Monday, April 24, 2023

A round trip to write home about, Part 2

This week, I thought I'd show you maps with a little more detail about our route as it gets more complicated in the Belgian section. If you read the first part of our trip through the Netherlands, you'll remember we spent our third night just over the border into Belgium at a place called Bocholt, which turned out to be my absolute favourite overnight stop of the whole trip.  The photo below was taken from the other side of the canal and gives a little more context to the surroundings. As you can see, it oozed tranquillity and I'd have happily spent several days there.

However, the next day, Thursday, brought a change in the weather. It dawned grey and gloomy and after doing a couple of necessary repairs (re-packing the cooling water pump with hemp string and grease, and tightening a slightly leaky stern gland), we set off along the Bocholt-Herentals canal with a chill, damp wind in our faces. From being bathed in glowing sunshine the previous day, the flat, colourless sky put a damper on both our spirits and the scenery.

Gloomy, grey skies overhead

And then the rain came

"I'm sure this canal is lovely when the weather's nice," I remarked to Koos, trying to give a positive spin on what appeared to be a singularly dull and featureless stretch of water.
"Yes, I don't remember it being so...erm...boring."
"I'm sure it isn't, not normally, anyway." By this time, it had started drizzling. "Nothing looks good on this kind of day."
Koos nodded. We donned our wet weather jackets and I even tried holding an umbrella over our heads, but the wind threatened to blow it inside out, so I had to abandon that attempt to keep us dry.
After about fifteen kilometres of squinting into the driving mizzle (the Dutch call it motregen, which I think is a very descriptive word), I'd had enough.
"Shall we stop for a break? You could have a kip while we dry out a bit," I suggested.
Koos tried to tell me it wasn't necessary, but he didn't argue too much, so when we spotted an empty quay with a number of big bollards, he manoeuvred Vereeniging into a quick about-turn and we tied up, grateful for an hour's respite.

The map below shows our faring for the day and the place we stopped was roughly in the middle of the red line.

Day 4 began at the bottom of the V-shape on the right and
ended at the end of the arrow on the left

We lit the heater, made some hot drinks and then I indulged in some reading while Koos had a snooze. When everything so dark outside, the Vereeniging was a little cave-like indoors, but it felt a lot cosier than standing out in the wind and rain. Nevertheless, we had to move on so after something over an hour, we bit a few bullets and set off again, having already decided we'd stop after the three downward locks at Lommel and Mol, the point at which we knew we couldn't go further due to the next lock being closed. Apparently, it was undergoing repair and wouldn't be open for another week. 

To backtrack a bit, the lock keeper on the border had told us about the closure and that we'd have to turn left and take the cutting to the Albert Canal, a disappointing diversion that would add another fifteen kms to our journey and force us to follow more of the 'highway' between Antwerp and Maastricht than we'd planned. At least we knew what to expect, though.

When we finally reached Lommel lock at around five o'clock, I was feeling pretty wretched about everything. Wet, cold and miserable, I stood on the foredeck as we approached the gates, thanking everything when the lights turned green and we could proceed into the basin.

I was standing at the bow ready to throw my rope over a bollard when the lock keeper came dashing out of his office. Being the type that always feels guilty in advance, I immediately wondered what we were doing wrong. So I switched my grimace to a smile, hoping it was my best soggy grin, and also hoping an expression of goodwill would diffuse this quite obviously serious situation. 
Well, contrary to my worst expectations, nothing was wrong at all!
“This boat,” the lock keeper said, almost hopping with excitement. “It has the same name and looks of a boat in a book I have. It was in Rotterdam.”
Realisation dawned.
“Yes, it’s the same boat!” I said, laughing.
“And the writer. Her name was...”
“Valerie. That’s me.” I grinned. He grinned even more. Despite the conditions, we were both instantly delighted with each other.
“Oh, that’s amazing," he said " But what are you doing here?”
So I told him the story of our decision to move, and then he made my day by saying he had Watery Ways and Harbour Ways at home and that he’d read them both. I was so thrilled. So was Koos who had now picked up on what was happening. Who would have imagined such serendipity? My books aren’t well known in the Netherlands or Belgium because they’re written in English, so it was a huge surprise to encounter a Belgian lockie who’d read and enjoyed them. When we pulled out of the lock after it had emptied, we waved enthusiastically to him as he wished us success on our journey and scurried back into the dry haven of his warm hut.

The pleasure of this experience kept me going right through the next two locks until the rain became still more persistent. I'd stayed up in the bow to avoid traipsing through the Vereeniging's interior in my dripping gear, but enough was enough. I made my way back to Koos.

