Canals of France June 2018

It was a strange feeling to leave Portishead on Ocean Rainbow knowing that our intention was not to return with her but to find her a new home in the Mediterrranean.   It’s been an even stranger feeling to take off her sails in preparation for our trip through the canals of France.  A yacht on the water without sails is a very naked yacht!    Maybe it’ll feel better when she has her mast unstepped and the transformation to canal boat is complete. 

Our trip from Portishead to Weymouth was a real motorsailing marathon, although we did manage to sail around Land’s End).   Most unlike us but we needed to get south for the crossing to France and the beginning of our next adventure.    We hadn’t intended to stop off in Weymouth but a chance text message from Tess Reid had us changing our plans.   What a great decision.   We met up with old Portishead Cruising Club members (Lynn and Mark Lewis, Bill Barna, with Lorraine and their friend Alan, Chris and Tess Reid) and enjoyed some good banter on board OR followed by an excellent fish ‘n chip supper at Bennett’s.  

On Tuesday morning (5th) we set off at 5am heading for France.    It was a cold but really fast crossing so, instead of stopping in Cherbourg, we headed for Honfleur dodging all the shipping as darkness fell.   Our planning was immaculate – and for those of you who know us well will realise this is said very much tongue in cheek – we arrived at the lock entrance to Honfleur when the lock was on free flow!!  Such an easy way to enter the harbour.   By 4.00am we were secure, everything tidied away and tucked up in bed for a really good sleep.

Honfleur is just gorgeous.   Lathe and plaster houses, buckets of history, cobbled streets – that make riding bikes very uncomfortable – an inner harbour, beautiful churches, museums and a nature reserve.    Plenty to keep us busy while we wait for a low tide to carry us in daylight up the Seine.    We aren’t allowed to motor on the Seine during the hours of darkness so the timing of our departure from Honfleur is critical as it’s 61nm to Rouen.   

So we attended mass on Sunday (arrived late due to an admin error … !!) and missed the sermon (a blessing as everything was, needless to say, in french!) but were treated to some wonderful organ music and had a chance to admire the wonderful craftsmanship of this 15th Century church, built at the end of 100 Year War.    Peculiar to this church is the bell tower that is a separate building.   Situated around the square are some lovely houses and restaurants.  We enjoyed delicious moules et frites at Le Corsaire on Saturday night and can thoroughly recommend the restaurant for its ambience and prices!     The Vieux Bassin is extremely picturesque with its cobbled surrounds, the Lieutenancy building, lathe and plaster 6 or 7 storey houses, the Maritime Museum and the Town Hall, not forgetting the vintage carousel.  

Mounted on our trusty Brompton bikes we have cycled miles around the area.   We’ve sampled and bought cheeses, saucissons and wine and just generally enjoyed all things french.   We’ve popped our heads into galleries, knick knack shops and exhibitions.  We’ve cycled the length of the sea wall and onto the beach, we’ve watched the local sailing club go off to race and then come home at the end of the day, we’ve studied the mooring technique in the lock, we’ve spoken to the lock keeper about our impending departure and we’ve chatted to numerous people about all things sailing.   We’ve entertained Sharon and Tim from Tortoruga on board Ocean Rainbow and swapped sailing stories. 

We did take the bikes on a mammoth climb up to the viewing point at Cote de Grace via the ‘Rampe de Mont Joli’ and then on to the prettiest chapel – Notre Dame de Grace – dedicated to seafarers and their families.   The bells for the chapel are housed in an enormous wooden frame outside the chapel and strike every quarter hour and sound really melodious.   The ride back down the hill was much easier than the climb up but we did stop to check that our brakes weren’t overheating!!

So now the tide is right; LW+1 at Honfleur 0530 will take us to Rouen in daylight.  There hasn’t been much rain so hopefully no problem with logs floating down the river, it’s low season so not too many pleasure boats forging their way upstream – here’s hoping we have a good passage.

