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On Saturday 27th March we set off from our winter moorings in Gent in company with the barge Anja accompanied by much weeping and wailing from "Martini", our faithful harbour mistress!
The weather was warm and sunny as we cruised round the ringvaart to Evergem lock where we dumped our waste oil at the recycling point. As we cruised north towards Holland the canal became more and more busy with bigger and bigger ships culminating with a big DFDS ferry from Gothenburg loaded with trucks.
We were bound for Sluiskil, just north of Sass-van-Gent over the Dutch border where we would be taken out of the water for a hull survey at the De Schroef shipyard. As we arrived we were passed by a huge bulk carrier with tugs fore and aft. The volume of shipping on this canal was surprising as was the size of the ships.
We breasted up to Anja in a cut of the old canal where we had previously positioned our car and drove back to Gent to collect Tony and Mary's car. The next day three more barges arrived from Bruges who we nicknamed the Bruges mafia. Ebenhaezer with Peter Harris and his friend Alan who was henceforth to be known as "fried" Alan due to an email typo from Peter previously. The other two barges were Esme owned by Chris and Diana Grant and Rival with Brett and Sandy.
Sunday saw Sue and I exploring nearby Terneuzen which sits at the entrance to the ship canal on the estuary of the River Schelde. It is a modern city which was much destroyed during WW2 and very little of the old town remains except for a few little cottages we found. We sat outside a cafe in the spring sunshine and watched the world go by.
The next day we were all up early waiting to be called up on the slip.
This was the second time we had been pulled out of the water so we were familiar with the technique. Barges should be armed with a docking plan showing the position of any underwater projections so that the shipyard can arrange blocks that support the ship on the cradle in the correct places so as not to do any damage to the ship. Harmonie has a completely flat bottom apart from a slight projection under the sole plate of the rudder skeg so was not a problem as was Rival and Esme but after several attempts to slip Ebenhaezer it was decided that wooden blocks had to be secured on the cradle to lift her long rudder skeg and projecting bow thruster clear.
Anja had an even worse problem as she had cooler pipes extending 6 metres along the underside of her hull which were crushed when she sat down on the cradle. As there was only 5 metres between each cradle the only way to have avoided this damage was to have set wooden blocks on each cradle to lift the cooler pipes clear. In both cases the absence of any docking plan has meant delay and further expense for the owners.
We had negotiated a discounted rate with the shipyard for slipping five barges at the same time and they had promised that we would all be in one line so that should additional work be required on some, the others would not be held on the slipway. In typical fashion the yard did not do this but what was worse, proceeded to haul up a huge tanker in front of all of us so we were trapped there until she was finished. We were subsequently trapped on the slip for a week longer that was needed to complete our work.
What made this sojourn in a shipyard more bearable was the companionship of all the other bargees, the good weather and us renting a house in nearby Phillipine, renowned for its mussels and full of restaurants. Dolf de Bock's Bed and Breakfast comes highly recommended. We had our own little house in the pretty village of Phillipine 7km from Sluiskil for €50 per night. Dolf visits daily, asks you what you want for breakfast and delivers the makings fresh each day. When our stay was forcibly extended by the shipyard, Dolf offered us a reduction of 50%. Some vandals scratched our car and he said he felt responsible so appeared at the shipyard with a strawberry gateau as a consolation. They don't make people like him anymore.
Many evenings were spent on each others boats for pre prandial drinkie poo's and we managed a couple of outings to local restaurants, one in Sass-van-Gent for a mediocre Chinky and another, on Dolf's recommendation, at a Brassierie atop the dyke in Terneuzen looking out at the big ships on the Schelde estuary, watching the sun set behind Dow Chemicals plant silhouetted on the skyline and eating lovely food in good company. Just what barging is all about.
After 11 days on the slipway we all fronted up at the shipyard office to negotiate down our bills! Ours was the lowest which was €1,650 not including the hull surveyors fee. He will submit his report to the TRIWV surveyor who will then apply for the community certificate when we will part with a further €92 to the Dutch government for the privilege, something we will not have to do again for another seven years!
