Chagny - Digoin

On Monday the 23rd of September we left Chagny at 09:10AM, planning to reach Saint-Julien-sur-Dheune. When we traveled Bourgogne earlier this year on the Canal de Bourgogne we felt puzzled about never to have seen any vineyards. Wine from Bourgogne is famous but where is it? we wondered. This time we were richly compensated. Next to the Canal du Centre a lot of vineyards are visible on the slopes of the hills. No surprise then to see much more prosperous houses, gardens and villages than in the part of Bourgogne we have been earlier this summer.

Le Canal du Centre is a very old canal. Construction started in 1784; the canal was opened between 1791 and 1793. Nowadays the number of locks is 61, consisting of 35 ‘Méditerranée’ (MED), eventually ending up just there and 26 ‘Océan’ (OCE), eventually leading towards the Atlantic. Initially the canal was equipped with 81 (smaller) locks. During the thirties of the 19th century the locks were upgraded to the ‘gabarit Becquey’ – meaning 30,40 meters (101 feet) long, 5,20 meters (over 17 feet) wide and 1,60 meters (5,30 feet) deep, combined with an air draft of 3 meters (10 feet). An important innovator has been Charles (Louis de Saulces) de Freycinet (1828-1923), minister of public works from 1877 through 1879 – later on twice President of the Council of Ministers (1879-1880 and 1885-1886). This man reformed the waterways extensively, upgrading the locks to the ‘gabarit Freycinet’ – meaning 39,00 meters (130 feet) long, 5,20 meters (over 17 feet) wide and 1,80/2,20 meters (6,00/7,30 feet) deep. Bridges were supposed to have a clearance of 3,70 meters (over 12 feet). All those measures are still in use today, although the bridges are only ‘guaranteed’ for 3,50 meters (11,50 feet). The boats, used by the professionals, are known as ‘Péniche Freycinet‘. On the former lock keepers houses the old numeration is still visible, see the picture of the house next to lock number 19 on the Mediterranean side, before 1880/1885 lock number 26. Isn’t it wonderful that the old signs are still there? Even the distance to the next lock on either side is mentioned.

That afternoon we reached our destination, Saint-Julien-sur-Dheune, after 6,5 hours and 15 locks – all going upstream. Exhausted – but the weather is fine…

The next day, Tuesday the 24th of September we departed 09:00AM sharp, negotiated 17 locks – this time 8 going uphill and 7 going downhill. So we left the Mediterranean side and entered the Ocean side of the canal. We needed only 5 hours and 15 minutes to reach Blanzy – not bad at all. This was one of the mooring facilities with water as well as electricity for free. We decided to remain here for an extra day and cleaned our ship extensively inside and out. We were exhausted this time for different reasons but thoroughly content with the result. The water we used for cleaning the roof-part of the ship came off fairly black! Already for a long time it was, especially for la capitaine, a thorn in the flesh. No longer so!

We left Blanzy with a shiny ship on Thursday the 26th of September already at 08:38AM. Even this remote part of France contains a few towns of some substance. Like for instance Montceau-les-Mines (almost 20.000 inhabitants), a town we passed that day. As the name already suggests it is a former mining town; in 1948 there were still 12.000 active coalminers. Several mining-catastrophes took place in the past, the last one on 16 January 1958, causing the death of 20 miners. All mining activities have been terminated at the very end of the last century. The town is still in the process of reinventing itself. A few drawbridges, one in the foreground the other one in the distance, were automatically lifted on our approach. The lights did neither show red nor green. We are still puzzled how we were detected and grateful none of the two fell back on top of us…

In the afternoon we reached Génelard and were able to moor already at 1:29PM after having descended 9 locks. As shown in the background the anticipated harbour was ‘sold out’. Self-evidently we noticed the free space next to the combined bridge/lock, but (1) there was only one bollard available and (2) if a commercial (Péniche) enters or leaves the lock one has to move away temporarily to make it possible for it to manoeuvre properly. Luckily we found a possibility a few hundred meters further on, even with sufficient rings.

On Friday the 27th of September we left Génelard for the last leg of this week. Time of departure 9:27AM, destination Digoin. We are sure we have praised VNF’s organization and services, although it sometimes takes some efforts to come ‘into the flow’ after a new start. Not this time, however, already the first lock was full, the gates opened and the light on green. So was the second, making it a promising start of the day. The third lock (for the record: Digoine 19 OCE) did everything we hoped for, even opening the lower gates after emptying – that’s to say: the gates stopped opening after creating a gap of some 40 centimeters. Such behavior is not all that encouraging but we remained optimistic as every now and then the gates open/close more or less jerking to the required position. But the gates did not widen the gap further on and we had to call VNF to inform them about the lock, behaving like the Hotel California. As always a friendly VNF-employee turned up in no time and started trying all he could think of. Whichever button he pressed, nothing helped. His next step was to inform us about calling an engineer; the problem seemingly needed an expert instead of an ambulatory lock keeper. Evidently the engineer on the other end of the line (so to speak, it’s all by mobile nowadays) tried to solve the problem by remote instruction, because the lock keeper started to dismantle both green boxes on the shore next to the gates – the phone permanently glued to his ear. After checking, inspecting and trying several actions we eventually witnessed him walking up and down with a 5-liter container with lubricant in it. He passed us 4 times, thus putting 20 liters of oil inside the mechanism on the left hand side. He never looked at us so we are unable to determine whether he was blushing. His efforts did the trick: the lock opened smoothly. It took us 55 minutes instead of the normal average of 7. We now realize that this might be an economical way of replacing lubricant. Never do it before the lock comes to a halt, it’s as simple as that.

The delay was not all that disastrous. We descended 10 locks and moored at 4:15PM at Digoin, where we’ll stay for a full week. On the Saturday a couple from England, traveling by camper car in France, will visit us on the way home from Portugal. They have been neighbours, and are still good friends, of ours during our ‘narrowboat-life’ at Baddesley Wharf, Atherstone, Warks, UK. They’ll leave on Monday the 30th. After that another couple will arrive on Thursday the 3rd of October. They, too, are ‘narrowboaters’ in England. We met them several years ago because of the name of their boat (‘Spuyten Duyvel’, a name that certainly triggers a Dutchman!) and they are good friends ever since. Being of American nationality they nevertheless come from their narrowboat in England and make a detour to France before flying back to the USA. With them we’ll cruise from Digoin towards Roanne in a few days, starting Friday the 4th. So for a change there will not be a lot of cruising the coming week. It remains to be seen what that means for the next blog. By the way, the picture shows our position for a full week. À bientôt!