12th – 19th June

Canal boating is full on.   Unlike sailing, where we just set Humphrey Hydrovane and let him do the steering, we have to watch the canal like hawks and concentrate on following the meanders as well as the contrary instructions that line the route.   For no apparent reason we have to switch sides of the canal, at some islands there is one way circulation but at others there’s one way on the Left bank but two way on the Right bank (oh and by the way, for us, heading up river, the Right bank is on the left and the Left bank is on the right!).    We need to keep an eye behind us for ascending barges and a beady eye ahead for descending barges.   Bridges have priority markings, some are one way (marked with two diamonds) others are two way (marked with one  diamond!), signs are stuck on the bank and masked by trees …  it’s keeping us on our toes and has made what might have been a boring motor into a really interesting experience.  Then there are the sights; castles, villages, birds, flowers and trees.   It’s an ever changing vista and one we can highly recommend.

So, to the trip from Honfleur to Rouen.   We went in convoy with Tartaruga (Tim and Sharon) and Canny Lass (Liverpool Phil).     All went well, we motored under Pont de Normadie at 6.30 and continued against the tide for a couple of hours before we found our speed increasing.   We made excellent time to Rouen (8.5 hours) and found ourselves a pontoon where we tied up and were ready to help Tartaruga into her berth.   Canny Lass arrived a little later and moored along one of the hammerheads.    We were really lucky as there were only 3 berths available!   

We had made contact with Christophe at LaManage who agreed to unstep our mast on the 14th (Thursday).   Brilliant, that gave us Wednesday to see the sights.   Joanne of Arc was burnt at the stake in Rouen so streets, statues and schools named in her honour are everywhere.  We bumped our way along cobbled streets, amongst lathe and plaster houses and astonishing Gothic architecture.   Rouen Cathedral was magnificent and we even managed to get down into the catacombs by tagging onto a German tour group!   We cycled past the House of the Exchequer, the exterior of Saint Maclou Church (only open Saturday, Sunday and Monday) but we did get to see Saint Maclou atrium, or inner courtyard, where archaeologists are busy excavating bones and pots!  Then on to the old market, the Great Clock and St Joan of Arc Church which we intended to visit when we had more time …. unfortunately that time just didn’t materialise – at least not when it was dry.

I failed to mention the little iPad hiccup – James’ iPad, with all our music, failed.  A fairly big disaster on our boat where music is an integral part of our sundowner/supper routine!   James spent a fair amount of time trying to fix the problem himself, then we went into town to find a computer shop, who sent us to the far end of town to find another Apple shop …. thank goodness for Bromptons!    A very nice young man said we should return at 5.30 and he would have the iPad fixed.    Brilliant, so we carried on with sightseeing then returned to the boat for a very late lunch and started on the last few jobs before the mast came down.  Hmmmm …. we hadn’t left ourselves much time for the number of things that needed to be done.   Electrics disconnected, boom off, vang off, bottlescrews loosened and Whizz the wind generator off.  Luckily Tim was around to lend an extra hand which made everything far easier, especially as Whizz decided to play difficult – obviously protesting at the thought of being confined to a box in the bunk room for the next 3 months!    Our bunk room is now packed to capacity with all the sails stowed on the bottom bunk and everything on the top bunk rearranged to make use of every inch.  It’s amazing the stuff we have managed to pack away.   In the middle of all this James had to scoot away to collect his iPad which was, indeed, fixed!  

Thursday morning Tim came on board and we motored over to LaManage where James went up the mast to position the strop to lift the mast, then we undid the bottlescrews and finally the mast was cranked out onto a rolling cradle affair.     The next stage was to wrap all the shrouds tightly around the mast, take off the masthead lights and antenna and release the tension on the jumper struts.    We then wrapped all the vulnerable bits on the mast with bubble wrap and socks (we had dozens on board as we’d used them to wrap jars and bottles for our Atlantic crossing stores) and then the final bit was to wrap the mast in cling film!     Hopefully, the lorry transit will go smoothly and we won’t find ourselves with anything damaged when we finally get to Marseille.   We did manage one repair in the hangar at LaManage – a slider on the vang was loose so we borrowed Christophe’s pop riveter and fixed it.  One job done …. no doubt millions more to do in Marseille!   This little exercise took us most of the day and luckily we completed it before the rain set in.  

