2019 Barging France

Once more unto the breach: 1/08 – 5/08

Châtillon-en-Bazois – Baye – Sardy-lès-Épiry – Chitry-les-Mines

So having decided that the chances of further grounding and the incipient closure or lowering levels in the canals to the south would make cruising onwards from Châtillon-en-Bazois impracticable, we activated our new plan (version ZZ) and turned around. We would spend the balance of our time on the Nivernais and part of the River Yonne. There need not be any rush. We also had three more sets of guests to host and altogether, this would give us a chance to give the short-relaxed cruising lifestyle a thorough workout. But first, we had to retrace our last, dreadful cruise.


After a deep breath, we took Catharina Elisabeth into the first lock hoping that our experience and perhaps better luck would make the return cruise to Baye fairly routine.

It was not to be.

We cruised up towards Écluse 13 and passed under the bridge to wait in front of the gate. This enclosure is fairly short, less than 40 m so we were in snug. We expected the éclusier to have the lock empty having been advised of our approach by the éclusier at the Châtillon lock we had just left. No one showed up and nothing seemed to be happening. Just as I was preparing to use the phone, the éclusier showed up at the top of the lock and shouted down that he had a boat in the écluse that was coming down so we would have to reverse out. Unwelcome news! We had hoped that at this first lock since leaving we would have beaten any downstream boats.

The GPS track shows where Catharina’s wheelhouse was during the gyrations while waiting for the gates to open.

Still, Ian tried. And tried. And tried – to no avail. In an enclosed space, with rocky edges threatening the prop, current from the overflow from the lock and the narrow bridge, Ian simply couldn’t get Catharina lined up to reverse back out beyond the bridge. “OK” the éclusier grumbled, wait there – he was going to cycle the lock. I shouted up lots of encouragement for “doucement” and “lentement” (softly, slowly) in emptying the lock and while the outflow was tricky, it did seem that he had tried to help us. Ian pushed Catharina’s bows right up to the gates to prevent us from being pushed into the rocky banks and nursed the prop to keep us steady.

Waiting for the écluse to empty with Catharina trying to leave space, maintain position and avoid the rocks beside and behind.

Eventually, the flow stopped, the gates opened, and a cruiser emerged looking at us darkly as we carefully moved past them to enter the écluse. We proceeded with the lock cycle without my normal conversation with the éclusier. It was really a bit of poor judgement on our part – we shouldn’t have assumed that we would be going into an empty lock, although one could be forgiven as we had literally just had this conversation with the previous éclusier. Instead, we should have waited downstream of the bridge. Another learning!

Despite this poor start, the rest of the morning proceeded uneventfully. We could only just make 3 km/h, and Ian found the handling was very stiff and the depth gauge remained on holiday. We were passed by one hire boat and another that we passed moored to the edge and, on both occasions, we were relieved that Catharina Elisabeth did not get grounded as we had to move much closer to the bank than we would have liked.

The sight we always hoped for – clear ahead and no other boats.

Again, the approach to Écluse 8 was dreadfully slow but a little faster (at 2 km/h) than the first cruise. We waited in the open section between the two écluses over lunch and then ascended the triple locks once the éclusier returned. Then we were into the horror pound, between Écluses 4 and 3. Sure enough, as soon as we reached a section with concrete edges, the crunch, crash, grind and pitching began again. It was as horrible as last time but at least we knew it would end – eventually.

Once we cleared this section, Ian quickly checked the bilges – still no evidence of any leak through the hull. But it felt (and sounded) as though she was being torn open like a sardine can. We pressed on until we came to the stretch leading up to Écluse 3. This was the shallowest yet. The engine had to be wound right up and even then Catharina was only creeping forward. Ian found steering was almost impossible. Just before we entered the lock, we almost stopped entirely (our minimum speed was 0.75 km/h according to the GPS log) – then edged thankfully into the chamber.

There were some pretty villages along the way, although we weren’t really in the frame of mind to fully enjoy them.

It was slow going up to the next lock but then onto the final stretch to Écluse 1 and the deep water of the Baye mooring. We moved ahead comfortably and the gates of the lock came into view. Suddenly all hell broke loose. Crashing and grinding again but much more violent pitching. We had hit one rock on the downhill run but now it was a constant succession of strikes. It never stopped over the last 100-200 m and we caromed off the last one into the écluse. As the gates closed we tried to gather our composure for the ascent into Baye. Shattered, we motored out of the lock into a stretch of water that did not make our teeth grind and hearts pound.

We quickly picked a mooring and I settled the ropes while Ian again went down to see if Catharina was taking on water. Nope, thankfully. Once we were safely moored we silently fortified ourselves with a cup of tea. Too tired to think about a meal and totally spent, at 5 pm, we decided to go to bed. Just at that point, Xavier and Marion pulled up beside us on their bikes – they were moored nearby. I had to tell them we were shattered and couldn’t face socialising and so they left us, wishing us well.

Not a scenic mooring but “any port in a storm”.

That night, we were as close to giving up on the barging lifestyle as we had ever been. After Ian made another check of the bilges, and with our mental reserves completely drained, we pulled down the shutters on this dreadful day.

The Sardy Flight

The next morning, still not in a good frame of mind, we debated whether to stay for a while in Baye to recuperate or press on. A rest was called for but we found the incessant cold wind that blew off the lake unpleasant and the thought of cowering inside didn’t appeal. So, I contacted the éclusier at the first lock and informed him we would be leaving. He gave us a time when we could start on the tunnels.

Starting the cruise past the bridge and onto the tunnels as the light is green.

We cast off and had to wave our apologies to Xavier and Marion as we passed. The lights changed and off we went.

Cruising from one tunnel to the next.

