Genelard (Canal du Centre) via the Saone to St Jean-de-Losne (June/July 2008)

Tuesday 24th June


We had booked the lock-keeper for an 8.30 start, but “Lili Ann” behind us was trying to beat a deadline to moor up for the rest of the summer before setting off for a channel ferry booking, so we let her go on ahead of us.  That left us with a Belgian couple, (the people whose dog had a fight with the dog belonging to “Lili Ann”), and the chap said they would share the second lock cycle with us.  I duly walked up to the lock as “Lili Ann” left, so I could warn the lockie that the lock would need turning straight away (if there was nothing coming in the opposite direction) as there were two boats waiting on our side.

He did this, and when Neville entered the lock he indicated that he was staying at the back of the lock as the others were not coming.  I told the lock-keeper that there was now only one boat and he went incandescent, leaping about, shouting, gesticulating and then standing on the bridge overlooking the marina and waving angrily at the Belgians.  His tirade continued as he started to see to our lock, and I became frustrated, because it wasn’t my fault (and I didn’t know how to say this in French!).  When we were ready to leave the lock I leapt onto the boat, found the phrase I wanted in the dictionary and then said indignantly to him as we left “Ce n’est pas ma faute!” to which he wearily shook his head and said “Je le sais” and then indicated that he would be having strong words with the Belgian couple when they entered the lock.

Good start!  Neville told me that the Belgian’s wife had refused to come in with us because she didn’t think there was enough space.  Believe me, we have been in much tighter locks than that!  I’m sure the lock-keeper would have given them a hard time, when they arrived.

Shortly after we left the lock, we came upon a blind bend under a bridge where we nearly bumped into a German plastic craft, who made a big meal of the fact that we did an emergency stop (well as much of an emergency stop as you can in a 26 ton barge) which left us swinging out across the canal and into his path.  There was no danger of collision, and he had been taking the bend way too fast to say it was a blind bend, but that didn’t stop the wife wagging a peremptory finger at us as we passed.  No…. not that kind of finger!

This boat must have been one that the lockie had known was coming, but had opted to give priority to what he understood to be two boats waiting.

So now fully awake and livened up, we did  21 kilometres and 9 locks to reach Blanzy, a small village.  The only other incident of note was the fact that at Monceau le Mines we had to pass under 3 bridges, two swing-lift bridges, and one hydraulic vertical lift.  To start the process, you have to pull down on a blue cord hanging over the canal about 500 yards before the first one.  We were so busy looking at our navigation books, that we just caught the briefest glimpse of the blue cord at the top of our window as our boat passed under it, so we had to back up until we could get close enough to pull it.  It was magical, the way that the bridges opened up ahead of us, but there was a bridge keeper on the quay in the centre of the town, who we suspect is alerted to one’s approach when you pull the cord.

Entering Montceau les Mines

We didn’t stop at Montceau les Mines, but later heard that some boaters had wintered there, and that it had been a very good mooring.

When we moored up at Blanzy, another boat from the DBA rally, Zofia, came along an hour or so later and moored up behind us.  In the afternoon I went into the town to get milk and bread, but the heat was overpowering.  Neither of us felt like doing anything, even though there were still plenty of jobs to be done.  There were a few more clouds in the sky though, and the next day was forecast to be cooler by about 5 degrees, so maybe we could expect storms.

A yacht came up to moor, obstructing the bridge-hole somewhat, and the guy from it was next seen swimming in the canal.  Can’t imagine what he was thinking of – it must be very dangerous.  I don’t know what sanitary arrangements he has on his boat, or if he pauses to think what arrangements the other bigger boats have, but France is not like England.   I have only seen one official pump-out station here, and that looks as though it was scarcely ever used.  If I were to fall in the canal I would want to climb straight into a hot bath and start on a mega course of antibiotics immediately.

When it seemed a little (and only a little!) cooler in the late afternoon, I decided to stroll round to one of the florist shops I had seen earlier in the afternoon to see if I could get a planting dish and a small bag of compost so I could plant out the gazanias which the organisers of the rally had bought for table decorations, and which they had said members could have for themselves after the close of ceremonies.

The owner of the florist shop looked a bit like a cross between Carol Burnett (remember her? Toothy wide-smiled blonde comedienne) and a younger version of Joan Rivers.  She was dressed in tight white jeans with a strappy shocking pink T shirt and high heeled mules, and she talked ten to the dozen.  In French only, of course.  She insisted on giving me two plant containers for nothing, and then packed me in her car and drove about two miles out of town to a superstore which sold bags of compost.  They were very large bags, but she indicated that she needed some for herself so she would get it and give me enough from it for my needs.

She wouldn’t let me pay, and in fact, she didn’t pay either!  She asked the cashier if she could put it on the slate, and then charmed the boss of the store into letting her do so, (I think she was well known in the town) and then drove me back.  On the way back (and all our conversation was conducted in a mixture of Spanish and French) she asked me how old I thought she was.  I would have said early to mid fifties, but no – she told me she was 68 years old, had two daughters in their forties and had a son who died in his twenties.

