The following tells of the rescue of an historic wooden peniche (barge) called Aster.
It is an extract taken from Jo's second boating book - A Barge at Large 11, which you can see here
A bit of background....
The company H20, based in St. Jean de Losne, is perhaps the largest inland waterways fluvial company in France. Charles Gerard founded the company about forty years ago and is still at its head. It was Charles who came across Aster and undertook to save the ship and with it an important part of France's waterways heritage. She is the last surviving original wooden peniche (barge) in France. Built in 1951 to be horse-drawn, she plied her trade on the Canal du Nivernais firstly as a commercial carrier then, after 1972 following a major re-fit, as a trip boat. When Charles came across her she was in a sorry state, having lain abandoned for twelve years. She was slowly rotting away.
The vessel had been part of Nivernais canal life for over forty years. Sadly, the Consiel General de Nievre, who owned the vessel, was unable to pay for necessary upgrades (and ongoing maintenance) necessary after new health and safety regulations were introduced in 1999. So it was either find a new home or scrap her. After lengthy negotiations Charles did a deal whereby Aster's ownership would be passed the the Museum at St. Jean de Losne, overseen by the historical maritime organisation AQUA – for a symbolic 'purchase price' of one euro.
The boat had to be moved to St. Jean where she could be renovated and housed. This trip needed a huge amount of preparation and planning. The vessel literally had to be brought back to life. This involved basics such as getting the engines going and making sure rudimentary on-board systems worked (electric / plumbing / supplementary engines) to obtaining necessary licenses and permissions to navigate. Then find a crew who had the necessary skills and who could live together in a rickety wooden box for a week without killing each other. I was lucky enough to be invited to be involved. Having limited skills in most areas I was given a job where I could do least damage so was asked to be 'press officer'. I was responsible initially for pre-trip publicity, then for the sending of daily progress reports as we travelled (if we travelled!). These would appear on St' Jeans Museum's web site and be syndicated world-wide. (Mmmmm!) So, based on those reports, here's what happened........
An advance party of five left St Jean on Thursday 29th May 2014 to begin preparations for Aster's final journey. With an estate car and a camper van both loaded to the roof with various tools and supplies we trundled through Burgundy. We were all pretty excited about our up-coming adventure - that reached fever pitch when we stopped at McDonalds in Autun. To calm down a bit we took a stroll round the remains of the nearby Roman Colosseum before continuing our journey.
Aster was in dry dock when we arrived, at around 4.00 pm, in Saint-Leger-les-Vignes, at the southern end of the Canal du Nivernais. The boat was penned in and brooding, awaiting release.
Advanced teams, more advanced than ours, had done a wonderful job cleaning and painting her hull on previous visits. Engine, generator and compressor had been overhauled and repaired and the rudder strengthened. In addition a huge clean-up inside the boat commenced. After well over a decade of neglect, Aster was mouldy and messy, but about to be re-born.
We were wondering how and when we could move her out of dry dock when three people arrived at around 10.00 am on Friday morning. 'Now would be a good time', they said. Because soon they would be going for lunch – and that would mean a 4-hour delay. The dock was filled and Aster re-floated before we roped her gently round to her adjacent mooring.
The remaining four crew members arrived soon after that so we all had less than 24-hours to prepare. There's been talk of a five or six day trip – which seems optimistic. However long it takes, it's time for Aster to hold her head up for one last effort.
The crew has a team-bonding huddle. We democratically decide that Charles Gerard would be The Admiral (before he could elect himself to the position). So, we have a skipper with ultimate authority who would rely on everyone else. The only other elected 'officer' is Matthew Morton who would be Number Two and head tiller-man. The rest of us would be equals - enthusiastic deck-hands to attend to whatever panic is most life-threatening at any given moment. Most unenviable job goes to the Systems Officer (Steve Nel) who has to get at least one of the two toilets (and poo holding tank) operational for nine fully functioning alimentary canals. The aforementioned canals are replenished by talented cooks (led by Pete Dallow , Pete D. from now on, and Helen Nel, assisted by Glenn Dallow and Patricia Gerard) who would magically conjour nourishing (and exceptional) meals from an assortment of uncoordinated donations and shrewdly-planned purchases.
While the pair who would develop into the bow crew (Peter, Bow Pete from now on, and me) nailed roofing felt to the most leaky areas of deck (this included an particularly bad spot directly above the engine batteries), Steve, with a small but select team (Pete D) was on deck dismantling, repairing and re-assembling a toilet. Disconcertingly it would only work when they blew down a pipe to prime the pump – this is all well and good when out in the open air in 'test' mode but not ideal for obvious reasons when it's been re-bolted to the floor in a dark cubicle! However we did end up with two functioning toilets with the help of a cordless drill and some superglue. Our toilets are referred to as loo one and loo two – however, their operation is rather 'selective'. For example we could do number ones in loo one, but not number twos. You could do number ones and number twos in loo two – except during the hours of darkness when the generator was switched off and we were strictly forbidden from doing either number ones or twos in either loo one or two – because the macerators and pumps don't work without power. The seat on loo one disintegrated at one point which put a bit of pressure on loo two, particularly at 7.15 am when the generator was started and there was a dash for the facilities. Steve also rigged up a rudimentary shower in the only space available, in a little room next to the loos, getting hot and cold water from the galley roughly 15 metres away, through newly run pipes. Due to an unfortunate technicality the main fuse panel and a number of electrical sockets were located in the shower room and despite these being taped up, we did blow the main breaker one night during a shower, so one circuit was switched off and all was well thereafter.
