This morning we awoke on Catharina Elisabeth after our first night in France.
A bit out of blog sequence but it is a special occasion for us.
This has been the dream (described here) for some forty years and in this specific form, for about the last four. Lots of steps along the way, we’ve had to learn a lot and be patient to achieve this milestone but it has been a truly wonderful experience throughout.
We have been cruising southwards on the lightly travelled and picturesque Haute (upper) Sambre – first in the Belgian section from Charleroi to the French border and yesterday into France.
We’ve been fortunate to have warm, sunny weather while we cruise along the winding river with a mixture of steep valleys, forests, fields of crops, cows and a mixture of small and larger towns. An absolutely delightful cruise.
Yesterday we wound our way along the narrowing river from the last Belgian town of Erquelinnes upstream. Our first French lock was a new experience (something that delights and challenges us nearly every day!) – there was nobody there! We soon worked out that we were facing a series of automatic locks. We tied up and got off to check it out, and found a little hut beside the lock with a placard and a speaker box. After discussing it amongst ourselves, and some competent interrogation in French (by Lisette) on the loudspeaker system, a wireless lock-control device popped out of the slot.
With nothing more to go on we cruised on several kilometres to the next lock – it would no doubt become clearer in time. (Favourite line from “Shakespeare in Love” – “It will all work out. I don’t know how, but it always does”.) When you are about 50 m from the lock, one button wakes it up and one of two other buttons tells it you want to go up (montant) or down (avalant). I’ve got the unit with me at the bow, and Ian’s at the stern. Waiting for something to happen, I see the screen gives me an instruction or a message for each action: telling us we can approach the lock; checking that we are ready for the lock cycle to commence; right through to ‘Safe Trip’ as we exit the lock.
Throughout the day, on the five automatic locks we used, this worked smoothly and speedily. Although it did lack the random and interesting conversations that often take place while in a lock…chatting to the éclusier (lock keeper), with other boats sharing the lock with us, and passers by who often stop to watch.
Our great thrill over all of this Sambre cruise has been finally being able to host our friends and mentors, Michel and Rebecca on Catharina Elisabeth. Even better, to have their dog Panache padding around her deck.
They have been with us all along – from their encouragement when we were on ‘t Majeur in 2013; visiting Neo Vita on our behalf during the middle of the Dutch winter and providing us with the confidence to buy her; for patiently answering our plethora of questions and guiding us through so many issues over the last three years; and for their generous friendship.
On the last day of their visit, Panache cruised with us for a couple of hours while Rebecca and Michel went to pick up their car but they were back on board for a celebratory picture in Maubeuge (FR!) before they left to go back home. Great to have them with us ever so briefly as we dipped our toes in French waters.
We arrived at the small French town of Pont-sur-Sambre late afternoon. It was sunny and warm and after a celebratory beer on the back deck, we walked into the town to have celebratory meal.
Most of France is closed because it is August and everyone is on holiday but we found a nice grill restaurant and had a great meal. The chef was fascinated to hear about what we were doing (mostly in French from Lisette) and even ducked out of the restaurant – leaving our meals in suspension – while he went to check out Catharina Elisabeth moored at the nearby ecluse. Again, we love and look forward to many more chats with local people – everyone is friendly and have interesting stories once you make an effort to speak to them politely in their language (and many have good English as well).
Then back for our first night in France on Catharina Elisabeth. No street or house lights, completely silent – just us and a family of patient waterbirds whose nest we appear to have moored beside. Then a fine but cloudy morning.
Unfortunately, this will be our last day in France for a little while. The river Sambre used to be a major route into France but a busted lock and silting about 30 km upstream has blocked the route for many years. Also, we do have to head back to Belgium and one of the Sambre locks behind us is closing for maintenance in a few days for a week so we have to get through it by Monday evening or we would be stranded on this side of it. Not a bad thing, normally, but we do have a (loose) schedule to try to keep to.
Only the first day, but a memorable one, of what we hope will be many, many more in France on Catharina Elisabeth.