Sunday, November 30, 2008

A not so lovely Sunday

Today's been horrible. Cold, damp, dripping. A typical November day to freeze you inside out. I have to say this kind of weather is my worst, and even the lovely view out of my back window looked forbidding - it had the look of a stone-eyed, grey haired spinster about it. Typical then that our neighbours in the harbour here in Sas van Gent decided that they wanted to shuffle boats around again. I don't know why it is but the collection of boaters down our end of the marina cannot seem to make up their minds about where they want to lie, and the trouble is, we are always involved in their plans for a re-shuffle.

I was just looking forward to a long snoozy lie-in  this morning when Koos, fresh back from Poland, reminded me that we had to get up in time to be at the harbour at 10.00 to fling ropes around while shoving the Hennie H out of its present cosy berth into another one further along the line. Looking out of the window, it was raining, and the mist was hanging low on the trees. Then it started snowing. Not that nice dry fluffy stuff they have in Canada and more continental climates, but wet, clammy snow that slaps irritably at your face with its flakes only just a half a degree below congealing point. Not designed for snow balls this, but more for extreme discomfort as it creeps down your collar and into your neck.

Well up we got and out we went, and once at the harbour, the neighbours greeted us with a cheerful bonhomie that I certainly wasn't feeling. 10.00 on a Sunday morning in this kind of weather was not going to inspire me to exchange anything more than a few ill tempered grunts at best. The neighbours in question - those that wanted us to move again in the first place, fired up their engine from the warmth of a snug wheel house and reversed out of the berth they didn't like; this being because they were in the shadow of a much larger vessel, which was one we'd swapped places with a few weeks before because they didn't like where they were either. Back the nieghbours went and kept on going until they reached a jetty at the entrance to the harbour. They tied up there.

Koos and I pushed and pulled and nudged the Hennie H round into its new spot, by which time my hands were numb with cold through my gloves and my nose had absconded - well, I couldn't find it or feel it on my face at any rate. Still, it all went smoothly enough and we tied up and plugged the electricity in again. Back on land, I watched to see if the neighbours were going to move back into our now vacated spot, but no. They didn't move. They stayed put. We watched a while longer and took Sin for a walk along the bank, but still they stayed. Eventually, Koos said that maybe they'd decided to stop there for a while. After all they were in no hurry. I struggled with this thought. If they were in no hurry, then, why had we had to rush down there at 10.00 on this frigid Sunday morning? If they were in no hurry, in fact, why were we?

Curse it, I thought. I could have been snoozing still, or at least still snuggled up under the duvet and merely watching the snow instead of being flailed by icy needles. The next time anyone asks us to move, I'll say fine, as long as there's no hurry......and the following good weather conditions can be met.......sun, blue cloudless skies, 20 degrees and rising, a gentle breeze...shall I go on?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The lure of Barge logblogs


Over the past week, Blogdom has seen a revival, and it's been like finding all my friends at home again. Wonderful! I was afraid that the trend to write blogs had given way to Facebook, and was saddened. Don't get me wrong, Facebook is a hoot. I love it. But for me it's a place I can breeze in and out of and doesn't involve much in the way of real input. It's also been an amazing way of hooking up to old uni friends I haven't had contact with for years.

That being said, I missed the bloggers and so started looking for new contacts in my own sphere of interests. First off, I found Michelle Caffrey, who has written a book about her and her husband's maiden voyage on their barge Imagine. They are an American couple, who gave up lucrative careers in IT, a beautiful home and smart cars to buy an old Dutch barge and do Barge and Breakfast tours of the French canals. The book was gobbled up in a couple of nights, and I'd hoped to continue following their blog, but sadly, they seem to have been too busy chartering to keep it up, and so I am waiting again till they update their website.

Then, there is my new friend Frederic. I also found him via his website called Living Afloat . He is busy restoring and fitting out a magnificent 39 metre Luxe Motor built in 1929. Frederic is Belgian and lives in Brugge, or Bruges, which is not too far from us. We have been to visit him there and seen what a great job he is doing with his ship. His website is a treat. Full of information about barges in general and his own in particular. He was even kind enough to advertise my book on his page too, and I keep up to date with his progress through his monthly logs and photos.

Added to this, a month ago or so, I saw a strange name appear on my own blog, and at first I thought it was a spam comment, but then Dale told me she'd taken a look and thought I would like what I found. I felt quite guilty when I opened up Saltysplash's blog. How I could ever have dismissed his comment as spam, I don't know now, but I was charmed and thrilled to find a blog about Geoff and his Laura who live on a Narrowboat in England. Geoff writes lovely, whimsical posts about their travels along the English canals, and publishes some great photos as well. I await his new posts very eagerly these days. Then through him, I found several other blogs about English canal cruisers, and it opened up a whole new blogosphere for me...manna from heaven! Now, of course, I am longing to take the Vereeniging over to the UK and sample some of these beautifully intimate and rural stretches of water myself. With the winter drawing on, dreaming about it is about as far as I will get, though.


