Final three days on the boat

Vrouwe Johanna - the three final days

A very testing trip. The boat coped better than we did


   Day One  

   Wednesday 8th March. Yes, the date is significant because it's still officially winter. Not many people voluntarily cruise their boat when there's a chance of wind and rain or snow and ice but we have no choice. We have to move Vrouwe Johanna from Diksmuide to Zelzate. Now, both of those names could be spelling mistakes, but they're not. Diksmuide is where we have moored our boat for the past two years. It's a linear port on the banks of the River Ijzer roughly fifteen kilometres inland from the Flandrian coastal town of Nieuwpoort. Zelzate is a dozen kilometres north of Ghent on the Ghent - Ternuezen Canal. There is a boatyard just out of town with a slipway where our boat will be hauled out of the water and surveyed.  More importantly for us it's where we'll hand over our beloved boat to her new owner.

   In many ways this trip is a lose lose. Firstly it's not a pleasure trip, it's a necessity. We'll try and enjoy it of course but if we don't get the boat to the boatyard, we can't complete the sale.

   Secondly, before we leave, we'll have to bring the boat back to life after being effectively mothballed for twelve months. It's a common-held belief that an unused boat is more likely to have technical problems than one used regularly, so I have brought a decent set of tools from the UK, just in case.

   Thirdly we have to stop in the river current for diesel at the fuelling pontoon - after we've gone up river where there's space to turn round that is. The current, after recent heavy rain, will be flowing with us. The speed of flow actually varies between two and five kilometres per hour because the river levels are managed by the authorities - I'll explain this later on. Whatever, the flow has the potential to make things tricky on a narrow waterway.

   Fourthly the first couple of hours of the trip will be down a fairly narrow, twisty river till we reach a lock and join the Nieuwpoort – Ostend Canal. We've never done this stretch before so we don't know what to expect. In fact we've never done ANY of this route before so we're a bit nervous. We DO know that that there is a lift bridge to negotiate about half an hour into the trip so we have to phone ahead to alert the operator to raise the bridge for us. We hope that he (or she) is not asleep or in the lavatory because we don't want to have to stop and wait in a current. Bringing the boat to a standstill should be OK but it's easy to get the boat a little off line. If that happens, the current can get a grip and swing you sideways – and we'd rather go through the narrow bridge nose first rather than get stuck sideways across it. Our boat weighs in the region of forty tonnes. The inertia is substantial and handling it in wind and current is not easy. In fact you really need to get it right first time because it's very difficult to correct a cock-up, particularly to try and straighten it up if it gets sideways – even with the benefit of a 100-horse-power engine and strong bow-thruster.

   Fifthly, the weather forecast is appalling – for today anyway.

   I won't go beyond fifthly because I've run out of fingers. My other hand is clutching my E-ciggy. I am taking a nerve-settling puff as a large log drifts past menacingly in the current.

   So off we go. Hanging from our rear-view mirror is a silver dolphin – a charm on a black rubber chord. I've never been exactly sure why I bought it, but I did, in Leeds, West Yorkshire. I had it with me when we tackled the River Trent on our narrowboat. Back in 2006 we'd been looking out over the big river the evening before we set off. We were feeling nervous and insignificant gazing out at the wide, chocolate-muddy waterway when a small dolphin had swum up river below our viewpoint on the high quay. I had my dolphin charm in my pocket as we cruised up the river and (daftly) believed it helped keep us safe. When we bought the barge in Holland I hung it in the wheelhouse and it has been there to this day.

   We leave our mooring in Diksmuide for the final time and motor a kilometre up river to turn round. It's not very wide so I remove a few riverside branches as the bow spins round in the current. Then, quite frankly, I make a bit of a mess of the fuel pontoon. I try to stop while heading down stream but as we try to secure the bow the current grabs us and the boat gets wedged sideways across the river, the front end tied to a barge and the rear stuck against the opposite bank. We extricate ourselves (with the help of the powerful bow-thruster), go down river, turn round again so we're facing into the current and approach the pontoon from downstream (which I should have done in the first place probably. Actually, there's no probably about it!). There isn't enough of a gap on the pontoon so we end up with our bow tied to the quay with the rear resting against the same barge that I'd assaulted a few minutes earlier. As we fuel up, rather upset with this bad start, it starts chucking it down.

