11 January 2021
My name is Isla and this is my first Blog.
When we started of in Gillingham, the water was always muddy and murky. The only fish we saw was tiny one’s mullets. We didn’t catch any, though me and Pippa tried to catch the mullets, but they wouldn’t eat the bait. Outside the marina in the river Medway the water was the same, but we didn’t see any fish, except for Chattem marina, they had some mullets. The next place was the English Channel. There the water was much clearer and way bluer. At Ramsgate we managed to hook a mullet, but it got away. We didn’t see any more fish except for mullets and the water was okay temperature. Pippa and Dad went swimming once. After the English Channel, we went through the French canals. There the water was warm, and it varied bettewn murky and crystal clear. The clearest place was the marina in Paris, it was as clear as it could get. From the bridge over the lock we went swimming a lot in the canals, especially when it was hot which it was a lot. We saw lots of fish, but we didn’t try to catch them because we were going as fast as we could. We saw several good-sized ones though and there was lots of people fishing. At last we reached the Med. There the water was clear and blue. We anchored of a French island and the first thing we did was go for a swim/snorkel. We were amazed by the clarity of the water and me and Pippa spent a good hour swimming around the boat. In the volcano islands in Italy was were the water was clearest. We saw baby groupers hiding under rocks and found lots of dried sea urchins. There were shells as well. The first anchorage was the best but the second one was good as well. The first was really cool because we anchored in boulders and was clearer.
From there we went to Greece. We tried fishing on the way because we had met some people who had caught some tunas, but we didn’t catch anything. Greece had the warmest water yet. We met up with family there and had the Olympics. That’s basically were we do a series of water sports in a race such as paddle boarding, swimming, etc. We ended up doing it twice, the second time was on Amily’s birthday because she liked it. After the hurricane it got colder, but we managed to catch some bonitos and dad caught a grouper.
After Greece we sailed back though Italy. We didn’t go swimming because it was to cold. We then went to the Balericks. There the water was very clear. I didn’t go swimming, but we did see two baby Mahi Mahis chasing a school of fish around the boat. We then caught are first Mahi Mahis on the way to the canaries. We heard the real run first. We pulled in the meat hook and found a Mahi Mahi on that one as well. We got them both on the boat and had a delicious sashimi dinner.
We went swimming once in the Canaries and the water was okay temperature and clear. We didn’t go swimming in the marina or fishing.
On the Atlantic passage we started out by catching a good-sized Mahi Mahi. We named it Galaxy for its cool blue spots. The second fish on the passage was Ginormo. He was a really big Mahi Mahi. The reel was running out of line when he tired, and we managed to get him in.
The third fish we caught was called Minnow. He was pretty small but fought really hard for really a long time. Still, he made a good dinner. The next fish we got was a double header. Me and Mum saw the meat hook go one way and then the other. The first fish got away with the hook when it jumped out of the water. The second one we caught though ant Pippa named it Tropical. The last fish we caught was a barracuda. It was a little weird because we were still 150 miles of shore. We arrived in the Caribbean. The water is warm, clear and full of sea life. There are lobsters, fish, turtles, and shells. We look forward to seeing what the rest of the Caribbean is like.
Check out more photos in the gallery.
A Few of My Favorite Things
09 January 2021
I’m Pippa, and this is my first Blog. It’s called:
A Few of My Favorite Things
It all started in lock-down in Gillingham U.K. Mark the gardener for the marina already had a pen full of older duck’s, he even had his own duck named dog the duck. They where very funny! A month later he told us that a duckling hatched. It was so cute! We named him Canada, next came Kiwi, then came Isla, then Pippa, Elanor, and quit a few more. They all where in a cage in Marks workshop. Me and Isla saw them every day and we even made them a duck house! Some days we even got to bathe them. It was hard to say goodbye.
Queeny and Medway- Queeny and Medway were duck mates, they always came to the boat to get more bread. They did that for pretty much a month until we started seeing Queeny less and less. We then thought Queeny had eggs. We where right but there was a downside. Mark came to the boat and told us that a fox must have killed Queeny but he managed to save Queeny’s eggs. It was sad and happy at the same time. Most of the eggs survived and hatched!
