Canal du Centre

Canal du Centre

Friday, July 28, 2017

On the Canal du Nord, July 19-20

About 9 am we shoved off from the shipyard and headed down the Canal de la Sensée. At 9:30 we cleared the Goelzin lock, whose extended closure for repair had severely delayed our trip to the Somme, and a little after 10 entered the Canal du Nord.
After three tries, including one interrupted by WW I, work based on the final plans for the canal began in 1960 and were completed in 1965 as the quickest route between the Seine and the English Channel ports. The locks are 91 meters long and almost six wide, designed to take two of the standard French commercial peniches at a time. Many other barges have been purpose-built for the canal at about 85 meters long and many bargees have taken advantage of the availability of old peniches and tied two together as one unit. The canal sees heavy commercial use but since it’s wide and deep, that caused no problem for us. And we did see alot of traffic, the vast majority fully loaded barges. It made us feel good for the future of this waterway, at least. 
Over two days we would pass through 12 of the locks, all of them about 6 meters deep, although one is nearly 8, and one nearly 4.5 km long tunnel.
We pulled up to Lock #1 about 10 minutes after entering the canal to see the dreaded “no lights on the indicator board,” meaning a problem. We hiked up to the lockhouse and were told that the lock was en panne, broken, and we would have to wait. Luckily there were plenty of places to moor so we threw a line ashore and did just that. Shortly after, another pleasure boat showed up and then the barges started to arrive. Since this is a heavily used commercial canal, the VNF was working feverishly to get things operating again. At one point there were at least 4 work trucks parked at the lockhouse. 

This double barge pulled into the lock and then the lock broke. 
They were down in that hole for about 9 hours.

We’re moored behind Thiros. He’d pulled up to the bank to load his car in that box on the front.
There are seven barges waiting now. There would be 12.

Finally, about quarter to 7, after 9 hours waiting, word came over the radio that the lock had been fixed and boats would be allowed through. It takes about 30 minutes for a lock cycle and the lock closed at 8:30 pm. Since commercial traffic takes priority, we were just about to give up on the trip to the Somme and head for the Canal de Saint-Quentin, an alternate route to the south, as we wouldn’t get through the lock until sometime late the next day and we’d be stuck behind traffic all the way to the Somme.
But the captain of Thiros (who told us he had worked on Oldtimer years before at H2O; he knew the previous French owners) hollered at us to get into the lock. We radioed the lock keeper who told us that boats would be locked though in the order that they appeared. We were first in line! We hurried into the lock with the other cruiser and a peniche pulled in behind them. At 7:20 we were free of the lock and scooting down the canal. About 8 pm we stopped at a small pontoon just before the next lock. Thursday, after a bit of tense waiting hoping other traffic wouldn’t catch up, we caught the third lock cycle of lock #2 at 7:50 am (The locks start operating at 6:30. They made us wait a bit.) and we had the rest of the locks to ourselves. 
About 11 am we made the 1 hour trip though the Ruyaulcourt Tunnel, not a bad passage as the tunnel is wide and very well lit and ventilated.

Look! The light at the end of the tunnel!

We breathe a sigh of relief as we put the tunnel behind us.

Shortly after 4 pm we cleared the last lock in this section of the canal and found a bollard just below it to spend the night.
Friday morning we would enter the Somme.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Old School Boatyard, The Real Thing

During our stay at Chantier Despinoy we were lucky to watch them “haul out” three peniches, each about 39 meters long by 5 meters wide (about 130’ by 17’), the typical size commercial boats for the smaller French canals. 
This is an old school yard, using “technology” created we don’t know when. Works great, though!

They open the shutters in the gate to allow canal water to flood the basin.

 The basin. Those two boats will remain in position. This started just after noon. The three peniches will go on those racks.

About two hours later, the basin is almost completely flooded.

 They use the crane to lift the gate and the first barge starts in.

 The first barge is now in position. Those little white floats mark the position of the racks.

