In a steady light rain on Sunday morning the 15th of September we slipped our lines from the bollards on the wall at the entrance to the port de plaisance of Vitry le François and turned to starboard to continue up Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne.
Within a few hundred metres we were out of the rain under the broad railway bridge, waiting for the first of 71 up locks to be prepared for us.
After we had entered, Mme l’éclusier took our lines with a hooked pole and placed them over bollards at the top of the wall 3.5 metres above us. When we had risen to the top, she gave us a telecommand, a remote control device to activate 51 of the locks and half a dozen of the lift bridges along our way to the summit. She also gave us brochures explaining the automated locks and the operation of the nineteen manual locks and seven manual lift and swing bridges on the way up, as well as details on the 43 locks down the other side.
We headed out of the lock as the skies began to clear for the first time in many days. Our remote worked as advertised at the next lock and we managed to loop the bollards at the top of the lock wall. The first dozen and a half locks have a lift of a few centimetres either side of 3.15 metres, so with Zonder Zorg’s deck half a metre above water, the tops of the bollards are not much more than a metre above our heads, making it rather easy to toss a loop of line around them.
The locks in this section of the canal fill right to the brim, lowering the height of the line toss, but making fenders useless in protecting the hull from the masonry of the lock’s rim.
It is not so bad going up; the loss of fender protection is only for the last few minutes while waiting for the gates to open and then motoring out of the lock. I remember these locks from our trip down them in 2003. Entering them required precise manoeuvring, and with a lightly gusting wind, it became nearly impossible to enter without some scrapes. Lady Jane received a few paint blemishes at waterline during that descent.
Our remote control functioned well until we came to a lock without the “Click Here” sign 300 or so metres before it. I had noticed that directional signs along the towpath had been turned around, apparently as a juvenile prank and the missing transponder post was likely more.
I let Edi off on the bank and she went walking back along the towpath, clicking as she went. The pranksters must have pulled out the signpost and its transceiver and threw it into the bushes; however, Edi’s persistent clicking of the remote finally elicited a response from the signal lights at the lock. They turned from Red to Red and White. It appears the pranksters had also smashed the green lens.
A few locks further along, our twelfth of the day, the remote refused to activate the lock as we repeatedly clicked at the sign on our way by. I dropped Edi off at a mooring dolphin and she went back along the towpath again, but even standing beside the sign, she could get no response from the lock’s signal lights.
I called the VNF on the cell phone and reported the situation, adding that I suspected the batteries were dead in our remote control. We secured to the dolphin and waited. In about twenty minutes a VNF van arrived with a fresh remote control, and it easily triggered the lock to cycle for us.
It was 1730 by the time we had made it through the lock and into the town of St-Dizier and we moved quickly along the 1.8 kilometre bief to make it through Écluse St-Dizier before it closed for the day. The lock functioned flawlessly and were quickly locked through. Our guide shows a mooring quai immediately beyond the lock, and we had been planning on using it for the night; however, the neighbourhood looked seedy to us and there were scattered groups of young men lolling about and appearing to be looking for mischief. Knowing that this is an economically depressed area, our previous experience and our guts told us rather forcefully to continue along the canal.
After three kilometres we arrived at Pont Levis de Marnaval and glided through the narrow gut. This is actually two bridges in series, the first a swing bridge, which is normally open and it is immediately followed by a bascule lift bridge. Just beyond these bridges is Écluse Marnaval, on which the signal lights were out as we arrived, indicating it was closed for the day.
At 1820 we secured to the spud pole and a pin pounded into the bank in a serene rural setting just downstream of the lock.
On Monday morning Edi walked our gangway to the bank and started back down the canal toward the signal sign. She cheered as she was immediately successful at triggering the lock.
We were running low on both water and diesel oil and needed to replenish. I had marked the places that our FluviaCarte showed these were available. The next water shown was in Écluse Chamouilley, three locks and five kilometres further along. An hour and a half later when we arrived at Chamouilley, there was a VNF éclusier there to take our lines and explain to us that the automatic mechanism was not working correctly and that he would manually bypass the system to lock us through. I asked about water, and he said he had never seen any available at this lock. We both then searched and proved the FluviaCarte wrong.
He told us there was water at the lift bridge house at Bayard, three locks further along, and that he would be accompanying us along the way to assist with two lift bridges and a lock on which the automatic systems were not fully functioning.
