Back Towards Home
Well, it was now time to start for home – which we did by going backwards.
Our view of liquids on a barge during an unattended winter is: empty of water and full of fuel. We had been progressively depleting the former but fuel for both the engine and the heating/generator was low. Fortunately, there was a well-maintained fuel stop at the harbour at a good price. The only small issue was that it was about 250 m astern of us. So the first leg of our journey home was to reverse back to the bowser. Nice and quiet in the morning and a good opportunity to practice.
Reversing a barge can be tricky because the rudder really only works due to water being pushed past it by the propellor.
In reverse, this doesn’t happen and the flow due to the movement of the boat really has little effect on steerage. Fortunately, with a bow thruster, it is a bit like having a rudder at the bow of the barge, so this controls the direction effectively. A little bit more ‘whip’ than a rudder, but not too difficult.
So that manoeuvre went off pretty easily and built our confidence a little.
Then we headed towards Veurne.
We took a few photos of this trip but also made a time-lapse video that compresses the entire four-hour journey into a two and a half minute movie.
In the video, you will see us approach and wait at the first bridge until the arrival of the lockie who eventually kept with us all the way to Veurne. We tied up before the first bridge and called the bridge keeper, who said he was just at the lock and would be along shortly. About 30 minutes later, this lovely chap arrived in his van and set about lifting the bridge for us.
He told us our English friends were waiting for us at the lock – and when we showed our obvious confusion, he told us it was the ‘boat like ours’. So off we went on a very pleasant cruise along the river, and lo and behold, who should we see waving wildly as we turned the last bend before the Fintele lock, but Peter and Winny. We thought they would have already gone onto Veurne a few days earlier, but they had been enjoying a quiet time at the free mooring just outside the lock and had been cycling through the countryside sightseeing.
It is truly delightful meeting up with people as you cruise – often people you have really just met, and yet who already feel like old friends. In the little Fintele lock there is only space to tie up on one side, so we entered the lock first, as we are the longer vessel, and Kabouter rafted up against Catharina. The lock keeper was lovely and chatty, telling us how working the manual gate mechanism kept him very fit.
Kabouter had the centre position in the lock, so once the gates opened at the other end, off she went, with Catharina Elisabeth following behind. As our little convoy of two arrived at each bridge, it was very efficiently opened, so both of us could go through, the bridge settling down quietly behind us as we cruised on.
The Lo canal is quite narrow and rather shallow, but extremely picturesque, weaving its way through low hanging trees, with high grasses growing up the banks. Our lock keeper took us part way along the canal, until another fellow took over, and worked with us all the way to Veurne. When a string of bridges is looked after by one person, they travel along with you from one to the next, in no particular hurry, and set everything in motion as you approach. A wonderful system.
We arrived outside Veurne and were told there was work being done on the lock that formed the opening to the port, and that we would have to wait for an hour or so. But while we were searching for somewhere safe to tie up, word came that they would open it now, and let us through. Although we were instructed to follow Kabouter and then another boat (a hire boat) was meant to go third, as soon as Kabouter navigated the very narrow opening, the hire boat shot in front of us, desperate to make it into the port. Our instructions were to go through the opening, and then immediately turn to starboard and gently cruise up a narrow stretch past a row of finger pontoons and then to reverse back out to our mooring spot. It was painful watching the hire boat make a five-point turn (considering it was half our length), but eventually, they were in place.
During this time, we were literally hanging around, waiting for them to move out of the way so we could clear the lock and let the guys get back to their repair work. We already knew where we were meant to moor, so we actually continued on forwards, around a bend and there was a length of quay, waiting for Catharina to tie off. This would be her home for the next nine months. Just as we tied off the last rope, it absolutely poured with rain.
All that is in the video.
Our Last Guests
We arrived about mid-afternoon and were settling in when we got a call from Michael, and old primary school friend of Ian’s. We had arranged to have Michael and his girlfriend Amanda stay overnight on Catharina on their way to a party in the Netherlands. Messages had become mixed. Between Michael and Ian, one of them had the wrong day, the other the wrong date. Anyhow, it was all sorted quickly and we had a great dinner on board, plenty of wine, cheese and conversation.
In the 50+ years since they were at school together, Ian has only caught up with Michael once, for a few minutes in Heathrow Airport. Great to have long lasting mates!
Next morning we pottered around the town, mostly taking a leisurely browse through the quite detailed memorial to the Great War that had been set up in the beautiful old Stadhuise. During that, we learnt that despite Veurne being within artillery range of the German lines for most of the war, an agreement had been struck that so long as Veurne remained demilitarised, it would not be shelled. This deal held for most of the war and only wavered right at the end with the consequence of only half a dozen shells ever being lobbed at the town.
