Folks ask us what we do all day. Come on now, what does anybody do all day? Yesterday was a fairly typical day, typically exciting, peaceful, frightening, pleasant, frustrating, fascinating and rewarding.
We’d given up on waiting for repairs to the collapsed wall of the Canal du Centre, a few kilometers ahead of our three-week mooring in Rully. We’d planned a clockwise circle through a corner of northeast France. Instead, we turned the boat around and headed back down the canal, a short distance to the River Saone. We spent the night at Fragnes, the first stop on the canal. After we arrived, Hoop Doet Leven was used as the backdrop for wedding photos.
Our plan was to get an early start the next day and buck the strong flood current on the river for a couple of days to get to the entrance to the Canal du Bourgogne and start a new counter- (you Brits would say anti-) clockwise loop.
So, here is how the day went.
7:00 a.m. – Up early and walk to the boulangerie. They’ve been baking for hours. Bins are already packed with six different breads. Shelves are stocked with croissants and pastries. Mademoiselle Boulangerette changes from town to town but they greet you with the same smiling “bonjour monsieur” every time you enter. Every boulangerie means a decision of what bread to buy today. A simple baguette, which will melt in your mouth if eaten in the next hour but by the end of the day will be fit only as swan food. Pain au cereal, French whole wheat bread, spongier but without that crunchy crust. Pain complet, sourdough bread that lasts for three days, if for some reason it isn’t eaten before then. Or any of half a dozen others. Today its just a couple of baguettes. We’ll eat them on the way. You exchange bonjours and chit chat before ordering two baguettes and two pains au chocolate, then exchange bon journey, have a good day, with each other, then reply to each other with à vous aussi, same to you, then au revoirs are exchanged. Finally you can leave and walk back to the boat.
7:15 a.m. – Brew some French coffee, download the New York Times (for Harvey) and Le Monde (for Sandra) and finish your pain au chocolate. We ran outside and watched a dozen hot air balloons float overhead. There was a gathering of these balloons, which the French call “Montgolfiers,” named after the brothers who invented them.
8:00 a.m. – On the way to Franges we’d passed a farm on the canal with a fenced-in yard filled with clucking chickens. That meant eggs would be for sale, and possibly fresh chickens. We walked down the road to the farm, bought a dozen eggs, the dirtiest, roughest-looking eggs we’d ever seen, covered in “stuff.” But bright yellow yolks would be inside. Sandra asked if he had a chicken we could buy. Most were already reserved he said, but he had a few extras so we bought one. Is it fresh, we asked. Oh yes, he said. I just killed it yesterday afternoon. As a bonus, this farmer ran the distribution point for the local wine cooperative. Couldn’t pass that up so we filled our folding shopping cart with a 5 liter bag of local red Bourgogne and half a dozen Cotes’ de Nuit from a local vineyard. Then back to the boat.
8:30 a.m. – Check the oil and coolant in the engine, the gearbox oil and tension on all the engine belts, start the big Ford diesel and let it warm up for 10 minutes. Then untie the mooring lines, push off from the quay with our boat poles and motor down the canal to the big lock where the Canal du Centre meets the River Saone. This is an exceptionally deep lock. Most locks have swinging doors at either end, giant steel versions of the saloon doors you see in western movies. This lock has guillotine gates, huge steel plates that slide up and down on chains to seal off the ends of the lock. Sitting at the bottom of the lock chamber with the gates shut at either end, all you can see looking up is a slice of sky above you and slimy walls on both sides, rising 10.8 meters, 35 feet. After the water is drained from the lock and the boat settles down to the level of the river, the chains rattle and the gate in front of the boat lifts. You motor out under the gate and face the River Saone. Actually what we faced was a four-man rowing shell drifting right in front of the lock. It’s a tossup who was more surprised, us or them. They scuttled out of the way and we motored onto the river.
9:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. – We motored up the Saone. The whole reason for this about face and change of plans was that all the rain had washed out the Canal du Centre in front of us and filled the River Saone behind us, making river navigation questionable. By this time, however, the river had begun dropping and we decided that a couple of days motoring upriver into the current was the lesser of the evils and was safe, even if it would be slow. It was safe. It was slow. The good part was that we got to rev the diesel engine high enough to clean away whatever deposits had built up inside. Diesels like to be run hard and by the end of the day we had a smiling diesel. And a hot one. Since one of the ways we heat water in our hot water tank is by running the engine coolant through a coil in the tank, by the end of the day we had lots of exceptionally hot water.
While Harvey steered the boat upriver, Sandra spread our farm chicken on a cutting board on the wheelhouse table and cut it into pieces, preparing a coq au vin to marinate in the wine we’d bought at the farm. We both paused for a vegetarian moment when she held up the chicken’s heart and said, “this was beating yesterday.” We paused for a brief moment, though. Friends had just called from the train at Lyons. They were on the way to their boat at St. Jean des Losne, where we were heading, and would join us onboard for dinner the next night. The coq au vin needed a night to marinate. The vegetarian moment gave way to anticipation of a fine meal.