While we motored in the steady rain, l‘éclusier rode the towpath on his Moped.
At 1315 we secured to spud pole and a pin pounded into the bank, just downstream from the manual lift bridge in Bayard and its bridge keeper’s house. Once we had secured, l’éclusier led me to the water he had promised. It was a simple faucet in the utility sink in the room he used as his waiting place while tending his series of locks and bridges. It had no threads, so could not accept our hose. He suggested we simply fill-up some bottles; I told him we needed close to a thousand litres.
The good news was that there is a gas station in the supermarket lot just 300 metres from Zonder Zorg’s mooring. The gauge level had been down below the sight glass, and I estimated about 30 litres remaining. It was below the level of the intake for the Hydrofoor, the hot water and central heating system. Hot water was not a problem, since the engine heated the tank when we motored and gave more than a day’s supply; however with the persistent rain and cool weather, interior heating would be welcomed. I made four trips with our two jerry cans on the trolley and added 160 litres to the tanks.
At 0955 on Tuesday we raised our spud pole and retrieved the mooring pin from the bank. We had told l’éclusier that we intended continuing up canal at 1000, and he had arrived a few minutes early to push the buttons to halt traffic and lift the bridge for us.
He then scooted up the towpath and hand cranked the next lift bridge for our arrival.
Then he continued along to the next lock to take our lines as we entered the next lock and to override the controls on the malfunctioning automated Écluse 51. He scooted on past us after we had left the lock and opened the manual lift bridge half a kilometre further along. He bade us farewell as we passed through the bridge, telling us that the all the locks and bridges from Écluse 51 through 23 were automatic and, as far as he knew, properly functioning.
Immediately on exiting At Écluse 45, we crossed a bridge over a river, showing us some of the engineering that was necessary in the 1860s when this canal was built.
A few hundred metres further along as we entered Joinville, we passed a quai overflowing with boats, including two British barges. One was a replica luxemotor, the other a replica narrowboat. We continued on past about a quarter kilometre to an empty place on a public quai, where we had been told there was free water. At 1355 we stopped to fill our tanks, which took over an hour. By the time we were watered, it was past mid-afternoon, and since we had already done 15.9 kilometres, 7 locks and 6 lift bridges, we decided to pause for the night.
Not long after we had stopped for water, the two couples from the British boats walked along and saw the free quai and quickly moved their boats along to moor astern of us. They had been on a quai with charges for mooring and for water. With our tanks full of water and more readily available, I flashed-up the generator and we ran three loads of laundry through the washer and dryer.
At 1020 on Wednesday we slipped our lines and continued up canal. The two British boats had departed before us, so unless there were down-bound boats, all the locks would be filled when we arrived and we would need to wait for them to cycle down. At the next few locks, we again saw the marvels of incompetent lock design, with overflow sluices dumping a gushing crosscurrent just short of the lock entrances.
Also here we saw locks overflowing their rims when filled. We are amazed that nearly a century and a half after these locks were designed and built that these flaws still remain.
The chambers of the locks are deeper along this section, and instead of the 2.85 to 3.15 heights we had been seeing, the walls were now 3.4 to 3.85 metres high. This made it rather difficult to throw a line up from our low decks to ring an unseen bollard whose position is marked with a faded paint stripe at the top of the wall. At the next of these higher locks, while we waited for it to prepare for us, I nosed into the bank and Edi hopped ashore with a boathook and walked to the lock to take the lines.
By the time we reached Écluse 41 it had begun raining again, making it our twelfth consecutive day with rain. The guide showed a water faucet at the lock, but we could see no sign of any.
Immediately upon heading upstream from this lock, the canal crosses a bridge over the Marne and then immediately passes a lift bridge. Over much of its length to the summit of the pass near the source of the Marne, the canal follows the general course of the river using its waters to fill the locks and pounds.
We arrived in Donjeux relieved to see that the two British boats had decided to stop. This meant that our progress would be quicker with the locks empty from the passage of a down-bound commercial barge that we had just met. We continued up canal.
About half of the lock houses along this stretch of canal appeared to be occupied. Some were completely plain, with no apparent effort to dress-up the setting.