Last, but not least, there is our dear friend Philip's blog, named after his barge the Blauwe Vis. We have been following his progress since he left Rotterdam last month, and the photos he has published are stunning. I wouldn't presume to copy his own images here on my blog, but I've found a few on the web of places he's passed through on his travels, and posted them here to give you an idea of the visual wealth of his journey.



I find it eases my roving soul to read about other people's travels, but of course nothing really replaces the real experience, and as soon as the Hennie Ha is fit and whole again (that will be when Koos comes back from Poland now), I hope the weather will allow us at least a few jaunts into Belgium; along the canal to Gent perhaps, and maybe even to Brugge to see Frederic. Short though these trips will be, they will surely keep us going till the spring and summer are here again.

Mouzon, where he is
staying over at the moment

Footnote: I hope I haven't infringed any copyright with these photos here, but if they all disappear overnight, you'll know what I've done...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Harbour goes all out to welcome Sinterklaas

One of the paradoxes with which I am so intrigued about the Netherlands is the ceremony of Sinterklaas - a tradition that is enacted and enjoyed by the entire Dutch population (or so it seems) every year from some time in the middle of November until the 5th December, when this venerable old Turkish bishop finally dispenses toys and goodies to the children of the region. Phew! Long sentence huh?
The paradox is this. the Netherlands is held up to the world as socially liberal, very politically correct, and very progressive in its attitudes to its cosmopolitan society. The tradition of Sinterklaas is therefore totally contradictory to this perception. Indeed, the good bishop who is said to travel by ship from Spain (of all places! I mean historically, this was the no no nation!), is accompanied by his helper Zwartepiet, an exceptionally dark skinned young man, dressed in garish stripey clothes and looking very similar to the little toy people of similar colouring and clothing that are now banned in the UK.

Even more astonishing is the fact that in today's ceremony, not only is Sinterklaas accompanied by a dozen or so Zwartepiets, but practically all the children in the country, regardless of ethnic origin, blacken their faces, don equally garish clothing, and flock to the nearest harbour to welcome the old boy and his bevy of piets. For harbours are the thing, and Sinterklaas has to be delivered by boat to begin his progress throughout the country.
Today, he arrived in Rotterdam, and for the first time ever, the residents of the Oude Haven were invited to join a welcoming committee in the form of a small fleet. I'm sorry and a little sad to say I didn't join them for two pertinent reasons: the first being it was cold, grey and windy, and I don't do that happily; the second was that I am barely keeping up with the mountain of marking and exam preparation I have to do before the end of the semester without any such distractions, so didn't feel I could afford the time to take part. Nevertheless, Koos went off on his scooter with his camera to record the event so that I could blog about it. Wonderful man that he is. He followed the fleet and captured some lovely images of our participating neighbours, most of whom had piled on to three or four barges with all their own children. The excuse is of course that it's for the kids, but I heard that one small boy complained so bitterly about the noise the 'grown-ups' were making that he retreated inside the ship in disgust. So...the fun is not only for the kids.
The results of Koos's trail are these lovely pictures. This is Christmas Dutch style, so I hope you enjoy the novelty of it all. I've kept the images small, but you can click on them to view the full size. If you'd like to see the entire slideshow of Koos's pictures follow this link

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Canals are for cruising, rivers for watching

My Vereeniging was built as a delivery vessel for the smaller waterways of inland Holland - specifically for the Oude Rijn, which in the area of Utrecht is narrow and winding, and in fact is the original course of the Rhine in this part of the world. Its now larger and more important successor is a re-routing of that waterway, widened and deepened to accommodate the heavy traffic that it now bears across the continent from East to West and vice versa.

In the days when the Vereeniging was used for transporting goods, it pottered along the Oude Rijn and the Vecht rivers, carrying goods from one town to the next, very much as a local delivery service would do today by road. Indeed it was in use up until the 1960's, but then road transport took over as faster and more economical, and so my little barge was put aside by the family firm that owned it. It was only at the end of the 1990's that they finally agreed to sell what was now a rotting hulk to the old boy from whom I bought it. This remarkable old man set about restoring it to what it was in the days of its cargo carrying glory, and when I eventually bought it from him in 2001, the exterior had been substantially if not sufficiently restored (as I was to find out later).

Since I've had it, though, there's one thing I've learnt through harsh experience. The Vereeniging does not like faring the big waters, and as a result, neither do I. It is long and narrow with a flat bottom that causes it to roll like a porpoise on the swell, and if the waves break over it too strongly, then water gets in. I've partially cured that risk now by having steel welded under the side panels which used to be completely removable, but even now, water could still get in between the sides and the roof hatches. It has always been a canal boat, and it always will be, and for me, these smaller waterways, passing through quiet rural scenery, are what I love the most.