The River Marne
The river Marne was a very picturesque river. There was this one spot in particular that I liked. It all started after going up a lock and we decided to stop at a concrete key. It was quite pretty! But than some tanagers started playing annoying music by the boat. So, we decided to move up the river, only a tiny bit, to an even more beautiful spot. We went swimming, and me and Isla tried caching a lizard (with no susses) and settled down on a pretty, old slipway to sketch the vineyards across the river. We had burgers for diner outside and me and Isla even went for a 10:00 a clock swim it was so hot.
Paris was beautiful! We went down the river going under low bridges including the bridge Alexandra 3. Witch was awesome! We passed the Eifel tower by water and then arrived in a marina in middle of Paris. The next day we went site seeing we went to the Alexandra 3, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Eifel tower with electric scooter. It was amazing! A day later we went to see the Fireworks. We waited till it was time by the river and then saw the Eifel tower witch made it look like it was exploding. It was truly spectacular!
Volcano Islands (Aeolian Islands)
When we arrived in the volcano islands we stopped in a pretty anchorage. It had crystal clear, warm, water and had boulders on the bottom. There where some caves by the water and great snorkelling. We then went to a different island in a big, crazy, busy, bay. There we climbed up a volcano in hot, sunny weather. But it was worth it. It had an amazing view! After we did some shopping, we went across to a different bay and had a delicious dinner. The next morning, we set off.
The South of France
17 September 2020
After a 3 month delay in the UK due to Covid, and another month spent motoring through the inland waterways of France, we finally made it to the Med. The last lock on the Rhone River spat us out into the man-made harbour of Port Saint Louis and back into the reality of boats everywhere. In the shadow of a large cruise ship we demonstrated our lack of familiarity with Med-Mooring. Despite the challenges from having lines that were too short and wind on the beam we eventually stern tied to the wall with no damage other than to our pride. Unfortunately, it was Sunday afternoon and the marina office was closed so we couldn't enjoy the showers we had promised ourselves, but we were so very excited to have the boat floating in saltwater again.
Port Saint Louis served as an excellent re-provision stop because both a good grocery store and a gas station were within sight and you could walk your groceries back to the boat with the shopping cart (funny what gets you excited when you are cruising). Primarily we were there because we still had the mast on the deck and there were several large full facility yards nearby. We were booked in for a Monday afternoon mast re-step, so we wasted little time getting started on putting the mast back together.
The next morning, we traveled down the channel to Navy Services (the yard booked to do the work). The yard provided all services, even had a small chandlery, but mooring options were severely limited. Eventually we squeezed ourselves up to the stone wall next to the crane. The heat was relentless. With no options to swim we kept cooling ourselves with short showers down below. The spreaders went back on followed by the stays. The timber mast supports and strapping was loosened and by 3 pm we were ready for the lift. The yard guys spoke very little English and their rapid-fire French only added to the confusion; however, they knew their business. We had worried that at 100 Euros for 30 minutes of crane time, followed by 50 Euros for each subsequent 15 minute block, would easily take us to a couple hundred Euros. Not so. After only 20 minutes Mel and I were racing to attach the backstays as the crane was being disconnected from the mast.
And so, we were a sailboat again and it felt good! We were also in the south of France - home of the superyachts for the rich and famous and every other type of boat for the rest. We headed east out of Port Saint Louis into a light headwind and rolled out the sails to test stay tension and sail set. Our destination was an island off Marseille. There is a certain mayhem to boat life in the South of France and whenever we approached a popular anchorage or cruising area the amount of boat traffic would increase substantially. By the time we approached that first anchorage the boat was pitching and rolling from boat wakes. There were monohulls, RIBs, big yachts, and catamarans - and when I say RIBs, I'm talking about a size range that includes bigger than our Moody 44. We selected a spot with a bit of room between boats to drop the hook. Turns out that in France a "bit of room" is an invitation to squeeze another boat or two in next to you. We just smiled and waved and started chain drinking bottles of French wines in the cockpit - as you do in France.
There was a lot of excitement on Swift that first evening. The water was crystal clear and warm. Pippa and Isla were in with masks exploring within five minutes. The landscape was a jumble of boulders and exposed rock outcroppings with patches of arid vegetation. There was a spectacular sunset. We stayed up late in the warm Mediterranean breeze watching for shooting stars. Despite having been on the boat for five months and having already had some amazing adventures, somehow it felt like we had finally transitioned to an offshore cruising boat - we were at anchor (for only the second time), we were self-sufficient, and we were in a warm tropical climate.
