Captain's Log

The Tiger Rose Part 2

The-Rhine-262006 186x186It was decided to spend a month working out of Luxembourg, There is a good airport at the capital which allowed the owner to fly in from St. Petersburg, Russia, in his private aircraft. 30 minutes after clearing Customs & Immigration, he could be aboard his barge.

The fine and dry summer days of September slowly turned into cool crisper mornings, the river glass like under heavy morning fog. With children back in school, the river scene had become a lot quieter. The stillness of those fog shrouded early mornings are still in my mind; quite magical and remarkable for the way the slightest sound was carried for great distances. People bicycling to work along the river road, distant some 200 meters, could be clearly heard chatting away to each other (if you understood the dialects of Luxembourg), the constant hiss of a barge’s bow wave on the river, the regular sound of oars from the rowing eights on the river, bird song, and high overhead the unmistakable, almost organ like note, from the pinion feathers of flights of swans doing their warm up exercises in preparation for the long flight south, all fading in and out It gave the scene a dream like quality.

Curiously enough, it is said that due to the slight, but permanent, rise in water temperature caused by the cooling water output of the vast power generating stations scattered along the Moselle, among other notable things, is that the preference of the swans is now not to fly south for the winter; it no longer seems to be on their agenda. One supposes they have the instinct so bred into them to get ready for the migration, that they cannot resist the urge to prepare for the journey by strengthening their wings. Whatever the cause, it adds an unusual and attractive sound to the quality of early mornings.

The marina is no distance from the borders with France and Germany, so we soon got into the local custom of shopping with some distinction for the best of buys to be had internationally. Gasoline & diesel prices are best in Luxembourg, so the gas stations are filled with French and German customers, processed and fresh food were much better in quality and price in France, so a day spent in the huge Carre Four hypermarche in Thionville or ferreting around the streets of down town Nancy were to be welcomed, as they inevitably meant long lunches under the slowly yellowing leaves of the plane trees of the town squares. Later we had the opportunity to tie up in these towns. It is so convenient to be so close to the old heart of the towns. The fact that the rivers and canals so often have been the reason these communities were first established, gives the lie to the older, and more charming parts, to be close by. A walk of but a few minutes and you can be having coffee in the shadow of the cathedral, or in a square dating back to Roman times.

With the owner of the vessel coming down for week end cruises only, we took a day off mid week to investigate the area. Across the river, on the German bank, lies the ancient town of Treve (Trier to the French). The visual and mental impact of the Roman ruins is very impressive. They are, first of all, very well excavated, and in a wonderful state of preservation… One has the distinct impression, in some parts of town, that the Romans have just gone away for a few days and will be back tomorrow. It is a town everyone should visit at least once in their lives.

However, this is about life on the river, so one must move on! But first, let me try and give you a better picture of the interior of TIGRE ROSE. As I said, the of’c’sle is small and cramped. Lack of insulation became more evident at the air and water temperatures dropped. Mornings saw one huddled under a pile of bedding, with all metal fitting dripping condensate, which took hours to dry out. None the less, it was nicely finished in white Formica; light varnished pear wood trim and dark blue soft furnishings (corner sofa & curtains etc, with red throw cushions. A captain’s cabin to starboard, deck access ladder and mess to port, with a single berths and a shared head/shower finished off the accommodations. A third Pullman berth was for the summer help.

Just one of the trade secrets of TIGRE ROSE, was that if the bow thruster became air locked, which it did at almost every lock, it had to be bled. This was as a direct result of either being at the front end of the lock where the aerated water came in an unnerving torrent, or sitting astern of a large commercial barge with its propeller ticking over and again aerating the water. Of course, until we got used to it, this happened every time it was our turn to move out of the lock. Started by a shrill girlish cry from me, the Chef would drop what he was doing and run, panic stricken, from down aft below somewhere, up through the saloon, the wheel house, bound down the side alleyways and then, disappear like a rat, down into the forepeak., to bleed the bow thruster air vent, all this accompanied by irritable whistles, laughter and calls from the crew of large commercial craft anxious to be on their way. One way or another, it was quite a work out.

Abaft the of’c’sle is the Master Suite, which, if you have seen John Bannenberg’s work, you will realize is quite breath taking. Light blues and whites, pear wood trim, silver and gold plated accent rails and handles… you get the picture? The sleeping quarters are set to port, with a large his and hers bathroom, through decorated sand blasted plate glass, to starboard, with a marble lined shower forward, a large vanity area with hand basin and then a deep bath aft. Large opening chrome plated port holes and deadlights provided lots of natural light, besides the very elegant light fittings and close fitted carpet throughout. Next aft two mirror cabins, to port & starboard, with en suite showers and heads, with Pullman bunks inboard, for a third party or child.