On we motored against the current, making surprisingly good progress.
2:00 p.m. – We’d decided to break the trip upriver to the entrance to the Canal de Bourgogne into two days. This same trip had taken us five hours downriver, with the current, a few weeks ago. Around 2:00 p.m., past the halfway point, we started looking for a place to moor for the night. We were topped up with water. Running all day filled our battery banks. We had plenty of food on board. We’d bought two baguettes in the morning, and lots of wine. All we needed was a safe place to tie up out of the current. It took four tries.
First attempt – We only had two locks on the river to pass through, big locks, though, hundreds of feet long, capable of serving the huge commercial boats on the river. These modern locks, with the eclusiers – the lockkeepers – perched in a glass control tower high overhead, replaced older, smaller locks. The abandoned locks can be entered from the downriver end and can be used as temporary overnight moorings. We passed one and planned on staying in the second one, just below the town of Seurre. Our chart book has a photo of a little cruising boat sitting “dans l’ecluse desaffectee’ de SEURRE,” which we translated as in the disused lock at Seurre. Four fairly-well inebriated fisherman were huddled around a campfire on the river bank in front of l’ecluse desaffectee’. They were assigned that location by the French government. Every time you do something stupid on the boat there are official observers, part of François Hollande’s full employment plan. They cheered us on as we motored toward the old lock. And cheered even loader as we ground to a halt in a flurry of bottom mud churned up by our propeller. We’d run aground. Fortunately, at full throttle, we were able to inch backwards out of the mud. Obviously, the lock had filled in since the photo of the cute little cruiser was taken. The official observers waved farewell as we motored away.
Second attempt – Our chart showed a set of long stone stairs, about 100 meters wide, on the riverfront in Seurre, an arrangement commonly used as a mooring location. Half of this length had a sign saying it was reserved for a restaurant boat. The other half was wide open. We hung our tire fenders over the side and inched our way toward the steps. Unfortunately, the river was so high that the lower few steps were under water. We bumped into them and came to a stop, a meter or more of water-filled space separating our boat from the first above-water step. Sandra – wisely – balked at making the leap with the mooring lines. We were concerned that if we tied up above these submerged steps and the river went down over night, we’d come to rest on the stone steps, not to float again until the next flood. On we motored, but not before waiving at the half-dozen elderly official government problem observers taking careful, nodding note of our efforts.
Third attempt – The Dutch Barge Association cruising guide for Seurre said there was a floating pontoon, upriver from the steps, run by a commercial operation. We reluctantly decided to pay the 21 euro fee the guide listed. An outrageous amount. More than we’d ever paid. But, any port in a storm, or flood. The far end of the floating pontoon was empty and we motored up to it, only to see a strip of police tape and a large “reserve'” sign. No, no, no the official observers, a different set of them, muttered.
Fourth attempt – OK, we decided we’d just create a wild mooring, an unofficial, ad hoc place along the river where we would tie up. We went through the huge Seurre lock, like a water-filled football field, but not quite as wide, motored on a few hundred meters and clamped on to the corrugated steel plates that formed the side of the rather industrial stretch of canal there. We have a pair of heavy iron clamps specifically designed to screw onto these steel plates, which are commonly used to hold up canal banks. The clamps have a ring welded on their sides to which we can attach our mooring lines. We’d never had to use these clamps before, but this was a fine time to test them. Seeing no official government observers was a good sign that we did not face another disappointment. We rested the boat against the canal siding, slid our clamps in place, attached our mooring lines and, voila, we were safely moored for the night. Patience, perseverance, ingenuity and a boatload of friendly nods to the observers of disasters had prevailed.
3:00 p.m. – We climbed off the boat and walked downriver to the town of Seurre, which turned out to be an interested place with lots to see, especially a small café with sidewalk tables, offering a list of local wines by the glass. We asked if there was a market in town and the café owner directed us to a store, 10 minutes walk away. A quick shopping trip for mushrooms for the chicken and ice cream for dessert and we walked back to the boat, hauling ourselves and our groceries over the steel pilings to which we’d moored.
7:00 p.m. – We barbecued hamburgers with the remains of the morning’s baguette for dinner, along with a sweet potato from the grocery and cole slaw Sandra made from a red cabbage we’d bought from the farmer. We tapped the bag of wine we’d bought and had dinner at the wheelhouse table with rain, rain and more rain falling around us.
So, that is what a day on the barge is like. Food, finding it, preparing it, eating it, is a large part of our day, shopping in the morning for what we eat at night, as do the French. Handling the boat as a team is another large part of what we do, sometimes things going smoothly, sometimes putting on a show for the official observers of screw-ups. And discovering unexpected bits of France is part of every day, the farmer selling us the chicken he’d raised and killed yesterday, a sky full of Montgolfiers, the guillotine lock, the 5 kilometer an hour current in the river, the first time use of our mooring clamps.And a small slice of the River Saone all for ourselves for the night.
Our days are many things. Dull is not any of them.