Saturday, September 27, 2014


As some of you who've followed me here for a few years will know, I used to have a barge in Brussels.  It was what I had to escape to at the weekends before the cottage on the dyke. A charming, stubby old thing rather like a comfortable matron, the Ténacité was a shortened spits, the model of barge or péniche mostly used on the French canals. Its original length was 39 metres, but fourteen of those had been chopped out (I know - sounds ludicrous, doesn't it?) and served a new purpose as a floating boat house for a canoeing club. I was left with the remaining 25, hence the stubby, rather matronly appearance.

So why am I reminiscing then? Well, I'm busy writing about those Brussels years in a new memoir and it's giving me cause to reminisce. My daughter also found a heap of photos  of the Ténacité on a disc that she's given me and which I've been browsing through. Of course the result is I've been getting very nostalgic about that period in our lives, which is already ten years ago. It seems hardly possible.

The Ténacité - a shortened spits

Lots of light and space

The garden was on a slope

Break-time for Sindy and me

Looking along the row of barges

Actually, I only had the Ténacité for three years. I bought it for a song and sold it rather well, which is why I was able to invest in the cottage. But I didn't really want to sell it. Circumstances that I won't go into here rather forced the issue. The thing was, the Ténacité had everything I could wish for: space and light inside and a garden outside. I love gardening, and I love living on the water, but the two don't often go together, so this was ideal in many respects.

The only problem was that the garden was on the dyke, so it sloped up to the road. As you can imagine, this made mowing the grass a weekly challenge. I did the whole stretch (about 30 metres of it) with a hand-mower (yes, I did - a tondeuse à main) but I could only seem to do it in one direction for some reason. If I pushed the other way, the mower would veer off down the dyke and head with unnerving determination for the canal. I swear all that lop-sided effort is why one of my legs is more muscular than the other - really!

The canal on which the Ténacité was moored was very busy. Hour after hour, we would see huge commercial barges passing scarily close to our windows. Occasionally, there would be great excitement when two barges tried to pass our row of floating homes at the same time. There wasn't really room for more than one of the massive two thousand tonners to go through, but sometimes they tried (and eventually made it). However, life would be rather tense as we watched them squeeze through the gap battling not to get sucked into each other's water space (something that can easily happen).

About a kilometre along the tow path, there was a lock, and we often walked up there with Sindy to watch the boats passing through. There's something endlessly fascinating about the sight of a barge rising or falling in a closed lock and there are always people standing around, so it's a good place to have a chat. In this case, the chats were always in French, so tended to be accompanied by lots of gesticulating: this was partly influenced by being in a French culture on one hand but also of making my limited French understood on the other!

The reasons for selling the Ténacité were compelling at the time, but I still have regrets about it, so it's good to be re-living the experiences again as I write my new memoir. I'll add a few more reminiscences here from time to time so I can share some of these old photos with you too. I'm not quite sure where the one below was taken, but I think it's on the approach to Ruisbroek, a village along the Brussel-Charleroi canal which we passed through from time to time on our way to holidays further south. It's not a great photo, I know, but it gives you a flavour of how rural these canals are.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Renovations and relaxation

It's a while since I posted anything about my renovation activities on the Vereeniging, so I thought I'd do a bit of a catch up. My posting has been a bit erratic, I know, mainly because I've been so busy trying to get everything done before work starts in earnest. I haven't succeeded of course, but then (as always), everything takes at least three times longer than you think it will! Still I'm not doing too badly.

So first up was the floor in the Vereeniging. I've painted it in stages as I've had to keep moving things around to clear different sections of it. It looks unnaturally bright and shiny in the photo below, but you get the idea. The paint does dull down to a satin finish after a while which I must say I'm very pleased with.
One re-painted floor

Then there was the great couch destruction episode. My daughter had left an old leather sofa on board when she moved out because it was too big and heavy to remove (lord know how she got it in in the first place). For a while it served a purpose as somewhere for me to sit and ponder on my plans. But, it was not very pretty, it was very badly worn and it wasn't what I really wanted. I therefore decided it had to be dismembered in order to get it through the hatch without destroying other things. This I did with the able assistance and enthusiasm of both my daughters. Then we carted the remains off to the skip on one of the yard's rather old and rickety trolleys (see evidence below). The best thing about this exercise was the fun I had with my two girls as we hacked the thing to pieces.

How to demolish and dispose of an old sofa, harbour style

Following its removal, I was able to finish painting the floor much more easily, as well as re-painting the ceiling throughout the boat. I've also renovated the bathroom, which was looking a bit sad. Now I just need to do all the walls and cupboards.

Meanwhile, other things were happening in the harbour, one of which was a summer festival. The residents of the Oude Haven did their bit by putting on a viking day for the children. The photos below give a glimpse of the festivities and the last one shows the local kids playing with mini viking ships in a paddling pool.

Photos of the summer festival and viking day

Of course, my activities were also interrupted by my week on the helling which focused all my attention on the Vereeniging's exterior, but I've already written about this. The most recent and (I personally feel) crowning achievement has been the construction of my new stairs. The old set that I built back in 2003 or thereabouts was designed for younger versions of us (K and me), and an even younger version of Sindy. Recently she hasn't been able to come on board if I haven't had help. She's just too old and arthritic. The stairs were also getting pretty shabby and so I decided it was time to make some new ones with an easier slope and a bit more substance. Five planks of pine and two thin sheets of plywood later (along with the help of a youtube 'how to' video), this is (queue drum roll) the result. 