Next aft is the saloon with a huge (15’ x 6’) plate glass sky light, fitted with a white cotton muslin electrically operated pull curtain. The sofa is set to starboard, looking across the3 saloon to a large flat screen TV set below the side windows. Outside, to port and starboard, the side deck bulwark was cut away to give those in the saloon a wide screen view of the passing scene. Abaft the saloon, to starboard and walled off, is the galley. Small but fitted with every modern appliance one can imagine, it was also fitted with a dish washer, oven & glass topped stove.

Next aft, top starboard down below decks to a small workshop/laundry room, with washer and dryer, and access to the engine room and lazarette. Then, up the steps to the wheelhouse/dinning saloon, a large open and airy space, with sliding plate glass doors and fly screens all round, giving, in effect a 360 degree view of life on the river.

Chef turned out some quite amazingly delicious and beautifully presented meals, with yours truly switching roles from captain the steward, while Chef, dressed in the evenings, in his finest, followed up to enthrall his trapped audience with exactly what his work of art entailed – and often to identify it! – and what wines they would be drinking. Although I say it myself, we ran a real class operation between the two of us. Up with the birds and into town for fresh bread and market produce, croissant, pain au chocolate etc, news papers, a quick café stop for an espresso accompanied by an eye watering eau de vie to kick start the day, and then back aboard. He to make a truly elegant breakfast, while I did the engine room, pumped ship, watered ship and then on deck to wipe away the dew and set things to rights. By 08.30 she was ship shape and Bristol fashion, and in the early morning sunlight, with flags flying and stainless steel and paint work gleaming and looking quite jaunty, if I say so myself, she was a joy to behold.

Abaft the dinning saloon is the teak aft deck, with alleyways on either side forward to the break in the deck, up steps to a raised main deck with neatly built in stowage lockers and a Jacuzzi. Forward of the Jacuzzi is a sunken open deck lounging area fitted with deck mattresses, covers and an awning. All in all, a very tiddly ship, as the pictures show.

It was decided that the barge would return to Holland by way of the French and Belgium canals. Once on our way and into the French canals, we stopped at Apach. The first lock in France, where we completed paperwork and got our vignette (decal in the bridge window) which cost us 80 Euros, it being pro-rated for the last quarter of the year. This covered the cost of using the canals of France for the balance of the year. The decal also kept the authorities off our backs, as in the Gallic tradition, having paid the fee cleared the way. Now it was just a matter of keeping our noses clean and we could go where and when we pleased.

All the way along the Moselle, there are locks enormous locks handling tens of thousands of tons of water at every cycle. They are all immaculately maintained and run. However, you really must be on your toes to avoid disaster. Once the Lock Master throws the switches, the water level changes very quickly and you need to move your dock lines, up or down, without screwing up, otherwise you will find your vessel either hanging off the lock wall, or being dragged under. The Lockmaster has a lot to keep an eye on and may not always realize your predicament until it is too late. If he thinks your vessel is not properly manned, he will not allow you into the lock. Idle chatting or cell phone conversations etc., which take your attention off the task in hand, will bring down his wrath in the form of verbal abuse through the lock loud speaker system, leaving no one else present in any doubt as to exactly which boat crew he is addressing! As it also takes some time to shut the sluice gates, there is considerable risk of damage and injury, not only to you, but to others in the lock.

The Canal de l’Est joins the Canal de l’Est at Troussey. But to get there we left the Moselle at Tioul, on the Canal du Marne et Rhin, for Troussey. Having got so used to the broad bosomed river it is a shock to the system to get into to canalized waters. Shortly before leaving the river, one steams under a road bridge with a long pole hanging down. If you wish to use the automatic lock at Tioul, you steer under the pole and give it a tug. Around the bend, this starts the automatic sequencing of signal lights and lock operations.

Here one is introduced to the older, or Freycinet, canals, which are narrow and occasionally in need of attention where a canal bank may have collapsed, or where the water has become shoal at a bend. Theses have served the French economy well for almost two hundred years. The locks are uniformly 5m50 wide and about 35m long. Sometimes new lock gates have been installed inside the old ones, effectively shortening the lock. TIGRE ROSE, with a beam of 5m20, left us with a mere 5cm. a side to play with. Ones predicament is more than adequately illustrated by the fact that EVERY other barge has topsides finished with tar, long scratches/gouges, dented bows etc., speaking volumes about tight lock entrances. Without doubt she is a barge for the rivers.

