Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France – Part 17

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France – Part 17

Read about this trip from the start – here.


My husband shared our respective travel plans with the German couple. They asked which way we were going to St Jean-de Losne. Then asked if we knew that Canal des Vosges was closed. No we did not know that Canal des Vosges was closed! That was part of our intended route. I’ve mentioned how hot it’s been a few times. There was insufficient water so that canal was simply closed and we had no idea this had happened. Our travel route went up in smoke at that moment. Just like that! My other half is British. He’s welcome to stay in the EU as long as he likes. I hold a South African passport and am only allowed 90 days in the Schengen countries. Our travel plans would use about 87 days. This was already a tight trip and the very last thing I needed was to be stranded on the waterways. My husband could manage the boat on his own with great difficulty. But not with a dislocated finger.


There must be websites and apps with all this kind of information but we had yet to discover them. That evening we took a look at the various maps and considered our options. Our intention was ask as much as we could from various lock-keepers and fellow cruisers as it was unlikely we would have Internet anytime soon. An alternate route at this late stage would add considerable extra days onto our trip. One thing we knew for sure is we were going to have to put in as much motoring as we could.

Rather important notices about closures that we missed

The next morning we left Verdun along with another boat and waited outside the first lock. The lockie was a friendly chap and confirmed that yes, Canal des Vosges was definitely closed. We waved goodbye and a new lock-keeper greeted us at the next lock. He kept gazing into the water and we wondered if there was weed or something lurking there. As we were leaving the lock he shouted after us pointing into the water saying “Huile” (Oil). Our immediate thought was that we were in trouble. Shangri La is over 20 years old and although she comes out the water every year and her engine gets a full service, we have no idea when she last had an overhaul.

En route to St Mihiel

Small confession, she does smoke a bit first thing in the morning. We’ve been led to believe this is normal with engines when they travel at slow speeds and never heat up properly so not been too worried about it. We had been going very, very slowly on the canal. The German couple told us that waterways officials boarded their boat twice in France and once in Belgium this year. The authorities looked over their papers, checked their boat complied to regulations and made sure they had the requisite safety gear.

At the following lock, the lock-keeper was at it again. He was going round and round the lock talking to us in French. He was prattling so fast we had no idea what was going on. Next thing he was on his phone. More hectic conversation. Now that we looked in the water we saw rainbow coloured streaks. You could smell diesel. The guy on the other boat climbed off his boat and came to speak to us. One of the boats had a problem and neither of us could leave. What we didn’t know was how to deal with this. All good and well saying there’s a problem but some solutions would have been helpful. Like maybe locating a mechanic for us? We had no idea what to do on a Saturday morning stuck in a lock 4 kilometres outside of Verdun. In France. No one around us spoke English. Our french was way inadequate.

Manual lock

With both engines off my husband and I soon realised it was not oil in the water. It was actually diesel and it wasn’t coming from our boat. The other boat had been running their engine in the lock which was creating turbulence and dispersing the oil back toward our boat. That made it difficult to tell who had the problem. The other boat opened up their engine and were doing all sorts of things including putting dish washing liquid in the hull. We stood watching this not knowing what to do. Eventually both boats were allowed to leave the lock. At the next lock – and last lock with that particular lock-keeper – we specifically asked if he was happy and he said “Tres bien”. What a relief.

St Mihiel

The next five locks we had another lockie help us though. Both of us were making a point of checking Shangri La and no doubt about it, the other boat was spewing out diesel but we weren’t going to say anything. The current lock-keeper wasn’t complaining and the last one had said he was happy so we weren’t worried anymore. As our boat and the other boat came toward St Mihiel where we planned to tie up we saw a VNF (Voies Navigables de France) white van parked on the road next to the waterways. The Belgian couple tied up and the Belgian guy came to help us with our ropes. We had bonded with this couple over the oil spill drama after all. Next thing we saw another VNF van parked at the quay next to St Mihiel and a guy in a VNF outfit on the quay. He went up to the Belgian guy and a conversation ensued. He handed his phone to the Belgian guy and there was more speaking. We feared we may be next on the phone but fortunately not.

St Mihiel

My other half went over to the Belgians to chat. The Belgian guy said his fuel pipe was leaking into the hull and his automatic bilge pump was pumping it out into the water. He had a spare fuel pipe and was about to replace it. Apparently the VNF people had said they would be checking up on him and if it happened again they would report him to the water police. We did not want to share a lock with them again after that.

The following day we let the Belgians go ahead and held back half an hour before we made a start toward the first lock. At the second lock, we saw double red lights – which means the lock is out of action. And parked next to the lock were – the Belgians. As we were about to tie up too, the lights changed and the locks suddenly opened. We had to go in with them. No way out of it. And inside the lock was not one, but two VNF vans. And two VNF lock-keepers. These are supposed to be automatic locks but we suspect VNF were indeed checking up on the situation. To say we were stressed is an understatement.

A person has to request passage via the manual locks

The story continues – here.

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France – Part 16

Travelling the Inland Waterways of Europe from The Netherlands to France – Part 16

Read about this trip from the start – here.


