The horn moaned out of the fog enveloping the boat. Fog so dense the boat’s bow vanished into a dimly visible outline. We motored forward, none too confident that we would not be jerked to a sudden stop when we struck something hard.


Louder this time. Closer.

Glancing down at the water a brightly painted lobster pot was tugged by the tidal current.

Scenic coastal Maine. This is Portland. Or maybe Acadia National Park. This went on for day. After day. After day. And it wasn't France.

Scenic coastal Maine. This is Portland. Or maybe Acadia National Park. This went on all day. After day. After day. And it wasn’t France.

Sacrebleu, as Agatha Christy has Hercule Poirot declare at moments of surprise but, apparently, nobody in France actually says in real life. A phrase with the approximate meaning in English of the cry “holy shit” (now there’s a common American expression that must have a fascinating etymology).

Lobster pots. Tidal current. And – as a wave splashed into the cockpit – salt water.

We’re not on the Canal Lateral de la Loire any more, Toto.

No. In fact, we’re not in France any more. Summer, or at least été en France, est terminée. Over. Kaput. We threw in the towel and paid the penalty to change our return flights on Icelandic Airlines. Yes, we’re back home in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

I just spent two weeks, in late July, sailing a friend’s boat in Maine. Yes. Maine, U.S. of A. Foggy, rocky, chilly Maine. Sort of like the northwest coast of Scotland. But with lobsters rather than haggis.

This was the summer of mechanical breakdowns. First, the overheating engine. Second, the spinning shift lever replaced by the vice grip pliers. Third, the death of the gear box. All of this caused by the silly statement that we’d never had a major mechanical breakdown on our trusty barge, Hoop Doet Leven.

Rather than learning not to utter such cocky boasts, I followed it with a smarmy, self-congratulating online dissertation about how disasters always came in threes. Predicting that now that we’d survived our third problem, the rest of the summer would be awash in pain au chocolat and pinot noir. Oh, foolish pride. Oh, what hubris. (But this was nothing new; we’d named the catamaran on which we’d planned on circumnavigating, “Catharsis”).

Remember all that folderol about bad news coming in threes? Well, never mind. As I used to say in the heat of trial when the wrong phrase came from my mouth, “strike that from the record, Your Honor” (which resulted, when the judge muttered “allowed,” in the trial transcript not being purged of the misspoken words but, rather, including the whole “strike that” interchange in the written record).

Let me tell you about the fourth – and final – surprise the barge had for us.

We – meaning us and the barge – were adhered to the side of the canal at Entente Marine in Gannay-sur-Loire, pretty much in the center of France. It had a grocery, but madame there was surly, not surly in the friendly French manner but surly in the shoes-way-too-tight way. The Gannay boulangerie opened at random. And had bread even more randomly. The only cafe specialized in large slabs of meat and the friendly owner’s sense of humor was demonstrated, almost daily, by describing the bowl of mustard he placed on the table as “French ketchup, ha, ha, ha.” We exhausted the charms of Gannay after a few days and, with five weeks of slow repairs to endure, we rented a car and visited more of France that was not on rivers or canals.

One treat was the city of Bourges, a historically (as if most everything in France is not in some way historic) capital of, at various times, the department of Cher, the former province of Berry, the Roman province of Aquitaine, and, during the reign of King Charles VII, of the kingdom of France. Nice cathedral. Lots of restaurants and cafes. Friendly people. Not inundated with tourists. And a restaurant, Entre Nous, that was so good at lunch we returned for dinner. The waiter recommended a local wine – pinot gris by Denis Jamain from Reuilly – that blew our socks off. Following our usual practice, we eventually tracked down M. Jamain, arranged a rendezvous at his vineyard and purchased several cases. The only problem was distinguishing between the pronunciation of this new wine – Reuilly – from a previous favorite in Burgundy – Rully. Pas de problem, we were told. “Reuilly” is pronounced “roo-ee.” “Rully”, on the other hand, is pronounced “roo-ee.” See why France can be challenging.

The repairs dragged on, not at all the fault of the hard-working guys at Entente Marine. Lets just say that Vetus, a parts supplier, seemed to supply random parts at random moments, and UPS, the ubiquitous worldwide shipper conveniently provides tracking numbers that allow you to follow your motor mounts as they make the grand tour of Europe; if its Tuesday our motor mounts must be in Düsseldorf.  Our new clutch plate sent a postcard from Athens. Three weeks into the process we drove to the Dordogne in the southwest of France.

Are you familiar with the game duck, duck, goose? That was the menu throughout the Dordogne. When you’d had your fill of duck at lunch, you were presented with a vast cross section of goose dishes for dinner. And both duck and goose foie gras. And tours of the duck farms. And the goose farms. But we did get to visit 17,000 year old cave paintings. Which made it all worthwhile.

While the barge was laid up we rented a canoe on the Dordogne River and paddled from cliffside town to cliffside town.

While the barge was laid up we rented a canoe on the Dordogne River and paddled from cliffside town to cliffside town. The inhabitants of cave houses are really called troglodytes.

Finally, five weeks into the repair process, all was coming together. Our motor mounts arrived from Holland, via the U.K. and Düsseldorf. All was installed. Friends from home who had expected to visit us on the barge instead drove from castle to chateau with us through the Loire Valley. We changed our cruising plans for the rest of the summer, putting off the Marne and Champagne until next summer. Instead, we would see how far south we could go on the Saone, toward Lyon, before returning, once again, to Auxonne for the winter.

Then came the email from the repair guys.

An email with the caption “Bad News” can’t be good news. All the bits and pieces had arrived. All the bits and pieces were installed. The engine started right up and ran like clockwork, we were informed.

For ten minutes.

It seemed that in removing the engine from the boat with their giant crane, at various moments it had to be twisted, spun, turned on its side, turned on its end, rotated, inverted and do-si-doed to gyrate out of the engine compartment. Sometime in that process a small – but not too small – bolt that had rested innocuously, and loosely, in the deep recesses of the engine was roused from its years, nay, decades of slumber. This loose bolt was sucked into cylinder number six of the engine. Where piston number six rammed said bolt into shrapnel. Sort of like a hand grenade going off. Inside the engine. Yuck.

This repair would take a while, we were told. A French machine shop would have to remove the piston. An English engine shop could supply parts. Engine components  would be visiting the obscure tourist destinations the motor mounts had missed.

That was it for us. We tossed in the towel and flew home three days after receiving the latest news. Summer Number Four barging in France is over. Harvey had four weeks of barging. Sandra did three locks. Under power. Nine more under inertia.

We’re back in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Back with the local greenheads, hummingbird-sized flying insects that can land on bare skin so gently the first you feel is when they unsling the jackhammer from their backs and begin excavating. But back with family, the kids and grandkids. Boating with our kids on their boats, with friends on friends’ boats.

Somehow American signs lack the artistic sophistication of French signage.

Somehow American signs lack the artistic sophistication of French signage.

As they say in Uzbekistan, c’est la vie.

The barge keys are in the Things That Will Go Back to France drawer. And next spring we’ll already be on the Canal Lateral de la Loire, heading for Paris, for Champagne, for whatever wonderful surprises France has in store for us.

You can bet there will be no more boasting about the reliability of our motor.