It also means that fenders are useless, so most beamy barges use wood blocks or bits of old mooring rope. However, the end result is that, going up, you scrape off the mud that clings to the lock walls onto your lovely clean decks. The gleaming dark blue AWLgripped topsides become buried under a layer of mud. This dries quickly, but gets everywhere before forming a hard clay layer which can only be washed off with hose and deck brush – only to have it all happen at the next lock. When you figure that you may transit 30 – 40 locks a day, the prospect dims the eye with tears. The water is very hard with what the French call calcaire, which leaves a residue when it dries, making it necessary to do a final sponge/chamois down with water from the ship’s tanks. Well, you know what dark blue is like.

You will readily imagine the sense of horror that this produced in the owner, seeing his lovely multi-million dollar yacht barge reduced to a ball of mud before his very eyes. He leapt to the side with a fender in hand, only to have it burst. Trying to shove off, he got covered in mud. One couldn’t but help feel terribly sorry for him.

However, there was a vestige of satisfaction to be had, although I had to clean up the boat. (a) He had become rather tardy with paying for our services, and (b) I had told him, in my best stunted English, that effectively the barge is too big for the Freycinet canals – all to no avail. It is akin to telling a yacht owner that the weather is too bad to proceed, but you go in any case to prove the point. It is only when he, his wife and family turn green that he realizes the error of his ways. However, by then, it has become a matter of face, so you proceed into the teeth of the gale.

In just such a manner we continued down the canal to Tioul. Where he decided he had enough. Along the way were a couple of opening bridges – again with 5m50 width – which we had to squeeze through. Eventually, just before dark, we found a berth at the town marina basin. The owner, too depressed by the thought of witnessing his barge yacht being trashed, decided to return home. Because of our draft, (1m50) we were quite a way out and were forced to scamper up bushy banks and over hedges to reach the street level, where it was possible to arrange for a taxi. Such are the virtues of having a private plane, that one is not obliged to trawl the internet looking for flights. One tells the plane captain to show up wherever, whenever, jump in a cab – end of problem.

It also now came down to the wire as regards money, he being most reluctant to leave enough cash aboard, or a credit card, to enable us to proceed. One way or another, he managed to produce 500 Euros from an ATM. This did not bode well.

Yet another attempt to indicate that the route he had chosen was bad news for the vessel, failed to move his heart, and he departed with instructions to remain on course to meet him at Verdun, where he would again join us at week’s end. It was well after 10pm, and pitch dark, that I finally managed to get the last of the mud, slime and weed off the boat. Day light showed I had done a very indifferent job, but by breakfast time the old girl started to look something like her old self. Closer inspection showed more than a few scratches. The stainless steel sacrificial rub rails were simply too light to prevent some serious looking dings and scratches.

In Tioul is an office for the Canal de l’Est administration, so it was there that I wound my way to get the latest info on exactly what we could expect negotiating the next 60 or so locks between Tioul and Verdun. It was now getting towards the end of October. Days were getting shorter and greyer, and the winds more chilly. Autumn was in the air – and time for the annual canal maintenance to begin. However, an extremely nice gentleman, high up in the organization, assured me that if we could complete the passage to Pont a Bar, NW of Sedan, within 10 days, we would be in good shape. Work, he stated clearly, was not due to start until early November. He kindly drove me to a book shop on the other side of town so I could get an invaluable copy of Chagnon’s Carto-Guide Fluvial. The names of towns in the country ahead of us rang with the military hubris of the First World War – the Marne, the Sambre et Meuse, Verdun, Namur etc. I could hardly wait!

He delivered me back to the TIGRE ROSE after insisting I have a café cognac and bade us farewell. The Chef and I fired things up and negotiated our way under the first bridge, staring rather bold pigeons in the eye as they roosted on the bridge girders. One was irresistibly reminded of the phrase flying rats used to describe them. Soon we were out of town and deep in the utterly delightful French countryside. Peace and quiet, green fields, horses and cattle and the occasional distant tractor rolling hay into those enormous bales that sit in the fields all winter, covered in black plastic. Great clouds like Spanish galleons, bulging with autumnal showers, sailed before the brisk wind across the land.

Due to head room restrictions at the first bridge, I had removed the radar scanner from its mount atop the wheelhouse and, once clear of the bridge, had replaced it. Later, much later, as I was peering at the screen, I found it difficult to grasp that, apparently, ahead of us lay a radar picture showing a landscape looking nothing like the one my eyeballs were looking at. The scanner, I thought, must be just high enough to see ahead around the bends. One could even, I discovered with some satisfaction and excitement, see a slight trace ahead of the barge in the canal where we were going, as though the waters expected us. God! I thought, what a wonderful invention that, given the right set of circumstances (i.e., that you really do not need its magic eye at the time) could actually see, even if not to any great depth, into the immediate future.