An unfortunate westerly swell chased us out of that picturesque anchorage after the first night and back into a marina - much to our chagrin. We especially weren't keen to spend 50 Euro for the privilege, but the kids made friends and stayed up late playing tag and socializing making the most of their French immersion schooling. The next morning, we left early to make the most of the forecasted westerly winds. The stretch of coast between Marseille and Toulon is renowned for its spectacular beauty and we slipped east past impressive cliffs and rocky islands. The water was an impressive deep blue and we saw tuna feeding on the surface. The winds increased steadily to 20+ knots and we flew downwind surrounded by other sailboats. We rounded the final point going eight and half knots despite the reefed sails. We furled in the sails and motored into the bay, stunned by the number of boats - impressive to us was that sailboats far outnumbered the power boats. We anchored in sand at six meters and we were immediately surrounded by jet skis and motorized surfboards - when did those become a thing and where did they come from?
The next morning the winds had abated and we motored 3 miles to Porkrolls* Island (I'm pretty sure that after a month and a half in France I've got the pronunciation spot on). We were early enough to select a nice spot to drop the anchor. Within 15 minutes our first neighbor arrived and anchored a few meters away. Our next neighbor was there 5 minutes later, and after motoring past us flat out a couple of times, they threw out their anchor just in front of us. Not sure if we were supposed to step into their cockpit for a visit but come on guys where was the social distancing? At least both boats, and many of the rest that anchored within swing distance, put their fenders out so if they were to bump into us there would be no harm done, right? And so, there we sat. A beautiful bay in one of the most popular cruising grounds in the South of France. Fancy boats all around us, the water was warm and clear, the wakes from the passing RIBs were nauseating, and everyone seemed to be having a great time.
The locals appeared to have embraced suntanning, a surprise to us from Canada. We were so obviously foreigners with our sunshirts, hats, and pasty white sunscreened faces. I was even a nice shade of pink after foolishly leaving my shirt off for a bit too long, although Mel had recently mentioned how much she was loving the French rosé so perhaps I was just trying to impress my wife. We were unpleasantly surprised when the woman on the boat next to us, who had been sun tanning on this coast since the 1970s, stripped down to the briefest of briefs and launched herself onto a doughnut inflatable tied to the back of her boat. The inflatable disappeared under her and she drifted spread eagled down our starboard side so we thought it was probably for the best if we all cuddled up together for lunch and faced out to port. Clothing optional seemed to be normal for both genders. A rather unfortunate snorkeling experience, when an older gentleman swam past having just freed willy, left us wondering if perhaps we were in the wrong bay. We had heard that there was a legislated nudist island in the area where the beach wasn't just "clothing optional" but rather clothing wasn't allowed. Of course, with the coronavirus rules in France I suppose we may have been able to use our masks for either the anonymity they offered or perhaps for alternative covering opportunities to sneak across the beach and get to town. However, having just provisioned we decide there was no need to discover for ourselves if we were on the right (or wrong) island and we stayed on the boat.
The southern Mediterranean coast of France was a pleasant surprise. We feared exorbitant marina fees and paying for anchorages. In reality there were lots of free anchorages and often they were stunning. We were there in mid-August and it was very busy; however, we could always find a good spot to anchor for the night. We only went to two marinas and both were 50 Euros for a 13 meter sailboat stern tied. Marina facilities were good and power and water were included. We did not go out for dinner, but restaurants and bars were accessible in many locations despite it being the summer of Covid 2020. People were friendly. Weather forecasting was good. Did I mention that the water was warm and clear? We could have spent longer but it was time to go and take some good winds further east to Sardinia - another story for another time.
*My wife has informed me that it is actually the Porquerolles Islands.
Don't forget to check Instagram for updates: @sailing.swift
French Canals: Part 3- The Soane and the Rhone
15 September 2020
We spend the next few days traveling slowly down the remaining 50 kms of the entre Champagne canal. The countryside continues to be scenic and rural. We get to spend time in treelined stretches tied up in remote stops most often to blue dolphins. We swim to stay cool. Sometimes there are villages to explore but all of them are too small for a Boulengerie. However, they are pretty with impressive churches and full of the character that comes from centuries of apparently random additions and building on narrow streets that never take the most direct path. Weedy stretches and even shallows continue to plague us. Our raw water strainer needs constant attention and one morning we burn out the impeller on a stretch of canal. We quickly tie to the railings on the tow path where it passes under a bridge and fortunately, we carry a spare and can get going again.
