03 September 2013

To Champagne

For two days we enjoyed the free moorage in La Chesne with free shore power and water. There were bouts of very heavy rain on Tuesday, 27 August as a series of thunderstorms rolled through, but generally the weather was fine. We had an artisanal bakery just across the street and a good 8 à Huite supermarket across the first bridge and along half a block. 

The town is important enough to have two bridges across the canal, and on a couple of occasions we stood on the one above Zonder Zorg watching the passing commercial barges. There was a regular shuttle of barges past us, with the same half dozen coming and going every few hours, so we knew there was something going on not far along the canal.

We spent our time casually exploring the small town and relaxing onboard. When the weather permitted, we sat in the cockpit to dine on the wonderful items we had found in the market.

We were gathering energy for the next leg of our journey. A kilometre along from us was the first of a series of 26 locks that would drop us in rapid succession more than 80 metres down to the Aisne. From there another two locks and 8 kilometres would take us to Attigny, the next stopping place.

At 0851 we slipped our lines and continued along the bief toward the first lock, arriving just after the system had been switched on for the day. This was our first down lock since we entered the Maas at Maasbracht in late July, and it was a joy to be able to simply drop the mooring lines over the bollards as we entered the chamber.

As we exited the lock, we saw the next one little more than a hundred metres further on.

When we entered the second lock, we saw a commercial barge rising in the third. While we were being lowered, the commercial began leaving, and by the time our doors had opened, it was in the centre of the very short bief.

We slowly danced around each other and headed into our respective locks.

These locks were built to the dimensions devised by Charles de Freycinet in 1879 when he was the French Minister of Public Works; he later served four times as Prime Minister of France. The chambers are 39 metres long, 5.2 metres wide and 2.2 metres deep to accommodate barges with a maximum size of 38.5 metres by 5.05 metres by 1.8 metres. Because a laden barge is within a few centimetres of the size as the lock, it takes much longer for it to pump its way into an up-bound lock or out of a down-bound one. We had already settled into our lock and set it in motion while the commercial was still churning its way into its lock.

The fourth lock is only 600 metres from the first.

We continued in rapid succession through locks 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, admiring along the way the old lock houses. Now that the locks have been automated, there is no need for a resident lock keeper, so many of these houses are vacant, though some have been rented out. The old lock house at Écluse 8 is still waiting for a tennant.

We arrived at Écluse 9 with the normal red and green lights showing, indicating that it was being prepared for us. We backed and filled in the approaches for ten minutes with no action from the lock. There are no mooring bollards in the waiting area, so I approached the grassy bank, dropped the spud pole and took a stern line to an old telephone pole across the towpath.

I walked up to the control building, pushed the intercom button and was immediately answered. I said: “Nous descendons à l'écluse 9, mais il est en panne”, We are descending at Lock 9, but it is not working. I received an immediate “J’arrive”, I am coming.

We had been at the lock for three-quarters of an hour by the time the roving lock keeper arrived. An up-bound commercial was by this time in Écluse 10, so we needed to wait for it to finish there and then be lifted in Écluse 9. Meanwhile a down-bound commercial had caught-up to us and was waiting just upstream. Since we move through the locks much more quickly than the Freycinet barges, we were asked to go ahead as soon as the up-bound cleared. We entered and watched the two commercials dance past each other in the narrow bend.

We continued along uneventfully, quickly passing through the locks. Increasingly the lock houses were lived-in and well cared for. At Écluse 14 we had passed the midway point down the flight. In the chamber I had selected a set of bollards that placed our stern rather close to the upstream gates. 

This would normally have been no problem, but the level of the upstream water was several centimetres higher than the gates and as we descended in the chamber, an increasingly high waterfall emerged, its spray wetting our cockpit and nicely cooling me in the heat of midday.

As we arrived in Éclise 15 we saw a sign on the downstream gates advising of dragage dans la bief, dredging in the pound. Below us we saw a Freycinet commercial alongside a scow with a mechanical shovel on it. The shovel appeared to be just finishing loading the barge with dredges from the canal bottom.