"Can we please, please stop here?" I pleaded gesturing to a quay where other boats were moored. "This just isn't fun anymore."
"Well, not right here, Vally. There aren't enough bollards and the sides are sloping, but I think I can see a wall up ahead. We'll pull in over there."

Within a few minutes, we'd found the right wall with the right bollards on the right bank, thank heavens. It was just before the junction with the canal south and we could see the lights of a lock up ahead.

"That's the one that's closed for repairs," Koos said, pointing to it. "See all the machinery? It'll reopen on the 14th."
"Too late for us," I said, a bit sadly. I'd really wanted to do that last stretch of the Bocholt - Herentals canal as it was supposed to be the pretty part. Ah well.

For once, I didn't get off the Vereeniging to take a photo, but we had a good evening and a good night against the wall. I wasn't quite sure whether we were in Lommel, Mol or Dessel, but it didn't really matter as we didn't see anything other than the trees next to the canal disappearing into an early dusk.

The next morning, Friday, was still gloomy, but it was dry and promised to be so for the whole day. We left Lommel/Dessel/Mol at a bright and early 8:45, hoping to get some mileage under our hull and be on the Nete Canal by the end of the day: around 55kms further, which would be a lot for us. We'd only done around 30kms the day before, so we'd be making up for lost distance. The map below shows where we'd intended to go (the blue line) and where we had to go (the red line)

Day 5 should have followed the blue line to Herentals but
due to a lock closure, we had to follow the red route

From my perspective, there wasn't much to recommend either the canal south to Kwaadmechelen, or the Albert Canal. The first was wide, quiet and unrelieved by anything other than bridges, each of which had its distance from the beginning carved into the stonework. Checking these helped pass the time at least, and Koos found plenty of food for his hungry camera in the industrial buildings along its banks. Here's one of his photos that I like.

As for the Albert Canal, it was something of a rude awakening. Busy, choppy and huge, I got quite shock as we entered it. I was trying to make coffee, but a passing tug made the Vereeniging rock so much I had to turn everything off until things had settled, by which time we'd reached the first of the two huge double locks we'd be passing through on this stretch. With both locks in the complex being 136m long, 16m wide and 10m deep, these are serious operations and I was somewhat apprehensive as we approached. Would they, or wouldn't they, have floating bollards? To my huge relief they did, and so tying up and descending was an easy process. Even so, they can be quite intimidating.

The first of these locks over, we covered nearly nineteen straight fast kilometres (well, fast by Vereeniging's standards) until we arrived at the second almost identical set of double locks at Olen. I think I spent most of the time following our route on Google maps, which for some reason I found fascinating, probably because the bicycle path follows the canal and I could easily check where we were, where we'd come from and how far we had to go. Koos took some more photos, but I will confess I didn't find the Albert Canal terribly inspiring; not like our Gent-Terneuzen Canal, which I love. Here's one of Koos's photos showing a new bridge and the old one it has replaced, which rests on the bank as a monument to Vierendeel bridges. Here's a link to them if you're interested:

The Albert Canal highway to Antwerp with an old Vierendeel
bridge on the bank

What we didn't know, though, was that the biggest excitement of the day was to come. After the lock at Olen, we had another dozen or so uneventful kilometres to go before turning at last into the Nete Canal at Viersel (see map above). For poor Koos, this supposedly innocent lock proved to be his Nemesis. Having called ahead on the VHF and been given the green light, he turned in just as the wind caught the Vereeniging and pushed her into the wall, but rather than merely thumping the side, we almost seemed to climb the lock gates before sliding back into the water. I felt, rather than saw, the crunch, and the lock keeper left his office perch to come down and make sure we hadn't done his gates any damage. Fortunately all was well and we tied up, but Koos was mortified, feeling responsible for the error. With no bow thruster and such strong wind gusts, it was pretty much inevitable, but still embarrassing for him.

But then Nemesis struck again and when we started descending, Koos's rope got caught. For a moment it seemed he couldn't free it and we started to get hung up. I rarely see my skipper lose his cool but the urgency in his voice as he called the lock keeper to stop emptying had me thoroughly alarmed. Thankfully, the water gods were on his side in his fight with Nemesis, and the rope slid out and released itself. We dropped with a bit of a thump, but it could have been so much worse and it was with great relief that we exited the lock into the peaceful calm of the Nete Canal.

We'd thought of making our way to Lier or even further, but after five kilometres a blessedly perfect quay wall appeared close to where Google told me there was an open Spar grocery. A glass of wine was in order to celebrate our arrival and to soothe any frayed nerves. It was 5.30 p.m., the end of day five and we were still on schedule for completing the journey in eight days. The next three would bring their own excitements, but for now, we'd had ours; the last hours had been quite interesting enough and it was time to stop.

