Back in my newspaper reporter days one of the fundamental axioms of journalism was that things – fires, school bus crashes, tornadoes, insurrections, decapitations, everything – comes in threes. If every structure in a village in India is inundated by a spontaneous plague of diuretic sparrows, well, put up your window screens. Two more swarms of tummy-troubled sparrows will coalesce somewhere on Planet Earth in the next week or so. Copy editors would automatically start preparing headlines: Burb Braces for Third Bird Barrage. (Speaking of headlines, we note the passing of Vincent Musetto, the copy editor who wrote what is acknowledged as the best newspaper headline in history, for the late great New York Post tabloid.)
Take my word for it. Things happen in threes. Scientific fact. Einstein predicted it. String Theory supports it. Its true.
So when the trusty Ford diesel in Hoop Doet Leven started overheating after two weeks in southern Burgundy on the Canal du Centre, I practiced my mechanical mumbo jumbo to deal with the engine. But I braced myself for what was certain to come next.
After all, it was my own fault. A week earlier, regret had set in the instant these words left my mouth. “We’ve never had a problem with the engine. Never a breakdown. Never a lost day. And all I do is change the oil and the filters. We’ve been so lucky.”
Ah, how the Engine Gods must have grinned at that.
And how clever and sneaky, playful and clever, nasty, they are when they set out to have fun.
Three hours of slow motoring past vineyards and fields had me well settled in that French mellow mode that brought us here for our fourth consecutive summer. In and out of locks. A slight cross breeze to make barge handling interesting. The chugga chugga chugga of the exhaust stack sounding perfect. But wait. What is this? Sitting in our tenth lock of the day, waiting for the water to drop us to the level of the next section of canal, the temperature gauge started climbing. Odd. I left the lock, increasing the throttle to our canal cruising speed of seven kilometers an hour (about 3.5 miles an hour) and the temperature dropped to its normal level. Hmm. Strange.
At the next lock the same thing happened. Hotter though. The slower the engine turned the hotter it got. The faster it turned, the cooler. In our own speeded up version of global warming, the engine got hotter and hotter at each lock. And not nearly as cool in between.
It got serious. Eventually, we had to pull over and let the engine cool for an hour. Twice. We managed to arrive at Parray-le-Monial, the town where my crew Jon was to leave and Sandra was to arrive. Yes, Sandra was to arrive on a boat with, for the first time, engine trouble.
Should I tell her it was all my fault?
Not in quite those words, I decided. Not in quite any words, actually. But she assumed it was my fault.
It usually is.
Overheating is relatively simple to address. It can only be two things. Too much heat in the engine. Or not enough cool in the engine. I did my stuff. Adding a this. Removing a that. Changing one of those. Whatever I could think of.
And it was fixed.
But I knew that was just the first course, the interesting entrè at dinner before your plate principal arrives. Or maybe it was just the amuse bouche, the chef’s freebie treat designed to delight your taste buds before the meal begins.
What would it be? What had the Engine Gods giggling?
The next morning, I slowly pulled away from our mooring and headed for the first lock, Sandra at the bow for her first lock of the summer. I put my left hand on the throttle lever and slipped it back to idle. Lined up the bow for the center of the rapidly approaching lock entrance. Slid the throttle into reverse.
And we didn’t slow down. The throttle lever has a hole into which a metal shaft is inserted. Through magic, that shaft is connected to cables that control how fast the engine turns. Same lever controls the gear shift. Push the throttle forward and the boat goes forward. Pull it back and the boat reverses. Stand it straight up in the middle and the engine idles.
Usually. This time the throttle lever just spun like a pinwheel on that metal shaft. No faster. No slower. No forward. No reverse. And certainly no neutral. Just 65 tons of barge driving straight for the stone and steel of a canal lock.
I shut the engine off and we drifted to a stop, well before the lock. I eased the boat to the canal bank. Sandra hopped off with a sledge hammer and our metal mooring stakes and we tied to the bank while I addressed the problem.