Our last few kilometers on the Entre Champagne canal includes encountering several other vessels including one heading upstream. Should we let them know this is now a road to nowhere? We also pass a "LeBoat" rental and when we finally turn onto the Soane River there is another "LeBoat" waiting at the first lock. We had heard horror stories of the hire boats partly because there were no prerequisite skills required to rent them. We wonder if we should turn and run back to safety of the quiet countryside except that the beer is running out. It's still a narrow water way and as we pull up behind the "LeBoat" we suck our bow rope into our propeller. Instant panic! In less than a minute I'm in the water with my mask and a knife. The rope cutter on the shaft has already done most of the work and in less than two minutes the engine is running again with no apparent damage. And here we were looking at a rental boat and fearing their lack of boating skills. The hire boat family look at us like we are crazy. We pretend nothing out of the ordinary happened and we continue to toodle around waiting for the lock to open.
The Soane River surprises us in a good way. It is beautiful and clean and the small towns with cobble streets and massive cathedrals providing welcoming Haltes are relatively close together. Our first stop is Auxonne. The mooring is free and the power and water is 10 Euro paid at the tourism office by the cathedral. We generally keep our quick pace down the Soane but stop when we see somewhere nice. We had heard that the Soane and Rhone would have few suitable stopping places, but the Soane has plenty and many are free.
The temperature soars and we see 39 degrees. We hastily install the fans we bought in the UK. Out of necessity the river becomes a long narrow swimming pool both for us and for many of the other vacationers we see camping or picnicking along the riverbank - we even pass cows standing chest deep in the river. When we get to Chalon sur Soane it is still cooking but at only 36 degrees we hope we are entering a period of more manageable temperatures. Chalon sur Soane has a welcoming marina with easy access a big supermarket for re-provisioning. We walk the streets of the old town in the evening and there are blocks full of restaurants that overflow turning the streets pedestrian only. All of the restaurants are packed with people. I wish we had known, dinner out would have been great! I'm already feeling nostalgic for the trip as I reminisce about the planning we did and the excitement we felt while we were still in Canada. I don't want the good parts to end and I don't want to miss any potential defining moments. We contemplate staying but the next day is Sunday when everything closes down so on we go.
We pass through the city of Lyon at lunch time. It impresses more than we had expected. It hurts a bit to pass places like this where we would have liked to explore but the Mediterranean beckons.
The Soane merges with the Rhone River and the waterway gets wider and we start to pick up some current going the right way for once. The locks get bigger. We are now entering locks that are up to 200 meters long and much taller. One day we transit the famous Bollene lock which we have heard is the tallest in Europe at 22 meters. We go in alone and tie to a floating bollard that follows us down. By the time we are at the bottom the boat is in a deep canyon and our voices echo. It is also a guillotine lock and we motor out under the massive gate lifted high above us.
The hills along the Rhone are covered in vineyards and crumbling castles, ruins, or keeps overlooking the valley from cliffs or hilltops every 5 to 10 kms. We feel like we are finally getting close to the Mediterranean. The landscape appears more arid. There are cicadas in the trees. We find some free stops on the Rhone which always makes us happy including one little Halte Nautique in the heart of the vineyards where the local minimart carries reasonably priced bottles of Cotes du Rhone from vineyards within 10 kms - but we also pick up a box of ice cream for the kids so everyone is a winner. I look at the bilge and the wine collection. At this rate we'll have to repaint the waterline.
On August 7 we arrive in the city of Avignon. It is stunning but crowded with tourists. Many places we have visited, including Paris, were relatively uncrowded in the summer of 2020 as travel restrictions and fears surrounding Covid-19 travel kept people away. Not so in Avignon and in the evening it seems that every outdoor restaurant in Avignon is full. The heat has returned and it is 36 degrees again. We've tied to the town quay. It is baking hot stone and right next to a busy road but it is free because the bathrooms are not accessible due to Covid. We hear that the cost for a normal year is 70 Euro a night! Yikes, looks like we are definitely in the South of France now!
