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'.
14 July 2019 | or Antipodean Antics
Hello again. It's been a while, hasn't it?
Sorry about that. Perhaps an explanation is in order.
I appreciate that this may be a tad difficult for most of you to believe, especially those of you unfortunate enough to still be having to hold down full-time jobs, but I've been a bit busy lately. A lot of the winter has been taken up by writing and publishing book two of the 'Utterly Useless Guide to Mediterranean Sailing' series. *
Any time unaccountably left over has been devoted to pondering on, and trying to second-guess, the implications that Brexit is likely to have on our peripatetic lifestyle. This has proven to be inordinately difficult. In desperation I was even driven to resorting to management twaddle.
Back in the 80s and 90s I was subjected to a constant stream of management-speak; an endless barrage of acronyms and bullshit leavened with a sprinkling of the bleedin' obvious dressed up as profundity by the use of pseudo-scientific and light engineering terms which were, in reality, just heavily disguised abject bollocks.
I thought I'd left all that crap behind, given that most of it had the durability and life-expectancy of a mayfly with a serious crystal meth habit. One of the more tenacious of these management fads is known as a SWOT analysis. This has managed to outlast such apparent immortals as Management By Objectives, Total Quality Management and SMART goals.
SWOT, like most management and PR crap, is an acronym. It stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. I'm sure the tossers who think this dross up spend more time working on the acronym than they do on the content. In fact, I'd go further; they mould the underlying content (such as there may be) to fit the acronym rather than vice versa.
Nevertheless, I persevered and started to apply a SWOT analysis to our Brexit conundrum.
Indeed, despite SWOTting 'til my brain hurt, the only real conclusion I could come to regarding the potential consequences of brexit was 'Nobody knows'. Especially the politicians. Or if they do know, they're certainly not telling anybody, especially the likes of you and me. In fact, the more I SWOTted, the more convinced I became that no-one could, or would, ever know.
Until it actually happens.
Or doesn't, as the case may be.
You may have noticed that I have studiously avoided nailing my colours to the mast and proclaiming to which Brexit tribe I belong. The reasons for this cowardice are manifold, but the reticence is ultimately pointless. Those who know me will undoubtedly be well aware of my characteristically trenchant views on the subject and those who don't know me could probably work out my allegiance in microseconds. Nevertheless, it's a desperately divisive subject and one which, I suspect, will leave scars on British society for decades, whichever way it goes. So I'll try to keep this blog a haven of tolerance and co-operation, a neutral zone in the, thankfully mainly verbal, civil war that passes for current British social discourse.**
And that moi, in addition to being a tribute to Miss Piggy, leads us effortlessly into the third feeble excuse for my inaction on the blog front. We are currently in France, making our way along the Canal du Rhône au Rhin, from St. Jean de Losne to Mulhouse. Over the winter we reverted to land-based transport, doing a circuit taking in Jersey, Spain, Portugal and back to France. Such a lifestyle entails a constant battle to master the basics of whatever language happens to be most prevalent in the area in which we find ourselves at any particular time. This is not usually over-successful as our mental processes seem have a built in time-delay, which results in our addressing Spaniards in French, the Portuguese in Spanish and the French in Portuguese.
So, at the moment, present circumstances dictate that we spend hours every day trying to reclaim what's left of our, already risible, 'O' level French. The problem here is that the French don't speak 'O' level French. They speak a form of fractured, post-graduate French with every third word missed out. The difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that the Jurassien accent is so thick that it qualifies as a proper dialect. Learning Standard French and then encountering a native of the Jura is on a par with learning BBC English and trying to hold a conversation with a Geordie. He can make a reasonable fist of understanding what you're trying to say, but you haven't the slightest idea what the Hell he's on about. You can see that we're on to a hiding to nothing here.
However, matters are eased somewhat by the presence of a considerable number of anglophones. In the main, these are not French. I have a strong suspicion that virtually every French national is secretly fluent in at least four languages, invariably including English, but that they have all made a clandestine mutual pact to only speak auctioneer-speed French to any upstart foreigner who has the temerity to attempt to engage them in conversation. In extremis they can usually be persuaded to take pity on the poor helpless foreigner and will break into near perfect RP English after an apologetic shrug and an embarrassed disclaimer for their supposedly abysmal language skills. This puts them streets ahead of most Brits, whose grasp of languages other than English is so dismal that their primary tactic when confronted with a foreigner who appears to have had the effrontery not to have learned English is to shout English at them slowly or, if in Spain, Portugal or Italy, to tag an 'o' on the end of each word.
In this area of the inland waterways, the majority of anglophones are neither French, nor English, but antipodean. The place is overrun with Aussies and Kiwis. For three to six months in the summer the place is swarming with them. Hardly a Brit to be seen. And so it came to pass that we have been doing most of our socialising with our antipodean brethren.
George Bernard Shaw was referring to England and the United States when he coined his famous aphorism about two countries divided by a common language, but he could equally have been referring to Britain (especially England) and the antipodes. One would have thought that the shared language and the considerable overlap in cultural heritage would have led to a marked similarity in customs and social mores. Of course, this is true to a degree, but to far less of a degree than one would have expected. Well, than I would have expected.