A problem that was not entirely unanticipated. The metal shaft that goes into the shift lever has a series of splines at its end. Spline. Sort of like “spine.” Raised metal ridges ringing the inch at the end of the shaft. The hole in the shift lever has a series of grooves, grooves that, coincidentally, match the raised ridges in the shaft. The “splines” on the shaft slide into the “grooves” in the hole in the lever. Moving the lever rotates the shaft. There is a little setscrew at the bottom of the lever that holds things in place.
Remember this word “splines.” It will assume monumental, and expensive, importance in a few days.
I’d been tightening that teeny setscrew for four summers as the throttle lever had become more and more squishy on its shaft. More and more play as I moved the lever before anything happened in relation to the engine. As I mentioned, this was not a totally unanticipated problem.
And it was easily remedied with one of the three essential tools of navigation, tools used by the Phoenicians to explore the Mediterranean and by both the Vikings and Columbus to cross the Atlantic. I deployed these tools in order of logic. I wanted the shaft to turn. I sprayed it with WD-40. No luck. I wanted to lever to be attached to the shaft. I wrapped it in duct tape. Still no luck.
I gripped the shaft with my largest pair of vice grip pliers. Voila. I had a new, fully functional shift lever.
We set off once again.
Two problems down.
One to go.
The gates in front of us opened slowly in our third lock of the day. I aimed the bow at the center of the opening and eased the vice grip pliers slightly forward. And heard a screech like a coffee can filled with marbles being shaken by a deranged monkey. Vice grips back to neutral and the sound stopped. Vice grips into reverse and the monkey went crazy again. Neutral. Silence. Forward. The monkey returns. Throughout this crescendo the boat stayed in the center of the lock.
The lock tender looked down at the barge calmly as if this sort of thing happened every day.
I climbed off the boat with a rope over my shoulder and tugged us out of the lock and, once again, we staked out on shore.
I had a suspicion this third engine problem would require more than WD-40, duct tape and vice grip pliers. Besides, I only had one set of vice grips and they were already being put to use. We were tied to the canal bank, far from anything city-like, with an engine that no longer overheated, with a throttle made from a pair of pliers but functioning just fine, but with an engine and gear box shrieking what I dreaded was its death rattle.
A Swiss couple we’d met cruised out of the lock and offered to tow us to the next town. It had a boulangerie. We would not be without bread while we solved our problem at least. It was a short distance. With no locks.
Fortunately, when I was back in problem No. 1 mode, the overheating engine, I’d come across Entente Marine, a boat yard run by two Brits just 20 kilometers, and nine locks, farther down the canal from where we’d ground to a halt. I got on the phone with them and one of the Brits showed up in his van. He quickly diagnosed the problem as the gearbox. Better than the engine I supposed. But we had to get the boat to his shop.
Can you tow us there, I asked. Hmm, he mumbled. I’d tow you in my boat but its engine isn’t working. Could be the water pump. Not a propitious omen, I thought, keeping the thought to myself. Maybe you can get a passing boat to tow you, he suggested, none too helpfully.
We telephoned our Swiss friends, who’d moved on down the canal an hour earlier, and explained our situation. They turned around and returned to us. For the next two days, Peti and Lucy towed us – actually they tied on to our side – for 20 kilometers and nine locks. A hundreds meters before each lock they untied from us and launched us toward the lock opening. Sandra steered into the lock as the barge’s momentum carried it forward while I sat at the bow, rope in hand, legs out, ready to jump to the lock wall and drag the boat into the lock. Once the lock lowered us down, I put the rope over my shoulder and trudged along the shore, dragging the barge out of the lock and down the canal until Peti and Lucy could reattach their boat.
This was horribly improper, my towing the barge by marching along the tow path, rope over my shoulder. Wrong. Improper. Unhistoric. Not the way things used to be done on the canals.
