The last job to do before we finally set sail was to put a new floor into our wheelhouse. Our friends in the Bleau Rieger YC found us a tame chippie who arrived one morning and worked without a break until the job was finished, charging us what we considered a tiny amount for 10 hours hard work. A wood laminate surface was laid on top of the existing carpet. It looks great, provides an extra layer of soundproofing from the engine room and will be easy to keep clean.
We developed a problem with the immersion heaters in our calorifier (domestic hot water boiler). Each time they were switched on the shore electricity supply tripped and I suspected they might be burnt out. We finally waved goodbye to Kerkhoven on 1st July 2007 and travelled to Maasbracht where Anthony Houben, who had supplied our new generator set, had his electrician check out our immersion heaters and gave them a clean bill of health so it seems the problem is with the Kerkhoven shore supply. This tended to be confirmed since as we had no further problems with subsequent shore supplies for several days.
We also discussed how we might change the ships wiring to better load the new generator. At the moment, all the 220v distribution is on one phase, the 380v on another phase which will never be required with the new generator as it is too small to start either of the 380v motors. The third phase is spare and isn't used at all. I do not want to take the ship apart again to run new wires from the generator room aft and suggested that a small 380/220v transformer be installed after the fuse board in the engine room to which we could connect one of the immersion heaters and the washing machine. That way we could run washing machine, dryer and immersion together providing a good load base for the 10kva machine. The electrician muttered about a better way to do it was to use relays instead of a transformer so we left it that they would have a think about it and come up with a proposal.
Away again up the River Maas and through the dreaded Lanaye Sluice which is 18 metres deep and very mucky, back into Belgium and the Albert Canal. We tied up just south of Liege then on down to Namur the next day and Dinant the next. This is one of our favourite places so we stayed here a couple of days basking in rare sunshine which we have seen little of so far this summer. The rain set in once more as we continued our journey up river.
At the French border we purchased our vignette. Clever pricing means we have to buy a 12 month permit which expires at the end of the calender year! Overnight at Givet then on up to Revin where we provisioned at the nearby supermarket and caught up with our washing. The current was exceptionally strong for this time of the year reducing our speed below 6km/hr in places. At one lock was a post recording three flood levels, the highest in February 1995 then December 1993 and the lowest in January 1991.
Our next stop was Charleville Mezieres (see here for more detailed descriptions of this region during our last visit) where we stayed for three days. Paul and Leive Leten in Waterlander from Blue Reiger YC arrived and tied up beside us and the four of us hit the town that night. A good three course meal cost us €20 each plus some very good Vacqueyras. On our return to the marina we noticed an old peniche on the river, almost hidden from sight by trees, which had a Beamish beer sign on it indicating it might be a bar. Sure enough, after we descended into its cavernous old hold, there was a smoky old bar packed out with the noisy beer drinking younger set. Great atmosphere but bad atmosphere due to a surfeit of smokers and our lungs could not take more than one round!
After leaving Charleville, Paul, who started out ahead of us, called me from Waterlander saying there was a peniche heading towards us at speed and to keep a good lookout. We met him emerging from a lock in our usual careful, if slow, manner to be met with a mouthful of abuse from the fellow on the bow rope. As we came level with the wheelhouse the skipper was jumping up and down and waving his arms. Ah' that latin temperament!
As we came up to the lock at Pont-à-Bar there was Keith and Jenny Riley in their barge Gulliver who we cruised with in France last year. It was just before Bastille Day last year that we first met up with them in Compiegne. We moored up together for an hour after the first two locks and bought ourselves up to date. We hope to join them in November to winter in Briare.
We had to leave them after a telephone call from our Belgian bank advising us they could not honour a cheque to our fuel supplier as we did not have enough money in our account meant we needed to get to a town with a bank! We sailed up through superb country reminiscent of an English canal, gently rolling hills with woodland and farmland in lovely sunny weather. Le Chesne is a little town on the summit pound and Paul had kept a nice berth for us. Unfortunately he was moved from the nice quay to the town grain silo as the original quay was being used for the Bastille Day fireworks. Not only that but the harvest was in full swing so noisy grain driers were a nuisance. We sat outside the local pub and watched the fireworks that night. The next morning we awoke to the boats covered in wheat chaff from the silo and quickly moved up to the firework quay before breakfast.
We decided to celebrate Bastille Day with a cycle ride to lac de Bairon. It was quite a climb up the hill from the canal before dropping down to the lake where we turned onto a little track which eventually deteriorated into a quagmire. We had to keep stopping to clear the mud from under our mudguards at which time the mozzies descended in droves. We eventually emerged a few metres from where we started where there was a nice picnic table in the shade beside the lake which was covered in water lillies. Moral; don't go riding in French woods after weeks of rain. Some nice crusty French bread, Cantal cheese (enhanced with Branston pickle) and cooked ham, all washed down with a nice cold bottle of M. Chauvet's Champagne, revived our spirits and we cycled back to le Chesne. Paul & Co had been joined by Leive's brother's family so we sat and drank beer for the rest of the day, collected sweet ripe plums from the hedge behind us, finally lighting the BBQ for chicken and sausages washed down with a drop of nice Alsace Rosé.