The second barge is in. Olivier, the yard manager, is in the skiff 
taking lines to shore. By now it’s about 2:30 pm. 
The third barge arrived about an hour later, 
the gate was replaced and they started pumping out the basin.

 The barges are now on their supports and partially out of the water. It’s about 7 pm.

High and dry and ready for work.

They do this every week on Friday. This week it was Thursday because of the holiday. The following Friday they'll "launch" the boats. Since our work was done, we weren't there to witness that process but it must be fun watching the penuches back out of the basin.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Fun in the Shipyard, July 11-19

Olivier, the yard manager, came right down to the boat, took a look and called over the yard engineer. “C’est bizarre” they said as they looked at the arrangement. The boat would have to come out of the water on the yards floating drydock for a fix, maybe next Monday (a week!). Later in the afternoon, Olivier said maybe they would be able to lift the boat Wednesday. Late in the afternoon Wednesday we returned to the office to see about Thursday. Olivier said maybe Thursday afternoon. Minutes after we returned to the boat he came overn with a plan nouveau. We were to move into the drydock immediately and they would lift us first thing in the morning. Which they did.

Up we go!

Donatio, the yard engineer, took things apart and determined that we needed a new bearing and seal for the propellor shaft. After a chat with his supplier, Olivier said that the bearing was no problem but the seal had to come from the Netherlands and wouldn’t arrive until next Wednesday. With the shaft removed, however, there was a big hole in the back of the boat. The yard workers put a plate over the hole and we were lowered back into the water just about noon. With the propellor sitting on the back deck, we pulled Oldtimer out of the drydock and back to the mooring place by hand. Now we would wait.
July 14, Bastille Day or Fete Nationale, is France’s 4th of July, celebrated with some of the most elaborate fireworks displays we’re ever seen. Even the smallest towns and villages put on some type of show, some the day before and some the day of. Wednesday night we had two shows in opposite directions visible from our back deck, one in Courchelettes and one in Corbehem. Thursday night was the big show in Douai. Another couple on our same track we’ve been emailing with this year, Ian and Lisette from Melbourne, Australia, had pulled into Douai the day we reached Despinoy. Their barge had wintered in Diksmuide in Belgium but they had been caught up in the drought-caused canal closures and thought they might have to spend their whole summer in Neiuwpoort. Luckily, arrangements were made for one lock cycle and a bunch of boats moved in each direction and they were able to escape. They had followed us down the Leie and into France. They had bicycled up to visit on Wednesday and so we returned the visit on Thursday night, enjoying Douai’s massive fireworks from the Douai marina.
Meantime, we used the downtime to get some paint on portions of the boat that needed it as we waited for Wednesday.
Miraculously, on Tuesday morning Mssr. Despinoy came down to the boat and said the part had arrived. We were to move immediately to the drydock! We were lifted out and the bearing, seal, shaft and propellor were all put back in place and by about 1 pm we gave the new installation a sea trial. All was well! The water was staying where it belonged.
Success in the boatyard called for a party so Tuesday evening We invited all of the “yachties” in the yard for drinks on the terrace. All are English speakers and all come from different countries. Carl and Shawn from England are on a 27 meter luxemotor getting a new gearbox. Robert is from New Zealand. He just bought a boat and hauled it out for bottom cleaning and a survey. His daughter Steph was just visiting for a vacation. Some vacation in the boatyard! And Ian and Lisette (Aussies) had decided to bring their barge to the yard to see if they could get a cooling problem straightened out. Olivier the yard manager even joined us for a quick glass of wine.
Wednesday morning we parted with enough euros to cover the very reasonable yard bill and we were underway onto the Canal du Nord finally, really headed for the Somme.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Arras and Return