In addition to the exhibits on the military actions, there was also a display in a room that had been used as a courtroom during the war. It featured information about the last person to be executed by guillotine in Belgium – an army officer, Emile Ferfaille, who had murdered his pregnant girlfriend. While he was sentenced to this punishment, there were no guillotines in the tiny remaining bit of allied Belgium at the time and portable one, with its operator, had to be bought from France for the execution.
Veurne is a lovely old town, with some lovely old churches to visit when we come back.
We had a nice drink in the sunshine before Mike and Amanda left for their party (they had brought a car across from England) and then set about more work to winterise Catharina.
We now had two and a half days to do the chores required to get Catharina safe for the winter and us packed to leave.
While there is little chance of freezing weather this close to the North Sea, it is prudent to make sure that ice can’t do any damage. Fortunately, Catharina is a simple boat and all that is required is to get the water level in the main tank reasonably low and, just before we leave, to blow out the water from all the pipes. We had a valve built in last year and all that was required was to hook up our air compressor and it would empty the lines.
A last minute job. The engines and the central heating are always filled with antifreeze water so nothing is needed to prepare that area. We don’t have any below the waterline openings through the hull so that’s no problem.
Our main task was to cover all the exterior gear with plastic to protect from the constant rain, wind and perhaps snow. We only did this partially last year and the damage that was done to the two hatches showed that we mustn’t let that happen again. So we bought yards of plastic and covered the two hatches, the deck box on the stern and the spud pole and deck hatch at the bow.
We’d completed most of this when we were thrilled to get some visitors pop in. Jude and Roger have a cruiser and have been travelling the waterways for some years and, while I only knew Jude through the Women on Barges group, they had arranged to pop over from their winter spot to meet us (Diksmuide, where we had just come from – and had seen their boat, although they were not on board when we were there). Coming from England, they usually have a car with them and can do a mix of cruising, and running around to other places when they want to. Again, we had a lovely afternoon tea and chat on the aft deck. A wonderful way to enjoy one last sunny afternoon.
While walking back from the town to Catharina, Ian stopped to admire a beautiful old tug that had moored in the central harbour. A gentleman walking his dog also stopped to chat and admire the vessel. Wilfried was a local chap, born and bred in Veurne, and now retired. He spoke excellent English and talked a little about the history of the town, but one item was especially interesting.
During WW1, when the Americans finally showed up in late 1917, some were sent to Belgium. The French/Walloons were in charge of the Belgian army and the small piece of territory still in Allied hands. The Americans were especially delighted with the thin, crispy fried potatoes that were a favourite dish of the locals. Naturally, with the strong French influence, they called them ‘French Fries’. Well actually, these are not characteristic of French cuisine – nor even Wallonian food – but are Belgian and Flemish. They are not much eaten by the natives outside of Flanders and the Netherlands. So, next time you are in Maccas, it should be Belgian, not French Fries that you ask for.
We’re looking forward to many more encounters with the residents of the places through which we cruise. It is, of course, the most memorable aspect of travelling. Wilfried popped by another time or two, and gave us his card, telling us he would keep an eye on Catharina until our return. As it turned out, Catharina, was in several sets of very capable hands once we left. There was Wilfried, and Peter and Winny from Kabouter. Caroline and Andy Soper were due to arrive in Veurne a little later on to also winter here; and when Peter and Winny set off again in spring, a local lock keeper and his wife took over from them. Various friends have also sent us photos from time to time, so we can see Catharina, safely moored, and just waiting on our return.
Around the engine room preparations, we also stripped the beds and bagged up all the towels so they would be clean and ready for use next season. If we washed them on board, we couldn’t be certain they would dry in time for us to leave. So, with backpacks and large shopping bags loaded and precariously balanced on the back of our bikes, we cycled into town to do a final wash at the laundromat, where we could use the dryers. On our way into town, a car stopped and the driver was calling out to us. We couldn’t understand him, nor could he understand us, but what he managed to successfully convey was that one of the bags of washing had fallen off the bike, and was lying in the middle of the intersection. Good pick!
The final task on the morning of Tuesday, September 22nd was to blow out all the water in the lines, pour salty water into the toilet and the shower and hang the privacy/insulation curtains all around the wheelhouse windows. Leaving behind as much of our belongings as we could, ready for next season and a lot of gear stashed in the wheelhouse and the salon. We had given away the remaining perishable food items to anyone we talked to, and, with a final look around, it was time to lock the door and head off.
Just as we left it absolutely threw it down and, balancing umbrellas and backpacks, we dragged our heavy suitcases through town to the railway station, (a little over a kilometre away) casting back a fond look at Catharina Elisabeth who, despite her 100 year-old frame, had taken us 1062 km, at a respectable 7.4 km/h, through the waterways of the Netherlands and Belgium, without complaint or mishap.
What a wonderful old lady!