Freedom is a moving boat and two bicycles

Our first trip on our 1920s Dutch Barge in France

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We’d done the right thing – waited for the geese to indicate south and followed them.

It was our fifth day on the move as we puttered past Lyon. We were in our element, just the two of us on board, moving. We’re good at moving.

We were heading south to our winter mooring and time was against us. We didn’t stop at Lyon, having been there twice before. We moored, instead, at Syripel (aka Les Roches de Condrieu), forty kilometres south of Lyon.

Travelling through France
Travelling through France

The following day as we puttered alongside the paprika sprinkled hills showing off their autumn change, we decided it was time to start anchoring each evening. While sailing we spent ninety-five percent of our time anchoring at each port. It was the same while traversing the Great Loop in America – there, too, we had vast, stunning bays all to ourselves, as everyone else seemingly went into marinas.

Thirteen years ago, in France on our sailboat, we had anchored most of the time. Now with our newly purchased 18.5 metre barge we were back and wanted to do the same thing.

I love the rituals that go with anchoring, where we both concentrate on the sounder, our position, and the best place; the finite control to stop the boat just where we want her, before applying astern propulsion so the chain is laid out nicely in a line. Then the boat eases to a gentle stop with the anchor dug in and the chain straight, then slack, restful. The anchor light set up for when nature’s light slinks off behind the horizon, and the black ball raised for day time.

On anchor it is softer, there are no marina lines to pull in one direction then another as the boat shifts.

Rouge Corsair is held steady by the catenary in the chain, acting as a soft spring. She moves with the water, everything is so much gentler, while we sit back and watch the slowly shifting view. The new solar panels earn their keep and make it all worthwhile; we have our own private island with no neighbours – it’s bliss!

Each day the trip south provided us with fine views, striking ruins, tranquillity, safety, enjoyment, togetherness, travel and movement, and we watch France pootle-past.

The vast stone towers reminded us of wombats. What do furry Australian creatures have to do with French ruins? Well, wombats have this odd behaviour where they balance their poohs on stones – not grass, or pavement; on stones and only stones. The French have this odd behaviour of finding the tallest, skinniest, highest peak and building a stone fortress upon it. Well, in my mind there are similarities!

As we glided along, the rolling hills gave way to a pretty child painted on the side of a nuclear reactor chimney; the child’s legs glowing with what can be assumed as contamination; the denuded hill-side quarry fulfilling the desire for pretty stone houses.

While puttering along the canals there are plenty of locks to break up the day. While coming out of a lock with a nineteen metre drop, we were met by three, rather large, commercial barges all vying for the right position to make an entrance or to tie up.

Locks
Locks

The vast volume of water that had just been disgorged from the massive lock, left swirls and eddies to test the most skilled skipper.

I was at the helm, Noel looked at the wall of approaching ships, spinning with the currents and said, ‘Yikes, just tell me when we’re through safely, I have my eyes closed.’

‘That’s okay,’ I said, ‘so do I!’

But all was well and suddenly we were approaching the Mediterranean. It smelt different here. The salt air was refreshing, the Mediterranean breeze, cooling. The dry grass was a contrast to the lush paddocks that were scattered around the middle of France, the harshness of this land reminded us of home.

We made good time, and were enjoying this rather neat way to see France. The friendly waves, the great tie-up places, and the fun boat people from all over the world kept us smiling all day.

We love not having a car to worry about. Freedom is a moving boat and two bicycles.

We were approaching Lake Etang de Thau, a comparatively vast stretch of water that would lead us to the Canal du Midi. The expanse was welcoming; it felt like coming home –  a long watery horizon. We had perfect conditions; the sun bounced off the silken water and reflected the cloudless blue sky.

buying a barge in France
Our new home in Europe

The Midi presented its own challenges, round locks, shallow depths, narrow stretches, and low bridges. It certainly encouraged the adrenaline to pump at a rapid rate. Our boat handling skills were tested and we loved every minute.

The Canal du Midi was built between 1666 and 1681 and is home to 328 structures of locks, aqueducts, tunnels, and bridges. It is a major example of hydraulic engineering. It combines technical ingenuity with architectural and landscape aesthetics.