In the 16th century, and edict by the king forbade “building within the town of Arras unless the walls are of stone and brick, and with no overhang over the streets.” 
The result is 155 facades of Flemish Baroque style, the narrow-fronted houses giving traders an on-street position in the several squares. Destroyed during WW I, the town was rebuilt to look exactly as it had before, resulting in “one of the most architecturally striking towns in northern France”, according to one of our guidebooks.
One of our first stops was the tourist office which provided us with a guided tour of the “boves”, limestone quarries directly under the main part of town. Begun in the 10th century, they provided much of the building material for the city and it’s surroundings early development. As the city grew, however, concerns about undermining it caused the mining activity to stop but the shafts continued to be used for storage of grain, other stores and wine. During WW I, the caves were used by soldiers hiding from German bombardments and as a staging point for a surprise attack on the Germans by Allied troops, mostly from New Zealand.
Before the trip underground, it was up in the air, an elevator ride and 40 steps to the top of the 55 meter tall belfry for a panoramic view of Arras.

And a view of the Grand Place with its Flemish Baroque facades.

A summertime feature of many French towns is the plage, or beach, created to give the kids (and adults) some entertainment.
Arras plage was in the main square, sand and all!

The Cathedral and Saint-Vaast Abbey. Founded in the 7th century, the two buildings were completed in the 18th century.

Sunday was bike ride day, with a trip to yet another Vauban citadelle, this one built between 1668 and 1672. Some of it is still used by the military but most had been turned into a vast park. Parts of the old moats and walls still exist, including this entrance bridge and tunnel over the moat and through the walls.

Monday morning we were off, following the two French boats. Everyone managed to navigate the first lock with no problems but, of course, the second was again inoperative and we all had to wait.
When the VNF arrived, Tango went first and we followed with Phoenix; a tight fit as they are 20 meters, we are 16 and the lock is only 38 meters long. We stopped again at Biache-Saint-Vaast, but the other two boats carried on. There was already one boat staying at Saint Vast. All spring and summer we had been communicating by email with Nigel and Margaret Crompton. From Manchester, England, their dutch cruiser type boat had wintered in Leopoldsburg, just down the canal from Blauvwe Kei in Belgium. They had started out after we left BK and we’d passed them as we were heading back down the Dender River and they were heading up. We passed them again as we were leaving Brugge and they were just getting there. Finally we were in the same place at the same time and we had a wonderful dinner swapping “sea” stories.

We had thought to spend a couple more days at Biache and maybe get some painting done but we had been having a little trouble with the propellor shaft; the grease was leaking out and the water was leaking in. We weren’t going to sink, but it was something that needed attention.
As it happens, there is a real barge shipyard, Chantier Despinoy, right where the canal to Arras leaves the mainline canal. We thought it would be a good idea to stop in for a look see as such facilities are few and far between in France. We figured we should be there Tuesday afternoon. Since Friday was Bastille Day nothing would get done then and we thought, it being France, maybe Thursday, too, so we didn’t want to dawdle. 
A VNF person followed us through the locks Tuesday morning making sure all was well and right about noon we pulled into the shipyard and hiked up to the office. 
Thus began our shipyard adventure.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

To Arras, July 5-8

After our trip up to Arras (or as close as you can get in a boat) and back we can only say that you really have to want it.

We departed Douai Wednesday morning about 9:30 and got to the first big river lock about a half an hour later. The lockkeeper told us he would notify the next lock, just 3 k away, that we were on our way. There we would pick up the telecommand, the garage door opener device that would make the locks on the Scarpe Supèrieur work as we headed up the river to Arras. We sailed into the next big lock, Courchellettes, the doors closed and the lock filled, the doors opened but no lockkeeper appeared with the telecommand. No problem, we thought, we’ll just pick it up at the first Scarpe lock which is just a little ways up the river. We pulled up to the lock, tied up and walked up to the lockkeepers hut. Shut tight up, it was, and no phone number or any other contact information available. We put the bicycles on the towpath and headed back to Courchellettes, luckily just 5 minutes away. “Bien sur!” said the lockkeeper when we asked if we could have a telecommand. Back up at the lock we pressed the button and…..nothing.
A couple of phone calls and about 2 hours later, somebody showed up, unlocked the hut and operated the lock for us. We would go through 5 locks on the way to our first stop that day. Luckily the VNF employee stayed with us because only the last lock of the day worked as it should.

