Travelling from 2 to 8 juilly 2004
After the breathtaking climb of the stairway of locks, on the Canal des Ardennes, we had logged only 26 km, for eleven hours of hard work. Before the downhill run to the Meuse river, we stopped for the night at Le Chesne, on the dividing reach of the canal.
Dockside comprised a few spaces for small boats only, with Spartan facilities: a few power outlets on one side but no water, and a water tap on the opposite side but no power. The local business community could perhaps benefit from turning it into an efficient and attractive port for pleasure craft.
For a full size barge, the only space available is to be found at the waiting dock of the local silo. Fortunately, a helpful employee showed us where we could draw power for the night. Our batteries were low and we had not been looking forward to spending the night being serenaded by the noisy generator.
Early next morning, we quickly got underway and reached the lock of Pont à Bar by noon, ready to enter the Meuse river. What a difference! In a narrow canal, sailing a large boat requires total attention because of parasitic eddies and swirls created by the bow wave and the wash from the propeller . . . but on a large river (the flow is clean, and the rudder bites on the current. This leg of the trip will be 45km long, with barely a dozen locks.
The next day, July 3, was going to be interesting. . . The Meuse valley is deep, with steep slopes plunging straight to the banks. The river carved its course during the quaternary era, when the Ardennes mountain range was pushing up, preventing alluvial deposits and creating this deep and majestic valley.
 

At the lock in Joigny, we were able to see marks left by the Meuse river, during the recent enormous floods: January 1991, December 1993, and especially February 1995, during which the swollen river completely submerged the control room of the lock. Curiously enough, these murderous floods are much less dramatic once the Meuse river enters Belgium . . . and we shall see why later.
For almost half an hour, we sailed in sight of the Rocher des quatre fils Aymon, whose outline calls to mind the legendary Bayard Horse, which carried the four heros hunted by Charlemagne.
 
Around 10am, as we came out of the lock of Deville-Monthermé, we passed a green buoy, to be left to port as we were going downstream. The channel delimited by the beacon seemed really narrow because of a small, low island close to the middle. In very slow forward I nudged the blunt nose of "d'Argile et d'Eau" to the left of the island and . . .ran aground, not hard, there was no impact, barely a kiss but enough to hold the boat firmly in place.

I called the lock in order to ask for some help from other boats going in the opposite direction. A Belgian gentleman offered a tow while we got a line to the bank, where two helpful agents of the waterway rigged a come-along and managed to free us in a collective effort. We were afloat again . . .and the little island moved away. It was a raft of dead branches.
Fortunately I had a bottle of champagne onboard, which went with my thanks to the Belgian boat, plus a magnum of the same, gratefully received by the lock keepers for their help. I forget to mention that, while we were aground, I called the supervisor in charge of this section of the canal on his mobile, only to be told that nothing could be done . . .and why didn't I call the fire department ? Three weeks later, on my way back, I learned that two of my saviours, employees of the canal administration, were admonished by their supervisor - "it is forbidden to help . . .it is dangerous for the administration . . .by helping them you could have damaged their boat and then they could have sued us. . ." Obviously the thin lexicon of this administration is shedding a few very dangerous words, such as helpfulness. . .solidarity. . . and personal initiative. . .
Running aground had wasted one hour of traveling, but that was quickly forgotten as we sailed through this magnificent valley. Alas we were deprived from seeing the famous loop of the Meuse river at Monthermé because we had to sail so close to the high bank of the canal. Anyway, it is from the air that this amazing meander should be seen as attested to by so many postcards.
 

Further into the valley, on the left bank ,we admired Les Dames de la Meuse , those enormous rocks compared by popular imagination to petrified queens. . .large queens indeed!
Finally we arrived in sight of the lock of Revin, with its 4 metres of difference in height between the two levels.
 
I had planned to stop for the night at Fumay. The quay is on the left, several hundred metres long, but with no space available . . .Hang on a minute, there is an orchestra, playing vigorously in front of the lock master's office. Must be they are celebrating our arrival . . .which must mean that there is a space waiting for us!
Further along the quay a space appears, apparently too short for us, but I bring the bow close enough to secure a line to a bollard, then another line for the stern, over the deck of a 15 m long boat from Belgium. Our stern is 10 metres from the quay and the current pushes us off, to the relief of the crew of the Belgian boat, who were fretting about being squeezed against the quay by a friendly 300 ton barge!
Mission accomplished, the band is packing up its instruments. This welcoming port is splendid, with all the amenities one can dream of : water and electrical connections, showers, laundry. . . I have never seen such a level of comfort and convenience since Mareuil sur Ay, on the canal latéral de la Marne. There is even a guest/visitors book, highly favourable except for a few grumpy comments, like this one: "With such prices, who do you think you are? A port on the Côte d'Azur? Don't forget, it is us who keep your town alive!" How charming and understanding! For my part, I found that 11 euros the night, facilities included, for the 38 metres of my boat, was more than reasonable, not to say generous! In fact, we liked it so much that we stayed a full day for laundry, provisioning, etc, although mainly to explore this beautiful little city, former capital of the slate industry, now crippled by a moribund economy. Many houses are offered for sale
 
