La Marne - Champagne et Bourgogne
25 June 2011
We turned off the Saone into the canal. It is narrow and SHALLOW. This canal is the deepest route to Paris. Because of the very dry spring the Central Canal had been closed to deep draft vessels. We found out two day up this canal the Vogis had been closed because a Dutch barge had got stuck in one of the locks as they filled it. The wall was damaged and the estimate was that it would take four weeks to fix but knowing the French it would take that time to let the contract let alone fix the lock. The consequence of that was that all the Dutch vessels and many German boat on their way north or south turned around and came through our canal. Now as more boats go uphill and the water flows down to fill the locks below more water has to be released into the upper most reaches of the canal system. Our water level were consistently lower than the mean water level. Not a good sign.
I had calibrated my depth sounder to read the exact depth under the keel so when we entred this canal it was obvious that it was shallow. Up the first pnd we only had 200 and sometimes only 100mm under the keel.
I have included the stops we made on the return trip but not repeated a description of the stops we used again except with extra infomation.
Lock 1 Chemin de Fer PK223
This is the first automatic lock in the sytem of this canal. It opens for you and you go in, tie up and lift the blue rod to say you are ready. The lock gates close and the water rises. Now you expect the upper gate to open and you motor out but waut there is more. Along side the blue rod is a call box. Press the button and the system dials the control centre. A polite lady asks you in French the name of your boat and the number of the automatic box she has just released into a shoot below the speaker. Now I can handle that but there were two boats in the lock, us and a German who wanted to get on his way. I had to explain to the lady I was taking number 4 while the other vessel took number 7. After some time we all got the message and the lock gates opened. off steamed the other boat. We only continue through the next lock and then stopped at Maxilly.
It was good to stop at this newly constructed, with EU money at our first stop in the real canal. The following morning Richard and I set off on the bikes to fetch his car. No I dont think Richard had riden a bike since we both rode down to Hermanus when we where at school. It started to tell on both our legs at the 15 km mark when we turned off the Blue cycle route along the river tow path. As we went further and further the condition deteriorated. I was just round the bend ahead when I heard a shout. The front wheel of Richards bike had slipped from under him and he had tumbled a over t towards the river. he stopped inchs from the water but full of mud. A short walk was required to calm down then we were off again towards Auxonne. The car was safe and sound right next to another UK vehicle. The smart phone navigation directed us back to Maxilly.
After a good nights sleep and the required painkiller Richard was ready for the next leg of the journey. I was the only one who rode into the village to get the mornings bagette.
Only two locks before we pulled up at Cheuge next to a grain silo. Be careful of the stone side of the canal. We had just tied up fore and aft when a large barge went by. Malua was sucked out on the bow wave then thrown back as the stern passed. The fenders rode up on the stone wall and the side where scratch very badly. The lesson learnt is always have springs and make shure that your fenders are in place. If the side is low put the fender on its side so it floats on the water.
Richard and I set off to collect the car a few km down the canal. An eaasy ride on the newly constructed tow path.
We used this stop on the return. It is a fixed quay right in the middle of the country side. Lovely and isolated with only the farmers harvesting their wheat to disturb the tranquility. We had two days their but on the third a boat arrived in the afternoon and spoilt our time. We left the following day.
Montigny PK 192
Richard and Marita took the car and drove ahead to scout out the land so the 11 locks Denny and I did alone. The most dangerious situation arose along this section of the canal. As is always the case we came round a bend to be confrunted on a very narow section with a large barge comming down. on the front with his back to me was the barge captain talking on his phone quite oblivious to the oncomming wide yacht. I shouted and luckely he heard me. Running for the wheel house where is wife was spinning the wheel madly - the wrong way. I turned Malua for the bank as I watch the bow come towards our stern. The bow wave picke us up and pushe us towards the canal side and slewed the stern around out of the way of the steel barge side. I was now aground as the barge passed by. I gunned the engine just as the stern came abeam and headed for the open water in his wake. We where sucked out of the mud by his stern wave and tosse aside. The captain came out screaming but I quess from fear rather than at me. I hope he learnt a lesson.