Daughter, Jo, playing the fool behind
my new stairs

I still have to finish varnishing them and putting anti-slip strips on them before I test Sindy's abilities to get up and down, but I'm praying she can manage it. I should say the slope looks sharper in the photo than it really is, so wish me luck.

My daughter  came to help me screw all the treads in and again, we had a lot of fun. Then since the afternoon was so gorgeous, we also went for a spuddle in my rowing boat. This became quite hilarious as Jo is a stronger rower than I am (I should also mention my oar had holes in it…it did!) Added to that, the current was running very fast so much of the time we were going either round in circles, veering into other barges or even going backwards. I think we provided quite a bit of entertainment for the other harbour residents too (note to self: must practise). So to sign off, here are a few pics of our spuddle taken with the ubiquitous smart phone. Have a good weekend allemaal

Spuddling on a gorgeous September afternoon

Monday, September 08, 2014

Wonderful World Harbour Days

I mentioned in my last post that I had to vacate the helling early this time round because the harbour management wanted to use the slipway as part of the World Harbour Days celebrations. I am happy to report they did just that…and it was truly amazing. In fact, I think I can honestly say this year's event in the Oude Haven was one of the best ever…and we've had a few!

Normally at this event, Koos and I, together with members of the family, take the Vereeniging on a lap of honour of the five harbours that make up our outdoor museum complex. But this year, even though we fixed the engine problem (see last post), we found our departure was blocked by a row of barges and tugboats right across the entrances (or exits) on both sides, so we couldn't leave our mooring. We didn't mind though. We just climbed in my little rowing boat with an electric outboard motor instead, and wove our way between the other vessels to see what was going on.

Our exit was blocked by boats 
I've published many of these photos elsewhere, but to really explain what was going on needs a few words as well. For that, you can't beat a blog!

Sunday's event was what was called a toeterconcert. Apparently, these are not unusual in Holland, probably because there are so many boats with horns, but what happened was this: a collection of brass bands gathered on a huge pontoon barge which was set halfway up the slipway (which I'd vacated last Friday). They were directed by a conductor from one of the boats in the harbour by means of a microphone and loudspeaker. They played a number of pieces with great enthusiasm if not much finesse, and at intervals they were joined by the barges and boats hooting their horns.

A collection of brass bands gathered on a pontoon
halfway up the slipway
It was a marvellous cacophony. I just loved it. Small boats were filled with people just hovering in the harbour listening to this vivid, slightly out of tune, but crazily vibrant music. The jetties, bridges and terraces were packed. Everyone was spellbound. And smiling broadly.

Small boats filled with onlookers

People watched from the bridges and terraces

Harbour families watching from their rowing boats

Then at one point, a trumpeter standing high on the platform of a fire-fighting tugboat, played a magnificent solo. It was quite breathtaking. The whole show ended with the same boat creating a huge fountain of spray with its high pressure hose. What a fitting end!

A trumpeter plays on the fire-extinguisher platform of
a fire boat/tugboat

The tug's fire extinguishers create a fountain of spray
Throughout the event, we wove our way through the pontoons and barges in my little plastic rowing boat taking photos and enjoying the atmosphere.

All in all it was a great day and another fabulous World Harbour Days celebration to add to the memory collection. In fact, I haven't missed one now for several years as the event marks the end of summer for most of us here. Isn't it great it always does so with so much aplomb?

I describe other, former World Habour Days in my book, Harbour Ways. If you would like to read a sample of the book, you can find it here

Friday, September 05, 2014

A helling of a week

Since Monday, I have been in zombie mode. For those who know me and my barge, the Vereeniging, this means I've just had my lovely old girl on the slipway and it has, as always, been very intense. However, this hellingbeurt has been more so than usual as in effect, I've had three days less than the full week I would normally have. The reason for this is that this weekend, it is World Harbour Days, the annual port of Rotterdam festival, and the harbour authorities wanted to use the slipway for other festival activities…as a result, I had to be off today instead of next Monday, which would normally be the case.

Jodie giving the previous incumbent a stern eye…get thee

Koos enjoying the morning air

Waiting to go on the slipway

So it was that last Monday morning, we went on the helling and by the evening, we were already prepared for the big hull painting marathon that took place over Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Four layers of bottom coat (below the water line) and two layers of top coat (above the water line) later, plus a new layer on the back cabin (roef)  and the engine room roof, we were ready to slip back down again today.

First coats first on the bows

There can't be many barges with a more beautiful stern

Looking good in her newly blacked skirts!

Unluckily for us, we had a bit of trouble with the engine as we pulled out into the current. It decided to behave very erratically and caused us some unnerving moments by cutting out mid-stream. On the lucky side, however, there was a tugboat in the harbour just lying in wait ready to give use a nudge in the right direction. The engine started again, and we chugged very very slowly back to my mooring. The motor clearly needs some TLC too as it was still very uneven all the way back. It seems likely there's a fuel feed problem, which may or may not be the dreaded diesel bug. I hope not!

So that was the helling week that was.

I've been at it twelve hours a day for the last few and now feel ready for a relaxing weekend. But there is still plenty to do, and before that, I am off to Amsterdam with Jodie to meet the fascinating Trish Nicholson, who is giving a couple of talks at the ABC Tree House on character development in writing. On Sunday, though, I shan't risk dodgy engines, but I shall spuddle around Rotterdam in my rowing boat and see what World Harbour Days has to offer by way of entertainment this year….no doubt I'll have my camera with me!