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Our return to Kortrijk was not exactly welcoming as the City Hall in it's wisdom had decided that they would no longer welcome vessels over 17 metres long. Added to that, from April 1st nobody could stay for more than 10 days so there was a mass exodus! Quite what the logic was by the city fathers we do not understand. They are extending the port and installing new facilities but they can not fill the present pontoon space they have now and here they are further restricting access? Marie Anne on her 28 metre clipper Amadeus who has a permanent mooring at the port, told us that when she first arrived she went to the tourist office and asked them how to get electricity and water at the port? "Oh, do we have a port" they said!!!
George had arrived in port on his barge Liza so we entertained him with some curry. The Cook family of Albertine, part time harbourmasters of the Brugge Mafia, crewed George down to Kortrijk, drank my beer and returned to Albertine by train while George set off for London by car. So we left a deserted port on 11th April and headed up the Bossuit canal to Zwevelgem then down to moor just above the big lock at Bossuit which drops you down into the river Escaut. Wandering around the village we came upon a rather impressive chateau.
The next day we meandered gently up the river Escaut and through Tournai to Antoing. They have improved the locks along here for smaller vessels as we used to have difficulty reaching the bollards which are set right back from the edge of the lock. The original cleats set in to the lock wall had long ago disappeared but they have finally been replaced with big eye bolts making life a lot easier. Of course the bunker barge Captain Neptunia relieved us of money for various chandlery before we headed off up the two big locks at Péronnes and along to the peaceful mooring at Pommerouel. At Mons we passed Clive and Shiela on Cedar who said they waved but we didn't see them. Arriving at the Ecluse de Thieu we told the lock keeper "nous allon á canal du Centre Historique s.v.p." "Non Monsieur, son panne" "son panne?" "Oui, deux ascenseurs sont kaput!". Since we attended the rally here in 2009 to celebrate the reopening of the canal, which eventually reopened in 2011, we have wanted to navigate this waterways icon but with two lifts broken it was not to be.
At Itre I blew the electricity supply by connecting an extension cable I had forgotten had a suspect bad connection that had short circuited due to water ingress. Nobody turned up to collect our mooring fees and reset the breaker so we had a free weekend. On the return trip up Ronquiere we shared the tank with a tug pushing a dumb barge full of spoil from a dredger. We made good progress along the summit pound of the Brussels - Charleroi canal and went quickly down the three locks into Charleroi, into the river Sambre and down through a further two locks to moor at 8pm above the ecluse Auvelais from where it was an easy 4 hour cruise down to Namur the next day. We set a personal record in travelling from Kortrijk to Namur without sharing a single lock with another ship which made it an incident free trip and kept 'er on the ropes happy!
We moored up on the quay in Namur where Sue decided to check on the internet if Waulsort was open. Alors! The port was not open until 1st May! I remembered that there was a pontoon upstream at Amée and their website told us it was open from 15th April so I emailed them requesting a mooring and we went off for a Chinese meal. On our return they had replied giving us instructions where to moor so we booked ourselves in for the next two weeks. The mooring fee was reasonable at €12 per day considering the location but the electricity is metered and a bit steep at €1 for 3Kwh and only 10Amp. Still we have an excellent Capitain of the port who speaks perfect English, a nice restaurant, an old chateau that has been turned into a taverne and whose grounds are a public park. The electricity supply is insufficient for our washing machine but there is a laundry with washer and dryer for which there is a small charge. It is about 300 metres distant so we keep fit walking backwards and forwards between washes!
A regular bus service runs into Namur which we used to go to the railway station and made use of Belgian Railway's excellent service to retrieve our car from Kortrijk. It is still only €5.40 for a Seniors return ticket to anywhere in Belgium! We paid a visit to the Euro Shop for a set of jump leads. We plan to leave the car here when we go on to France and I thought it was better to be safe than sorry in case the battery is flat on our return. We are booked into the Flandria Yacht Club in Bruges for this winter but will not spend much time on board as we plan to rent a flat in Nottingham for a change.
We will probably not return down the Meuse though as they are closing the Belgian section from mid September to mid October for maintenance work. The French section is closed now for maintenance and in February there was a fall of rocks in the Revin tunnel which VNF say will not be cleared until May 4th. We drove down to Givet and enquired of the lock keepers as to progress. They said that the river would be fully open on April 24th. We then drove on to Revin and saw that the work to clear, repair and stabilise the tunnel walls was proceeding, however, the Revin lock keeper told us it would not be finished until May 5th. Such is France!
You can skip this next section if you are not interested in toilet problems!