On the grape vine we'd heard a number of rumours regarding a local send off. We weren't sure which location was being rumoured about, either Aster's home for the previous 12 years in St. Leger des Vignes or the port of Decize, a substantial town with a mayor, across the river Loire, through which we would be passing. Local dignitaries would doubtless turn up, as would journalists, but at which location or at what time, we didn't know. The Admiral decided that we would leave at 10.00 the following morning. If anyone turned up, so be it, but they would have to work round our timetable. Because there was much activity on and around the boat, we attracted lots of interest from passers-by and most seemed genuinely pleased that Aster would be saved.
She is a substantial boat at 30 metres by 5. Like a classic motor car she has few mod cons. She's not very comfortable and is generally chunky and clunky. The main cabin and bar area is quite respectable as that's where day-trippers were entertained in days gone by. From a distance she's a wonderful, grand old lady but if you look closely, she's world-weary. The paintwork is shabby and (whisper it) there's a touch of rot here and there. The roof leaks a bit, but the sun is out, so who cares. But despite her rumpled, wrinkled coat, she is magnificent.
The crew are an experienced bunch having piloted in a wide variety of craft over many years (including aeroplanes). Aster however is something else altogether. For example the propeller is attached to the rear of the rudder and wiser folk than me 'have never seen the like'. Apparently in French it's known as a 'sculling' propeller - in any event it will doubtless take a bit of getting used to. We had the expertise of local man, Monsieur Cretier, who had skippered Aster during her passenger-carrying days, to call on. He was heartbroken to see his beloved ship leave for the last time and seemed a little reluctant to pass on his experience just so we could take her away. But despite his distress he was a big help. However, he refused our offer to pilot Aster on her final voyage.
By Friday evening we felt as prepared as we would ever be so went for a 'shake-down cruise' in the basin. The idea was to turn Aster round so we faced the lock in preparation for (a smooth and graceful) departure the following morning in front of the TV cameras. All went well till the engine stalled when changing from forward to reverse gear. A gear change is accomplished by lowering the revs and heaving a large steel lever forward or back. It was soon running again but you don't want 60 tonnes of boat moving in either direction without an engine. We moored up ready for next day's departure and anchors were lashed fore and aft in case of another failure, the front one so heavy it took four of us to hump it into position. If we ever have to lob it out in an emergency, that is where it will stay because there's no way we could get it back.
We were a little unsure how Aster would behave when we set off but if Pete D's magnificent bolognaise we had the eve of departure was representative of what was to come, cuisine was one area we would have no worries.
The voyage begins
Saturday 31st May 2014
Aster was dressed for her final journey. She actually looked very presentable from the waist down, it's the top-sides that are rather tatty. Banners, flags and bunting were hung to jazz her up and disguise the mottled bits. The crew of nine, dressed in bright yellow T-shirts and black caps, buzzed about like a swarm of nervous, happy bees. France 3 TV was there, as were a number of journalists. We chatted to them and other guests who we encouraged on board and tried to stop them dislodging any rotten bits or tripping over our red roofing felt. Some guests were very knowledgable about the workings of our boat, some had seen her plying her trade on The Nivernais as a passenger trip boat and many others showed a genuine interest in the layout and history of Aster. In fact it's fair to say that many bystanders knew much more about the boat than the crew did. Sadly not one member of the crew was French.
Whichever way you look at it, the restoration and preservation of Aster will be an expensive business, the intention being to fund it by donations and any sponsorship that can be found. We'd done some merchandising and our T-shirt stall on the quay was doing steady business - but it was time to go.
The DK 3 Baudoiun engine rumbled into life, the electricity shore line was uncoupled, mooring lines untied and we were on our own. We reversed back into the pound and prepared to attack our first lock. With the Admiral at the helm we were off.
We had various guests on board including the President and Curator of the Musee de la Batellerie and journalist Phillipe Menager from Fluvial Magazine.
The lock was circled by well-wishers as we approached. Thankfully and skilfully The Admiral and First Mate piloted Aster straight and true. We waved for the cameras and acknowledged horns hooted from the nearby road. The lock emptied, the gates opened and Aster left The Nivernais canal, after more than sixty years, for the last time.