It was mid afternoon before we went back into the water so we breasted up with Anja and Esme in the cut behind the yard and left early the next morning. All went well until we approached the first lock on the Schelde at Gavere when we encountered a large dredger moving astern towards us and having difficulty steering from one side of the river to the other. We had nowhere to go as he was coming towards us so we stopped and hoped that he would do the same. He did but he did not leave us much room and as we passed, decided to begin maneuvering again. His wash pushed us first into the bank then swung us round so that our stern collided with him very hard with everything moveable flying around in our wheelhouse. He then announced on the VHF "like a stick in the water". If that was an apology it was a poor one.
At Oudenaard we inspected the damage but apart from a little green paint on our rubbing strip there was not even a dent! They built them tough in Alphen! The next day we parted with more cash for paint in the Captain Neptuna bunker barge at Antoing then up the first big lock at Péronnes to meet Clive and Sheila in Cedar and to renew our acquaintance with their friends Robert and Paula who are members here. Dinner was taken in the Péronnes Yacht Club and we purchased a smart rope basket from Robert. The next day saw us cruising sedately with Cedar down to the Canal de Pommeroeul à Condé. This is a splendid location in nice wooded countryside and the weather was set fine for removing the rest of the shipyard grime and painting Harmonies topsides.
We first sailed with Cedar to Mons where John and Judith from Tresnish gave us a lift to the station and we returned to Gent to collect our car. We had never been to Lille so rectified that with a glorious sunny day wandering around the old city spoilt by a substandard and over priced lunch in a restaurant opposite the old Hospice called Anvers which we thought might be nice due to its Flemish name! Lille will have another visit in the future. The weather was unbelievable for the time of year with temperatures in the mid twenties day after day but after several days painting we decided to have a day off with a visit to Waterloo. We were following in the footsteps of the many British tourists to the site of the famous battle where, on 18th June 1815, the combined British/Dutch/Belgian army under the command of the Iron Duke helped by the Prussian army defeated a heavily outnumbered French army led by Napoleon.
It was a good day especially as we received emails from our insurers confirming a €225 contribution to our recent survey cost and another confirming we are booked in at Kortrijk from mid September to Mid April while we go down under for the winter. We will not now have to leave Harmonie for six weeks for Clive to move her to Mons in November as she will be securely tied up at Kortrijk before we leave which is a big relief as we were worried about security for that long. Of course we might sell her before we go?
On Easter Monday we left Harmonie for a trip back to the UK. We set Daphne Satnav to Scenic and she took us through the beautiful backwoods of the Kent and Sussex countryside to Worthing where our friends Les and Sally treated us to spring lamb for dinner. The next day we visited Burpham near Arundel and the West Beach at Littlehampton before setting off for our official UK residence at Fareham and the family Calvert! We registered with the local doctor and took all the family to the Pizza Express at Port Solent where number two grand daughter Matilda is renowned for her prodigious appetite. First the dough balls then the pasta plus some of Dad's pizza with toffee fudge ice cream to finish. I snapped this photograph of her and the manageress asked me to send it off to Pizza Express which I did.
We drove up to Petherton for a few days following an invitation to a Royal Wedding party at the Hockeys then back down to Fareham for our interview with nursey at our new doctors who declared us the healthiest pensioners registered with the practice!
At this time of the year the Rhododendrons and Azaleas in the gardens at Exbury are at their best but the Wisteria, pictured below was the horticultural highlight of our visit, then it was back up to Petherton for Sue to visit her optician. He will now write to the doctor in Fareham who will refer her to an opthalmic surgeon who will perform a five minute procedure to correct opaque pacification in one eye. Our wonderful NHS makes what should be a cheap and quick operation into an expensive and time consuming one for both ourselves and the taxpayer!
After a nightmare journey with a solid traffic jam on the M3 causing us to miss the 12 o'clock ferry and another on the motorway outside Lille, we arrived back on board to find that our expensive refrigerator had failed to switch over on to the gas supply and everything in the freezer was ruined! In the future we will switch it on to gas manually before leaving.
We bought back bedding plants for our flower boxes so they were all planted up and the painting completed so Harmonie will look her best for the rally at Namur at the end of May. The barges Ebenhaezer and Hildi arrived on their way to the rally and moored overnight when we entertained Pete & Jan to a dinner of roast lamb which we all enjoyed.
One drawback of this mooring are the hundreds of Swifts which swoop and dive around us which, although beautiful to watch, have a habit of dive bombing us with their poo so that I have to wash the deck down each day!!
