29 August 2013

Into France

We had returned to Namur, Belgium on Tuesday 22 August from a five-day trip back to Canada to visit family and scatter some ashes. Belgium held no attraction for us, so early on Wednesday morning we slipped our lines and continued up the Meuse toward France.

The scenery continued very pleasant with many fine buildings, some grouped in small villages and many standing as solitary riverside estates. Along the way we passed several impressive chateaux and some fortified hilltops.

There are nine locks between Namur and the French border, their chambers taking barges up to 98 metres long and 11.8 metres wide. The lifts vary from 1.7 to 2.89 metres, all but two of them being over 2 metres. The bollards along the tops of the chambers are broadly spaced for the large commercial barges, with no intermediate securing points for smaller craft. Some overly zealous safety bureaucrat had caused protective fencing to be recently installed, making it impossible to toss lines over the bollards from our barge. Edi had to climb the slimy ladder up the chamber wall dragging the bow line with her, while I stabilised the barge in the chamber. After she had looped the bollard and passed me the end of the line to secure the bow, we moved aft and I tossed her the stern line to repeat the process. This system worked satisfactorily; we had plenty of time to stabilise in the chamber before the operator began closing the downstream doors and then gradually opening the sluices to flood the lock. However; it was beginning to wear on Edi, who was nursing cracked ribs from being overeagerly hugged by my nephew as we were saying our farewells in New Brunswick.

As we were midway through the gates of Ecluse du Dinant, they began closing. We rushed to secure. There was no reachable bollard for our stern, so we did a long bow line and used it as a spring, motoring forward onto it as the lock keeper opened the upstream sluices all at once and sat back in lock-side chairs with a buddy drinking beer and watching the antics of les maudits plaisanciers hollandais, the damned Dutch pleasure boaters. Fortunately, there were only three more Belgian locks before France. 

We survived the abuse and motored into Dinant, which looks like a wonderful place to stop; however, we were by that time so turned-off by Belgium, that we continued on through.

At the next lock, we waited for a large commercial barge to enter the chamber, and then on his invitation, joined him for the ride up. We nestled-in astern of Fatima of Rotterdam with about two metres to spare. He welcomed us into the next two locks and while we were rising in the final one before France, he craned his car ashore and walked over to tell us he was stopping just after the lock. 

It was a relief to have this Dutch boating courtesy amid the rudeness and ignorance of the Belgique. After the lock we waved our thanks and continued on toward the border.

We were still looking for the Belgique declaration station, when we passed a Douane sign. 

Just beyond it we saw a temporary building near the canal bank that could have been the reporting post, but its shutters were closed and it was very obviously not in use. 

Looking back from across the border, we could see no signs indicating boaters should stop. We suspect that the Belgians had decided to shutdown the reporting post, their attitude and their pleasure boating infrastructure having scared away most of the pleasure boaters. It no longer mattered; we had left Belgium and were in France. 

We shortly arrived at the next lock, the first one in France. L’eclusier took our lines with a hook on a long pole and placed them over the bollards for us. When we were secured he activated the lock and when we had reached the top, he motioned to me to come into the office. I took our thick portfolio of licenses, certificates, documents and other boat related papers. He didn’t want to see any of it, he wanted only my name and the name of the barge to write in his log. He gave me a remote-control clicker to activate the automatic locks in the Departement d’Ardennes, saying we would give it back at the final Ardennes lock.

We continued on to Givet, where at 1753 we stopped for the day. To celebrate our arrival in France I sautéed some filet de fletan and enjoyed it with mushrooms, fine green beans, pan-fried potatoes and sliced tomatoes with shredded basil. 

We anticipate that the accompanying bottle of Champagne and the full moon are the first of many we will enjoy in France.

20 August 2013

Ashes to Ashes

One of the reasons that we had paused in Namur was to be within an easy commute to Brussels International Airport. My parents ashes still needed to be scattered and my extended family had agreed to come together on 18 August at Mom and Dad's former home at Shediac Cape, New Brunswick, Canada.

We booked flights departing Brussels at 1020 Thursday morning the 15th to Montreal with a comfortable two and a half hour connection for the flight to Moncton. Mid-morning on Wednesday we left Zonder Zorg and walked across the park to where we had been told was the local bus stop. We were busing rather than cycling so that we could check the bus schedule and time the trip. According to the schedule, the first bus on weekday mornings is at 0531 and the next one an hour later. The bus took 27 minutes to get us to the station.

At the station we bought return tickets to Brussels with transfers to the train to the airport for €10.40 each. The 0621 train was scheduled to get us to the airport at 0737, comfortably in advance of the required two hours prior to check-in. An incidental comment by the agent after we had bought the tickets mentioned that Thursday was "un jour férié". I asked him what the holiday marked, and he didn't know; there are twenty national holidays each year, and they are hard to keep track of.

