Sunday 13 October 2019

Sillery (four callouts to VNF)

Our surprise stop at the port of Sillery for a couple of nights
Now the lock at the bottom end of the Canal l’Aisne à la Marne has reopened we can start cruising again.  We are hoping to get to Reims by Saturday so have a couple of long days ahead.  That's long days for us; some friends, like Mike & Lesley, would call them normal cruising days.

Friday started with a covering of clouds which didn’t begin clearing until lunchtime but had practically disappeared by the evening.  To make good use of time I set off soon after Karen went for her morning run having arranged to meet her at the first lock a few kilometres away at Condé-sur-Marne.  This gave her time to run past the lock and retrace her steps to make sure she covered the distance she wanted to do.

Cloud cover on Friday morning
When I reached Condé-sur-Marne I had to turn left onto the Canal l’Aisne à la Marne where I was due to pick Karen up.  There is a small port just at the start of the canal and as I came around the corner I could see Karen waiting with Buddy, talking to a couple of guys that we knew; Mike, a Brit who lives at the port and, Philippe, a Dutch liveaboard we have met a few times on our travels.

Coming around the corner at the junction
We had eight locks to go up to reach the summit of this 57-kilometre-long canal and they are linked into what is called a chain.  Once you start you have to go through all the locks, so no mooring is allowed between them.  They are automatic and the system recognises when you leave a lock so it can start getting the next one ready for you.

We started off the ascent and when we reached the second lock, we realised it was the one that had been closed for three weeks as work was still continuing around it.  The lights weren’t working but as the gates were open, we went in only to find the lock sides had been replaced and there were no bollards, ladders or controls for us to use.  New ones were obviously going to be installed once the structural work was complete. 

As we were pondering what to do an éclusier popped his head over the edge and offered to take Karen’s line which he attached to a hidden bollard and he got around the lack of a control rod hanging down the lockside by going into his little hut and operating the lock remotely.

Still working on the lock but at least it’s now open
As this is a commercial canal it remains open all year around, albeit with shorter opening hours for the locks in the winter months.  We had to wait for a commercial to leave the third lock and it was obviously unladen.  

Waiting for a commercial before going into the lock
If the boat had been fully laden it would have been so low in the water that the bottoms of the anchors would be just under the water.  We saw a few more commercials during the day, and these were fully laden and thus travelling quite slowly.  Having frequent locks must be so frustrating as it probably takes a hundred metres or so before they are up to speed after leaving a lock and then they have to start slowing for the next.

This canal has kilometre stones marking the distance to both ends but, unusually, it has two stones at each kilometre point; each giving the distance to a different end.

56 kilometres from the far end and one to the other
Many of the stones are missing and some have been replaced by more modern stones fashioned like the pk 1 stone in the picture above.  There are very few places for pleasure craft to moor on this canal and, with the volume of commercial traffic, it would be unwise to consider using pins.  One boater may have got fed up trying to find a secure place to moor and tried to use a kilometre stone as a bollard.

Suspect someone had tried mooring to this one
When we arrived at the fourth lock it looked like it was getting itself ready as indicated by having both the red and green lights on.  Once the water had emptied the gates didn’t open.  We gave it a few minutes and as the gates obviously weren’t opening I rang the control centre.  The éclusier who was operating the newly opened lock soon appeared in his van and got us going.

No lights were working at the next lock and the gates were against us, so it was back on the phone again.  It was the same girl who answered the phone but a different éclusiere turned up in her van to see us through.  We had the same problem at the last lock of the ascent and the girl in the control centre couldn’t help laughing when she heard it was me again.  I did confuse her by saying we were avalant (going downstream) rather than montant, but soon realised my mistake when she started questioning me.  Yet another éclusier turned up within 10 minutes to see us through.

Waiting at one of the ‘broken’ locks but at least the clouds were beginning to break up
Soon after getting to the summit we were at the 2.3-kilometre-long Billy tunnel.  This is a one-way tunnel and when we arrived the lights were on red.  We could see a boat far into the distance in the tunnel and decided to have lunch while we waited for it to emerge.  After we had eaten, the boat still hadn’t come through, so I went down to the portal to have a look.  To my surprise there wasn’t a boat in sight; we must have seen the back end of one travelling in the same direction as us!

