Thursday, 10 September 2015

A Short Cruise in France

July and August were pretty intensive months for renovating this old Westerly Nomad. I wanted to get her into a state where I could embark on a voyage – however small, and enjoy a degree of comfort. As a sailing vessel she would function well but the accommodation was, at best, a slum. No functioning toilet, no water, no cooker. First job was to clean paint and varnish to get a blank canvass at least. By mid august she began to feel habitable but hardly fit for a sea-going cruise.

I have two choices when I leave my home port – North takes me down the estuary to St Malo and the sea. South takes me to the head of the estuary and through a lock into the river. From there I can go to Dinan, a medieval town on the River Rance. If I lower the mast there I can cross Brittany via canal towards the Atlantic.

I didn’t intend to go quite so far, but a couple of weeks chugging along the canal getting to know this old boat seemed like an attractive proposition. At least on a canal there would be access to fresh water, electricity, toilets, showers, pretty villages, reasonable restaurants, butchers, bakers and pretty much anything else I needed. So, off came the mast and Susan (the boat) became a motor cruiser.

It was the best of times – and the worst of times. Before I left I tried to invent a word for it –
glamorous sailing, yachting or boating – glamoating or glamachting. A good friend hit the nail on the head I think – he came up with Gloating! So much for definitions and aspirations – the reality proved to be quite different.

The Rance estuary is truly beautiful, and they say a picture is worth a thousand words so here are some pics. 

We set off in warm sunshine on a rising tide, locked into the river and cruised southwards into the canal beyond Dinan. Locks on the canal are managed by professional lock keepers and are largely automated so there is little for a boat crew to do except hold the ropes while the boat is expertly raised or lowered to a new level. Lock-keeping must count as one of the best jobs in France, especially on this canal as there is no commercial traffic. As a lock keeper your cottage is going to be very pretty and set in a beautiful location. Best of all though, 90% of canal traffic comes through in August – take your annual vacation that month and you have little to do for the rest of the year. In August, students and artists take on jobs as temporary lock keepers and many locks become arts and crafts outlets for the summer.

Unfortunately the further south we went, the more weed we encountered. Flat bottomed canal and river boats manage to glide over or through this stuff, but Susan (with her triple keels) managed to pick up weed all along the route. Sometimes her speed was reduced to two knots even with the engine on full throttle.

We stayed a couple of days in the beautiful village of Evran and the temperature rose to 31 degrees C – only solution was to find a large oak tree and sit under it. The evenings were more bearable – cold beer and bank-side barbeques were a delight. But then, a local farmer decided to spray manure on his fields encouraging swarms of flies. We bought some window stickers that attract flies and kill them – but every time we opened a hatch a new plague would come in. I counted 20 flies in the cabin before bed time – and I probably missed some.

Two days later there was a violent electric storm, 37 knot winds and driving rain. The heat had gone and it was cold but at least it got rid of the flies. We continued up the canal, stopping at another beautiful village but the only shop was closed and that night we had to resort to warming up a tin of cassoulet and boiling a few potatoes – but with the charcoal burning stove heating the cabin we were warm and dry despite the howling wind and driving rain.

We managed five more miles the next day, arriving at St Domineuc – Which could be described as a one horse town – except, there is an excellent canal-side restaurant offering three course meals for 11E. It was while we were holed up in a canal-side bar that we came across Spike Heatley, an 82 year old professional bass player who had played with just about every jazz musician of the twentieth century. The drinks flowed and wild stories were told. He gave me a signed copy of his latest CD – if you like jazz you’ll love it.

The following day was devoted to ‘make, do and mend’. I was particularly concerned about the boat engine which seemed to run OK but had stopped pumping cooling water. I couldn’t fix it and didn’t want to ruin it by overheating – so a good friend drove out to collect us and the engine so we could take it to a mechanic.

The guy had it fixed the following day and so we returned to the boat with a plan to cruise home. The IPhone told us the trip would take 30 minutes by car. On a weed choked canal however, the return trip took four days – with Susan (the crew) leaning over the bow parting weeds as we crawled along – three metres forward, then one in reverse to allow the accumulated weed to fall from the keels – average speed – probably 2 knots. At one point I considered changing the boat name to – the ‘Africa Queen’.

The situation improved though as we spotted a familiar boat coming towards us – an English narrowboat, bought and restored last year by good friends Dave and Natalie. The encounter led to a bank-side picnic – prawns, pate and good rustic bread washed down with local cidre and white wine.

Two days before home the weather improved, the sun shone and we cleared the canal. Once again we were back onto the weed-free river. Our last night was spent in Dinan where the port facilities are outstanding and the quay side restaurants are excellent. There was a three course dinner of shellfish followed by Moules a la crème and dessert for 25E. The following morning we even found a restaurant offering a ‘full English breakfast’.

The last day, there was bright sunshine and, after all that rain, the air was clear and polished. There were kingfishers on the river and the boat seemed to be moving as she should with the gentlest of push from the engine. We cleared through the lock into the estuary at the top of a spring tide and worked our way back through blue salt water back to our home port, a short country walk from home.

The boat is dirty and full of gear that we need to take off her. She’s taken a couple of scratches too,and we need to put the mast back on her but the experience was well worth while. As time passes, the memory of the trip takes on a new perspective. The highlights become more significance than the downsides.

The trip needed to be made. You can think a lot about renovating a boat. You can make all sorts of plans but until you’ve actually lived on one, used the systems and tested your assumptions, you can’t be sure of what you are doing. This trip confirmed my some of my ideas and made me re-think others – more about that later.