Tuesday 8 September 2020

Manancourt (our longest cruise in France)

Monday night in the middle of nowhere

We had a long day ahead on Sunday but couldn’t start too early as the locks on the first part of the journey didn’t open until 9.00am on Sundays: at least it meant we didn’t have to set an alarm. Before I start talking about the day, I must apologise for leaving a paragraph out of the last entry.  I’d mentioned that Cambrai didn’t live up to our expectations, but I’d omitted to say why.

I’d alluded to the fact that the town was far busier and that it didn’t have peaceful traffic-free squares that we’d expected.  What I’d forgotten to mention was that Lauren and our grandson Ellis were due to be staying with us for a few days, together with her good friend Emily, while we were in Cambrai.  With the current travel restrictions their trip had to be cancelled and for all these reasons we decided not to stay in Cambrai more than one night.

To reach the River Somme we first have to negotiate stretches of two large waterways which would be busy with freight traffic and with no real moorings for pleasure boats.  To get to the first, the Canal de la Sensée, we had to travel eight miles down the first navigable section of the River Escaut which starts at Cambrai.  This was essentially the same as the Canal de St-Quentin that finishes at Cambrai in that the locks were only large enough for Freycinet boats (39m) but it was a canalised river.  For that reason, it was quite bendy which was a welcome change from the long straights we’ve encountered recently on some of these northern canals.

On the canalised River Escaut

Around the village of Eswars we passed over 200 coot in the water which was an amazing sight.  I doubt we’ve seen more than 10 at once before.  I counted the first 100 and soon realised that wasn’t quite half of the ones we could see, hence the estimate of over 200. 
Passing the village of Eswars

We had to hand in our télécommande at the last lock on the River Escaut as the VHF radio has to be used to call up the locks on the larger waterways. 
Leaving the last lock

Just after leaving that lock, we passed a commercial which made us realise we’d not seen a boat on the move for four days; this, of course, was all about to change.  Before joining the Canal de la Sensée we went through Estron which has a large port called le Basin Rond.  It was full of pleasure cruisers along one side and larger, mainly residential, boats along the other. 
Entering Basin Rond

Leaving Basin Rond

The Basin Rond was originally part of the Canal de la Sensée but was bypassed when the canal was deepened and widened in 1968 and is now a quiet backwater  We soon arrived at the current junction with the Canal de la Sensée which is part of a major link for boats up to 140m long by 11m wide between Dunkerque and Antwerp on the Scheldt, as l’Escaut is known in Belgium and Holland.  I know we encountered even larger boats on the Seine last year, but it’s been a while since we’ve met anything larger than the 39m commercials.  That’s why we set out on a Sunday as there should have been fewer boats on the move. 
About to join the Canal de la Sensée

We had about nine miles to travel westwards on this canal before we reached the junction with the Canal du Nord where we would start heading south.  The canal was lovely and wide, so we had no worries about meeting large boats. 
The wide Canal de la Sensée

The first boat we met was a Freycinet péniche with an even larger one attached to the front making 86m in total (the lengths have to be clearly visible on the side).  We remembered then that a great many of the boats we’ve seen on the larger rivers have been made up of two or three barges strapped together.

Longer boats than we’ve been used to this year

The kilometre posts on the Canal de la Sensée were the largest we’ve come across and there was no danger of missing them. Each half kilometre was indicated by a large black cross. 
With fishermen to give some scale

After that first boat, they started passing by at seemingly regular intervals which was contrary to our expectations as it was a Sunday. With no locks until we reached the junction where we were turning south it didn’t take long to cover the eight miles.  As we approached the junction with the Canal du Nord to find somewhere to moor for lunch we could see some real big boys moored on the far side:

The junction is the top end of the Canal du Nord whose locks are a strange size, 91m x 5.75m, which would be far too small for those two boats in the picture above so they would be staying on the Canal de la Sensée. The Canal du Nord is 95km long and provides an important link between the Paris - Seine basin and the large waterways of northern France and Belgium.  It’s a relatively new canal as building wasn’t started until 1910 but with the intervening world wars it wasn't completed until 1968.  It was built to replace the Canal de St Quentin (the one we’ve just come up) as it wasn’t coping with the volume of traffic.  Because it wasn’t constructed to today’s high capacity standards, the Canal du Nord itself is now being replaced by the Seine-Nord Europe canal which is due to open at the end of this decade.

We turned onto the Canal du Nord and managed to moor at the end of a long line of moored commercials so we could have lunch.  A little car pulled up on the towpath and was staring at us, so I went out to see if there was an issue with where we were moored.  There wasn’t a problem, the old couple just wanted to see our boat as they were retired bargees and had seen us arriving from where they lived on the other side of the canal so drove around to get a better look.

Moored for lunch

Just before we’d turned off the Sensée, a police launch came extremely fast towards us and we thought they were going to board us; unlike many people we know we’ve managed to avoid the experience so far.  They came to a stop but just waved and put their thumbs up.  Even though they’d stopped, their wake was still large and soon had us rocking all over the place.  It reminded us of Paris where the fast RIBs and launches cause far more issues with their wakes than the big boats.

As we set off after lunch and got past the long line of moored commercials, we could smell a barbecue and realised that the police launch was moored by the bank and the three gendarmes and their families were tucking into lunch on some picnic tables. 

