2019 Barging France

Crunch time: 28/07 – 31/07

Baye – Châtillon-en-Bazois

Once again, Lady Coby set off in advance of Catharina Elisabeth with Guy and Chantal promising to keep us a place at Châtillion-en-Bazois. About 45 min later, after a delay caused by having to wait for a day-trip boat, we were in Écluse #1 facing the downhill run along the southern part of the Nivernais. We had three days to reach Cercy-la-Tour for Steve to make his train connection with a minimum of two intervening stops.

Start of the Nivernais ‘versant Loire’.

We cruised out of the lock and just after leaving, there was an unpleasant bump, grind and pitch up and down as Catharina Elisabeth hit something below. Not a great start but as we continued there were no further incidents.

Water draft, like air draft, is a surprisingly subjective measurement for us on Catharina. On the official documents (from measurements in 1961 when she worked in a shipyard) she draws 1.22 m. Our view, formed from some measurements we made while she was out of the water in Courchelettes, is that since conversion it might be five or so centimetres less. We also feel that when she is fully laden with water, the two tonnes (2000 L) which is held towards the bow would lift the stern up a bit. For this cruise, the water tank was just under half full.

‘Neo Vita’ as she then was, on the hard for her hull inspection in 2014. The skeg is clearly visible.

However, the water draft does not include the skeg that supports the rudder aft of the prop and which extends a bit deeper. It’s narrow so, it is by itself, unlikely to result in a grounding but it adds another 15 cm to the underwater profile. So, at the bottom of the skeg, it’s about 1.3 m deep. Obviously, it’s the bit most likely to hit something submerged.

Water levels in this section of the Nivernais were reportedly at least 1.4 m with a target of 1.6 m. At that minimum, we would have only 20 cm below the hull – pretty close to the bottom. However, this had been the case since Clamecy and while it made travel slow and helming hard work, we had managed OK. Our depth gauge (which stops working when there is less than 30 cm of water below the bottom of the hull) had been showing mostly 40 cm along this section, consistent with the stated 1.6 m depth (1.2 +0.4=1.6) that was the target depth for the canal.

The first part of the canal after Écluse #1 was unremarkable. The countryside was pretty and rural, the day-trip boat moored early and so we had the canal to ourselves.

As we exited Écluse #3 things got a bit more difficult.

The depth gauge gave up (never to give a sensible reading for the rest of the day) and it became progressively harder to steer Catharina as the friction between the hull and the bottom of the canal increased. We slowed to a crawl (about 3 km/h – slow speed on canals is about 6 km/h) which further reduced the ability to steer as very little water was passing over the rudder. Any slight deviation from the central path ended up with Catharina grounded on the edge of the canal. This is a feature of shallow water and canals where, as you get close to the edge, the effect of the water flow is such that the boat is ‘sucked’ towards the side. Conventional steering techniques won’t work. If you turn the rudder to push the bow towards the middle of the canal, the stern pivots into the edge, the ‘suction’ increases and the situation gets worse, not better.

Fortunately, this is not our first year aboard and Ian was aware of the technique to handle this. This he practised over the next stretch, through a succession of groundings, until he got used to the sluggish control of the helm and could keep a dead-centre path. What has to be done is to slow almost or completely to a stop and then, perversely, to turn the rudder hard in the direction that would force the bow towards the edge. A strong blast on the prop then thrusts the stern away from the edge. At the same time, the bow thruster is applied hard to force the bow away from the edge. In combination, Catharina would tend to drift sideways away sufficiently for more conventional steering and a bit more bow thruster to get the bow pointed at the centre path. All this meant we were quite busy and all the photos we have of this cruise are courtesy of Steve.

A friendly wave as we creep by.

OK, that was a bit of a learning.

Suddenly there was a crash, grind and Catharina pitched violently. Then there was another screech, bump and Catharina rolled. Then another vicious crunch and Catharina shivered all over. This went on and on for what seemed an eternity. In our heads, Catharina’s hull was being ripped open by what were clearly rocks underneath her. All we could do was push her onwards as we suffered with her. Mercifully, the awful noise and plunging gradually abated and Catharina resumed her tenacious, slow progress while we, shaking and distraught, took stock.

First, Lisette took the helm while Ian went down to check the bilges. No obvious increase in water – yet. Then we tried to work out what to do.

If there was much more of this, then clearly we were not going to be able to continue. Shallow water was clearly part of the problem but we could see spillways on the side of the canal that were right at the water level. This section could clearly not hold any more water or it would simply pour away. What we had noticed was that the edge of the canal through which we had just passed was lined with stone or concrete. Usually, the edge is packed soil with steel or wooden facings. The stone facings were not in good condition so what we surmise had happened was that chunks have fallen off, drifted down to the centre of the canal and Catharina had been crashing over those remnants.

All we could hope is that most if not all of the strikes had been on the skeg and not on the base of the hull.

There was no possibility of turning where we were so, completely unnerved, we continued – very slowly. Eventually, we reached Écluse #4, at lunchtime, and moored Catharina with her stern well out from the edge because of the shallows.

Looking back over Écluse #4 to Catharina.
Écluses 5 and 6, (#4 behind) with 7 and 8 in the distance.

The next three écluses formed a chain, three together with the gates of one opening out into the rear of the next. Steve took a few pictures of the group from the bridge that crossed between #4 and #5. In the distance, we could see the next two locks, also a chain. While Steve was taking photos, Catharina’s crew were reassessing the situation.

Right then we wanted to turn around before entering the next lock and committing to the following section of the canal, but when Ian paced out the width of the canal we could see that it did not look wide enough for us to turn, particularly with the shallows on either edge. So, we decided to continue as far as Châtillon-en-Bazois. Beyond that we would face a narrow winding stretch, the low Anizy bridge before reaching the shallowest part of the Nivernais, near Cercy-la-Tour. Even after this, all the canals that would allow us to move beyond the Nivernais were either closed, likely to close, or too shallow for Catharina. The prospect of a long return cruise under these conditions was unthinkable.

We would try for Châtillon – but no further.

After lunch we cleared through the triple lock with the only issue being that the skeg also dragged the sill as we exited Écluse #5 but given the restricted clearance for our wheelhouse under the bridge, we couldn’t have had much deeper water without problems above the deck as well as ones underneath!

Just about now was when the skeg grounded.

We passed quickly to the double locks 7 and 8 and exited – into what proved to be the shallowest section yet.

Catharina could barely move. It was not possible to push the engine hard. As the prop speeds up, it always tends to force the stern down and the bow upwards – completely counter to what we required. So Ian used just enough power to keep some motion. So slowly were we moving that the éclusier from the last lock came down to ask if we had grounded. The GPS trace shows that our average speed on this section was 1.3 km/h. Eventually, we reached the end of the straight section down from the écluses and as we turned the corner, the canal became just a fraction deeper and we began to speed along at about 3 km/h again, past attractive countryside that only one of the three of us was in any frame of mind to appreciate.

The well-kept Écluse #10 dating from 1790.

All during this phase of the cruise we were on tenterhooks – what if we met a big boat coming in the other direction. No, even a small boat would be a challenge! While we probably could pass one of the small hire craft because, with their shallow draught, they could get right to the edge – a deeper, wider boat would not be able to be so accomodating. Miraculously, we never did other than at the locks. 

Anxiously, we continued slowly until eventually we reached the deepest lock on this section at Écluse #13 and descended four or so metres to the last pound before Châtillon-en-Bazois. Very slow going again and the greatly increased width of this section simply implied to the crew (whose adrenal glands were just about exhausted) that grounding was a looming threat and so couldn’t fully appreciate the cruise past the walls and towers of the château.

The last challenge was a very sharp corner that led to a bridge into the town. Not a great design, but the bridge was reasonably high and wide and, as we were used to travelling at a snail’s pace by now, we turned easily.


One more lock, adorned with masses of lavender and, both relaxed by that, and with a view of the harbour in front, we sighed in relief as we descended in the lock.

Guy and Chantal helped us moor and then, over a roast chicken dinner that, somehow, Lisette had enough energy to cook, they joined us and we talked long into the evening about cruising, plans, Australia, France, Portugal, wines and started to relax in the company of understanding friends.


Next morning, we were gratified to find that we were still afloat and there was no extra water in the bilges. So, mercifully, no catastrophic damage from yesterday’s events.

Sunrise on the château overlooking the port.

It was time to bid farewell to Guy and Chantal who had been great company, a wonderful source of advice about wine and France and, as a parting gift, they made a call to a nearby taxi company to arrange the journey for Steve to get to Cercy-la-Tour in a couple of days. They were continuing on, but on board, we had all decided that this was as far along the Nivernais as Catharina would be going.

As it was a lovely day, we set off for a walk around the village. It was, as is often the case, very quiet. A Tabac was open and not much else. The Pizza restaurant was closed and because it had a dial-up/automated pizza dispenser instead of a door – we weren’t sure that it was going to open at any time. You make your selection from the screen in the door, and, voilà, pizza is picked up from the slot.

Not an actual door – just a pizza delivery system.

The Aron river ran under a bridge in the middle of town and nearby there was a church inside which there was an attractive choir with stained glass windows

and an exquisitely painted ceiling in the apse.

There was also a triptych of stained glass commemorating the Great War obviously commissioned by the family of two brothers killed in the conflict.

In memory of Valentine and Joseph Frenillot – died for France

After lunch, Lisette decided to relax aboard while Steve and Ian checked out how to access château where they discovered that tours were held every day at 4 pm. The rest of the day was spent unwinding and while Lisette and Ian had a relatively early night, Steve stayed up to take some nighttime shots of the village.

Next morning, we decided that we would have a bit of a cycle and a picnic before returning for our tour of the château.

Linen coverings to help keep the inside of Catharina cooler on the hot days.

We cycled along the towpath and soon came across an écluse that appeared to be out of service – the gates having been removed. Nearby was a picnic table suitable for lunch and beyond that a weir across the River Aron that you could walk across. Setting off again, we turned off the canal to head to a nearby small village. Just outside was a field of sunflowers – some were bigger than our heads.

The town was deserted and the small, rather dilapidated church, which we had hoped to visit, was locked. Lacking any other attraction, and with the boulangerie closed for lunch, we returned to the canal and stopped again at the disused lock. This time we crossed over the weir and spent a pleasant hour just wandering around the environs of the river.

Back in Châtillon-en-Bazois, we waited with a small group outside the gate to the château. Pretty much on the dot at 4 pm, a golf cart arrived and we all entered. The tour was only €4 per person. While most of the tour was in French, we were given a written English description and our guide chipped in with comments directed at us on several occasions.

There have been fortifications at this site since at least the tenth century and a substantial castle until it was largely destroyed in the 15th century. The modern château dated from the rebuilding that took place after that destruction. The current owners moved into the unoccupied château 46 years ago and have refurbished it with period furniture and made improvements to the gardens. Apart from being their residence, it also has up to 20 rooms available for guests.

There are extensive gardens both next to the château

and below next to the canal – this particular area having been landscaped by the present owners.

We also toured the fortifications, some of which date back to the 13th century.

Driven by falling weights, this device slowly turned a spit for many hours. When the weights have completed their action, the chicken is cooked!

The tour moved on to the interior of the château but we were not allowed to take photos although one of us managed some sneaky snaps in the kitchen.

The rooms we were shown were replete with quality antique furnishings, paintings and other decorations all collected by the current owners. All in all, very impressive and well worth the small entry fee.

Back in the port, we were pleased to see Petronella with Kiwis Rosemary and John come up through the lock. We had last seen them leaving Migennes just after we had arrived in June. We shared drinks and had a long pleasant chat before returning to Catharina for dinner.

Next morning, we waited expectantly for the taxi to arrive to take Steve to Cercy-la-Tour. Pretty well on time, the taxi showed up at the correct spot – a testament to both the driver’s diligence and to Guy’s organisation a couple of days ago. Steve had been a great participant in the cruising and relaxing and we had certainly shown him the highs and lows that come with the lifestyle. He says he’ll be back, so the highs must have outweighed the lows.

We moved Catharina to the other side of the port and took on a full load of water in the hope that this would raise the stern a little for the trip back. [Note added later. We’ve made more measurements on the effect of loading water and now find that Catharina settles more or less evenly as water is added. From empty to full (2,000 L), she sinks about 6-8 cm. So this was a bad thing to have done and may explain some of the problems on the return journey.Petronella left heading for Baye and we made contact with Alan our friend on Dea Latis who was expecting to arrive during the afternoon. We made a quick trip to the nearby well-provisioned supermarket to top up supplies and relaxed while waiting for Alan.

We kept in contact by VHF and when he was not too far off, we cycled along the towpath to meet him and take a few photos as he approached. Alan was on his first long cruise alone. Tragically, his wife (who we had met with Alan a couple of years ago in Béthune) had recently passed away and he had originally planned to sell Dea Latis which was in storage at Simon’s yard in Migennes. Alan had been encouraged to have a go at single-handed cruising and after a successful short trial up the Canal de Bourgogne earlier in the season, was now having his first full cruise alone.

He popped into view near the château walls,

Alan no-handing ‘Dea Latis’

turned neatly under the bridge

and Dea Latis was soon moored in the spot Catharina had just vacated. Yet another social evening ensued, providing a perfect end to a very pleasant stay in Châtillon. However, we knew that ahead of us tomorrow, we had to repeat our recent, less than pleasant, cruising experience by dragging ourselves and Catharina back up to Baye.

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    7 Responses

  1. I enjoyed your story again! I had the same problems with my 39m cargoship years ago exactly the same (dept)-problems ;)) (on the marne-saone channel)
    A question how high are you in the wheelhouse? Ours is 3.30m is that to high for the Nivernais?
    Have a good steam!
    Greetz, jm de Wijs

  2. So sorry to hear about your difficulties! Even with our .9 m draft we had some pounds where we experienced the sluggish steering and slow speeds but nothing comparable to this. It’s too bad you had to turn around but it sounds like it was the wisest choice.

    1. Yes Don, it was a shame but we were and are absolutely certain it was the right call at the time and even still. Had we been desperate to continue for some reason, without the need to return (eg had to make a winter mooring), we might have pushed on. Given we didn’t – nope!

  3. I could almost feel your anxiety there, you two. It must have been pretty worrying for much of the time. All the same, a lovely post with gorgeous photos. I’ll look forward to reading about the return haul now.

    1. It got worse before it got better Val!

  4. Could well post-date Catharina but the governing RCD rules now define the draft as the deepest reach of any part of the boat, which includes the skeg. Makes more sense.

    1. Quite possibly, Dave. Our main interest is in the Dutch scheme of official measurements. This does not include the skeg. However, we can now well appreciate that the draft including the skeg is a consideration for navigation purposes!

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