She was a lovely person, and I was sorry that my French was not good enough to be able to adequately express my gratitude to her.

Wednesday 25th June


An early start at 8.15 and we did 16 kilometres and 15 locks.

As we approached the second or third lock, we could see a fisherman by the side of the canal.  Drawing level,  we nodded to each other and it was clear that he had a super fishing set up, three rods in a stand, plus the one he was already holding.  As we passed him, suddenly this furious electronic beeping started, and the entire set-up with his three (very expensive) fishing rods began to slither quickly down the bank towards the canal.  I realised that although we had given him a wide berth, we had somehow snagged his lines, and shrieked at Neville to stop, while the fisherman flung himself down the bank hanging onto his expensive kit.  Neville slammed the boat in reverse but 26 tons takes a long time to come to a halt, and so he rushed off with the boat hook to try to free the fisherman’s lines.  At that moment they lines freed themselves and the incident was over.  At least the fisherman had the grace to acknowledge our attempts to help – a few of the French fishermen are no different to the English when it comes to churlish behaviour.

Floating bollard descending with the water level

We reached the watershed mid morning and then started descending the locks.  These were deep locks, around 5 metres, and we were relieved to find they had floating bollards set in the side of the lock.  That really does make things easy, and as they were automatic we could do most of it ourselves and the lockies just roved up and down the canal making sure the locks were set right for us.

The weather was a tad cooler and there was a lot of wind.

We moored up for the day at St Julien sur Dheune, a sleepy little village with apparently no shops!  After lunch, we observed the approach of the Belgians who refused to join us in the lock yesterday, and they moored up behind us.  We thought they might move on when they realised that this mooring was in between two locks and no matter how well you tie your boat up (and ours was tied with both stern and bowlines plus a spring), the boats lurched violently when either the preceding lock discharges its contents, or the next one fills up.  They seemed a bit precious about their boat!

Thursday 26th June


We did 26 kilometres and 15 locks.  The canal continued to twist and turn but the scenery was very beautiful.  There were a number of blind bends but we escaped without incident.  It was quite restful, locking downstream, without any of the hard work involved in fighting the movement of the water when cruising upstream.  But we thought we had a problem with one of the bow thrusters.  When Neville used it in a lock it made a really strange sound, and worked with less power.  We tried not to use it again until he had a chance to see what the problem is, but of course on rounding a bend we came face to face with an enormous great peniche coming out of the lock, and we had to scurry to the side of the canal to let him pass – not easy without the help of a bow thruster.

Passing through some lovely mooring sites where there were no available spaces for our 16 metres, we headed for Chagny, which turned out to be yet another large fairly depressing basin with industrial buildings all around.  Still it seemed fairly safe, and it got notably quieter when the brick factory close by ceased production for the day.

The basin at Chagny

We looked into the bowthruster problem at the moorings.  Trying to blast free whatever was obstructing the motor didn’t work, just large pieces of flax floated up to the surface.  There was obviously a rope caught up in it.

Later we rode up to Intermarche, a supermarket (as ever) at the top of a hill close to the moorings.  You can only buy what you can fit in your bike basket and in a rucksack on your back, so all our shopping is piecemeal.

Friday 27th June


We were up early and Neville had a brainwave about how to get down to the bowthruster to see if he could at least feel what was caught in it.  He hung the ladder over the side of the boat into the murky water (this was 6.30 am, by the way) and I tried to steady the boat several metres away from the side whilst hanging on to the top of the ladder, as he struggled to free what turned out to be a very large hank of thick rope.  He used a carving knife to cut the rope up and eventually he got it free, but in doing so the grille covering the bowthruster (which is ironically supposed to stop things like this being sucked into it!) came loose and dropped into the bottom of the canal.  So now we were more at risk of getting other garbage stuck in there until we reached St Jean de Losne.   We tried using a magnetic detector to find the grille, but there was so much mud in the bottom of the canal, and we were not exactly sure where it would have landed, so we had to call it a day, by which time it was 7.30am.

We had booked an 8.30 start at the locks but two other boats (the Belgian woman and a French couple) got there before us and nabbed our slot.  We were delayed half an hour.  The flight of locks (11 in all) were quite gentle and we refined our techniques so that only one of us was holding onto the rope, even in the deeper locks with floating bollards, and we made good progress.

Some of these locks are slow to get started.  You have to pull a blue cord to start the gates shutting, and then it automatically goes on to empty the lock and open the gates at the other end.  But the response is not immediate and sometimes you can wait almost a minute before the machinery groans into life.  Neville was getting exasperated at one lock and started yanking the cord, feeling that perhaps the pull wasn’t registering.  A passing lockie leapt out of his car and started shouting at us in French, (none of which I understood, except for the last part which was “doucement, doucement!) which means gently, gently.   He then drove off without waiting to see whether it would start or not.  Eventually it did.