Following a final, brief flirt with the iconic River Loire, we ascend a lock into the port of Decize where another group of well-wishers wave us on our way, including old friends from St. Jean, Roger and Jenni from the boat Manjana. Through the port, up one more lock, we join the Canal Lateral al la Loire and head south towards Chalon-sur-Saone and the junction of the River Saone.
Piloting Aster is easy, almost anyone can do that. Piloting her with any degree of accuracy on a twisty canal into lock entrances barely bigger than the boat is an art which takes skill and nerve – particularly if the wind blows. The Admiral and First Mate share responsibility for the driving. Fine course adjustments are made by manipulating the main rudder, the bow rudder and speed. Main rudder and speed we all know about but the bow rudder is not something you come across every day and is worthy of explanation.
It is an interesting piece of equipment which, when we arrived initially, had been hanging idle down the side of the boat having been dismantled years ago. The underwater section is a large, heavy fin attached to a short shaft, which in turn is attached to a chain. We'd had to haul the shaft up through a tube in the bottom of the boat by means of the chain until the fin was immediately below the bow of the boat. The attached shaft protruded 60 centimetres up through the hull into the bar area. Here it is temporarily secured by means of a steel pin inserted through a pre-drilled hole in the shaft. A permanent collar, which prevents the assembly disappearing through the bottom of the boat was then attached to the shaft and the safety pin removed. A further shaft was fed down from the deck above through another tube and attached to the top of the rudder-shaft in the bar. Finally what resembles a huge set of bicycle handlebars is fixed to the top shaft on deck. Two trailing ropes, one attached to each end of the handlebars were fed back to the rear deck (15 metres away) from where the bow-rudder is operated. Quite simply, pulling the ropes turns the rudder below the bow and helps steer the front of the boat.
Although this is a serious business we do have plenty of laughs and mickey-taking – particularly after a manoeuvre has been successfully completed – or not.
The person driving can control the main tiller and throttle but realistically needs the assistance of at least one crew member to operate the bow rudder and gear lever – on tricky stretches we usually used two extra pairs of hands – with others keeping a close eye. This is where communication comes in. It shouldn't be a problem for the steerer to issue instructions to those operating at the rear of the vessel, but the pair at the bow are nearly 30 metres away – further than most of us can run! The bow pair need to know the skippers intentions to prepare fenders, make minor adjustments to the bow rudder or warn the steerer of misalignments when approaching a lock.
There are many forms of communication on board – a hissing, beeping melange of individual units ranging from 2-way radios and mobile phones to the internet, but there were times when Bow Pete and I at the bow were forced to use our prodigious psychic powers to figure out what was intended. Under our professional names of Psychic Simon and Gandolfo the Unpredictable we would 'tune in'. Usually we could pick something up (particularly when the 2-ways were tuned to the correct channel) but occasionally we were unable to pick up the skippers (sometimes unspoken) instructions. On such occasions we would inevitably thunder into another lock wall – and we would stoically take the blame.
Another difficulty (related to me subsequently by a member of the bow-rudder steering crew at the rear) was that The Admiral and First mate use differing terminology. The First Mate's instructions were invariably clear and polite, spoken with the calm authority of an airline captain informing his terrified passengers that number one engine had just failed, but not to worry. His refined tone of voice never wavered no matter what mess he was in. 'Bow rudder left please'. 'Bow rudder right'. Bow rudder amidships'. 'And, done. Thank you'. Measured tones of natural authority drifted forward to us on the bow - just before another 200-year-old chunk of stonework parted company from a bridge.
The Admiral used another method and issued his instructions quietly, in a crisp deliberate manner. 'Bow rudder right'. Bow rudder left'. 'Bow rudder neutral' - and this is where the problems started. Hearing the word neutral, the First Mate would leap for the gear selector and crunch the gear box into neutral thereby rendering the craft temporarily powerless. Even if the engine didn't stall, the resulting delay would muck up a manoeuvre to the extent where a re-alignment was necessary, meaning a reverse back up the canal before a fresh attack.
Peter and I laughed a lot but took our fair share of flak from the stern – often for fabricated reasons, but judging by the laughter we could hear, there was plenty of fun being had at the back too.
We took the micky but I have to say that we all had great respect for the way the steerers handled the boat. I watched both The Admiral and First Mate at close quarters while they drove and I, like the rest of the crew I'm sure, was mightily impressed. Well done gentlemen.
As I've mentioned the old engine was a little temperamental and had a tendency to stall – 10 times on the first day would you believe, before a technique was worked out to minimize the possibility. When changing gear with the engine in tick-over, it often stalled. So we increased the revs a little and crashed the gearbox quickly into gear rather than feathering it in. To begin with, these stalls were alarming for everyone, particularly when entering a lock when we had to slow and stop the boat on ropes alone - but we came to expect the unexpected. Bear in mind that we are still on the first day – the learning curve was long and steep.
