That Was The Heat That Was
12 August 2019 | or The Rime Re-written
Moving from sea-going to inland waterways cruising involves a number of psychological adjustments, some of which we had anticipated, and others came as a bit of a surprise. Prime amongst the latter was our sensitivity to and awareness of the weather.
You can't get away from the weather as a sea-cruising yottie, it impacts on everything you do. It determines where you can stay, where you can go, if you can get there, how fast and unpleasant the trip can be and, in extremis, whether you get there in one piece.
Or get there at all for that matter.
As a result of its overwhelming influence on his life and well-being, the weather occupies a special place in the sea-going yottie's consciousness - it's always there. The only variable is its degree of prominence. On a good day it's just nagging away at the back of the mind. At the other end of the spectrum it hi-jacks the entire pre-frontal cortex and ropes in most of the limbic system while it's at it. This usually happens when he has a long trip in the offing, is in a potentially exposed anchorage, or has the threat of a particularly vindictive frontal system sweeping in to give him a good kicking.
In a scenario such as this our yottie becomes obsessed. Weather forecasts are checked every 20 minutes, despite his knowing full well that they are only updated every eight hours. He can't go into the cockpit without executing a nervous 360-degree scan of the horizon for any ominous cloud formations or threatening changes in sea state. He is hypersensitive to any zephyr of wind felt on his face and continuously turns his head to and fro trying to home in on changing wind direction. Trying to engage him in conversation is pointless. He will be so distracted that he'd have trouble following the plot of a Clive Cussler novel and if you do, by some miracle, draw him into a discussion on the relative artistic merits of The Archers and Love Island, he will last about three minutes before steering the subject round to the weather.
Such obsession can become a tad tedious after a while (like about ten years, say), and the inland waterways beckoned with the promise of a less weather-centric lifestyle.
We should have known better.
Weather still plays a prominent part in cruising, even when one decamps to the canals and rivers of Europe. It's not so much wind and rain that pose the greatest problem. Ironically enough, the weather that has the greatest effect on the inland yottie is what is generally referred to as good weather. You know - clear blue skies, light winds, sun - the full holiday-brochure photoshopped fantasy, and that's what we've been getting.
I thought we'd got used to hot weather, after ten years in the Med. I anticipated milder, less enervating temperatures than we had experienced in Mediterranean summers. This anticipation was a result of a common feature of human psychology. As a species, we tend to believe that what we have personally seen and experienced is representative of things as a whole. It's called availability bias. Our experience of France had mainly been the west and northwest. These areas have a temperate, maritime climate and in our minds we equated this with France in its entirety.
Much of the French river and canal network, however, is in the east and northeast of the country. France is a sod of a big country, so being in its eastern reaches puts us slap bang in the middle of a bloody great landmass. This, as any fule kno, gives it a continental climate, and continental climates are bi-polar beasts. Far from temperate moderation, this is a climate of extremes. In the winter temperatures can drop to -20 or lower, and remain below freezing for weeks or even months, while in summer it can climb into the forties. Correspondingly, precipitation is many times greater in the winter than it is in the summer.
From our purely selfish viewpoint, this disparity is sustainable. Rivers and canals need inconceivable quantities of water. The Saone, for example, has an average flow rate of 500 tonnes of water per second, peaking at 1000 tonnes per second in February. In August it reduces to a dribble of a mere 150 tonnes per second. Nature has, historically, managed to provide for this and even out supply and demand. The secret ingredient in this balancing act is snow.
Until recently, winter snowfall locked up unimaginable quantities of water in snowfields, which was then progressively released as meltwater when things warmed up. This, augmented by the occasional summer thunderstorm, ensured sufficient depth throughout the parched peak season.
Note I said, 'until recently'. The last few years seem to have broken the pattern. Over the last four years, both winter snow and summer rain have been uncharacteristically low whilst summers have lurched from one extreme heatwave to the next. This year broke all the records. There was very little snow over the winter and in the summer temperatures in the forties left us panting listlessly like beached whales while our numerous rotary fans knocked the stuffing out of the batteries.
This inconvenience, though, was as nothing compared to the effect these phenomena had on the water levels. Canals aren't deep at the best of times. In inland waterways a depth of 1.8 metres is the equivalent of a sea boat crossing the Marianas Trench. We draw 1.2 metres and most of the time we're sniffing around with well under a metre below the keel. In the Med, we'd be nervously hovering around on tippy-toe if we were in that sort of depth. In the current water shortage, we're blundering around in considerably less than that. We've already run aground twice.
Responsibility for managing the network lies with Voies Navigable de France. They do their best, bless'em (when they're not on strike) but their options are considerably circumscribed, and it's not just us boaties they have to factor into the equation. Traditionally the VNF sells water to farmers for irrigation. If that is limited or stops it wreaks havoc with food supplies and livelihoods. Mind you, the farmers, being French, just rig up heavy duty pumps and take the water anyway.
Modern life is fiendishly complex and interconnected, as is demonstrated by another implication of the higher ambient temperature and reduced water levels. Threequarters of France's electrical generation is nuclear, and these power stations can get a tad warm, so some sort of cooling system is generally agreed to be a good thing. Nuclear reactors are all water cooled - there's no VW Beetle version of a nuclear power station. Fifteen of France's nineteen nuclear reactors are situated inland and so depend on river water for cooling. A restricted flow of already warm water doesn't make for the most efficient cooling system, so it's beginning to look as though EDF may have to close down some of the reactors and therefore significantly reduce generating capacity, just as demand from air-con peaks.
All of this puts us boaties in our place. All reservoirs for the canals are low, with some having been down to 11% before the summer even started.
The VNF has a hierarchy of responses to water restriction. The first tactic is to reduce guaranteed depths by around forty centimetres. If that doesn't do the trick, they tackle water loss at the locks. There are two sources of water wastage here. A boat going through a lock on its own uses shedloads of water. A standard Freycinet lock uses just under a thousand tonnes of water to move one boat up or down five metres. It uses the same amount of water to move a lock full of four or five boats. double that if the lock has to be filled or emptied to allow the boat in, a situation known as 'the lock being against you'.
The VNF reduce this loss by aggregating the boats through the locks. A single boat approaching a lock has to wait until he has accumulated a lock-full of boats behind him. All the boats can then lock through.
Unless the lock is against them.
In which case, they have to wait until a lock-full of boats coming in the other direction lock through before they can use the lock.
This is admirable at saving water and very ecologically sound, but by 'eck it's inconvenient. If the traffic is light you can wait up to three hours before the lockkeeper lets you through. This plays havoc with passage planning.
If all this fails, they go for the nuclear option and start closing sections of canals, or entire canals if things really go tits-up. And that's where things are at the moment. Great swathes of the network are either closed or due to close in the next couple of weeks.
This state of affairs is causing serious inconvenience to, and consternation amongst inland yotties and the full, ghastly implications will be explained in the next, unedifying, instalment of 'That Was The Heat That Was'.