As we left the lock, the Freycinet slipped from the scow and headed upstream and we snaked a course leaving the Freycinet to port and the scow to starboard as we aimed for the next lock chamber.

I figured that we were now beyond the source of all the commercial activity we had seen upstream and that it was unlikely we would encounter any more commercial traffic for a while.

Shortly after 1400 we arrived at Écluse 26, the last of the chain of automated locks.

At 1421 we had locked through and entered l’Aisne. It had taken us five and a half hours to transit the twenty-six locks and nine kilometres distance from Le Chesne, including nearly an hour and a half waiting at Écluse 9. The FluviaCarte says: “It takes 7 hours to go down the automatic set and the next shops are at Attigny a day’s navigation away”. The phrasing of this was a bit confusing to me, but it was clarified when I saw Attigny was only ten kilometres along from the bottom of the set.

After less than a kilometre we passed through a low lock taking us from the river and back into la Canal des Ardennes. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so after we had passed through, Edi prepared a platter of open face sandwiches; fresh lox and capers on chaource slathered multigrain baguette slices.

We devoured these and dishes of olives as we followed the canal’s meander through a lush forest. At 1531 we secured alongside in the halte nautique d’Attigny. A quick visit to the supermarket two blocks away gave us the fresh ingredients for a delicious dinner. We relaxed onboard, pleased that the day had gone so easily.

On Thursday morning we slipped our lines at 0842 and continued downstream, arriving Écluse Givry at 0900 as it was activated for the day. It was a slightly hazy day, which caused the sun to play wonderful light on the passing scene.

After we had passed through the lock, Edi went below and prepared a large pan of pain perdu au lardons for our breakfast. We enjoyed this with cups of espresso as we followed the winding canal along the 7.9 kilometres to the next lock.

The calmness of the day and the gentle morning sun offered wonderful scenes as we slowly made our way alone along the canal. We were surprised by, but delighted with the lack of traffic. We had the canal to ourselves, and except for the commercial activity around the dredging at Montgon, this has been the case since we left the Netherlands. We have shared only five locks and at our evenings’ stops, there have rarely been more than two or three other boats, if any at all. Most of these have been Dutch flagged and heading back to the Netherlands. 

Among the bushes along the banks we had spotted a cotoneaster plant filled with red berries, but we were well past it before Edi thought some branches would make a nice addition to the potted hydrangea we had in the bucket at the bow. I kept a sharp lookout for the next bush, and after a couple of kilometres, we found one to nose into.

A little further along the canal we spotted an apple tree heavily hung with reddening apples. I quickly reversed and maneuvered the bow under the branches, and as we slowly drifted, we quickly picked all we could reach. Edi brought a boathook and we used it to bend a few more branches into reach. The apples were at a point of ripeness where they almost fell into our hands. We left with about ten kilos and continued along the canal.

The canal winds through mostly rural countryside, with a mix of pasture and forest along its banks. It is a very pleasant and peaceful route with an occasional tiny village, a distant steeple and a few impressive private estates. 

After four locks and 18.8 kilometres, at 1220 we secured to the wall in the halte nautique de Rethel. The moorage is clean and well organised, and it is only two hundred metres from a supermarket and the beginning of a rather large shopping district. We walked through the town centre up the hill to église St Nicolas. 

We admired the intricate stonework on its windows and doors.

We had a leisurely breakfast the next morning and slipped our lines at 0935. Our intended destination was Asfeld, a small village twenty-two kilometres and four locks further along. We motored through pleasant forests with the calm water covered by dust and pollen.

It gently moved aside as we glided through, leaving a beautiful pattern in our stern. The guide showed Asfeld as having a simple moorage, but when we arrived shortly after 1300, we found it rather grubby and barren, so we decided continue on.

The next village that showed a mooring possibility was Guignicourt, sixteen kilometres and two locks further along. Within three kilometres we had passed through the last lock of the canal, Écluse Vieux-les-Asfeld. We had come to the end of le Canal des Ardennes and entered le Canal Latéral à l’Aisne.

