Phew … we are relieved to say we are well on our way to Lille after our Big Shed experience and a rough ride up and down a few tidal rivers.
We made it to Gent (now in Kortrijk) and the journey back to Paris so far has covered this route:
- Weesp to Utrecht – a beautiful run back down the Vecht to Maarssen where we hopped onto the Amsterdam Rijn canal to avoid the arched bridges of Utrecht, mooring on the south side of this gorgeous city.
- Utrecht to Heusden, down the Merwede canal, overnighting at the Heusden Bunkerbarge (fuel station).
- Heusden to Aarle Rixter and then to our favourite place, the commercial harbour at Weert, along the Zuidwillemsvaart.
- Weert, leaving the Netherlands, onto the Bocholt/Herentals canal , down the Albert canal and into the Nete canal all the way to Duffel tidal lock.
- Duffel to Gent via the town of Baasrode using the fast-flowing tidal Beneden Nete into the equally fast-flowing, brown and furious tidal Boven-Zeeschelde.
This route was 363 kilometres with not many locks (except ten of them on a relatively short stretch along the Bocholt/Herentals) nor even lifting/swinging bridges. Almost 100 kilometres of this distance was on tidal waters: our maximum speed with the tide behind us was 12kms per hour (our normal top speed is 8kph) and the maximum speed we could muster under the Temse bridge with the tide against us was 3 kph! Some useful maps are found here:http://www.european-waterways.eu/e/info/belgium/rupel_beneden_nete_netekanaal.php http://www.european-waterways.eu/e/info/belgium/kanaal_van_bocholt_naar_herentals.php Map of Belgium waterways in PDF: http://www.binnenvaart.be/en/waterwegen/kaart_sluizen.html
This section of our journey was planned and reworked several times as the ‘boating season’ was over and closures for repairs at various locks and sections of waterways were under way. We would have taken the route through Brussels but for a closure, and we considered the Westerschelde into Antwerp but didn’t like the sound of the tidal sea. We finally agreed on using the tidal rivers instead (Beneden Nete and Boven-Zeeschelde) thinking this would be relatively straight forward .. we’d experienced such waters before on the Trent and Thames for example in the UK. However, tidal rivers in Belgium are totally different… and here we explain.
Despite almost two weeks in the shed at the lovely town of Weesp we still love it but we had to agree it was a relief to be leaving and heading south. We now had a freshly painted boat, flags flying on the new mast, fuel system with double filters for safety and a new automatic ramp in the wheelhouse. Ready to tackle anything .. as usual.
As we left town we passed the unusual, for Dutch waters, British built wide narrowboat ‘Water Melody’who had been moored alongside us at the boatyard. This beautiful barge has been pottering around the Vecht carrying small groups of tourists and this year made more than 90 trips, Gerda (her owner) told us. This barge is wheelchair accessible and full of charming narrowboat features, eg, inside the toilet bowl are painted blue flowers, matching the wash basin! There’s a bar with beer on tap, a professional kitchen range and a wonderfully comfortable saloon for guests. Lucky people!
Travelling along the now familiar Vecht river, was a delight: We had it almost to ourselves, the bridge keepers didn’t take their clog toll but still happily operated the bridges for us and we arrived in Utrecht at the best mooring possible, on the south side of the city.
Here we had the final element of our ‘new look’ added, ie, the canvas cover for our stern deck – the original lovely green one being at the bottom of the Herengracht in Amsterdam. Herman had rushed this job through for us in only one week and it is brilliantly designed with nothing but quality workmanship throughout. He spent perhaps two hours fitting it in brilliant sunshine and with a wave was away leaving us on our own in the almost deserted haven (dead-end section of a canal).
Then on we pressed for a rendezvous with Marian and Gareet, at the same place as before, ie, Weert (see our blog) in what we now call ‘Harrie’s Harbour’ (due to Harrie originally recommending it), a commercial harbour just before Lock 16 on the Zuidwillemsvaart. It was a little unreal as we were repeating the meeting at the same location, same people .. although this time we had a BBQ on board in glorious sunshine.
This stop-over turned out to be one of our more sociable times as we also met Ben who is a fellow DBA member moored on the opposite side of the harbour. He explained that this mostly deserted harbour is a bit of a misfit, the local authorities don’t know how to commercialise it (or make it an income earner). It is mostly used by big commercial barges as a turning place and by massive semi-trailers (or lorries) who use the large land space to drop off and collect their trailers. It’s a slightly strange place but has lots going for it in our opinion: plenty of mooring space and a nearby low-cost restaurant with free WiFi!
Up until the border with Belgium (just after Weesp) we had been in familiar waters, largely retracing our route when heading north. Now we veered off into new waters by turning to starboard (pointing west) as we entered Belgium again. This was where our planning became very complicated, a) because we couldn’t find space at the moorings we had in mind, and b) we had to use tidal rivers running in both directions, ie, one section having to go ‘down’ river and then turn to go ‘up’ river.
