Waters and wars

Sitting in front of the lounge fired Kalk Bay, ( yes, in September )I will attempt to write the story of Octo’s passage from Nevers to Beaucaire , to do this trip justice it should have been written by say Jonathan Raban with the odd poet thrown in but it’ll have to be at my pace.with apologies to James Joyce .
Imagine having 70 one night stands in 70 different places in about 70 consecutive days ,,,apart from the sex we managed ,,but now imagine how to remember any of those places ,which was the one with that most delightful square , at what mooring did an irate fisherman whose lines we’d just demolished ( in the harbour) threaten us all with the foulest of French insults which I understood and then throw sand all over the boat , fishermen were a complete pain all the way they sat there exposing their big white tummies with four rods in the water which they refused to pull out for our passage so in the beginning we tried to avoid their floats which always resulted in the Octo wiggle so cancel that and don’t look ,they weren’t there to catch fish anyway it was to avoid the wife..

.did the restaurant we moored alongside on the Rhone at midi have frittures or was it the cannelloni with frogs legs and fresh water prawns and was the wine pouilly fume or Sancerre and why when we walked up the lawn from Octo to the restaurant did the waitress say “have you reserved” , and believe it or not at one small village mooring in France there was not a single place to buy a beer ,as the custom was as soon as we’d moored for the night ,off to the nearest bar for a couple of beers even if we didn’t feel like a beer,and by the way which was the best beer we drank French or Belgian and was the highest degree of alcohol in it 9 or eleven ,of the many restaurants we ate at was the budget Bocuse the best one or was that other one where we can’t remember what we ate but it was a Michelin copy with a price to suit ,

what were the names of all those newzealanders and Australians we met at moorings ,it seemed that they plus Octo were the only boats on the canals and rivers ok a few Dutch boats and a few crazily driven hire boats by correctly dressed frenchies but why when were on the biggest rivers in France there no traffic ,on some rivers or canals we’d go the whole day without seeing another boat,, one or two peniches maybe ,so we say France is in a bad way and it is , in many of the towns we passed through Main Street shops were boarded up all the factories on the rivers were closed except the three or four nuclear power stations and I think our impressions were right and confirmed by the many we met en route ,

how come in one province the locks are open 24 hours but in others you have to wait from midi to treize , so ok you stop for lunch by sticking a couple of stakes in the grass ,and happily realise that you can’t get arrested for drunken driving,why is mooring so difficult on the Rhone but not the Saone well it’s the current and the wind and we took some heavy knocks trying to come alongside having to turn upstream , and the expression stuck in the mud does not refer to the crew but to a mooring at Givors which we slid into alongside at 7pm but couldn’t budge the next morning in spite of 7helpers pushing ,,,the port keel was held so tight by the mud that it had to be removed and already damaged thrown away or that other place where the only mooring was in a harbour with fingers which we HAD to get in as you can’t moor Octo on the banks of the Rhone and it was 20m wide and Octo is 15 , I didn’t sleep that night trying to work out how to get her out , and if you see the photo you’ll know what mean ,

and at the huge Avignon lock we moored at huge pillars meant for the peniches and were loud hailed by the lockkeeper to get the hell out so we moored alongside an affable old French bargee and his ancient boat and wife who said the supermarket is just round the corner (joke) and when we woke there was a peniche 85metrelong at our previous spot, we both sailed together next morning from that lock to St Giles where he left us for the canal du midi , not to mention that on these great rivers ply even greater hotel boats and container barges some 110 m long I.e. 7timeslongerthan Octo and they carry 3000 tonnes , so when you see one of these you slow down and dive for the nearest bank but once we got caught in the wash of two peniches crossing us one upstream the other downstream and the whole front deck and lounge was underwater as were my underpants.

There was never a day without incident feeding swans and ducks with rock hard baguettes that nearly choked them , coming to a lock and blowing the vuvuzela to wake the lockkeeper to no avail and so having to move on ,,,finding a mooring that says showers which have become smellingly vital ,to find that they’re under repair , walking miles to find the baker only to see that he opens at 6 then disappears to reopen at 4pm ,passing a boat aground for not being in the buoyed channel, seeing the markers on the pillar buoys showing that the Rhone can flood over 3metre over it’s now level ,buying local wines from a lady lockkeeper at a price we could afford as this route covers the most famous vineyards in France Burgundy ,Cotes du Rhone , Beaune etc etc , mooring where’s there’s no water and we’ve run out , trying to get petrol either hire a taxi (which is forbidden) but done anyhow ,or ask the supermarket to borrow a trolley and then cart the stuff for a couple of kilometers and back with the trolley ,look for a washing machine ,,apart from Norma ,which you eventually find but you can’t work it, having David’s birthday at a great restaurant a brasserie which actually means a beer maker but has become known as place where you get none of the French bullshit and bullying waiters but a great big meal at a reasonable price , but there’s no such thing as a reasonable price for a South African ,a cheap bottle of wine at a restaurant costs R290 which is also the cost of a meal so we go to places where for R188 you get a 3litre box and restaurants where the fixed menu is R145.