The tunnels and cuttings passed without any particular issue and after a bit of delay over lunch, as the écluiers sent three hire boats ahead of us so we could have the écluses to ourselves, we were off down the pretty Sardy flight.

A pretty lunchtime mooring just outside the start of the tunnels.
Busy start to the decent - changeover day at the Bailly rental port.
The decent beckons
No shortage of water at the top of the Nivernais with the overflow running strongly.
Much busier today at the funky cafe!
The metalworker's écluse and some of his work.
Is he suggesting we should try again? Sorry, no!
A pretty lunchtime mooring just outside the start of the tunnels.



All was going smoothly and our confidence and good spirits began to return – one bad day does not a winter make. We only had one bit of excitement on the descent which was otherwise, straightforward and enjoyable.

We exited from Écluse 7 and entered the short pound that led to Écluse 8. The downstream lock had a hire boat in it so Ian had to go slowly and swing wide to give it plenty of room to get past us when it left. However, it seemed to take an eternity for them to exit. When they eventually did, by this time, we were almost upon the lock but well wide of the gates. Ian attempted to realign with the gates but misjudged and suddenly we were heading directly at one of the open gates – and it was one of the heritage wooden ones.

Approaching Écluse 8 – things were going to get exciting!

The éclusier jumped up to try and fend off 50+ tonnes of steel with his bare hands (!) but, pedal to the metal and in reverse, Ian managed to just pull Catharina up in time. After a bit of reversing, Ian repeated the approach a bit more judiciously and passed this lock and the remainder of the flight without further incident.

After passing the potter’s house and enjoying the views of the metalwork sculptures, we turned the corner after the sixteenth and final écluse and there was the Sardy mooring in front with several boats already moored but there was plenty of room for us. The sun was shining and with just the prospect of a familiar route ahead of us for the rest of the season, we were feeling much better.

Cause for celebration brought out some of our precious stock of the World’s Best Beer.

We stayed around doing not much, I did a bit of painting, we had a bit of swim and we did some rope repairs. We took a stroll back to the potter’s cottage at Écluse 14, and I managed to pick up a number of pieces, including a stoneware ice jug. As we were now regular customers, the potter gifted me an additional small bowl “un cadeau madame”.

While we were there, Ian was fascinated to watch a flying creature busily taking nectar from the masses of lavender out in the front. For all the world, it looked like a small hummingbird. If it was a butterfly, then we’d be certain that the crew of Chalkhill Blue 2 would be able to tell us what it was instantly. So here’s a test of their range of insect recognition – do you know what it is Neil or Karen? We eventually found it on Google. We’ll put the answer in the comments later.

YouTube player

We also had a delightful surprise one evening when a car pulled up alongside Catharina from which Muriel and Didier emerged (our friends from Chamoudi in Migennes). They had been visiting friends in Corbigny and had somehow heard we were on our way back (the ‘long-village’ grapevine in action) and thought they would check out a couple of the nearby moorings. Such a lovely friendly thought. We had a quick chat and a laugh before they had to head off to other commitments.

While we were there, it was time for a ‘New Grand Plan’ – heaven knows what iteration this one was. As we were now totally hemmed in between the broken lock on the Yonne, the rocks and shallows beyond Baye and the drought-stricken Canal de Bourgogne – we would be spending the rest of the season on this part of the Nivernais and the short section of the Yonne upstream of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. Wintering would be back at Simon Evans’ yard. There were still about six weeks left for cruising including three sets of visitors. Clearly, no need to rush and we did not find it at all unpleasant to be ‘trapped’ on one of the prettiest canals in France.

While hanging around at the delightful Sardy mooring, our Kiwi friends on Petronella arrived down from Baye and a short time later, some Aussies arrived on Quercy up from Chitry-les-Mines. Soon we were chatting with the neighbours, Ian making a fool of himself by denying he had met Rita and Jeff on Quercy despite having had drinks with them in Perth and a cuppa in Migennes earlier in the season. Memory like a sieve! Soon we were set up in the shade with the three crews and Petronella’s visitors enjoying a chat and having fellow cruisers empathise with our experiences on the last two cruises.

This is more like it …

All of us were leaving the next day. Quercy left early for Baye and John and Rosemary, the early risers, left on Petronella well before us – and expected to be in Chitry-les-Mines before midday given they, with their shallow draft, can move somewhat faster than we are able to.

Three antipodean barges.

Very much less stressed after two quiet days, we set off, slowly, on the relatively unthreatening route to Chitry-les-Mines.

Again, pleased to see no oncoming traffic!

We arrived to find that, while the harbour was almost completely filled, John and Rosemary on Petronella had arranged with John to keep a space for us on the end of the quay. Bless them.

Prime position for the upcoming events and Catharina decked out for our next visitors.

With the prospect of easy cruising along a route we had already travelled, relaxed stays, new friends and guests to be enjoyed, we realised that we were back in the cruising mindset and the two days of travel to and from Châtillon-en-Bazois were now just a learning experience and story for us to tell.

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    4 Responses

  1. I still have one bottle of that “finest beer” left. It’s from 2017 but the penultimate bottle I had last week tasted just like I remember!

    1. Good to hear the stored bottles are holding up – we have a four or so in our bilges awaiting our return – perhaps for a celebratory drink after our first cruise.

  2. Nice to read… 0,75m an our….whahha thats really shit!
    A question, how deep is your barge? And how high?
    Ours is ca 3.45 high. And ca 1m deep.
    20m x 4,75m.
    Have a nice season!!

    1. Hi, we’re about 1.25 m deep but there is a further 10 to 15 cm with the skeg – that’s what probably was hitting the rocks. At 1.0 m you would have no particular problem on the Nivernais but I think your air draft would be a problem. There are two bridges that I doubt you could get under unless there is some way to reduce it. Good cruising yourself!

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