Cruising in Belgium May 2006

Belgium in May 2006


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The Albert Canal near Maastricht
Steelworks at Liege

We returned from our sojourn to the Dutch bulb fields up the Zuidwillemsvaart to Bree. We were recommended to bunker with a firm called Jet Oil at Bree. On the Belgian border there is a petrol station on the road alongside the canal with a fuelling point at the quay. This we ignored and asked the Belgian lock keeper if he knew where Jet Oil was. He replied that we had just past it on the border! The following day they delivered 1.5 tonnes of red diesel by truck, we filled our water tanks, caught up with all our washing and restocked our store cupboards.

The sun continued to shine as we set sail for Liege the next day. Up through two very deep locks of over 12 metres onto the Albert Canal and rocked and rolled down to Liege, passing a steelworks making fireworks to welcome us!

Entrance to Albert Canal
Huy on the River Meuse

In the Liege yachthaven we met Tom, skipper of the luxemotor Dove and now in his seventies. He and his wife have been living aboard Dove for over 20 years. We did not get to meet her as she was visiting her son in Ostend but she sounded a remarkable woman who had hitchhiked round South America by herself in her sixties, travelled by slow train from China through Russia and wandered around India for months. No doubt we will meet up sometime during our travels.

Liege yachthaven is long and narrow behind a high wall with no room to turn Harmonie so we had to reverse out a considerable distance. Steering astern is relatively easy using the bow thruster as a sort of rudder and keeping the real rudder amidships.

Huy on the river Meuse
Yachthaven at Beez above Namur

We were up early for the long cruise down the Meuse to Namur. You gradually leave the industry behind and cruise though increasingly rural wooded hillsides, some crowned with spectacular chateaux. We passed though Huy with its huge fortress and Abbey high above the town until, late in the evening, we found a good mooring in Beez yachthaven just before the Namur lock. It rained the next morning when we cycled into the village for bread but by the time we had returned to Harmonie and steamed down to Namur the sun came out again. We wandered around Namur on their market day and bought loads of fresh fruit and veg, had a light lunch at a pavement cafe and then set off up the river Sambre.

We were accompanied by a rough little fibreglass boat, no more than 4 metres long with a tiny forward cabin, crewed by father and son. As we progressed upstream we encountered a fierce electrical storm and the heavens opened. We continued through a couple of locks and then decided to moor up for the night whilst the little boat continued on through the maelstrom! The next day we arrived at the next lock to find it was closed with a technical problem. After about an hour the lock opened and inside the lock was the tiny boat with wet clothes strung around the rails. They had been stuck in the lock for 10 hours!

In Charleroi we were also delayed in the lock where the canal passes through the middle of a steelworks. There is dust and smoke and it is so noisy you can't hear yourself speak. I had visions of us getting stuck in this godforsaken place for the night! We turned right off the Sambre and up the Charleroi - Brussels Canal past some fantastic graffitti and tiny boat followed us. At the first lock they came through, had words with the lady lock keeper and turned round and went back down again. Oops wrong way! We went on as far as Seneffe at the junction with the Canal du Centre where we moored next to a slag heap opposite an oil refinery, otherwise it was delightfully rural!

Lift 1 at Canal du Centre under reconstruction
Lift 3 and the engine house at the Canal du Centre

We called Lawrence and Yves, folks we met on our holiday in South Africa who live a few miles further up the canal, and arranged to meet them the next evening in La Louviere where we tied up the next morning. This is the start of the Historic Canal du Centre which is now closed to navigation following an accident with one of the four ship lifts in 2002. The lifts were designed by British engineer Clarke Stanfield who designed the Anderton lift in Cheshire and the first was opened in 1888. Each lift has two 300 tonne tanks sitting on top of giant pistons some 18 metres high and 2 metres in diameter. The pistons fit in cylinders connected together by a pipe and a control valve. Water turbines pressurise water up to 45kg/sq cm in the tank cylinders and the ascent/descent controlled by the connecting valve after filling the top tank with an 75 extra tonnes of water. Something went wrong with number 1 lift in 2002 as a 300 tonne barge was emerging and the tank began to rise, breaking the barges back. The lift is still being repaired at the moment.

Strepy ship lift
Strepy ship lift

We cycled down the 7km of the old canal to the number 4 lift, admiring the fantastic new Strepy lift from the towpath which dominates the view.

In the evening Lawrence and Yves arrived and we sampled the delights of a really good Italian Pizzeria in La Louviere then began to look at their photos of South Africa until we realised they had taken over 1300 shots!! The next day we set off down the new Canal du Centre passing a luxemotor flying a New Zealand flag. We arrived at the Strepy lift in company with a 1000 tonne barge and announced our arrival on the VHF. After about 20 minutes a ladies voice came over a loudspeaker advising the lift was about to arrive, a large barge came out and we went in. You sail out on an aquaduct, high above the Belgian countryside and into the waiting ship tank. You are now suspended 73 metres above the ground on about 100 steel cables in a tank weighing 10,000 tonnes in which you travel down at a rate of 20cm per second. A lady wearing a smart uniform inspects your papers on the way down but it costs nothing to use.

Strepy ship lift looking down from the tank
Strepy ship lift at the bottom

At the bottom we moored up and walked back to find out more. This is a truly impressive engineering feat which cost the Belgian taxpayer about 700,000,000 Euroles, several times over budget but a darned sight more of a monument to human endeavor than our Dome which cost even more! At the reception desk we took the English tour and rode the elevator to the eighth floor. We passed from room to room introducing the famous Belgians of painting, literature, science etc until at the end we sat down to a film about the construction of the ship lift. Fascinating. Then out along a corridor to gaze down at the engine room. Four 500kw electric motors power the winches through reduction gearboxes all linked together by solid shaft drives so all cables are permanently synchronised. A complex arrangement compared to the simplicity of Stanfields design of over 120 years ago, such is our technological progress.

Strepy ship lift aquaduct
Strepy ship lift tank coming down

We sat in the cafe at the top of the lift and gazed down one way at the mechanical marvel and the other way out over the green countryside then down the elevator, back to Harmonie and on down two deep locks to Mons-Bergen, an old city of some 75,000 souls with a Grand Place where we sat and watched the world go by and wrote our postcards. It also has an ornate tower, richly decorated with golden ornaments.

The yachthaven here was excellent if a little expensive but when we had problems with our electric cable, Willy spent hours helping us sort it out when he could have easily left us to it. We set off down the canal again to join the River Schelde, cruising through Tournai which has a one way system controlled by lights. We had intended to stop at the Bossuit yachthaven but it proved non-existent so we pressed on up over the Bossuit - Kortrijk canal as far as Zwevegem where a splendid lock keeper let us moor at the tail of his lock.

Mons tower
Bridge at Tournai

We awoke to torrential rain and telephoned the lock keeper for the final three locks of this canal. These are only used by pleasure boats and are old narrow locks with manual paddles and a travelling lock keeper. Out into the River Leie and through Kortrijk they are widening the river and have a one way system in place. I had understood the lock keeper to have called the control tower and received the OK for us to continue but an irate "fat controller" called us on the VHF, told us we should have contacted him and to stop and move to one side as traffic was approaching. After suitable groveling we obtained permission to proceed and cruised the last few kilometers up to the town of Menen where we found a good mooring. From here we go back to Lommel by train to collect our old car then over to England for a week before continuing our journey south into France

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