Waterlander had press ganged a ships boy in the person of Bart, Lieve's nephew when we all set sail to tackle the 26 locks which would take us down through more lovely country to the river Aisne. We moored that night at Attigny but the town halt fluvial was full so we moored a little way downstream. The only snag was there was no way to get into town so we launched our dinghy and motored in the next morning only to find the bank closed. On then to Rethel where, on the advice of the tourist office we all cycled up the hill to the church with two naves which was locked. Back in town the bank told us they could not transfer money to our Belgian account unless we had an account with them so Paul got on the internet and transferred it from his account to ours and we gave him the cash. It's great being in the euro zone as it is so easy to transfer money between countries!!!
At Variscourt we moored in company with Simon Cole cruising solo in his 24 metre barge Marius which was still "work in progress" after 20 years. It was a propitious meeting as Simon was looking for a winter mooring in Belgium and Paul was looking for someone to take our place. The British presence at Kerkhoven will now continue. After tea on Marius we consumed a couple of bottles of Shampoo at a picnic table on the grassy bank, swung the lantern over nibbles (Simon was at sea with BP as a navigating officer) until Lieve appeared with a saucepan of soup, then Sue rustled up some Spaghetti and Simon contributed a chevre pizza and we all went on the red wine (except Bart). Sometime after the sun went down we poured ourselves into bed but were up early the next morning as we had a long day ahead, turning up the Canal De l'Aisne à La Marne and climbing up through 13 locks and Reims to the pleasant little port of Sillery.
Reims (pronounced locally as "rance") port has a poor reputation apart from the €25 a night they want in mooring fees, it is right between two busy roads on each side of the canal and peaceful sleep would be difficult. Sillery port was so peaceful and attractive by comparison at only €5 a night with a capitanerie who could not be more helpful, an artisan boulangerie with bread and pastries to die for, an Ecomarche supermarket and a bus into Reims city centre three times a day.
We decided to stay here for four nights and on the first day it rained all morning but by lunchtime the sun was out and we had been invaded by UK guests in the guise of Alan & Carol Curling with their friends Tom & Angie. We cracked a couple of bottles of Shampoo and devoured some delicious tuna and tomato quiche and crusty bread followed by an apricot tart from the local boulangerie. A walk around the village in blazing sunshine failed to find a Shampoo house who would open so we adjourned to the local bar and supped beer. In the evening Alan and Tom picked us up and drove us back to their hotel situated beside the runway at the local airport! The only others at dinner were some fly boys from the UK and the meal was tres ordinaire but who are we to complain as we were being treated.
The following day saw us on the bus to Reims in the pouring rain which deposited us at le Gare. We walked to the Musée de la Reddition du 7 mai 1945 soaked through to find we had an hour to wait for it to open so spent it in a café close by. This museum is the building where General Eisenhower had his headquarters and the Germans surrendered to the allies on 7th May 1945. The room has been kept as it was when the surrender took place.
When we emerged the sun had come out so we headed to the cathedral. Reims and its cathedral suffered much damage during both world wars and it is still in evidence inside and out. For my money Amiens is still the most impressive. After lunch in a pavement restaurant we then adjourned to the Musée des Beaux-arts and finished our city tour at a bar next to the bus stop where we enjoyed several good Belgian Grimbergen beers.
The evening was spent trying to trace the fault which keeps tripping the electricity supply when the boiler immersion heater switch is turned on. We eventually discovered there was a fault on one of the elements even with that element switched off and that had fooled everyone who had investigated the problem. It is never the less disappointing that a qualified electrician failed to find that in Maasbracht.
The next day we said goodbye to Waterlander who headed back towards Belgium whilst we climbed on our bikes and headed up through the grape vines into the Forêt de Montagne de Reims and in particular the Faux de Verzy.
Here are about a thousand dwarf "tortuosa" Beech trees, their trunks contorted in peculiar shapes. Only two other places in Europe exist where these trees can be found, one in Germany and one in Sweden, but this is the worlds largest collection. Footpaths have been blazed through the forest past the most interesting areas. After pushing our bikes several kilometres up to about 280m altitude at 24 degrees C we were ever so slightly knackered but, after being revived by some more of the Sillery baker's tuna & tomato quiche, managed to walk around the footpath circuit prior to speeding back down through Verzy and the vineyards to canal level and back along the towpath to Sillery.
On Sunday 22nd July we reluctantly left Sillery, climbed the remaining three locks to the summit level, passed through the 2.3km long Billy tunnel without incident and descended through the flight of 9 locks to Conde-sur-Marne. Here we turned right for the short run to Tours-sur-Marne where we just managed to turn Harmonie with inches to spare then came astern for about 200 metres to moor at exactly the same spot under the walnut trees where we had moored last year. The next day we visited M. Chauvet's Champagne house and replenished our shampoo stock. Same price as last year and a bargain for wine of this quality at €14.80 a bottle, then back up the boring straight Canal lateral à la Marne to Chalons-en-Champagne.