We stay two nights in Avignon. It is not our favourite place to moor but the town is very interesting and we had a night to spare before the mast was scheduled to go back in. Mel and I go out for a couple of glasses of wine and some entrees. The kids stay on the boat and watch a movie. Our dinner reservation is for 9:15 pm which is when most of the restaurants are at their busiest. We sit at a small outside table in a cobble stone square by the wall of an old church. Pedestrians stroll past and all the tables around us are full. We order frogs legs which I can't decide if I like or not. There are 5 or 6 pairs of little legs. Mel has decided she doesn't want to try them after all. They haven't grown on me by the last pair, but I eat them all because I'm a cheap cruiser who doesn't want to waste anything. At least the salad and garlic butter were good.
Our route has taken us 1435 km, 175 locks, several tunnels, and over 345 m of summit level elevation. We've spent a month doing the trip which was barely enough. On Sunday August 9th we go through the last lock and into the town harbor at Port St Louis. The boat tastes saltwater for the first time in a month. We are so excited to be in the Med! Pippa and Isla insist on a big happy hour with cheese and other treats to celebrate - can't argue with that! The mast goes in even faster than it came out and without any hiccups except that it is brutally hot for the two days we are in the marina and we don't have anywhere to put up shade. But then we are done and we are a sailboat again! We leave on Wednesday morning and sail east for 20 miles to anchor in beautiful clear water in a bay on an island by Marseille... but that will have to be a story for another time.
Instagram for updates: @sailing.swift
French Canals: Part 2- Race to the Top
14 September 2020
It is day 14, July 23. We are only a couple of kilometers, locks, and nights into the Entre Champagne canal. The free shower is a really nice start to the day but as I walk back to Swift to receive terrible news from Mel. We find out that the VNF is closing this canal in 6 days and that the canal has been allowed to drain overnight bringing the minimum depth to 1.6 meters. We have 210 km to go and over 120 locks, and our draft of 1.5m is now very close to the new levels. We’ve also heard that the weed continues to be an issue. We start to panic and decide we need to get moving and call VNF immediately. The outlook seems bleak and getting bleaker. It’s 9 am and we know this is the only route in 2020 that will get our draft boat through France to the Med. But at this point, we were so far in that we were determined not to return to the English Channel.
The start of our trek is pretty weedy but we can push on. Water levels seem fine. Our lock transits become more streamlined as we fall into a routine. In the locks, Pippa goes up the slimy ladder or gets boosted over the top of the lock to catch ropes. Isla fends off the opposite side and then tends the stern line. Mel tosses the bow line and runs around assisting. I manage the spring and bow line sometimes from the deck and sometimes from the top depending on bollard placement. Entry into each lock is tight with approximately 8 inches each side if I get it perfect. We motor under low revs or let the momentum carry us in. The bow thruster helps with final maneuvers when there is no weed. Just like when we enter the lock, our remote has a button to fill it and the lock exit sequence is otherwise automatic.
We are still a couple hours from St. Dizier when Mel gets hold of VNF and confirms that the canal is closing and tell us to move quickly. The sun is relentless. We’ve taken down the awning so we can better transit the locks which come every couple of kms. Twice we cool off in the cleaner looking canal sections. It is too narrow to stop the boat so we take turns hanging (superman style) off the boarding ladder at the stern while the boat glides down the canal in neutral so we can maintain steerage.
St. Dizier is unappealing as a stopping place and leaves us too much distance still to go. We head for Joinville with two potential mooring spots. By 5 pm we are tired and worn out by the locks and the sun but we still have 15 km and 5 locks to go – at least 2 hours. Pleasure boat traffic is supposed to tie up from 6 pm in contrast to commercial traffic which can go until 7, however, we suspect that we can use our remote to keep going after 6 pm especially because there is no commercial traffic this year. We push the boat speed up above the 6 km speed limit and speed up our lock entrances and exits as much as we can. The countdown to 7 pm continues and there is nowhere to stop. We have two locks to go at 6:25. By the time we exit the second to last lock it is 6:42 and there are 2 km to the next. If we trigger the lock sequence before 7:00 we figure it has to run the full cycle?? At 6:52 the lock is in sight and Mel is pushing the button trying to start the sequence. It flicks to red and green meaning it is preparing for us. We are in the lock by 6:57 and, thankfully, it fills and lets us out again! We are in the clear except the first mooring is much too shallow and has a private barge on it. The second mooring has room but as we ease towards it angling the bow in we run aground. We are about a meter away at the bow which is just within jumping distance.