Then we had a major problem with the gearbox overheating, so hot in fact that it smoked. Slowing down seemed to alleviate the problem but we were finally forced to stop. We were really worried that the trip would be over before it had barely begun – or at the very least result in a severe delay. We moored up on a very isolated stretch and the mechanics among the crew investigated. Astonishingly the fault was identified as a piece of cloth. This had been tied to a steel bar as a warning to stop people bashing their heads on it. The cloth had slipped down to a linkage which prevented it extending fully, only by a small margin, but enough to mean that the clutch plates couldn't engage properly. The rag was removed and the problem solved – we were very, very lucky.
While some of the crew were messing around with rags, others performed a rescue. Just as we were mooring up a young deer jumped into the canal nearby. It was unable to get out as the sides were lined with steel piling which extended about 40 centimetres above water level. A following hire boat had stopped a hundred or so metres back preventing the poor animal from swimming away. Pete D and I took our long boarding plank with the intention of placing it in the canal as a means of escape. The plank is a very heavy thing and as we approached the deer we dropped it – largely because we are so feeble! The deer was so startled by the noise that it leapt out of the water and disappeared into the trees. Pity really, we'd talked about getting a BBQ.
Despite all the problems we made approximately 26 kilometres and did 9 locks on a truncated first day. That first night we stayed at Rosiere, Ecluse 10.
The second day was much smoother and the engine stalled only twice, on neither occasion in difficult situations.
It has taken The 'Admiral' and his crew some time to figure out the vagaries of the old engine and gearbox. Thankfully there are experienced people on board, both mechanically and from a boat handling perspective, on whom he can call.
We have received much good will en route, many people waving, hooting horns and chatting at locks. The towpath is busy with cyclists and walkers and Aster has been photographed hundreds of times. There is a photographic record of the trip on the Museum’s web site at:
Pete and Glenn Dallow took around 1600 photographs from which they created the on-line collection. The weather to date has been warm and sunny so there are some wonderful photos of Aster, her crew, well-wishers and the picturesque canals and rivers.
The second night (1st June) we stayed at a petite Halte Nautique at Molinet, near Digoin having travelled a very respectable 37 kilometres including 9 locks. The days are long and it can be very hard work, particularly for the steerers, who need to concentrate. Manipulating the tiller is also pretty physical, particularly on twisty stretches or when manoeuvring near locks and bridges. Consequently at the end of what are 10 or 11-hour days we are rather weary. A good meal helps, Helen's Chicken Basque was one of a few delicious meals – the remainder being BBQs. Pete D. rigged up a music system that played throughout the boat, including speakers on deck. We relaxed to an eclectic mix including Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, The Eagles and Leonard Cohen.
Lights out 10.00 pm. Five of the nine stay on board and we retire to the floor to sleep. Yes, floor. Four of us sleep on various inflatable beds and one on a steel fold-up contraption (that we suspect last saw service as a captain’s berth on a 747 - though that was denied). There are 3 of us in the saloon and 2 in the bar. The bow crew were particularly ill-prepared. On the first evening my mattress sprung a leak so within a few minutes I was lying directly on the polished wooden floor. (Thank you David Ross for supplying us with a spare mattress!) Bow Pete has the least impressive 'self-inflating' mattress ever invented. In the blink of an eye it magically expands from the thickness of a sheet of aluminium foil to the thickness of paper kitchen towel. In the morning most of us need to perform a series of extremely unpleasant 'loosening-up' exercises just to get to the bathroom. Of the remaining four crew members, two sleep in their camper van while the others merely disappear during the hours of darkness – to where, nobody knows.
The crew, apart from a few minor injuries, are generally fit and well. The most serious injury occurred when Bow Pete tried to demolish a stone bridge with his cranium. Fortunately the bridge only sustained minor damage and we were able to continue. The sun is strong and there are a few painfully burnt appendages – there is no shade on deck.
We depart Molinet at 8.15am, much to the disgust of those still eating breakfast, in order to arrive in Digoin Port at 9.00 am and a rendez-vous with the deputy mayor of Digoin, Mme. Nicole Georges. We were delighted to welcome her aboard with her colleague and she showed great enthusiasm for Project Aster wishing us well both for the remainder of our trip and for the future of the project. Fortunately she was so engrossed in her short trip that, when asked to sit down to avoid injury on a low bridge, she didn't notice that she was sitting on a pair of underpants. They had been washed (by a nameless member of the crew) and were drying on the chair in the sun. Actually, I admit, they were mine. Although the practice may be quite common in Town Halls around the world, this is the first time that I have had a Deputy Mayor sit on my underpants. Residents of the port, unaware of the 'nether-wear-happenings' on board, stood by and waved us on our way.
The sound of our engine is one that turns heads, the 3-cylinder motor thumps out a steady rhythm - 'PUM pum pum – PUM pum pum – PUM pum pum', The noise echoes off buildings and trees and provides a steady, reassuring heart-beat (except when it stalls). Cyclists, walkers, car drivers and truckers all wave, smile and give us a thumbs-up. How can you not smile when you see a grand old lady chugging down the canal crewed by a group of misfits dressed in yellow shirts and black caps.
