The L-plate Live­aboards

MIKE BOD­NAR: Every­thing on the wa­ter­ways wants to kill you, or hurt you badly. Or at least bruise your ego. So it seemed to us any­way, as we con­tin­ued to­wards the south of France on Lib­erty

Motorboat & Yachting - - Contents -

There were times on our liveaboard ad­ven­ture when I sat on the fly­bridge, legs propped up on a locker, one hand on the wheel, lazily flip­ping through the guide flu­viale as we cruised down the Rhône. “This is the life,” I mused to my­self. And at times, it re­ally was.

But my eyes were con­stantly drawn to the in­stru­ments – were there any tell­tale lamps glow­ing? Was the en­gine tem­per­a­ture okay? How much depth was there be­neath our keel? Liz and I were still very much ad­just­ing to life afloat.

I’d also re­alised that the mir­ror on the fly­bridge wasn’t to check if my skip­per’s cap was at an ap­pro­pri­ately rak­ish an­gle – it was to see whether 350 tonnes of barge laden with ex­plo­sive gas was sneak­ing up on us from be­hind.

Out­wardly I ap­peared the re­laxed captain; in­wardly my brain cogs were grind­ing nois­ily. (Lu­bri­ca­tion in the form of cheap French white wine in the evenings as­sisted only marginally.)

The locks didn’t help ease anx­i­ety ei­ther; they were huge, and in­cluded Bol­lène, the big­gest lock on the Rhône. When I say big­gest, I mean deep­est. I’d read about it in the guide book, peer­ing through my fin­gers as you do in a hor­ror movie. It said we would drop a whop­ping 22m, but when we poked Lib­erty’s nose ten­ta­tively through the gates of hell, the depth gauge showed over 30m of cold, dark, deadly water be­neath us.

I’d been mean­ing to buy a new life­jacket to re­place one I’d left ashore a few days ear­lier but hadn’t yet come across a chan­dlery. It hadn’t trou­bled me too much un­til now. Sud­denly, it hit home that 50% of those on board had no means of flota­tion in the event of a dis­as­ter. The theme from Ti­tanic played through my mind as we tied up to the float­ing bol­lards set into the lock walls. Liz would be Kate Winslet, cling­ing to our hatch and wear­ing the only life­jacket, I would be Leonardo Dicaprio, splut­ter­ing in the water, know­ing it was all over and gasp­ing to Liz, “For God’s sake… Keep that mir­ror steady… Must… Check… Cap…”

If the lock had been smaller, the lock keeper ( éclusier) might have seen that Liz was wear­ing a life­jacket but I was wear­ing a high-vis jacket in the vain hope its bright colour would fool any ca­sual on­looker into think­ing it was a life pre­server.

It seemed to work – the éclusier didn’t say any­thing – and af­ter drop­ping 22m or so to our new level, we cruised out un­der Bol­lène’s mas­sive steel gate and de­parted what felt like a cav­ernous, slimy, dank ware­house on to the sunny Rhône again.

Our sighs of re­lief were short lived; the river hadn’t fin­ished test­ing us. The big locks usu­ally close at about 9pm, ex­cept by spe­cial ar­range­ment for some com­mer­cial boats, so when we found an empty pon­toon on the river’s edge, we tri­umphantly tied up and set­tled down for the night.

As we slept – in what we’d come to call ‘the state­room’ – lit­tle did we know that at least four bateaux de com­merce had ar­ranged to con­tinue along the Rhône that night. The first we knew of this was when we were jolted awake as Lib­erty rocked vi­ciously from side to side, bang­ing against the pon­toon’s sup­port pole. In the gal­ley, pots and pans crashed around, while books and or­na­ments tum­bled from shelves. Lib­erty had been ad­ver­tised as ‘suit­able for river and sea’, but we’d never ex­pected an At­lantic storm on the in­land wa­ter­ways.

We leapt on deck, only to see the stern of a mas­sive barge dis­ap­pear­ing up­river. Its wake was caus­ing us to rock and roll, and it kept on and on. And on, for 20 min­utes. We had to step on to the pon­toon and try to stop Lib­erty bash­ing against the front sup­port. We’d moored as far for­ward as pos­si­ble to leave room for any other boat that might turn up, but all good­will dis­ap­peared once we re­alised what pass­ing barges could do, and we moved her back be­tween the steel sup­ports.

This sce­nario re­peated it­self three more times that night as the wash from pass­ing boats tried to sink us. We both got lit­tle to no sleep. In the morn­ing I blearily said to Liz, “Now I know why it’s called a wake.”

Next month Swiss pre­ci­sion, and other stereo­type ob­ser­va­tions

Lib­erty had been ad­ver­tised as ‘suit­able for river and sea’, but we’d never ex­pected an At­lantic storm on the in­land wa­ter­ways

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