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Thursday, 25 July 2019

From the Mediterranean to the English Channel Episode 8



Simon Jenkins, the managing director of Norbury Wharf on the Shropshire Union Canal,has been on the boat buying trip of a lifetime, bringing his first historic barge back to Belgium, the country in which it was built, from the shores of the Mediterranean.

Last month he travelled through the Ardennes to Namur where he said goodbye to his crew, Now it is time to find out the truth about his historic Belgian barge. This is his story, in his own words.

We had a couple of days off, I think we deserved it, we had travelled over 1200 km, through 230 locks in a total of 19 days cruising. This was the first leg of our journey nearly over, after a much-needed break and some sightseeing around the beautiful city of Namur we untied and headed for our temporary mooring at a boat club at an old lock at a place called Lives-Sur-Meurse,

Dawn on the way to the mooring

 This was at one of the old locks on the river and we were given permission to put the boat at the bottom of a ten foot wall on the river side of the lock.

Bloody hell - the commercial barges just don't stop - almost 24 hours a day they come past at speeds of 15 kmph, loaded down to their gunwales, weighing up to 2,500 tons, and really close to us. We had eight ropes out to secure us, and even then the ropes would heave and stretch at an alarming rate, going ‘ping-pinggg-pingggggg’ until I really thought they would break.
The commercial barges don't slow down

It worried me a little that the boat would be left there unattended for two months whilst we returned back to the UK, but return we must. The next day saw a taxi at silly-o’clock pick us up and take us to Charleroi airport for our return to Blighty. Oh how much I was looking forward to an English curry - that sounds wrong, I know!

It was arranged that the local ship yard at a place called Beez would side-slip the boat on September 10, and that a local surveyor would conduct the first survey two days later. So after our stay back in UK catching up on jobs at Norbury and buying much needed essentials for the boat - much cheaper here than the continent because the pounds is so weak against the Euro - we headed back to Belgium with the car full to the brim with stuff for the boat, plus clothes and personal items as we knew this would be another long time spent away from home.

So it was with some trepidation that we arrived at the boat club, worried what I might find. To my surprise the boat was fine. The ropes had stretched somewhat and I’m glad I had put rope protectors where the ropes came over the wall to protect against chaffing, but everything on the boat was fine, except the water pump had decided to pack up. Soon sorted that with a bit of persuasion to the motor.

It was hard work lowering everything down on to the boat 10ft below using a rope, there were some heavy items like two 20 litre oil drums for the engine service, new water pump and accumulator (not like the ones we use on narrowboats) and some rather large ropes for securing the boat, as well as suitcase full of the missus's clothes (I think she thought she was not coming home ever).

There might have been a kitchen sink in there too, I lost count of everything in the end, but there was a new gas hob, so chances are the sink wouldn't have been far behind! Another trip to the local supermarket and we were ready for the off and up to the shipyard.

We departed from our temporary mooring for the half an hour trip to the shipyard and tied up by a large quay, which was a good 16ft up from the water with ladders. I stayed put until I saw the carriages (known as Shires) being lowered down the side slip rails and in to the water.
Coming out of the water at the boatyard

We were beckoned towards them and floated over the top of the three of them. Slowly we felt the boat staring to feel different as it settled on to these large carriages as they were being drawn back up the side slip, anew experience for me.
The railway bogies supporting the boat

I have docked hundreds of boats, side launched boats, craned boats, but nothing like this. We waited patiently until at the top of the railway lines. A tower crane swung around with a rather large steel set of steps which it placed next to the boat so that we could get off and in to the ship yard.

We were greeted by the loveliest of men called Akim. He showed us where the water and electricity were, and then I made my way to see Michael, the yard manager, to discuss the works. We set up a meeting with the local painting team, and that was it, they started straight away in pressure washing the hull in preparation for the hull survey two days later.
At the top of the slope, next to the hotel boat being built

Dry docks, slipways, hard standing - it is not a pleasant place to be when stopping on boat, but in the middle of a massive ship yard which is working 24hr a day to complete the enormous passenger ship which was next to us was even more unpleasant.

It didn’t matter during the day as we both had plenty of jobs to do, but it was difficult to really relax in the evening with giant flood lights lighting up the curtains and the sound of workmen clanging and banging around - but they had a job to do.