A good example of this occurs when invitations are made to 'just pop round for a couple of drinks'. When invited round for a few drinks, the archetypal Brit will open the fridge, absent-mindedly pull out the first bottle of plonk his hand alights on, stroll down the pontoon and clamber on board his host's boat, casually handing the plonk over as he does so. He then takes the proffered seat and proceeds to hoover his way through the table-full of assorted nibbles while simultaneously decimating the host boat's beer supply.
Should he have the good fortune to be accompanied by Mrs Yottie, she will attempt to elevate things to a more civilised and refined level by bringing along a delicate posy of lovingly hand-arranged flowers, or a tasteful little packet of After Eight mints. She will hand these over to a soft cooing of appreciation from the hostess, before the host asks what she would like to drink.
"Oh, I shouldn't really", she will simper coyly, "but perhaps just a small glass of white wine would be lovely." Two bottles of Chardonnay later she switches to G&T and when the gin's gone makes heroic inroads into the Baileys. A few nights like this and the host boat will be reduced to Dickensian penury.
Contrast this, with inviting a bunch of Aussies and/or Kiwis round. You are fully prepared for the expected onslaught of yottie locusts. The table groans under the accumulated weight of Lidl's entire stock of party food, augmented by bowls of crisps, olives and pistachios. The fridge is jam-packed with enough beer to necessitate the raising of the waterline by 20 cm and you've got enough G&T to keep a yacht club commodore happy for a fortnight.
Then your guests arrive. The men are in the vanguard, staggering under the combined load of two crates of beer each. They are closely followed by the ladies, gliding down the pontoon, single file, in stately procession. Their heads held high, they carry in front of them trays laden with exotic, lovingly hand-crafted titbits; seafood delicacies, light fluffy mushroom timbales - I wouldn't be surprised to come across baby voles in aspic stuffed with hummingbird tongues. Looking upon the spectacle you could almost swear you could hear the accompanying strains of Handel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.
If hosting a drinks soirée for a bunch of Brits threatens penury, then hosting one for the antipodean contingent poses the opposite problem, one is left with an embarrassment of riches, but a desperate shortage of stowage.
Cupboards creak from the strain of trying to accommodate the many newly acquired bottles of obscure spirits, while floorboards erupt upwards as the bilges struggle to contain the seemingly endless crates of assorted beers. Fridge doors have to be buttressed shut with boathooks. Host boats are frequently driven to setting up food banks for the local disadvantaged, just to free up some cupboard space.
Of course, whichever norm you follow, these things all even out as people take their turns to be host, but when different cultural expectations mix, it can lead to little misunderstandings at first. What we need is a sort of cultural babelfish.
*It's called 'Finding Einstein' and is available on Amazon at the knock-down, unbelievable, never to be repeated, price of £2.99 (e-book) or £6.99 (paperback). Get it today, folks, while stocks last.
**Well, mainly verbal. So far, at least.
Reflections from The Dark Side
31 July 2018 | or chickening out
One of Jean-Paul Sartre's witty, light-hearted aphorisms was the spiritually uplifting observation that "Hell is other people". Mind you, for him, other people were mainly French so his point of view is at least understandable. Our change of cruising from sea to inland waterway has given us some sympathy with his rather jaundiced views. Mind you, I've got more sympathy for Simone de Beauvoir. For her, other people consisted mainly of that gloomy bastard Sartre.
Three years we've been at this canal boating malarkey. Three years since we metamorphosed from weather-beaten, hoary old salts, ecofriendly reservoirs of the wisdom of the ages, blissfully drifting around the Med in harmony with nature, into boating Darth Vaders, scouring waterways in motorised Death Stars, hellbent on vindictively dragging all we meet down with us to the inner circles of petrol head Hell and looking upon it as a bonus if we can really screw the environment while we're at it.
In those three years we have matured into the role a little, and it has become apparent that the Inland Waterway Life is not quite as we had naïvely anticipated. That is not to say that we got it completely wrong. Even we would have difficulty with that.
Attentive (and long term) readers will remember that the original catalyst that triggered the decision to change lifestyles was another episode at anchor on a rising wind. The novelty of living in fear of sudden and violent death was starting to wear off. We fancied something a bit more sedate; something a tad more relaxing; something a smidgeon less terrifyingly stressful. The inland waterways seemed just the ticket.
In some ways, our prognostications were right. In three whole years, not once have we had to spend a night on anchor watch. This is hardly surprising, given that not a lot of anchoring goes on in rivers and canals. It's a lot easier to tie up to the side which, unlike an anchor, doesn't tend to drag and wander about in the early hours of the morning. Tying to the side also has the added advantage of not parking yourself in the middle of a narrow channel and thus giving the 120 metre cement barge a choice between ramming itself up the bank or ramming itself up your arse and steamrollering you into scrap metal. In fact, in the whole three years, our anchor has never been deployed in anger. As it happens, it has only been out of its hole once and that was while we were out of the water and wanted to check that it was, indeed, attached to the boat. Just in case we ever felt like using it.
So far so good then.
