Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Gearbox Again


So, it seems I tempted fate once again. The slightly 'smarty pants' tone of my last post might have requested a more appropriate title - something like Pride Comes Before...(you know the rest). To be fair, I was just relieved that the resident engineer seemed to have found a way around a major repair. He clearly had that too good to be true feeling because first thing next morning he said, 'I'm not happy. There's more to it.'
He then proceeded to dismantle the gearbox once again - and he was right.

I'm a little vague on the technical details but the source of the problem was eventually found and was one of those things which apparently had been on the verge of going wrong for longer than we've had the boat. In short, a welder had had a brain fade - or perhaps a coffee break - exactly halfway through a job and had welded only two of four sides of a small rectangular piece of steel deep in the guts of the gearbox. After 8 plus years of use this had come adrift. I suppose we were lucky that it didn't fail while we were barrelling down the Rhine or Rhone. We were also lucky in that Mike, the port captain at Meilhan, was able to lend us some tools and gear that we don't have (is there stuff we don't have?) as well as put us in touch with Trevor the Welder.

The missing weld
New Weld

Lifting the gearbox back into place

The gearbox is now back together again and we are on our way. We toyed briefly with the idea of continuing to Castets but from some reports the weed has taken on triffid dimensions so we've abandoned that plan until such times as the weed muncher materialises. So, we are heading back along the canal in the direction of Buzet where we will be leaving l'Avenir for a couple of months while we return to Australia.
Entrance to Mas d'Agenais - don't know the significance of the giant axe

The past two months have been frustrating in many respects. The weather has been much colder than we expected. I never thought I'd be wearing thermals in the South of France in May but then perhaps we've become a bit soft not having experienced 'wintry' weather for years. We haven't done much cruising at all. On the other hand we have had lots of time to get to know some terrific, interesting people from different backgrounds; each with their own stories, all supportive and keen to help whenever possible. Bravo to the boating community!
Colour co-ordination

A special mention also to the French people we befriended on our many trips on the local bus from Meilhan to Marmande - particularly one regular who helped us with French vocab and where to find obscure tools as well as entertaining and informing us with some juicy local gossip.

Lastly, on a purely personal note, I've also been reminded, once again, how truly lucky I am to have an engineer onboard!
Double rainbow - things are looking up

Friday, 6 May 2016

Mother of Invention

Val de Garonne

 'If we wanted, we could be there in a day or so' (my words a week or so ago)

Talk about tempting fate. I was referring to our impending arrival in Castets-en-Dorthe the final port of the canal system in the south west of France. From Castets it is possible to lock down onto the tidal river leading to Bordeaux and then the Bay of Biscay. There had been some talk of taking our boat to Bordeaux - a conversation to which my enthusiastic contribution was along the lines of, 'yeah, right.'
I was keen to make it as far as Castets though - the end of a long journey from the north of the country to the south.

Fontaine de la Font d'Uzas
Our plans weren't to be thwarted by fate or mythical water gods but by Spring in full force. I've already posted some pictures of the riotous growth of trees and plants along the canal banks but a similar thing is happening in the underwater world. For some reason the water is particularly clean in this area and there is quite a current. (Often canal water is still and murky). We can clearly see hundreds of tiny (and some sizeable) fish as they dart amongst thickets of green weed. And it is the weed that is the problem - like everything else at this time of year it's growing and spreading. Fast.

The infrequent traffic on this stretch of water means the weed's growth isn't disturbed much - there's no propeller pruning going on. From time to time the VNF (waterways authority) brings a 'weed muncher' through to clear a passage- or so we've been led to believe- but they are still somewhere further down the canal apparently. Perhaps clearing the popular areas the hire boats use.

We've been through weedy waterways before of course. The long green fronds wrap themselves around the propeller until eventually  one of us notices we're going even slower than usual or, worse, we attempt to go astern and nothing happens. The latter can have serious consequences. A couple of years ago we were waiting inside a lock for another boat to come in behind us. When he went astern in order to stop nothing happened and he ploughed into the back of us. He had weed around his prop. Fortunately no-one was hurt and there was minimal damage. The upside was we became -and remain- friends and look forward to metaphorically 'running into each other' at various ports.

