Veurne – Watten – Béthune – La Bassée – Arleux
Sunday morning came and we set off in company with a Dutch couple on a cruiser that we had been chatting with over the last day or so and a third cruiser being driven by a youngish couple enjoying the warm weather, cruising in bathers. (No protective clothing and thongs – you wonder sometimes.) Our aim for the day was to get to Watten as quickly as possible and join in with the locals watching the World Cup final between France and Croatia. Over the next few days we wanted to spend some time starting maintenance in Béthune and then press on down the Canal du Nord in search of garlic.
As arranged, at 9 am, the Veurne bridge was opened for our convoy of three to pass through – the final bridge separating us from France. Third in line, we headed towards the open bridge but suddenly, the engine laboured and died. Once again, Catharina Elisabeth was drifting. This time it was towards an open bridge with cars and pedestrians probably muttering about the interruption to their promenade. We drifted towards the open bridge with agonising slowness. Would we make it through or stall halfway through, unable to move and hence block the traffic? Would the bridge start to close on us? Fortunately, even travelling slowly, 50+ tonnes of barge does not stop easily and, feigning insouciance, we drifted sedately past the bridge and the staring onlookers.
Again, we were lucky that there was a waiting pontoon for the bridge on the other side and we were able to drift Catharina across. Lisette managed to throw a line to get us secured and we came to a complete halt. As we looked wistfully at the remaining boats disappearing down the canal we noticed that the Dutch cruiser, bless them, was turning back to see what was up (we had moored behind them when we had our engine shut down at Veurne and chatted briefly). They rafted up to come aboard and see if they could help.
It sounded like fuel starvation again. But the engine had run fine after the filter change. All Ian could think of (apart from the fearful prospect that the problem would require removing the engine and fitting a new one) was that perhaps he hadn’t opened the fuel line sufficiently after the filter change. While it was open enough to deliver enough diesel for idling, it did not have sufficient flow for cruising. He opened the valve several more turns and the engine restarted – but would it continue to run? Cautiously, we set off again with the Dutch couple in close attendance. In great trepidation, we cruised past the vessels moored along the canal, listening attentively to the ongoing rumble of the engine. Long story short – we never had another problem with the good ol’ DAF – so it must have been just the fuel valve. Yet another lesson learnt! Lisette has added this to the “things to remember to do before we start cruising” list.
As we approached the first of the two French bridges that the VNF would open for us, at the agreed time, there was no sign of VNF life. Yes, now we knew we were in France! So we tied off to a waiting pontoon, with our new friends on the Dutch cruiser alongside. The other boat had darted up to the bridge plainly in a hurry to be first through but found they weren’t going anywhere either. We chatted with the Dutch fellow and, despite his sparse English and our non-existent Dutch, learned to our delight that he had been a commercial skipper for his working life. In one of those amazing coincidences, it transpired that his workboat and the barge on which he lived, were both featured in the Dutch history book on the Skippers of Wormoveveer, the same one in which there is a chapter devoted to Catharina Elisabeth.
After a short time, a particularly nice (young, good-looking, sunny demeanour, French) VNF guy came up wanting to check our papers. We invited him on board and he and Lisette had a long conversation about waterways, weather, French politics, shoes – whatever – he clearly was not in a hurry and Lisette was relishing her first chance to practice her French this season with the young man.
Each of his checks was similarly relaxed judging by the time they took but, eventually, all the papers of all the boats were checked and we set off towards Dunkirk. No point in trying to hurry the French and that is why we were looking forward to France – we ourselves have no desire to be frantic about deadlines.
The entrance to the main waterways of France is through the automated Dunkirk lock. Last year, we, or at least Rotterdam Diena travelling with us, had problems with this lock not operating for the second vessel to enter in the same direction. Surely that was just bad luck? We were now in the middle of our convoy of three but, as we approached the lock, the swimwear boat frantically waved us off yelling that the other cruiser should pass us and join them in the lock. While we knew we could fit with the first cruiser, it wasn’t worth the fuss, so we let the two cruisers enter the lock, holding back well away from what we took to be the sensors for the lock. The two cruisers passed through uneventfully but, as we approached, the lock refused to reset and we only stare in disbelief at the unchanging red light. Out to lunch? Not likely! There is no éclusier at this lock, it is managed remotely from Dunkirk.
Reversing back up the canal and coming forward again past the sensors (several times) had no effect. So, without much hope, at lunchtime on a Sunday, we phoned the lock control. No answer – but Lisette left a message. About 20 min later, the lock lights suddenly went red/green and soon we traversed our first lock of the season. A short time later, we passed through the big Jeu de Mail lock and we were then free to cruise for the remainder of the journey with only the big lock at Watten to hold us up.
Pedal to the metal, we sped (a fast cruise for Catharina is 10-11 kph) down the Liaison Dunkerque-Escaut towards Watten. We arrived at the lock just before kick off and, while we didn’t see the éclusier, he or she must have glanced away from the TV for long enough to cycle us through. As we had moored here last year, we quickly identified a mooring on the side of the canal, just near a nice looking Canadian-flagged cruiser. The chap helped by taking our lines and we chatted briefly about the match. He wasn’t interested, so we gave our apologies and sped off on the bikes into the pretty little town of Watten.
We were soon standing outside a bar that had encroached over the pavement with a second TV for those who couldn’t fit inside, and a crowd of onlookers in very good humour because France was ahead. Eventually, of course, the French won.
Then the celebrations began, cheering, shouting, singing, conga lines across the street, dodging the noisy cars as they drove through the streets with horns blaring, flags waving and passengers hanging out the windows and cheering. Quite a spectacle.
We enjoyed this for a while and then walked the bikes back towards Catharina – not daring to trust our safety on the road to the jubilant French careening around the streets with their hands on the horn.
Back at Catharina, we invited Ed aboard to join us for dinner as he was cruising alone and there was plenty to share. We enjoyed a lovely evening, punctuated by car horns, discussing our respective travels. Ed had been travelling extensively in the UK on a narrowboat (described in his blog) and was now just venturing into France for extended voyaging on his steel cruiser Wandering Canuck Too. Unfortunately he was about to retrace his steps towards Dunkirk to sort out some mechanical problems – we commiserated with him, our sojourn in Courchelettes resort still fresh in our memory. (And probably never to go away completely.)
We slept well, the celebrations having died down during the evening and the mooring not being on a roadway. We had a pretty big day ahead so did not delay in setting off for Béthune.
Our main interest for this cruise was to stop and view the boat lift at Fontinettes.
We’re fascinated by these spectacular pieces of canal engineering and visited a number of them with Catharina; the inclined plane at Ronquières; the vertical lift at Strépy-Thieu; but most especially the working boat lifts on the Belgian Canal du Centre at La Louvière. The Fontinettes lift is the same design as the four lifts on the Canal du Centre, all of them based on the Anderton boat lift in the UK.
Overseen by the same engineer, Edwin Clark, who built the Anderton lift, the Fontinettes ascenceur was started in 1881 in order to replace a chain of five Frecynet locks that had been carrying traffic over a 13.1 metre rise/fall since 1774.
The ascenceur operated from 1887 until 1967 only pausing during August for maintenance – at which time, the peniches reverted to using the lock flight. The lift cycle was a mere 22 minutes, compared to the 1 hr 10 min and 1 h 35 min going down and up respectively through the five locks it replaced. The flight of locks could handle 40 barges a day, but this also required that they operated for three or four days in one direction and then for a similar period in the reverse direction – necessitating long waits for the barges. Operating faster and in both directions simultaneously, the ascenceur handled over 100 barges each day.
In 1967 the ascenceur was replaced by a single large lock, 13.3 m deep, which enabled much larger barges to be handled.
The ascenceur is no longer functional (one of the pistons has been filled with concrete) and has gradually fallen into disrepair. Fortunately, the town of Arques is just about to start a big project to restore the lift and upgrade the location to make it a significant tourist attraction – although this may mean that the site is closed to visitors for one to three years.
We moored close to the ascenceur on a rather average stretch of quay and walked over to the little tourist office. Closed for lunch, reopening at 2 pm. We debated whether to just walk around the outside but decided that we would take a chance at a late arrival at Béthune. We were very glad we made that decision. We climbed up and around the ascenceur and could see that it was suffering a bit but the structure was intact and impressive.
Spot on at 2 pm, the office reopened and for six euros each, we set off to tour the small but fascinating museum. Mostly in French, with some English summaraies but, with Lisette’s waterway French and Ian’s iPhone translations, we managed to capture most of it and spent well over an hour looking at the maps, descriptions, models, photos and artefacts. We could have spent much more time there but it was still a pretty long way to Béthune.
So, it was off to the big Fontinettes lock at which we held back to let a commercial barge enter first.
No terrors with this lock, as we had passed through last year and, like all French écluses of over seven metres deep, it has floating bollards that makes securing Catharina during the lift a relatively simple exercise.
It was then just a fast but pleasant cruise down the canal to turn off into the offshoot that took us to the mooring in Bethune. As we arrived, we could see that the pontoon was full of a lovely big barge and a cruiser, both British flagged. We were called over to moor against the barge, Camelot X and made our introductions. We had drinks with the English couple and learnt that Sue would soon be leaving for the UK for some medical treatment. Rob was going to wait for a couple of days for a French couple he had met in Calais to come and help him crew Camelot X back to Calais so Rob could return to the UK to join his wife.
We spent several days at Béthune starting to re-oil the window frames as last year’s treatment with Owatrol had not fared well in sunlight. While we did not have to remove all the varnish like last year, the window frames, all ten of them, needed to be sanded back and given multiple coats of a proper, Dutch, wood oil. We also still had to remove the peeling varnish from the rear pigeon hatch, sand back and also treat it with oil. The other main task for the season was to give the deck a coat of new anti-slip paint. Most of the deck paint was in pretty good condition, so we decided to patch and try for just a single coat first. So while Ian patched, Lisette stripped and ‘sanded’. Well, not so much sanded as rubbed. Due to a breakdown in communication, Ian supplied Lisette with a sander without the sandpaper stuck on the bottom. So the assiduous and quite effective ‘sanding’ pretty much rubbed off all of the velcro-type material on the bottom of the sander. Our boating education never ends. The quest for a replacement foot plate thus commenced.
In the meantime, as the cruiser left after the first night, Rob had moved Camelot X so we were both on the pontoon. We worked in the day and socialised with Rob in the evenings. We also had a short, overnight visit from Duncan and Sophie on board his yacht Léonore. Duncan was meandering his way south having left the UK a few days ago. Sophie was acting as navigator and tourist guide for the first part of the route. They joined us and Rob on board Catharina for drinks, Duncan replete with some of his ballast – cans of Fosters.
Squeals and laughter from the wheelhouse erupted when Lisette and Sophie were doing ‘the tour’ because Sophie recognised a picture of her barge Fryslan on our DBA calendar. While she and Ian had conversed by email while he was making the calendar – they hadn’t made the connection on first meeting. Sophie is one of our heroes. Single-handedly (Ian shudders) she navigates her barge (we’re both in awe because Fryslan is about half as big again as Catharina) in the UK waterways and travels around the coast (Lisette shudders).
Other than socialising and working, we just took to one opportunity to pop into town proper for victuals and, on the market day, we also bought a selection of plants to put in the planter boxes. As this was just before we had planned to leave, they sat on the stern for the night.
Rob had left the day before and we decided that we would take a short trip to La Bassée and then to Arleux rather than a really long day trying to make it in one hop.
The cruise to La Bassée was pleasant but uneventful. The mooring at La Bassée is sort of a canal ‘lay-by’ as it is behind an island with an entrance and exit at each end. When we came to the first opening, there was a big ‘No Entry’ sign, new since last year because we had exited and not seen it then. So we continued a few more kilometres up the canal to the other entrance. That was OK and we cruised up to the pontoon. There was a biggish cruiser on the far end and we moored behind – but the pontoon was in a terrible state.
On our end, the deck part of the pontoon had entirely separated and was being held together by a bit of rope. The pole that was mounted on the edge and tethered the pontoon was bent and twisted. Some large boat had obviously hit the pontoon very hard. This made mooring difficult as the bow rope was on a stable part and the stern on a floating part so the movement caused by passing commercials outside in the canal soon broke the ropes holding the pontoon together.
Fortunately, the cruiser left after lunch and we moved to the furthermost end. Even this end of the pontoon was showing signs of damage although it hadn’t yet separated. Such a shame, it was a nice mooring last year.
We decided to stay because we seemed to be securely moored and our movement did not seem to be straining the weakened pontoon and set about the main task of getting the plants into the planter boxes. When we placed them on the salon roof, they looked a bit lonely and we could see that we really needed two or three times as many pots and flowers – but it was a good start. We vowed to garnish Catharina with more flowers either later this season or early next year.
Next morning we set off for a moderate run to Arleux. On the way, we passed Douai and the shipyard at Courchelettes where we had spent nearly a month last year. We were almost prepared to stop if only to reprise the splendid lunch we had at the restaurant but, by the time we arrived, it was well into lunchtime and we would probably have been too late to be seated. So we pressed on to Arleux.
The town is famous for garlic including a local speciality of smoked garlic. Each year they have a big garlic festival in September which we had just missed last year (having way too much fun on the Somme to race back to Arleux). This time we had arrived on a Sunday and when we cycled into the town, it was completely empty – virtually nothing was open. After searching for a while, we found one small store open which, fortunately, had an outdoor section that had sheaves of smoked garlic on display.
We bought a bunch and eventually hung it up in Catharina’s kitchen. At first, Lisette was not too keen on the smoky smell that wafted over as she was cooking or as we climbed up and down the wheelhouse stairs. Eventually, however, she agreed with Ian that it was a pleasant, if unusual, aroma.
Tomorrow, we anticipated our third passage of the Ruyaulcourt tunnel, hoping for a much calmer passage than the last time we traversed it in this direction.
A great read – thank you!
A lovely read, Ian and Lisette. It feels like re-living our 2017 adventure in this post. We too enjoyed Fontinettes, Béthune and La Bassée. So sorry to hear about the pontoon at the last. As you say, it was a very nice mooring in 2017 albeit a bit creaky. I suspect it wasn’t stable enough before as it seemed vulnerable to us. I’m now looking forward to your next post!