Saturday 27 November 2021

Châlons-en-Champagne (is engine maintenance a pink job?)


Monday in Revigny-sur-Ornain was a workday for Karen although we managed to get a couple of dog walks together.  I did some log foraging and cutting as well as some of those other boaty chores that have to be done in the winter.


Tuesday was pretty much the same as Monday in terms of what we did and the sunny weather, although a VNF guy did pop around early in the afternoon to find out if we knew when we were planning on moving. When I told him we were hoping to leave at midday on Wednesday and were heading for Parngy-sur-Saulx, he had a bit of a think and said he would get a colleague along with him before we set off.  Even though the locks would all be automatic he wanted to get them all set, and as much loose weed flushed through as possible so we wouldn’t be held up.   I thanked him for his concern and took the opportunity to find out if there were any other boats on the move.  He said that there were no other private boats cruising on the canal at the moment but a péniche was heading up from Vitry-le-François which we would meet in a day or two.

Before he left, he said we could moor alongside the VNF icebreaker on the quay in front of us if we were concerned about the dilapidated staging we were moored on.  I thanked him but said we’d stay where we were as we weren’t planning on going out anymore during the day.


There was touch of frost on Wednesday morning followed by another sunny day. Karen had a meeting rescheduled, so we were able to leave at eleven rather than midday.  We’d been moored just above the lock at Revigny-sur-Ornain so a couple of hundred metres or so past the sensor that picks up our télécommande request to set the lock.  The sensors on this canal only work when the télécommande is pointed at them from the front whereas on other canals the sensors pick up signals from all sides.  This meant I had to walk back through the undergrowth on the bank to get to the right side of the sensor before we could get the lock set.

Setting off past the VNF ice breaker that we didn’t moor against

Once we were in the lock we tied up and topped up with water.  I know it was only a few days ago that we topped up but it’s always wise to take on water when it's available.

Buddy guarding the water point in Revigny lock

The cars by the lock are in the VNF yard and belong to staff who use VNF vehicles but aren’t allowed to take them home like many éclusiers can.  After a couple of locks, we no longer needed the télécommande as we were back to breaking light beams as we passed sensors in the bank thus triggering the start of lock operation.

Light beam emitter/sensors

A couple of goats were grazing by one lock and one of them took a particular interest in me and held my gaze as we descended.

Inquisitive goat and its mate

Now we're reaching the lower end of the canal we've lost the twists and turns of higher up and often there are straights around a kilometre long as we cut across the flood plain created by the rivers Saulx and Ornain which eventually feed the Marne. 

We passed the first commercial quay that we’d seen for a while, and it looked like it was still well used with rolls of steel ready for loading.

Loading gantries at the Contrisson steelworks

The éclusier who’d come to speak with us on Tuesday had been true to his word and all the locks worked perfectly during the day and were practically clear of weed.  He met up with us once during the journey to update us about the péniche and told us it would probably pass us later in the evening, well after we’d moored up for the day.  I asked him if the péniche was picking up steel from the steelworks and he confirmed it was.  I’d noticed that the nearest winding hole for a 39-metre boat was a couple of locks down from the steelworks and the éclusier explained that it would turn there and then reverse up the two locks before it could be loaded.  Not an operation I would relish having to do.

Catching the late afternoon sun in the last lock of the day

We moored up at the quay managed by the mairie in Pargny-sur-Saulx realising that our next cruise would take us through places we’ve visited before.  We’d started up this canal in July 2020 in the opposite direction, but only travelled about 15 kilometres before being turned back as the canal was being closed due to lack of water.  We’d got as far as a place called Bignicourt and whilst there we’d walked up to Pargny-sur-Saulx and checked out the mooring we were now on and had thought then that it would be a good place to stop.

Long shadows at Pargny-sur-Saulx

As expected, the péniche came through later in the evening and would no doubt be travelling in the dark for a further few hours before stopping for the night.

We both leant out of the hatch to watch it go past and Karen commented how funny it was as we must have seen hundreds of commercials, but we treat each one as if it was the first!  It's probably because they're a wonderful reminder that the continental waterways are primarily there for them and without them we wouldn't have thousands of miles to explore.  Although on the larger rivers we pass boats at least four times as long, we have a particular affinity with the smallest 38-metre péniches like the one in the picture above. 

On Wednesday we cruised eight miles down 12 locks.


The overnight frost was the heaviest so far and was the first time this winter that we’d woken up to find the bedroom windows had iced up on the inside.  We were just about to leave at about 10.00am when we noticed that there were two red lights on at the first lock we had to go down.  I rang VNF and they soon sent someone out to fix the problem. 

