Into Belgium: 28-29/8

Off to the wilds

The next part of the journey was to take place in and around busy commercial routes. We’d become more comfortable around the big barges, and over this section, relaxed further. The commercial canals and waterways in the Netherlands are large and well managed. The commercials know their work and present little hazard or worry provided you just keep an eye out for them. We now had a little electronic gizmo (an AIS) that also showed us where all the nearby large vessels were located, which way they were heading, and how fast. So, no surprises.

We also had our first experience of a common feature of interacting with these big boats as we came close to Rotterdam (a port we ended up avoiding). On a nice wide waterway, we were heading towards a large commercial, who appeared directly ahead of us, we thought to ourselves, hmm – blue board? Sure enough, we could see through the binoculars a big blue board with a flashing light in the centre displayed on the right-hand side of their wheelhouse.

Taken after the vessel had past us, you can see the square blue board open beside the top of the wheelhouse.

Taken after the vessel had past us, you can see the square blue board open beside the top of the wheelhouse.

This signifies that the commercial is telling us that he intends to pass us, not port to port as usual, but on the ‘wrong’ side, starboard to starboard. Sometimes that is more convenient or safer. Such behaviour is strictly regulated. As a small pleasure craft, we do not have to have a blue board and aren’t allowed to initiate a request to a commercial. Still, pleasure craft larger than 20 m have to have a blue board, and must acknowledge the signal from the commercial by opening their blue board. Then everyone knows that everyone knows what is happening. Lacking such a board, what we do is wave a large blue towel while standing on deck.

Quite pleased that went off well, we continued on towards the town of Dordrecht. As we passed into the canal that would take us south, we could see the rather unusual sight of Noah’s Ark beside the waterway.

A medium sized (90 m) commercial barge passing in front of Noah's Ark.

A medium sized (90 m) commercial barge passing in front of Noah’s Ark.

This is another amazing artefact that we really wished we could stop and experience. It is a full size, floating replica of the Biblical Ark and contains a fascinating display of two by two animals inside.

Some idea of the size from the giraffe standing on the deck. 130 m long and 23 m high.

Some idea of the size from the giraffe standing on the deck. 130 m long and 23 m high.

Even not being of a persuasion where we consider this a ‘historical’ replica, it is still an impressive bit of engineering. Apparently there are plans to take it to Rio for the Olympics – a very risky undertaking we think!

We carried on down to a lock at the end of this canal with a rather tricky sharp turn to enter, complicated by a cross flow current. Did OK on that and then crossed over to the busy commercial waterway in the quiet and peaceful Biesbosch. This slightly tidal area is a national wildlife park, much loved by the cruising community for its secluded peaceful moorings. Unfortunately, all we were to see was this mooring for the night.

We breasted up against a lovely big tjalk, very carefully, and happily with no bumping at all.

Nestled up against 'Twee Gebroeders' - 'Two Brothers' - probably the most common name for a boat in the Netherlands.

Nestled up against ‘Twee Gebroeders’ – ‘Two Brothers’ – probably the most common name for a boat in the Netherlands.

Off to have a quacking good time

Next morning it was out early into the commercial waterway and down to enter the very large important commercial canal that runs down to Antwerp, the vessels were getting bigger – but were, as always, well-behaved.

Largish commercial barge

Largish commercial barge

Two large unpowered barges being pushed by a pusher.

Two large unpowered barges being pushed by a pusher.

The pusher barge

The pusher barge

Otherwise, it was an uneventful cruise on a sunny day, into the pretty port of Tholen. A bit tight for us to moor there, but, as instructed by the havenmeister, we squeezed into a slightly undersized space, and left our stern hanging out. Not long after settling in, a large maintenance barge (43 m to our 20 m) started to move, and we watched in concern and some disbelief as it left its nice mooring and headed right towards us, then deftly pulled in beside Catharina and stopped. We were suitably impressed with the ease with which it reversed around a tight corner, and then tucked itself in beside us. It now blocked the harbour. What was going on?