The surveyor duly turned up as agreed and set to banging the hull with his hammer-taking thickness readings and marking the hull with chalk-I have seen it done hundreds of times before on the dry dock at Norbury so I wasn't fazed by it at all. The play was measured in the prop shaft bearing and the rudder bearing and they were well within tolerance; and then the good news came in the form of the surveyor who announced that the hull was sound, and that it was always a pleasure to do this boat because of its excellent condition.
A first look at the stern gear - it gets a thumbs up from the surveyor

That was a big weight off my mind as, when we bought the boat, we had done the deal at a massively reduced rate on an ‘as seen as is basis,’ so it was a big relief that the gamble had paid off!

The next day we had the meeting with the painters, a few jobs were discussed with the welders like fitting 20 new anodes and some fender eyes and that was it. Off we went again only this time we were being moved backwards along another set of railway lines - like a railway truck being shunted around a freight yard.

This had two purposes - one to free up the slip so they could launch this huge hotel ship they had been building for the last year or so, and to put us in a place for the painting works to be completed. We decided that we needed a break from all of this so so we jumped in the car and returned home for a few days.

We returned to the boat, this time on our motorbike, as this would make life so much easier. We could lift it on to the boat and then the next leg of the journey meant we didn't have to worry about collecting the car when we reached our final destination.

The works were progressing well and they quoted about ten days with a team of painters to finish the job, providing the weather was kind, of which it mostly was.
Ambiorix in her new livery - ready to return to the water

All finished and then there was a delay in relaunching because of another big boat on the slip - and then the day came for relaunch.

Sporting her new livery, her freshly painted bottom in red anti foul and everything looking wonderful it was a great sight. There were a hair raising few moments when they picked the motorbike up with the tower crane, hoisting it a long way in the air and then swung it about like a conker on a piece of string. The crane trundled along the railway tracks and safely deposited the bike on the back of the boat, while I was thinking ‘how the hell do I explain this to the insurance company.’

Off the boat now wobbles down the railway line on the slip and back in to the water-we reversed back to the quay where we started from and celebrated with a drink on the back deck. But all was not what it seemed and we would need that drink again the next day!

In the next episode: Back in the water – but is that a leak?

Thursday, 27 June 2019

From the Mediterranean to the English Channel by boat - Episode 7


Simon Jenkins is a well known figure on the British canal system and has been a boater for decades, living on, working and owning boats and, for the last couple of decades, the managing director of Norbury Wharf on the Shropshire Union Canal.

He is back from the boat buying trip of a lifetime, bringing his first historic barge back to Belgium, from the shores of the Mediterranean. Last month he came up against manual locks which took him onto another of Europe’s major waterways and an angry Frenchman. Now he is approaching his destination and the Ardennes is coming up This is his story, in his own words.

The Canal de la Marne au Rhin is 289 km long and has 127 small locks, although we would only be doing a relatively short section of it and a few locks. As we turned onto this canal there were a lot more boats, and people boating. This was the first time we had seen so many boats on the move.

Through a lock and even more boats, including a weed cutting boat was dodging here and there in the middle of the canal like a ‘water boatman’ insect collecting piles and piles of weeds. I hoped this wasn't going to be a sign of things to come further along this canal.
Small locks were getting further apart

The canal had a different feel about it, there seemed more industry as well as old industry, as we cruised along, then another lock and a tunnel. Just before the tunnel there was an island in the middle of the canal and the tunnel entrance was at an angle, making entering the tunnel very tricky indeed with a big boat.

The tunnel was no problem but this canal seemed to have some very tight bends on it and then long straight sections. We approached another junction and a massive cement works on our right hand side which was a horrible blot on the landscape, and now turned right and on to the Canal de L’Est Nord Branche.

The canal became crystal clear and we could see the bottom, and the weeds. This didn't bode well and I hoped that this wouldn't be the norm for this canal. I suspect that it was the lime that had caused the water to be so clear, you could see where it had leached in to the canal and every structure along past the cement works was covered in dust that had solidified over time.
The canal became crystal clear and we could see the bottom

We dragged the bottom of the canal, churning up weeds as we went, very slow progress, and it felt even slower than it probably was. The canal had some tight bends which went around the cement works, so it meant it was in our company for quite a long time - like some alien invasion that had devoured the hillside and surrounding area

After that the canal carried on, opening up through countryside, and then more industry, we were now following the river Meuse and from time to time the river would join the canal and the navigation would get wider and deeper. We were now on the Canal de Meurse, 88 km with 42 small locks, and amongst the names redolent of World War l.

