Cruis­ing French canals

Af­ter an ex­ten­sive re­fit Toby Budd’s Birch­wood 33 be­comes a float­ing fam­ily home for a three­month canal ad­ven­ture to the Mediter­ranean

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

Ex­tended fam­ily ad­ven­ture aboard a re­fur­bished power cruiser

We made it! Af­ter 1,723km, 172 locks, 103 days and 366 nap­pies our float­ing fam­ily home mo­tored out of the canal at Sète and into the Mediter­ranean.

It all started at the be­gin­ning of last year when my wife, Lena, was heav­ily preg­nant with our sec­ond daugh­ter. With a year of ma­ter­nity leave ahead of her and me be­ing self-em­ployed, we were keen to use this op­por­tu­nity for a fam­ily ad­ven­ture.

Ini­tially we thought about buy­ing a camper van and tour­ing around Europe by road, but a friend sug­gested cruis­ing through the French canals to the Med by boat in­stead.

I wasn’t con­vinced we could find a boat and run it for the sum­mer on our bud­get of around £35,000, but in March we pur­chased Gemelle, a 1981 Birch­wood 33, from our lo­cal ma­rina for £16,000, and a few weeks later Betsy was born.

The next few months were full on. Lena was look­ing af­ter a tod­dler and a new­born dur­ing the day and sewing new boat cush­ions ev­ery evening. I was keep­ing up my usual con­sul­tancy work while spend­ing ev­ery spare hour I had re­fit­ting Gemelle (see PBO Sum­mer 18). In or­der to fund the trip, we let out our lovely home in Fal­mouth on Airbnb so we had to pack our en­tire lives into boxes and smarten up the house. To say we were ex­hausted would be a mas­sive un­der­state­ment.

Now or never

Be­fore we knew it, my planned de­par­ture date of Sun­day July 2 had ar­rived. Thank­fully, we’d de­cided some time ago that Lena and the girls would join me on the other side of the Chan­nel, as the boat was still in bits. There were tools ev­ery­where, we had no nav lights, no toi­let, nei­ther the VHF nor the fridge were work­ing, the stern glands needed repack­ing and we’d only run the en­gines once, for five min­utes on launch day.

I have never been so un­pre­pared to go to sea, but when my old friend Gar­rick ar­rived at 1600 to help with crew­ing du­ties, I de­cided it was now or never. We had a three-day weather win­dow in which to cross the Chan­nel and if we missed it, our de­par­ture could be put back by weeks. There wasn’t time to stow away our gear, so we just chucked it all be­low, started the en­gines and left.

We steamed south through Car­rick Roads, rounded the light­house and set a course east for Sal­combe 50 miles away. A few miles into the jour­ney, a pod of dol­phins joined us and be­gan to play in our bow wave. It was a mile­stone mo­ment, and I was gut­ted that Lena and the girls weren’t there to en­joy it. How­ever, as we

ap­proached Start Point six hours later, in the dark and with a heavy rolling sea, I knew we’d made the right de­ci­sion for them to catch the ferry to France.

I used the coastal pas­sage to Sal­combe as a shake­down cruise be­fore at­tempt­ing to cross the Chan­nel. We gave the en­gines a good run, got all the sys­tems work­ing, wired in the VHF and, by the time the sun set, I had all the nav lights work­ing.

We picked up a moor­ing in the gut (in­let) at Sal­combe at 0030 and went straight to bed. Four hours later my alarm went off and at 0500 we steamed out of the har­bour and set a plot­ter way­point off Cher­bourg. The cross tide in the chan­nel was not a big is­sue, but we had to get across in time to pick up a favourable af­ter­noon flow off Alder­ney.

We made the cross­ing at a steady 8 knots, with a mod­er­ate breeze and a 2m sea rolling in on our star­board quar­ter. Gemelle turned out to be a much bet­ter sea boat than ex­pected and we pulled into Cher­bourg in the early evening.

The next morn­ing we took some time to square away the boat be­fore de­part­ing and head­ing east across the bay to Hon­fleur, where we ar­rived just be­fore sun­set. When as­cend­ing the river Seine from the sea, it’s vi­tal you get a favourable tide, so two hours be­fore LW at 0400, we locked out at Hon­fleur and headed in­land to­wards Rouen. Thick fog meant we had to pull over and hug the river­bank but it quickly burnt off and soon we were fly­ing up the river at 10 knots to­wards Rouen where we ar­rived in the early af­ter­noon.

We filled up with fuel and I set about tidy­ing the boat and fin­ish­ing off the long list of jobs that needed to be done be­fore Lena and the girls ar­rived.