Whenever boaters get together the conversation often degenerates to discuss the finer points of bogs, the bane of everyones life or so it would seem. They always seem to be going wrong and we are no exception. The first sign of a problem was that the sea valve on the pump out pipe began to leak. I decided that I would plumb in a new valve then seal the old valve until we could replace it the next time we took the ship out of the water, however, I made the mistake of plumbing in a smaller valve which restricted the outlet such that eventually it would not pump out at all. When I stripped down the pump I discovered the impeller (new in 2010) was knackered so it was off to Exalto in Holland for a new one. After reassembly it still would not pump out so I rang Rheinstrom in Germany who suspected a restriction in the outlet pipe. I connected a length of hose to the pump discharge to test the pump which worked fine so removed the smaller valve but it would still not pump out. I concluded that the sea valve had malfunctioned and was preventing pump out which in turn meant we had to slip the boat to replace the valve.
At least the sun had begun to shine as Ebenhaezer arrived alongside by which time we had contacted our old friends at the local shipyard, Chantier Naval Meuse et Sambre. Christian, the manager from the shipyard arrived on board to see the problem then rang later to say he could slip us in a couple of days and we should arrange to be at the shipyard at 9am. Up at 6-30am, down through two locks and they were ready for us at 8.30 so we were high and dry by 9am.
As it was only a year since we were last on the slip for the TRIWV hull survey so I did not anticipate any other problems under the waterline. That proved to be the case and the hull had remained very clean.
Everything was fitted together and we were put back in the water mid afternoon only to discover that the toilet would still not pump out so the next day at 7am we went on the slip again. I marked the exact position of the outlet pipe on the ships side which was then positioned on the cradle so as not to obstruct the pipe. I removed the pipe once we were dry and could see daylight through the valve so the blockage was not between the skin of the ship and the valve. The blockage had to be in the pipe so we blew high pressure air through, attempted to clear it with a rod and then water pressure.
After reassembly the toilet was tested and worked perfectly so we started to go down the slipway once more. Then we were abruptly stopped and hauled back up again, the foreman shipright explaining they'd had second thoughts and were not happy with the welding they had done which had caused a restriction in the pipe. Alexandre then decided the safest option was to make a completely new pipe, the original having accumulated about 30 years worth of shite!! He also said he was unhappy with the work they had done for us and reduced his bill by over half the amount he had originally estimated which was a very nice touch. Considering the way they took on the job at very short notice and their conscientious actions in resolving our problems, we have become very satisfied customers of this yard and will use them again.
Here endeth the toilet section!!
We set off up the Meuse against a stiff current. At Waulsort we walked over to the baker at Famignoul for coffee and cakes where their chocolate brownies were the best I have ever tasted with Sue and Jan equally impressed with their fresh strawberry cream pastries. Max and Vicki on Yavanna arrived in port followed by Ian and Jill on Lena with their guest Barbara, both heading for the Paris rally. It rained unceasingly so we all decided to cut our stay at Waulsort and head into France.
The river was now in flood and we were struggling to make 7km/hr against the current. We had to stop before reaching the border to clear blocked filters. After Givet the four barges steamed upstream in convoy on the wrong side of the river to take advantage of the inside bend where the current was less with Harmonie leading and blue boarding. Entering the 3 Fontaines lock, broadside to the current, was quite interesting and we requested the eclusier lower the water level in the Ham tunnel for Ebenhaezer. Safely through the tunnel we all moored at Vireux Wallerand. The next day we were knocked down to 3km/hr around the long bend at Fumay. At Revin you make a U-turn after the tunnel to go downstream to the port then enter a bouyed channel through a narrow bridge where the current took us round beam on at speed towards the bridge pillar. I don't often use Harmonie's 200hp but on this occasion it was full bore to bring us back round to get through the bridge at over 15km/hr coming round the last bend to the port sideways! I warned the rest of the convoy on the VHF but they all still found it quite exciting!
Harmonie and Ebenhaezer set off to make Charlesville the next day and, what with the current and continual lock breakdowns, it took us the best part of nine hours. Peter & Jan said this would be their first and last trip to France but after a nice meal at a Brasserie in the Place Ducal and an even nicer one the next day at the restaurant Au cochon qui louche (I think that translates to "The Suspicious Pig!") which Pete reckoned to be the best meal he'd had in the last six months, they were both looking at France through rosier coloured spectacles! We left Charlesville in sunshine and the temperature went up to 28 degrees as we arrived at the delightful little mooring on the canal des Ardennes at la Cassine. We changed into shorts for the first time this year, fired up the barbie and soaked up the hot sun we had not seen for two months! Tillie the wonder dog made friends with Sally who barked no English but the pair of them romped together to the point of exhaustion while we humans all subsided into a state of intoxication thinking France had something to offer after all!