We passed through Verdun, a stunning place and somewhere that would have been nice to stay and look around but, unfortunately, we did not have the time. There were lots of barges tied up and the town seemed to take more interest in its navigation. Bars and restaurants were clearly visible by the cut, and judging by the boats it was a popular spot.
Verdun and lots of moored boats

The canal really took on a different feel now, but I was being fooled and, in a short distance, we were back on small canals, I wish it would make its mind up as to what it is. Back out in to the countryside again and the landscape was changing as we were slowly going from fairly flat lands towards rolling countryside and eventually in to valleys.
The stunning Ardennes

We meandered our way for what seemed like miles and miles towards the Belgium border - entering the famous Ardennes region - and it was breathtaking. Vast woodlands clung to the hillsides and down to the canal on one side, with open views across farmland on the other. Glimpses of small villages and the sound of the church bells wafting across the fields, almost beckoning one to come to church, It was really like going back in time.
Ambiorix on a village mooring

Then the navigation was becoming much bigger again and the small locks were getting further apart. The buildings were also looking more business-like rather than quaint cottages.

The pace soon picked up as we were doing large river sections now, then slowed down slightly by short canal sections that by passed weirs or shallow sections of the river. We were in the middle of the Ardenne proper now and almost totally engulfed by ancient woodland interspersed with small towns and quaint villages - this was really turning in to a stunning river.
Tight locks and lots of bridges

Small campsites started to appear and the river took on more recreational use, water ski areas, jet skies, motorhome parks - we were now heading in to Belgium on the river Meuse, the locks suddenly became bigger and had lock keepers - we didn't have to operate them anymore with our ‘garage door opener’.

We also started to see much bigger commercial boats again - a sign that we were heading for Namur and lots more commercial traffic.

We left France at Givet and now we were in the French speaking Wallonia region of Belgium. The navigable river Meurse, also know as the Mass, is 115km long and stretches from the French Border town of Givet all the way to the Netherlands border and Maastricht, although we wouldn't be going all of the way as our destination for now wasn't far away near Namur.
These English narrowboats get everywhere

We passed through stunning towns such as Dinant with its fantastic churches and monuments, some incredible riverside properties, massive rock formations and cliffs coming down to the waters edge with people rock climbing. Roads and railways follow the river’s course through the valley and this was the most spectacular river section I have ever been on.

Finally we came into to Namur, which was where our crew would be leaving us, we had a farewell dinner in a local restaurant and bid them farewell, we stayed in Namur and had a couple of days off.

In the next episode: The boatyard and time to find out the truth about his historic Belgian barge

Thursday, 23 May 2019

From the Mediterranean to the English Channel by boat Episode 6


Simon Jenkins is a well known figure on the British canal system and has been a boater for decades, living on, working and owning boats and, for the last couple of decades, the managing director of Norbury Wharf on the Shropshire Union Canal.

He is just back from the boat buying trip of a lifetime, bringing his first historic barge back to Belgium, the country in which it was built, from the shores of the Mediterranean. Last month he met old friends, and avoided crushing a mad Englishman. Now he comes up against manual locks which take him onto another of Europe’s major waterways and an angry Frenchman. This is his story, in his own words.

So we are now heading downhill and are following the river Moselle, at some point and I cant remember when the locks went from automated to manual. Sacre bleu I thought – I am now thinking in French, of course - but to my amazement they all had lock keepers. Some were students doing summer work and others were full time lock keepers who were mobile, so drove to the next lock to get it ready. I was liking this.

A bit of industry started to occupy the canal and then the first commercial boats we had seen since leaving the Saône. These were purpose built ones used over short distances, unlike the large ones we had been used to seeing with their wonderful rear cabins and cars plonked on top.
Boats with wonderful rear cabins and cars plonked on top

They were being employed on what appeared to be an aggregate job, it must have been the weekend as there was no sign of life, or maybe it was their lunch time, which seems to start at about 10am and finish at about 3pm. Well that’s what it seemed like! The canal becoming industrial and built up was quite a nice change after being out in the countryside for ages, it made a nice contrast.

It wasn't long before we were back out in the sticks, though, not a very  exciting canal and nothing really notable. We crossed the river Moselle on a modern looking aqueduct, then through yet another lock and, all of a sudden, I noticed that we were picking up speed, we now had part of the river Moselle with us. That didn't last long - another lock and back to ditch crawling - but things were changing.

As we progressed the river came in and out of the canal, it was getting wider and our pace had picked up and then we locked through a small lock and into what seemed like another world.

