The Riqueval Tunnel

The Riqueval Tunnel

Travelling through a 5 kilometre tunnel pulled by a tug

    The Saint-Quentin Canal runs through the department of Ainse in Northern France. It's pretty enough but perhaps what it is best know for is the Riqueval tunnel. Built between 1801 and 1810 on the orders of Napoleon it is quite a structure - so here's our experience........

     After 11 years and many thousands of kilometres living on 3 different boats, I've finally encountered a vessel that makes more noise than us - and is even slower. Namely the beast that pulls convoys through the Riqueval tunnel. This electric tug boat is known in French as the Toueur. Because there is no ventilation in the tunnel engines are forbidden so the tug is electrically powered – a little like the old tram system where an extending arm contacts over-head cables. The 5760 metre tunnel is well lit (a fluorescent every 30 metres or so) and there are plenty of blue flashes and showers of sparks from the tug's electrical umbilical. Although this electrical activity is a bit unnerving deep underground, it is silent - the noise comes because the tug is chain-driven. There is a constant din - clackety-clackety-clackety - as the chain, which runs the full length of the tunnel, passes over the cogs that haul the tug through at about 4 kms per hour. The whole chain apparently weighs about 96 tonnes. The racket is a little tortuous, compounded because it echoes in the confined space. The sound changes too because the tunnel walls are alternating brick, rock and render – a harsh echo from brick and rock but slightly dampened by the concrete render. The tunnel height also varies from time to time so the clackety rhythm changes subtlely as we creep through.

     I had been slightly worried by our impending passage so had sought guidance on what to expect via internet forums and personal chats. I reckoned I'd made all possible preparations. Boats go through in convoy, largest behind the tug boat to the smallest bringing up the rear. Sometimes you can ask too many questions – for example we were advised 'for definite' that two crossed ropes were best, in other words from the boat-in-front's starboard stern bollard to our port fore bollard and opposite. Then someone else said that one rope – minimum 30 metres – off-side stern to our off-side fore was the way to go, particularly for larger boats. We're a medium boat. One contributor said that they were currently in discussion with their insurance company over damage sustained during their passage. Another said that they were following the tug when it caught fire. Others said they were going to avoid the tunnel altogether and take the 'safer', but less scenic, Canal du Nord. A week before our passage I knew nothing – the day before, too much.

     I measured out three 30 metre lengths of rope on the quay in St. Quentin port. One big thick length for a single rope passage and two 30m lengths cobbled together from our usual mooring lines, for a 'crossed-rope' passage. I'd been quite precise too - after a couple of false starts. Initially I measured 30 decent paces but soon realized that this was a bit haphazard so instead measured 6 lengths of my 5m tape measure along the quay. (Good job I did because, having short legs, 30 of my paces only came out to about 23 metres. I would have needed a series of mini long-jumps to get anywhere near the required length). The big, thick, single rope was two joined up bits of really industrial-strength stuff that 'came with the boat' – and I could barely lift it – so rather hoped for a 2-rope passage.

     Then there was fendering. I'd perhaps been over-thinking things, having imagined us in the middle of a convoy. Ok, the tug boat at the front holds a straight line because it's running over it's huge chain and hugging the wooden rubbing-board against the tow-path. But the second boat starts to drift to one side and has to correct itself with a turn of it's rudder. Because the second boat's rear end is now swinging about, the nose of the third boat begins to swing about even more – see where I'm going with this? I can imagine that we, say 5th boat in the convoy, are in the middle of a writhing snake and being whipped from side to side like a terrier with a rat, crashing from one wall to the other. Yes, I'd need some fendering. We've got 'a bit of an assortment' of fenders, most picked up en route out of the canal - some actually have air in them. These went around the boat in a nasty, uncoordinated life-belt. I've got four tyres which I roped and installed, one at each corner – these would provide out prime protection.

     We arrived at the tunnel at 4.30pm (an hour after the last north-bound convoy had departed) having left St. Quentin at about 1.00pm. This timing was planned as I favoured an early-morning passage. Having said that, there's no indication of passage times posted near the tunnel and I'd long since learned not to trust information on the internet. In fact the only sign near the tunnel tells you it's a 'Peage' – in other words you pay a toll. What it didn't say was how much and that you couldn't pay cash – they send a invoice to a registered address which you have to provide by means of an official invoice or such-like before you go through.

     I was a bit ratty because I'd lost one of my 5 big mooring spikes. Trying to supplement the badly-spaced bollards, I'd decided to put a stake in. The first 4 inches of towpath is soil so tapped the top of the spike till it was free-standing before giving it a proper mash with the sledge hammer. Annoyingly after 4 inches you've got bedrock, My first real hammer-blow was a teeth-jarring affair. The spike hit rock, leapt in the air and cartwheeled straight into the canal.

     We spent the night in the depths of a deep, damp cutting which, although well lit, was a little lonesome - until a journalist arrived. He was Canadian, from Toronto, who was on assignment covering the 1st World War commemorations. He invited himself to come and have a drink with us (persuasive chap he was) – 'I'll just go and fetch my wife', he said, 'she could do with some company'. He was a Forensic Ballistician as well as a journalist and she was a very amusing Mexican lady (Patty) who was somewhat relived to get away from their hire-car. That afternoon husband Ted had dug up a live 77mm shell which was now in the boot of their car.

    ''Should be fairly safe', he said.

     He travelled round with a metal detector and could tell where shell and bullet casings were manufactured and who had used them. He even reckoned to be able to work out what had happened during a particular skirmish by studying the nature and position of discarded munitions. It's not every day you come across a Forensic Ballistician. Actually it was an interesting distraction from our forthcoming passage, helping me overcome my nerves for a spell.

     I awoke at 3.00am.


     Four hours and twenty minutes later the 3-man tug crew arrived – looking rather more refreshed than me – thankfully. We are lucky actually because we are the only boat going through. I was so pleased that my little plan seemed to be working (early morning, solo passage) that I ran a 'happy flag' up the mast. Then was instructed to take the mast down! Is one boat towing another a convoy? I'd done everything I could think of to prepare for our passage so started our engine and moved up into position behind the tug. Jan stood ready with all our ropes, ready to pass on the appropriate one. Tension was building. Would it be a single or a crossed pair? Neither!! One of the tug men passed us their rope instead! Roughly 30 metres long, it was attached to the the left rear of the tug. The rope divided two thirds of the way back to us so we could attached one branch to each of our forward bollards. A few hand-signals (which I presumed were friendly) and we were off. We had to round a slight bend before the tunnel proper – which I had also been worried about, fearing us being whipped sideways into the wall – but to start with the speed was minimal and into the tunnel we went without a hitch. Gradually the pace increased in proportion to the noise and we reached cruising speed.

     Despite all my angst it was really straightforward passage – dare I say it, rather tedious. We didn't touch the sides once, there was plenty of light and I even managed a cup of coffee. There were markers on the wall every 10 metres counting down to zero (heading north). After what seemed like an age one said 4980. Every now and then there was writing spray-painted on the walls. Either memorials to people who had perished on the passage or idiots leaving their mark, often written in English.

     An hour and forty minutes after setting off we were out. We started the engine, loosed the lines and away we went. What it would have been like as part of a convoy I don't know. It is a bit peculiar moving through a tunnel without the engine but, for us at least, it was fine.

© Jo May 2017