Of course it rained again the next day as we reached the summit pound at le Chesne but we consoled ourselves with the menu de jour at one of the local cafes. We also had a visit here from Australians Roger and Mary who are touring around looking for a barge to buy and might be interested in owning Harmonie.
The sun returned for the chain of 26 locks down to the River Aisne and Rethel where we moored for the night and experienced a Chinese buffet which might have been quite nice but was universally cold. The sun stayed out for the voyage down to Variscourt the next day where we sat out in the evening sun and bbq'd. The next day the Ozzies caught us up. They came through a hail storm on the way but we only had a few showers. Pre-prandial drinks were taken on Ebenhaezer to say bon voyage to our Antipodean friends as they will take the River Marne route to Paris whereas we will continue down the Aisne to Compiegne then down the River Oise to Pontoise where we meet up with Peter and Jan's guests who will cruise with us up the Seine to Paris.
At Bourg et Comin we secured to the only pontoon and Ebenhaezer rafted on to us, then walked into the village where the only restaurant was closed. Ensconced in the local bar we then watched (and cheered) as eighty Brits cycled past led by ex England Rugby Union loose forward Lawrence Dallagio with ex England cricketer Andrew Flintoff bringing up the rear. In this Olympic year they were all cycling from Athens to London for various charities.
We only cruised as far as Vailly-sur-Aisne the next day as we were stuck behind a slow moving commercial but enjoyed the countryside which was gently rolling and very pretty. We moored on a good quay and walked into town for lunch and bread after which we visited the local WW1 cemetery. Vailly was on the front line and changed hands three times during the course of the war so many French and British lives were lost here. On returning to our boats we all had a siesta after all the food and wine then, while partaking of pre dinner drinks aboard Harmonie, a Dutch commercial came along and insisted we vacate the quay, saying that it was not for yachts and they were to load cargo there. This was suspicious to say the least as when we left they promptly offloaded their car and drove off. The quay was not marked as only for commercials so we may have had as much right to be there as them and I suppose we could have argued but if only they had been a bit nicer instead of ordering us off the mooring, we would have moved to let them get their car off. We enrolled them as honorary members in the DBA (Dutch Bastards Association!!) and moved back up the canal to an equally nice mooring round the corner, however, the next morning the barge was being unloaded and another loaded barge had arrived so it seems it was a commercial quay.
Here we finally joined the river Aisne proper of which course we had been following for some days. Our speed increased considerably with the deeper water and current in our favour so we soon arrived at Vic-sur Aisne and found the mooring empty much to our delight. This is a pretty little village with its own moated castle in the centre and we stayed here for four days, being joined on the third day by Chris and Diana on Esme.
During our stay the rain stopped for a time so we managed to do a bit of painting at last. Pete thought he might touch up around his waterline so he devised a novel method of doing this by donning a lifebouy and floating around the bow with a paintbrush and paint in a bucket. Unfortunately he forgot that the water was still very cold and eventually emerged shivering uncontrollably. Even after a hot shower he was still shivering so he may have become hypo thermic and was put to bed with hot water bottles and Jan!! That did the trick and he eventually warmed up but this method of painting can not be recommended at this time of the year!
On the way down to Compiegne we had a lock failure. An electric motor had burnt out so the lock had to be worked by a hand hydraulic system. The VNF eclusier managed to get Ebenhaezer and Harmonie in the lock together diagonally with inches to spare. On arrival at Compiegne we rafted up with Esme and walked to Max Guerdon who are Chandler's and operate the bunker boat. Here I purchased new ropes, fenders and paint while Sue found a new pair of gloves for her rope work which are already starting to come adrift! We asked for Diesel prices and they explained that as we were over 20 metres in length we were allowed to use the diesel for "Non Routiers" in France. This is simply white diesel to which had been added red dye. They could sell it to us for €1.07/litre as opposed to €1.45/litre for white diesel, however, they did not know what the attitude of Belgian customs would be if they found red dye in our propulsion tanks so we were not able to take them up on their offer. This is a typical EU balls-up what with the UK allowing duty paid red diesel, France allowing red diesel for pleasure boats over 20 metres long and Belgium imposing large fines if they find you using it!!
At last the sun came out and summer arrived as the three of us sailed in convoy down the lovely river Oise, stopping overnight above the lock at St. Maxence where we celebrated Chris and Diana's 14th wedding anniversary with dinner on board Esme, then on the lock at Isle Adam where the temperature in our wheelhouse rose to 29 degrees. Summer must be here so it is time for another page.