Barging through Alsace-Lorraine (first of two)

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Hubris and diesel fuel don’t mix.

No surprise here. Some of our readers share our fondness for rivers, canals, locks and barges, and for them I write of life on the water. It’s not for everyone.

On our recent excursion to Europe, we got carried away, literally, on the gentle waterways of Germany and France.

We had made arrangements to rent a small barge in Alsace-Lorraine, that lovely northeastern corner of France which has ping-ponged back and forth between its neighbors so often it’s hard to know whose it is.

Excellent English was spoken to us, but the staff at the marina was clearly more comfortable using German. Actually, French, German and a curious blend of both are common.

We got to the marina in Niderviller, France, by train and taxi, toting food for at least a week. On our part the language was pidgin-German/French augmented by a stream of paper with red Xs guiding our hands to sign.

At last we pushed away from the dock, a tanned young man checking us out on our capability to handle a 30-foot boat. We were in the Canal de la Marne au Rhin.

Today’s canal boats represent a modern take on an old design. Since it occurred to primitive humans that they could haul home a mammoth by floating it on a raft, he has expanded the concept to thousands of tons of nearly every commodity by putting more barges in the lash-up. And while watery highways like the Mississippi can push almost unlimited loads, the narrower channels of the inland lakes and rivers beg caution.

The Penichette barges are configured with a series of small staterooms – as many as a dozen – where cargo once was carried, and an upward-curved bow the better to push the water away from a blunt prow. Our small boat had only one stateroom.

Canals and rivers in much of Europe have been restored for the tourist trade, although a few commercial-sized barges still ply the inland waterways hauling coal, charcoal, and other bulky materials. The canals are just wide enough to allow two such ships to meet and pass each other. Their pilots are experienced and careful; an encounter with a large Penichette gives a small boat only the slightest rocking.

Back to our departure. We assured the young fellow that there was nothing about a small boat we couldn’t handle. Why, Dave’s had a sailboat since he was 6 and he’s never been without a boat from that day to this. “And I’ve been teaching boatsmanship to my wife for 50 years. Don’t waste your time with us: You’ll have your hands full with them,” he said, nodding his head toward a young family that was apparently holding “boat school” by carefully perusing the instruction manual.

Either our coach didn’t recognize hubris when he saw it or he was just eager to be back on dry land, but he jumped off as quickly as he had jumped on and pushed our bow toward the canal. The boat was very heavy and less responsive than we expected, but gradually, we got the hang of it.

“Boat School” would have been helpful.

Now you may recall previous stories involving barging or canal travel. It’s true, we’ve been on European waters three or four times prior to this summer and I’m sure we have a good deal more experience than the average bloke, but we’d have our first test in a matter of minutes after we left the marina.

We rounded the first curve in the canal and were confronted by a mountain and an apparently empty black hole in it, the size of a large barge. A bar was suspended over the entry to the tunnel with two lights – a red one and a yellow-flashing – and there was no one else around. We stopped to assess the situation.

“What are we waiting for?” Cap’n Dave asks no one in particular. “There’s nothing coming through,” and he began lining up our boat with the entrance.

“Dave, red means stop,” I ventured. “That’s a solid red light.”

“Stop for what?” the Cap’n’s voice meant business. “They just want you to gauge the height of your boat – like underground parking garages do.”

It was time to shut up and peer into the void, our forward light giving about as much light as a candle in the dark. “Why can’t we see the end of this thing?” Dave asks. “I can’t see the exit at all.”

Suddenly a blinding light filled the tunnel from about the distance of half a mile and, with it, five loud blasts of a ship’s horn – the universal nautical signal for STOP and GET OUT OF MY WAY.

Do I need to mention that there is no possible turning around in this tube – I doubt if a small kayak could do it – and there are no brakes on a large commercial barge. Dave threw our boat into a hard reverse and backed her out perfectly to clear the passageway.

When he saw what he had flushed out of the tunnel, the master of the big ship called and waved greetings our way. Not understanding the language, I just smiled and waved back.

The day ended with no more excitement, except that Dave phoned the manager of the marina in Niderviller to tell him there was something wrong with the stove; we couldn’t get the burners to light.

I’d have eaten cold food rather than admit that, but Dave felt he had earned a hot meal. Alec pulled up in the company truck, boarded, and showed us that you have to hold in the knob of a propane burner to make it ignite. Then he turned to us, looking pained. He had a report that one of his boats had gone against a red light and nearly collided with a commercial vessel. His parting line was something like, “You drive a car, don’t you? What don’t you understand about a red light?”

More barging next week….

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