We had planned to re-provision on this leg so I grab my wallet and phone and run up to try and find the store that is apparently open until 7:30. At 7:29 I find it and they let me in despite having no mask. I grab random fresh veg, some bread, meat, even a pack of beer only to realize I don’t have a bag and they don’t supply them. I walk back to the boat juggling carrots and the rest. The kids are having a celebration chocolate. We are pretty happy with our progress. It was long, very long, but more or less manageable day.
Day 15, July 24. I am up way to early concerned about water levels. We could see the evidence of the draw down when we arrived last night and I’m very worried they will continue to draw down and our situation of being gently aground will become a whole lot harder. My fears are unfounded but by 6:45 we have everyone up. The girls are drinking sweet tea and eating cookies. Our day starts at 7 am when commercial traffic could get going in a normal year. We are congratulating ourselves on being able to push through. The depths are low, only reading 0.2 to 0.4 m under the keel, and the weed is bad at times but we haven’t faltered. However, 2 hours into our morning we hit the worst stretch yet. The farmland stretches away on either side. There are no trees lining the edge of the canal, it is hot and the weed is thick with only a narrow ribbon of water where the mats of weed don’t choke the surface. The edges are fresh mud from the draw down and the depths drop to 0.1 and then 0.0 m under the keel. We watch the speed slow from 4.4 knots to 3.5 and then 2.8. We are crawling along. There is hardly any water in the canal and we look at each other and think that we can’t go on if it’s like this the whole way. However, there is nowhere to turn around. The width of the canal is much less than the length of the boat. How long will it be until the fall rains float us again if get stuck? A frog swims besides us. I eye up its legs contemplating their potential as a protein source. We think one of the nearby fields are sugar beets – can you eat sugar beets? We are unfortunately, also the cork in the bottle. If we stick here no one else will get through either. Stress – you bet.
The lock is in sight, but it is achingly slow progress. Eventually we manage to smear our way into the lock amid a big raft of weeds. We turn the engine off when we are moored up so I can remove weed from the strainer. The lock cycles and up we go. A VNF van shows up and asks how we are. We mention the water levels in the last stretch and explain we are 1.5 m. He grimaces and looks surprised. However, he also says it should be better for the next bit. Yes please!
The entire day goes by like this. Fortunately, no stretches are quite as bad, and we start to transition to stunningly beautiful rural countryside. Sunflower fields, wheat, pastures, etc. It is gorgeous and the irony of finding exactly the picturesque countryside we wanted but not being able to stop is not lost on us. We don’t make it to Chaumont that night but close. Instead we select a rural stop in a canal we can swim in by tying up to a blue dolphin. These are set up for commercial barges with a small ramp from the shore out to a single pile. Bollards are set into the shore provide moorings for the fore and aft lines. The fender boards provide the protection we need against the pile/ramp. Best of all they leave us far enough in the center of the canal to remain afloat for the night.
Day 16 July 25. We are up early again. Tea, cookies, the first lock opening – it’s like déjà vu. We find the going acceptable making pretty good time through the first couple locks and the small tunnel. At one lock early in our day we encounter a closed lock and no lights. Our remote doesn’t work. We just can’t imagine suffering any sort of delay. We can see a VNF van, some machinery, and some people but they don’t notice us or hear our horn. We take the chance on unloading Isla from the bow onto a small stone staircase by the lock entrance. There isn’t really room for this maneuver, but I sneak the boat in and she slides off without falling in. She runs up to find out what is happening. Isla, and Pippa, were in French immersion back in Canada and Isla uses her French skills to not only get their attention but to also expedite the lock reopening. Awesome, we are back on our way!
That night we have chosen a stop just short of Langres. We have read that 1.8 meters should be available at a Picnique Halte. Sadly, it doesn’t work out that way. Our first try has us aground well short of the wall. We move upstream 20 m and we can get close enough to get off the bow, but we leave the stern in deeper water.
Day 17 July 26. I’m up early again but feeling a bit better because we plan to tackle the summit today. The race may be over. Its Sunday and early but I decide to check out the little Boulengerie in town. I walk into the sleepy farming town. No one is up. The sheds all hold tractors. The buildings are stonework with big rough wooden beams above the doors. They look hundreds of years old and they probably are. Bright flowers decorate some of the front yards and I stop to take a few pictures. As I come around the corner the Boulangerie is open! I’m welcomed in and I figure out which croissants are made from butter and which are made from margarine. I choose the butter – of course. I grab some baguettes and bread and head back to the boat. Coffee, croissants and pain au chocolate in the cockpit make for a better start!