   We say goodbye to Pol, the harbour-master who had looked after out boat for the previous couple of years while we'd periodically been away – full time away for the previous twelve months as we'd  returned to live in the UK. He'd checked and topped up our batteries, put the heating on during cold snaps, cleared leaves and even removed spiders because he knew Jan had a pathological hatred of the things. Pol is one of the helpful people around the port who have made us welcome. 'You're a crazy man,' he would say, smiling every time I gave him a box of wine to say thank you.

   We're off. The bridge operator was not on the toilet, the bridge was raised. The bridge is actually on a bend so we go through carefully, with enough power to maintain control but slow enough not to career sideways into the large wooden dolphins (bollards) that define the entrance / exit from each direction. Being flat-bottomed, our boat doesn't do corners all that well. There's no keel so it drifts sideways. The bridge operator sees us slew through the bridge and is on the phone about ten minutes later. We're in for another alarm.

   'They have opened the river sluices,' he says, 'will you be alright turning right into the lock across the current?'

   Allow me to explain.

   Much of Flanders (as indeed The Netherlands) is below sea level, at least at high tide. Rivers, such as The Ijzer down which we are travelling, flow from inland, uplands towards the sea (obviously). The only way to release this inland water is for the authorities to open sluice gates at the 'mouth' of the river at low tide. We have seen this in winter when the river is in flood and a terrific amount of water is released through the sluices once they are opened up. At high tide the sluices are closed to prevent sea water flooding in. The river flow fluctuates depending on whether the sluices are open or not. Naturally the current is faster when they are open – as they are now.

   So what the phone call tells us is that we'll have to turn at right angles across this flow to enter the lock.

   'The river is not as high as sometimes,' continues the bridge man, 'so they have only opened some of the sluices to give you more of a chance to make the turn. They will open the rest when you have passed through.'

   In effect the authorities are holding back some of the river Ijzer so we don't get sucked on to the sluices – which is pretty thoughtful.

   So we're heading for the unknown with our windscreen wiper (smearer) on full blast. To make things worse there is a 30 KPH cross-wind – so all in all we're a bit agitated. As we approach the end of the river it opens out into a large basin. In the far left corner as we peer through the deluge is the narrow channel leading to the sluices, in the opposite corner is our lock, the entrance to which is delineated by two rows of wooden dolphins – which we can barely see through the driving rain. Another problem is that we can't open the windows so the wheelhouse windows steam up due to condensation.

   Speed and drift are difficult to determine in poor visibility, particularly when the water is so disturbed by the wind, so both Jan and I have our eyes pinned to the windscreen in an attempt to spot the correct place to begin our turn. It's hard to know if the pull from the sluices affected us because (thankfully perhaps) the wind was howling from the opposite direction and each may have cancelled the other out. Whatever, we make the turn and scramble gratefully into the lock to be greeted by a lock-keeper who was both wet (having stood in the rain watching us) and smiling a smile that we took to be one of relief. Not half as relived as we are I can tell you.

   Hereafter we'll be travelling on canals with no currents to muck us up.

   We turn right out of the lock (it's still lashing down) onto the Nieuwpoort – Oostend Canal. After a series of lift bridges that fail to respond to my calling them on the VHF radio (so I have to telephone them instead) we moor for the night near the junction of this canal and the Oostend – Brugges Canal. We've been travelling about five hours but it seems like a lifetime. Four days ago I was laying hardboard sheets for a client in preparation for their new carpet. I reflect on what would I rather be doing. What I can tell you is that the buzz we get out of tackling a challenging day like this and coming through unscathed is not quite in the same league as scrabbling around on hands and knees bashing your thumb with a hammer.

   Tomorrow we head for Bruges.

   Day Two

   This morning it's only drizzling but the medium-term forecast is encouraging. The breeze (much lighter today) is behind us so at least we can open the front windows to stop the wheelhouse steaming up. We pull into the oval-shaped lock at the junction of the Oostend – Bruges Canal and are immediately accosted by an official who tells us that our vignette (cruising licence) is out of date. He's actually trying to pull a fast one because it's not due for renewal until the 31st March and by then, with luck, we'll be back in the UK – me building a shed (or mending fences).