Straight in to a huge inland port surrounded by ships and huge barges just like the ones we had seen on the Rhone. We progressed past the vast steel works with their loading bays and railway lines, more aggregate loading wharves, and giant gantry cranes with huge magnets unloading barges full of scrap. We had reached the river Moselle and its inland ports.
Giant gantry cranes with huge magnets unloading barges

Aggregate work

We only had a short journey to do on this mighty river. The lock keeper called us in once he had cleared a commercial tug and advised us to move down river to a small jetty where we should stay the night.

So out onto the Moselle – 152 km long with 16 locks, each 172 m x11 m, fortunately we would only be doing a short stretch and a couple of locks, we passed through the large lock and on to the main river and carried on our way to the mooring that was suggested, no other places to tie up between the two locks anyway.

The mooring soon came in to sight and there was a French barge already on the mooring, no problem we shall pull alongside, something customary over in France where a boat tied to the bank is considered to be part of the bank therefore another boat is allowed to tie alongside.
There was a French barge already on the mooring

Not in this instance, a vile French couple came out shouting at us in French "Vous ne pouvez pas amarrer votre bateau à côté de mon bateau, cochons anglais. Je me fiche de savoir si vous avez l'autorisation du gardien de l'écluse. Il est probablement aussi cochon anglais. Allez amarrer votre bateau ailleurs chez vous. Porcs anglais, je vais couper vos cordages. si vous essayez de vous amarrer à côté de moi!

A rough translation sounds a bit Monty Python: “
You can not dock your boat next to my boat, English pigs. I do not care if you have permission from the lock keeper. He is probably also an English pig. Go moor your boat elsewhere at home. English pigs, I will cut your ropes. if you try to moor beside me! "

It was like a scene from Trafalgar but without the cannons, oh and no Nelson. We told them that we had been instructed to stay there, but they were having none of it, so, for a quiet night, we carried on to the next lock as the sun was setting.
That bit of the river is outstandingly beautiful

I am glad we did, as that bit of the river is outstandingly beautiful and in the early evening as the sun was going down it was even more spectacular. We were shrouded in the most amazing deep wooded valley with trees hundreds of feet up the valley sides and right down to the waters edge. Every bend the river opened up a more dramatic vista.

We eventually tied up at the lock side in a most peaceful place. The next morning we were up early and met by mist over the water and hanging in the trees. This was a really magical place.
This was a really magical place.

We soon passed through the lock and we carried on to Toul where the navigation split into three sections - the main river went right, a larger canal in the middle and a smaller one to the left. We took the smaller one as we could see on our maps that there was a good stopping place at an old factory which also gave direct access to the road and some shops, we stopped to do some more essential shopping at a nearby supermarket.

Once the shopping was complete it was off again, through a small lock and on to a short section of canal where we came to a junction with the Canal de la Marne au Rhin on our left hand side and that would lead us back on to small canals.

There was a bit of a commotion when another Eric Sykes sort of chap was flailing about in the middle of the junction asking for help, we managed to take a rope off him and help him to the other side of the junction, his engine had failed - good deed done for the day!

In the next episode: The end of the first leg is in sight but there is ugly industry and the beautiful Ardennes to enjoy first.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

From the Mediterranean to the English Channel by boat - episode 5


Simon Jenkins is a well known figure on the British canal system and has been a boater for decades, living on, working and owning boats and, for the last couple of decades, the managing director of Norbury Wharf on the Shropshire Union Canal.

Simon Jenkins at Norbury Wharf

There he runs a brokerage, hire fleet, day boats, a trip boat and a chandlery, as well as a paint dock, dry dock and full engineering services. Simon has dipped his toe in to the waters of other boat-related ideas including sea-going charters, but the inland waterways are his first love and he has turned his gaze to Europe, with it’s wide waterways and fully functioning system of commercial river and canal navigations. He is just back from the boat buying trip of a lifetime, bringing his first historic barge back to Belgium, the country in which it was built, from the shores of the Mediterranean. Last month he was boarded by armed police as he entered the River Saône. Now he enters a world of locks and tunnels and the obligatory daft Englishman in a GRP boat. There is also a meeting with an old friend. This is his story, in his own words.

The Saône is another river that is a canalised and has sections of lock cuts, something commonplace in France, and in other parts of Europe, and on some parts of the UK system too.

On some of these canalised sections there are tunnels and this was a first for us with this boat. The first one we came was on a traffic lights, we had a short wait whilst another boat was coming the other way and then it was our turn.

