Route Canal

 It was an inspired moment when we came upon the idea that we might not go around Europe, but rather through it. We’d had quite our fill of sea, we said to ourselves, and a trip up through the French canals would be just the ticket. We’d spare ourselves the tossing about that the Atlantic Ocean promised; and instead be bequeathed to serene countryside, ancient cities, and all the wine and cheese one could possibly hope for. Furthermore, we noted, canal life would make for a gradual easing back into civilisation, with its simple access to land and all of land’s fruits. We were, by our reckoning, geniuses.

In the abstract, this was watertight; in practice, we should have known better. Time in the French waterways – for all its wine and cheese – transpired to be as straightforward as the winding rivers themselves.

That being said, matters did begin agreeably. We had arranged for the mast to be taken down and laid flat across Blue Eye’s deck, such that we wouldn’t get stuck under the first bridge we came upon, thinking ahead about these things as we do. So a man and a crane came along and plucked it from the bowels of Blue Eye, and plonked it unceremoniously atop the supports we had lovingly prepared. We glared at them and awaited their collapse, but they stood sturdy and unflinching, and we patted them proudly. It had all gone well; suspiciously well. We were sure disaster would strike at any moment, but no. It was just fine.

And things got better still as we passed through the first lock, the doorway to the River Rhone. “Strictly speaking, it is not a river but a great torrent”, warned the guidebooks. So strong did we fear the flow might be that we foresaw Blue Eye simply being swept back out into the Mediterranean Sea, her 16HP engine rendered perfectly futile by the whims of gravity. But this did not happen, and so we thought we’d carry on a little bit more, and as far as we could tell it was still just dandy, and so we carried on further yet. It was in this fashion that Blue Eye edged her way into the belly of France.

Tall trees lined the banks of the Rhone and shielded the landscape beyond, but they were such a marvellous sight themselves that it was quite alright by us. Some dipped their leaves to drink from the river thirstily in the summer heat, whilst others homed the birds of prey that circled above perennially, and others yet shaded the herons standing erect and erudite at the waters edge, as if all they were missing were a pair of thin spectacles and a book. Butterflies danced by, dragonflies skimmed across lily pads, and Blue Eye settled into life on the river.

One would be admiring such scenes when around the corner a great Roman town would emerge, like Tarascon or Avignon or Arles; the last of which we paused in for a week with James’s mother and stepfather, and admired its ancient walls and grand amphitheatre and quaint restaurants.

The Rhone continued its journey through wide valleys. On the hills the tessellating vineyards interlocked in their varying shades of green, and the turrets of castles could sometimes be seen protruding from the forests beneath. As for the riverbanks, they teem with life: swans parade ubiquitously, fish flap frequently, spiders weave silently, cows paddle in cool waters gratefully, and otters or muskrats or beavers – we never did know which – could be seen diving secretly. All this beneath a relentlessly blue sky, that grew a deeper blue still as the heat built through each long day.

And grow it surely did, as a heatwave fell over Europe. Dark in colour and poorly-ventilated as she is, Blue Eye has oven-like characteristics in even the balmiest of times, and so a heatwave rendered her quite unbearable. As we saw it, a cool wine cellar was amongst the most prudent of places to be, and it so happened the Rhone hosted an impressive quantity of these safe havens. In the quiet village of Saint Etienne we came upon a wine cellar within the grounds of a wonderful old house, and as we waited for someone to attend to us a portly Frenchman appeared from behind, drenched from head to toe in his own perspiration. He explained that he didn’t normally look like this, but today was a day where the thermometer in his courtyard had taken it upon itself to explode after reaching 50 degrees Celsius, and so, quite justifiably, he felt excused by circumstance.

Speaking French as the human sweat-drop was, this was all perfectly incomprehensible to me for a time. I thought perhaps he’d been recently submerged in a barrel of wine as a means of cooling down (he was, to be fair, redolent of such), but Capucine relieved me of my ignorance soon enough. Capi is our French friend who we met way back in New Zealand, and who joined us just in time to enjoy the heatwave on Blue Eye. She acted translator as we saw how long we might get away with loitering in the shade of the cellar drinking the man’s wine, of which we did eventually purchase some when it became clear the days heat would continue long into the night. This was not the only time we would call upon Capi to translate for us, as matters at last plotted their inevitable way to disaster.

