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Wednesday, 2 January 2019

From the Mediterranean to the English Channel by boat - 1


Simon Jenkins. managing director
of Norbury Wharf
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.

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. This is his story, in his own words.

It started as an idea back in 2015 - let’s branch out and buy boats on the continent to refurbish and resell. Norbury is pretty much at full potential now so we were on the lookout for other business ventures and the hunt for suitable boats started.

For months, we looked at many online, watched the markets and researched the subject as thoroughly as possible, talking to anyone with an insight into the European boat market.
Ambiorix sat on its permanent mooring in Aigues-Mortes- when we first
viewed the boat on a winters day in December 2017

In the end we found what appeared to be the perfect candidate for the project. It was a 100ft by 16.5ft, 130 ton Belgium-built barge, very similar to a Dutch Luxe-motor, built in 1911.

It had been owned and lived on by the previous owner for 27 years and was in need of some modernisation, so after negotiations we ended up purchasing it,

Now we owned the Ambiorix, named after a great Belgium King who did serious damage to the occupying Romans around the time that Caesar invaded Britain.
The boat sometime in the early eighties in its unconverted state

Now all this sounds straightforward, but there was one small hurdle to jump - the boat was based in a small town called Aigues-Mortes in the South of France which is just a few Kilometres from the Mediterranean sea. In fact the canal was connected directly with the sea at a lovely sea port called Le Grau-du-Roi.
It’s not always sunny on the Mediterranean, this was just after we returned to the UK in Feb 2018,
 when the previous owner was keeping his eye on the boat for us

This wonderful area of the South of France, known as the Camargue, is a beautiful place, full of pink flamingoes, white horses, and beaches, but not really suitable for what we wanted to do with a barge.
The famous white horses, seemingly wild and allowed to wonder freely in the Camargue

For lots of reasons we decided to move the boat further North. It needed to come out of the water for a survey, painting and other works, and this was best carried out by a ship yard that knew the boat and had previously carried out work on it – a boatyard in Southern Belgium, some 1,200km and 250 locks away.

I decided that, to further add to this journey, it would be easier to sell the vessel if it was in the North, probably Holland, as these types of boats are more common up there. 

A crew was organised to help us do the first and longest leg of the journey which was to move it from Aigues-Mortes to Belgium, and to a mooring close by the ship yard at a place called Lives-Sur-Meurse.

We had already spent a few weeks preparing the barge for its trip, including stocking up on essential supplies. Unlike the English canal network there are not that many places to stop with such a large boat and nip off and do a bit of shopping, so it was important to make sure we had enough food for four people for at least a week.
Amanda and the previous owner Millena on the back of the barge 
on its mooring in Aigues-Mortes, when we bought Ambiorix

The trip was meticulously planned and it worked out it should take 30 days from start to finish, including the odd stop to replenish stocks etc. So the final day came and we flew to Montpellier where the previous owner met us and took us to the boat.

The next day we met with the crew, Paul and Mal, a lovely couple originally from Birmingham and former narrowboat owners who now lived on a barge in central France. They really knew their onions!

After a brief shopping trip, safety talk, and show around the boat it was time to set off. We untied after lunch in early June and headed North along the Branch of the Canal-du-Rhone a Sete, this would take us to our first big lock at Saint Gilles.
The first lock of the journey

The locks that we were going to be doing were all automated, and in many cases manned by lock keepers or Eclusiers. To us, these were not the lockies of the canals or even the Thames, these were remote figures who couldn’t be seen. They were in elevated positions, often towering high above the locks like a control tower at an airport, the locks being massive, capable of taking 1,200 ton barges.

Our big boat – twice the length, twice the width and six times the displacement of the average narrowboat - seemed not so big any more as the lock seemed to almost swallow us up, We exited the lock and stayed on the lock approach for the night, all very peaceful.

A narrowboat we passed on a test voyage in the South of France gives a sense of scale.
These narrowboats get everywhere.

Our early research and planning had told us we needed to pick the right time window as the mighty river Rhone was going to be the only route for us to head North. This river is supplied from its sources in the Swiss Alps, and the Alps over the winter had a massive amount of snow - and it was late in melting. That meant that the Rhone levels and flow were much greater than previous years.

Now the barge cruises at an impressive 12 kmph and flat-out will make 14 kmph, the river flow at certain points could be 10 kmph so this first part of the trip was going to be interesting.

In the next episode: Simon, Amanda and the crew tackle the mighty Rhone and wonder if they will make it through a bridge.

This and further episodes of Simon and Amanda's journey across Europe are also being published in Towpath Talk newspaper during 2019

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