Others were well decorated and the one at Écluse 38 was a screaming example of kitsch run wild. There was a small replica of Michelangelo’s David mixed in with gaudy gnomes, storks, pink flamingos, some Bambi characters, Grecian urns, squirrels, frogs, snails and so on.
At least two of the gnomes were a tad risqué. We wondered at the taste of the tenant and pondered her sanity as we watched her watching our reactions from the upper window.
In the early afternoon we paused before a lock to wait for a barge to cycle down, which meant the following locks would be in our favour as we approached them.
Then at 1540 we secured alongside in the halte nautique of Froncles, which is part motor-camper parking and part boat moorage. We had come another 23.6 kilometres and had worked through nine more locks. A short while after our arrival, the capitain came by and collected our €4 fee for moorage. Since we had paid for it, we plugged into the shore power and topped off our water tanks.
During a lull in the rain in the late afternoon I walked through the small town in search of the reported supermarket. The town had certainly seen better days, but it appeared that the metalworks, Les Forges had been on hard times for a long while. There had been an attempt to bring some commerce to the old area by the chateau, but most of the spaces look to have been vacant for a long time. I found the supermarket just as the skies opened for another downpour, so I took my time shopping, giving the rain plenty of time to abate.
At 0910 on Thursday we slipped and continued up canal, me in Zonder Zorg and Edi on bicycle. We had decided it would be easier to handle the lines from the top, and instead of dropping her off before each lock, it seemed easier for her to pedal between the locks, which are spaced here an average of about two kilometres apart.
Along the way we passed one of the few fishermen we had thus far seen in France that was not enraged that we had disturbed his fishing by having the audacity to use a boat on the canal. To us it seems that many of the canalside fishermen think that the canals had been built for fishing, not boating, and that boaters have no right to disturb their lines.
The locks were in our favour, and we moved along smoothly, with Edi using a large carabiner on the end of a line to haul up the mooring lines and drop them over the bollards.
Our eleventh lock of the day, Écluse 26 at Condes was a complex one.
Almost immediately out of the lock is a tunnel.
Then directly from the tunnel the canal crosses on a viaduct over the Marne.
And at the end of the viaduct is a lift bridge.
At 1406, having done 25.8 kilometres, twelve locks, three lift bridges and one tunnel, we secured alongside at Port de la Maladière in Chaumont. Shortly after having arrived, we pedalled across the bridge and back down the canal a kilometre to the huge supermarket to restock our supplies.
In the late afternoon we were visited by the VNF area manager, who asked whether we were leaving the next day, and if so, when and how far we wanted to go. The two locks after Chaumont are automatic, but from there the following nineteen are manual and we needed to be accompanied by an éclusier. We told him we would be at the first manual lock at 0900, so shortly after 0800 on Friday we slipped and followed a tiny Belgique boat with four huge people aboard. The boat was no more than eight metres long and barely more than two metres of beam and it listed almost dangerously when any of the crew moved to one side or the other.
We followed the little boat into the first lock, just a few hundred metres along from our mooring place. There we were amused with their coordinated balancing act as they kept the boat more-or-less upright while getting their lines to the lock bollards. We learned that the two couples had been boating together as friends for a dozen years and we tried to imagine the boat’s cramped interior arrangements for their four very ample bodies.
The second automatic lock followed within a kilometre and a half, after which there was a three kilometre pound to the first manual lock. During the motor between the first two locks, Edi had laid-out everything for breakfast, and then as we left the second lock, she began cooking. Very shortly she emerged into the cockpit with my plate of pain perdu à jambon garnished with sliced tomatoes and avocadoes. A minute later she brought up a hot cup of espresso.
We finished our breakfasts shortly before we arrived at the third lock, where we were met by a tiny elderly woman. She hand cranked the gates closed behind us, closed their paddles, went to the upstream gates and cranked open the paddles there to flood the lock. Once we had reached the top of the lock, I cranked open one of the upstream gates as l’éclusier did the other, then after I had motored out, I watched as she closed the gates and dropped their paddles. She soon drove past on the towpath toward the next lock.
As Zonder Zorg had reached the top of the lock, we had offloaded Edi’s bicycle so she could pedal along the towpath to take our lines as we arrived in the locks. This process worked well for us, for the two couples in the Belgian boat, and because Edi helped crank the gates, also for madame l’éclusier.