Pulling a barge is woman’s work, you see. In pre-engine days, the barge-husband stood at the wheel, smoking, steering. Captaining. The barge-wife, wearing her leather towing harness, pulled the boat. Truly. We’ve seen photos. I was not about to suggest that Sandra don her leather towing harness.
After two days of this we glided to the mooring at Entente Marine at Gannay-sur-Loire, a town large enough to have a boulangerie. And a cafe. A nice cafe. And a bottomless bottle of pastis. And a proprietor with a sense of humor. At lunch one day he placed a bowl of mustard in front of me, for my frites. “This eze French ketchup,” he said.
Unfortunately, sometime in the history of the transformation from working barge to a floating home, our gear box, sitting between the engine in front and the propeller shaft at the rear, was covered with the aft cabin shower stall. To get at the gear box, something, either the shower stall or the engine, would have to be removed. We opted for the engine.
Fortunately, the boat yard has a huge crane. And the roof of the wheelhouse, under which the engine lurks, is easily removable. As is the wheelhouse floor. When the engine was hoisted up and the gear box was examined the problem became instantly evident.
Test time. What was the word you were advised to remember?
It seems that running down the center of the gear box is the gear shaft. This shaft goes forward into a hole in the center of a two-foot-wide metal disc, a disc that moves back and forth to connect the gear box with the engine. Sort of like the clutch in a standard transmission car. And how does this gear shaft match up with this disc?
You’ve got it. Splines.
The end of the gear shaft is ringed with steel ridges. Splines. The hole in the disc is circled with grooves. The splines fit into the grooves.
The mad monkey sound was the shaft undergoing a splineectomy, shearing off the grooves in the disc. Tossing a whirlwind of splines into the gear box.
But parts are available, somewhere in Europe. Rebuilding the old gearbox would cost almost as much as installing a new gear box so we opted for a new one. While the engine was out we chose to follow a suggestion made by our surveyor when we bought the boat. The engine was mounted directly to the hull, he’d said. Bad practice. It should be on flexible engine mounts. With a flexible coupling between the gearbox/engine and the propeller shaft. Is that important, I’d asked him.
If you don’t do it you might need a new gearbox some day, he’d warned. We hadn’t followed his advice. (NOTE: If you are looking for a barge surveyor, Barrie Morse obviously knows what he’s doing.)
So, we’re at Entente Marine at Gannay-sur-Loire for the next few weeks as a new PRM hydraulic gearbox wends its way from England, joined by a flexible motor mount (one, the only one in England it appears) accompanying it, three more motor mounts are coming from the Netherlands. A new gearbox plate, appropriately splined and grooved, is under construction.
But it is France, land of savoir-faire, “know-how.” Everything works out. Eventually. And we’ve kept busy. We spent a day riding our bikes to a hilltop medieval village, Bourbon Lancy, that was reputed to have a fantastic crepe house. Forty-five kilometers over rolling hills for crepes seems extreme. But they were great crepes. We rented a little hybrid Toyota Auris. Before handing me the keys, the rental guy, eyeing Sandra and being French enough to know one does not embarrass a man in front of his woman, took me aside and quietly asked, “Do you know how to operate an automatic transmission.” We visited English friends who bought a huge house in a tiny village in the Morvan, a mountain region in Burgundy. They’ve created the archetypical rural French refuge that is the subject of thousands of daydreams and fantasies.
Driving through the Morvan we entered a small town and were surrounded by American soldiers who looked like they’d stepped out of “Saving Private Ryan.” They were French reenactors of the U.S. Army from WW II, complete with jeeps, halftracks and a tank. They were shocked when I asked what they were celebrating. “But monsieur, today is the sixth of June,” I was told. D Day. I told them my father had landed at Omaha Beach. They asked us to lead the parade. And they asked me to thank him.
Sandra is off for five days at a language school in a nearby town called Sancerre. They make a nice white wine there. She’s sure to study hard.
So, all will work out. Disasters never come in fours. We’ll be on our way eventually.
With brand new splines.