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
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