Our day is a good one. We aren’t far from the top and if we are correct in our understanding of which part is closing we should have a day and a half to spare so spirits are high. We come to the lock immediately before the summit tunnel and, although we haven’t seen a boat in a while, we wonder who is going to control the traffic lights that will allow us through. Everything seems automated and yet the tunnel is too narrow to pass anyone so we think the system will be like a one-way bridge except that it is nearly 5 kms long. A long narrow stone worked canal funnels us towards the tunnel. There is a green traffic light and we see the entrance. It looks much smaller than we anticipated and as we get close it narrows further to accommodate a walkway along the side – the old tow path we assume. When we enter, we find we have 16 inches space on each side. Traveling at 4 knots requires constant attention to avoid smearing the boat against the walls. The girls spend the whole tunnel providing constant updates on the size of the gap as measured by the size of a water bottle we have in the cockpit. “1 ¾… 1 ¾… 1 ½… 1 ½…”. The tunnel is fascinating if a little damp claustrophobic. It was constructed in 1883 and there are stalactites forming on the sides. It feels like it goes for ever and despite the lights in the ceiling the water is a long black ribbon. We feel like we are on a Disney ride.
When we are in the middle, the tunnel is just straight enough to see the light at both ends. Finally, we reach the other side and exit into torrential rain. When will this race end! But then, we turn a corner and see the last lock! There is a crew of VNF personnel and even a VNF office at the lock. They confirm we have passed the closure point. We made it – champagne for happy hour that night! However, they also tell us that we aren’t quite free from weed, but at least we are clear from the low water levels and closures – for now. Seriously? For now… again?
Our ending to the day is an amazing staircase of 8 locks each of which descends 5 meters. For the first time we go down in a lock! So much easier. The bollards are easier to access and Pippa is done with slippery ladders. The new challenge is that on some locks the water level is very near to overflowing. Navigating into a lock when the wind is blowing and a stone wall is at waterline height on both sides is nerve wracking but at least we’ve already had lots of practice with the narrow entrances.
French Canals: Part 1- Decisions
13 September 2020
Its 5:30 am and we’ve already been in Cherbourg France for a week. It looks like it may be the best day for the next week to make a 90 mile run southwest but the wind is still blowing 15 knots and will be right on the nose. The Channel Islands are still closed from Covid-19 travel restrictions so we can’t shorten our day. We’re up early so we can catch a lift from the huge currents in the Alderney Race. Needless to say, there is no excitement for this morning’s adventure. We know Pippa (age 9) will suffer from the mal de mer. I’m suffering from the mal de bierre. What are we doing? We hate beating to weather. We’ve heard the French canals are open again – Paris, vineyards, pastoral countryside, no slogging to windward and no crossing the Bay of Biscay? And so the decision is obvious and the next day the wind is at our backs as we slip eastward.
A week later we’ve pulled the mast in Le Havre and we arrive in beautiful Honfleur at the mouth of the Seine River. We aren’t going into this completely blind. It was always the plan to use the French waterways to travel to the Mediterranean when we found a Moody 44 in the UK with a shallow draft of 1.5 meters. However, the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK derailed our plans and itinerary and the uncertainties from a slowly reopening Europe suggested we might be better going across the Bay of Biscay. We had also planned to make this trip in May when historically the water levels in the canals were higher and the traffic was lighter. It was now July 8 and, although we could still picture the worst with Swift grounding in a drying canal until the fall rains, we were also very excited to finally be heading in the right direction and going somewhere we really wanted to go!
In the first 30 minutes of day 1, we run aground at low tide outside the Honfleur lock with two other sailboats. I hang my head in shame – at least it is soft mud. Swift had the shallowest draft of all three boats and we were soon off to catch the tidal surge for the run up the Seine to Rouen. We pass medium sized freighters and dockyards but also long stretches of muddy banks with riverside vegetation and very little else.
The first lock on the Seine is 40 km past Rouen. The lock is huge – sized to accommodate commercial barge traffic. Our first transit is near disaster because we have moored far up the lock nearest to the turbulence from the flooding process. We swing all over and the mast swings in close to the wall. We emerge shaken but unscathed, and moor for the night at a quiet wall by a sleepy neighbourhood. A friendly canal traveler provides advice for future lock transits. We celebrate our successes and look forward to tomorrow.