   Despite flashing lights and the ringing of alarm bells we move not a centimetre forward or back (because were tied up) nor up or down (because the lock's sluice gates are choked with weed). The lock keeper leaves his control tower and hoiks weed out of the lock gates with a long pitch fork. After a twenty-minute delay we turn right (east) joining a much larger commercial waterway heading towards Bruges.

   Much more pleasant this. The cloud soon breaks and a watery sun appears. There are a number of lift bridges, all of whom ignore my VHF calls. I'm beginning to think that there is a problem with it. I can hear other people chatting away but nobody responds to us.

   We skirt beautiful Bruges' historic centre on a water ring road as church spires and ancient buildings pass by to our right. There are numerous bridges. Some, the type you typically see on English canals, look like a praying mantis, while others are more quirky. One is a white-railing foot bridge whose bed remains horizontal as it swings left and up in an arc. It reminds me of a fair ground ride albeit one that doesn't complete a full circle. This one starts at 6 o'clock and stops and nine allowing us to pass below. Another is a road bridge where a section of road is attached to the thick end of two huge semi-circular 'cow horns', like two quarter circles. The horns roll backwards lifting the roadway. It's very peculiar seeing a tarmac road complete with directional markings perched high above the canal. Looking up from below as we pass the section of bridge resembles a giant waffle.

   Eventually we arrive at another peculiar lock. This one is roughly circular and has three sets of gates gates. We'll go straight on and join the Bruges – Ghent Canal - a larger commercial waterway. The other gate is off to our left. I glean from our out-of-date map that it leads to a large drainage channel and subsequent sluice that can help remove inland water in times of flood. We needn't have worried about encountering large working boats because to this point, perhaps ten hours cruising, we haven't encountered a single moving boat of any sort. Perhaps they have more sense.

   We're heading for a place called Beernem, roughly the half-way point of our journey where we'll stop for the night. It's a pleasant run and Jan takes time to catch up on some sleep after the anxious day yesterday.

   We'd quite forgotten but we'd visited Beernem in our knackered old camper van two years previously but we recognize it as we pull in. There is a canal-side port, home to smaller cruiser-style boats, and a separate bar / restaurant which owns a six-van camping car stop where we had stayed on a trial run in our van.

   The port made us welcome – 15 euros for the night and we had a beer in the bar. I left the lady an extra euro because I remembered that I'd borrowed a plastic lighter to light our camper oven and forgotten to return it. The lady remembered us but not the lighter. Am I too honest?

   As we sit outside on the bar's terrace looking out over the canal and port, our dear old barge sits in the sunshine reminding us of the countless wonderful times we've had with her over the previous ten years or so. We're rather nostalgic because this is the last time we'll ever relax canal-side with our old friend.

   The waterway widens out here to around a hundred metres and, despite encountering nothing previously, we now witness a constant stream of large commercial boats thundering by in each direction.

   Day Three

   Last day, with luck.

   Some big waterways ahead.

   We have thirty kilometres to run to Ghent where we'll turn left onto the Ring-Vaart (water ring road) then turn left again (north) after a couple of kilometres onto the Ghent – Ternuezen Canal.

   We meet a number of large boats (1000 tonnes plus) on the run in to Ghent but as we pass through Evergem Lock on the Ring-Vaart nothing quite prepares us for the scale of what we now face. Numerous boats, many well over 100-metres in length, weighing 2000 tonnes or more, ply their trade here. The waterway is concrete-sided and about fifty metres wide. The wash and swell from the big boats bounces us about, made worse as waves are reflected back from the banks. They are big buggers these boats and we have our hands full staying out of their way.

   I can't wait to get off this waterway and turn north. At least I thought I couldn't wait. What we turn on to is in another league again. It is an enormous, industrial canal well over a hundred metres wide and home to sea-going ships – and I mean monsters. We're like an ant in the land of giants and to be frank it's really pretty frightening. The large two-thousand tonne things we thought were big are dwarfed by some of the stuff on here. Laden boats pass us carrying sand, coal, steel, containers and all sorts of other stuff that keeps Europe going. Seeing it briefly from this perspective makes me realize what is going on every day unbeknown to most people – it really is awe-inspiring.

   As we turn left at the junction we look right into a giant cul-de-sac where waterside industry flourishes. Distribution hubs for oil and steel are the obvious ones but there are many other factories steaming, clattering and roaring in the distance. We're quickly forced to concentrate and look where we're going to avoid being squashed by working monsters that haven't time to bother with sightseers. Blimey!