Besides the handwork on the locks, there was a vertical lift bridge that needed cranking up. Here Edi could do nothing but watch as the bridge opened and we passed under.
At our first lock after noon, Mme l’éclusier was replaced by a young man, who continued the process she had commenced. Thus we worked our way up the canal for 29.6 kilometres and through fifteen locks and one lift bridge, until at 1440 we came to our spud pole and a pin pounded into the bank in Rolapmont. The rain had stopped a little before we arrived and the skies looked more promising for clearing than we had seen in two weeks. This was our thirteenth consecutive day with rain.
Moored astern of us was the 13.5 metre Lemsteraak, Nettie. She had been built in 1911 not far from where Zonder Zorg had been three years earlier and she still had her traditional sailing rig.
Aboard was a young Dutch couple, at least younger than us. They were on their way back to Amsterdam, which they had left in April to navigate up the Rhine and the Main, then across the canal to the Danube and down it to the Black Sea. They then sailed to Istanbul, through the Bosporus and the Greek Islands, around the Agean coast and around the Mediterranean coasts of Italy and France. From there they motored up the Rhône and the Saône and over the Plateau de Langres to here.
On Saturday morning the sky was the clearest we had seen it in two weeks. We bade farewell and success with the remainder of their voyage as Nettie continued down canal and we continued up. We had organised with l’éclusier to have the next lock ready for us at 0900. There were five more manual locks and a manual swing bridge that needed to be worked for us.
Following us into the locks was a French couple from St-Jean-de-Losne. He is an electrician for one of the boatyards there and there is in too much demand for his expertise during August when nearly everyone in France takes their holidays, so he and his wife take their major annual boating trip in September.
By 1100 we had smoothly made our way up the first four manual locks and then through the swing bridge at Jourquenay and were in the final manual lock. As we were locking up, I asked l’éclusier what the traffic was like at the Balesmas Tunnel, and he phoned the control point to find out. There was a peniche chargée on its way up from the other side that we would need to wait for, likely for up to two hours.
We thanked l’éclusier for his work and we headed off to do the final three locks to the summit pound. These are all automatic, they all worked properly and shortly past noon we were at Écluse 1, the seventy-first and final up lock of the canal. In seven days we had come 152 kilometres and up 239 metres through 71 locks 15 movable bridges and a tunnel. From here there is a 10.1 kilometre summit pound with two tunnels, the first being only about 150 metres long. The second tunnel is 4820 metres long, nearly five kilometres, and it passes nearly beneath the source of the River Marne.
As we motored along the bief the two kilometres to the first tunnel, we passed below the ramparts of the citadel of Langres 130 metres above us. The ramparts are nearly three kilometres long as the encircle the ancient city that dates at least to the Roman era. As we motored, the clouds thickened and it looked like we would have our fourteenth consecutive day with rain.
At 1241 we arrived at the traffic control displays at the entrance to the Balesmes Tunnel. They were very confusing; the gate was up, the panel read “Tunnel Open 243 Go”.
“Tunnel Ouvert 243 Passez” and the equivalent in German. However; the light was red. I radioed the control centre for clarification, and was told to ignore the open gate and the multilingual signs telling us to go. They are wrong and we must wait for the green light.
I looped a bollard on a duc d’albe as we slowly passed, then swung in toward bank and out of the channel, stopped and dropped the spud pole and tightened in the stern line. Our wait extended beyond the two hour estimate, then grew to two and a half hours. At two and three-quarter hours we were still waiting, then the light went green.
We had a green light, an open gate and a panel telling us in three languages that the tunnel was open and to proceed. We waited. As our wait neared three hours, the faint blur we had seen deep in the tunnel had grown into a barge.
We continued to wait as it painfully slowly pumped its way out of the tunnel and along the narrow cut. It was a deeply laden Freycinet gauge barge that was making about 1.5 kilometres per hour. I kept the spud pole down and the line attached to the dolphin as the barge approached and passed us. Even at its extremely slow speed, its propeller was churning a huge suction to overcome the thin slice of water beneath its deeply immersed flat bottom.
Finally, at 1546 we raised the spud pole, slipped our line and started into the narrow channel leading to the tunnels. The first one was quick and easy, almost like training wheels for the real thing.