It wasn't a long tunnel and dead straight, so nothing to get excited about - but there were more to come! Mile after mile, lock after lock; meandering our way through some stunning countryside and hardly passing other boats.

This was June, and flaming June at that, temperatures were in the high 30s and the canal and rivers seemed so quiet, much quieter than we are used to in the UK. All of a sudden we came to something quite different and a bit challenging.

Now the locks are a tight squeeze – the maximum dimensions are 38 metres by 5 metres

We locked off the river on to another canalised section - this time it was a control lock with a lock keeper, the canal was dead straight and wide enough for two 5M boats to pass so we carried on.

Then the narrows came in to sight, nothing to worry about - except they had been carved out of a hill and it was the entrance to a narrow tunnel, as we went around the bends, slowly, the bow was almost touching the bank at the front whilst the stern was almost touching the opposite side at the rear. I would imagine that a 38 m barge would actually be touching at both ends. We squeezed our way around this bendy section and then plummeted in to a dark cavernous tunnel. Soon we emerged back in to bright sunshine.

Sometimes the canal itself looks too narrow, especially this approach to a tunnel

Bends in a concrete channel can leave only inches as you turn

Then the tunnel – which looks too small to accommodate us

All is going well with the barge, really getting to grips with it, not much traffic about and then in the distance just as we were coming off a river section and heading for a very narrow old flood lock I see a small cruiser approaching.

We are just slowing down from 12kmh and the narrows are fast approaching. All lined up and then the cruiser decided that he is going to go through the narrows first. This guy must have had a death wish, challenging a much larger craft with much less manoeuvrability in a restricted waterway is madness.

Hard astern was all I could do, I managed to keep the boat under control and bring it to almost perfect standstill as he comes flying past us just like Eric Sykes on his plastic cruiser in the film The Barge. To make matters worse he was bloody English. I’m sure he was related to old Sykes!

The river is starting to become much smaller now, narrower and bendier, lots more care is needed going around very tight bends, speed is much slower too, nearly at the end of the navigation for us and then on to a proper canal!

We entered the narrow canal at Corre. This section is 93km long and has 93 locks, so now its going to get even more interesting and really slow our pace down. The locks are now controlled by a remote control - something like a garage door opener.

The locks are now controlled by a remote control - something like a garage door opener

Very amusing indeed. As you approach a lock there is a receiver box somewhere and you have to aim your remote at it and press the button - and hopefully it works and a flashing light appears on the box letting you know it has accepted your signal and the lock is preparing.

As you approach the lock there are traffic lights. Red, well that’s obvious; Red-and green means the lock is setting for you; and green is obvious too. Once in the lock the same procedure as before, two bars, blue to operate the lock and red to stop it.

So off we go, the canal is now a proper canal – shallow and narrow; and progress is slow, but still very interesting indeed. Meeting other boats is now fun and virtually all the locks have a lock keepers cottage on the lock side.

They are pretty places, some are occupied and some are not, especially the more remote ones. You can imagine, in the past, that there would have been a great community feel amongst the boatmen and all the staff running the canals, just like the UK canals would have been years ago.

The canal is mostly rural, passing through small, quiet villages and small towns following the river Le Coney, and we had been climbing the locks steadily until we reached the summit pound.

We were meandering along the summit pound looking for a stopping place rumoured to be close to a Boulangerie (bakery to us) - well when in France one has to have fresh Baguettes everyday - when I saw a petite looking blonde lady waving like mad.

Good God it was Laura, the partner of a chap called Roger Murray. Some of you might recognise his name, he is a proper canal nut and used to own the ex FMC steamer Monarch, also a lovely tug called Kyle. Now he has a Dutch barge in Holland and they were on their way from her pad in Palma driving up to the barge.

Roger Murray, a proper canal nut and used to own the ex FMC steamer Monarch.

It just so happened that their journey coincided with ours so they jumped on board and we had the most pleasant evening in the company of these two wonderful people.

As the spare bed was made up it went without saying that they would dine with us and stay the night and we sat out on the back deck until late, drinking and reminiscing.

The next day saw them come with us and do a few miles and a few locks, we had now started going down the ‘other side’ they departed from us at the junction with the Épinal canal. They got a taxi and we waved them farewell - that was a nice surprise, and a welcome one too.

In the next episode: Simon and his crew come up against manual locks which take them onto another of Europe’s major waterways - and an angry Frenchman