Hure, Val de Garonne
Our prop is well under the keel of the boat and inaccessible so the usual way of dislodging weed is to give a sharp burst of reverse gear. (On a couple of occasions over the years Rob has dived under the boat to cut away rope but it's not easy, not to be recommended, and only a possible option in the clean water of a river. Not something you'd consider doing for weed). As we travelled towards Castets the weed became thicker and thicker and we had to clear the prop a couple of times; the final time just before turning into the flooded quarry which is now the harbour of Fontets- about half way. We'd decided to spend a night there to have look at the village. We'd been warned beforehand that there were a couple of large submerged concrete blocks at the end of the quay but they are clearly marked with buoys. We motored in slowly, as usual, with me standing ready to throw a rope as we came alongside. Normal routine. Then it all went wrong. We weren't stopping and those concrete blocks were almost under the bows. I grabbed a boathook and attempted to fend off. You've probably never tried to stop 15 ton of steel with a wooden pole before but let me tell you it's not possible. Not even if you're screaming 'Stop!' at the top of your lungs and the skipper is harmonising with choice 4 letter Anglo-Saxon. We had no reverse gear; no brakes. Somehow, the expected crunch didn't eventuate, the bow came round slightly, narrowly avoiding a metal pontoon and we managed to get a rope off the stern to stop the boat's forward momentum. To make matters worse a bloody fisherman, instead of helping, grumbled and whinged because we had the temerity to moor where he wanted to cast his line. Never mind all the 'peche interdit' signs (fishing prohibited). Some rules are pretty optional here. Still, disaster avoided. Just weed around the prop wasn't it? In a word, no. We had gearbox trouble.

Lavoir - Fontets

There is nothing much in Fontets apart from a boulangerie, a chateau and a museum of matchstick models. The prospect of seeing the largest matchstick model in the world (the Palace of Versailles) wasn't sufficient to cheer us up enough to go and visit I'm afraid. I hope their big signs prohibiting smoking are not as ignored as the no fishing ones. To continue to Castets would mean ploughing on through increasingly thick weed with no means of clearing it as well as having to negotiate 4 locks without the ability of going astern. We decided to return to Meilhan; only one lock and then clearer water. Plus Meilhan has a butcher and a boulangerie as well as that bus to Marmande. Beats matchsticks.

Next day we limped slowly back along to the lock with me walking along the towpath in case the weed stopped the boat completely and it became necessary to physically haul her. Thankfully that wasn't necessary. Rob inched into the lock where I was waiting to take a line and stop the boat. After that it was a clear run to port. The elderly gearbox was taken to bits to find out the problem and moods became progressively glummer when it was established that the part that needed replaced would probably have to be ordered from the States - if indeed it could be found at all .Not only that but if we did indeed manage to get the part it would be a huge job. I spent the afternoon searching part numbers on the internet whilst Rob went into engineer mode and attempted to work out a solution. We don't have weeks to wait around for parts, nor do we want to spend months stripping and overhauling a gearbox. Well, 'he' not 'me' for the mechanical bit.

Knew we'd find an approprite use for Jeremy Clarkson's face - making a gasket for top cover of gear box
 To cut a very long-winded story a bit shorter (if you'd like a blow by blow account let me know)  there is a happy ending. The engineer had sudden inspiration (helped a little, I like to think, by my dumb questions) and managed see a way around the problem. Necessity truly is the mother of invention! Only when I saw how delighted and relieved he was when it actually worked did I realise just how potentially big that problem had been.

Hopefully the next weeks will be plain sailing. Castets can wait. We're heading back upstream and out of the clutches of the weed.