As we entered Balesmes at 1600, we saw that the towpath had been blocked-off with a door and hoarding to keep out anyone but the authorised. We were relieved to see a series of green lights running down the length of the tunnel as far as we could see. Also, we could see no navigation lights of boats coming toward us down the tunnel.
Faintly in the distance we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, nearly five kilometres ahead. The speed limit in the tunnel is 4 kilometres per hour, but Zonder Zorg does not naturally move that slowly. At idle she moves along at about 5.5. I decided to avoid the hassle of shifting in and out of gear to stay at 4, and I simply ran at idle.
The oval of light at the end of the tunnel gradually grew as I watched the distance markers along the tunnel wall. Every hundred metres there is a plaque affixed to the wall giving the distance from the southern entrance in decimetres, so watching them was a welcome distraction from tedium of steering a course centred between the walls. It also helped prevent auto hypnosis.
The tunnel is 8 metres wide and running alongside the channel is a towpath of 1.5 metres. This gives a navigable width of 6.5 metres, so we had a tad above a metre each side for wiggle room. After 45 minutes the oval of light had morphed into an ellipse, the bottom half being the reflection in the water of the upper half.
At 1651 we emerged into daylight again. We had done the transit in 51 minutes, averaging 5.67 kilometres per hour, about 40% over the speed limit. We were relieved to see no flashing blue lights of traffic police as we motored out.
At the end of the summit pound, within two kilometres of the tunnel, the route begins a steep descent, with eight locks of 5.13 to 5.28 metres height in about three kilometres. It is an automatic series, with each lock triggering the next. I calculated that we had enough time remaining before lock closure to run the series, so we set off. At 1840 we were in Écluse Percey, the eighth and last of the series, and from there we motored the two kilometre bief to Villegusien-le-Lac. At 1855 we secured to bollards on the bank just short of the next lock. It had been a long day, with 17 locks, 2 tunnels and 1 lift bridge.
Sunday dawned totally clear, and after a leisurely breakfast, at 0956 we slipped from the bollards and continued down the canal and through Écluse Villegusien, lock 9 of the 43 that would take us down to the Saône.
The day remained clear and warm as we enjoyed the play of light through the trees and the reflections off the water. Shortly after noon we came to Écluse Choilley, number 16 in the series to find it refusing to open for us. I called the VNF office on the radio and received the familiar response: “Quelquen arrive”, someone will arrive. Someone did eventually arrive, and after a 37 minute wait, we finally were allowed into the lock.
We continued without problem from there, working our way down through another fourteen locks to Écluse Pouilly, lock 28 of the 43 to the Saône. At lock 24 we had passed signs indicating we had entered the Burgundy.
As we left the Pouilly lock, its traffic lights went out, indicating the system was closed for the day.
We continued along the 2.7 kilometre bief to just above Écluse St-Seine, lock 29 where at 1829 we secured the stern to a bollard on a tiny concrete jetty and dropped our spud pole to hold the bow off the rubble bank. We had come another 30.6 kilometres and 21 locks.
At 0958 on Monday morning I raised the spud pole, slipped our line and headed toward the St-Seine lock. It looked to be another fine day, already with a dome of blue having burnt through the top of the morning mists. The automatic eye caught our approach and the lock functioned flawlessly. We continued down the flight of locks, ten of them in eleven kilometres without problem, then at the eleventh lock of the day, the automatic system refused to function.
After a pause to wait for the arrival of the itinerant éclusier from VNF, we continued along. Two more locks malfunctioned and we got to see more of the roving éclusier. In the early afternoon we passed under the impressive stone viaduct at Oisilly. It was built in 1866-67 to carry the railway 4820 metres across the valley of le Vingeannot, the river that the canal follows down from the Plateau de Langres.
Two more locks malfunctioned on our way down to the Saône. On one, the hydraulic ram to one of the downstream doors appeared seized, and it needed to be detached and the door hand cranked. It was getting late in the season, and the locks were obviously begging for some winter maintenance.
After another lift bridge and three more locks, we came to the final lock of the canal. We deposited our telecommande in the slot and once it was digested by the automated system, the lock cycled down and let us out into the kilometre-long bief to the end of the canal.
At 1531 we arrived at the Saône and joined the line behind a rental boat, waiting for our first lock on the river. In nine days we had worked our way through 114 locks, 71 up and another 43 down to cover the 224 kilometre length of the Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne.
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