The entrance to the Scarpe Supèrieur off the mainline canal

The other problem we encountered was a weed infestation. With so little traffic on the river, weed grows in the canal. We have cooling pipes so it doesn’t interfere with our engine cooling like those that use river water, but the stuff gets wrapped around the propellor and shaft and causes vibration and a serious loss of speed. The only way to partially clear it is to stop and go into reverse, hopefully unwinding the menace. A VNF crew was on scene with their weed cutter trying to clear some of it but then it’s just floating in the water until they can scoop it out. Luckily the pounds above Biache-Saint-Vaast, where we stopped for the night, were much clearer.
And what a pleasant stop! There was a long wall just above the lock with some bollards and rings. Since there’s no traffic, the minimal mooring points could be augmented with stakes. There were two other “real” barges there, very nice examples of restored dutch barges and, unusually, both flying French flags, and both on their way upriver. As a matter of fact, those would be the only boats we saw during our stay near Arras, except for a small sailboat flying a Norwegian flag that appeared one day and then left.



The town, with it’s big grocery store, is just a few minutes away but there is nothing but a big park right by the moorings. We stayed a couple of days and would have stayed a couple of days on the way back but we’ll get to that later.
Saturday morning we shoved off. The first lock was about an hour away and when we arrived the lights indicating the lock status were off. We were on the phone again and about a half hour later the VNF appeared and made the lock work for us. We still had one more lock to get to our destination but the technician said it was working properly. Luckily, he was correct and we arrived at Saint Laurent Blagny, the end of the currently navigable portion of the river just at noon.
The one drawback to the Arras moorings is that they’re not in Arras. The river has silted up in the last two pounds so the closest you can get to town is the suburb of Saint Laurent Blagny. It’s a real shame because there is a very nice basin right in town that would accommodate lots of boats if it could be reached. There are people trying to convince either the VNF or the city to dredge the canal to allow access but so far no luck. Saint Laurent is not that far away but it’s a not very pleasant 25 minute walk from Arras center. There is a regular bus that has a stop right near the moorings.
There are also very limited places to tie up in Saint Laurent. The available pontoon is only about 35 meters long. With one “resident” boat and Phoenix and Tango, the two French barges, rafted there as well, we ended with a bollard and stakes on the other side of the canal. It turned out to be just fine. 
The moorings are in a well-used city park complete with skateboard/bike/scooter ramp, swimming beach and petanque grounds. We thought that might cause a little trouble but everybody went home at dark and things were pretty quiet.
The pontoon is right next to a city water park with a man-made white water rafting flume. We had fun watching the overturned rafts and floating boaters come down the channel.

The boaters have successfully completed the run down the “white” water and 
are now paddling back to the escalator ramp that will take them back up for another run.

Since it was early in the day, we used the time to head into town and, what else, climb the tower but this time with the added bonus, a trip to some caves!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Douai, July 2-5

“Turn left off the river under the bridge, follow the water to your right past the marina, under another bridge and into the trees. Don’t worry. Keep going and the channel will open up into halte nautic.”

Two different people had given us nearly identical direction to the halte in Douai (DOO way) so we pushed our way through the trees and voila!, there was the tie up. Luckily the channel is about 18 meters wide so we were able to turn around and didn’t have to back out. There was water and power available with a special key (which we didn’t have. Thanks, VNF!) but we really didn’t need services anyway; we were only planning to spend a couple of days.
The halte is actually on the Scarpe River section called the Scarpe Moyenne (middle Scarpe) that runs through town but is blocked by low bridges on each end. The main canal runs along the western side of town. One disadvantage is that the tie up is about a 20 minute walk from the center of town and surrounded by apartments. Not the parklike setting we would prefer.

Douai traces it’s roots back to a settlement in the 7th century and like many towns in the area, received a charter from the Count of Flanders. Early prosperity was from the cloth trade and as the administrative capital of the region. After World War 2, Douai became a center of coal mining but with the closure of the mine, hard times hit. The town is now slowly making a recovery with alot of government help.