Nevertheless, I live in a city dominated by its river - the Nieuwe Maas - a magnificent river that I never fail to enjoy. I walk a length of it every day with Sindy, and the sight of heavily laden barges ploughing deep through the channels and massive container carriers steaming alongside hefty tugs and push barges never fails to fascinate me. The light can change in a second and you see the weather rolling in from the west or the sun breaking through towering clouds over the water. I have taken many many photos of the Nieuwe Maas myself, but none so breathtaking as this one of Koos's that I've published here. For me it sums up the drama, the magnificence and the beauty of the Maas. I maybe a canal cruiser by choice, but for sheer inspiration, it is this river that I am drawn to daily and irresistibly.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Life on a Barge - romantic or just hard work?

Thanks to friend Marcel for this great angle on the Vereeniging

I often get comments from new acquaintances about living on a barge. They see it as a mixture of extreme eccentricity and dreamlike romanticism. Quite often too, they regard me personally as some kind of oddity and question my sanity, while simultaneously being fascinated by the practical aspects of how we barge owners live. And why on earth would a woman from South Africa come to Holland and live on an ancient binnenvaartschip anyway?

It's actually quite simple really. Life on a barge is the realisation of a desire to retain an illusion of freedom. We aren't really free. Not physically at any rate. We cannot just throw off the ropes and move to any other spot we choose. We have to apply for permission to move to a new mooring, and such permission isn't always easy to come by. Still, we can moor up in other places and other towns for short periods of time without a problem, and it most definitely is very special to be able to go on holiday and take your house with you. Quite apart from this, living on a boat is like having your own island. It is 'own ground' of a special sort, and there is no troublesome noise from neighbours..on a barge, you just don't hear them. Okay, the midnight revellers in the bars and cafes are another story, not to mention being a real pain, but noisy neighbours not.

I wouldn't say life itself is all that romantic. A lot of it is plain hard work. For instance, you can't take anything for granted, even your ability to stay afloat! We have to fill water tanks every week; to fetch heating fuel and to take washing to the mini laundromat at the yard. We have to take our barges out of the water every two years to scrape the foul smelling mussels off the bottom, check for thin patches, do some welding on any deterioration and paint the bottom again with the evil smelling black goo that is now a substitute for the old tar that used to be used. Then every summer, there is the need to scrape, paint and varnish every other surface of the boat. Not that we ever manage to finish this, given the uncooperative climate in which we live.

In the winter, the decks get frozen over, so climbing on and off board can be hazardous (and hilarious), especially if there's an east wind when the tide is out and the water in the harbour is very low. It's a bit like scrabbling clumsily up the Eiger to get onto land, quite apart from feeling like a pack animal as you cart heavy school bags laden with student assignments and books on and off the ship. I have stopped wearing skirts and heeled shoes. It's just not worth the hassle or the indignity when your spiked heels gets stuck between the mesh of the gangplank.

On the other hand, the incredible sense of liberation when you cast off the ropes and your home floats free of the harbour wall - that is indescribable. Well almost. There is also the joy of listening to the water slap against the hull as you cruise along silent canals with the sun setting behind trees already black from the dusk. Then, there is the sense of excitement as you tie up in a strange place, but go inside where everything is still home. All of this, including the drudgery, is why I still keep living on my barge, but most of all, it's because I love its charming sleek lines and its old fashioned grace, and I have put so much of my energy and my self into this century old hull that I could no more think of giving it up than of giving up life!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Not forgetting the Hennie H

Update: Saturday 1 November

As promised below, here is a pic of the Hennie H at its mooring in Sas van Gent on the Dutch/Belgium border. Well, the weather and an unexpected Belgian public holiday have put paid to Koos's hopes of fixing the steering as when he went to buy the parts at the local hardware store in Zelzate, he found the whole town closed. I suppose they are celebrating All Souls or something like that? Anyway, the weather is also horrible today and I got very cold and just a bit grumpy while we were pulling our little barge into its proper and official place. Maybe tomorrow will bring some warmth and sun....

This past week Maryssa and I have been on our own in Rotterdam, because Koos has been in Zeeland investigating the steering problem on the Hennie H that so nearly could have been a disaster when he was crossing the Westerschelde.

Having now arrived in Zeeland myself for the weekend, Koos tells me that there is a good chance it will all be fixed tomorrow after we've moved the little Snik to its new official mooring. He seems to think it won't be too difficult, which will be great as I've been looking forward to dawn raids and incursions into Belgium to spice up the colder months. The autumn colours are spectacular at the moment and it would be so lovely to view them all from the water, which is of course what we bought the HH for in the first place. I will post some pictures of the HH at its new home tomorrow, but for now, here are a few that our friend Jan took just before we left Rotterdam to bring it south. Koos and Bruce were testing the little barge in the Leuvehaven where Bruce and Jan live, so Jan snapped these from their wheelhouse. Nice, hey?