Fortunately, I had remembered there were different bus schedules on holidays and rechecked Namur's. The first bus Thursday morning was 0701, and too late for us. We had the capitainerie book a taxi for us at 0545. Thursday morning the taxi quickly took us to the train station for a trip to Brussels, where we transferred to the train to the airport. We had stand-by seats from Brussels to Montreal and confirmed seats from Montreal to Moncton.

When our seats were confirmed, we were given the bulkhead seats at the very front of economy; normally our standby seats are in the last or second last row. We took off on schedule from Brussels, looking forward to an easy two and a half hour connection in Montreal, which in our experience is the worst airport in North America for incoming international transfers. Unfortunately; half an hour into the flight a young fellow two rows back from us had what appeared to be a heart attack. He was examined by a doctor on the flight and the decision was made to turn back to Brussels. We did a very heavy landing because of the near-full fuel load. An emergency medical team came aboard, set-up IV and stabilized the patient. After about half an hour he was evacuated, and with him went a large entourage of fellow countrymen. We spent almost two hours on the ground as they cooled the hot brakes and searched for and removed all the luggage of the patient and the deserters.

We finally took off again after we had watched our connection time dwindle to 35 minutes. The plane bucked strong headwinds across the Atlantic, and by the time we landed in Montreal, we were down to 21 minutes to de-plane, clear Customs and head back through security to the gate, which is impossible with Montreal's convoluted international arrivals system. Nonetheless, the sooner we deplaned, the more quickly we could re-book seats to Moncton. Fortunately, for the first time in years our seats were near the front, and we would be among the first off. Unfortunately when we landed, all the international gates were occupied and we had to disembark through the rear of the plane into elevator busses for the shuttle to Customs. Now we were near the rear of the line, with only first class behind us. As we were in the shuttle, the scheduled time of our departure came and went. We did manage to get confirmed seats on the 2130 flight, which was scheduled to arrive in Moncton at 2359.

Online I amended our arrival time with Hertz and told the B&B that we would be well after their 2300 check-in deadline and received late arrival instructions. We fell into bed in Moncton twenty-six hours and five timezones after we he had gotten out of bed in Namur.

After family visits on Friday and Saturday, on Sunday we all drove to Cape Enrage on the Fundy shore, thinking to scatter some ashes in the family's favourite picnic spot from the 1940s onward. For decades we had been the only people there; we rarely saw another car along the gravel road. Now there is a paved road and a parking lot and the place was overrun with tourists. The tide was about midway out, nine metres down and another nine metres to go and there was a howling offshore wind. Our protected nook in the cliffs was occupied by a large group. Opening the urns of ashes in the gale made no sense; they would have blown well inland across the marshes, as well as into the tourists eyes. We decided to head back to the family home.

The caterer had nearly completed the layout of the typical down-home buffet when we returned, so we decided to postpone the ashes ceremonies until we had gorged ourselves.

In the early twilight, after we had grazed and re-grazed the buffet, we strolled around the homestead scattering ashes in favourite places, like the site of Mom's old antique shop, her Scarlet Pippin apple tree, Dad's Azaleas, the shovel against the tree where he had left it when he finally finished gardening at age 98, and so on. As we did this we laughed and joked over memories of a wonderful couple who meant so much to all of us and to so many others.

We were up early on Monday morning to head to the airport to see if our standby tickets would yield seats to Montreal on the 1155 to connect to the flight to Brussels at 1945, for which we had confirmed seats. The flight to Montreal was overbooked, but we waited until the end of boarding incase there were no-shows. There weren't.

To hedge our bets, I had returned the car to Hertz, explaining the situation and telling them to process the return after 1215 if we made it on the flight, otherwise we would be back; our return time wasn't until midnight. While Edi checked flights to Montreal from Fredericton, Halifax and Saint John, I went to the Hertz counter to hold the car. Fredericton and Halifax were over-booked, but Saint John showed three open seats on the 1755, which arrived in Montreal at 1843, in time to make our Brussels flight.

The Hertz agent quoted $320 for a drop-off in Saint John, explaining the high fee was because there was absolutely no demand in the other direction and they would need to drive a driver down to return it. I put the Hertz agent on hold and went outside to check on taxi fare for the 150-kilometre trip to Saint John. The first vehicle in the line-up was a very upscale AirCab, and I negotiated a very favourable rate with the driver.

We squeaked into the the last two seats on the flight to Montreal and arrived at the gate for the Brussels flight as boarding began. We breezed through Customs in Brussels, caught the train into Brussels-Nord, connected with the train to Namur, walked across the street and caught the 2b to the Port de Plaisance and arrived back aboard Zonder Zorg twenty-five hours after we popped out of bed in Moncton. It was Tuesday and we were back n Belgium.

