The sun shone for our final day in Saint Valery sur Somme, it had been a really chilly night though with frost forming on the wooden handrails of the boat. So Cy told me anyway, it had cleared by the time I got out of bed.
Between double checking tide times for the trip to Calais and other preparations, the day soon went and the time to leave was upon us. We were full of trepidation, partly because of the night passage to Calais itself and also because we were not at all prepared for the alternative route. There are fantastic navigation books available for the French waterways filled with details of every section of the waterways, except we were now missing some sections. Fortunately, lots of information is available on various websites, it may not, however, be up to date, as I discovered the following day..
But back to St Valery, we left the marina at 1845, the high tide being due at 1945 and navigation only really being possible fairly close to high water as the bay is so shallow. On the way in, we had used the buoyage plan from the marina website which wasn’t entirely up to date. For our departure we had a more up to date copy which made things considerably easier. We are fortunate as Doris is fairly shallow-drafted being a catamaran. We can cope with less depth of water than some sailing boats. At times, in the channel out we were only reading 2.5m of depth and this was at high tide.
We were sorry to leave, but keen to get going at last.
It actually turned out to be quite a busy night, there is a considerable fishing fleet on this section of the coast, and I spent quite a large proportion of the night squinting down binoculars trying to decide which may be on a possible collision course. Not as easy as it sounds! We did try a 2 hour watch system, but invariably I had to wake up the skipper every half hour or so for advice. On the plus side, Cy finally managed to get his vintage Walker trailing log working. Don’t worry, I had no idea either.
Our timing of arrival at Calais port the following morning could not have been better. Huge ferries are streaming in and out all the time. We could hear all the VHF traffic and were overtaken by a ferry coming in just a few hundred metres away. We were granted permission to enter the port between this one going in and the next one going out so didn’t have to wait at all. Once inside the port, to get to the marina (port de plaisance), there is a lock gate and a swing bridge. The gates stay open 3 hours either side of high water and the bridge opens once every hour at high water and for three hours either side. There are buoys outside to tie up to in case you need to wait for a few hours. We were extremely fortunate (fantastic planning -Cy) in that we only had to hang on for about 10 minutes until the next scheduled opening. It was a grey day in Calais and the area around the port presented a stark contrast to St Valery. We were all tied up and the formalities done by around 10am. Despite being exhausted, a full day lay ahead of us. Just the minor matter of dropping the mast and getting it stowed securely. The preparation took Cy most of the day. Whilst this was going on, I headed off to scope out our route and visit the local VNF office to arrange bridge and lock openings for the following day. To enter the canal system, we would need to leave the port de plaisance via the scheduled bridge opening and head around the corner to the sea lock and next swing bridge. There is then a second lock, still operated by Calais Port, and from then you enter the inland waterways section which is operated by VNF. I had the address of the local VNF office which I had obtained from the French waterways website. It proved a little difficult to locate. This was eventually explained when I found the tourist information office and was informed that the VNF office had closed down months ago. I was starting to suspect a conspiracy…….On returning to Doris, Cy was having some problems with the mast and seemed a bit despondent. I wasn’t in the best of moods either, as we still needed to arrange to get along the Calais canal the following day. The bridges on the canal are not permanently manned and it is necessary to arrange for a lock keeper who will basically follow you in his van and open the bridges and lock for you. It took a few phone calls to finally get the correct VNF office, and I did manage to arrange this for Saturday. In the meantime, Cy was getting more and more concerned about the potential problems with the mast and the amount of work still left to do before the next morning. None of this was helped by the fact that we were completely shattered from the night before. At around 5pm, the moment of truth arrived. With me holding tight onto a rope, Cy undid various bits of rigging and we gradually eased it down.
Thankfully, everything proceeded without major incident. The next problem was how to move it into the correct position to safely transport it on the boat. Cy (with much help from Simon) had built a wooden support prior to leaving, but as always when things are untested, something bites you on the bum! Once down, the mast needed to be pulled forward along the length of the boat to balance the weight and length of the mast correctly. The wooden cradle did not allow for the steps on the mast, so after a bit swearing, sweating and sawing we eventually had it in place. There was still more to do with squaring away cables and so on, but sleep was definitely required first.
We were up at 6am the following morning ready to finish off everything and aiming to depart the port de plaisance at 10am which was one of the scheduled bridge opening times. We contacted the port authority by VHF an hour ahead to request permission to leave the marina and enter into the canal. After the delay and various problems encountered so far, this was a really exciting moment for us.
The sea lock was fully opened ready for us, although we had to wait for the retracting bridge to be opened, and then there was a short delay whilst we waited for the next lock to be operated. This was our first lock operation and quite a significant event. Needless to say, a rookie mistake or two was made. I clambered up the ladder with the first line and then Cy threw me the second. Somehow we managed to arrange our lines so that Doris was positioned well past the ladder and so I was unable to get back on board. This left Cy trying to work both lines and having to scamper backwards and forwards whilst I looked on from above. I was able to get back aboard via the second ladder once the lock cycle had completed.
We were now officially on the inland waterways, having passed the limit of the port authority. We approached Pont Vic, the first swing bridge, with much anticipation. The red light was showing and there was no sign of anyone there to lift it for us. This left us a bit stumped. There was no answer on the VHF radio and none of the phone numbers I had were answered as it was a Saturday and out of office hours. The number I had used the previous day had an answering machine message and after a few attempts I realised it was giving me an out of hours number. This one was answered and it transpired that due to a misunderstanding between myself and the office, the wrong time had been arranged (pas bon francais). He had been to the bridge earlier, waited for half an hour and then left again. Anyway, he agreed to return later in the day at 2 or 3pm, so we just had to wait. We tied up to a conveniently situated pontoon, had lunch and a beer, did a couple of jobs and approached the bridge again at 2pm. The bridge keeper was prompt and we were able to get through quickly.
He then followed us along our route and we were able to complete the whole 30km of the Canal de Calais during the course of the afternoon. This included 5 movable bridges and one lock which was passed without incident. I had fairly low expectations of the canal, but it was lovely once we had got out of town. The sun appeared during the afternoon and the feeling of being on our way was really great.
We reached the junction with the River Aa at 1830 and tied up for the night on moorings at Watten. On our journey along the canal de Calais, we had not seen another motorised vessel, however the River Aa forms part of the larger commercial network up to Dunkerque and so we caught our first sight of some of the barges that we would be encountering on our next section.