Our night on the moorings at Watten was very quiet and we set off mid-morning hoping to get to Beuvry. We reached our first commercial lock at around 11:30 and after a bit of confused VHF communication, followed a barge in. We tied to bollards in the wall, however soon realised that as we ascended above these bollards, the lines would come off and there were no others within reach. Oops. Just as well Cy is able to throw a mean lasso and as we rose in the lock he was able to throw a line up and catch a bollard on the shore. All these antics were watched with wry amusement by the bargee in front of us. We distracted him so much that he wasn’t watching his own lines very carefully and one of them started to snap.
We encountered our next lock about an hour later. This was the monster Ecluse Fontinettes. It was built in the 1960s and took over from the boat lift which had been in operation since the 1880s.
The height of this lock is over 13m and as we approached we were surprised to see the red light switch to red and green, signalling that the lock was being prepared for us. I was amazed since everything I had read prior to our trip made it clear that these huge commercial locks would not be operated just for a little boat like us, and that it was usually necessary to wait for some more traffic.
However, in we went. Straight into the bottom of a vast concrete chamber with the gates ominously closing behind us. We tied up towards the front of the lock to enable the lock-keeper to use the middle set of gates and thus only needing to fill half the lock. We found a floating bollard and tied a stern and a bow line to the same bollard, as the books suggest. It soon became apparent that our tying technique was a bit below par. As the water started to pour in, the huge amount of turbulence created meant we were unable to hold Doris steady with the lines. Her stern was kicked right out, leaving the bow grinding into the concrete wall, scraping the mud off the wall as we went up. Sitting on the bow watching this happen was completely terrifying and I had no idea if Doris would still be intact when we reached the top. At the other end of the boat, Cy was frantically working the engines to try and counteract some of this effect. Using engines inside a lock is not technically allowed, but there was really no option. The ten minutes or so for the chamber to fill felt like forever and we were hugely relieved to see the lock gates finally open and for us to be able to escape. Miraculously, Doris was OK and there appeared to be no damage sustained. For both of us, it took a while for the shaking to subside.
After this experience, the rest of the day was relatively uneventful.
There had been a problem with one of our pump outs (bit unpleasant, so wont go into details), and Cy was able to attend to this whilst I took the helm for a while.
We reached the halt at Beuvry at around 6pm. It was a lovely little side arm with permanent boat moorings and a space reserved for visitors.
We tied up in the sunshine and were welcomed by a friendly lady who was out walking. She explained that the moorings were free and showed us which water tap worked. Our water supplies were getting low so it was great to find somewhere we could fill up. There was an electricity supply, however, it appeared to need a special key fob to operate it. This was less of an issue than water, so we weren’t too concerned.
Our starboard engine had seemed to be struggling a bit during the day, so Cy took to his paddleboard to investigate……..
There was a large piece of plastic wrapped around the prop which explained the problem. Debris in the canal is quite an issue, a lot of branches float along just beneath the surface of the water. These are a particular problem for Doris as her propellers are relatively high. We had already heard and felt a few clunks.
The night at Beuvry was another peaceful one and we headed off the next morning at around 09:30. The first lock was close by, but we were a bit low on provisions and diesel, so we tied up at the waiting pontoon and I wandered off to chat with the eclusier. He recommended that head on through the lock tout suite, and took a side arm a bit further up to a town called La Basse. Here we could tie up and the supermarket was very near. He also showed me the best place to attach our lines once inside the lock. I returned to Cy and Doris and off we went. This time, we felt much less pressured and were able to get our lines tied more carefully. It all went very smoothly indeed and we were feeling quite chuffed.
On y va! The side arm was located and we proceeded cautiously along. I managed to arrive at the supermarket, armed with carrier bags, just as the two hour closure for lunch occurred! Never mind, a spot of lunch, a bit of a faff and a couple of runs to the self service petrol station with the jerry cans, and two o’clock arrived. In the meantime, Cy was fixing a diesel leak and doing laundry.
Once back on the main canal, we made a flawed decision at around 5pm, to head down another side arm to find somewhere to tie up for the evening. Moorings suitable for small craft on this commercial stretch of canal are a bit sparse, so heading off piste a bit seemed a good idea. Although we didn’t have detailed maps for this area, our overview plan showed the 8km canal de Lens as being fully navigable up to the town of Lens where the canal terminates. It was a nice evening and a pleasant stretch of water so we thought it might be fun to go all the way.
We almost made it, and then the boat came to a sudden stop and the engines both died. Cy was able to react quickly, suspecting that we had run aground and the cooling water intakes for both engines had become clogged with silt. We were left at the mercy of the wind, which thankfully turned us back round and we started drifting gently back the way we had come. I was ready with the boat hook in case we got too close to either bank. Cy managed to get one engine going, barely, and we limped back slowly to a pontoon that we had passed earlier (the one in the photo). During this time, Cy was stripping down the other engine, trying to ascertain what, if any, damage was sustained. Once we were tied up, the process was repeated for the other engine. The verdict was that they both seemed OK, and we had gotten away with it again. Another pretty scary event. Once again, I had been shaking like a leaf! It was during the course of this evening that our engines were given names of Pat and Suzy. Anyone with a slightly nautical mind should easily guess which is which! Pat and Suzy are technically twins, but Pat is much more the long suffering elder sister as she has to charge the house batteries and operate the heating system for us. It was also Pat that had managed to get us back to a mooring. Despite all the stress, and the rickety old pontoon next to a road that we tied to, we slept well.
The next morning was another cold one (not sure why we are constantly surprised by this, it is April in northern France after all, of course it’s cold), engine checks were carried out and off we went. It took less than 5 minutes to realise that Suzy was seriously unwell. She was switched off pronto and Pat once again carried us along to the next mooring which was another pontoon virtually at the junction with the main canal. An hour and a half later, with use of the boat hook and a broom/knife arrangement, several wads of garden fleece material and nylon twine were removed from both propellers.
This certainly accounted for labouring and overheating of the engines. Off we went again, and Suzy was quite happy for a while, but then our speed suddenly dropped from 8km/h to 6, so it was Pat to the rescue again. We passed through three locks in the course of the afternoon, all large locks, but we were sent through alone without any delays, and all proceeded without incident. The landscape was quite industrial, not particularly pretty, but interesting. The canals are used as major transport routes and we saw a fair few working barges.
We had hoped to reach Arleux today, and we tied up at around 3pm. We were the only small boat around, all the other vessels were big barges, both working ones and ones set up just as homes. I went off to have a bit of a look at the town whilst Cy prodded the props again.
On the whole, I have been surprised by how much is needed to be done in looking after a boat. The regular maintenance is considerable, but every day something unexpected seems to crop which needs dealing with. It is no wonder that we both feel exhausted at the end of each day.
The other thing to mention is how useful the AIS system is proving. It is invaluable at sea and has been brilliant inland aswell. All the traffic we have seen has been commercial barges, so they have to have AIS. For the uninitiated AIS stands for Automatic Identification System , and sends details of vessel with information such as size, speed and course. It is able to predict when you are likely to meet, which seems to be almost always at a narrow section of the waterway or a bridge! It is much better to have 15 minutes notice that you are going to encounter an 80 metre barge than just be faced with it screaming around a corner at you, or appearing from behind wanting to overtake.