On the day after the cellar trip we were motoring along quite contentedly, watching the swallows flit above and the swans fluster below, when Blue Eye came to a thundering halt. Keel had made contact with riverbed, momentum appeared to gain us a degree of air, before we came crashing back down upon said riverbed, and thereafter remained impeccably still. We were – undoubtedly – aground.

We would stay this way for some hours before fellow river-dwellers with the sufficient quantity of concern and horsepower would drive past and pry us from the mud that the keel clung to so keenly. In the meantime we were not idle, and tried everything: driving forward hard, driving astern hard; pushing ourselves off with a long length of wood, rocking ourselves off with synchronised swaying; winching ourselves to port with a line around a nearby bollard (requiring yours truly to swim a line around a nearby bollard); and winching ourselves to starboard with an anchor. None of these would work, nor would the kind efforts of a passing English sailor, who had the required level of concern, but not the necessary horsepower. Then some French fishermen came by, and the problem was one of the opposite nature: sufficient horsepower, insufficient concern. Capucine was particularly irate with these men.

“What did you say?” we queried after.

“I asked them to help us, of course!” she said.

“And what did they say?”

“That it’s shallow where we are.”

“Well we know that!”

“Yes! I thanked them for their invaluable insight. The French, mon Dieu!

Her fellow countrymen redeemed themselves with the next boat that came along though, and yanked us from our misery. We thanked our saviours with beers, though one suspects they gained pleasure enough from their heroics, not least because the damsels in distress were a pair of ‘Roast Beefs’. With that done, we were on track again.

Or not. As we tied up to the pontoon at the next lock, the throttle cable on the engine gave out. With a heatwave for company James performed some temporary mechanical magic so we could limp our way to the next refuge, and it seemed fortune was turning for us as we came upon a new and vacant pontoon next to the quaint riverside village. Thinking the day was not yet lost, we approached it with relief.

It was at this point that we ran aground for the second time that day, which is as many times as we’ve run Blue Eye aground in the entire world. On this occasion, rather than meeting soft riverbed, it was an obstinate block of concrete that almost lifted us out of the river entirely, or so it felt. We cursed it and its inconvenient placement, and were more grateful than ever before for Blue Eye being the solid boat she is. However, the mast support – we would realise in the latter stages of what was turning out to be a calamitous day – was now collapsing at the stern, and this came swiftly to our attention after a forceful storm quite suddenly whipped the wide river up into a frenzy and doomed Blue Eye to clatter about on the pontoon, rocking the half-supported mast precariously.

We soon righted those mast supports, and the engine too, and we vowed to do no more of this running aground nonsense. If nothing else it was a time-consuming endeavour, and we had a schedule to keep to. Not again, we said.

This pledge lasted until the entrance to our first canal, where Blue Eye eased to a gentle halt. Stuck in the mud. It would transpire that the dry summer had all but closed this canal, and potentially also closed the door on our access to the English Channel. (As a point of interest, many French people do not realise that the world calls it the English Channel, but then they also seem to be slow on the uptake that the rest of the world doesn’t speak French, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.) This left us pondering which was the lesser of two evils: the morale-battering notion of turning around and sailing Blue Eye home via the Atlantic, or the financially-crippling decision to put her on a truck and ship her to the sea.

Mercifully, neither became necessary as we entered another canal further north – the Champagne et Bourgogne Canal – and found sufficient water beneath our keel to continue on. With the adverse current of the River Rhone behind, this was the home straight we told ourselves.