We had arranged to go out to supper with Tim and Sharon but none of us felt like getting soaked so we each had ‘left over’ main course and met up for treacle tart, cheese and a nightcap on Ocean Rainbow instead.   A lovely evening and just a shame that Tim and Sharon aren’t able to start their canal trip until next month as it would have been fun to travel with them.

So to Friday and the start of our real canal trip.   First we cycled off to get the final shopping together, then we refuelled and it was off into the Seine, past all the sights to Pont Pierre Corneille where Ruth and Peter Walker were positioned to wave us on our way with smiles and a blessing!  How amazing that they should arrive in Rouen while we were there.    And so, it was off to Amfreville Lock 5 hours away.   We were in the  lock with a huge barge so we were quite nervous as everything we had read warned about the wash created by the big barges and the need for lots of fenders.  We were well fendered with the fender board in position but our ‘big boy’ fender was not quite forward enough to prevent a slight ‘ping’ as we manoeuvred to get a line on an antler bollard.   No damage done but a warning for future locks.   It was with a sigh of relief that we exited the lock and made our way to Poses where we spent our first night moored along the bank in this sleepy backwater (day’s motoring Total = 5.5 hours).    We did, of course, get out the bikes and go for an investigation while also sussing out where to get fresh baguettes in the morning (as it happened, in the little bar where we’d stopped to have a drink!).

From Poses, where we touched mud on our exit, we made our way to Vernon (7 hours motoring) and Monet’s home of Giverny, passing Les Andelys and Chateau Gaillard – built by Richard the Lionheart.   By this time we’d passed through our second lock at Notre Dame de la Garenne.    Fenders all worked a treat and we even mastered a way of ensuring we always had a line from the boat to a bollard, though we did have a bit of a problem bringing in the stern of the boat.   From what we have seen since, this is not an unusual problem!!    Our mooring for the night was on the very end of a cruise ship dock where we managed to tuck ourselves out of the way of the mooring bollards at the end of the pontoon.   Good job we did, as during the night not one, but two, 200ft long river cruise boats moored alongside!!   We did take the bikes to Giverny but we were quite put off by the crowds added to which we worked out that by the time we’d finished queuing to get in to the gardens we’d have hardly an hour to enjoy them – with the rest of the millions before they closed.   Another time and earlier in the day is what we decided!

From Vernon we motored (7.5 hours) past La Roche Guyon, Rommel’s HQ in Normandy and on to the Mericourt lock where we entered after a barge, whose Captain had very kindly radioed ahead to say that we would be entering the lock behind him.    Then on to  Meulan.    What a pretty little town with a super market (Monday and Friday mornings).   We had a bike around everywhere searching for a non existent fort but it was good to get some exercise and get a feel for the town.  It would have been nice to spend a second night on the little pontoon but Paris was beckoning so with fresh baguette and a bag of wonderful fresh fruit and veg we set off again on the next leg.

This time we motored for another 7.5 hours, negotiated the lock at Andresy, but then found the lock at Bougival, was closed so we had to go to Chatou and double back on ourselves to get to Reuil sur Seine (actually on the Bras de Marly).  Famous for La Maison Fournaise and its base as a meeting place for impressionist artists  – we set out on bikes to see where Renoir painted Luncheon of the Boating Party – directly opposite where we were moored.    What should have been a really wonderful night’s sleep however, in a backwater, turned into a broken night.  At 11pm we were watered along with the gardens above the pontoon and then some young turned up with pizzas and fizzy pop and proceeded to enjoy music and chat until 2am!!  