The counrt side is quite beautiful in this part of the canal system. There is grass to the water edge which has been timmed by the VNF. Along most of the canal there is a newly constructed tow path coverd in tar and stones. Easy to ride on. The cultivated land is sometimes fenced but most times comes right down to the waters edge. Occasionly there are cows in the fields but mostly it is wheat or sunflowers. The wheat was in the process of being harvested but due to the rain they had to stop to let it dry out. After harvest the chaff was also wet so they had to wait for a few days dry weather before thay could bail that and take it to the barn for winter feed. Quite a process during this very rainy summer. I dont know what it was doing to the grapes.
Full crew back on board with 12 locks to pass though before we pulled up inside the radar zone of the lock. The lock gates opened but we did not enter. I dont know what that did to the system but the following morning we had to go back downstream to reactivate the lock gates before they opened for us. This stop is a steel whalf set into the bak next to a caraven site. Quite isolated from any town. Infact we could not find a bread shop the following day for our morning breakfast. Not a good start.
We were nearing the summit of the mountain and the challenge of 16 locks confrunted us. The water level was good so we set off for the summit after leaving Richards car at Villegusien. now these set of locks get higher and higher as the lift up the moutain get more serious. The last eight have a lift of more than 5 metre while the previous six have a lift of more than 3.5 metres. It takes some skill to pass the mooring line round a bollard 4 meters above your head. By the end of the day Richard our expert was scoring a perfect 10 out of ten for style and accomplishment. Great work. marita on the other had had to climb a green ladder to lift the blue pole on more than one occasion.
Champagne Canal and Tunnel de Balesmes PK160
The following is an extract from my Blog. The canal was conceived in 1845 and opened as the "Canal de la Haute Marne". It starts, in our case, on the Saone near Pontailler sur Saone and rises up through 43 locks to the summit with the long tunnel Balesmes, then falls from Langres via 71 locks to Vitry le Francois which is only a stones throw from Paris.
Some say it is boring because of the many straight sections while others enjoy the rural life surrounding the canal. For us on Malua the depth was always a problem. The official chart and recent advice advises that the depth is 2.2 meters however some guide books take the standard depth of 1.8. Being a glass half full type of person I thought I could even squeeze another few centimetres from the glass. Not so!
Four large reservoirs near Langres summit, la Liez, la Mouche, Charmes and la Vingeanne ensure an excellent supply of water into the system however this year a Dutch barge got stuck in lock 21 of the Vosges canal and put that out of action for more than a month. The impact of this is that the many Dutch vessels using that canal to get home have been diverted into our canal Champagne. Now that normally doesn't matter that much but the extra traffic through the locks means extra water flows down the canal and the authorities have to add water at the top of the system. Our problem was we were right in the middle of the Dutch pack and the water had not been adequately adjusted. It would rise and fall 200mm within an hour, so our 100mm under the keel became minus 100. Ok if it is mud but not good if you hit a sandbank.
The operation of the locks is all mechanised and generally automatically controlled by control unit you receive at lock 43, the start northwards at Maxilly. A clever device which you press as you approach the lock either "Avalant" or "Montant" - down or up stream. There is an additional button "bassinne" you press when you are secure within the lock to close the gates and adjust the water level. Some locks are controlled by a radar unit set about 100m back from the lock. As you pass the unit the indicator board next to the lock gate switches on the green light next to the red. The lock then adjusts the height of the water to let you enter. When the water level is right the gates swing open and the red light goes out. The remaining green indicates that you are permitted to enter. You do this with some care for in our case the lock may be long but it is not wide, only 600mm on either side of Malua. The water level is almost at the top of the lock wall so your fenders tend to ride up over the wall. After a while one gets very good at taking the centre line and stopping the boat next to a bollard, always on the side of the activation rod. These blue and red rods control the water level. One lifts the blue, never the red which shuts down the system, and the water level either flows in or out. The former can be quite sudden but nothing like the Rhone river locks while the outflow is more sedate. In the end we did not tie up on the way down as the boat did not move at all. One can also use the handheld control unit to start the process.
We only had one lock which did not work but I feel that the boat in front of us pushed the wrong button so after a while I started to push all the buttons and the system reset itself and we entered without human intervention. We did have a bit of a scare when a German fellow in a canoe joined us in the lock. As the gates opened he paddled out first and the gates started to close on our bow. A quick shift to astern and a press on the button saw the gates reopen and we exited vowing to run that silly red piece of plastic down. Unfortunately he followed us for three days on and off.
