The Days Ahead
Our cruise plan was to avoid Brugge and Ghent at the start of this year’s cruise and get to the start of the river Dender as quickly as possible. We plan to go back through both Brugge and Ghent towards the end of this season. Dendermonde would also be a convenient place to pick up Jeannie and Jonathan.
Wrecking the Railings
The first item on the list was an appointment at a shipyard in Nieuwpoort to have the bow railings modified. Last year’s experience with ropes convinced us that the bollards needed to be clear for Lisette to handle the ropes safely. Over the winter, we’d sent some photoshopped pictures to show the engineer what we wanted.
Entry into the main harbour at Nieuwpoort is governed by the tides, with the lock only working three hours either side of high tide. We had already contacted the lock, and as high tide was at 8 am, we only had to be there by 11 am. It’s a short but pretty cruise from Veurne.
So our cruising this year started at 8 am on Wednesday the 13th July. After an uneventful cruise and easily clearing the Veurnesluis (equally perversely the Veurne lock is called the Nieuwpoortsluis) we made our way into the harbour and moored at the end of the shipwright’s pontoon. Rik arrived a little later and we were delighted when he said he would start work straight away (previously we thought he would not begin until the following day). First however, he made us move Catharina 100 m back along the pontoon to save him walking along it.
Rik busied away, cutting off the unwanted sections of the railings and welding on the new sections he fabricated.
When he’d finished the port side, he told us to pivot Catharina around to moor starboard side on, so he had access to that side from the pontoon. Pivoting on the bow rope, we dragged her stern around until he could work on the other side. An hour or so later, it was finished. A perfect job! Just what we wanted and in very quick time. We can heartily recommend Rik Maes of Shipsupport.
After topping up our tanks with water in case the Canadians were a thirsty bunch we spent the evening watching fishing boats leave the harbour and head out to the North Sea.
Next morning we cast off early, as Rik’s neighbor was due to arrive around 8:30 am and apparently would not be happy to find us moored up near his pontoon. We also wanted to try and get as far as Moerbrugge, a little over 8 km from past where we would ‘enter’ Brugge. We had used this mooring last year on our way to Brugge and knew it to be a good spot to tie up for the night. This was all rather ambitious, as it could easily prove to be an 11 hour day – it can take more than three hours just to get around Brugge, depending on how your arrival at each bridge coincides with bridge openings.
The first section of the Plassendale-Nieuwpoort Kanaal is operated as a convoy system. We thought the convoy we needed was due to leave at 10 am (based on last year’s east and west timings), so we sauntered out of the lock at Nieuwpoort and moored up. A call to the convoy people revealed that the times had changed and now it was a 9 am departure. Suddenly we had a bit over 3 km to travel and only 15 min to do it. Do the math. Over 12 km per hour. That’s hammering it for Catharina and well over the speed limit. But Ian cares nought for such rules and regulations.
Anyhow, pedal to the metal, we rushed forwards, while on the phone to them asking if it would be possible for us to make the first bridge in the sequence. It turned out to be no problem as we were the only boat heading east and, when we arrived only a few minutes after the hour, the first bridge opened and we started a lovely, pleasant, relaxed 6 km/h cruise through the Flandrian fields and small towns for the next hour or so.
After passing through the lock at Plassendale, which is tricky to get into and out of as it requires a 90 degree turn to re-enter the Kanaal Gent-Oostende, but which Ian executed faultlessly, we turned towards Brugge on the wide and quiet canal. We were leaving ‘breadcrumbs’ behind as we travelled. Lisette had thrown the tea strainer from the teapot overboard at Nieuwpoort and the next to go into the canal was the dustpan brush. (I maintain if flew out of my hand, whatever…) We continued bravely on, keeping Lisette away from the valuables. There were sotto voce mumblings that perhaps I should don a life jacket if I planned on venturing outside. Or even tie things to my hands so I couldn’t toss them overboard.
Passing the sweet swinging foot bridge and then the impressive tilting Sheepsbrugge we approached the main lock into Brugge – the perhaps un-nervingly named Dammepoortsluis.
The Dammepoort lock is old and unusual in that it is oval-shaped. Large commercials use it, but have to stretch across the long axis. If they are also long enough (somewhere between 70 and 84 metres), one or more of the road bridges that cross the lock may have to be remain raised for the entire lock cycle, obviously holding up any road traffic while the lock fills or empties. Anyhow, as we approached, the lock keeper told us to moor over on the side of the canal outside of the lock to allow a big commercial to exit and pass us.
Lisette had to get off board and scramble up a steep slope to attach the lines to old cement bollards but did so with agility. Just in time for the commercial to exit the lock and deftly turn right beside us and trundle off.
The lock was now set for us – in that the water level was the same as the canal side on which we were waiting. After a small delay so the road bridges could be lowered to allow some traffic to pass, we entered the lock, and were told to make our way to the port side. This lock only has bollards on the long straight side, which are for commercials. The last time we used it, we were able to hold here, so it worked fine. This time we found ourselves on the curved wall, with only a long rope hanging down or some widely-spaced ladders to which we could attach any ropes. While we thought this was odd (and perhaps a little un-necessary), we soon realised this was because there was another big commercial coming in with us.