14 August 2013

Barging Into Belgium

At 1020 on Sunday 11 August we slipped from our berth in Pietersplas, Maastricht and headed up the Maas. 

After less than two kilometres we crossed the Belgium border and shortly entered Toeleidingskanaal, which led us in about a kilometre to Sluizen Lanaye, the first lock in Belgium. 

We joined four other boats in the chamber, one commercial and three pleasure, and rode up the 13.96 metres to the level of Canal Albert. Fortunately, there were floating bollards in the walls. Thus far we had not seen a Belgique checkpoint, nor were there any signs indicating where it might be. We followed the parade of boats out of the lock and headed up-canal toward Liege, looking for the checkpoint.

Seventeen kilometres further along Canal Albert through a dirty, drab and crumbling industrial canyon, we came to the next lock, Ecluse Monsin. There was still no indication of a checkpoint. After five kilometres we had rejoined the river, now called la Meuse, and arrived in Liege. We glided past walls of bland, modern apartment blocks, which had mostly replaced the old homes along the riverfront.

Some homeowners have managed to holdout against the rather unattractive and rampant development.

A few older buildings have so far managed to survive the unaesthetic redevelopment onslaught. Those we saw were so few that they stuck-out as being odd. Possibly further in from the riverfront there are some well preserved and restored old buildings, but what we saw did not invite us to pause in Liege to find out.

As we continued heading upstream on la Meuse, Edi brought up a platter of open face sandwiches.

The scenery was mostly heavily industrial, with very few breaks of green or pleasant for the twelve kilometres from Liege to the next lock, Ecluse d’Ivoz-Ramet. Here we waited for the lock to cycle down. The locks and approach facilities are set-up for huge commercial barges, and the temporary waiting arrangements show a lack of concern for pleasure boaters. This is likely why there are so few pleasure boats here.

Above the lock, we continued through a seemingly endless industrial complex.

There were a few breaks for more pastoral settings and small riverside villages, but they were very sparse and nowhere along the river did we lose sight of the factories and industrial plants.

Many of these appear to be rendering the surrounding limestone hills into various elements and compounds.

At 1735 we secured alongside the wall in the Port de Plaisance de Corphalie, across the river from the three nuclear power plants at Huy. We had come 53.7 kilometres into Belgium and had seen no sign of any checkpoint. When I registered at the Capitainerie, I was not asked for any papers, so it appears we are in Belgium.

The view upriver looked less industrial, and this coincided with what I had read: "La Meuse gradually becomes less industrial and more picturesque upstream from Huy". We were amazed by the dramatic decrease in pleasure boats and in the whole boating scene. In the small marina there were no boats over 10 metres in length, most being 5 or 6 metre runabouts. After the first lock in Belgium, we have been alone in the locks, whereas in the Netherlands we were often crammed in like sardines with six to over a dozen other boats. The boats we met heading downstream were almost all Dutch, and they appeared to be heading home.

At 1030 on Monday morning we warped Zonder Zorg back along the wall to the entrance, the basin being too narrow to allow us to turn around. Soon after regaining the river we arrived in Huy, a wonderful looking small town with well preserved old buildings and gracefully curved stone bridges.

Looking down on this is the citadel and as we passed under its ramparts, we checked to see whether the guns were pointed toward us as unauthorised visitors.

In the early afternoon Edi made a platter of panini and we enjoyed them as we watched the scenery steadily improve.

We had just finished lunch when we arrived at Ecluse d’Andenne-Seilles and secured outside its entrance to await the locking down of a commercial barge and a Dutch cruiser. The lift here is 5.25 metres, so it took a rather long time to drain the 136 by 14 metre chamber. When we finally received a green light, entered the lock and were cycled up to the top, l’eclusier walked over to ask us the name of our boat, explaining he hadn’t been able to see our name board as it was still below the lip of the chamber. We figured this was the end of our lawless run in Belgium. We told him Zonder Zorg, he jotted it down and walked back to his control tower. Shortly the upstream gate began dropping, and once it had bottomed, we were given a green light. We began breathing more regularly as we motored out.

Upstream of the lock the scenery changed to a much more gentle nature. What factories existed were small and ancient, tucked in against the bases of the tall cliffs.

There were wonderfully charming private estates tucked into the greenery along the river banks.

We passed through one more lock, Ecluse des Grands Malades and then entered Namur. Within two kilometres we came to the confluence of la Sambre with la Meuse and we kept left to continue up la Meuse. 

On the rocky spur above us was la Citadelle de Namur, overlooking the two rivers. Occupying over eighty hectares, it was once one of the largest fortresses in Europe. Just above Pont de Jambes we secured Zonder Zorg to the wall and hopped on our bicycles to go across the bridge to the capitainerie at Port de Plaisance d’Amée. From the river, it did not appear they had facilities large enough to handle our barge. 