Edi brought up a tray of cheeses, breads, olives and sliced meats for us to nibble on as we made our way along the 6.8 kilometres to the next lock.

As we nibbled we were mesmerised by the reflections in the water as they made wonderful designs with the pilings along the canal banks. Shortly before 1600 we passed straight through Guignicourt, seeing no reason to stop there. The moorings are semi-derelict and are situated next to a sugar refinery and some huge grain silos. They offer no facilities and no charm. The town is a kilometre away and across two bridges. We continued on.

At 1602 we secured alongside the bank at the entrance to la Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne. We slipped in between a Frecinet peniche and a British cruiser with a metre or so to spare each end. There were other mooring places available, but they were all occupied by the complex sprawling of gear of a dozen or more anglers. I had long ago learned that you do not disturb the anglers; overnight vandalism to boats seems directly related.

About an hour after we arrived, Hensie, a deeply laden peniche arrived and asked the British boat to move, explaining it was in the only deep moorage available. The British boat skipper refused to move, indicating the commercial site further along, so Hensie’s skipper gently rafted onto him, dropping his spud pole to secure the bow a quarter metre off.

His bow overlapped Zonder Zorg by about five metres, so he could use our uncluttered foredeck for easy access to and from the shore. We later learned that Hensie’s load was for the industrial site about two hundred metres further along the canal with ample deep moorage, but the bargee said it was too dusty over there and mooring there would mean having to clean the barge.

At 0840 on Saturday morning we slipped our lines and backed out from under the bows of Hensie and around those of Medea, the peniche that was moored astern of us. 

A hundred metres along we came to the entrance to Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne. We could see no control device to activate the lock, which the FluviaCarte listed as automatic, nor could we see any indication there was a lock keeper. After we had nosed up to the lock and had made it very obvious that we wanted to enter, the red light changed to red and green, indicating the lock was being prepared for us. We assumed that there is a lock keeper at Écluse Berry, the next lock along Canal Latéral à l’Aisne a hundred or so metres along from us, and that he controls both locks.

The first lock house appeared to be abandoned, though it still seemed to be in reasonable condition. We were again in up-bound locks, so we changed our routine. As I slowed the barge in the chamber, I threw a stern line up the 2.5 metres to loop a bollard at the top of the wall, ran out three or four metres and secured the line to stop us. Leaving the engine in gear and pulling on the spring, I then climbed the ladder and went forward to take the bow line from Edi, who was still nursing broken ribs from a nephew’s overzealous hug, and couldn’t toss a line up to the bollard.

It was drizzling lightly as we worked our way up the canal and we seemed to be the only people around.

Then around a bend came an unladen peniche. We waved acknowledgements as we passed.

A couple of locks further on we had to wait while another down-bound commercial worked its way through the lock.

The lock house at Écluse Loivre, the fifth lock was nicely maintained and obviously occupied.

We passed through a few small villages, but mostly the canal sides were agricultural land, predominantly wheat and sugar beet. The drizzle became intermittent and there was some detail coming to the bottoms of the clouds.

After nine locks and eighteen kilometres we came to the industrial outskirts of Reims.

Five kilometres further along, we were still in unattractive surroundings as we approached the Relais Nautique de Vieux Port, the pleasure boat marina. Its maximum size is listed as 15 metres, too small for Zonder Zorg, so we continued past. Besides, it is very noisy and exhaust fumed with the Autoroute directly across the canal and busy stop-and-go urban traffic alongside the marina.

At 1352 we secured a kilometre further along on a stone wall with good bollards. Directly beside us was a very busy traffic lighted intersection, and as we sat there we could not relax. We decided to have lunch and then continue on up the canal.

Finally, after four more locks and another ten kilometres, we arrived in Sillery, and at 1633 we secured to the wall directly in front of the Capitainerie.

Sillery is one of the seventeen Grand Cru villages of the Champagne, and among the things I learned during my decades as a wine importer and wine writer, is that where there is great wine, there is great food. A trip to the Intermarché just along the canal from us proved this, and we found wonderful ingredients for a dinner to celebrate our arrival in Champagne.

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