We found our first overnight mooring, near Lommel, on the quiet and gorgeous Bocholt/Herentals canal. It was solid, accessible in a beautiful setting and with a nearby ribs restaurant (thanks to DBA Guide).
The first three locks of the ten on this waterway (all within only twenty kilometres) are heritage listed.. classic, relatively small (55 meters long by 7 meters wide) although each had a drop (in our case) of more than 4 meters. These three special locks each had their own lock-keeper who seemed to be committed to keeping the whole lock area in pristine condition. The locks were described as ‘manually’ operated in one guide but in fact the manual part seemed to be opening and closing the ‘gates’ but the sluices then operated automatically.
We didn’t know at the time but this would be the best mooring we’d find for a long time. Although we had called the marinas of several places ahead we had no reply or there was a message system .. and we didn’t receive a return call. There was no choice but to proceed, optimistically, hoping that as we were ‘out of season’ we’d find a reasonably safe mooring at the beautiful towns along this section. In particular we noted Herentals and Lier.
But .. at Herentals the lady harbourmaster insisted we could get into her tiny narrow channel of a marina where the, perhaps 10 meter, finger wharves jutted out horizontally (we are 17 meters long). In her mind we could moor on one of these, which would have meant reversing in to her harbour through the narrow entrance and then our 7 plus meters beyond the finger wharf would have been jutting out into the boat passage. To us it was perfectly obvious we would have blocked access to her marina. We decided to push on, to the great relief of the fishermen still frowning at us as they waited for us to clear the entrance where it was obviously the only place to fish around here.
Pushing on meant entering the busy Albert Canal but only for ten kilometres or so and then onto the pleasant Nete canal (upper), now with Lier in mind. We’d read Lier was a beautiful town sometimes called a mini-Bruges, and famous for its tapestries. We arrived after a long and windy way, now after 5.00pm and several days ahead of our schedule (because we’de found it hard to get safe moorings). Again we saw a very purposeful-looking woman striding down the jetty as we tried to moor up. You can’t stop here, she cheerfully told us, it’s all booked. There was so much space on the 400m floating pontoon it was hard to believe her but we couldn’t argue with the Harbourmaster (which she confirmed she was after we asked!). You will have to moor at the lock she told us when we asked where she thought we could moor for the night.
The Duffel (in theory this is the where the name Duffel coat came from) tidal lock was only 15 minutes or so away but not what we had in mind. Yet another town had to be forgotten. The lock-keeper kindly gave permission to moor overnight and we tied off on the inaccessible, high stone jetty and at least had a restful night after a long day.
Stewart radioed to ask the lock-keeper what was the best time to leave his lock the following day. His recommendation was between 10.00 to 10.30am, after we advised him from our tide table what time high tide was (8.30am). “We don’t open the lock at high tide”, he said. Seemed odd to us .. given we would then be running out on the strong tide rather than using some of the ebb. Sure enough at 8.00am a cruiser went past us and into the empty lock and away! That was the time we would have thought best. So we asked the morning lock-keeper his view, no problem leaving now, he said, so not long after the cruiser we shot out of the lock into the fast out-flowing river heading for Boom.
Our hearts were somewhat in our mouths as we’d read from the DBA guide and the Belgium Waterways book that this fast-flowing tidal river (the Beneden Nete) had some tricky blind bends and in particular to watch out for the strong currents under the E19 bridge which was on one of those bends. As they said it was “an extremely long, wide bridge and built on a nasty bend .. concrete pillars are lined with wooden planks in an obvious attempt to create protection for boats”. They say the best time to pass this section is near high water .. well too late for us, we went through at full flow! It was extremely difficult and very frightening for me watching the huge swirls of brown water going this way and that if not in circles. Skipper just ploughed on, for a change I said nothing, and he did a perfect job!
Got safely through that one .. and soon afterwards we turned onto the River Rupel and were roaring towards the floating pontoon at Boom. We had to turn 180 degrees into the current so that we could moor just ahead of a cruiser and behind the cross-river Ferry which just happened to pull in as we did (could have had one less distraction!). There was a lovely lady with hands full of bags trying to help me with ropes .. kind of her juggling them and me! And then another lady, older than me, offering assistance, and a man telling me something about 3.00pm there was a happening (our Dutch language skills are still zero) and more or less saying “you’ll have to leave”. Once safely tied off we could see the blackboard stating a passenger boat would arrive at 3.00pm .. so unfortunately there was no space for us and so we had lunch and kept going, now heading for the Boven Zeeschelde, also a tidal river. The problem was we were currently running with the tide behind us but as soon as we turned onto the Zeeschelde it would be against us. What to do?
