A funny thing happened on our way to Alaska. We hit a detour and ended up in the far eastern reaches of France, involved in a fine and very different boating experience.
When we finally sailed Taleisin to her true home here at Kawau Island we were excited at the prospect of doing some land based exploring during the northern summers since Taleisin could be left through the southern winter on the safest mooring in New Zealand. Alaska was on top of our list of places we thought would be more fun to visit by road and possibly by a chartered power vessel since there is so little wind in the narrow tide ridden canals.
We enjoyed a fine summer here in the south then spent the autumn finishing up the manuscript for Capable Cruisers newest edition. In June we packed up and flew to California where we keep our pick-up truck and camper. We got as far north as Santa Cruz where we stopped to have lunch with a business associate/friend, Ty Ebright, who is crazy about boats, but like many in the U.S. he was tied to his desk due to the financial crisis. “You guy’s ever thought of canal boating in Europe?” he asked. We had to answer; yes we had often wondered what the inland waters of Europe would be like. Half a dozen of our cruising friends had retired from ocean voyaging and raved about their life on barges. “I have just the opportunity for you,” he said. Ty had bought a 33-foot long canal boat over the internet just before the crisis hit. It had languished unused for two years and now the boatyard where it sat wanted it moved. Offshore voyaging has taught us to be flexible, to grab good chances when they happened by.
Within a week we had put our truck back among the chardonnay grape vines where it usually stays at Mary Baldwin’s house in Paso Robles, and headed eastward on the big silver bird laden with cruising guides to the canals of France plus a Michelin map where a very careful search finally where Cruzy, the canal boat lived. Thus began a three day saga of travel by plane to London, via the amazing Eurostar train from London, under the channel to Paris, by fast train almost to the Swiss border, then by local train to Vesoul and finally by taxi to Port Sur Soane and the tiny family-run canal boat port.
Unfortunately folks thought Cruzy was abandoned since she had not been locked up by the last folks to use her, almost three years before. Now she looked terribly forlorn, ransacked of most of her gear from bicycles to pots and pans and blankets. Grass grew on her decks, mold streaked her cabinsides, leaking pipes made her unusable and the couple who owned this port (that is what a small marina for barges is called) only spoke French and weren’t too happy that Cruzy had been left unattended so long. But with a well thumbed translation dictionary, lots of smiles, a credit card to pay all the back bills and best of all, the arrival of their teenage daughter who was studying English, we soon had friends – a lovely place to stay (on board one of their charter boats that was in for an engine repair) and the help of two workers to get Cruzy cleaned up and ready to use. Five days later we moved from our far more luxurious temporary quarters into “our own” canal barge and set off without official registration papers for the boat as these would take two or three months to obtain, but with a note from Jose the port owner and the admonishment, “If any officials appear concerned about your lack of registration, have them telephone and I’ll sort things out.” His wife Michelle also told me, “be sure to get some nice plants for those flowerboxes. If you have flowers on board you won’t look like a charter boat and everyone will be nicer to you.” She was right. Once I found some nice plants, and settled them on the cabin top, everyone waved and called greetings and many folks from several different countries extended invitations for drinks.
Not one official appeared during the next six weeks as we learned the tricks and treats of maneuvering a single-engine flat bottomed boat down the River Soane, up the River Doubs, through dozens of locks, along miles of beautiful farmland, woodland and into amazing medieval villages. We were surprised at the lack of traffic on the canals even in the height of summer. Except right near an occasional charter center on weekends, we rarely saw more than two or three other canal boats per day. We could always find a spot alongside a riverbank or canal wall where we spent the night completely by ourselves far from any town or farmhouse. The locks were a marvel in simplicity, many activated with what looks like a TV remote control. When we entered the Rhine-Rhone canal on the river Doubs we were given one of these controllers by the lock keeper who asked what language we preferred. He then programmed it so when we approached a lock we simple pushed the send button and the read out said, “lock in waiting.” A few minutes later it read, “enter lock”. A set of lights just before the lock confirmed this information, flashing yellow with two non-flashing reds below, then one red and green and finally two green as the lock first either filled or emptied according to whether we were going up or down, then the gates opened to let us in.
At first we had been surprised at the cost of the permit to cruise through the canals, we paid 93 Euros for six weeks, or about $150. But when we saw how well the locks and the bicycle paths that bordered each canal were maintained we felt this was definitely good value. Besides, we never had to pay mooring fees unless we tied in a formal marina and even there the fees were very low. At one of our favorite spots, Dole, the home of Luis Pasteur, we used the marina dock which is alongside the river right in the town gardens for the equivalent of $8.50 a night. But later in the week we moved 200 yards to lay alongside the riverbank sheltered from the hot mid-day sun by beautiful overhanging trees.
We happened to arrive in Dole just when their was a music festival on, so evenings saw us joining the local people at various venues throughout the city, from the courtyard of the 700 year old convent, to the grassy sloops of the botanical garden for gypsy jazz guitarists, Cuban fusion musicians, French chanteuse, all provided by the town council at no cost.
After a month of savoring fine French wines, over indulging on local cheeses, sausages and pate’s we were able to convince Ty and his wife to put aside being serious and join us. Then we learned one of the fun things about canal boating, because there are no oceans to cross, no need to use a dinghy to get ashore and lots of separate spaces on board, having guests is easy (not sure which of us was the guest when the owner was on board.) Ty, wanted desperately to dive off Cruzy for a swim. So as we headed eastward toward superbly beautiful fortress city of Besancom, we found a place where the canal opened out into a broad river and anchored just below a big weir. We set the anchor and dove overboard into beautifully warm fresh water. This became our modus operandi, anchoring during the mid day for swims, finding beautiful places to secure for the night where we could put the bicycles ashore and find a village shop to procure fixings for fine dinners.
After six weeks of canal boating we left Ty in charge and headed for a short stay in Paris before flying home by air to New Zealand to complete a far faster circumnavigation than we’d done on our sailing boats. Our assessment of canal boat cruising? It is more like a holiday than an adventure. But what a fine way to holiday – if you make sure to take your cruising lessons with you – no schedules, open up to new experiences, bring some good books to read and be ready to get to know the folks who share the water with you, you’ll probably have lots in common.
Fairwinds or in the case of canal boating, may the rivers ahead flow smoothly
Lin and Larry