   We have about two hours to run down this waterway. Periodically large side-ports, perhaps a kilometre long by half wide, house more industry. Boats, both laden and unladen come charging out to join us on to the main waterway. The water in these side-havens is being churned up so any disturbance hit us beam-on and really rock us about. You wouldn't notice of course in a large vessel but in out shrimpy barge we are tossed about like a piece of flotsam. I am overawed and not ashamed to admit a bit scared. Jan is way out of her comfort zone here and looks genuinely terrified.

   Boats passing from the opposite direction bounce us about but you can see them coming and prepare by turning into their wake, but boats that overtake us throw up waves that come at us from behind at an oblique angle. The result is that we go into a corkscrew motion until the water settles down again – until the next boat passes.

   Then there are ferries that zip side to side across the canal. They carry cars, the odd lorry and foot passengers. Little swines they are that dodge between the traffic. They would be trashed in a collision with a large boat but we have to keep out of their way because even they are larger than us. It's all pretty stressful.

   We pass boats moored on the bank which tower above us, huge things, four storeys tall. They are registered in the likes of Nassau or Helsinki and are often rather rusty with water discharging over the side from hose-pipes. They are being loaded or offloaded by giant cranes, tonnes of sand or gravel in each massive scoop.

   Then in the distance we see the biggest yet. In fact through the haze I initially mistook it for a white apartment block. It is a DFDS Seaways container ship, that looks brand new, and dwarfs anything else we've come across to date. It is huge but thankfully creeping along so slowly it doesn't cause a problem apart from the sheer intimidation factor. Far more uncomfortable is the wake caused by the empty cargo boat that thunders by between us and the giant resulting in a 'minor' corkscrew.

   Finally we see the bridge that crosses the canal at Zelzate. It's shortly after this crossing that we will turn off into a small inlet and our boatyard. The bridge has three arches. The central one is for the monster ships and those at either side for more modest vessels – or tiddlers like us. The lady bridge-keeper once again ignores my VHF call so I ask her on the telephone which arch I should pass under. She tells me dismissively, 'either the centre or the starboard, your choice.' The centre one is occupied by some rather big boats so we creep through the smaller right-hand channel. Once again we're rocked about as the churned up water bounces and reflects of the banks and bridge piers.

   At last, having passed another oil refinery, we turn right into the boat yard. It's a scrotty-looking place with a number of 40-metre slipways, two of which are occupied by rusty boats. There is also a selection of old containers that are probably storage units, a rather smarter storage shed and a small office block.

   Made it!

   'Moor up next to a boat called Amundsen,' said the boat yard owner when I had spoken to him last week, 'you'll find her on the right as you approach the slipways.'

   Amundsen is actually one of the boats up on the slipway so we decided not to try and moor there, instead tied to a concrete jetty. The swell from ships passing by on the main waterway about fifty metres away still rocked us about but by comparison with battling them at close quarters for the previous two hours, this was relief indeed. I don't think we've ever been as glad to tie up to something solid and get our feet on terra firma.

   As we sit and have a cuppa in the wheelhouse a monstrous cargo ship is towed down the waterway – two tugs pulling, one at the rear. The rear one facing backwards, presumably to slow the ship when necessary and help steer. As it creeps away to goodness knows where I ponder where we go from here, what our next adventure will be - will we have another adventure?

   When you get through a day like this there is a sense of achievement, of something special shared. Jan and I have a hug and congratulate ourselves on being there for one another. We share a sigh and a smile that says, once again, we have experienced something pretty extraordinary together.

   This has only been a three-day trip but an exciting one. Another paragraph or two we'll be able to look back on in our crinkly years. These have been the final seventy-two hours in a twelve year adventure that started when we had our first narrowboat built in an industrial unit in Mold, North Wales and now ends with our dear old barge sitting in a scruffy boatyard in Northern Belgium awaiting her new custodian.

   For us, it all ends here.

   I put my little dolphin safely in my pocket and we walk away to rejoin another world.

   Jo May © 2017

In the background is the DFDS Freesia Seaways Container Ship

It's 230 metres long and 30 Metres wide. We are 19 x 4

The boat in the foregound is about 80 metres long and travelling at roughly 15 KPH.