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How We Spent Part of the 2018 Summer

Dennis Giraud

Ultegra
Beneteau 44, Cutter Rigged
August 12th, 2018

It might not be “bluewater cruising” but away from the scorching heat of summer in the tropics, cruising the canals of Europe, is a great way to spend hurricane season! Gerri and I are on our second summer in the European Union (EU) volunteering through the Workaway Program (workaway.com). We are legally allowed to remain in the EU for three months at a time and this summer is shaping up to be as amazing as last year!

We put Ultegra to bed at Marina Mazatlan, where she is very safe from hurricanes for the next 5-6 months. Luis is looking after her again so she is in very good hands. We then flew from Mazatlan to Mexico City to NYC. After a few days of visiting with friends and relatives, we were off to Amsterdam. We caught the FlixBus to Brussels, where we got a good night’s sleep in a very nice AirBnB.

The next morning, we walked five blocks to the train station and caught our train to Marchinne au Pont, in the town of Charleroi on the Canal du Centre. The boat, Nénuphar, our home for the next three weeks, and our host, Kieth, were waiting quayside when we arrived at noon. We had tried to connect with this boat last year but it didn’t work out. This year we were first in line! A short introduction, a safety briefing, stowing our belonging in the forward cabin, untying the lines and we were off!

We traveled north then west, through Charleroi in the Canal Charleroi – Bruxelles, passing through three locks before our first stop. We pulled into a small branch Canal called, “branch de Seneffe”, where we tied up to bollards on the canal edge, settled down, had a glass of wine and, the first of many to come, a wonderful dinner prepared by our host.

The next morning we are underway at 8 am, which we tried to do each day. We went west to join the Canal du Centre and continue west. Our next descent was the amazing Ascensuer de Strepy-Thieu. It is a huge elevator that drops 300 feet. It is very high-tech and many people stop to watch it along the highway. We then pass through three more locks into Canal Nimy, where we stop in the small hamlet of Blaton. The next morning we head further west on the L’Escaut Canal towards France. After passing through five locks, we arrive at Bouchain, just south of Valenciennes. There is a WWII ruin, with bullet holes from the Allied bombing, near the bridge adjacent to the village church . We re-provisioned in town with lots of bread and wine. We also finally got a SIM card for our phone from a Tabac store. We chose the provider, Orange, as we understood it would also work in Spain.

We continued to the very lovely city of Cambrai, where we visit an Orange service centre. We were able to get Wifi, but only on the one phone and with no hotspot capability. This left us continually searching for a McDonalds! They are quite different in Europe and have very nice McCáfes with free unlimited Wifi.

After Cambrai we continued south in the Canal de St. Quentin and, after sixteen locks, we arrived in Honnecourt sur Escaut. It was another lovely canal-side location to enjoy another fine meal and a few glasses of very nice French boxed wine. We only bought box wine due to storage issues on the boat. There are many, very good box wines at very affordable prices in Europe. Although, wine is less expensive in Mexico.

The next day was very interesting. We transited five kilometers through a tunnel under a mountain! Due to the length of the tunnel, the exhaust from the engine was a problem. To avoid this, a chain driven tug tows boats through the tunnel. There are two transits through the tunnel per day and ours was scheduled for 9 am. We arrived on time to find another yacht waiting. We rigged our tow lines while waiting for the tugboat. We rigged crossed tow lines, but for this configuration, they are too short. Once underway, steering became a problem as we tried to stay centred in the very narrow channel, but kept being pulled into the wall. The tunnel is straight as an arrow, but too long and dark to see the exit until over halfway through. An hour later we entered a second tunnel. This one was only two km long so we were able to use the engine to  easily and quickly power through it.

The canals are commercial and have many turns and bends. They are crowded with many very big, and very heavily burdened, vessels, which requires a very attentive helms-person. The commercial barges always have priority and right of way, even at a lock. If they arrived at a lock after us, once the gate opened, we would give way.

We traveled quite slowly, averaging 5-8 knots depending on the width of the canals. The narrower the canal, the slower we would go, and at times slow enough that runners on the canal side would pass us! We traveled through forests, farm fields, small hamlets, villages and towns. In the evenings, we would find a suitable place to stop, drive mooring pins into the canal bank, tie off and then…enjoy HAPPY HOUR!

We passed the town of Saint-Quentin and paralleled the River Somme, which figures heavily in Canadian WWI history. Thousands of Canadians died there. Further south, at Fargniers, we arrived in the Canal de Lateral á l’Oise. We continued on to the very rural area of Canal de l’Oise á Aisne. At Bourg-et-Comin, we entered the Lateral á la Aisne, or the canal parallel to the Aisne river. This section traverses three hills, but only one lock before arriving at Berry-au-Bac, where we found a boulanger who opened at 0700! We set off the next day with fresh, warm baguettes for breakfast. We continued to the Canal de la Marne á l’Aisne, which brought us to the beautiful city of Reims. We went to the grocery store, the laundromat and a café to use the Wifi.