It's not all completely relaxing though. What you gain by not being vulnerable to the capricious and vengeful forces of nature you can equally lose by the greater exposure to your fellow man. Interaction with others is qualitatively different when cruising the inland waterways than when coasthopping. The latter is like strolling down the street politely peeking into people's front gardens whereas the former is more akin to tromping through their back yards peering in through their windows at the grubby intimate details of their tawdry, squalid, banal, daily lives. From the sea you see the sanitised façade that a country puts on to the rest of the world. From a river or canal you are directly exposed to the soft underbelly of the culture.
This effect is amplified by the fact that although rivers and canals wander through some of the most exquisite countryside to be found anywhere, they also frequently pass through some of the less salubrious areas, desolate industrial wastelands rendered hollow, skeletal and empty by the near extinction of the manufacturing base of most of western Europe. In France these waterways were the arteries of chemical manufacturing, tile making, cement works, felt production, steel making, steel working and logging. They carried raw materials one way and finished goods back the other. Now they are mainly tourist routes or watery playgrounds for dilettante fluvial nomads like us. On the plus side, though, they do act as havens and reservoirs for wildlife.
Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, cruising inland waterways does carry the risk of encountering some of the less savoury aspects of a culture. Such was the case for us in Nomexy. We had moored at an unserviced quay in what seemed like an innocuous enough spot, facing a pétanque ground and opposite what appeared to be the local sports hall cum * community centre. Wooden picnic tables and benches were scattered over the neatly trimmed grass, interspersed with brick barbeque units. So far, so middle class. We had lunch and settled down for a well-earned post-prandial snooze.
I was awoken by a rhythmic knocking, a regular one-per-second thud, slowly insinuating its way into my consciousness. I tried to ignore it, but it persisted so I went outside for a recce. Seated on the nearest table, with his feet on the bench, was an existential challenge to my wishy-washy liberal sensibilities. He effortlessly pressed all my prejudice buttons:
Calf-length combat trousers & khaki sleeveless vest
Extensive tattoos, including face & neck
Bloody great bovver boots
Enough piercings to set off an airport security scanner
All of these reinforced my original hasty and lazy judgement of 'Ultra-right Neanderthal, probably mega-xenophobic and almost certainly of dubious personal hygiene'. I did try to treat this obviously prejudiced assessment with the suspicion and caution that it so patently deserved, but this was made difficult by what he was holding in his right hand and what he was doing with it. **
What he was holding was a bloody great heavy-duty crowbar, about a metre long from its curved hook at one end to the wicked looking angled chisel at the other. What he was doing with it was gouging chunks out of the bench, swinging the crowbar from over his head in slow, regular, sweeping arcs.
This put me in a bit of a quandary. I considered my options. There appeared to be a choice of two approaches, The Authoritarian and The Sympathetic.
The Authoritarian approach involved waving a video camera about and shouting something along the lines of "Hoi vous sac antisocial de la merde! Arrête ça tout de suite. Je vous ai sur le film et j'appelle la police! This had the advantage of being short, quick, simple, and not at all intellectually taxing, which is why this approach is commonly favoured by the editor of the Daily Mail.
The Sympathetic, on the other hand required establishing a rapport with the poor man, who was obviously in the throes of social alienation syndrome, tempered with a touch of OCD and liberally garnished with a jus of bipolar disorder.
The correct response here would be to approach from the side in an obviously non-threatening and reaching-out manner and demonstrate that I felt his pain. After about four hours of soul baring he would see the error of his ways, hug me with thankful tears streaming down his cheeks and take his leave to reclaim his place in society and go on to live a full, satisfying and productive life. This tactic is favoured by Guardian readers who have the time for this idealistic hogwash, blithely ignoring the fact that months, if not years, of effort by dedicated, highly trained professionals have made little if any progress in bettering the lot of poor unfortunates like our crowbar-wielding friend here.
Both of these strategies, however, suffer from a common flaw (aside, that is, from the fact that neither of them actually works) and that is that they would bring us, and the boat, sharply into focus in the spotlight of his attention. This would not be a good thing. Events such as this make you realise just how vulnerable a boat on the inland waterways can be. Even if he decided against deploying his restyling skills on either of us, that wrecking bar would make short work of the windows and paintwork, two-part epoxy notwithstanding.
So I eschewed both The Authoritarian and The Sympathetic gambits and reverted to my default option, The Cowardly. I skulked in the saloon, despite the heat and stuffiness. studiously avoiding eye contact on the few occasions when I absolutely had to come up on deck. Every now and then I would do my Tunbridge Wells neighbourhood watch bit and snoop prissily through a gap in the blinds to see if he'd gone away. After about three hours he wandered off, having reduced most of the seat to kindling.
I still couldn't completely relax, though. How did I know he wouldn't come back at about two in the morning and try his hand at panel beating on the hull? I even spent the night in the saloon fully dressed.
I can't say I'm proud of myself, but at least the windows and paintwork are still intact. Well, they are until we hit the next lock, anyway.
*Enough of your adolescent smut. It's a perfectly good English word. 'combined with; also used as (used to describe things with a dual nature or function)."a study-cum-bedroom"
**I know what you're thinking, and you're wrong. I thought I'd said enough of the smut.