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
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.
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