It was now re­ally hot, the ther­mome­ter in the cabin showed 42˚, and I was ex­hausted. We had pushed hard to get here in time – if I was tired when we left Mylor, I was now at a whole new level of ex­haus­tion. The jobs list was over­whelm­ing and as I started flow­coat­ing the heads with sweat drip­ping off my nose, I se­ri­ously ques­tioned what we were do­ing. Lena was also ex­hausted from look­ing af­ter the girls 24/7 on her own and driv­ing to Portsmouth to catch the ferry. Had we sim­ply taken on too much at this stage in our lives? I slumped down on the floor and tears filled my eyes. I had hit a wall.

It’s when you’re at rock bot­tom that you learn who your true friends are. Gar­rick picked me up (lit­er­ally), told me to get a grip and mixed me up another pot of resin. He then set about screw­ing on the cab­i­nets in the rear cabin, un­blocked the sink and got the gen­er­a­tor work­ing. Three hours later, the heads were fin­ished, the toi­let was plumbed in, the fridge was cool­ing beer and I had made up the beds in the aft cabin. Things were look­ing up.

The next day, Gar­rick and I got the ferry back to Portsmouth where I met Lena and the girls be­fore get­ting back on the ferry with them. By the fol­low­ing night, we were safely in­stalled on Gemelle ready for our ad­ven­ture to be­gin.

We didn’t have the best start. The boat was still a tip, France was in the grip of a heat­wave and none of us slept well. Tem­pers were short and we came close to quit­ting there and then, but hav­ing got this far, we thought we ought to take the girls for at least one cruise on the canals.

As soon as the trusty Ford en­gines started and we pot­tered out of Rouen, a cool­ing breeze wafted through Gemelle. Betsy fell asleep im­me­di­ately, Bon­nie set­tled down in her car seat and Lena sat in the pul­pit dan­gling her feet in the bow wave. For the first time, we both thought that maybe we could do this.

Slowly we got our new float­ing home in or­der. The boat still looked like a float­ing jum­ble sale but ev­ery­thing was now in place and we de­cided to em­brace the ‘look’ and get on with life. The cabin roof was cov­ered in gear, the bi­mini dou­bled as a wash­ing line, Bon­nie’s bath was on the fore­deck and our bikes hung off the stern. I think we were the most waved-at

‘The boat looked like a float­ing jum­ble sale but ev­ery­thing was in place and we de­cided to em­brace the “look” and get on with life’

ves­sel on the river!

A typ­i­cal day would start with me tak­ing Bon­nie to the boulan­gerie for fresh baked bread while Lena sorted out Betsy and ti­died up the boat. We’d then fill up with wa­ter, wash the decks if needed and get un­der way. Lena would of­ten run along­side for the first hour or so to get some ex­er­cise and es­cape the con­fines of the boat. We tried to cover be­tween 30-50km a day so some time off the boat proved to be in­cred­i­bly nour­ish­ing for both of us.

Paris heat­wave

Three days into the trip we en­coun­tered our first big prob­lem. The orig­i­nal Elec­trolux fridge quite lit­er­ally could not stand the heat and gave up the un­equal strug­gle. I tried to fix it but to no avail. We bit the bul­let and or­dered a new Dometic 12V fridge for £600, ar­rang­ing for it to be de­liv­ered to the ma­rina in Paris.

Ar­riv­ing in Paris was in­cred­i­ble. Pass­ing the Eif­fel Tower was a real mo­ment for us. I don’t think any of our friends or rel­a­tives thought we’d get this far. Be­fore we left, they’d all joked about which would come first, Paris or di­vorce, so we both felt a real sense of achieve­ment that we’d made it this far and were now filled with a fresh sense of ad­ven­ture for what lay ahead. We stayed in the Port d’Arse­nal Ma­rina for three days, but it was sim­ply too hot to make the most of the city with small chil­dren and, at r50 a night, we couldn’t af­ford to stay any longer. We made the most of the wash­ing ma­chines, wired in the shiny new beer-cool­ing de­vice and left. Two days later, we left the Seine and joined the Haute Seine, a much qui­eter river where, for the first time, we were able to cool down by swim­ming off the back of the boat. Lena’s sis­ter Es­ther flew out for a week as we con­tin­ued south to­wards Saint Mammes. It was here that we left the river and joined the canal net­work. Hav­ing Es­ther on board was a real god­send – it gave Lena some­one else to chat to and some much needed help with the girls.

The canals seemed tiny com­pared to the river and I hur­riedly rigged up a pul­ley sys­tem that en­abled me to col­lapse the bi­mini from the helm as we ap­proached the low bridges – it was far too hot to leave the bi­mini down all day.