Upstream the next day we encountered our first manual lock. All the locks from hereon are around 41 metres long so Liza and Harmonie could not fit in together, never the less the eclusiers arithmetic arrived at a different total and he insisted that we join George in the lock. A bridge across the lock was holding up a long line of traffic so after a few protests I demonstrated to the eclusier that 18 plus 24 equals 42 by entering the lock then backed out again once he was convinced. He also told George that it was illegal in France to sail single handed. George told him this was Belgium but the eclusier insisted it was France!
It was a hard climb up many steps to the centre of the town which has hanging gardens below the old city walls mainly planted with vines and there was an attractive square with a large belfry. Down on the river we met some more Brits, Harvey and Charlotte Biggs on their Linssen cruiser Zephyr and flying the blue flag of the Royal Malta Yacht Club. I complained when he failed to drop the ensign at night, asked to see his warrant and was politely told where I could put my request but they kept us entertained with their sailing exploits around the world. Dinner was taken aboard a restaurant boat next door and on another occasion we BBQ'd on board Zephyr then it was back down to Charleroi on the way to Namur.
There we met with Andy and Claire on Albertine and an old Sheffield Keel newly acquired by Swede Lennart Alm and his Polish wife Dolores. The four of us sailed in convoy as far as Auvelais where George and Andy continued downstream while the rest of us moored for the night. This was not a good move as we were right under a busy railway bridge and had a fairly sleepless night!
On Saturday morning we joined other members in a guided walk around Namur and learnt something of the city's history. Namur is the capital of Wallonia and has a history as a garrison town fortified by Burgundian's, Spanish, Austrians, French and finally Dutch until 1830 when Belgium came into existence.
In the old quarter we came across the Musée Félicien Rops, dedicated to the artist of the same name and a native of Namur. He was known for his erotic art as the banner outside demonstrates. It certainly had the cameras clicking!
Saturday is market day in Namur and it was strawberry day. This is the centre of the Belgian strawberry growing region and there was much tasting and selling of the fruit around the market. The fruit and vegetables in this market are some of the finest you can find and at very low prices, as is the cheese, charcuterie, olives, meat and poultry of which we purchased much then back to Harmonie for the all important Rugby Premiership cup final on the telly!
Sarries have been trying to win for 130 years and they were up against the champions of many years, Leicester. Sarries were always the better team but the Tigers played true to form and in the final minutes were camped on Sarries line. Fantastic defence by Sarries and sheer exhaustion from the Leicester forwards resulted in a well deserved four point win for Sarries.
Sunday was the final day of official proceedings and we participated in a parade of all the barges. All locks on the Sambre and Meuse we closed for the morning while we paraded up and down the rivers. We then delivered our guests back to their hotel upstream before returning to our mooring for the farewell dinner on the quay. The starters were catered by the DBA whose organisers walked into a local deli and asked if they could provide hors-d'oeuvre and a cheese course for 92 people which request was met with some enthusiasm by the owners. Main courses were provided by the barge owners and puddings by our guests and the whole evening was a great success with more than enough food.
Somerset friends Jeremy and Pauling Rawle joined us the next day and we cruised up the river to Waulsort on a glorious day with 30 degree temperatures. The weather changed overnight with torrential rain and the cruise back downstream was wet and windy but the forecast is to get warmer and we are concerned that the water shortage in France may curtail our cruising this year.
We spent another week at Namur due to lock closures and bridge repairs along with several other DBA barges who gradually left for their summer cruises. We decided to abandon our planned cruise to Strasbourg as we had still not obtained a date for Sues eye operation so decided to go up the Meuse then over the canal des Ardennes and across to Conde to collect some of Ms. Poitiers shampoo then complete the circuit via the Marne au Rhin and back down the Meuse, all of which we have done before but that was no hardship. We will hopefully meet up with another potential barge buyer who will be in that area so we purchased a months French vignette starting on 11th June which means we have to be back out by the 10th July when we hope to further explore the upper Sambre.
The fine weather had now broken and we were getting plenty of rain which should help the water shortages on the French canals but we did have one fine day in Waulsort where we managed a 5km walk up to a belvedere overlooking Waulsort. Spring is over but the weather was more like spring!
Roger and Louise Lamothe were moored here on their barge "The River" taking a well earned rest for a month after organising the Namur rally and they waved us off for France as planned in bright sunshine.
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