Fontets, Val de Garonne


Friday, 29 April 2016

Snail's Pace - Buzet to Meilhan

Port of Meilhan
2 weeks later. Updating the blog is even slower than our progress along this canal. Not that we are in any hurry. Last year's cruise was a marathon effort so, this season, we are aiming for some balance and relaxation by going nowhere fast. In that respect we're succeeding quite splendidly - although, on second thoughts, perhaps one of us didn't too well with the balance part. His ribs are gradually healing I'm happy to report but sneezing is to be avoided if at all possible.

When we arrived at Buzet  a few weeks ago the plane trees lining the canal were just beginning to come into leaf. Now we're surrounded by the brightest and most beautiful greenery. I had forgotten how green Spring in the northern hemisphere can be. The foliage has been helped along by copious rain but then it is April and showers are a feature of the month. There's been plenty of sunshine too and when it does appear it is quite warm. Off come the thermals (in my defence I haven't encountered 'wintry' weather for around 8 years) on go the shorts and t shirts and armed with paint brushes and sanders we head outside for the never-ending battle against rust and rot and their advance troops, chipped paint and peeling varnish. One drawback of painting at this time of year is the determination of nature to cover every surface with pollen and tiny wind borne seeds. So a slight breeze can ruin hours of work.
Mas d'Agenais

We aren't far from the south western extremity of the canal system now. If we wanted, we could be there in a day or so. There is practically no other movement on this stretch of waterway. That's partly to do with it being so early in the season but also most hirers in the south seem to head for the canal du Midi.There are several hire company bases along the Garonne but the mooring facilities are rather limited. There are pretty villages but few shops, cafes or restaurants. Where we are at the moment, Meilhan is great though.

View over canal and river Garonne from the terrace at Meilhan

Meilhan - wisteria season

This lovely, and much fought over, village is perched on a clifftop overlooking the Garonne valley. It has a wonderful butcher who supplies many of the best regional restaurants (and also Rick Stein on his tv series barging along the Midi), a baker, a couple of restaurants (opening May sometime) and a small supermarket (opening May sometime). There's also a large restaurant right beside the port on the riverfront but it looks unlikely to reopen sometime in May (or any time for that matter). Shame as it's in a beautiful, if flood prone, position.

 There is a small bus paid for by the Region/Commune/EU which runs several times a day to the nearest town of Marmande (tomato capital of France apparently) and it comes right into the port here. We took it yesterday and it costs 1 euro each way! A trip of about 30 minutes. It is provided to 'keep the villages alive' we were told by one of the other friendly passengers and it stops off in several villages before heading for the commercial area outside town and then into the historic centre and station. It even makes a stop in the carpark of an enormous hypermarket (Le Clerc) so we'll be heading there for some supplies later today. With all the talk in the UK regarding the EU referendum it seems to me that France manages to do quite nicely with initiatives like this for example.

Cathedral cloister gardens, Marmande

Cathedral Marmande - how green is my garden!

Lastly, a candidate for most surprising finds. A genuine Rembrandt hanging in a church in the tiny village of Mas d'Agenais. You just let yourself into the church, turn on the light and there it is.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016


Port of Buzet - first boat of the season setting off

Nearly a week  has passed since the 'unfortunate incident' mentioned in my last post. Canal boating would be fairly low down on anyone's list of dangerous activities but it doesn't pay to be too blasé; a moment's inattention can result in serious injury.
Rejoining the boat at the beginning of the cruising season is perhaps a slightly more risky time as it takes a few days to re-familiarise yourself with the numerous stairs, ladders, slippery decks, ropes etc. It's a busy time for both of us unpacking, restocking, cleaning, de-winterising the engine and so on. Working on the engine means the floor hatches are lifted which demands even more care. This year we found we needed to replace another 2 batteries - the start battery from the the engine 'room' and the bow thruster battery from another underfloor  compartment in the forward cabin. These batteries weigh about 50kg each and lifting them out of their confined spaces and off the boat was quite a palaver involving ropes, ramps and lots of swearing. We managed however, congratulating ourselves  on doing so without adding the pain of putting our backs out to the eye-watering cost of new batteries (somewhat prematurely as it turned out).
As mentioned, one of the batteries came from under the floor of the foreward cabin and for whatever reason the door to the cabin was closed before the hatch cover was replaced and so it was forgotten about. The inevitable happened; Rob opened the door and stepped straight down through the hatchway.

