We haven’t been able to update our blog until now because of challenges with the French mobile broadband (3G) system.
We left Nieuwpoort on Thursday 9th September, after nine days of work-intensive activity by Ship Support, full of optimism and excited because we were finally off to France.
The last task to be completed by our boat repairers was the Blue Board – necessary for the heavy commercial waterways next year.
The first big stumbling block we encountered was no internet communication. We now know how much we were spoilt at the VVW Westhoek marina with a free WiFi connection which gave us Skype and unlimited use of the internet and email. Perfect for us .. I could update my Cornish website every day via FTP. We hunted everywhere in Veurne (our first stop-over) for the often available WiFi but couldn’t find it .. sadly the restaurant we knew had it was now out of business.
We’d had fun leaving Nieuwpoort. As usual it had to be carefully coordinated with Lock Keepers as we enter the tidal area between the canals of the Ijzer, Plassendale-Nieuwpoort and Nieuwpoort-Dunkirk where we were heading. The two operators were sure we could fit under the busy road lift bridge without having to raise it .. but they did it for us anyway (so we didn’t put it to the test).
They told us as we departed that we could fit under the next lift bridge about six kilometres along at Wulpen. As we approached it we radioed the Lock Keepers to ask them to raise it but they were still convinced we would fit so we edged our way closer. By now we had quite a crowd who had appeared from the cafe beside the road looking down on us with, I’m not sure what, was it anticipation of a wrecked Bimini (our canvas cover over the stern deck) or enthusiasm that the bridge didn’t have to be raised to let this interesting barge pass?
I was standing on the huge expanse of the roof looking through the window at Stewart who had brilliant control of the boat. I couldn’t line up whether we’d fit or not .. it always looked too close to me but the Lock Keepers should know. I’m sure you’ve guessed .. No we didn’t fit. With very good communication between the two of us: I used all my body (hands up pushing as if I could stop the boat this way) and vocal language skills (into the radio so no onlookers were shocked) to indicate we weren’t going to fit .. back up, urgently! We just touched the Bimini on the edge of the bridge – we were six inches too high for it. The crowd didn’t cheer at all .. they should have as Stewart stopped the boat perfectly – she is 37 tonnes so not an easy task. The crowd quickly dispersed and soon after the Lock Keeper arrived somewhat sheepishly and lifted the bridge for us. Phew .. we know we have three meters headroom but we didn’t know how high the bridge was.
On into Veurne through several more lift bridges including the interesting railway bridge which uses huge wheels to raise the track vertically.
When we were here last year the Harbour Master, Johan, couldn’t quite work out why we needed a certain type of mooring because of our wheelchair. He insisted we could use the high harbour wall, or the floating pontoon which had steps up from it.. I had to explain again, my husband can’t walk. Finally he found us the only possible pontoon which had a good but steep ramp up to the street. This year it is the same story – no Johan but Eric had the same problem understanding why we needed a certain mooring .. which happened to be where Roy (we found out later) had his small cruiser moored. Roy was more than happy to move to one of the many empty smaller pontoons so we could take ‘our usual’ place.
Leaving Veurne was fun too as there was a sailing regatta taking place .. so we had to dodge the remotely controlled beautiful looking yachts .. luckily relatively small in size.
Our quiet trip across the border into France was noted only by a road sign (we do a maximum of 8.5 kms so we wouldn’t be breaking any of these speed limits) – no waterway greeting. Soon after we rang the Lock Keeper for the first lift bridge in France and as requested, stopped at the pontoon before it. I saw a man, thinking it must be the Lock Keeper, with a flame gun torching weeds etc, and smelt a strong smell of smoke. This was Bruno who came on board and in a very charming manner (great English) explained we will need to wait two hours here as it was lunchtime – he will be back at 2.00pm to check our ship’s papers. “Bon appetite”, he says to us as he departs.
He was true to his word, just after two he was back for our papers and sat at our table in the most amiable way. He was worried that Stewart wouldn’t be able to get off the boat at Dunkirk by the lock (where we asked earlier if it was OK to stop). So he rang his colleague Steven to ask his view .. and confirmed: you must moor on the other side where you may be able to disembark with a ramp. Well.. what a lovely, thoughtful and delightfully welcoming person Bruno was.
We slowly made our way through the lift bridges operated by Bruno, into the automatic lock operated by Dunkirk Harbour Management (so we see no-one) and then a few turns away we entered Steven’s lock taking us onto the Canal de Bourbourg heading for Watten.
Steven came out of his lock-side tower to help us through and walked along the bank to show us where to moor so that Stewart, hopefully, would be able to get to land. Stewart did get off here .. and on again! But it was steep.
When we departed on Monday late morning (two days behind our revised schedule due to the connectivity issues) we expected to reach Watten, just under 29 kilometres away. However, we are yet to make it.
One of the jobs listed for Ship Support to do while we were back in Australia was to make good an area of the engine hold where overheating had charred a section of the wall to the wheelhouse and fit an even better insulation blanket. But we had been smelling whiffs of smoke since leaving Nieuwpoort. I’d checked again and again in the engine hold but could neither see nor smell any sign of overheating. After little more than an hour the burning smell had reached a pitch .. still no sign of problems in the engine hold but removing the skirting from beneath the kitchen units I discovered smoke and could see red smouldering wood. While Stewart was keeping the boat ticking over in the wide canal, I grabbed a fire extinguisher and for the first, and hopefully the last, used it. As Stewart said .. I’m now probably one of the more experienced firemen in our Milsons Passage Fire Brigade: having had to fight a ‘house’ fire. Well… a bit of exaggeration there – the merriment was needed!
However, we were both extremely concerned and not sure whether to anchor in the middle of the canal, which is mostly used by huge commercial barges, or hobble our way into Coppenaxfort which we could see but felt was a long way off, perhaps 500 meters.
We chose the latter .. and with huge relief moored in the narrow section of the canal against what looked like someone’s private pontoon – we could see a car parked right by it so thought the person may return any moment… but this was an emergency.
To cut this very long story off at this point – the next day Ronnie from Ship Support arrived with suitable tools and the original insulation blanket which for some reason they had removed during the ‘make good’. We are now well insulated to safely return to Nieuwpoort where they will rework the exhaust system.
Back through Dunkirk we found the lovely Lock Keepers, Bruno and Steven, had finished their seasonal work. We now had Albert who was also extremely helpful – he was fully briefed about us by Steven. In Veurne we had to ask our friend Roy to move his little cruiser again so we could moor up on ‘our’ pontoon.
That’s enough for now, for us and for any readers who have made it to the end of this blog! We’re off to tour around the town of Veurne again, to find and buy their local specialities like cheese, honey and meats. We love it here.
PS: We have enjoyed some of the best food to date especially in Dunkirk at the Restaurant L’Estaminet Flamand – an unbelievably tender and perfectly cooked fillet steak.
When we asked where does he buy the meat.. there was a vague reference to ‘campagne’ .. which we finally worked out was from the countryside.
And we have met the most helpful, thoughtful and fun people working on the waterways and even in telecommunication shops!