It was then that we encountered our first lock; most of the locks on this canal are between six and eight metres deep which is clearly quite an obstacle for low boats like ours.  Most deep locks we’ve been through have either had poles to slide ropes up as the boat rises or floating bollards that rise with you.  We didn’t have such luxury here and Karen had to negotiate stepped bollards which take a bit of getting used to.

Stepped bollards in the lock sides

The operation goes like this. We get into the lock then Karen loops a line over the lowest bollard.  Once the boat has risen enough that she can reach the next bollard, she loops a second line over that one and then releases the first line.  After the second bollard, Karen has to climb onto the roof to reach the next one.  This is repeated several times and she ends up using four bollards on locks of the depth of these.  All the while, by following Karen's hand signals I alternate between forward, neutral and reverse in order to keep the boat aligned with the next bollard.

Karen checking out how to use the stepped bollards

Another unusual thing about these locks is that the rear gate is a guillotine which disconcertingly started coming down before we managed to get the boat secure. 
Guillotine on its way down

A third thing is that they utilise side ponds where water is collected as the lock empties until the pond and lock water levels are equal, the remainder of the water in the lock then drains out as normal.  The water saved in the pond is then used to start filling the lock when it needs to be filled again rather than taking a complete lockful from the pound above. 
Side pond for water saving

The canal isn’t as wide as the Canal de la Sensée but still wider than we’ve been used to.  With sloping sides it’s also very difficult to find somewhere to moor.  
The Canal du Nord

We moored for the night at Marquion where there was a rowing club pontoon.  The rowing club was all locked up so we felt that we would be fine mooring there overnight. 
On the rowing club pontoon

Lorry and coach park on the opposite side

We lost count of the number of commercials we saw during the day and we don’t think we upset anyone as they all waved at us.

On Sunday we cruised 23 miles down five and up one lock. When I entered up the boat log, I realised that that was our longest day cruising in France.  We’d cruised 23 miles once before, on the River Saône, but only went through two locks that day.

We heard the first trucks leaving the lorry park at five on Monday morning and boats started coming through from 6.30. We were going to set off early anyway as we wanted to get to the summit and through the long tunnel before we moored up for the day.  The Canal du Nord is somewhat unusual as it has two summits; we won’t be venturing up the second summit just yet as we’ll be exploring the River Somme for a while.  The junction with the Somme is before the canal starts climbing to the second summit.

Our overnight mooring was great as we could see for nearly four kilometres behind us which meant we would be sure we could stet off without getting in the way of any oncoming commercials.  Before setting off, Karen went through a new plan for how she would use the ropes in the locks.  It all seemed to make sense and that was the approach she adopted, without mishap, at all six locks of the day.

As we were moored almost in front of the first lock, I called up on the VHF radio before untying.  The éclusier gave a positive response immediately, raised the guillotine and set the light to green.  As we approached each of the other locks, a commercial came out, so the lock was ready for us straight away. At the top of each lock another commercial would be waiting to come in and we also saw several on the intervening pounds, so it was a busy boat day.

Perfect timing approaching a lock

As we’ve found before, some éclusiers respond to radio messages and others don’t.  It always worries us when they don’t as we’re then not sure if we’ve been understood but they obviously did today as all the locks were quickly set for us.  As each lock had exactly the same design even down to the bollards being in the same places, we soon got into a rhythm as we went up each one.  Karen alternating her lines whilst I alternated between forward, neural and reverse.

Most of the canal runs through the typically flat plains of this part of France, but there were the occasional cuttings which gave welcome relief from the sun.

Narrow section without the traditional sloping sides

Our aim was to get through the 2¾ mile long Ruyaulcourt tunnel before we moored up for the day.  The tunnel is one-way for the first mile which is controlled by traffic lights.  There is then a ¾ mile two-way section in the middle where boats can pass each other.  The final mile is again one-way and controlled by lights. 

As luck would have it, we passed a pusher and its barge in the middle and neither we, nor they, had to stop to enter our respective final sections.  We were also fortunate in that we didn’t have to wait before going into the tunnel in the first place.

Approaching the northern portal

Passing in the two-way centre section

His wake didn’t affect us too much, but we’ve friends whose bows moved out quite violently from the side after passing a boat in the tunnel.  They were just able to get it under control and bring it out of the path of another boat coming towards them just in time.

About 30 minutes after passing through the tunnel we moored in a winding hole that had bollards along one side.  Mooring is not normally allowed in winding holes, but we felt justified as there were bollards there and we couldn’t imagine why a large boat would be winding in such a remote spot.

A quiet mooring for Monday night

After lunch we went for a circular walk taking in a couple of miles of the canal towpath and then around the village of Manancourt before returning along a quiet country road.  Other than saying the village was stretched out there was nothing to really report other than it had 13 pedestrian crossings, befitting of a long narrow village I suppose. 

We spent the rest of the day relaxing and feeling rather grateful that those couple of days had come and gone without any problems.  Commercials continued to pass us during the evening and the last one was made up of two 85m long barges and would clearly be too long for the locks on this canal but not the Seine where it probably came from.  They must have decoupled the barges at the shorter locks in a similar way to the old working boats and their butties on the UK canals.

On Monday we cruised 16 miles up six locks through one tunnel and all is now set for going down a few locks and then turning off onto the Somme tomorrow.

No comments: