2019 Barging France

Marooned: 21/07 – 23/07

Clamecy – Villiers-sur-Yonne – PK103.5 – Tannay

By about now, our plans were in tatters as the Burgundy canal had been closed, isolating us from our booked winter mooring; a lock gate had failed on the Yonne preventing us from completing the loop back around to Migennes where we had started this season; and water levels were falling all around. We weren’t able to find another winter mooring near the shipyard where we had arranged for Catharina Elisabeth to be taken out for painting. But anyway, a little time later, the canal that would have taken us there was closed for lack of water.

So, as we headed out, we had no wintering spot and the only prospect we had was to cruise the length of the Nivernais, perhaps cruise a little of the Canal Lateral à la Loire to Sancerre and then probably turn around. Still, as things were still in a state of flux, no point in worrying too much. Just plan for the next event. That event was our friend Steve who was due to join us in a couple of days.

The Simple Plan

“Hey, Steve – all under control. Your plan is to fly from the UK to Paris and take a train to a town called Tannay and we’ll meet you there. The station is right beside the mooring.”

For us, the plan was a short two-day cruise, with an overnight stay at Villiers-sur-Yonne.

Not to be …

The Beginning

Again, in lovely weather we left Clamecy to begin the phase of cruising the Nivernais which was now entirely by canal, the River Yonne was not going to be navigable at all from this point on. We also had been warned that this was where the canal was going to get shallower. Notionally, it was supposed to be 1.6 m deep. Plenty for our 1.2 m draft even with adding perhaps another 10 cm for the skeg. Still, the levels had already been lowered to 1.4 m to save water and the expectation was that there would be occasional shallower stretches.

Leaving Clamecy.

While the canal allowed a pretty voyage, Ian could tell that Catharina was getting close to the bottom as speed began to fall off and the steering became much heavier. We had been in this situation before, so it was no particular issue and our depth gauge, which ceases to work reliably once there is less than 30 cm beneath us was giving us a reading most of the time.

For the lunchtime closure, we stopped at Chevroches against a wooden pontoon.

We walked past a sad, abandoned narrowboat with a VNF ‘remove or this will be disposed of‘ sign attached to it. It had obviously been covered for storage while the owners left it but they had never returned. We wondered what sad story might be behind its abandonment. Just a bit further along, our noses were assailed with the delightful smell of déjeuner being prepared in the hotel barge Art de Vivre which it turned out was getting ready to welcome its next guests in a couple of days.

We took a stroll through the small, pretty village and up to the church which unfortunately was locked and by the time we meandered back, it was time to leave. Catharina was grounded and leaving took a little bit of extra energy on the prop.


We arrived in the early afternoon at Villiers-sur-Yonne at a pretty spot in a large basin. We moored behind a lovely peniche using bollards that were set quite a distance from the edge but Lisette was up to the challenge and landed her rope first time. Beside us, the bankside and above was lightly wooded and just beyond, the Yonne was rushing past on its shallow rocky bed.

You can just see the Yonne centre right beyond the trees.

Power was available but we didn’t bother to use it and there was a €6 charge for overnight as both this mooring and the one at Chevroches are maintained and run by the Mairie at Clamecy. We had been alerted by others that the owners of the peniche had set up a sort of ‘popup’ hamburger restaurant on the bankside and in the interests of supporting this innovative waterways business, our plan was to lash out and have our evening meal there. While we were settling in, a pretty hotel boat, Colibri, passed us heading towards Clamecy

Big business on the Nivernais. Big barge too.

and a largish cruiser, which we were sure couldn’t make it through the bridge, moored up next to us.

Maybe? Maybe not?

While we were enjoying our post-cruise drink a canoe passed by, paddled by an English chap and his son – it turned out that, for many years, they had owned a canal-side house just beyond the bridge and regularly came for holidays. They invited us over for a drink and we had a very pleasant chat with Kit, his wife and family and the visitors they were hosting.

Gathering for apéritifs.

Partway through this interlude, a curious craft approached us quietly. A small home-brewed sort of vessel (which we named the ‘Green Boat‘ for obvious reasons) with a tropical bimini made up of branches and leaves. The chap steering hailed us and asked if he could moor and was it possible for him to leave some batteries with Kit to have them charged. It turned out that Xavier and his wife Marion cruised this craft mostly by using small electric motors. When the batteries were low, they used a small outboard, but this had been unreliable recently so they had been more dependent on the batteries.

Even at full speed with the fishing motor, the ducks were overtaking them.

Xavier and Marion spoke excellent English and Kit was happy to have the batteries charge overnight. After leaving them, Xavier and Marion took off, very slowly, to find a suitable mooring for the night with our offer to raft against Catharina if they didn’t find anything suitable. While we didn’t remember at the time, we later discovered that we had seen this boat near Joigny last year and thought it sufficiently unusual to include it in our blog of that part of our 2017 cruise.

We left Kit and his family so we could try out the hamburger joint which was decorated inside with bikes, Route 66 memorabilia and sundry other trinkets. The service and meal were unremarkable but cheap – however, the atmosphere was convivial and quite a few people arrived after us until soon all of the tables were taken.

The owner, an English chap, stopped by for a chat and we learnt that he and his French wife had set up this popup about seven weeks ago as a trial to fund their live-aboard cruising lifestyle. We’d have chatted more but he had a car he was trying to sell – so off he went.

Later in the evening, back on board Catharina, the Green Boat sidled up and Xavier asked if it was still OK to moor against us. Of course it was. They had found a mooring some distance away but it was near a treatment plant and the smell was too much for comfort. We had drinks and found that Xavier had a soft spot for ratafia. He also regaled us with stories of how he was friends with one of the first French astronauts who had helped repair the Hubble telescope, his work as a spy, his time flying planes in Alaska and his current profession as a master chocolatier. Marion’s stories were only slightly less interesting having taught French and English in Paris. This had morphed into a stint with fashion houses teaching staff English to work with wealthy Arab clients.  The fascinating lives of folks on the waterways never cease to amaze us!

“So sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip …”

Today was to be a short cruise to Tannay to wait for Steve – a “three-hour cruise” made famous by Gilligan’s Island. On this occasion, we were to live the theme song more closely than ever before…

We started the day with a short cruise onboard Green Boat after Xavier offered us a berth to Kim’s house to pick up the batteries. A very quiet voyage as the tiny fishing motor dragged us along under the bridge. Soon after, the French cruiser that had moored with us overnight, passed under the bridge. We had been very dubious that they would fit under it, but they had assured us that they had made the passage several times. Sure enough, they squeezed under with perhaps only just millimetres to spare.

We left Xavier and Marion to fit their batteries before continuing south, strolling back over the bridge to Catharina to prepare for our own departure. We checked in with Steve who was about to take his flight to Paris and confirmed our meeting at Tannay. Casting off, we made our own passage under the bridge and then through the lock nearby (# 42, Villiers) where we met up with Green Boat again.  They had passed through the lock earlier but had then waited for us to join them. By now it was getting towards lunchtime and the éclusière said that they were busy at the next two locks and we wouldn’t be able to pass through until after lunch and suggested we moor up in the shade just a little way along the canal.

We noted a nice shady spot and made ready to moor up.

Now, when we bought Catharina Elisabeth (Neo Vita as she was then) one of our prime requirements was to have spud poles. She has two, one in the bow and a bigger one slightly on the port side of the stern.

These poles are raised and lowered by an electric winch on a steel cable. One of the prime reasons for having these spud poles was to make mooring on waterways safer and easier when there were no mooring points. Jumping off to put in stakes is inherently risky. Strictly speaking, spud poles are not to be used on canals as they can damage the bottom of the canal, so we haven’t taken to using them routinely and indeed have not used them often at all. However, Ian felt that this once, we should check them out once more and this shallow spot meant it was a good place for a test. So, down went both spud poles and we were comfortably pinned to the edge. Green Boat pulled up behind us and a little later a Dutch-flagged barge that we had shared a mooring with at Vincelles (similar in size to Catharina), moored behind them.

We whiled away an extended lunch and Ian, Xavier and Ishmael were chatting as the VNF pulled up and told us the locks ahead were ready. In a bit of rush to get going, Ian started to raise the rear spud pole. Now, when the pole is raised, a sturdy steel pin is inserted into the spud pole housing which engages a hole in the spud pole as a safety measure to prevent the possibility of the pole falling if the wire breaks. It can be a bit tricky to align the hole in the casing with the hole in the spud pole and the motor usually needs to be driven up and down a few times to get the alignment perfect.

The steel pin should be in the lower hole.

However, there are two holes in the casing and, unfortunately, in the rush, Ian was trying to align the hole in the spud pole with the wrong hole in the casing. Unable to see the hole in the spud pole, he drove the motor up and down several times in an effort to align the hole. Suddenly the motor strained, and there was a loud ‘twang’.

“We’re not going anywhere”, he told the other two skippers.


Ian immediately knew what had happened. The wire connecting the spud pole to the motor had parted. The spud pole (some 500 kg of steel) had then fallen freely down its tube, firmly embedding itself into the canal bed, pinning Catharina in place. Removing the motor revealed the severed wire cable. The only positive was that the safety chain that anchored the spud pole to the casing was attached which provided a potential means to raise the pole.

A little bit of slack remains in the safety chain.

This had the makings of a fully-fledged disaster. Catharina was going nowhere. The only way to free her was to raise the spud pole – this was, to put it mildly, going to be difficult. Moreover, while we weren’t blocking the canal,

Catharina is 4.2 m wide. Hotel barges like the one that passed us the day before are almost 1 m wider.

we had unfortunately moored in a narrow stretch, as recommended by the young éclusière, mid-way between two écluses and everyone was going to have difficulty in passing.

Narrower than Catharina and their draft is half ours so they can get close to the bank and still move.

Worse, should a hotel barge come along, with their greater width and draft, they would be unable to pass – and would be (justifiably) very aggrieved. Given we had seen a hotel boat pass this section yesterday and another nearby, this was a very real concern. Also, there was little or no phone coverage and our guest was, by now, flying into Paris and expecting to meet us by train further along the canal. There was no station anywhere within cooee of where we were stranded, so just using a train to get to use was not going to be feasible.

This is when you need resourcefulness, friends and some luck!

First, our Dutch neighbours squeezed past us and Ishmael offered to tell the VNF at the next écluse what had happened. Kindly, Xavier and Marion said that they would not leave and would perhaps be able to help us make contact with local farmers who might be able to assist. Soon after, one of the éclusiers arrived from the next lock. His father was local and he went and collected a heavy-duty rachet. We attached this to the safety chain but while we tried several anchor points on the hull and wheelhouse, we could not get an angle that would allow it to raise the chain vertically upwards.

Attempting to find a spot for a pulley and a strong enough anchor point for the ratchet

After more than an hour of effort, he very apologetically gave up. Later the VNF came past and we also rang the sapeurs pompiers but both were unable to help as Catharina was not in any immediate danger and had not entirely blocked the canal.

Xavier suggested that he and Ian scout around to see if they could locate any farmers but at this time, they would be busy with harvesting and at least nearby, they couldn’t either find a farm or any active farmers. Meanwhile, Ian had found that by cycling along the towpath to the previous lock, there was a sufficiently strong signal to allow for phone calls. He managed to make contact with Steve who was advised to get off the train at Clamecy and we would arrange for a taxi to bring him to Villiers-sur-Yonne. That wouldn’t be until later in the evening. Xavier later helped again by contacting a taxi and arranging for it to be waiting for the train.

Back at Catharina, we decided that the next option was to try and see if there was any help available at shipyards. The closest was the yard at Chitry-les-Mines but it proved difficult for even Xavier to make them understand the problem and, although apologising, they were unable to help. So next we called Simon Evans at Evans Marine.

Motor and broken wire below, the screwdriver just to hold the safety chain. The spud pole was not settling at all.

He was an absolute champion but first, we had to suffer the lecture on why he hated spud poles – about the third time he’s delivered that to us. In the circumstances, it was hard to argue against his opinion. But then he was straight into action and asked for some photos and measurements so he could design and construct a frame to support a hoist. He said he’d do that overnight and send someone over the next morning.

With that in motion, we settled into getting dinner ready and we joined in with Xavier and Marion who had cycled to Tannay for a few supplies. While we waited for Steve, we enjoyed a canalside meal with musical entertainment provided by Xavier who, in addition to all his other skills, was also both a composer and musician.

After a bit more confusion and assistance from Xavier, we managed to get Steve and the taxi together and Xavier and Ian cycled up to the bridge at Villiers-sur-Yonne to meet him. As we walked down from the bridge, Kit hailed us and we chatted and very kindly, he gave us a loan of one of his bikes. With Steve’s suitcase balanced on the back of Ian’s bike, the three cycled back to Catharina. With Steve aboard, we now had ‘The Professor’ to join us on our desert island. It had been a long day for all of us, so after really quite minimal conversation, we tidied up, settled Steve into the guest quarters and went to bed.


The next morning, without prompting, Mark and Laurent from Simon Evans’ yard arrived. We lowered the Bimini, and with practised competence, they set up a triangular frame they had prepared overnight, placed some solid blocks of wood on the roof of the wheelhouse to make a transom to which they attached a block and tackle.

Mark finishes setting up for the winching process.

The cable from the block and tackle was attached to the spud pole safety chain and about 10cm at a time, they gradually winched the spud pole upwards. It took about 90 minutes to raise it fully, but thanks to Simon’s good preparation and Mark and Laurent’s care, the whole exercise went remarkably smoothly.

Mark, Laurent and Ian soon developed a process for raising, securing, repositioning for each incremental rise.

We put a metal bar through the cylinder including the main fitting on the top of the spud pole to anchor it securely, replaced the motor and cap, raised the bimini and we were free!

The bar passing through the eye of the fixture at the top of the spud pole to prevent it dropping again.

As there is always plenty of maintenance, while the guys worked the spud pole, Lisette started to paint on another coat of oil on the pigeon hatches. Marion gave her a French book to read and help improve her language skills. By the time the spud pole raised and secured it was lunchtime so there was no particular need to set off as we would not be passing through the next lock until after déjeuner. However, having fixed Catharina to her mooring with pins in the bank, with some trepidation, we raised the bow spud pole.

How we should have moored yesterday!

Mark and Laurent were keen to get back to Migennes so they accepted a packet of Tim Tams to nibble on for the journey and off they went. We took time to muse on how fortunate we were to have available someone as competent, resourceful and amenable as Simon, his crew and the facilities of his yard. While the rescue wasn’t cheap, the cost was immaterial. Less than 24 hours after a serious failure, Simon had us free and able to move.

Which we did immediately after the lunch break. Xavier and Marion had left just after the spud pole was raised and gone on ahead, and we found them safely settled in Tannay when we arrived a little over three hours later after an uneventful cruise that took us through four écluses,

Not much room left for sharing.

and one bridge

– which Steve immediately offered to open and close.

We arrived to find Xavier pacing out the quay to find a spot for us, but we thought it best to moor upstream of the rental boat facilities. Amanda from Le Piglet came to help with ropes, and Lisette was invited over for a quick drink after we were settled. In front of Catharina, we met Mary on Aquarius, and her friend Angie. So, naturally, drinks on our aft deck were imbibed, and more stories exchanged. Xavier popped past to invite us for dinner, but we had already committed to our own meal, so he and Marion joined us with their contribution and we shared another wonderful repast as the sun went down after a long but most interesting day.

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    4 Responses

    1. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

  1. Small world. We had the pleasure of the company of the green boat rafting alongside for the Assumption Day fireworks display in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in 2018. A very eccentric couple, to say the least!

    1. Sure is Don. As we travelled further, we found several others who had met Xavier and Marion, all with that view. It’s what makes it so enjoyable and memorable to meet other cruising folk. And they helped us a lot during this trial.

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