The next morning is amazing. We are up early and mist swirls over the river as we motor away from our mooring. The remainder of our run to Paris is transition from the lowlands of the Seine estuary to a more scenic landscape with farmland, pretty villages, and even the odd castle. We transit the locks without mishap and with much less stress.
We arrive in Paris on July 12, two days before Bastille Day. It is surreal to arrive in one of the more beautiful and vibrant cities in the world on your own boat. You motor right past the Eiffel Tower! That thing is so very impressive and very huge! An eclectic mix of canal barge conversions line the riverbanks. We motor under spectacular bridges and eventually moor in the Arsenal Marina basin at the base of the Bastille monument.
Our experiences of Paris and the Bastille Day celebrations are one of social distancing but nonetheless great. We travel on foot or rent electric scooters. We walk around the Eiffel Tower but don’t go up. We see the Louvre but only from the outside. We eat ice cream near the fire gutted Notre Damn Cathedral. We drink French beer outside Parisian Brasseries. We stumble across military horse guards and their accompanying band who parade unannounced through the streets to avoid drawing a crowd. Our view of the fireworks is distant, but how great is it to be sitting on the banks of the Seine River listening to musicians and the chatter of groups of friends enjoying a few beverages? Paris doesn’t disappoint and visiting Paris was one of the adventures that Isla was most looking forward to.
Our only negative to date, and it is certainly enough to dampen our enthusiasm for our waterway adventure, resulted from meeting another sailing boat – the first and only one we see. Unfortunately, they were on their way back to the English Channel having encountered excessive weed on the canal route they choose south of Paris. We spend an extra day in Paris trying to get answers from VNF, the agency responsible for the waterway system in France. There is only the one route through France available to us due to our draft and they confirm that there are weeds but that it is open for now. For now? That sounded ominous. We decide to push on or we would have to head back to the English Channel and face the Bay of Biscay.
We depart Paris nice and early and head west along the Marne River system. On day one we get to take our ocean-going sailboat through two tunnels. They are narrow and low, but we get a rush out of the novelty.
That first night we arrive in the city of Meaux. There is an excellent Halte Nautique (a public stopover) with pontoons for a dozen boats. We have one neighbor and the cost to moor is only 10 Euro with power and water. The town is pretty, and the kids stay on the boat while we sneak off to drink a couple of beers in the town square at a vibrant little bar.
Our journey continues down the Marne and the scenery transitions to hillsides covered in vines. We tie up to the bank in the middle of nowhere beside corn fields and the swimming is great as are the views. We stay up in the cockpit until well past dark enjoying the peace and beauty of the French countryside.
We continue on through the Champagne region where we stumble upon a Champagne tasting room and leave with a few more bottles to add to the bilge! We are loving it! This is exactly what we wanted. This stretch of the Marne has been really beautiful with lots of interesting stopping places. People are friendly. The Marne is clean and provides some excellent swimming breaks. The weather is warm and sunny. Aside from the regret that comes from eating my body weight in cheese and consuming the same in wine on a daily basis, we are feeling pretty good.
We continue on through the Canal Lateral a la Marne and we start to encounter more weed. The canal narrows and the locks are sized down accordingly. It is possible to push through the weed but the size of the floating rafts at the entrance to some of the locks are concerning. We start emptying our raw water strainer every morning.
Two days later we enter the outskirts of the city of Vitry le Francois and we don’t feel the love for canal life anymore. The canal is a narrow dirty ditch past aging industrial buildings. Weeds choke the edges. I skim past a shopping cart. We turn past the boat harbour we originally thought we might stop at. There are a few small commercial barges and some pleasure craft. Most look like they got this far only to die a slow rusting death. A barge pumps dirty brown bilge water into the canal in front of us – no swimming here!
The entrance into the first lock of the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne is no better. It is under a train staging area which makes a low flat ceilinged tunnel. There is nowhere to wait and no room to maneuver. Finally, the gate opens and we squeeze in. It’s a taller lock than any we’ve had in a while making it feel even more tight. But we go up and the sunlight is shining on us again. The lock keeper is friendly and hands us our remote to operate the locks. He also informs us that the weed isn’t bad and the water levels are ok. We leave the lock feeling like we just won a prize. Things were looking up!