That home straight wanted more doing then either of us had appreciated. In the 290 kilometres of canal that would lead us to Paris, Blue Eye would need to go up and down no fewer than 129 locks. Down is no hardship really, it happens as peacefully as a rubber duck floats down in an emptying bathtub. But coming up is another matter. Running a bath is a tumultuous matter from the point of view of the rubber duck, who gets shoved this way and that by the arriving cascade of water; and being in a lock is like this on an industrial level, only with the water pouring in from below you and behaving in strange and dangerous ways. In this exhausting manner we took Blue Eye up to an altitude of 340 metres, a bizarre height for a sailboat to find itself at, before we traversed a 5000 metre tunnel through the hills, after which we could finally begin our descent down the other side. The consolation during this time for us was that at the end of each very long day my dad and his partner would be awaiting us in their motorhome, with a cold beer in the fridge and a restaurant picked out for the evening. In this way we could spend the balmy evenings relaxing in parts of the French countryside that very few would otherwise have known about, let alone gone to.

Indeed the romanticism of the Rhone sweeping so firmly through the undulating hills of wine had given way to the network of canals that an industrialising France demanded some generations ago. The grace of the swans was replaced by the darting of the iridescent kingfisher, the wide river became a narrow canal, and Blue Eye was powering through not that lifeline of the Roman Empire, but on the veins of nineteenth and twentieth century trade and commerce.

The change could hardly have been more pronounced, but it was equally as charming.  And just as we were getting used to the idea of it all we were thrust out into a river once again. This time it was the Marne. The same Marne whose hills one hundred years ago witnessed amongst the greatest atrocities man has ever conjured, as World War One raged across them.

Whilst Blue Eye wound through these hills, in this time of peace and prosperity, I mused that if you told the men of that era that the fields upon which they gave their lives would one day be used not to produce acres of dead bodies, but instead acres of fruit; and that this fruit would then be picked, crushed, bottled and drank at times of celebration all across the world; then they would wish they could live in such an age. Because if you lived in an age like that, they might have said, they would go to the weddings and the birthdays of all of their friends who had not needed to die on the hills like those of the Marne, and they could raise a glass of champagne that was grown on them instead. Those people living in those times, they would say, must be living in the greatest times man has ever known. But that was just me musing.

And then Paris. What can one say about Paris that has not already been said? Nothing, of course, but then perhaps most of what has been written has not been done so from the point of view of the humble sailboat pottering through on its way home. It is wonderful and surreal in equal part to venture through the waters of the French capital in this way. To journey by the sorry looking Notre Dame, to bow beneath the works of art that are the numerous bridges, and at last to go passed the most famous of all: the Eiffel Tower. All this amongst the densely packed streets, where people would nudge their partners and point out that peculiar looking boat ambling through Paris, its mast laid down upon it, and fenders and tyres drooping over its side; all contributing to an air of scruffiness that was equalled only by the two men occupying its cockpit. And then seeing the scruffy men they would wave cheerily and we would wave in return, and that would seem to satisfy them. Paris, what a place.

At the time of writing Blue Eye is still not quite back in her familiar surroundings of saltwater and open sea, though the Route Canal operation is all but finished for her nonetheless. I note that with a muddle of sadness and relief. All in she has weaved through 1200km of French waterway, gone up or down 179 locks, endured a heatwave twice, run aground thrice, nearly lost her mast, broken her engine, and seen unprecedented amounts of cheeses, wines, baguettes and pastries pass through her hatches. It has been something. But she and her crew look forward to remaking a sailboat out of her, with the mast being restepped in the city of Rouen soon. There is then only a short stretch of the River Seine to sail down, before the English Channel, and the shores of Blighty awaiting just beyond.

3 thoughts on “Route Canal

  1. Love this, your descriptive qualities make your adventures as much a part of us as it is of you.
    What an amazing trip, and thankyou both for sharing with us all.
    The last leg approaches.

  2. As always – wish I was there…. see you soon back in the Shire… no canals here!

  3. Some years ago we also did the canal du Bourgogne, the Rome having been somewhat easier. A French lady said to me in pouilly that the canal had not been dredged since the war!! We seemed to be dragging our keels along the bottom a lot of the way with weed blocking the water intake every now and again. At one point I said to our skipper and owner we must abandon the water in the tank and send the ladies to ride in the dingy to give us a few inches more freeboard. We have video somewhere. Derek Randall. Friend of Clare Waddington

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