Since it was the first Sunday of the month, we hustled over the the Chartreuse Museum, housed in the old Charterhouse, free entry that day, and wandered about their very nice collection of 17th and 18th century Flemish, Dutch and Italian paintings. Unfortunately the recently restored chapel with it’s sculpture exhibit is undergoing some work and wasn’t open.

As with all towns in this area, the most prominent landmark is the belfry, built around 1400, in this case topped by a 62 bell carillon that is a marvelous musical instrument. One evening while we were in town we were treated to a carillon/piano concert in the square in from of the town hall. It sounded great!

There are guided tours up into the belfry. 
We had one all to ourselves and the guide spoke passable English. 
Unfortunately, the views from the top are out window slits so no pictures.

The concert took place just as the sun was going down, glinting off the 54 brass “d” flags of Douai.

Also on our visit list was Saint Peter’s Collegiate Church, the largest church in Douai. The main tower was built in the 1500’s although most of the main church was rebuilt in the early 1700’s.

Along with some really monumental artwork, it features a beautiful organ case from the 18th century, originally carved for the Anchin Abbey.

One advantage of the halte in Douai is that it’s a five minute bike ride from one of those giant grocery stores that are scattered about France. We were able to find several items we’ve been pining for, like the dark chocolate pot du crème that makes a dinner complete.

Wednesday morning we headed back out through the trees onto the main canal. After two big river locks we’d be entering the 23 km long Scarpe Supèrieure (Upper Scarpe) headed for Arras.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Don, July 1

It was only 21 k away but because of it’s name we had to stop. Up a disused arm of the river Lys, another boater had told us there was a pontoon in a small village we could use. There is a boulangerie in town but not much else.

The halte nautic.

Don in Don. People look at you funny sometimes.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Lille, June 24-July 1

After lightening our bank account with 400 liters of diesel at the Captain Neptunia fuel barge in Wervick, off we went for France. The French/Belgian border follows the river for several kilometers so it wasn’t until a little after noon that we officially entered French territory. Our first stop would be Lille, the largest city in northern France. We had been told that the mooring facilities in the city were not the greatest so we decided to stay in the northern suburb of Wambrechies which has a nice halte along the busy commercial canal. As it turned out, there is a marina in Lille but we don’t like marinas much and they usually don’t like us because we’re pretty heavy for their pontoons. There is a very nice tie up just above the Grande Carre lock in a park that we might use if we come back. 
About 1:30 pm we rounded the corner into the very small space and tied up just next to the Ginguette de la Marine, one of thousands of similarly named establishments in France. A sort of waterside bar/restaurant that typically features music, this one dispensed with the music and stuck to the drinks and food. Luckily for us, it shut down around 11 pm and the crowd wasn’t really rowdy so we weren’t disturbed…much. We could have moored out on the main canal but with the large barges going by the wash put a pretty big strain on the lines. We decided inside was better.
A gentleman with his child in his arms watched us tie up and noticed our US and California flags. He took an opportunity to practice his English and when we learned he was a local, we were able to find out how to properly pronounce the name of the town. VOM-bruh-shees, we learned.

The Wambrechies halte is in an old disused lock.

The Wambrechies Marie (city hall) is pretty elaborate!

A very nice suburb, there was a boulangerie, butcher and greengrocer within a couple of hundred feet, a big grocery store a 5 minute bike ride away and the stop for the frequent bus to central Lille was about 2 minutes walk away.  The village is also features a distillery that produces genever (gin) and a very fine 8 year old single malt. We tasted and immediately bought a bottle of the whisky. The marina offered a deal for a weeks stay so we signed up.
Sunday we took care of some chores and then Monday morning took the 15 minute bus ride into the city.
After our usual first stop at the tourist office to pick up a city map and an armload of brochures, off we went.
The first mention of Lille in the French archives was a charter of 1066 and the city became one of the capital cities of the State of Burgundy, which acquired Flanders by the marriage of Marguerite of Flanders and Charles the Bold, in the mid 1300’s. Hapsburg and Spanish rule followed, all the results of royal marriages. Claiming his right to Flanders after marrying the Spanish Maria-Theresa, Louis XIV captured Lille in 1667 and it became part of France, but the Flemish influences are still everywhere.
One of our first walks took us around the old city, Vielle Lille, With the old belfry and the major squares, Place Rihour and Place General de Gaulle or the Grand Place. De Gaulle was born in Lille in 1890.

