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|
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?