle of the Canal that opens the lock ahead when twisted or pushed (we need to work it out) or the elevating bollards on the bigger locks.

On this main route to Paris from the big Port of Dunkirk, we decide to turn East along the Canal de la Sensée and South along the Canal de l’Escaut that turns into Canal de Saint-Quentin in Cambrai, instead of continuing South along the busy Canal du Nord. This alternate route will be a bit longer but much more relaxed and picturesque we are told and will take us along the green valleys of the Champagne region and the beautiful towns of Saint-Quentin, Reims, Chateau-Thierry or Beaux.

In Épernay the Canal turns into the Marne river that will take us to Paris. It’s amazing how different it is to cruise on a river, one can feel how alive it is, and the current makes us run faster. We get to 10km/h in some stretches. Mooring is more challenging now and right on our first stop, Hamish jumps out to get the ropes and suddenly the current takes ‘Milda’ away and Ana is left on her own on the big river for a bit. First time alone on the boat and it had to be on a river with a strong current. Hamish shouts instructions, a bit of panic but we make it, Hamish back on board and off to the next stop.

Ana makes it back to London, almost in Paris, and Hamish heads to the big city and the infamous Loire River in his own, until we meet again in a french canal to be decided.
We still haven’t filled up with diesel since England and Hamish is on a mission for the next few days of getting some as we believe we must be close to an empty tank.

Logbook: The English Channel

19th of June 2016

After a few weeks waiting along the Medway for a 3-day-good-weather window that would allow us to cross the English Channel, safely without being caught by surprise with a sudden change of weather, Hamish got a ‘competent’ crew together, Hoawel, Ramin, Ligia and myself and we’re off.

We’ve ‘set sail’ from Ramsgate Marina, down to Dover at 5.30 am to take advantage of the currents and from there across to Calais. When we got to Dover we were approached by a British gun boat, were asked to identify ourselves via the radio and how many onboard. Hamish in control, all good, we’re set to go!

We have an android app that traces all big tankers along the way, their speed and how far they are, a map with the location of all the buoys we need to follow, a compass, and a radar reflector on the roof to make ourselves visible to big ships, 1 person driving, 1 with an eye on the app and maps, 2 on the lookout.

It took us 8 hours to make it to France. The sea was mostly calm, half-meter high waves, a bit of rain, but relaxed so Hamish, that got a bit seasick takes a nap. When we were getting closer to France, the visibility was not great, we lost track of the buoys and decided to follow the Ferries. One of them got confused with this orange lifeboat with graffitied tentacles, stopped to contact us by radio to ask if we needed any help, but our radio didn’t work this time and 20 min later a French lifeboat approached us, ready to save us. Realizing we were just a pleasure boat they started to take pictures waving friendly at us. Bienvenue to France! We made it!

Crew got in touch with Calais asking permission to enter the port. They asked us to wait for the next ferry and then we could get in. Next ferry comes trough, we follow, no one stops us, all gates opening ahead of us, no one asks for passports or check the boat. And we’re in the French inland waterways system.