The terrain was becoming more pastoral. We were on a high plateau. The canal snaked through grain farms while cows munched on greenery in the fields. We had locked up 60 metres since entering France from Belgium. That afternoon we tied at at Dun-sur-Meuse. Another village. You can see all there is in a quick walk-about if you skip the museums. Not sure if there are any. The mooring spot was right next to a motor-home facility. There was a notice next to the quay saying if we planned on going further through the locks – um yes – we had to phone a number given on the board by 15.00pm. It was a bit late for that at 16.45pm. We got chatting to a couple from Yorkshire who come with their camper van to the same place every year. They gave us directions to a little supermarket. We walked past the lock and found a bloke lurking in the office. We explained our dilemma and he seemed to indicate he would be available to open the locks for us. He asked us the time and name of our boat. Problem solved. Or so we thought.

The next morning our eclusier (lock-keeper) was a no show. So we tied up and went looking for the intercom to call for help. These locks are manual. You can’t click a button to make them happen. It has to be done by a staff member. The lock didn’t have an intercom. Luckily we found another man in an office at the lock. He kindly phoned around and eventually managed to locate someone to come and open the lock for us. It’s hard enough trying to speak French but when they reply, they speak so fast, the words are a complete blur. Afterwards I can sort of pick a sentence apart and understand bits of what was said to me. And then you get words in French like – person – which means nobody but can also mean people. How about vingt which is twenty, vent which means wind and vin which is wine – all pronounced the same.

Pastoral scenes

Now I know this happens in English punctuation, think see and sea. Or two, too and to. But the French also drop the ends of their words and add them on to the beginning of the next word. So Je t’aime is actually Je tu aime (I you love). If  we did that in English, a sentence like – Let’s go – would turn into – Let sgo. And that’s not all. A word like aimer – like or love – can have multiple forms. It could be aimé, aimai, aimons, aimerant or aimeraient. No flipping wonder we were battling to understand French.

Quiet countryside

Our lock keeper duly arrived and took us through three locks. Poor bloke had to wind paddles and open bridges by hand to work these locks. He sure earned his lunch break. And then he said au revoir (goodbye) and we headed for the next lock. Not much happening there so we tied up and went to see what was in store. A boat was coming into the lock. We were happy to wait until that was done so we could pass through. The new lockie mentioned that we had to stop and gave us a number. We thought he meant stop and wait for the next lock keeper, so tied up outside the next lock. And phoned the number given to us. Only to be told they had no staff and we were supposed to pre-arrange someone to take us through the locks. We thought we’d done that. Maybe there was a miscommunication with the lock keeper we encountered the day before? Or maybe you have to phone by 15.00pm end of story. Whatever, we were stuck in the middle of nowhere outside a lock about to lose half a day of travel.

My other half on rope duty in a lock

When things go wrong they tend to all go wrong at once. The astrologers blame it on the stars and say a planet is moving the wrong way in your chart. Whatever, we managed to bash our boat tying up to that pontoon. I was standing on the deck ready to tie us up when a gust of wind took the boat and next thing we had a big fat scratch on the side. With an afternoon to spare all of a sudden, my husband decided to sand-paper the scratch down and cover it with paint to prevent the steel rusting. He had his hands full climbing back on board the boat, lost his grip and dislocated his little finger. The best we could do was create a make-shift splint out of a handkerchief and hope it would be OK. We made good use of the afternoon listening to Michel Thomas French CDs and drinking French wine. That was probably the most peaceful night we had to date.

Stuck outside the lock

The next day all went well, the lock-keepers got us through and we tied up in Verdun. It’s not shown as a particularly big place on the map but it’s a key waterways centre. And a lot bigger than we were expecting. Many of the towns in this area had been destroyed in successive wars and there were quite a few new buildings. Verdun had a lot to offer a visitor but we desperately need to buy food before the shops closed. We had also booked our next day with the waterways staff so we had to leave Verdun. The lock-keeper mentioned a place to shop for organic and healthy foods called La Vie Eclair which means The Lightening Life. We thought that was an interesting choice of name. Then we discovered a massive supermarket called E. Leclerc. We completely misunderstood the lockie. He meant – The E Leclerc. We located E.Leclerc and they sell absolutely everything. Plants, engine oil, tools, appliances and yes, healthy food. We made two trips there.

Stuck outside the lock

I’ve mentioned that this section of the waterways had been really quiet. I wasn’t sure if it is a chicken or egg situation. Perhaps they don’t allocate resources because there is so little boat traffic? Or perhaps boaters don’t come because it’s under serviced? We soon found one reason why. We got chatting to a German couple on the boat in front of us and they regaled us with tales of things going wrong on their boat. One story entailed them entering a lock, he tried to kick the engine out of gear and a cable snapped at that point causing him to smash his boat into the front of the lock. They were such friendly people. Only thing is they both spoke at the exactly the same time. We were trying to listen to each of them as they knew the French waterways well and had lots of useful advice. They mentioned they had been without electricity for the last 5 stops and their batteries were so low they struggled to start their engine in the mornings. We were glad to have our generator.

The story continues – right here.

My other half has his blog – Waterway Wanderer – which you can find – on this link.

And if you can get past our cheezy attempt to show family and friends back home what our boat looks like, you can see a video tour of Shangri La – by clicking here.

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