It turned out that we weren’t delayed by the red lights as the engine wouldn’t start; it wouldn’t even turn over.  This happened a couple of weeks ago when we last had a good frost and I ended up hot wiring the engine to get it started.  It’s been alright ever since, and we’d forgotten that there was probably an underlying issue to resolve.  Karen suggested (I thought jokingly) putting the fan heater on in the engine bay as electricity was available at the mooring.  I ignored this and resorted to ringing more able boater friends.  Eventually, Karen’s cousin Dave said it sounded like condensation had got into the starter motor and frozen.   Yes, we went back to Karen’s original suggestion and put the fan heater on in the engine bay for half an hour and yes, you’ve guessed it, the engine started perfectly.

Of course, by this time we were two hours behind schedule but as it was a sunny day we decided to cruise until nightfall to make up for the lost time.  After a few kilometres we reached Bignicourt which was the point where we had to turn around when we came the other way up this canal in July 2020. 

The shade was welcome when we moored at Bignicourt last summer

Other than the issue at the first lock, which didn’t impact us, we had no problems with all the remaining locks and had a pleasant cruise through familiar countryside.  As soon as we could see the hillsides covered in champagne vineyards, we knew we were only a few days from home.  We do feel that Châlons-en-Champagne is our French home, probably helped by the fact we spent several months there during the first lockdown when we weren’t allowed to cruise.

More straight stretches

When we were one lock away from our destination, we turned on to the canal latéral à la Marne which we consider is our home canal as Châlons-en-Champagne is situated halfway along it. 

Right: Our home canal. Left: Canal entre Champagne et Bourgone

We were last at the junction at the end of March this year but turned onto the canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne to head south.   As we joined the latéral, Karen told me she felt quite emotional getting back onto it and I had to admit that I’d felt the same but hadn’t said anything in case she thought I was being a bit soppy.

The locks on the latéral are operated by turning a twisty pole hanging over the water a hundred yards or so in front of the lock.  Karen took the honours of having the first twist.

First twist for a while
Karen happy in her hat Catherine gave her last year

Twilight arrived before we moored for the night and as the canal was well used by commercials, we turned the nav lights on.  We moored at one of our favourite moorings on this canal, just below lock number one outside Vitry-le-François.

On Thursday we cruised 13 miles down eight locks.


We had an ambitious plan to reach Châlons-en-Champagne in one hop on Friday.  We’ve always taken at least three days to travel the 30 kilometres between Vitry-le-François and Châlons and in March this year it took us 24 days.  Admittedly, when we took 24 days we were biding our time waiting for the entre Champagne et Bourgogne to re-open after winter maintenance. 

We were getting ready to set off when a hotel boat came around the corner heading for the lock behind us, so we let them pass and then cast off dead on nine o’clock which was an early start for us.

Anna Maria 4 bereft of passengers

Having been up and down this canal several times you’d think we would’ve seen and reported on everything of interest to us.  What we did see that we hadn’t noticed before were a couple more engine sheds that housed the barge towing engines.  Although I knew that barges used to be towed by these engines, we’d never realised these modern looking sheds housed them until this year.  I know they’re not as picturesque as the UK canal heritage redbrick built buildings such as stables, smithies and lengthsmen’s huts but they are still part of the canal heritage here.

Engine shed at Couvrot

One of the bollards at the lock at Soulanges had been decorated.  We’ve met several people who paint bollards, especially those at popular mooring spots and assumed this was one of theirs.  It does raise the question of when graffiti becomes allowable.  If you believe they shouldn’t be decorated by random people, then would you be happy if VNF commissioned the work to brighten up a lock or mooring?

Is it graffiti-art or just graffiti?

Karen and Buddy walked ahead for some of the way which is always handy when there are other boats around as she rings me to provide a warning when one is coming towards us.

The unladen péniche Tonga

After 5 ½ hours cruising we were approaching the centre of Châlons.  We were glad that we’d set out early because wind and possibly rain were forecast for later in the afternoon and also on Saturday.  At least if the weather did turn, we’d be safely moored up in the town port.

Arriving in Châlons-en-Champagne

When we left Châlons-en-Champagne nine months ago the footbridge in the picture above had been removed as it had become unsafe and was in need of restoration.  It was good to see it had been repaired and was back in place.

We moored on the visitors’ pontoon as we would only be staying for a few days.  The visitors’ pontoon is the first pontoon boats see when they arrive at the port.   When we’ve been before we’ve always stayed on the farthest pontoon.  As much as we’ve always enjoyed the view across the park from our old spot it’ll be a nice change to have a view in the opposite direction where we look out onto the main canal and will be able to see passing boat traffic.

Moored in a new spot in Châlons

After making the boat secure we had a quick catch up with the other people who’re overwintering in the port, all of whom we’ve stayed with before other than Mac, a New Zealander who’s been cruising in Europe for some time.

We’re looking forward to spending five or six days in our ‘home’ town doing exciting likes getting our Covid boosters and replacing the empty gas bottles as well as socialising.  We will then set off further downstream and get ready to leave the boat while we go back to the UK to await, amongst other things, the birth of our first granddaughter.  

On Friday we cruised 18 miles down seven locks.

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