Saint-Quentin - Douai

Monday the 19th of May 2014, tunnel day! We started at 9:45AM and climbed 4 locks (another 8,25 meters, or over 27 feet) before reaching the summit level (‘bief de partage’). Coming from the south the first tunnel is called ‘Sousterrain de Le Tronquoy’ (or ‘Sousterrain de Lesdins’). This one is only 1.098 meters (less than 0,7 miles) long and can be done on one’s own power. A trifle compared to the next one. The picture shows us leaving the tunnel, trailing a fully laden commercial.

For a good part the summit level is a cutting, narrow and deep, clearly visible here. It’s the part between both tunnels. The bridge made us think of a certain part on the Shropshire Union in England. A slight feeling of homesickness does sometimes strike unexpectedly.

Serious work to be done now, being the second tunnel, called ‘Sousterrain de Riqueval’. This one has a respectable length of 5.670 meters (over 3,5 miles) and, as there is no ventilation, cannot be done on one’s own power. Al boats are to be attached to an electric tug – and this is one of the two similar available tugs.

The tug gets its power for propulsion from overhead wires, like a trolleybus. A chain at the bottom of the channel is moved over a set of cogwheels. As said with the picture before one’s supposed to switch off the engine inside the tunnel. We’ve found out nobody did – including ourselves.

A picture of the convoy, supposed to be leaving 3:00PM. The big boys first, then the middle-class-weight ships and finally the light-weights. In this case first a commercial, 39 meters and fully laden, approaching 200 tons in total weight, followed by ourselves, only about 35 tons and mostly hollow as it is a live-aboard and finally a lighter vessel, best described as a sort of mix between a small barge and a cruiser.

We attached ourselves to the commercial with a 30-metre (strong) rope –we’ve got even four(!) of them- in the ‘cross-mode’ as is made clear by this picture. This system is said to work well, but it didn’t. It was a failure, to be honest, because the rope was not fixed at anyone of the (four) bollards on both boats (only around them), thus having the possibility to slide. Almost immediately after entering the tunnel the piece of rope from our right front to the commercial’s left rear proved to be shorter than the piece from our left front etc. So for 1¾ of an hour our poor ship was pulled towards the left hand side and we had to use both bow thruster and engine/rudder to stay away from the tunnel-wall.

Here we go, still oblivious of the horror to come. Well, horror, let’s not make it worse than it was – it was unpleasant and exhausting. Next time –yes, there will be a next time- we’ll think of another, better, way to tie to the boat in front of us. As you can see, the commercial in front of us (named ‘ Moshulu’) originates from Rotterdam. We had a convivial chat with the owner/skipper and half of our crew, the female half, was invited inside of his quarters. It was all incredibly immaculate, inside and out.

To make this event complete, a picture of the third boat in the convoy. We have to admit that the way of attaching to our ship makes more sense than what we did. It, the third boat, was still there when we, finally, came out of this long tunnel. We wondered what will happen if a rope snaps or just comes off. The guys in the tug will not notice – they do their job like robots, don’t say hello, worse, don’t even look up when you pass them. There’s only one solution and that is to continue on your own power. No problem, everyone had the engine running anyway!

Three locks more –now going downstream, of course- we ended up in a place Honnecourt-sur-Escaut. It was already 6:15PM, so we had been busy for 8,5 hours, some waiting-time included. The picture shows our mooring-place for the night, as always from an angle that is chosen at random. (Criteria: ‘Does it look pretty?’, ‘Does it look different?’.)

Here is our point: this is exactly the same spot as visible on the picture before this one. One would never guess. The reason to show you this one is the presence of the river L’Escaut (‘De Schelde’) in baby-shape next to the Canal de Saint-Quentin. The canal is accompanied by La Somme south of the summit level and L’Escaut north of it. The latter becomes navigable after Cambrai, the former becomes at best a (beautiful, we are told several times) canalized river when going towards Amiens and beyond.

This is the bridge from where the picture before was taken. In the course of time we’ve seen many bridges, be it concrete or steel/metal, in a bad state of maintenance. At least, that’s what we think when we see the reinforcement visible from the reinforced concrete, and the often rusty steel/metal bridges. One day, one fears, it’ll all become too weak, too dangerous, and then what??