19th – 27th June

And so to the last leg on the Paris bound trip.   It was totally amazing to enter Paris by boat.   What a different perspective.    Then, all of a sudden, having passed La Defense, Suresnes lock was upon us.   Not our most glorious moment but things can only improve!   And on down the Seine with all the sights lining up on either side, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Museum of Modern Art, Musee d’Orsay, Les Invalides, Tuilleries, Louvre and then under Pont Neuf to Ile de Cite with Notre Dame in the middle.  The next thing we knew, we were at Port Arsenal and locking in to the basin just a stone’s throw from Place de la Bastille.   It’s a really friendly Port de Plaisance with the ‘facilities’ all situated in the casement of the Arsenal.  Lousy WiFi though.   However, at €50 a night for the boat, in the middle of Paris, we felt we were doing very well.

Again our bikes were brilliant.  Paris is so well set up for bikes, we covered miles so easily without feeling vulnerable from lunatic car drivers – pedestrians and bikes appear to take precedence. 

Phil from Canny Lass

We had visitors too; Edward came for lunch and brought James’ glasses and his new credit card.   So good to see him and catch up with all the children’s activites as well as his. Des and Heather Williamson came for late lunch/early supper and a fabulous catch up after a 7 year gap.  Des was our curate in Portishead before moving to Epsom.  Then Jeanetta arrived for a 5 day visit.    Such fun to cycle around with her and visit old haunts – Les Invalides where we were together 38 years ago to attend the wedding of Loic Leterrier – and new, Notre Dame where we attended a mass and heard some lovely music.  

We stopped for beers at street cafes and listened to jazz musicians, bought meats and cheeses, checked out churches, statues, buildings and ‘bimbled’ along the pavements scanning all the wares being sold by the ‘bouquinistes’.  

However our favourite visit was to the Eiffel Tower.   We set off early to get there, taking the amazing bike route along the Right Bank of the Seine, including the underpass that comes out at the Tuilleries, arriving at the Eiffel Tower at 9.15.   There was a queue, but we were inside and going up the lift by 9.45 all the way to the summit despite James and Jeanetta’s reservations.   It was a beautiful day so the views were amazing – to Montmartre and beyond.  We made leisurely turns around the summit making sure we’d identified all the prominent buildings before starting our descent. 

Rather than just whizz back down to the bottom we stopped at every floor and were really pleased to have done so as, apart from learning about Gustav Eiffel and his daughter Claire who set up an apartment at the summit and all their visitors, we had the funniest time, in a room on the second level, taking videos of ourselves walking along the girders 100s of metres above the ground.   

After all that excitement there was only one thing for it … home for lunch and a snooze!   That evening we went off to the Marais district which boasts one of the oldest squares in Paris – Place des Vosges – and had dinner at La Camille.  A wonderful treat from Jeanetta and a great recommendation from James’ nephew, Charlie and his wife Margot.

Tuesday dawned bright and early – we were off to explore the canals with Jeanetta.   We left our pontoon in decorous style and made a successful exit through the lock into the Seine.  Again we were fully occupied sightseeing and navigating.  Saint Maurice, our first lock came up.  It was closed so we rafted alongside a Dutch boat on the waiting pontoon and were most grateful when said skipper called up the lock and checked us through.   Another boat turned up plus two extraordinary motorised tourist bus type things.    Hmmm, full lock!   We all piled in and we were so pleased to see the Dutch boat’s stern swing out and the crew grappling for control.  Then the commercial bus things come in.  One was fine but the second had real problems with lines knotting, crew scrabbling around until finally they secured themselves.   We didn’t do too badly all things told!  The fenders were in the right place which is the main thing.     We all exited under control and proceeded to the next lock, St Maur, and the first of our tunnels.    Again, one of the commercial bus type boats got into a spot of bother and a canal boat found themselves struggling to get lines onto bollards but otherwise we all seemed to cope.   Once out of the lock we were a little surprised to find a complete log jam of boats.   A commercial barge was coming towards us trying to enter the lock and all the boats that had just exited were trying to maintain their distance from each other and yet make way for the barge while stopping at the entrance to the tunnel where the lights were still red!   Once the lights turned green we all proceeded in an orderly fashion into the St Maur tunnel which is 600m long.   The canal boat was taking things very slowly, in fact so slowly they were having trouble maintaining their direction.   It turned out that they were beginners and hadn’t realised that to maintain steerage they also needed to maintain momentum.  They soon worked it out and speeded up, after a couple of narrow misses with the wall in the tunnel.   