We were right. They told us the options, which were to leave Zonder Zorg where she was on the left bank, just below the Casino with no security, water or electricity for €8 per night, or head half a kilometre upstream, through Ecluse la Plante and continue another kilometre and a half to Port de Plaisance de Jambes. There they have security, water, electricity and no rowdies from the Casino, all for €17 per day or €85 per week. We pedalled back across the bridge to Zonder Zorg, struggling again to find a route in the very bicycle unfriendly environment. What a change from the Netherlands!

We ascended in the lock and at 1715 secured to the end of a pontoon in the marina. We had come another 36.1 kilometres into Belgium, a total of 89.8 kilometres without seeing a checkpoint, nor being asked for our papers. From here it is only 43.3 kilometres up la Meuse to France. 

Since we were two-thirds of the way through Belgium and had not yet been formally welcomed into the country, we decided to do it ourselves. For dinner we had panfried fresh Icelandic filet de fletan with sautéed Friesland potatoes, Belgian haricots fins almandine and sliced roma tomatoes with shredded basil. To mark the welcoming ceremony, we accompanied dinner with a bottle of Cava Ferriol Brut.

13 August 2013

Waiting in Maastricht

We paused in Maastricht to complete a short list of outstanding items, some of which were essential for our entry into Belgium. The guides, online forums and blogs all talk of the strict control by the Belgique authorities on arriving boats. There is mention of a checkpoint just inside the country where all arriving pleasure boaters must stop and have their papers, certificates, licenses and their boats inspected. Among the items we needed to complete was our new Zonder Zorg name boards. Edi continued chipping away at the task.

Edi finished one name board and applied two layers of paint to match the artwork on the klick and the fries.

While she was at it, I repaired and restored a few spots on the fries and she repainted it and the klick. I also painted the spokes in the two leeboard winches and the anchor windlass.

It was not all work; we pedalled into Maastricht nearly every day to shop and to look around. It is an old city. Neanderthal remains have been found here and there are many Paleolithic remains from 8000 to 25,000 years ago. The Celts lived here 2500 years ago and by the first century it had become a Roman settlement.

We wandered the centre of the old city, pausing here and there to visit interesting looking buildings. Mostly, we were filling time while we waited. 

We were waiting for my International Certificate of Competence with a Code Européen des Voies de Navigation Interieur endorsement. More easily stated, this is an ICC with CEVNI, which is the driver’s license that I require to take Zonder Zorg through Belgium and into France. I was still waiting for its arrival in the post.

In early July I had received confirmation from the Royal Yachting Association that my 1972 Canadian Navy Upper Deck Watchkeeping Certificate and my 1975 Canada Department of Transport Certificate of Service as Master Foreign-Going Steamship were sufficient qualifications to waive having to pass courses and be examined for an ICC. While we were in Haarlem, I registered for an online CEVNI exam with Zeezeilschool Scheveningen in Den Haag and sent them the €45 fee. By the time we had reached Gouda, the school had received my payment, and the link to the exam had been activated. I sat in a cafe next to the cheese market and wrote both parts, with 100% scores on each.

I sent my application and for the ICC with a reference to the pass on the CEVNI exam to the RYA in England, asking them to send the licence to me in care of SRF in Harlingen. Since we were on the move with no planned itinerary, I thought this the easiest solution. Once we had a receiving address, I would have SRF forward the envelope to us.

I had received confirmation from the RYA that the certificate had been issued and sent to Harlingen on 24 July, so immediately we arrived at Pietersplas in Maastricht on 01 August, I emailed SRF in Harlingen to have the envelope forwarded to us. Then we waited.

Finally after five emails to SRF over the following week and more, the envelope arrived on 10 August. In the envelope was my new membership card for the RYA, a copy of the latest member’s magazine and a huge sheaf of flyers, pamphlets and advertising sheets. I had applied for RYA membership, since it was at no cost, the ICC being free for members or £45 for non members. Membership was £45. I searched several times through the volume of papers in the envelope, but could not find the ICC.

It was mid-afternoon on Saturday and RYA offices were closed. I sent an email to my contact at the RYA offices telling her of the missing certificate and telling her we were moving on into Belgium and would send her a new address to which she could send the misplaced certificate, or a replacement.

Except for the certificate, we were ready to pass through the Belgique control point, so we decided to see if we could bluff our way past the authorities. Last year we had spent six weeks without papers dodging and bluffing the authorities along the 3800 nautical miles of the Brazilian coast on our way back up from Cape Horn, so we figured that a Belgian checkpoint should be easy. We prepared to leave on Sunday morning.