This welcoming port is splendid

Departure from Fumay


On July 5, well rested, we got underway and soon passed in front of the very attracting port of Haybes, on the right bank, nearly empty of boats in spite of its proximity to Fumay. The Valley is becoming wider. Far to the right, thick columns of steam come straight out of the impressive nuclear power plant of Chooz and remind me of another impressive nuclear power plant, in Nogent sur Seine. Here, at the middle of this rough and wild countryside, its incongruity makes it even more breathtaking. A marked channel takes us away from the steaming giant, toward the tunnel of Givet.

Several months before undertaking this trip, during long talks with mariner friends, all of them told me: "...with your high terrace you'll never go through this tunnel, it's too low and too narrow..." Their advice was worth investigating. . . I was not ready to have to turn back at the last minute and to be forced to add an extra week of sailing. So, armed with a 3 metre long marked stick tied to the roof and bumpers of my SUVV (Strictly Utilitarian Venerable Vehicle), I drove to the tunnel, positioned my stick against the front wall of the tunnel and took several pictures. Back at home I scaled a cut of my boat and superposed it on the pictures I had taken. My square peg fits in the round hole of the tunnel! We will be able to go through!

 
The Tunnel of Givet between the locks of Ham and trois Fontaines

 

Seen by car, from the road above, the Meuse river looks ordinary, almost modest . . however sailing on it completely changes your perception. It is a BIG river!
As soon as we entered the canal, I contacted the lock master in Ham, who lowered the level in the reach by 20 cm, enabling us to go through the tunnel almost without touching.
 

The impressive nuclear power plant of Chooz

 

When we arrived at Givet, docking was easy, with plenty of space, even for a large boat. One can feel Belgium getting closer . . . At PK3 I entered the canal leading to the lock of the Four Smokestacks. The Navicarte© guide mentions a strong current. Strong? That's an understatement! The naked eye can see the difference of level between the Meuse river and the canal. On this leg of the trip, we are going with the current, fast enough for water-skiing it seems, but on the trip back, in spite of the 160 hp of the heavy diesel engine, it is going to be slow, very slow.
 

Première écluse belge : on change de gabarit ! Il tient 8 péniches comme la mienne dans le bief.

 
We are now in Belgium, and it is like a change of universe.(photo 13 bis). The size of the locks is different; gone are the pin weirs, everything is modern, hydraulic and automated. Few pin weirs have been preserved as historical artifacts. In France, these antiquated contraptions are still used, but their heavy wooden pins have been replaced by modern (wink, wink) aluminium square pipes which are much lighter. Gigantic hydraulic jacks operate steel gates. Hikers and cyclists are welcome to circulate on the passageway on the top of the gates .. .
 

 

 
These locks are operated from 6am to 10pm (compared to from 9am to 6pm on the canal des Ardennes) and, divine surprise, the cost of the navigation permit for 2 days is only 1,20 euros! I was expecting to pay the average 80 euros customary in France for the same service!
 

Between Hastière and Waulsort a huge dredge continuously brings enough gravel from the bottom of the river to fill the fleet of waiting large barges (1000 to 1500 tons) that bring their load to Holland, where it is used to reinforce the dams. This perpetual dredging of the river explains why the floods have had much less dramatic impact than upstream, in France, where the last known dredging of the river was ordered by Charlemagne!

 
We stopped for the night, a little bit before Dinart. Good depth everywhere, and plenty of bollards . . .we are in the country of friendly waterways!
We passed by Dinant and its fortress, then the Bayard Rock. This is a magnificent city which I want to come back to and explore. Endless docks on both sides
On this section of the Meuse river, the traffic is constant and heavy. Boats of all sizes, some sailing via the Sambre river toward Northern France and its large waterways, others coming back to the dredging operation, after having delivered their gravel in Netherlands. . .

Then it is Namur, its beautiful bridge and the confluence with the Sambre river. We are almost there  

One more lock, at Les Grands Malades, the first lock I have ever seen with the gates retracting laterally, and we have found our destination, which is the Chantier de Meuse et Sambre, just downstream from Namur.
 

 

 
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