En route to Paray-le-Monial we hit a submerged object so stopped to check for damage to the propeller. This involved six people. The Admiral led the operation while standing on the propeller itself (which had been raised out of the water by means of a winch) to see if it had been bent. The remaining five people stood by, muttering unhelpful advice. Fortunately the propulsion system was passed fit and we continued through Paray where they were in the process of erecting acre upon acre of marquees for the annual ingress of pilgrims. Despite being pilgrimless at present, it makes quite a sight as the town prepares to welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Today we cruised 36 kilometres ascending 11 locks having travelled from 8.15 am until 7.00 pm when we moored at Genelard. We passed one single boat all day and were shouted at by another. The vocal gentleman was ratty that we didn't have our VHF tuned into his personal frequency so we could advise him of our time of arrival. We told him we didn't have a VHF – so that fuelled his ire! Other boats just stayed out of our way, fearful of meeting us in the narrow channel. One such boat was Ad Locem. Owners Henry and Steph, known for their thrift, actually handed us a parcel for delivery to St. Jean, our destination, as we passed, as if we were the Pony Express. Well, not quite – the ponies of yesteryear have been replaced by an engine and express is woefully inaccurate.
We depart Genelard at 9.00 am aiming to travel to Montchanin.
A relatively uneventful day mechanically - thankfully. The only chaotic scene of note was the bow crew trying to erect a BBQ. It came in many assorted pieces, including lengths of steel tube, nuts and bolts and couple of wheels. We had to stand on the instructions to prevent them blowing away in the stiff wind and somehow managed to get a couple of tubes mixed up so the wheels ended up on the wrong legs – much to the amusement of the Admiral. Thus, rather than pushing it pram style you had to lift up one side and crab sideways with it – perfect for moving it down corridors we reasoned.
Actually, there was another episode worthy of note. We have a camper van and two cars with us. These are used for sleeping (camper) and shopping. All three vehicles need to be leap-frogged down the route so at least one is available at our daily port of destination. This morning three crew members (who, to maintain their anonymity and dignity, will be know only as A, B and C) set off in one car. 'A' was dropped at a supermarket, where the camper-van and second car were parked, to do the shopping while B and C went to top up the car with fuel a few kilometres away. There was a 'slight mishap with fuel types' rendering the car temporarily immobile! This necessitated B and C having to thumb a lift back to A where the shopping and other vehicles awaited. Unfortunately, B and C, although attractive and dressed in fetching summer attire, and on a busy road, failed to attract a lift and arrived back with A on foot thirty minutes later! 'A' was very amused, as were the remaining letters of the alphabet when later appraised of the happenings.
The Canal lateral a La Loire became the Canal du Centre in Digoin. We are now moored near Montchanin, close to the first descending lock on the summit pound of the Canal du Centre.
Genelard is a pretty, peaceful place with ideal mooring facilities for a big barge. Arriving in Montchanin last evening at 6.45 pm the Admiral (on advice from his underlings) ignored a beautifully maintained VNF mooring near a leisure lake and parked alongside a thicket of nettles below a TGV railway line. Fortunately a previous explorer had unearthed some bollards in the undergrowth so we could safely moor, at one with nature, in the jungle. The last of those pesky trains roared by at 10.20 pm so by the time everybody was utterly exhausted we could retire to the floor to sleep.
Today we managed 33 kilometres and 16 locks.
It's 6.20 in the morning and the first TGV of the day blasts by overhead.
We leave Montchanin at 9.00 am. These were our first down-hill locks and presented quite a challenge to The Admiral. They are tricky because it is very difficult to 'spot' the exact lock entrance from the rear of a big boat that has a high, wide bow. Aster handles very well generally. As I've said it's a tricky balance managing the throttle, gear lever, the enormous tiller and the bow rudder but even if we get this right, things happen slowly so a change of course has to be anticipated. The tiller handle incidentally has been made even longer by two lashed-together broom-handles that have been added as an extension. Although the arrangement looks a bit peculiar, it is useful should someone want to sweep the rear deck during a quiet spell.
Today it is raining – persistently throughout the morning, then blustery showers. Our real enemy is the wind, and at one point we experienced a really nasty squall on approach to a lock. A terrific mini-storm, torrential rain and strong wind that that thankfully only lasted five minutes or so. We were literally blown sideways into the bank. No damage thank goodness, just a delay as we reversed back up the canal and tried again.
To make things easier for the Admiral (who had taken responsibility for getting us through the down-hill locks) we had two 'point-men' on shore who stood each side of the lock entrance to give the skipper a sight marker and count down the remaining metres to the lock from ten to zero via 2-way radios. For the first 11 locks bicycles were used to accompany the boat lock to lock, then a car via public roads when the towpath ran out! The bow crew (Bow Pete and I) usually stood point on the locks entrances. It turns out that we were no use whatsoever – the Admiral didn't bother telling us because he 'thought we needed to feel involved'.
