(4) Canal du Nivernais – a steep learning curve

Peter has been the driving force behind our new lifestyle. Whilst cruising on the Thames as a young boat owner in his early twenties, he had seen a barge and thought ‘I wouldn’t mind something like that one day’. It was he who trawled through various internet sites cherry picking the ones that ticked our boxes and read up on what to expect from a life afloat. We visited barges in France, Belgium and Holland and when we finally found ours, we knew she was the one. Three decades and four boats after being inspired, Peter had at last realized his dream…..with me along for the ride.

He booked us onto a barge handling course before we’d even found Aurigny and persuaded me that I could pass the ICC test even after only a couple of hours swatting up on the Cevni rules  (highway code for boaters.)

So it was his decision that the best way for us both to learn was to tackle one of the shallowest and narrowest canals in France with the tightest locks and some of the lowest bridges. Many of our boating  friends expressed concern that Aurigny was too big, too deep, too high and too wide. Undaunted (well he was!!) we somehow managed to prove them wrong.

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 The start of the learning curve.

Going up………St-Leger- des -Vignes to Cercy-la-Tour

After the first day’s cruising, we were physically and mentally drained and Peter was starting to develop arms like Popeye from hours wrestling with the wheel. We later understood the reason why. The canal was so shallow that the rudder was often dragging along the bottom. We did think of asking the VNF (Voies Navigables de France) for dredging fees. In the locks we had about a four inch gap on each side and even less under some of the bridges.

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 First day and one of the many testing bridges.

As it was the Easter Weekend and also a very wet and windy one, we decide to stay at Cercy-la-Tour for a couple of days. It was just as well too for we discovered that our stern cabin toilet had been leaking water every time it was flushed. This had drained into the bilges soaking the insulation lining the hull. Ah… so that explained what the strange smell was! Annoyed that we hadn’t discovered the problem before leaving our winter port, complete with its Weldom and Bricomarche within easy walking distance, we did what we could and headed for Chatillon-en-Bazois. There, beneath the rather splendid Chateau, we spent a couple of days cleaning up the mess and solving the problem. Many conversations between boat owners do seem to revolve around troublesome toilets.

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 Chatillon.

On the Nivernais, a lock keeper may be with you for one or two locks or for the whole day (with the exception of lunchtime when everything comes to a standstill.)  One such was summoned by me in my nervous and very rusty French. She accompanied us for the whole day and even jumped aboard along with her husband as we just cleared the bridge by her lock cottage. What difference they thought even their combined weight would make to our 70 ton barge we will never know, but they cheered with gusto as we passed through. She assured us that having successfully made it under that bridge we would easily pass under all the remaining bridges on the canal as their’s was the lowest on the Nivernais… So much for local knowledge! At the very next bridge, our marker flag affectionately known as ‘Wentworth’ crumpled beneath the bridge warning us of impending collision. We stopped with our bow edged under the bridge and began dismantling the wheelhouse to the amazement of the local fishermen and embarrassment of Madame the lock keeper.

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 Our red marker flag ‘Wentworth’ flying proudly on the front.

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 The first of many scrapes for Wentworth.

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 So much for local knowledge.

Cercy-la-Tour to Chatillon-en-Bazois

After a couple more days cruising we developed a system which we have continued to use. I discovered to my horror that as well as doing the bow ropes I had to act as Peter’s eyes when approaching locks and bridges. The bow being quite high, he loses forward vision about fifty metres out. The perceived distances between the barge and whatever we might hit are made from the wheelhouse……by me, walking from left to right continually on the approach and relaying these ever changing distances to Peter, helping him to manoeuvre the barge into the locks. To make things even trickier, the bow thruster refused to work until many hundreds of kilometres further on when we were on the Canal du Midi at Capestang.

We went by bus from Chatillon to St Leger-des-Vignes to collect the Micra, feeling a little more confident with our rapidly improving barge handling and beginning to enjoy the new experiences each day brought.

