2017 Barging France

Courchelettes Resort – Working: 17/07 – 10/08

Douai – Courchelettes

<We’re sorry for the long delay. Some of the pressing tasks are out of the way now and we hope to drive an article out each week from now on>

Monday morning, we set off for the short run to Courchelettes, the site of the Chantier Naval Despinoy shipyard, full of excitement and enthusiasm for another first: seeing Catharina Elisabeth out of the water. A couple of big locks later and we were tied off, having reversed neatly into a small channel. Nothing to see here folks – we just felt it was important to be present so they didn’t forget us when it was our turn to be lifted up.

Our main problem was that coolant was escaping from the main engine water pump and being thrown around the engine room as it dripped onto the pulleys and fan belt. This was sufficiently severe that Ian had to mount plastic curtains around the engine so that coolant would at least just drip down them into the bilges. Of course, we were also having to constantly top up the coolant.

Plastic curtains either side in front of the engine so the spray drips down to the bilges.

In addition, our genny was overheating and stopping. This all suggested cooling problems and, if there was a common feature, it was that both engines shared the same cooling system.

Our concern had been that the pipes that carry the hot water from our main engine and generator to the outside of Catharina so that they can be cooled by the water in the canals (the technical term is keel-cooling), had been damaged at the end of the previous season after hitting an unknown submerged object. This was a very un-nerving incident just as we were about to turn to enter the Plassendale lock off the Gent-Oostende canal when we obviously struck something under the water, the bow lifted out of the water and slammed back down. Twice. Needless to say, Lisette was not too comfortable with this. Waves were not part of the agreement when we investigated buying a barge let alone smashing into underwater objects. But with no obvious problem, we continued on and with little cruising time remaining that season, we didn’t give it much more thought until this year.

Looking back to this event, we considered that we might have crushed one or more of the keel cooling pipes. That restricted the flow, increased the pressure and led to the leakage from the main engine pump and preventing the weaker pump on the generator from pushing sufficient water around to keep its small engine cool.

Keel cooling pipes visible during the 2014 survey of ‘Neo Vita’.

So, our first priority was to inspect the underside of Catharina’s stern – for that we needed to be lifted out. There was the suggestion from Olivier, the manager (Charge d’Affaires at Despinoy), that this might be possible in just a couple of days. However, we were not naive enough to take that as a certainty, so while we were waiting, started on a set of necessary and critical maintenance tasks. We had not done much maintenance last season, what with the plethora of guests we had, so it was time to knuckle down and get on with the backlog.

With a new batch of paint, Lisette began painting the bedroom cupboards – again! We didn’t like the paint we had bought in Nieuwpoort and Lisette was not happy with the finish at all. But a better paint shop in Douai had no difficulty in matching the colour we wanted exactly (the same colour that was already on much of the interior woodwork) so the primer and three coats of paint already applied became a prep for the next few coats – and eventually, the desired finish was achieved.

The other major task was to remove all the varnish from a dozen wooden window frames because it was peeling severely – eight around the salon/bedroom and four large ones on the side of the wheelhouse.


Once the varnish was removed, we were going to seal the wood with multiple coats of oil which won’t peel in future and will protect the wood this winter without the need for plastic sheeting – to say nothing of looking a whole lot better. It will just need a quick touch up each year to keep it in good order.

We chose our tasks according to the weather – if it was raining, we did indoor jobs; when it was fine we worked outside. The varnish removal work progressed very slowly. Sanding it off was slow, dusty and very difficult. Fortunately, early on, Cathy-Jo on the nearby barge Oldtimer suggested Ian might find stripping the varnish from the windows would be easier with a heat gun. Ian was on his bike and off to the hardware store in a flash! This was a revelation. Much easier, faster and cleaner. And who doesn’t need (want) another tool to store in the engine room?

The work progressed probably four times faster after that.

Stripped and sanded.

Often, Lisette would dash out straight from bed, to get a coat of oil on a window before the rain arrived and we would then re-shroud the windows with plastic sheets to keep the rain off until sufficient coats of oil could be applied to protect them.

The shipyard workers kept telling us how good the windows looked as they were transformed from ugly, peeling varnished frames to gleaming, oiled masterpieces.

Finished. The oil means the finish won’t blister and lift although it will need another coat each year.