The Midi has been recognised as World Heritage by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. It is described as one of the most extraordinary examples of civil engineering of the modern age which paved the way to the industrial revolution.

This canal is also famous for the grand Plane trees that line the route. Sadly, a deadly fungus continues to spread through the proud trunks. Many Plane trees are still left, but you can see the death-marks of those that will be cut down next. There is hope that the beauty will be restored with the newly planted trees lining parts of the canal.

Ecluse (Lock) number 56 de Fonseranes (marker – K206.5), has six locks, one after the other. Fortunately, we were first in line, but two other boats where squished in the locks with us, testing everyone’s skills and patience.

At the first lock, the lock-keeper swaggered over and managed to stop chatting on his mobile for a brief moment. I naturally assumed he had come to take my line (as per every other lock-keeper). He did take my line (with a disgusted look), slipped it over a bollard and then rapidly shot fast-French at me, ignoring my pleas to speak slowly.

He went back to his phone and chatted away, he watched the other boats come in and then said, while glaring at me, in near-perfect English, ‘You do your own lines.’

‘Of course,’ I said, ‘No problem.’

He replied with the most magnificent Gaelic shrug, that I would assume was usually reserved for vermin.

The hire boat was ordered to leave the lock, first. While the crew gathered the lines the lock-keeper tutted, rolled his eyes, and stood with hands-on-hips. Who knows what was going on in his tiny mind – but the phone rang and it was all smiles and back to chatting with buddies.

As we puttered into the second lock, I wondered how I was going to get the lines on the bollards with the boat-hook, the lock walls were too high.

‘About a third-of-the-way in are steps,’ I said to Noel, ‘You’ll have to get me near them.’ Noel nodded in his usual relaxed manner.

I’d climbed up many lock ladders before while on our sailboat. I know it is not the ‘done-thing’, but we had no choice back then, or here. The technique for stretching up a boat hook wasn’t going to work here. Back then I was on a low boat, with no lock-keeper, I had to get the lines on a bollard, so up I went. Here, with muscles some thirteen years older, I had to think carefully about what I was doing.

It was possible to walk the boat through (and others did, keeping hold of the lines) but they had plenty of crew, shorter boats, and lighter lines. However, they still couldn’t ‘walk the boat through’ when we all arrived at the bridge. Besides Noel was doing inch-by-inch manoeuvring (handling the boat brilliantly I might say), and I wanted to play my part.

What followed was a scary launch of my body, out to the slippery, slime-ridden steps, a steady climb with a fore and aft line on each shoulder and crowd-pleasing success. Noel manoeuvred the boat’s bow and stern right up close to the wall, however the curved lock-wall still meant I had large leap. I received ‘whoops’, claps and admiration. Meanwhile, the lock-keeper straightened his sunnies and chatted on the phone.

What resulted was me feeling alive, working the ropes, being independent, and feeling strong. I was literally thinking on my feet. On this trip, we’ve been hauling anchors, furling heavy ropes several times a day, climbing on deck, jumping ashore and shopping via bicycles. My muscles were defined, my jeans were looser, I felt alive and yes, I loved the whole thing!

The other amusing result I noticed was that our precious paint was no longer precious. After six locks, in what can only be described as ‘water-fall’ conditions, just inches (sometimes much less) between boats and walls, and all of a sudden you don’t give a flying fig about your paintwork – just surviving unscathed!

In my opinion, as lock-keepers, there’s too much responsibility for surly youths, which results in an attitude. That said, apparently, since their hazard pay has been taken away, the lock-keepers on the Midi will not take your lines. I am not sure what the ‘hazard’ is, of taking lines of a boat that can’t go anywhere. Actually, not having help with lines created a hazard as we took a moment or two longer than usual to secure the boat, and the lock-keeper let the water in before we were ready!

All that said, this was the only lock-keeper who had this attitude, the rest were polite welcoming and helpful.

Things had been going along swimmingly, in the back of our minds though; we knew a heart-stopping challenge lay on the horizon.