While in Reims, Keith caught the train back to Amsterdam and I proceeded to remove the aft decking with a jack hammer. It was a horrible job, but the jackhammer made the work relatively easy and I was done in four hours. The bonus is I can reuse the cork from the deck to replace the teak in Ultegra‘s cockpit! Now I don’t have to spend the $1500!

Keith returned and the next morning we headed off, stopping in the town “Marina” to top off our water tank. The office was closed so we used a pair of vice grips to open the tap and fill our tanks. Five hundred meters from the marina, we arrived at the first lock, only to find out we were too late. Fortunately, the canal side was nice so we put pins in the ground and tied up for the night. The next day, we began our long climb and descent into the town of Nancy. We passed through another tunnel and continued to Conde sur Marne, where we left the Canal de l’Aisne a la Marne and enter the Canal Lateral a la Marne. We arrived in Chalons en Champagne the next morning and tied up in a very nice little marina on the edge of town, We spent the day walking around the town, looking at it’s lovely cathedrals and parks.

The next day we continued to Vitry le Francois. Here we tied up near a large boat yard and I finished the final horrible grind out around the corners of the rear deck and primed it. We departed Vitry and entered the Canal de la Marne au Rhin. We got an early start as we planned to arrive in Bar la Duc, which is 29 locks up hill! The locks are about one km apart and the boat is raised up about 2.6 meters at each lock. Being raised is much harder than being lowered because the force of the water as it floods the lock can be very turbulent. You can’t tie the boat off, but must continually shorten up as the boat ascends, and this takes some effort. Twenty nine locks in a day was pretty tiring for the rope handlers, even with three of us sharing duties. After Bar le Duc we stopped in Ligny-en-Barroisnd before we reached the summit, passed through the Tunnel de Mauvages and began our descent into Toul. Knowing we would be pressed for time in Nancy, we shipped the cork flooring to Mazatlan via DHL from Toul. The shipping was very expensive but well worth it, considering the flooring was free!

A couple of kilometres out of Toul, we entered la Moselle, which would carry us through five descending locks, passing lovely countryside and the rest of the way to Nancy, our final destination aboard Nénuphar and with our host, Kieth. Nancy is an amazing 11th century town full of charm, elegance and finesse. Stanislas Square,with its abundance of great art, is the highlight. I remembered this place well from when I flew for Air France in the late 1980’s.

We spent our last evening aboard taking our host out to dinner at Cafe Foy, on the edge of Stanislas Square. The light show unfortunately didn’t start until the next week, but the surrounding buildings were nicely lit up. In the morning, we caught the tram to Gare Nancy, where we boarded the TGV to Paris. One and a half hours to Paris Gare d’Est and from there we found our way to Orly Airport to catch our flight to Menorca, Spain for our next Workaway gig.

In Menorca, we planned to meet our friend, Jose, whom we met last summer. Our plan then included a short flight to Malaga to visit our good friend, Birgitta, who visited us in Mexico. We hoped to be back in Benalmádena in July to spend a few weeks on the 73′ yacht we were on last year.

A note about the weather: We had amazing luck with the weather. This time of year normally has a fair amount of rain in this region. We packed long underwear and some rain gear. The long underwear was a waste of space and the rain gear was worn twice. It was unusually warm for this time of year and when it rained, it was early evening or the middle of the night. There was constant thunderstorm activity most afternoons and evenings, so the rain was heavy but short-lived as the storm cells deteriorate in the cooling temperatures. Most afternoons the temp hits 30 C, which made it quite nice. Gerri might differ in opinion.

 

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  1. David B. Zaharik says:

    Hey Dennis, thanks

    That’s pretty cool and exactly what we plan to do next spring with our new sailboat! Our Boreal 47 has a swing keel that shortens the draft to 1.02 m. Our only concern is our beam which is 4.3 m. We will be day sailing down the coast of Brittany to Bordeaux and entering the canal system there and exiting in the Mediterranean for the summer. We are so looking forward to the relaxed pace of the canals and the culture.

    1. Dennis says:

      Hi David, that beam is not an issue. What you may want to check is your height above water level and verify there is enough clearance along your planned route. It also may be easier to purchase your navigation passes online before you enter the system. The system is divided up into sections and you need a pass for each. We encountered lots of closures and as a result had to take a much longer route to get where we wanted to go. Check carefully on this.

  2. Jim says:

    Hey brother,

    It’s wonderful to read of your continued adventures. I’m so glad Ensenada was a turn-a-round place for you and that a certain wonderful lady walked down the docks at exactly the right time. Although part of me is sad to not have you as a friend who lives nearby, I’m so happy about the way your life has/is evolving. We’re waiting for your visit up her in Sunny Sointula.

    Peace,

    Jim

    1. Dennis says:

      Hi David, that beam is not an issue. What you may want to check is your height above water level and verify there is enough clearance along your planned route. It also may be easier to purchase your navigation passes online before you enter the system. The system is divided up into sections and you need a pass for each. We encountered lots of closures and as a result had to take a much longer route to get where we wanted to go. Check carefully on this.

      1. Anonymous says:

        Thanks Dennis. We are of course removing the mast and the wind generator to ensure we have clearance through the Canal du Midi… appreciate the heads up on the passes.