Some German folk nearby sorted it out. Today was the annual rubber duck race (Badeendenrace)!

As part of the town’s Monument Day celebrations, people pay a few euros for a small plastic duck. The ducks are dropped into the harbour and notionally, propelled by the wind, make their way along a narrow channel until they reach a finishing point. The first duck there wins its owner €500!

Trouble is, the wind was blowing the wrong way. So Catharina and the large commercial barge were now being used to block one end of the harbour. (Aha! That’s why we were asked to moor on the end of this pontoon.) Soon we realised three small dinghies motored their way towards us, at which point, they were bound together, and a guy stood on each bow, waving a leaf blower. The idea was to gently encourage the ducks to travel in the right direction. Half a dozen divers in wet suits were also on hand to help shepherd the unruly gaggle of plastic quackers if they tried to escape.

An interested onlooker

An interested onlooker

Thus, on Catharina’s bow, there was a great view of the kerfuffle that ensued in getting the race started, viewed by Lisette. Ian meanwhile positioned himself at the finish line to watch the winner arrive.

Catharina and Morgenstond block the harbour, and Lisette watches as the leaf-blowers line up and the skindiver prepares

Catharina and Morgenstond block the harbour, and Lisette watches as the leaf-blowers line up and the skindiver prepares

The start did not go all that well, the bag containing the ducks refused to open and it took a bit bashing around before they began to fall out. Then it took a lot of effort from the blowers and the swimmers to get them heading in the right direction.

The ducks finally escape

The ducks finally escape

Pretty unruly 'paddling' of ducks

Pretty unruly ‘paddling’ of ducks

Well ordered finally

Well ordered finally

Still, eventually all was ship shape, and slowly the green armada made its way to the finish, where a lucky duck was snatched out to benefit its owner with a nice littler earner.

The Winner!

The Winner!

We were not expecting that! You never know what is around the corner – that’s just one of the many wonderful aspects of barging life.

Into Belgium

We set off early on a faintly misty morning. Only one lock to deal with, the massive dual 500 m length Krekracksluis on the way to Antwerp, which runs 24 x 7 so no need to wait about.

Morning mist just before leaving Tholen

Morning mist just before leaving Tholen

It is one of the very large locks that can take pretty much any size of barge. Several 180 m long commercials can fit in bow to stern, let alone the triple width combinations that are pushed along.

We would be just a little bigger than the small cruiser in the bottom left of the leftmost lock.

We would be just a little bigger than the small cruiser in the bottom left of the leftmost lock.

As a pleasure craft, we come in last, so after letting the lock know we were there, we waited for our invitation. After several commercials had entered, and moored up on the starboard side, we were called in – to moor on the port side.

Trying to make sure there was plenty of room, we moved part way along the port side, which was empty for most of the 500 m length, past the commercials moored on the starboard side.

Entered the Kreekrak lock, moved well up beside one of the big commercials, and moored on the other side.

Entered the Kreekrak lock, moved well up beside one of the big commercials, and moored on the other side.

A few minutes later once the lock gates were closed we received a gentle reprimand from the lock keeper. Apparently we should have stayed at the back, because when the commercial vessels start their engines and exit the lock first, as they must do, smaller boats are in danger of being dragged around from their wakes. Just makes it trickier for them – so lesson learned, stay to the rear of a lock if you are sharing it with one or more large commercials.

After that, we cruised uneventfully down the canal. The only indication of entering Belgium was a small traffic light-like signal standing lonely on the canalside. And we noticed that the edges of the canal became sloping concrete rather than wooden walls.

A green light to enter Belgium

A green light to enter Belgium

We continued on into the huge, but fairly quiet (on a Sunday) Antwerp harbour. So big that it took almost two hours of cruising to navigate our way through to our destination which was the Willemdok marina. A couple of bridges later, we were safely moored in the most expensive spot we stayed at during the entire trip.

Secure in Willemdok marina

Secure in Willemdok marina

Now to begin experiencing the many delights of Belgium.