Welcome to Blog number 13 of the Olivia Rose Diaries on June 14th 2020.
On Sunday 7th June 2020, after eighty-seven days trapped in the marina at Basse-Ham on the Moselle in northern France because of the Coronavirus, we finally slipped the lines and made our escape. We waved goodbye to our new French friends, working on their boats as we passed, and headed towards Thionville. Our proposed mooring for the night was forty-six kilometres and five locks away, a rural mooring in the middle of nowhere.
I had been longing for this moment for weeks and yet now it was here I was surprised to find my emotions were far more subdued than I expected.
Without doubt I was happy to be on the move but that sense of relief was tempered by the uncertainty caused by the VNF strike in our region, by the mass of closures and delays on all bar one of our various routes out (see last weeks blog for full details) and lastly, a niggling feeling that it might be a lonely summer. Normally, boating life is sociable but we had no doubt that the ongoing consequences of the pandemic would mean most foreign visitors wouldn’t make it this year. Many British boat-owners would stay at home and who knew what the Europeans would do with their holidays as borders gradually re-opened. There were a few people like us, who were already here when lockdown began, but many of them were still trapped on other canals, waiting for repairs to locks to finish before they were free to move. Normally we are quite good at spending time alone, but after three months of lockdown, that resilience was beginning to fray at the edges.
Having braced ourselves for delays at the locks because of the possible strikes we found ourselves whizzing through faster than we ever have before! No problems at all. Maybe we were just lucky, and it certainly helped that we managed to arrive at the same time as a commercial barge so we shared the locks with them.
After a peaceful first night moored bankside we set off again the next day and something invisible must have clicked back into place because all our old feelings about this wonderful life came surging back. Freedom – at last!
But not for long.
Two days later we stood on the banks of the Canal de la Marne au Rhin heading west and could see it was impassable. We had left Olivia fifteen miles back on the river at Liverdun and cycled here to have a look at the situation before we committed ourselves. The canal was completely blocked by weed, bank to bank, a dense underwater forest of greenery growing up from the silt and poking insidious tendrils above the water. We had never seen so much weed in our lives. And it was like this for at least the first four locks and the connecting pounds between them.
Those of you without boats might wonder why this poses a problem. One of the best ways I can think to explain it is to ask you to imagine your lawnmower when you try and cut wet grass. The mower blades very quickly get clogged up and stop turning. This is exactly what happens to our propeller and the weed also blocks the inlet to our water cooling system for the engine. Whilst it is easy to unblock the blades on the lawnmower, the implications for us on a boat are more serious. We’ve had previous experience of a bad weed infestation on a short stretch of canal two years ago and, whilst we would have braved it here for a short stretch because we were so desperate to keep moving, what lay ahead was simply too much and could inflict too much damage to the engine.
I watched Michael scowling at the weed and braced myself.
‘We could pull her through,’ he said. ‘It’s the only way.’
‘Are you mad?’ I replied. ‘A minimum of three kilometres, maybe more. Four locks. Pulling fifteen tonnes of boat through an underwater jungle.’
‘It won’t be that difficult.’
‘Supposing the tow path runs out? Or the wind gets up and blows us about?’
‘We’d have to cycle it all first to check it out. And pick a calm day.’
‘And who would be doing this pulling?’
‘Well, normally that would be the job of the crew-come-wife ….’
Now it was my turn to scowl.
‘…but if you didn’t want to do it then obviously I would.’
‘Or we could just wait for the VNF to clear it.’
I had been into the VNF office back in Toul and they had explained they were going to cut back the weed but that it might take until the end of June.
‘Do you really want to hang around for that long?’ Michael sounded a little desperate, most unlike him. ‘Our only other option is to go back to Basse-Ham and wait until the end of June in the hope that the Vosges might open up.’
I sighed. Going back was the last thing I wanted to do.
In situations like this it is best to just go home, have a cup of tea and mull it over. So that is what we did. We had a few other things to mull over as well. It is only when you go off-grid that you find out where the problems are with your off-grid systems. Our batteries, which give us power for the lights etc when we aren’t on shore power, weren’t holding their charge, probably because they were old and knackered. The battery on my laptop was in the same state. We needed to order replacements and for that we needed to be in a marina which would accept deliveries for us. As I write this today, we are 20 kilometres back along the Moselle in the marina at Pont-au-Mousson. We’ll stay here for a few days to get things sorted out, but in the mean time I am happy to tell you that we have come up with Plan E.
The Canal des Vosges, originally our second choice of route, is closed until the end of June as the tunnel which takes water from the reservoir to the canal collapsed and had to be repaired. However, having poured over the various notifications from the VNF, we saw that the closure didn’t actually start until fifty-five kilometres down the canal at Epinal. We rang them up, and whilst we cannot get all the way to Epinal, the first thirty-two kilometres are indeed open.
So that is where we shall go, at a pace slower than a snail, but we came along this canal last year and can remember some good swimming spots on the river nearby. It’s due to get hot again soon so we shall spend our time swimming in the river while we wait for the canal to open fully in two weeks time. Hardly a hardship.
I can end on a very happy note as we unexpectedly met up with our friends Charlotte and Ted on their boat Ferrous two nights ago. For the first time in three months we ate, drank and talked around a table with friends and spoke in our own language. Happy days! Inevitably the question of social distancing came up (horrible phrase) and so we kept ourselves a metre apart, but in truth once you start going back to normal, there isn’t really a half-way house. It felt normal, it felt wonderful and the ghost of Covid 19 was firmly banished – we hope!
So I will end there for now. Once we get on to the Vosges we may be off grid for quite a while but I’ll be back as soon as I can.