Liberty's Last Voyage

Over the past three weeks Liz and I - and later with help from friend Shaun - have been taking Liberty on her last voyage. It's not been without drama.

After wintering over at the small port of Sillery 10kms south of Reims, where in February and March the boat was subjected to ice and snow, it was great to arrive in early April to find her in such good condition. It's almost as though the boat fairies had been on deck and done some cleaning, but maybe the snow did that.

Anyway, we did all the usual checks, topped up with water, did some shopping for provisions and set off on 2 April, in breezy and cloudy conditions. No shorts or sunblock yet!

We spent a few coolish days - including some showers - heading for Vitry le Francois where our aim was to join the Champagne to Burgundy canal and then head basically directly south to the busy inland port of Saint-Jean-de-Losne, the very place we bought Liberty in August 2013. But no. The French waterway authority had decided to use April to do major work on the canal, and we discovered that beyond Vitry it was empty; nothing but a sad trickle of muddy water at the bottom of the cut.

What annoyed us more was that we hadn't thought to check the VNF's schedule of chomages (closures), instead assuming that 1 April was generally regarded as the end of winter and the start of the season, and that any engineering work would have been completed.

So, a quick study of the maps and we worked out that we could still get to St-Jean by going the long way round via the Canal des Voges, but it would extend the journey by a week and dramatically increase the number of locks. Ordinarily that wouldn't matter except that we were aiming to be in Saint-Jean-de-Losne by 19 April so that Liberty would be on display and for sale in time for the 'Salon Fluvial' boat show weekend on 21/22 April. We could still just make it by cruising some long and busy days, but it would be tight. We set off.

The spring leaves on the trees were budding, blossom was blooming, and we heard more birds than we ever had before, so the boating days, though long, were pleasant. The sun even came out a few times and the temperature climbed, though being spring it was always variable. And so we cruised, tackling many, many locks, and an almost-five-kilometre-long tunnel which we entered only ten minutes before it closed.

Which meant that one of the poor VNF staff had to ride along the tunnel ahead of us on the towpath in order to raise a barrier at the other end, then ride all the way back again. Poor man; we gave him a few bottles of beer for his troubles and he seemed grateful.

Back in England Shaun was following our progress and biting his lip as he was due to rendezvous with us, but had had to change his plans due to the canal closure. We now arranged to meet him at Toul, where he duly turned up, ready to take over from Liz as crew in a few days.

So for a short while Liberty had a crew of three and we made good progress (and had lots of laughs and drank lots of wine!), but Liz finally had to return to London for work, and it was a grey and gloomy morning both in reality and metaphorically when she said her final farewell to Liberty, and a temporary au revoir to me.

And then the sun came out. Typical. When Liz left she was wearing a fluffy jacket and scarf, but by the time she got back to London Shaun and I were in shorts and the temperatures were in the mid-to-high 20s (Celsius). Spring suddenly went into overdrive as the leaves brightened and greened visibly each day.

The fine weather peaked and held as we cruised along the very pretty Canal des Voges, often greenbanking overnight in isolated spots, very occasioanlly at a halte nautique. While Shaun steered I worked on some much-needed jobs on board since there was no time to stop and undertake any travail. But checking the schedule it looked like we would still make our destination with a day or two to spare.

At the small but charming town of Fontenoy le Chateau we took advantage of power and water, supplied by the local le boat hire company who were preparing their fleet for the coming season, and had in fact already hired out a few craft. Other than them we hardly saw any other boats during the journey as it was still very early in the year, and realistically most boaters don't even think of boating before the first of May. However, given the glorious weather we were experiencing I bet may of them were wishing they hadn't waited!

With Shaun at the helm it gave me time to use my camera and try and capture some more of the canal wildlife. Overhead there were kites and buzzards, ahead the iridescent flash of a kingfisher, on the banks herons, storks, even goats, and in the water coypu and what looked like an otter.

But the sight that moved us most was one we saw just after coming out of the lock late one afternoon at Condrecourt, on the Haute Saone river: a swan with an arrow or crossbow bolt in its back. It was swimming okay, but when it got spooked by our boat it obviously couldn't fly, flapping furiously but unable to take off. We turned the boat around and I walked back to the lock but the eclusier had left for the day. However, a woman in the old eclusier's cottage understood my sparse French and kindly phoned a number of authorities until she foud the right animal wlefare one, and told me that someone would come.

He did, about an hour later, and I went with him in his van to show him where the swan was. He was an officer with the Police d'Environnement, and was as concerned as we were when he saw the poor oiseau. He took photos, a GPS reading, and promised that a rescue attempt would be mounted the following afternoon. I gave him a card and asked if he would let me know how it went, to which he agreed. Sadly we've heard nothing since.

Shaun and I carried on, with crossed fingfers, and arrived at the riverside town of Gray, just two days' from our destination of Saint-Jean. Calling in to the tourism office we were then informed by Madame Claudine the proprietress that malhereusement, the VNF had closed one of the locks between Gray and St-Jean for 'urgent repairs' and it would be closed until the end of the month. Merde!

So all that intense cruising, all that effort to get to our destination by 20 April was for nothing. We could have done half-days, cruised at leisure, taken time to do maintenance and fix things, instead of bursting the boiler. I was gutted. We were now going to miss the salon fluvial, a major event on the boating (and boating sales) calendar, and there wouldn't be another until September at the end of the season and likely too late for any sale.

We reviewed our options and decided we would leave the boat at Gray and head back to England, and that I would return once the lock was open to take Liberty solo for the final two days to Saint-Jean-de-Losne. In the meantime we made friends with Pete from Portsmouth on the boat behind us on the quayside, a full-time liveaboard of 15 years' tenancy, and who was full of valuable information. And encouragement. (As opposed to the man on the old boat in front who delighted in the 'sharp intake of breath', the sad shaking of the head, and grade five shadenfreude. Luckily he left after a couple of days.)

And so did we, in Shaun's car, for the long drive to Calais and the Euroshuttle. Liberty was tied to a floating pontoon so that any river level rises wouldn't be a problem while I was away, and I resigned myself to not coming back for another ten days or so.

Less than two hours into our drive I got a call from Pete at Gray. 'The lock's open!' he said enthusiastically. Great. But we'd already booked on the Chunnel train, and I'd had enough of last-minute changes of plan, so after a brief discussion Shaun and I decided to carry on. I'd go back in a few days and continue the journey then.

And I will, if the VNF don't decide to close another canal or lock. All being well I'll be in Saint-Jean with Liberty around 11 May and she will be positioned somewhere on Pontoon A, the main sales pontoon of the brokers. Only then will the voyage, and the story, finally end.

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