So on to Nogent sur Marne where we found ourselves a pontoon next to a charming Frenchman, Bruno, who helped us with lines and then proceeded to invite us to a BBQ and offer Jeanetta a lift to the airport on Thursday.   However the Port Captain asked us to move to another pontoon which was a shame, but we did meet up with Bruno at the BBQ and enjoyed his company together with a lot of other folk from the yacht club.    Nogent sur Marne doesn’t have much to offer in terms of sightseeing but there were some nice shops and Jeanetta managed to buy two pairs of shoes!!  We did some laundry, caught up on internet admin as the Wifi was very good and generally took things easy.   It was blisteringly hot.   In Jeanetta’s opinion the marina facilities should be classified as 8/10 to Paris’ 6/10 and we shall be classifying marinas facilities as we stop along the route!    

28th – 30th June

Bruno’s plan to take Jeanetta to the airport didn’t work as he couldn’t make the timings so Jeanetta booked an Uber taxi which worked really well.  So, after a late breakfast we wished Jeanetta a safe trip home and once she was in the taxi we slipped our lines and made our way up the Marne to the first lock of the Chelles Canal.    Unfortunately, slipping our lines didn’t go quite as planned so we have a somewhat bent stanchion, but never mind … it can be fixed.   Then, after a very short trip along the Marne we came to our first experience of an automatic lock at Neuilly sur Marne.   Once again the bollards didn’t line up for us and we had both bow and stern line tied to bollards within a couple of feet of each other.   This meant that the boat swung considerably in the surges and at one point the bow made contact with the lock wall!   No significant damage but annoying all the same.   We’re beginning to wonder if the beam of Ocean Rainbow, which makes her such a roomy and comfortable boat, is actually part of our problem in the locks.  No doubt we shall master the technique before too long!

We made it out of the lock and took a break at the waiting pontoon.  It was tempting to stay there as it was also an official mooring spot but we decided to press on down the Canal de Chelles to Lagny sur Marne.   The canal was very narrow so it was a little alarming to find a barge moving very slowly down the canal ahead of us.   We made radio contact with the Captain who advised us to overtake him on his port side.   This we duly did.  He also told us that the exit lock at Vaires was open.    When we actually approached, the lock the gates were shut but as we neared them they opened up and we were able to motor in and tie up in a very dignified fashion.   At last a successful entry and exit to a lock.   Long may it continue!   We proceed to Lagny in much improved spirits and found ourselves a nice spot alongside another motorboat near the entrance to the Base Nautique de Lagny.   Although the mooring spot is very pretty with trees and wildlife, there is one disadvantage and that is the railway line that runs on the opposite side of the river with a lot of noisy freight trains.   However, if you’re tired enough you can sleep through anything!!  Marina facilities are probably only 4/10 although there is WiFi that works on the boat which is a first for this whole trip.

We took the bikes into Lagny and had a bit of exercise exploring, phfinishing with a beer in the pretty town square.  The next day we went in again to find the Abbaye of Notre Dame des Ardents.   Originally named the Abbey of St Pierre, the Church was renamed in 1950 in memory of a third of the town who died as a result of a rye blight in 1127.   This church also has a memorial plaque to Joan of Arc who, on her second trip to the town, effected her miracle of bringing back to life a child who had been dead for 3 days.   The windows are all stained glass and magnificent.   The effect of the light coming through the windows is to bathe the church with a mauve glow which is so beautiful and peaceful.      On leaving the church we spotted a prize winning charcuterie, Maison Dijols.   Their ‘jambon blanc’ had won France’s first prize for 2018.   We just had to buy some.   We weren’t disappointed.  The ham was truly mouth-wateringly delicious.   All in all a surprising town and we’re very glad we were able to ‘stop and tarry a while’.