The low bridges.

There were plenty of low bridges and tunnels
There were plenty of low bridges and tunnels (we are approaching a tunnel)

It’s not so much that they are low, but the curved arch reduces the overall height dramatically, depending how wide the boat.

Capestang bridge was our main concern. So when we arrived we moored for the night to try to gather and control our nerves. We inspected the bridge, and there was not one inch left that had not already been gouged-out by previous boats. That night the rains came and raised the water levels which raised our adrenaline. We had to wait a few days for the levels to drop if we had any chance of making it.

After one dry day, more rain was forecast, we had to have a go.

With sweaty palms and flip-flopping stomachs, we puttered up to the bridge. The game plan was: I was on the bow indicating centre – then watching the stern and pointing in the direction the stern needed to shift to keep the wheelhouse in the centre, remember the boat is nearly 19 metres long. This was done using steering and the transverse thrust of our 80 cm prop; we didn’t have bow or stern thrusters.

Squeezing under Capestang Bridge
Squeezing under Capestang Bridge

We had fudged the drawing of the bridge curves, guessing the water height (after the flood rains), and we considered several alternate suggestions from other nomadic-brained cruising folk, such as ourselves:

Their suggestions were along the lines of:

  1. At the feared bridge, load up the boat with passers-by, reduce the pilothouse height, offer free beer as an enticement.
  2. Get close to the bridge and ‘GUN-IT-MATE’, which would indeed lower the air-draft, as these barges do sink, considerably, at speed in shallow water (about 3″- 4″)

The problem with these ideas was:

  1. How do I overcome Noel’s inherited Scottish antipathy to providing ‘free beer’?
  2. We didn’t think we had the bottle to approach the offending 200 year old stone arches with twenty-five tonnes at six knots. “What could go wrong?”

It was time to give it a go. If we scratched the paint we didn’t care. We went so slowly that we could have stopped, reversed out and gone back to our mooring with nothing more than our ego damaged.

Noel, as usual, was great on the helm and as cool as a cucumber. I matched his coolness on the exterior but inside my stomach was making its way up to my throat.

With clenched teeth and other body parts, and with only an inch gap each side of our wheelhouse roof, we glided beneath the watching stone, we made it!

We continued on the Midi and rude visitors on hire boats inspired a blog-post that was called, ‘Once is enough!’ Our patience was tested to the extreme, but that was for only for two days!

The following two days we saw only a few hire boats on the move and no other boats whatsoever. The tie-ups near the locks were easy, quiet, and safe.

The autumn leaves started to shower down on us as we puttered through burnt oranges, flame reds, and deep purples. The ducks still laughed at us as we passed by, the Herons flapped lazily across our bow.

With great tie-up places and crisp, blue days of low humidity; no bumper boats (aka hire boats) and perfect countryside views, the days were a great joy.

our dutch barge does have nice lines

As we approached our winter mooring, we started to focus on the next part of our adventure, and look back at what we’ve achieved so far. The journey had been a pleasure and, conversely, a bit like a Carry-On film too. After the challenges of buying a boat in a country where we don’t speak the language, we were now reaping the rewards.

Each day we trickled along, accompanied by the ripple from our bow. Otters ruffled the silky surface, and my favourites-the Kingfishers flashed bright blue and vivid orange within the canal’s banks.

It’s a real eye-feast, the quaint villages, rolling hills, and resplendent trees where horses frolic. The relaxed way of travel heightened our senses, the breeze carried the tangy perfume of autumn, and in the evenings iridescent dragonflies flitted in the fading light.

We heard the throaty calls of the dawn chorus, eerily hidden by heavy mist. We were enjoying the cool nights where we felt the pleasure of wearing warm clothes. We were no longer sailing but we were still weather watching. Wind was still to be respected, as was heavy rain.

The journey became etched on our skin, by way of smiles created by new friends, passing acquaintances and helpful locals with friendly bonjours.

We’re having the time of our lives, and it’s all here for the taking, just waiting for us and anyone with a sense of adventure.

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