Saturday, August 23, 2008

Updates from the canals

On the canals - 22 August 2008

After 10 days on the canals it seems as though we have never been anywhere else. It has become normal to have 0.7m of depth under the keel and to be aground every night. There’s a lock every 20 or 30 minutes. Today we had a interval of 23km between locks which is by far the longest gap since the Saône.

The Marne à la Saône started to feel like “our” canal. On average we met one or two barges a day and two or three pleasure boats. In 224km we never met anyone going the same way as us. On the ascending side, montant, most of the locks were automated, but on the descending side, avalant, we had fantastic support from VNF who provided students or VNF people to escort us from lock to lock, open and close the gates and sluices with little winding handles, open the opening bridges, and check every night when we would be starting the next morning. They did take a break for lunch, which forced us to stop too – very civilised.

On the whole the canal was extremely rural with just a few little towns and many delightful villages. We stopped in Langres, which was a very steep 2km climb to the town but very rewarding when we got there – medieval town walls with great views.

The Balesmes tunnel is one of the longest we go through at almost 5km. We didn’t like it. There seemed to be no ventilation so the tunnel was foggy with diesel fumes, and halfway through all the lights went out. Our 500,000 candlepower searchlight, which isn’t supposed to be used for more than a couple of minutes at a time, did sterling service for almost 30 minutes.

On the avalant side we alternated between mooring to the canal bank in the middle of nowhere, and tying up to little VNF haltes fluviales, with a pontoon, loos, possibly electricity, and sometimes even hot showers. Possibly our favourite was Froncles, which had all the above plus a car boot sale, where we purchased a crêpe for Ben, a whizzy game controller for his laptop, and a lump hammer for beating in the mooring stakes. Froncles even had a supermarket that opened at 8am – getting supplies has been a bit of a challenge.

From the Marne à la Saône we have zigzagged in a series of different canals which are confusingly named: the Canal lateral à la Marne, Canal de l'Aisne à la Marne, the Canal lateral à l'Aisne, the Canal de l'Oise à l'Aisne where we are now, and the Canal lateral à l'Oise tomorrow.

In the course of all that we spent a rather splendid night at Chalons-en-Champagne, moored in a park, with a really excellent meal in the town. It was followed by a night in Reims, where we visited the cathedral which was absolutely fabulous, bought some champagne, and spent the night between the A4 autoroute and the ring-road, under a flyover – probably the noisiest night we’ve ever spent on board.

And tonight we are back in the middle of nowhere, just across the canal from a huge reservoir, in total peace and quiet. Although Sam cycled off and managed to find a Camping Gaz supplier (8am tomorrow) and a fuel station for diesel (9am tomorrow, from the next lock down), which should see us to the end of our journey – all we really need now is toilet paper (we have eight kitchen rolls but no loo rolls…). We’ve had several goes at getting diesel but each time either we haven’t been able to get to the bank to tie up (too shallow, or full of rocks), or the filling station has been closed.

On the canal, 13 August 2008

Well, after around 500 km of rivers today we’ve finally entered the canal network. After all yesterday’s rain the Saône was very full, running with about 1.5 knots of current, and full of logs and mess. Above the lock at Auxonne we entered the shallow navigation, minimum 1.8m, but in fact it seemed not different from below the lock.

The locks on the upper Saône are automated – you head up to them, turn a bit of hosepipe to tell it you are there, wait for the lock to open, enter, tie up, and lift the blue bar to set the lock filling. That’s the theory, but in practice there might be someone else in the lock, or the ladder is on one side and the blue bar on the other side, or there aren’t enough bollards to tie to… who knows.

At Heuilley we turned sharp right into the Canal de la Marne à la Saône. Unlike the other canals we have passed there was only a tiny sign telling you the name of the canal instead of a big notice. We got to the first lock after 1km and it was totally closed – no traffic lights, nothing. Ever the pessimist, I was convinced the entire navigation was closed. However, it appears that (a) it was lunchtime and (b) they are automating these locks too and the works stop the traffic lights from working. Eventually we were locked in. So far we’ve done four and then stopped for the night – a bit modest out of the 114 locks on this canal, but I felt we needed a break.

We hoped to stop at a picnic area but ran aground about 10m from the bank. So we’re moored up on the other side, using our new “spikes”, driven into the bank with ropes threaded through the top, to hold us against the piling. This side we went aground only about 1m off so it’s possible to cross to the bank. Let’s hope we can get off in the morning! Sam and Ben have gone off exploring but I’m made a bit nervous by the breeze (maybe 8-10 knots?) so elected to stay on board. So far of course the boat hasn’t moved. In almost three hours, two boats have passed us.

The speed limit on the canals is possibly 6 or possibly 8 km/h. Either way our speed will be determined by the locks so it will take us a while to complete the 224km to Vitry le Francois.

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