The old belfry.

Buildings on the Grand Place.

We also visited the  Cathedral Notre-Dame de la Trille. Building began in 1854 in true gothic style but the facade with it’s unusual rose window wasn’t completed until 1990.

The facade with it’s translucent marble skin supported by wires. 
It’s beautiful with the light shining through.

Wednesday it was time to climb the new, 104 meter tall belfry for a panoramic look at the city. It was built between 1924 and 1932 as part of the new town hall after the old one burned down in 1916.

From the top is a great view of the Port du Paris, built in honor of Louis XIV for his victory in 1667.

There’s also great views of Euralille, a late 20th century melding of housing, commerce and two railway stations, the Gare Lille-Europe TGV station and the Gare Lille-Flanders, which was originally Paris Gare du Nord, brought here brick-by-brick in 1865. The district features works of world renowned architects Rem Koolhaus, Jean Nouvel and Christian de Portzamparc.

These building on the left has been nicknamed “Ski boot” or “Pinball Machine”.

It was really nice to visit a large vibrant city. Lots of cafes and shops, a varied architecture and plenty of culture.

Three days in the city sandwiched around boat chores and shopping; by Saturday we were ready to be off further into France.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Leaving Belgium

The River Lys, or Leie, marks the border between Belgium and France so it wasn’t until about noon on Saturday that we were truly in France. Some final Belgium thoughts.

The country has some wonderful cruising grounds and, as in the Netherlands, there are frequently good tieups in the center of the old cities. Ghent, Brugges, Namur and Liege are all special. We also enjoyed several days in out of the way places like Blauvwe Kei and Fintele; rural moorings in beautiful surroundings. Smaller towns like Geraardsbergen and Veurne are also favorites.
For our barging friends, if you are going to be spending much time in Flanders it’s really worthwhile to join the Vlaamse Pleasurvaartie Federatie, the VPF.  With the discounts on mooring charges it more than paid for itself after just a couple of marina stays and it puts you in good stead with the locals. Plus, you can get a flag!

This stand was at the Dendermonde market although we saw the combination at markets just about everywhere.

The cycling in Flanders is epic! Well laid out and signed paths take you through quiet country backroads to just about everywhere. Even the cities are bicycle friendly, with special lanes and traffic lights. And most of the time there are no hills. Even when there are they are very modest. Since almost everybody cycles, drivers are very courteous, waiting to pass until it’s safe and giving you plenty of room. How unamerican!

Caution! Frog crossing!

In Flanders almost everyone speaks at least some English along with their native Flemish. Wallonians only speak French. All are friendly and helpful. Throughout the country the beer is great. They do need to work on the restaurant lunches, though. Dinners out are a little pricey and please don’t get us started on restaurant water. There is no such thing as the carafe d’ eau ( free pitcher of water) in Belgian restaurants. Water is often more expensive than beer!

We have no idea what this jet was doing propped above a building next to the canal.

That comment in the last posting about the Belgian crane was not an exaggeration. The amount of construction happening all over the country is astounding! We saw workers busy on all kinds of building, new, reuse and restoration, in every place we visited. We asked a couple we met at a restaurant in Kortrijk where all the money was coming from and we got the Belgian equivalent of the Gallic Shrug. There was some mumbling about the upcoming elections and public/private partnerships but some of these are really long term projects like Kortrijk, which after 12 or 13 years is still a loong way from completion. These are not elite big towers either. Most of it appears to be residential and public serving spaces. We were impressed!

We really enjoyed our three months in Belgium. We’re glad we came back. But now it’s on to France!