After leaving Honnecourt-sur-Escaut at 10:06AM sharp on Tuesday the 20th of May 2014 we pictured this three VNF-employees on the way, while busy removing a fallen tree (them, not us). It happens all the time and is not all that special. We like the picture, however, because of the light at that very moment.

Later on we reached a little town called Marcoing. Time of arrival 2:32PM, after 10 locks. We had read about a basin next to the canal, away from the wash of passing commercials. The entrance to the basin is shown here. We went in, to discover that the bollards were scarce and too far apart. Reluctantly we had to leave the, deep enough, basin. The upside of this useless operation was that we did not touch the bridge at all. ‘That’s easy’, you mutter? Well, be advised that the basin appeared not wide enough to turn, so we had to retreat backwards.

That Tuesday we settled for an overnight spot at Marcoing just downstream of the local (double) lock. Only the lock on the right bank (mind you, which is left on the picture) is in use, so we are hardly disturbed by passing boats – or the other way around. A nice detail was that the woman, living in the house next to the lock, came from her garden while we were busy mooring and asked whether we were ‘en panne’. No, we were not. Bless her, though!

This is not a very attractive picture to look at, we realize. Special it is, on the other hand. When we left our floating home to explore the town of Marcoing we discovered this vending machine. By using the description ‘vending machine’ one thinks of cigarettes, meatballs, fried-rice-balls, croquette and the likes. (Meatballs and all after it, at least in The Netherlands.) Here, being in La Douce France, it’s endive (chicory in English, witlof in Dutch, ‘andijvie’ in Dutch is endive in English, which obviously is not France’s endive – are you still with us?), carrots, onions, potatoes and shallots. We could not find the old fashioned greengrocer. Perhaps we did not look carefully enough.

Marcoing was left on Wednesday the 21st of May at 09:39AM. The plan was to moor at Cambrai but we were refused! No room left. Oh well, we go on then. We ended up at Bras-de-Pallencourt, or Estrun, or Bassin Rond – anyway, at the junction L’Escaut (the Canal Saint-Quentin becomes the river Escaut at Cambrai)-Canal de la Sensée, part of Le Canal à Grand Gabarit from Dunkerque to L’Escaut. We cruised for 4 hours and descended 9 locks. No further details, we’re afraid this was a bit boring. Sorry!

Bras-de… (etc.) was left the next morning, Thursday the 22nd of May, just before 10:00AM. We were on Le Canal à Grand Gabarit now, together with the big boys and using huge locks. That day we did not see that much big boys –it seemed to have been more 1½ years ago, when we entered France for the first time- and only three locks descending towards Dunkerque. The lock keepers on this canal seem to be utterly uninterested, as they do not answer calls when approaching their lock nor do they react when one’s leaving their lock and thanking them for their services. Zombies? That afternoon we moored up at Douai (Flemish/Dutch: Dowaai) around 3:00PM. We have been unable to connect to the main electric system since the 8th of May (Saint-Leu-d'Esserent), reason why we can no longer trust our voltage-gauge and want to connect to the main system asap to be able to re-calibrate the gauge. We hope that we do not have to replace our 10 expensive gel-batteries for domestic use. Fingers crossed…

During a walk to Douai’s centre we noticed a ‘Halte Fluviale’ on the river La Scarpe with electricity and water. Eureka! But… will we be able to turn there? was the question, as this tiny river seems rather narrow. Our ship’s length is 60 feet (18,31 meters), which compares to 25 footsteps of le capitain. So his footsteps are just a bit over 0,70 meters (2,4 feet). The bridge that is partly visible on this picture offered the opportunity to measure the width of the river. It took 27 steps, so around 20 meters (66 feet). Let’s do it, we decided and went for it. La capitaine did a great job; she turned the ship with a minimum of room and dealing with the downstream without touching anything. We’re now very close to Douai’s centre and connected to the main electrical system. It’s a new system too: € 37,02, to pay to VNF (Voies Navigables de France) for 100kW electricity and 1.000 liters of water. Therefore one gets a sort of ‘key’ which activates either the electricity- or water-connection. When leaving the ‘key’ de-activates electricity- or water-supply and the balance(s) can be used in other places where the same system is installed – now only in the north of France, but it will be introduced in the hole of France we are told. This was it for this week, dear reader. We hope we’ve entertained you just a little bit!