Anybody seeing us from the shore witness a relaxed and efficient crew piloting our temperamental old barge through beautiful Burgundy with time for a chat and a wave to passers-by. But from within the boat it can be a different story – basics need to be addressed. For example the engine room can be a problem area – engine re-starts after a stall or insufficient pressure in the compressed air cylinder, which is used to start the engine. These problems need to be tackled urgently. Calmness and know-how are vital to sort things out and thankfully the well-oiled crew can manage the problems. (Well-oiled in this context means smooth and efficient rather than pickled! Although it's fair to sat that on occasion some of us were more pickled than smooth and efficient). Today the black waste tank was full to the brim (there is no gauge to ascertain fluid levels) and the discharge pump failed to work. The Systems Officer and his cohorts had to open an inspection hatch on the tank and rig up pumps and pipes to keep our waste system operational. Basic requirements, but necessary.
We arrive at Chagny at 7.30 pm having covered 29 kilometres and descended 23 locks. We are making quicker progress than any of us imagined. Entering the port, the wind was howling so getting the boat to the shore and tying up safely tested everyone to the limit. It is so easy to lose control in a relatively small space in a strong wind. Praise of the highest order must go the First Mate for guiding us in safely.
We will stop for lunch in Fragnes before descending the 10-metre lock onto the River Saone and beginning the last leg of the journey to St. Jean. This evening we will moor on the river, the exact location to be determined by our progress, but the intention is to be at or near Ecuelles.
The rain has stopped, thank goodness - because Aster does dribble rather through windows, decks and gunwales. We used the cardboard box from our recently purchased BBQ to cover a leaky hatch that was dripping down the stairs on to our First Mate's bed!
There was a delay this morning – the young lock-keeper arrived twenty minutes late, apologised, then said he would be even later because he had to go and get the key to open the lock. We can't believe how quiet it is. Quite extraordinarily, in the previous 48-hours, we have seen only one other moving boat. This morning as we wait for the lock there is one in front and three behind – its is like coming back to the present having spent so much time alone in the wonderful countryside with our dear barge. It's busier now due to the hire-boats bases at Saint-Leger-sur-Dheune and Chagney.
We had a mechanical near-catastrophe today. Our rudder and tiller arm bounce and buck because the propeller is attached to the bottom of the rudder. When the tiller is hard over to one side (when manoeuvring for a lock for example) you may need to change from forward to reverse gear or change the speed of the engine. This may mean letting go of the tiller arm briefly. When one of our pilots did this earlier today, the rudder took on a life of its own and settled in a position at nearly 90 degrees to the stern of the boat. We were told while being instructed in the operation of the boat that 30 degrees is the limit because it puts too much pressure on the universal joint connecting the gearbox to the propeller shaft. There were sickening grinding noises before the engine stalled and we all thought that our trip had come to an end there and then. But no, testament to the strength and resilience of the machinery (and stubbornness of our dear old boat), everything worked perfectly when the engine was re-started. Once again the god's were kind.
A gentleman approached us at a lock. He was a retired journalist who used to write about the Canal du Nivernais and Aster. He had heard about our adventure and come to offer some of his personal photographs for our archives. The more we travel, the more we realize how much Aster has touched people’s lives in one way or another.
We were all wearing our yellow and black 'wasp' t-shirts when we arrived at Fragnes, a pretty little village with immaculate Haulte Nautique. Yellow is not the colour to wear when travelling through the corn fields as we get covered in tiny black flies. Thankfully the metropolis of Fragnes was fly-free as we welcomed guests aboard, some friends, others strangers, all showing genuine interest in Aster. We are constantly reminded that to renovate and maintain her, money will be needed.
We had called in here to do our diplomatic bit with the local dignitaries as well as trying to flog a few T-shirts. Sales in Fragnes were 'steady rather than stratospheric', but another few Euros went into the fund. Those we sold were thanks primarily to Patricia's persuasive powers. However, her job was made considerably easier because the T-shirts were being modelled by each member of the perfectly proportioned crew (?) who stood, high on the deck above, like a collection of Greek Gods against an azure sky!!
Anyhow, while Patricia was counting our takings, we prepared to depart. The bow crew had noticed a nasty tree stump protruding into the canal, substantial enough to have damaged Aster's wooden hull. We retrieved the boat pole from the cabin roof and heaved the bow away from the shore into a perfect position for a smooth getaway, thereby avoiding said root. The engine roared but for some reason, known only to The Admiral, he set off in reverse! The bow crew, a little perplexed by this turn of events, then had to scramble to get a line ashore when the engine stalled as the rear deckers changed from reverse to forward gear. Aster was now careering backwards towards a boat moored to our stern. It was more luck than judgement that one of our crew-members was still ashore and able to place our rope over a bollard so we could bring her to a stop. It took a little time to run the compressor to re-charge the pressurized cylinder required to re-start the main engine, so we moored up again. We could have left the T-shirt stall out for a while longer. Having said that, anyone wishing to be associated with a boat that had just performed such a shambolic manoeuvre would probably be better off spending their money on psychiatric evaluation rather than a T-shirt. (To be fair to The Admiral, reversing off is standard procedure for large peniches. They back off before swinging the bow back on line.) The bow crew stoically took the blame for this latest mess.