Yikes! We thought we had it all to ourselves once the last one left heading past us. But we knew what we had to do, and it all went very smoothly, despite how she towered over us. Road bridges remained up again throughout the cycle.
Her name was Nano (so obviously only a baby-sized commercial), and as she left, we ducked in behind her and called to the next bridge, with our intent to travel as far as Moerbrugge if possible. We were told to stay with her, and we would be able to pass through each bridge with her. So instead of what could have taken several hours, waiting at each of the bridges along what is really a ring-road, we simply followed her and, as all the bridges are immediately raised for the commercial traffic, sailed through in under half an hour. Note to self: share a lock with a big buddy and cruise along in it’s wake for as long as you need.
A pleasant little cruise followed and we were delighted to find a spot for Catharina against the high stone wall of the basin in front of the bridge when we reached Moerbrugge. It’s quite nice to be able to use familiar moorings and travel on canals that you have used before, especially when you are ‘warming up’. There is a wildlife sanctuary that abuts the canal which we wandered through last time we moored here. A number of ‘hides’ are peppered along the walking path so avid bird watchers can lie in wait. A big day’s cruising and we slept well.
Next morning we dashed off through the bridge heading towards Ghent. Part of this we had covered last year and was a pleasant wooded canal, sometimes quite narrow. We had left very big commercial just in front of us at Moerbrugge, who was filling with diesel, assuming it would be some time before it continued on. However, not long after we spotted her gaining on us. We contacted her on the radio to check her intent, and held off to one side of the canal so she could pass us. As we approached Ghent, the canal widened and the the aspect became more urban. The last part of the journey was on the Ringvaart that goes around Ghent. By mid-afternoon we cruised up to the waiting area for the Merelbeke Sluis, the huge lock that guards the upstream end of the tidal River Scheldt. We knew that high tide was about 5:30 am, and leaving two hours or so after that would give us a nice run down with the tide, which would be weakening as we turned into the River Dender.
Next morning, after a bit of a fracas with the boat moored behind us because a couple of centimetres of our rope had become caught under his by the push and pull of boats passing overnight (he was just grumpy – we knew the rules, and how to attached a second rope to a bollard without trapping the first rope), we ducked into the huge lock, just us and a small commercial. The cruise down the Scheldt was uneventful and not very scenic. As with the last time we travelled this stretch, the day was grey and overcast, and the river itself is rather muddy, with little in the way of flowers on the banks. The only relief comes from the airplane that seems to be flying at treetop level part way along the route.
We turned easily into the Dendermonde lock, another large one, and cruised on a little further up the Dender to a pleasant mooring next to some trees with easy access to the shore and town of Dendermonde, a 2 km cycle along the towpath beside the old river.
It was a nice ‘shakedown’ cruise and, other than some problem with starting the generator (which looked like it might just be the starter battery getting a bit problematic), it had been trouble-free. We’d rushed to cover 138 km in three days but still found time to enjoy what we saw: sheep and cattle often grazing right at the water’s edge; plenty of water birds; endless wildflowers and pretty wooded areas along the route. Our guests Jonathan and Jeannie were due in two days’ time, so we ignored the ‘one day only’ sign at the mooring, and stayed two nights so we could relax and do a little sightseeing.
Stopping at Dendermonde
There was a lovely cycle way along the track of the old River Dender – high bushes on one side, river on the other, all the way into town. The town square is quite pretty with the usual layout of church, stadhuis and sundry brasseries. Very pleasant. We eschewed the church this time choosing to check out the fascinating museum in the old stadhuis which covered aspects of the town’s history.
The first floor was given over to Pieter-Jan de Smet, a local missionary who was perhaps the most travelled missionary in America during its early days. He is reputed to have covered 180,000 miles in carrying the Christian gospel to the American natives. Apparently he was the most successful missionary of his time, as judged by the high regard in which he was held by the Indian tribes. He eventually died in America and was buried in St Louis. A large statue was erected in Dendermonde in his honour but over time corrosion caused to eventually collapse. It was replaced by a replica cast from the original, and was the focus of big celebrations attended by US representatives, bands and, most impressively, a large contingent of American Indians dressed in full traditional costume.
On the next level of the museum there were numerous artifacts from the historical aspects of the town, but as we climbed the stairs to the last floor we were confronted with a huge skeleton of a woolly mammoth. We gather that these are not that uncommon around Europe, but this was our first exposure and we were impressed with the size of the beast. This one was found in a sandpit in the late 1960’s. How cool would it be if they could ever resurrect them from the frozen samples that have been found – and once again have them traipsing across the tundra.
Other than this small bit of touristing, Lisette was busy getting some paint on the new and old parts of the bow railings in Catharina’s burgundy trim. It’s a slow process, but rather relaxing, brush in hand, out on deck in the sun, making her look pretty and fresh (Catharina Elisabeth, not me!) Lots of painting to be done, so she won’t exhaust all her painting fun too soon!
Our plans for the next part of our cruise were to take a leisurely approach to the River Dender with our guests on board. We knew it was reputed to be a very pretty stretch of river with a variety of interesting towns along the way.
The Dender had some more locks in store for us – never a bad thing to build on what skills we do have, to prepare us for a suite of locks that we knew was coming up soon, when we leave this lovely river.
Time to slow down the rate at which we had been adding up engine hours and take it a bit easier.