So, our main occupation in the yard was this maintenance. Had we not been forced to stop at the shipyard, we probably would not have had the time to strip, clean and stain these twelve windows and one hatch – all essential work for the coming winter. What this taught us is that big jobs require long stops and planning – and that having seven sets of guests in three months (as last year) is too many because we can’t get even the essential maintenance done.

While we were working, the shipyard was hard at it and this was also quite interesting – if a bit noisy at times. We had about a week of continuous needle gun work done on the barge next to us which was deafening. But over the month we were there, watching vessels come and go, the basin filling and emptying on a fortnightly schedule and bits of machinery moving around, it was endlessly fascinating.

Peniches (barges) that have just started their stay in the dry dock.


Repainted and maintained, the water begins to fill the dry dock.


With the dry dock flooded, they begin to reverse out.


Eventually, they all have to negotiate the narrow exit into the main canal.

We would chat occasionally with the workers and with Olivier on the likelihood of progress. None spoke more than a word of English, so Ian’s interactions were limited. Lisette, however, had a splendid time and was able to practice conversation and enlarge her French nautical vocabulary.

In addition to the French peniches in the basin, the shipyard had a melting pot of barges and cruisers all waiting to be seen or for work to be completed. So we Aussies joined the Californians, an English couple, two Kiwis and the boat we all knew as the Welsh boat, (whose owners were not around).

Don and Cathy-Jo on Oldtimer were lifted out for the second time just after we arrived and their repairs were completed.

‘Oldtimer’ lifted out on the floating dock.

After they hosted a very pleasant evening party on their deck, they left for the Somme (you can read about their time in the shipyard in their blog). Next to leave were an English couple who had been in the yard for six months or more. It was great to see them finally get away: they were looking pretty haggard after their prolonged stay.

So we spent most of our time with Craig and his daughter Stef on their cruiser, Liza, high and dry on land, their boat only accessible by means of a high ladder.

A rotten way to cruise in a boat – spent the best part of a month like this.

When we arrived, they had already been in the yard for several weeks. Worse, Craig was there to have his boat checked after just arriving and buying it. Some minor work, mostly adding anodes and a little bit of extra plating at the bow was really all that was needed to be done. But this was taking an incredible amount of time to complete because of all the competing work being done in the yard. So his cruising holiday so far had all been several meters off the ground. We were very grateful that at least Catharina Elisabeth remained in the water even if we were not cruising anywhere.

Somehow Craig and Stef always seemed to be smiling. Great company.

Drinks continued on one boat or another most nights: sometimes we watched the English news on their television and another time we had dinner and a movie on Catharina. Socially, this was a lifesaver, as the weeks wore on and we were not going anywhere.

It was Craig who nick-named the boatyard ‘Courchelettes Resort’ and there were suggestions we might have t-shirts made – but we thought that might be too depressing. While everyone at the yard was very friendly, we would all have preferred to be off cruising.

Craig’s ‘Liza’ is lowered back into the canal.

Craig had several dramas while in the yard and after he was put back in the water – even forcing him to return to the yard for more work to fix a spot on some overplating where the welding had not taken. In the end, everything ended up shipshape, but Craig’s time was running out. So he essentially had to ‘write off’ this cruising season and return to New Zealand as Stef went off to the UK for a working holiday. However, they were always cheery and optimistic – far more resilient than we would have been in their situation (they had no project work to do on their boat, while we were at least busy doing worthwhile maintenance on Catharina). Hopefully, when he gets back next year, he will just be able to cruise away untroubled.

After a leak was found where some welding had missed a spot, ‘Liza’ returned to the shipyard and was raised in the dry dock, wedged by an old peniche where the weld was then fixed.

We did not get our anticipated lift out soon after our arrival. A commercial boat took our spot on the lifting dock (commercials always have priority in this yard – we knew and accepted this). Eventually, 12 days after arriving at the yard we got our chance for a lift out as the 85-metre commercial swapped positions with us so they could continue painting and maintenance and we could have the keel examined.

The lifting dock is sort of an upended ‘U-shape’ about 20 m long with two big caissons on each side. We cruised gently into the submerged dry dock and tied up securely to the frame. Once we were settled, the big pumps started and water in the flotation tanks was expelled and we rose steadily and gently until all of Catharina was out of the water and we could see the underside of her stern. We all got up close and personal and after detailed inspection, we all were happy that no damage had been done to the keel cooling pipes.