As I walked back to the boat I looked up at the lights and they suddenly went green.  I cannot understand what caused that to happen, but we were soon on our way again.  As we emerged from the other end of the tunnel one of the heavily laden commercials came around the corner and we wondered how long it would take him to get through.  Being as wide as the tunnel and with a deep draught he would be really slowed down by the water trying to get away.

Locks that operate as individual units, rather than in chains like the eight at the start of the day, have a pole on a gallows that overhangs the cut 100 metres or so before you reach the lock.  A ¼ twist of the pole sets the lock operation in motion and a flashing orange light appears to confirm it has received your request.  If the lock is already ready and the gates are open for you then a green light will come on.  Usually, the lock is not ready so a red light comes on instead.  As soon as the operation to get it ready starts then a green light comes on as well as the red.  So, if the red light stays without a green one then it means that another boat is in the lock or there is one coming the other way and they have twisted their pole before you have.

Anyway, all this waffle is about setting the scene for the last lock of the day.  When we arrived, the gallows had been knocked over so there was no way to start the lock operation.  So, I was back on the phone again for the fourth time to ask for help.  This time no one appeared as the control centre must have had a way of setting the lock going remotely as the gates soon opened and we were back on our way again.

The valley up to Reims is very wide so the hills are a long way away from the cut.  The sides of the hills are lined with vineyards with woods along the hilltops and the plain is covered in arable farmland, mainly cob corn fields.  The A26 autoroute and a railway line run along the plain too.

The vineyards are beyond the lorries on the A26 and are still relatively green
It was five o’clock when we arrived at the port in Sillery making the cruise the longest we had had for ages.  Most of the boats in the port looked like they were left for the winter, but some had people on board.  We found a spot on the quayside next to a Norwegian couple who were on their way to Holland.  Also by us were a group of six French boaters drinking and eating out on the back deck of one of their boats.  It was really nice to see people back in shorts and tee shirts after the last few grey days we have had. 

Friday evening at the port in Sillery
I had one of those typical conversations with the French boaters that we have with French people.  Our side of the conversation is conducted in slow French and French people wanting to practice their English speak in English.  It's really quite funny but at least that way everyone is eager to help with new words and pronunciation etc.

On Friday we cruised 27 kilometres through 11 locks (eight up, three down) and one tunnel.

With a lovely warm day forecast for Saturday we decided to stay put in Sillery and get the first coat of undercoat on the paint chips on the port side of the boat that we have treated over the last few days.  That reason was coupled with the fact that we found out that water and electricity were free for passing moorers at the port during the winter season.  This meant we could get a few loads of washing done too.

At the port was an exhibition about the rebuilding of Sillery after it was badly damaged in WWI.  The exhibition consisted of a series of weatherproof posters showing old postcards and other photographs taken of the destruction before rebuilding.  We have noticed that many villages have some form of an exhibit of postcards from WWI showing the artillery damage to the buildings.

Some of the posters
There was also a further series of posters explaining about the re-planning, architecture and rebuilding of the village.  A French couple were on hand to explain things to interested passers-by.  I became aware of the couple mainly when they went to lunch as we were moored alongside the posters and I lost count of the number of people asking if I was running the exhibition.  All I could really muster in response was a polite no but they would find it very interesting to read the accounts on the posters.

During one of our coffee breaks it clouded over and we had a few spots of rain, but it soon cleared and we were able to finish off the painting and keep the washing outside.

Later on in the afternoon we went for a walk towards Reims and were pleased to find so many butterflies on the wing still.  At one point we had four clouded yellows in one vista and must have seen a couple of dozen along one 100 metre stretch of riverbank.

We had many conversations with boaters at the port during the day and thought it would be a very sociable place to stay for the winter.  The only drawback would be the fact that there’s not much to Sillery itself.

Saturday evening at the port of Sillery



Mike said...

On account of the awful weather and heavy rain forecast this morning, Mike & Lesley will be doing a Neil-&-Karen-type cruise today by not setting off until after lunch and only need to do a few hours to get into the centre of Oxford.

Neil & Karen Payne said...

Have fun and don't get too wet!

Curmudgeon said...

We regard a Neil & Karen type cruise as something to aspire to and emulate. It’s good to see Mike & Lesley trying to chill out at last.