The problem lock

As we got to the next to the last lock, our efforts to start the mechanism were all in vain.  Nothing happened.  To make matters worse about sixty schoolchildren happened by on an organised “skate-a-thon” and they all sat down excitedly on the bank waiting to watch the spectacle of this large boat sinking slowly into the bowels of the earth.  Sadly, they were to be disappointed and off they went after about 10 minutes.  I tried to reach the lock-keeper on the emergency intercom, but nothing happened there either.  And I could just imagine that when we eventually alerted the lockie, it would be the one who had shouted at us, and he would believe it was our fault!  But fortunately another, kinder lockie came along and over-rode the controls to let us through.

River lock onto the Saone

On then to the last lock which was an enormous river lock taking us down to the river Saone.  So it was goodbye to the gentle canal life, and once more back onto the river.  And boy was this one wide at this point!  I decided I might be getting the lifejacket out the following day!   Neville was certain we could make it all the way to St Jean de Losne, our destination, in one day if we got an early start next morning.  At 78 kilometres I was not so sure, and we would also be travelling upstream.  I hoped we could, because there seemed to be only limited  mooring places on the Saone.

We had hoped to moor up along the embankment in the centre of Chalon sur Saone, but mooring was prohibited or reserved for liners and we eventually made our way to a Port de Plaisance which seemed to be entirely full of plastic craft!    Someone came down from the Capitainerie to say we couldn’t take the barge into the marina and would have to moor on the periphery (which suited us).  So after a lot of manoeuvring we got it against a finger pontoon, which wobbled alarmingly when you were walking on it.  No-one came to take our rope – we definitely weren’t made to feel welcome!  Other barge-owners confirmed later that this had been their experience.

Approaching Chalon sur Saone

The mooring was quite the most expensive we had come across at 27 euros. I asked the capitainerie if we could move into another space on the periphery if one came free, as we were underneath a bridge which was very noisy.  She said we could, but we would have to watch for a space coming free.  Later on in the afternoon a guy from the marina came round, and asked if we were looking to change our mooring, because one had just come free.  We would have to get a move on though, as boats were coming in all the time.  So I woke Neville up (siesta time!) and we rushed the boat round there.  This was much better, a linear mooring and much more stable.

During the late afternoon we watched with interest as one of the gleaming white cruisers moored close-by enlisted the help of a diver to retrieve something caught round the prop.  It turned out to be a huge tangle of wire!

There was a Carrefour supermarket a short distance behind the Capitainerie, and we strolled up there to get a few things.

Saturday 28th June


We set off around 7-ish to start the final leg to St Jean de Losne.  The river Saone was very calm and despite the early hour there were several fishermen in their boats.  The first lock we came to, Ecuelles, gave us something of a shock.  Just as we entered the lock we caught sight of a notice that indicated life jackets were compulsory.  I dashed below to get them, sorting out which one belonged to who, and barely had time to slip my arms through it before we had to get on with the business of securing the boat in the huge river lock.

Here we made a big mistake.  The sliding bollards in the lock wall were spaced completely wrong for our size of craft, and what we should have done was to tie the middle rope up, and then use the engine to control our movements.  But remember, we were still fairly new to boating in France, and relatively new to the large river locks.  So unfortunately, we tied up the stern rope (my rope) first before finding out that we had nothing to tie the front up to.  The lockkeeper, mounted in his control tower then slammed open the vannes before we had made our minds us what we were going to do, and we were left struggling to control the boat in what was a really violent lock.  Neville tried hastily to button up my lifejacket, but then rushed back to start the engine up to steady the boat, and in short,  the whole affair was a complete nightmare.  Later we learned that this is a lock where (no doubt due to the turbulence) someone was lost overboard and hence the mandatory life jacket.  They could also instruct the lockie to open the vannes more gradually!  However, we survived… no-one died this time.

Of course, much later we learned to tie up the middle rope on these larger locks and use the engine to keep the bow into the wall.  It’s all down to experience.

Push-pull emerging from the lock at Seurre

Passing Gergy we noted that there was a good mooring there, for the future.  At Seurre, just before the lock there were good moorings on the right hand side.  We moored against the dolphins to await a huge bright yellow push-pull that was engaged in the lock.  As he came out of the lock, without any signal, he just headed straight for us and we realised that in fact he wanted to moor against the dolphins just where we were.  He must have been fully 120 metres long, and we beat it out of there fast!

We later learned that Dick and Marijke had been moored at Seurre, and had in fact just left the lock that the big yellow push-pull had entered.

St Jean de Losne in sight

After a long boring stretch, we arrived at St Jean de Losne, and whilst making our way round the island to the H2O mooring, we saw them moored up in the other marina.  We waved and later Neville went round to invite them for drinks and nibbles that evening, as we were leaving to drive back home the next morning.

It was boiling hot again, and I was glad to be returning to cooler climes!

So ended the first of our French boating adventures, and as we made several journeys up and down the pontoons to load up our car for the return journey I reflected on just how much we had learned in a short period of time.

About Sandra

I used to cruise the French waterways with my husband four or five months a year, and wrote fiction and poetry. Now I live on the beautiful Dorset coast, enjoying the luxury of being able to have a cat, cultivating an extensive garden and getting involved in the community. I still write fiction, but only when the spirit moves me - which isn't as often as before. I love animals, F1 motor racing, French bread and my husband, though not necessarily in that order.
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