I sat, glassy eyed, at the helm contemplating this wonder, until Chef emerged from his galley bearing fresh coffee and home made cookies. I took the time to explain the wonders of modern science to him, and point out just how remarkable, not to mention unusual, this anomaly was. He grasped the radar set in his flour covered hands, and peered unknowingly into it. In view of the coffee & cookies, what could one do but be as nice as possible. He looked up, giving me rather a strange look. Silly bugger, I thought, he really has no idea what he is looking at.

He lowered his head to the screen again, and after a moment, said You evidently put the scanner backwards on its mount.

Look, I said, as amiably as possible – a bad person to fall out with, the Chef – if you don’t appreciate what you are looking at, forget I said anything.

You look, you silly bugger, he said. Take a look behind us & then at the radar, and you’ll see. That trace on the water is our wake!

It was with a faint sense of embarrassment that I had to ask him to take the helm, while I went up with wrench & screw driver to once more dismount the scanner and install it the right way round. I hoped that he would soon forget the gaffe, but days later he was still dinning out on it, regaling complete strangers about my inability to see into the future.

Around midday, we came up on Troussey and entered the Canal de l’Est proper. This meant dropping down two adjoining locks and providing a wonderful view across the plain below. Several more locks were negotiated, resulting in some more scratches and bruised feelings, until we arrived at the Comercy locks. Here a jolly lock worker leaned on the canal railing and chattily asked me where we were going. A bit stupid, I thought, as there is only one way to go – where the bow was pointed. To Verdun, and then into Belgium, I told him.

Oh no you’re not, he said with some relish, we’re going to drain the canal. It turned out that due to circumstances to the west, they decided to bring forward the winter work schedule, and were due to shut the canal down the very next day.

I said something about, well we’ll just leave the barge alongside the town dock while they fixed the problem.

No, he said. We’re not just going to drain the canal, we’re going to empty it for the winter. This gave us a time frame of about 5 hours to turn around and negotiate out way back to Troussey locks and into the Canal du Marne et Rhin.

Our first problem lay with deciding exactly where the canal would be wide – and deep – enough to turn a 30 meter barge. In addition to the 30m LOA, we carried a launch in davits over the stern, effectively giving us a length of about 32m. – wider than the canal.

Backing up some several hundred meters, we eventually we found a spot with a solid canal wall on one side, and a small reedy spot opposite. We hung two of our biggest & best fenders over the bow and slowly approached the wall. Once we made contact, I put the engine into slow ahead and was able to motor the vessel around, eventually getting her at right angles to the wall. At this point the launch was hanging well over the tow path and we were kicking up a lot of mud. This is where keel cooling comes into its own. Eventually she came around, on the other tack, so to speak, and we were able to re-trace our original track.

Keel coolers are not quite as straight forward as one might hope. Yes, they preclude the necessity of having to carry a lot of raw water pump spares. However, as the season progresses and the canal water cools, the engine simply can never warm up to a reasonable working temperature, meaning that the fuel doesn’t get properly burned, and the lube oil stays a bit thick and sluggish. This means that engine heaters are the order of the day, and that the keel cooler valves need to be tuned to allow less coolant into them. If ship’s hot water comes from being run through the engine heat exchangers, you don’t get much in the way of hot water either.

Eventually we arrived back at Troussey, but after dusk, and moored along side the town dock. The poor barge looked unspeakably sad and beaten up. We decided to drown our sorrows ashore in a small but excellent restaurant with a décor and atmosphere straight out of the 1950s. A lovely young waitress came over, and having seated us, brought over drinks and the menu. She then gave a ravishing description of what was on offer, and we both promptly fell in love with her. Much of what passed that evening, what we ate, drank or talked about, I never remembered, so caught up was I with her; so pretty, sexy, succulent, mouth watering, amusing, witty, great ass…

What needs to be said, and I might as well say it here is, wherever we went in France, Germany and Holland, despite the fact that we are American, we were treated with the utmost courtesy and friendliness throughout our stay, people of casual acquaintance – or no acquaintance at all – going out of their way to help, explain or give their time. The only thing people refused to do was discuss the Bush administration and the war. I think they realized how uncomfortable it would make us feel, and they don’t have it in them to do that.

Traveling Europe by barge is a wonderful experience that I would recommend to all. The pace is slow. At day’s end it comes as a surprise to realize that you are only about 30 miles or so from where you started that morning. If you like the feel of a place, well, you just decide to stay for a while. Planning ahead, as one would in a yacht, is a pointless affair. It seems to take no time at all to settle into a pleasant pace of life that allows you to smell the flowers and see Europe from a rarely seen point of view.

Next day we decided to head back to Luxembourg and re-group. It was a long day’s haul, and we tied up just as darkness fell. How we got to Holland is another story.

To be continued

Captain Paul F. Squire

Captain Paul F Squire

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