by Roger Saunders, C Sharp, Windermere.
Farewell to England
With unfounded confidence in both themselves and the boat, the crew found their sea legs with several days of easy sailing and steering into the morning sun. Calls were made at the instantly forgettable Littlehampton, the flesh pots of Brighton and thence to Rye. At the Strand Quay in Rye the Sonata had to take to the ground. However, all efforts to balance her at low water against the wall proved completely unnecessary as she sunk deep in the mud and stuck solid as a rock. As the crew waited in the nearby dockside tavern there was some debate as to whether she would extricate herself from a swampy grave as the water returned, or fall victim to its power and join the forlorn hulks which adorned the river. It was with some euphoria that the crew returned having forgotten entirely about the peril their ship faced to find her floating merrily at the quay. The incident was erroneously logged as ‘high and dry at Rye’!
The bows of the Sonata were then pointed into foreign and hopefully warmer waters. In fact, as Dungeness power station slipped below the misty horizon we said farewell to England and more significantly to the last indication of our position!
The recommended procedure for a channel crossing to Boulogne is not to ‘follow a ferry’ but after all they were going in the right direction! The real hazard is judging the pace of the endless lines of monsters in the shipping lanes and deciding where to skip across. However this was successfully accomplished without loss and the boys at Lloyds heaved a sigh of relief, locked away the Lutine bell and paid themselves a hefty bonus. There was a great deal of mutual backslapping, self congratulation and gratuitous drinking that night as the crew enjoyed a well earned run ashore with the boat safely alongside a pontoon in Boulogne harbour.
Bye-bye to the mast
Forty miles from Boulogne in northern France lies St. Valery-sur-Somme, a treacherous but pretty harbour entered via an eight mile shifting channel on the top two hours of the tide. The village stretches out along the harbour wall and echoes to the shrill whistles of the steam engines which haul trains of tourists to view the estuary. At breakfast time the waterside bars are surprisingly full of men enjoying the first pastis of the day. The mast and rig were quickly left at an obliging marina from which we were assured they could be collected four weeks later, and we ‘locked up’ into the Canal de la Somme. Out came the trusty Seagull and with tyres all round, looking rather like a nasty corner on a racetrack, we chugged off into the depths of northern France.
Learning the ropes
Days on the canals were leisurely with frequent stops for fresh baguette, croissants, mouth watering brie and the kind of wine where the bottle is sealed with a metal cap rather than a cork. Locking is easy, for the French appear to reduce their unemployment levels by providing a keeper and a bicycle at every lock. These individuals are delighted at the company when a boat arrives and occasionally sell bread and vegetables to passers by. Despite the available labour many of the locks are electrically operated and present little problem to the competent yachtsman or indeed to ourselves. However an early lesson on roping the boat was learnt when the force of the water cascading from the sluices turned the Sonata right round and she was forced to emerge stern first!
The Canal de la Somme winds its way through a low land of overhanging trees, reeds and marshy wetlands. The water is inky and still and in many places the overhanging trees meet overhead and cast dark but vivid reflections on the water. You almost wanted to smother the noise of the little engine as it disturbed the waterfowl and broke the silence of the early evening. It would be difficult not to be aware of a sense of beauty over a thinly veiled sadness throughout the Somme and the tragedy of the past is brought vividly to life by the rows of headstones, many unmarked, that surround the towns.
The crew of C Sharp agreed the Somme was a perfect place for boating in August but would probably be regarded differently from a muddy trench during a battle in the cold of January.
As we motored on, we entered the deeper, straighter Canal du Nord and then the Canal de l’Aisne where the Peniches or barges dwarfed us. The French had the foresight to build their canals on a rather larger scale than those at home and their economic viability has been retained. Whole families live on the barges which invariably sport a small Renault on deck which is easily craned ashore in a matter of minutes whenever Monsieur runs out of Gaulioses. The locks on the major canals are truly awesome with towering slimy, green walls and great, steel gates which disappear silently into invisible recesses. The use of water must have been enormous and the Sonata was tossed around like a cork in the bottom.
From Champagne to duty-free
The farthest point reached was Reims in champagne country where after a crew change, we turned back for the coast. The return journey was a repeat of the outward passage except instead of following the ferry across the channel, we took the Sonata on the ferry and enjoyed an altogether more civilised crossing. Sadly, weather conditions had foiled the return journey under sail. Reassuringly, with the boat on the car deck and a bag of duty free to hand, when the ferry’s tannoy announces that the sailing will be delayed due to worsening weather in the channel, you know you made the right decision!