Down the 10-metre deep lock we entered the channel that gave us access to the River Saone. Here our escort boat awaited. Bateau Cornelia Helena, skippered by Ruedi Kung, was bedecked with colourful flags - a wonderful sight in the afternoon sun. Ruedi used to skipper steam passenger boats on the Swiss lakes, is an engine restorer and highly knowledgeable engineer – an ideal escort we are lucky to have with us. They would track us during the approximate 10-hour journey up river to St. Jean. We were obliged to have a support boat on the river as a condition of our insurance cover - just in case anything went awry.
We didn't reach our target at Ecuelles because the canal had been twisty, the wind difficult and there were many more boats about. So instead we moored at Gurgey, roughly two hours up the river. We appreciated the boat-shuffling of those already there to enable us to tie for the night (although one or two had to be 'encouraged' to move! Imagine the horror of these moored boats when our huge hulk rumbled up and demanded to share their mooring). Ruedi came along side us and an eleven-hour day came to an end – at least it did three hours later after out 3rd consecutive BBQ!
Today we cruised approximately 33 kilometres and 12 locks.
Tomorrow will be our last day – regretfully.
We left at 8.30 am. Untying was a time-consuming business because we were perched on the end of the floating pontoons overhanging by half a boat length. We had a lengthy rope attached to long-disused bollard up on the bank 20 metres away. This was countered by a boat pole jammed in the river bed and lashed to a bollard on the boat to keep the bow away from the bank. Further ropes were tied to the concrete quay to which the pontoons were attached and others to inadequate cleats on the pontoon itself.
We'd taken on guests for our final day, all supporters and enthusiasts for Project Aster. These included Danielle Moullet, curator of the Musée de la Batellerie de Saint-Jean-de-Losne, former barge skippers, journalists and a musician who writes and sings songs about the waterways. Our guests more than doubled our number. It was fabulous to see the support but sad in a way that this was the final day of a great adventure for the nine crew-members who had laughed, worked and suffered together depending on whether things had gone well or badly.
Anybody who expressed an interest steered the boat for a spell on the wide river, crew and guests alike. For the inexperienced it was a thrill to be handling this wonderful, historic barge. She may be rough around the edges but she is still a proud (albeit on occasion temperamental) old lady who has allowed mere mortals to lead her on. For others, for example bargees with decades of experience handling large boats, it was less the size, more the nostalgia and history attached to Aster that I hope gave them a reminder of their skills and way of life.
But throughout, whoever was at the helm, somehow Aster was always in charge. She could always spring a surprise. We have to remember that she has not moved for well over a decade – she is entitled to be grumpy at times.
Ascending the river lock at Ecuelles was rather traumatic. The fore and aft wash of the incoming water tested Asters bollards to their limits, particularly at the stern where they actually lifted slightly each time substantial strain was put on them as the water surged. Those on the rear deck feared the whole bollard assembly may part company with the ship. Our escort boat, Cornelia Helena, was further back in the lock and actually snapped a bow line during one surge.
It is a breezy day, cooling, as the temperature reached the high twenties. The huge French Tricolour snapped at its staff from the stern, as did the hand-sewn 'Aster' flag on the bow. She made a steady 7 kilometres per hour against a slight current, pretty impressive really as Aster was previously operated on the Canal Du Nivernais and rarely as fast as that or for such a sustained period. The gearbox throughout the trip became extremely hot and engine oil needed to be topped up from time to time but she ploughed on as the reassuring throb of the old engine thumped back echoes from riverside trees.
The pivotal role in crewing Aster is naturally the person at the helm at any given moment but everybody played a part. Crewing Aster is not a one-person job – her 3 motors (main engine, generator and compressor) only run if we tend them and she will only go where we tell her to. If we bump a wall, we all take a share of the blame – it's certainly not the boat's fault.
Danielle Moullet gave Patricia some candles before the start of our trip. One was lit every morning and left to burn throughout the day in the saloon to keep us safe. Well, it worked, we made it.
Motoring under the bridge and past the quay at St. Jean de Losne was an experience I shall never forget as horns were blown and people waved and took photos. I have spoken to two other crew members who shed tears, 'tough guys' the three of us – I didn't need to speak with the remaining crew.
Aster was piloted on this final stretch by Jeanine Hornez, a former bargee now in her eighties. She operated a commercial freycinet (a 39-metre barge) single-handed for many years – while bringing up two children. It was a privilege to welcome her on board for our final day and 'like riding a bike' she piloted the boat straight and true.