A blessedly perfect quay wall near a Spar

Well, I hope you've enjoyed these two days of our journey, 
allemaal. Next time, I'll complete the story, I promise, but for now, have a great week!

Saturday, April 15, 2023

A round trip to write home about

 I know, I know. It's been getting on for a month since I posted here on my blog. The time has just flown by, but I hope a bit of quality will make up for the lack of quantity.

The main reason for my absence is that the last weeks have been taken up with planning, doing and coming down from our trip to move Vereeniging from her mooring in Oudenbosch to her new home in the Nostalgische Haven in Sas van Gent.

Old home

New home

Originally, we had a plan to head west from Oudenbosch along the Dintel river and then wiggle our way through the landscape to the mouth of the Steenbergsevliet which gives onto the Volkerak, an estuary-type stretch of wide water enclosed by two big tidal locks. From there, we would have turned left into the Schelde Rijnkanaal and followed it all the way to Antwerp, at which point we'd have taken a lock onto the tidal Schelde (Scheldt) river and headed upstream to Ghent, and then on to Sas van Gent, just over the border.

As I said, that was the plan. But plans are made to be broken and ours were disrupted completely when a good friend warned us we had to have AIS to go through Antwerp (thank you SO much, Voirrey). For those of you not familiar with this boaty world, AIS is an automatic identification system which tracks a boat's position and transmits it to other shipping in the vicinity. In the Netherlands, it is not a requirement for boats under 20 metres long, but last year, Antwerp harbour authorities decided all boats passing through the Antwerp dock areas had to have it installed, regardless of size. 

Finding this out only days before our departure meant it was impossible for us to comply and we'd have to change our route completely. Without going into extensive explanations, the map below roughly shows the route we took (the blue line) compared with the route we'd originally planned (the red line). The blue route added 170 kilometres to our journey, no meagre amount given the extra time, fuel and costs, but we loved every minute of it.

We were also delayed in leaving by the stormy weather at the end of March, so it was on an icy cold, but beautifully sunny Monday morning, April the 3rd, that we left Oudenbosch and headed east along the lovely Mark river. 

A commercial barge on the Mark

Our first excitement came far too early. We were approaching the railway bridge for the line from Rotterdam to Roosendaal.

"Do you think we'll get through with the chimney up?" I asked.
"I think so. We had it up last time we came through, didn't we?" Koos verntured.
"I can't remember exactly. I have a feeling we took it down to get out of the Oude Haven."
By this time, we were approaching said bridge.
"It looks fine from here," Koos said, and I agreed. Famous last words!
The closer we got the less certain we felt, until we reached the point when my jaw dropped open.
"Oooerr," I called anxiously, stomach clenched, and I ducked swiftly as we got beyond the point of no return. Koos ducked too and the chimney cleared the bridge by a mere whisker.
"Phew indeed! I guess that proves we must have had the chimney down," Koos said. "I think I'd have remembered a close call like that!"
He was right. Had the bridge been couple of centimetres lower, we'd have lost the chimney completely and had a very chilly evening. The little oil stove inside was very necessary for the first few days of the week.

From there on, it was relatively plain, if cold, sailing for the rest of the thirty kilometres to the end of the Mark Canal where we locked through onto the Wilhelmina Canal and immediately turned right into our next surprise of the day. I couldn't help letting a little sigh escape. I'd loved the slightly mysterious appeal of the reed-lined Mark, and had mixed feelings about leaving it. After all, we'd done little of the exploration we'd hoped to do since arriving in Oudenbosch, but last year was not a good one for many reasons and our dreams of cruising in Brabant were scuppered before they'd had time to come to anything. 

The lovely, reed-lined Mark

I felt sad we were leaving it all behind, but life has changed since 2021 and I have much less need for a work base close to Rotterdam. Added to that, the cost of keeping my barge in Oudenbosch exceeded the amount I was earning from my occasional trips to do examining or the odd workshop at the university. What with the increased expense of travel on top of mooring fees, it was no longer viable, but leaving wasn't without regret. I liked our mooring and I liked the town; the only thing I knew I wouldn't miss was the willow tree shedding its abundance all over my Vereeniging for ten months of the year!

Approaching the Mark Canal

Anyway, back to the journey where we joined the canal heading south-east. As we turned the corner, I received my second surprise of the day. The Netherlands is a flat country, right? Well, not as flat as you might think. The Wilhelmina Canal begins at Geertruidenberg on the Hollands Diep and runs south to Oosterhout and then veers to the east. Up to its first lock, just after the junction with the Mark Canal, it is affected by the controlled tide on the Hollands Diep. The lock then takes the farer up to the rest of the canal leading to Tilburg and Eindhoven. What was a shock was how deep the lock actually is. I don't know its actual depth, but it is probably over five metres, maybe even seven. Having navigated that successfully, we continued on our way towards Tilburg.