Towards the summit the locks come thick and fast 8 in four kilometres and they have a high rise of more than 5.2 meters each. This means that you have to secure to a bollard set in the wall then as you rise up the side resecure your lines to the bollard above. Some locks have three sets while most have just two.
Generally the locks have a rise of 3.5 meters and no bollards in the wall so when you enter you have to either climb up the ladder set in the wall to loop your lines round the bollard or use a long boat hook to get a line around a bollard set back from the wall. Our guests were a great help to loop the lines and became quite proficient at the task. Ten out of ten score on most locks! Line with a twist minus 2 points.
Meeting traffic coming the opposite way can, if it occurs on a bend, be a very scary event. On one occasion we came round a bend to be confronted by a large heavily laden peniche/barge with the skipper with his back to us talking on his mobile phone. On hearing my scream he turned and ran back to the wheel house snatching the wheel from his wife who had lost control. I turned Malua into the bank, ran aground and just waited for the crunch. Fortunately the bow wave pushed the stern around, I gunned the engine and we slid past the 30 meters of steel to pop out behind the vessel without a scratch. The skipper then bust from the wheel house screaming in French as I waved him goodbye. That was an exception because most skippers slow almost to a stop when they see another seriously wide vessel and you both pull over to starboard as you gently move past with a wave and a Bonjour.
The Balesmes Tunnel is an experience to take a yacht through. It is five kilometres long, 8 meters wide with a vertical wall on one side and a 1.8 meter wide tow path along the other wall. It is 3.2 deep and almost 6 meters from water to roof. The speed limit is 4 km/h and I must say with Malua being 4 meters wide it only leaves 1 meter on either side. Not a lot if you loose concentration. As you enter you can see the line of lights along the port wall and far in the distance a small speck of sunlight - the end of the tunnel. Being skipper you concentrate on the speck and judge the distance on either side out of the corner of your eye. A torch on the wall does help. If you do hit I suspect you would bounce off the walls until you got control back, loosing your stanchions on the one side and your topsides on the other. After more than an hour I was relieved to see the sunlight directly overhead. We were then out into the tree lines canal and the agricultural farm lands of rural France. All in all the canal is a great experience in canal travel, however the small towns along the route don't offer much. In most cases not even a bread shop so you don't do much shopping. The rural life is what it is good for and we enjoyed the scenery as the farmers went about their daily life. A word of advice don't take a yacht with 2.0 meters of draft into that canal even if the water is overflowing the banks unless you have nerves of steel.
Langre PK149 Return to Base
The following is an extract from my Blog
Many great expeditions have had to turn back before reaching their stated goal because of lack of water. For Malua's 2011 trip up the French canals to Paris that decision was made when the water ran out at Langres in the middle of the French country side. We had reached the Champagne district, the locks where all "avalant" or downhill and we could almost taste the salt of the sea but the water under the keel was just not enough.
We left the mooring at Langres soon after the sun came up and headed down river for the first time. We had not gone more than 50 meters when Malua came to a sudden and abrupt halt. No amount of power would move the vessel, not ahead or astern. We were hard aground. Luckily we were still in reach of the mooring quay and I was able to throw a line to our departing guests to secure it to a large boulder. With the help of the Anderson electric winch and the grunt from the 50 hp Yanmar engine Malua slowly came off the sandbank in the middle of the canal.
Two further attempts close to the left and then the right bank gave the same result - 2.0 m draft will not go over a sandbank estimated to be 1.8 below the surface. There was no immediate alternative, the result of removing weight from the boat has little effect on her draft and the thud when we went aground clearly indicated that the bottom was hard and not about to give. The water level in the canals was almost full so the dry summer that stymied Sundancer II passage to Paris was not the immediate cause. The extra weight of the wine, cheese and champagne acquired on route could have played a part but the fact that the canal is rated by the VNF as 2.2 deep doesn't mean that it is always that depth. Some guide books rate it at 1.8m!
We have travelled many kilometres in the " Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne" with only 100mm under the keel and in places the depth sounder indicating 0.0 as we steamed along at 7 km/h parting the mud knowing that if you stop you may not restart and if the mud turns to sandbank your expedition is over. It takes nerves of steel to keep that up day after day.
When the thud finally came we realized that we were not going to reach Paris in Malua this year. We set our compass for the Mediterranean appreciating that a boat built for the Southern Oceans is not meant to travel through rural France - c'est la vie.