Four big 'thank yous' to:

1. Our Lucky Stars
Firstly, he is ok. He clearly hadn't broken his leg but he was in a lot of pain and we thought he may have broken ribs (only cracked and severe bruising). Since this happened we have heard (as you do) numerous stories of similar accidents with much more serious outcomes.

2. Our Fellow Boaters (particularly Steve)
Who went out of their way to help us with advice about doctors, running us miles to and from the nearest hospital, plus taking us miles in another direction to buy batteries and installing them for us. One plus out of all this is we got a tour of the very lovely countryside and villages. Normally we see only what's in range of the pushbikes.

3. The French Health Service
Brilliant. No waiting at the hospital. Doctors, radiologist, x-ray, painkillers, prescription all for under 50 euros. Everyone from the receptionist onwards was very efficient and pleasant. The only difficulty was being triaged in the hospital over the phone which wasn't easy and so my last thank you is to:

 4. Sylviane (my French teacher in Australia) and husband Philippe for calling in to see us on the boat during their quick visit to France. It's always a little odd to meet up with friends from home on the other side of the world. Sylviane, if it weren't for your French lessons we'd have been struggling even more this week.

We will be staying put for a few more days until everyone is completely mobile again.
Hopefully next post will be from a bit further up the canal!

Meanwhile the trees are almost in full leaf, the birds are singing their little hearts out and there's an incredibly noisy (possibly lonely) donkey on the other side of the towpath.

Musical boats - moving unoccupied boats around to make room on the quay

Pigeonnier (dovecote) near the local chateau

Friday, 8 April 2016

Springing into Action - Buzet sur Baise

Spring flowers - Damazan market
Welcome aboard for 2016.
April is usually a little early to begin the cruising season but l'Avenir is in the south of France now. Spring arrives earlier there doesn't it?
Winter was definitely- and depressingly- still in force on our arrival in Paris a week ago - 6 degrees and pouring rain. There was also a general strike underway which may have had some bearing on the glacial pace of the baggage reclaim - each revolution of the carousel contained about 3 new pieces of luggage. Fortunately, we'd booked a night in an airport hotel and so after waiting for a couple of hours for our bags we didn't then need to contend with a strikebound transport system.
Everyone was back to work the following morning and we caught an early TGV from the airport arriving in Bordeaux by lunchtime. Our journey, which began in a fog shrouded landscape of bare trees and dried brown grass, gradually softened and took on a hint of colour as we travelled south; the sky becoming blue and the grass and shrubs showing a slight haze of green. Watching the trees turn progressively greener each day since we arrived has been a delightful and uplifting experience.
Our port at Buzet is a little out of the way requiring us to catch another local train and then a taxi. First test for my French this year was phoning for the taxi which I did whilst waiting for our next   train in Bordeaux. The call went to message bank so I was quietly relieved (and, to be honest, a bit surprised) to see a taxi actually turn up to meet us when we got off the train.
L'Avenir wasn't where we had left her 5 months ago. At the end of December the VNF (the waterways authority) drained the canal for a couple of months in order to carry out maintenance. The decision to undertake the work came as an unwelcome surprise to everyone with boats in the port and necessitated quite a bit of work for a few people moving boats around and away from the quay so they could settle flat on the muddy bottom of the canal. We, of course, were on the other side of the world and unable to help so are very grateful to those people who looked out for our boat.
The past week has been spent scrubbing and scouring and generally getting everything shipshape. This has not gone entirely to plan however, and we've already had our first (and hopefully last) 'unfortunate incident'...

Welcome to Buzet - and this year's travels