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