I arbitrarily decided that the HUGE resonsibility I was undertaking exempted me from both cooking and washing up ,,a task that Norma did happily and beautifully .as to cooking there was the Dave and norm team with all sorts of specialities including endives with Gorgonzola,the Helga team specializing in cutting things up very tiny, the Mary team (very fast) the Michele and flora team cooked endives et al , and the ICRC team which has to rate highly as they carefully cut up spring onions and endives to make the most divine salad and talking of meals David took us all (by this time Nicky had come aboard) to a friend of his living in an elegant chateau which they were refurbishing some 20km from Octo’s berth for a dejeuner sur outside patio ,salads quiches and plenty of wine on o lovely day ,

which brings one to the weather we had it was raining and horrible up in the Ardennes but once David and norm and car had joined it seemed to have improved though I was cold most of the time and kept my hat on in bed , hitting at last the sun in the south we wondered how the hell to keep cool and back to Africa Mosquitos,

It was at Nevers that Mary and Helga joined the crew increasing the average age aboard by about 7% and with Mary giving me a huge blast because of the numerous changes in times and places for the rendezvous , however she relaxed by taking us all out to dinner where the frittures were divine and lots of the local wines disappeared ,then to Decize where we had to navigate up an ancient thin canal to a mooring full of hire boats but no hirers, hated the whole bit,next to Digoin where we had a double up lock to pass over the huge Loire on a canal bridge and into the Canal du Centre which has 62locks in 112kilometres ,we went up and up and up and then onto the plateau section and then down down down , much easier ,,,these are all very very ancient locks and only a few metres deep ,,some were operated by us with remotes or turning posts others by lock keepers following us in their tiny cars , no wonder France is in trouble , but it’s all very tense each lock ,however close has to be approached just right and the slightest wind or water change results in a bang , we must have lost or exploded at least 10 fenders ,,or in two incidents the out wash from the emptying lock turned Octo completely round and in the other she’s was blown to the opposite bank ,big manoeuvre to get into the lock from that angle , but that taught us how to get Octo into finger locks and bow on to docks and how to reverse out.

David and I took half an hour at the wheel each over the 7to10 hours daily passage , david also had to drive his car forward some 200km and train back and his navigation was spot on which had to be as we can’t wild moor in Octo so a haven for the night was the rule ,and one was at Genelard on the Canal du Centre ,and as we docked we saw a 4metre high rusty steel wall with the words “line de demarcation” written on it THIS was the line that separated occupied France (germanruled) from Vichy ruled under Petain ,,that line ran from Switzerland along the canal du centre to Orleans , Tours and down past and including Bordeaux to Spain just avoiding the dordogne and at Fayats was the sign of DeGaulle etched into the barn door proving resistance fighters .

And so to the titles in the blog , on this trip we have done some of the great waters of Europe ,the Rhine Maas Meuse (same river) the Ardennes canal and the Marne, areas of formidable battles in both wars , the Seine the Loire the Saone and the Rhone and we have seen the Vichy line , of all the rivers the Saone is the most gentle and not too much traffic it was when we locked into the Saone from the centre that all stress and tension evaporated from the crew and I was able to have a kip during my off watch for the first time in two and a half months ,,the Seine is enormous and kind of beautiful for the houses and villages alongside more traffic ,enormous looks that could hold 10 Octo’s ,,the Loire is I think the longest river in France but mostly canalised as is the Rhone now ,but when I did this river with Nicky in Shambira in 1977 there was I think only one lock 23m high one of the biggest in Europe for the rest we whizzed down missing wrecks tree trunks etc ,,now there are a few more locks but the current is strong and the mistral ever present and Octo can’t handle wind and I can’t handle Octo

but the Rhone is beautiful with ancient villages and castles hugging the great limestone cliffs and the patchy vineyards with their brilliant wines and the PK (which doesn’t stand for piccanin kia) but post kilometric so by looking at the French charts we had aboard you know exactly where you are , which helps. There was no schedule or itinerary the idea being to get Octo to the canal du midi , but about 10 days before my visa expired we realised that we’d never make it ,,panic aboard but we had to get off the Rhone (and so missed some of the most beautiful towns in France,, Valence Lyon Avignon,Arles, ) into a nice warm safe port for the year ,so we picked a spot off le petit Rhone up an old canal that was once a part of the Rhone a Sete reasoning that as it went nowhere we’d find a berth, so we upped the daily run from say 25km to around 60 km and arrived at St Gilles 3days before my departure to be told ,,Messieurs this is the south of France everybody wants to keep there boat here so bugger off.

Another Panic aboard consult fluvial magazine phone email all the boat yards within 25 km in bad French I kinda speak it but when it comes to French letters ! sorry ,pas de place ,finally two days before my departure for Amsterdam we motored 40km to Beaucaire where a kindly harbourmaster gave us a berth beneath a bridge (not too good for the solar panels) in a most beautiful harbour with a million restaurants hot showers a washing machine ,arriving there at noon I went with Nicky to Travel agent got our tickets she to Paris and got on the TGV the next morning at 10 ,me change at Paris with Nicky’s help and on to a cheap hotel near Schiphol and then an eleven hour day flight to Capetown , I was wiped out.

We were on Octo for 90days from Maastricht to Beaucaire of which we motored about 70. We were at the wheel for over 500 hours and our average speed including hundreds of locks for the whole journey which covered more than 1800 km was about 3,6km/hr and old mans walking pace ,it was all peace and love except for my shouting which though ever present became hysterical at all moorings and some locks whenever in my opinion Octo was in danger so I apologise to all concerned but everyone was warned by me on arrival of this character deficiency,.

I’ve left out (no cheering) much. ,the wonders the excitements the beauty of nature with water and enormous trees and kingfishers and herons (which David insists are herrings) the kind people ( even Frenchmen ) who helped us and the crew who sailed aboard , one way or another it had to be one of their most memorable voyages /experiences and in spite of the vagaries I thank them all for their help without which Octo would still be in Namur . The Jews say ” next year in Jerusalem. We say, why not the Canal du Midi?