Our welcome in St. Jean de Losne was amazing and immensely moving - I hope Aster is now assured that we mean her no harm.
She took centre stage at a ceremony held on the quay at St. Jean, namely the Blessing of the Boats where a bishop says a prayer and sprinkles holy water over any boat taking part. For two days we offered visitors guided tours. Many newcomers came to say hello but also many people associated with her past.
Aster is currently in the Ecluse Ancienne (Old lock) three kilometres down the river. A tarpaulin has been erected over the whole boat supported by a steel frame. This will enable restoration work to get under way out of the weather. Although initially Aster was going to be housed in a purpose built tank on shore, there is now talk of her being used for river trips and functions. It would be marvellous if it came about because this dear old boat deserves another life.
Technical problems explained
Some readers have requested an explanation of the problems we experienced on our journey from Saint-Leger-des- Vignes to Saint-Jean-de-Losne and the steps undertaken to repair them. Also the workings of the bow-rudder. Let me try and address these questions....
At the start of the journey, the problem of stalling occurred when we cut the revolutions to tick-over in order to change gear from forward to reverse (or vice-versa). We change gear by moving a large steel lever, located on the rear deck, forward of backwards. There is a direct link from the gear-lever to the gear-box via steel bars and linkages. The engine cut out basically because, as we tried to 'ease' the boat into gear, the resistance of the clutch engaging dropped the revolutions resulting in a stall. We realized that the gear-shift had to be made rapidly (resulting in quite a 'thump' as the gear engaged) so the gear lever on the rear deck was forced quickly into position preventing a drop in revolutions. We were understandingly rather timid with the engine and gear-box initially – the Baudouin motor is a classic, aged, 3-cylinder unit and had not been run seriously for many years. Indeed, as Aster had historically cruised the Canal du Nivernais, the motor had never run for extended periods at speed, so our trip was a test with which we were unsure it could cope.
Late on day one the gear box became so hot that it started smoking. Throughout the trip the gear-box ran hot, but not to this extend. Still a little unwary of the sea-worthiness of our equipment, it was obvious that something was wrong – to the extent that we though our trip may be over before it had barely begun. The solution was mercifully simple. A rag had been tied to one of the steel bars connecting the gear lever on deck to the gear box. This was simply to warn people in the engine room not to bang their heads on the steel bar. The rag had slipped down to one of the linkages so it could not extend or contract to it's full extent. The restriction of movement was only very small but it meant that the clutch plates were prevented from fully engaging. It was the slipping plates that resulted in the over-heat and smoke. The rag was removed and the problem solved. We were lucky – it could have been a much more serious mechanical problem.
The other potentially serious problem we had was with the universal joint that connects the propeller shaft to the propeller. You will see from a diagram on the St. Jean museum web site (http://www.musee-saintjeandelosne.com) that the propeller shaft exits through the hull and connects to a universal joint immediately at the stern. The joint is connected to the propeller (at the rear of the rudder) via another section of shaft. We were told by Mr Cretier (who captained Aster for many years on the Canal du Nivernais) that we must not exceed a 30 degree shift of the tiller from central in either direction, otherwise too much pressure would be put on the universal joint. On one occasion the tiller was wrenched from the steerer’s grip and the rudder ended up at 90 degrees to the stern. There was a fearful grinding noise and we pulled into the bank immediately. Luckily the engine had stalled due to huge pressure on the universal joint. This undoubtedly prevented any real damage being done. It is testament to the strength of the equipment and quality of the engineering that this problem, and the two mentioned above, did not bring our voyage to a premature end.
The bow rudder is not something you come across every day and is worthy of explanation. It is an interesting piece of equipment which, when we arrived initially to prepare for our trip, had been hanging idle down the side of the boat having been dismantled years ago. The underwater section is a large, heavy fin attached to a short shaft. We hauled the shaft up through a tube in the bottom of the boat by means of an attached chain until the fin was in position immediately below the bow of the boat (about 3 metres from the front). It actually comes up through the hull into the bar area and protrudes by 60 centimetres or so. Here it is temporarily secured by means of a steel pin inserted through a pre-drilled hole in the shaft. A permanent collar, which prevents the assembly disappearing through the bottom of the boat was then attached to the shaft. A further shaft was fed down from the fore-deck above through another tube and attached to the top of the rudder-shaft inside the boat. Finally what resembles a huge set of bicycle handlebars is attached to the top shaft on deck. Two trailing ropes, one attached to each end of the 'handlebars' are fed back to the rear deck from where the bow-rudder is operated on instruction from the steerer. Quite simply, pulling the ropes turns the rudder below the bow and helps steer the front of the boat.
While ascending locks the 'handlebars' must be removed. This is because the violent movement of the water below the boat puts pressure on the rudder below and swings the handlebars violently on deck – very dangerous for anyone standing in the way. We were told that simply tying them in position is not sufficient as there would be too much 'twist' pressure as the rudder tries to move in the violent currents below.
© Jo May 2017