No choice but to proceed hoping we’d find a mooring before too long. However, out onto the Zeeschelde and turning into the current our speed dropped from around 12 kms to 4 and max 5 kms. Fuel was low (approaching the red) and we were worried. We could see a pontoon space not marked in our guides in Rupelmonde and gingerly approached it.
There were several people on the pontoon, one woman dressed in army fatigues and on the mobile phone, a family trying to inflate a RIB with a foot pump, a woman sitting on an old cruiser beside them.. no-one waved us away and as we approached I said we needed to moor if possible because of the strong current and wait hopefully for the turn. OK, said the lady in army dress, but there may be a boat coming in and then you will have to move.
This was a bizarre place.. a bit like a set and scene from a Mad Max movie.
The floating pontoon had a sign referring to ‘Out of Order’ (Dutch) or under repair. Yet these people were all moored here. The young middle-aged, petite woman in army fatigues, with cigarette in her mouth, on the mobile phone, and sporting tattoos on her arms was the owner of several (three that I could see rafted to each other) small cruisers all in army camouflage paintwork and one with a machine gun on the bow (not real I think)!
Later she went and sat in the firing seat of this gun for what I don’t know. The family had finally inflated their dinghy, attached the engine and roared off into the furious current, all four of them in the tiny thing. We had a visit from a striking-looking person in a dark pinstriped suit and with a long white pointed beard who inspected Endellion closely saying “nice ship”. Stewart said he looked like Santa Clause in a suit and decided he must be the Lord Mayor .. all very interesting whatever the story. He then climbed back up the long steep ramp to the town’s very striking, river-side sculpture of a larger than life-sized nude woman standing brazenly sunning herself.
Much as it was interesting, it was an essential stop to allow our engine to rest after the frantic drive against the current, but just after 2.00pm the expected ‘booked’ boat was seen cruising up against the tide and we were asked to move on. So, once again pushing nose into the outflowing tide, away we went now heading for a mooring, possibly, at Baasrode.
Temse was another place we had marked as a possible mooring. First we had to pass under the Temse bridge which is the longest bridge in Belgium.
This was done with great difficulty as the massive swirling current was worse here than just about anywhere, bringing our lack of speed right down to a maximum of 3 kms (we feared we could have been going backwards). We emerged finally from under its arch and would have loved to pull into the Temse pontoon moorings but they looked very flimsy. As the tide was going to be in our favour very soon, best to keep going we decided.
Finally we arrived at Baasrode, having called the Harbourmaster beforehand, but found a boat in the place he’d told us to moor at. In our place was a smart cruiser with man on board who told us there was no problem mooring on the outside at the commercial section. So at last we could tie off safely, on a totally solid floating pontoon of commercial barge standard.
This turned out to be the last stop for us before Gent (on the Boven Zeeschelde) as again there were no safe moorings to be found. We read for our next potential stop, Dendermonde, it was safe only for boats less than five tonnes.. we are 37! Sure enough, as we passed the floating pontoon we could see a flimsy affair with tiny bollards and no piers. On this stretch of tidal river it is not only the surging water or the changing tide but more importantly (almost) the massive commercial barges that roar past.
On this final stretch of the river we passed a convoy of seven of these beasts, some overtaking others. It was ferocious. Later one barge coming up behind us was travelling at 19.8kms .. our speed with the tide slackening off behind us was around 10 kms per hour.. this whole river and its inhabitants would make great material for a future Mad Max movie!
We left Baasrode as soon as there was enough daylight (7.30am) and kept powering along with the tide behind us all the way to the Merelbeke tidal lock, around 15 kms south of Gent.
It was with huge relief we made it before the tide turned where again we would have been pushing against it with a lowering fuel level. Even then, as we merrily glided the last few meters towards the vast lock into which a tug boat had just entered ahead of us , we were rejected. The green light turned to a red one, the guillotine gate came down and we definitely weren’t going to get off this tidal section for the minute. Stewart radioed the lock-keeper who just hadn’t seen us .. we then had to exit the current lock entrance and go out into the river and back in through the second massive lock .. and wait before two beasts came out and we could enter.
And truly finally this time we could feel safe off the tidal water with only a short distance to travel, on quiet waters, through one lock and into the gorgeous Portus Ganda marina in the heart of Gent. Here we were welcomed warmly (we were here two years ago) and we felt great relief to be back in a safe and loved port, and on familiar calm waters.
What a journey .. we know next time, to get from France to the wonderful Netherlands we will not be using this route, probably we’d stay with our outgoing journey via the Ardennes on the river Meuse/Maas.
We’ve just left Gent behind us .. travelling down the stunning Leie River – non tidal we can assure you – no more tidal waters for the time being – now in Kortrijk (Belgium) close to the French border. No WiFi and not a good mooring but a lovely city.