Chatillon-en-Bazois to Baye

We left the Micra at Chatillon intending to return at some stage to collect it and hoping that it would still be in one piece. Our new found confidence rapidly evaporated as we faced a 180 degree curve on leaving the first lock! The day provided other new experiences- like double and triple locks where the water cascaded through from the lock gate ahead. Once we had reached a certain level we were called forward into the next chamber and the gate was closed behind us before we rose again. The wind picked up during the afternoon and by the time we reached the summit (Baye) it was very strong. We knew from our waterways guide that some infamous tunnels awaited us and decided to brave them at 6pm that evening when the one way system was in our favour.  The other reason was that we felt more confident in our abilities at the end of the day rather than the beginning. We dismantled the wheelhouse having been warned that the tunnels were quite low.

The Tunnels at the top

In trepidation and with barely 9” either side in the cut, we entered the first tunnel illuminated only by our bow spotlight. With no wheelhouse protection we were soaked three times by water flowing through shafts from above…………….nobody had told us about that!! The first tunnel was the longest (758m,) but as we emerged we still had two shorter ones to tackle. I spent the whole time whizzing across the wheelhouse updating Peter with the distances. As we left the last one we found ourselves in a very pretty steep sided cut and congratulated ourselves on our achievement. By now we were very tired having been on the go for about ten hours and were keen to moor up for the night. We were somewhat dismayed that it took another fifty minutes to leave the cut and relieved to finally moor up at the lock keeper’s cottage. After putting up the wheelhouse we had reheated fish pie and a glass of wine followed by an early night.

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 After the tunnels but more challenges ahead.

Going down…………The Sardy Lock staircase or ‘flight’

We awoke to sunshine and tranquility and a very pretty mooring. Peter wandered off to take some photos and have a look at the ‘flight’- sixteen locks in the space of 4 km! I’m glad I didn’t. If I had I would probably have gone back to bed. I can only describe it as a downwards rollercoaster for barges. We had felt fairly confident after three or four days of cruising uphill, but were now faced with an even steeper downward learning curve! Approaching locks going downhill is more difficult as the sides of the lock are much lower compared with the barge. Peter lost sight of the locks completely now which meant he had to rely entirely on my observations. No wonder the commercial barges stopped using the Nivernais in the 1970s. To make matters more challenging, we soon discovered the negative effects of the overflow inlets and outlets on our approaches to and departures from the locks. This coupled with an increasingly contrary wind, made for an interesting morning. We made it to lock 8 by lunchtime and during the afternoon bumped and grazed our way down the last eight locks with varying degrees of success.

Sardy-les-Epiry to Clamecy

After our exertions of previous days we decided to spend a couple of days at the bottom of the Sardy Flight. We were disappointed that the promised shop in Sardy was shut and there wasn’t even a boulangerie. Sadly, as in parts of rural England, many French villages have been affected by the advent of huge out of town retail parks. We did however manage to hail a passing baker’s van and buy some bread the following morning.

We continued our cruise stopping at Chitry-les-Mines and Tannay before reaching Clamecy, a very pretty town surrounded by rivers and canals. Here we moored on the quay where electricity and water were free (at least they hadn’t started charging when we were there.)We spent a very pleasant weekend in this charming town, exploring the streets and lovely market. We also spent some time in the museum which had a really good display about ‘les Flotteurs’ who used to float huge piles of timber along the river all the way to Paris where it was needed for fuel.

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 Clamecy.

 On leaving Clamecy, we reversed out of our mooring and to those looking on it might have appeared as if we had been barging for years; nice when you get it right even if it is luck. We slipped deftly into the lock and then out onto the River Yonne. It was there that the steering suddenly became light and manageable and Peter realised that it was because there was water under the barge………………………….

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 Reversing test, the entrance to the Yonne on the right through the swing bridge.

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 Through the lock and onto the Yonne, suddenly the steering is light and manageable !

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