By now, it was afternoon, and a glorious one at that, albeit still pretty cold and with a wind that ripped at the skin on our faces. We fared along the peaceful, pastoral Brabant countryside, through two more substantial locks (the first of which was a quite old but beautifully maintained bayonet shaped lock with its doors offset at each end) and numerous bridges until, late in the afternoon, we reached Tilburg. We'd seen one commercial barge, but absolutely nothing else: not a cruiser, not a canoe and no other commercial vessels at all. Ultimate tranquillity.

Beautiful, but icy cold!

One of the many bridges on the way to Tilburg

A swing bridge

We'd agreed this would be a good place to spend the night, and Koos wanted to try for a spot in Tilburg's own historic harbour. Well, what a lovely greeting we had when we nosed our way into the side cutting reserved for old boats like ours. We were warmly welcomed by John on his gorgeous steilsteven, and he offered to let us tie up alongside, a very kind gesture I was hesitant to accept because he had two beautiful small craft next to his barge, and I was worried that we might crush them. 

The cut was also pretty narrow, so turning round was an exercise in quiet, persistent confidence for Koos while I held my breath, praying we wouldn't hit anything, especially the pontoon where young people were enjoying the later afternoon sun. All was well, though, and Vereeniging drifted into place next to John's ship after 54kms of steady faring. Unfortunately, I couldn't get off and talk to John or his wife as my wrist is still too feeble for such acrobatics, but they were delighted to have us there and provide us with electricity overnight. Such kindness is heartwarming and we were hugely grateful.

John's lovely classic barge

Tilburg's historic barges line the Piushaven

A lovely photo Koos took of the two barges in Tilburg

The following day, Tuesday, we left at 10:00 to give the decks time for the ice to clear and also for Koos to nip to the Aldi for a couple of urgent purchases. It was to be another cold, sunny day, but with far less wind – much better, in other words. It took us most of the day to reach Helmond for a second night's stop. At the end of the day, we'd done another 53kms, been through two locks (the second being another huge one) and so many bridges, I lost count in the end. We'd also by-passed Eindhoven and were glad to moor up before the lock at the end of the old canal that goes through Helmond itself. This was familiar water now, as Koos and I stayed at the same place back in 2005 when we were on our way to a festival in Belgium. 

Yet another bridge

Mooring above the lock in Helmond

We both slept like babies that night. Fresh air, constant activity for me going down, through the boat, and up onto the foredeck to do the ropes, make coffee and prepare food ensured I was good and tired when we hit the hay. For Koos, it was the concentration of steering and manoeuvring, sometimes in difficult circumstances with lack of space and the wind against us. 

It was a satisfying feeling, though, so when we set off in much warmer sunshine the next day, we thoroughly enjoyed our progress along the Zuid-Willemsvaart, the canal we'd followed so many years before. It was warm, the sky was cobalt blue and the locks (all seven of them) were a dream. A road runs alongside this canal all the way to the Belgian border past Weert, but far from bothering us, we enjoyed the occasional waves and toots from passing lorries. In fact, it was much lovelier than I remember it being from our previous trip, but maybe the relief of having a warmer day has coloured my impressions.

Sunny and warm: look, no coat!

You can just see the road alongside the canal

Industry at Nederweert, just outside Weert

The outskirts of Weert

Folly? Clock? Who knows. The time was wrong
in Weert whatever the case

My favourite mooring of the whole trip; hence, it's become my banner photo everywhere :)

As the sun sets, the lock lights remain...just.

We finished the day at Bocholt, just over the border, 40kms from our mooring in Helmond. The time spent on the water was the same as the previous two days, but we'd passed through many more locks (eight in total) and they always take time. At the first lock in Belgium, the lock keeper was there to take our details, ask for our permit number and check where we were heading. A thoroughly nice chap, he praised us for having all our paperwork in order, a surprise for us, given that we'd never dream of trying to go through Belgium without a permit and the right documents. But, apparently, people often do and it gives him a lot of administration hassles. One lock later, we were already in Val heaven. Belgium is so different from the Netherlands: less orderly, more natural, and to my mind, more appealing. We stopped above the lock at Bocholt, tied up and went for a walk. What a lovely spot it was: blissfully peaceful, and yet with commercial barges passing until quite late in the evening. I could happily have spent more time there.

So, folks, that's the first three days of our trip. From Bocholt on, things were different; there was also a moment of wonderful serendipity that made my month, so I'll leave the rest of the story till next time.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, allemaal, and have a good week! It's great to be back and I'll catch up with you all in the coming days.