Arriving in France
After an uneventful flight from Melbourne to Paris via Guangzhou, we took the train from Paris Bercy to Auxerre. After missing the train we wanted by about two minutes (eventually adding two and a half hours to the overall journey to Catharina Elisabeth) we arrived in Auxerre just as the Avis rental agency closed for lunch. This quickly reoriented us to ‘France’ mode – almost no one in a service industry works between 12 and 2 pm so all you can do is have déjeuner (lunch) yourself. Which we did. On our return, the rental guy who had sent us away had the cheek to ask what we had done during our hour wait – “Nous avons bien déjeuné, monsieur”. So a little after 2 pm we were able to pick up our hire car (which is a convenience so we can get Catharina loaded with bits and pieces at the start of the season) and drove the 20 km to Migennes, finally onboard by mid-afternoon. All in all, about 40 hours of travel time. As usual.
She was in good shape – well looked after, winter jobs done, just a bit grubby.
Lisette set about getting unpacked and setting up indoors (airing the bedding and towels…) while Ian restarted the system and began cleaning outside. All this went smoothly although not at a great rate – there was much to do and the weather was fearsomely hot. Overall, we spent about five days before we were satisfied that she was reasonably clean and comfortable inside and out.
One of the first winter jobs we checked out was our modified Bimini. We expected to have to pass some low bridges this season and in the future and, as our Bimini extends the full width of Catharina’s hull, the chance that it could get clipped by low bridges meant we wanted to be able to drop the Bimini to the stern deck leaving only the wheelhouse as the maximum height permissible for clearing low bridges. Simon and his team had done an excellent modification (following Ian’s idea for how it might work) allowing us to unclip the mounting of the Bimini at the wheelhouse and then lower her down using the two, now hinged, support poles. Down she went with ease. Getting the Bimini up was a bit more effort, but doable.
Over many contacts, work discussed and work completed – we have been very pleased with the professionalism and promptness of the work in Simons’ yard (Evans Marine International). All that we had asked had been done, done well and finished while we were back in Oz. We would happily recommend Simon and his team to anyone.
Part of the reason for hanging about in this mooring for a little while was that we took the opportunity to have a trip to the inland port city of Saint-Jean-de-Losne for the once a year event ‘Pardon des Mariniers‘. While we had a car for a few days, we could take advantage of attending something we could not otherwise get to. This is a weekend-long event that is centred on the blessing of the barges and cruising vessels by a special Catholic mass. Not being sure we’d make it to this port on Catharina in the future we took the opportunity to visit by car.
We drove the two hours from Migennes on Sunday morning, arriving just as the Mass began, on a floating dock built out from the wide stone steps that lead down to the water, so we joined the crowd and watched the ceremony.
After the Mass, there was a ceremony where several folk who had been prominent in the local waterways community were inducted into the ‘La Confrérie des Avalants Navieurs des Chemins d’Eau’ (brotherhood of supporters of the waterways), an organisation much like Apex and other business/community groups that support and do good works for the canal community.
The introduction included a long exposition of their contributions to the waterway community, following which they were each invited to tie (or attempt to tie – in two out of the three cases) a ceremonial rope around a bollard. Each was then presented with ceremonial water taken from a steel bucket that had been drawn from the Saône (used to be sourced locally, but as water quality has declined, they now take it from Viomenil closer to the source of the river).
Then they were presented with their chain and a certificate.
We had missed the procession through the town which features several models of canal vessels but we did get a chance to see them up close and Ian was delighted to be asked to help move them to make room for the next event which was some Portuguese dancing and music.
The quayside had stalls and food which we browsed and we also had a walk around the nearby aspects of the port. We were astounded at the amount of weed in the marinas nearby and the prospect of mooring there seems very unattractive. Not on our itinerary this year but we may have to consider it next year.
After we had our fill of the events, we drove off a short distance along the Canal de Bourgogne to visit our friends Shaun and Lynne on Elle (their blog is one of the best we have read on cruising in Europe) on a very pretty mooring at Gissey-sur-Ouche.
They had very kindly invited us to stay onboard overnight and we had a splendid evening catching up with the details of our exploits and plans – despite the fact that we are avid readers of each other’s blogs there is plenty of information (and gossip) to share when boaters get together. In the morning, we began our 2019 cruising season with a short cruise from one lock to the next on Elle. Just a kilometre or so. A memorable way to start the year.
Getting started on work
Back in Migennes, more work awaited us.
The main tasks were to put at least one coat of paint on the salon roof, freshen up the wood on the deck box on the stern and establish the flower boxes. The first was a matter of tidying up, cleaning and some sanding before rolling on the first coat of paint. Made tricky by the hot weather so we had to work in the mornings before it got too hot. We only managed one coat, essentially an undercoat because it was household outdoor semi-gloss but the result was pleasing and a good start to putting the marine paint on later.
Lisette had decided to use oil for the wood trim. So this second task involved using a heat gun to take off the existing varnish – a very slow and tedious task, not made any simpler by day after day of very high temperatures. Next was hours and hours of sanding back to clean wood before applying the wood oil that we have been using, with great success, on the window frames and hatches.