Ready for lifting in the dry dock.
Pumps started and beginning to lift out.
Lifted out
The keel cooling pipes and the opening for the stern spud pole
Consulting with Olivier.
Ready for lifting in the dry dock.

A great relief and we were quite happy to have paid the modest amount of money to have the lift-out to reassure us that our engine cooling problems were not due to damage to these pipes.

The keel cooling pipes are actually very tough – in good nick thankfully.

There was a bit of talk, and even some action, to replace/supplement some metal anodes on Catharina but the method this yard uses is to weld them to the hull. The welder came on board to check out the areas on the other side of where he would be welding and threw his arms in the air and made throat-slashing gestures, “Too much wood! Poof!” (all in French of course) and refused to weld because of the risk that Catharina’s interior wooden structures would catch fire from the heat of welding. We weren’t terribly bothered by this outcome because it meant that an hour later, Catharina had been lowered into back into the water. The anodes don’t need to be replaced yet and should be able to wait until we need our next lift-out and survey for insurance, a few years away yet.

The windows continued to be prepared and oiled a couple at a time, until all eight salon windows and four large wheelhouse windows were gleaming with four coats of Owatrol, with the rain just beading off their shiny new finish. Take that, rain!

Stripping one of the four wheelhouse windows.

During our wait, Ian had fixed the genny’s overheating problem by removing and cleaning the thermostat. Whether it was that or clearing an airlock by the process of maintenance, was not clear – the main thing was that the genny was now cooling itself perfectly. That meant that the only problem was the coolant leak from the main engine water pump. We were certain that just required some maintenance to the water pump seals.

This ended up being a long saga of delay, miss-communication, bad luck and somewhat sloppy spare parts supply. Briefly, we had already asked for spare parts to be ordered even before we were lifted out – they weren’t. The yard excused that the parts supplier was “en vacances” – we were not going to wait until they returned from holiday, which might be weeks away. So, we ordered them ourselves, from the Netherlands. With typical Dutch efficiency, they arrived by courier 36 hours later. We then had to wait another five days for a French engineer to come to fit them. The pump was difficult to remove, so the engineer was necessary but once he got it off and disassembled it, he found out that the new parts were wrong – they simply would not fit. We returned those parts and ordered a full reconditioned pump. Ian fitted that himself when it arrived – and it leaked more than the original pump!

Eventually, sick of all this, we ordered another reconditioned pump and our wonderful barging friend Malcolm drove Ian nearly 600 km in the pouring rain, from France, through Belgium, and into the Netherlands to pick up the new pump (which we were assured had been freshly tested) and back again. A seven-hour round trip via rush-hour in Antwerp ending at about midnight.

Malcolm, Deb and their dogs on ‘Janna II’ in Douai.

Next day, Ian fitted the new pump, checked it worked – it didn’t leak and within the hour, handshakes all round and well wishes from the yard, almost four weeks after arriving in Courchelettes Resort – we were off.

Our third and final mooring at the yard with Catharina completely surrounded by peniches.

Ten hours later we were moored up within striking distance of the Somme.

A contrasting mooring at the end of the day – what a relief!

Now, while all this sounds a bit of a drama and perhaps something that would spoil our holiday, we were almost completely happy with how this played out. We confirmed there wasn’t any damage; fixed the problem; did heaps of very important maintenance and painting (something we had always planned to do this season anyway); had nearly a month of free mooring, power and water; met lots of wonderful people and, as you will see in the next couple of blogs, still managed several trips to tourist features around us. We knew this kind of thing was part of barge life and were thrilled to find that we were pretty much unfazed by the experience.

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    4 Responses

  1. Well done, guys. Great job of getting back in order and into the water. Enjoy the summer!

    1. More to come David, when we eventually did get to fully enjoy the summer.

  2. Great post and photos too. I’m so glad your keep cooling wasn’t damaged after all! It sounds as if you made absolutely the best of the situation, but then being you two, that doesn’t surprise me! Hope to see you again in the summer if we are following the same trails as you. Unfortunately, I don’t really know what we’re doing this year!

    1. If we don’t catch you Val (and Koos) we’ll just wait for the book to hear what happens! We hope to travel from Veurne to somewhere around Reims with a bit of Paris in the middle.

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