Cen­tral France drifted by at a gen­tle jog, and we soon set­tled into an easy 20-30km a day, be­com­ing ex­perts at re­search­ing the best places to pull over for baguettes, play parks and swim­ming pools.

Hav­ing a tod­dler on board was a big chal­lenge as there was lim­ited space for her to play and she quickly be­came bored in her seat. To keep Bon­nie amused, I built her a play park on deck, com­plete with a safety fence, fake grass and sun­shade. With her life­jacket and sun hat on, she played in it for hours, wav­ing at

‘Ar­riv­ing in Paris was in­cred­i­ble. Pass­ing the Eif­fel Tower was a real mo­ment for us’

any­one we passed.

As we ap­proached cen­tral France, the heat be­came even more in­tense. Be­fore leav­ing, we’d bought a por­ta­ble air con­di­tion­ing unit on eBay for £70, which turned out to be a life­saver. It was small but could cool the aft cabin nicely, cre­at­ing a refuge for us in times of need. At one point it got so bad, we booked into an Airbnb with a pool and spent two days recharg­ing our bat­ter­ies be­fore re­turn­ing to Gemelle and con­tin­u­ing south.

The mighty Rhône down to the sea

By the be­gin­ning of Au­gust, we’d passed through the canals and ex­ited on to the river Saône. It was strange to be mov­ing so fast again and the river quickly took us south to Lyon.

We ex­pected a large in­dus­trial city but were blown away by the cob­bled streets, cy­cle paths, green parks and the nicest ma­rina of the whole trip. We stayed here for a few days be­fore leav­ing and join­ing the mighty river Rhône.

The south­ern Rhône was beau­ti­ful, with moun­tains now mak­ing up the hori­zon. The places we stopped were more af­flu­ent and lively. We could al­most smell the Mediter­ranean and we were ex­cited to get to the sea, so some days we did as much as 80km, stop­ping to cel­e­brate Lena’s birth­day in Avi­gnon, which was cer­tainly one to re­mem­ber.

It was late Septem­ber by the time we turned left and joined the Canal du Rhône à Sète. Just three days later we mo­tored out into the Mediter­ranean. We’d been talk­ing about this mo­ment for the last three months and as we passed the sea wall, an end­less shim­mer­ing hori­zon opened up in front of us.

We mo­tored around the head­land and an­chored in per­fectly clear blue wa­ter just off the beach be­fore jump­ing in the sea to cel­e­brate. We spent a bliss­ful cou­ple of days sun­bathing, swim­ming and soak­ing up the views. It was stun­ning, and nei­ther of us wanted to go back on to the canal but by now we were run­ning out of money and had booked Gemelle into a ma­rina in Colom­biers for the win­ter. With heavy hearts, we left the sea and made our way along the Canal du Midi to Colom­biers, where we packed up the boat, stuffed our be­long­ings into the boot of a car and drove the 1,000km back to Roscoff.

Spirit of ad­ven­ture

Not even for five min­utes was it a hol­i­day. It was an ad­ven­ture. Much of it was about deal­ing with adversity but some of it was also pure, unadul­ter­ated hap­pi­ness. In three months, we made more mem­o­ries than in three years at home in our com­fort­able rou­tine. We did it to­gether, as a team. We stepped out­side our com­fort zone, broke free from the rut and came back ex­tremely grate­ful for what we have.

For me, it was never about the des­ti­na­tion, it was about the trip, go­ing on a jour­ney and search­ing for some­thing. If I’m hon­est, I didn’t re­ally know what I was look­ing for, but I knew I wouldn’t find it stay­ing at home. Now I’m back I feel my lit­tle fam­ily is in a bet­ter place to deal with what life throws at us in the fu­ture. More than any­thing, I feel in­cred­i­bly grate­ful to share my life with some­one who is up for ad­ven­tures like this.

Now Betsy is crawl­ing, we’re go­ing to stay put for a few years, but I can def­i­nitely sense a quiet hunger grow­ing for another trip in the fu­ture. I even found Lena look­ing at cata­ma­rans for sale and ask­ing: “Could that sail around the world?”

Fam­ily swim­ming in the Med just out­side Sète

New­born Betsy hap­pily set­tled in to life on board

Toby Budd’s Birch­wood 33 Gemelle was a great choice for the French canal sys­tem

Head­ing off for sup­per just north of Mâ­con on the Saône et Loire

No mis­tak­ing the iconic struc­ture on the Paris sky­line

A ‘float­ing jum­ble sale’ in the heart of France

Bon­nie hap­pily strapped into her car seat near Paris

A beau­ti­ful vista en­ter­ing the city of Lyon

An evening moor­ing at Ne­mours on the Canal du Lo­ing

Gemelle, vis­i­ble be­tween the gap in the trees, moored up at Avi­gnon

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