Again, much of this heat treatment was performed in temperatures above 35ºC. Indeed, our heat gun failed under the pressure Lisette put on it and we had to go to the brico to get a new one. The final sanding back of the last of the varnish was taken over by Ian, who moved off Catharina and set himself up in the shade.
Last season we had only four flower boxes, which looked a little sparse. We added a further six this season and again, not under the best of weather conditions, planted a range of flowers and arranged the planter boxes across the saloon roof.
Mind you, it wasn’t all just work.
Simon’s shipyard was replete with boat owners of all nationalities either coming, going or, like us, working on their boats in the yard or the water. We were in and out of each other’s boats for chats, drinks and meals on many occasions. Swapping stories, helpful hints and little bits of waterways gossip. Both fascinating and enjoyable as well as a great way to relax at the end of the day.
It would take too long to list all those (and their boats) that we met during this period, but there were some highlights.
On our return to Catharina, we found ourselves near Vrouwe Petronella, owned by Rosemary and John, New Zealanders who had also wintered at Simon’s yard and were about to head off following the completion of a survey. Ian was quite taken with the ‘grass’ they had on their aft deck and decided that was just the ticket to add a little something fancy to Catharina’s deck. There was a shop in nearby Joigny and while we had a car, we were able to choose a bolt of grass and bring it back ready to fit to (the very awkwardly-shaped) deck in a week or two. We were to meet up with Petronella and her crew several more times over the next few months as we were all travelling on the same stretch of water – the delightful Nivernais.
We knew that Alan was coming back to Dea Latis which had been up on the hard at Simon’s yard all winter. Alan, recently widowed, had decided to take Dea Latis out for a spin, single-handing her, so the Bourgogne, which literally joins the Yonne at Migennes, presented him with the perfect opportunity. It was lovely to see Alan again and have a few drinks as we all prepared to go our separate ways.
It was just delightful meeting Neil and Karen on their narrowboat, Chalkhill Blue 2. We had been following their excellent blog for some months following their arrival in France and communicating occasionally by email. They pulled into the yard to leave their barge for a few days to cover a visit to the UK.
We chatted and had some drinks and then offered to water their plants while they were away. Before they left they had to move Chalkhill Blue to another spot on Simon’s quay and they took us for a short cruise on her and allowed us each to helm her. It was fascinating to stand at the stern, in the open, with a tiller in hand. It wasn’t too difficult but we were in a very wide stretch of the river and we suspect navigating into narrow openings and around sharp corners would have required much more expertise. Still, our second cruise of the season was truly memorable.
When Catharina is moored with cruisers and hire boats, it is not unusual for her to attract attention and comment. However, a narrowboat (especially one as well turned-out as Chalkhill Blue) always fascinates the French and draws the crowds, as is only fitting.
We also spent some time with fellow Aussie and Melbournian, Peter, who was just in the process of taking ownership of La Belle Hélène. She had been out of the water for some time being surveyed, painted and having some minor modifications made. She was one of several boats that we watched being gently lowered into the water in front of us while we were there. Always a good bit of entertainment.
After the launch, Héléne was moored next to us so, over the next few days, we popped back and forth between boats for drinks and frequent late afternoon swims in the river. One evening, Peter (who had a car at hand) offered to drive us to nearby Auxerre for the festivities taking place on the summer solstice.
All over France, since 1982, the French hold the Fête de la Musique on the day of the summer solstice and residents of every town are encouraged to spend the evening either making or enjoying music. This has caught on in a big way and almost every town of any size will have a music festival during the evening on June 21st. As a big town, Auxerre had dozens of venues operating – beside a fountain in one of the many squares, on the steps of the Mairie (city hall), inside small shops, outside cafes and in the courtyard of the cathedral. Here, we met up with Mark, who works at Simon’s yard, and had a drink with Ellen and Peter (Vlinder) who were themselves moored in Auxerre. A wonderful evening.
We had been fortunate to be moored for the previous winter against a lovely old dutch barge, Chamudi, with the very companionable Muriel and Didier on board. One very hot afternoon, Muriel approached us and invited us to join them in a shared meal. Lisette asked what we could take and were advised to bring only cold foods as it was still so very hot (another of the 40º+ days we had been experiencing). We were told to look for the “long table in the shadow of the boats”, just before sundown. When we arrived, it was to find indeed a long trestle table placed beside a barge high up out of the water on stilts, laden with plates, glasses, napkins and just waiting for everyone’s contribution to supper. It turned out the guests were all of the French people either resident or passing through the boatyard. And Simon.
So it was a ‘practice your French night’ for us. We realised we had been invited because Muriel felt we could handle the language, which was a wonderful acknowledgement of our acceptance into their community. Everyone was quite delightful and we feasted on meats and cheeses, loads of bread, fresh salads, home-made sardine rillettes (like a meaty paté) and smoked trout. There was plenty of wine, and, somewhat to our surprise, lots of whiskey.
So, after nearly two weeks, we had at least placed Catharina in cruising trim and had either completed (let’s be honest – the major tasks were nowhere near complete) or begun some of the major maintenance tasks, so it was time to start cruising according to Plan A, south up the Yonne to the start of the Canal du Nivernais in Auxerre.