So, the generator had utterly ceased working while in Mons and our basic troubleshooting had failed to establish the fault. Our ‘genny’ is a combination of a Stamford alternator and a two cylinder Deutz diesel motor. The alternator is rated at 5 KVA, but we find the Deutz is labouring at 16 amps, which at 220 V represents about 3.5 KVA being available. It’s housed in a big yellow soundproofed container in the engine room so that we do not bother those around us when we use it. It was pretty inconvenient not having it available.
As Catharina Elisabeth (Vita and Neo Vita at the time) was converted to recreational use by a Dutch couple, and her next owners were also Dutch, she has electric cooking and only an electric stove top. This is common amongst the Dutch. English boats tend to have an oven as well as the stovetop – and are powered by bottled gas.
However, our setup works well for us. Lisette typically prepares the meal based on stovetop cooking and if we are not on shore power, we fire up the genny for 10 – 30 min – minimising the time so that we and others are not bothered by the even the small amount of noise the genny produces. If there is convection oven heating required, that is also dependent on the genny.
So, with the genny out of action, that pretty severely restricted Lisette’s ability to cook (Ian says his ability is restricted by lack of a can opener). Instead, we had to use the gas BBQ. Fine as far as it went but still inconvenient. We also only had a limited (and unknown) amount of gas for the barbie. Once it ran out we were going to be in trouble because we could not recharge or exchange the Dutch gas cylinder in Belgium. Another option was to hook up to shore power at a mooring but aside from the extra expense, we prefer to moor in the less sophisticated places – where power is often not available.
The DBA provides its members with a supplier’s guide which enabled us to locate a nearby shipyard, where we planned to see if anyone could diagnose and perhaps fix the Deutz engine. This was in Pont de Loup, just a day’s cruising from La Louvière and in the direction we wanted to head – towards Namur.
The route would take us along the last part of the Canal du Centre, joining the Brussels-Charleroi canal and then entering the Lower Sambre at Charleroi. It’s a busy commercial route but, again, we found no terrors or inconvenience when cruising with the consummate professionals that run these vessels. Charleroi is the largest town in Wallonia and used to be the industrial capital of Belgium. Sadly, it has been in considerable decline for many years as heavy industries have closed. It is not a favoured place to stay for cruisers and not classically scenic. Some, however, find the industrial landscape morbidly fascinating, particularly the enormous decaying factories that dot the waterways.
At the first lock on the Sambre, as we headed east to go through the centre of Charleroi, we struck our first piece of waterway that was ‘blue board’ for its entirety. ‘Blue Boarding’ refers to the blue board that must be displayed by larger craft when they are travelling on the “wrong” side. The structure and turns in some waterways mean that large vessels are unable to cruise on the normal, right-hand side of the waterway and the entire stretch is designated for cruising on the left – a mandatory blue board section.
We don’t have a blue board but any commercials we would meet would have one, and we were required to also travel on the left. In the event, we only met one oncoming barge as we exited the lock and no others on the winding path through the city.
Not far out of Charleroi we came to our destination, the Vankerkoven shipyard at Pont de Loup. We’d called ahead and they had agreed to let us moor. It’s a shipyard, not a casual mooring and you need advance permission. We arrived fairly late and the only place to moor was in the entrance to the shipyard basin. We reversed in, very inexpertly – probably watched by those on the several commercial vessels nearby with raised eyebrows and a sigh.
The quay was high and when we finally got close enough to moor up, Lisette had one chance and a long, high throw to get a rope on or else we were off on another ten minutes of manoeuvring. She did, and we tied up.
Next morning, one of the shipyard’s employees had a look at the genny but could not diagnose the problem. The shipyard did not know of any specialists for our Deutz motor but after we had done some internet research, we located a company in Antwerp who had roving specialists who could come and make a diagnosis. However, he could not get that day or the next. So, we remained somewhat marooned in the entrance to the shipyard.
The weather was grey, rainy, windy and cold. We were in a shipyard whose main visual material was rusted iron. Not good mooring? Far from it – we were fascinated.
First, there were boats around in various states of disrepair – some just needing a touch-up, others on the verge of scrap. There were also old bits of machinery scattered around. All fascinating to look at.
Next, we could watch the activities of the yard.
Most fascinating was watching how they got the large commercial vessels out of the water. On one side of the basin, there was a strip of tracks that went into the water. Trestles moved up and down these tracks and when at their limit at the water end, were lower than the draft of the empty commercial barges. The barges, 90-120 m long and 8-12.5 m wide, would gently and expertly drift sideways across the basin until they were over the submerged trestles. The trestles then lifted and snugged up against the ship’s hull.
Then all the trestles were pulled up the tracks, slowly dragging the barge out of the water and onto land. The process is reversed to deposit the barge back in the basin.
Once raised, the vessel was dropped onto static trestles and then mobile ones moved down for the next vessel. If necessary, they could have at least three big commercials out of the water at any one time. The most were two while we were there, but we saw three vessels taken out and two put back in while we were there.
Watching this action was fascinating – a revelation. We are finding the lifestyle and culture that surrounds the commercial barging community quite captivating – a completely different aspect of barging that adds extra interest to cruising on the commercial waterways.
Another constant source of amazement was the ship-handling skill of the commercial crews. Remember we were squeezed into the entrance to the basin, blocking it partially. The large 90 m or so vessels, up to 12.5 m wide, that were going away from Charleroi had to reverse past us into the basin and those heading in the other direction merely had the narrow channel to navigate past us.
These empty barges towered above us and regularly a vessel nearly five times longer and three times wider squeezed past us with only centimetres to spare each side. We couldn’t believe they didn’t scrape us, even just a little, but they never did.
Also, the vessels that just moored overnight would skip in as night fell and moor against us. It would take them seconds to enter, draw close, drop over lines onto us and snug up. Never even felt them touch. And they would just start up their engines and glide silently away come dawn.
Barges would reverse up to us, lift cars out over our decks onto the quay and quietly cruise away.
All in all, watching the day to day activities in the Vankerkoven shipyard was exciting and revelatory – we had a thoroughly good time for the three days we were there despite the rain.
On our third day there, Pierre arrived to check out the little Deutz diesel. It took him about two hours to carefully examine and partially dismantle the engine. The news was not good. One injector was totally broken and he was very reluctant to certify that the other injector was working or would work for long. So, two replacement injectors would be needed. Talking with head office, it seemed that finding new injectors would be hard and expensive. So much so, that it might be more economic to get another engine! We left them to look for cheaper replacements and get costs for a replacement. We made a tentative date to catch up in a few days in Namur to see if something could be fixed.
Now that was at least progressing, we could resume cruising, getting increasingly creative preparing meals without the genny.
The cruise to Namur was on the canalised Lower Sambre. This was a pleasant, quiet and broad waterway dotted with occasional towns, some locks and striking scenery particularly the Abbey at Floreffe.
Noting the mooring there as a potential stop for when we retraced our steps in a couple of weeks, we pressed on to the grand city of Namur. At the end of the Sambre we steered to starboard as it joined the Meuse. We cruised under the beautiful stone bridge just upstream of the junction and moored next to a casino, directly under the imposing Citadel.
Water and power were available and so we paid (for only the second time in a month) for three days mooring. On our list was touristing, visiting a much-anticipated museum, welcoming our second set of guests and perhaps getting the genny fixed.
Meanwhile, the rain had abated and the sun was out, so all our cares and worries receded as the cruising lifestyle promised to restart in earnest.