Barging through Europe – part 2

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Mary accompanied us by train to Sarrebourg, France, the closest town before we set out by taxi to Niderviller where we were renting a small barge for a two-week self-driven canal cruise.

Let it never be said that our daughter misses a chance to see a really good museum.

She had heard that there is a 13th century chapel in Sarrebourg that displays several stained glass windows by Marc Chagall (1887-1985), one in particular that stands 12 meters tall and is easily identified as a Chagall by its stunning application of blue.

It is called “La Paix.” Peace. And it is beautiful.

Some history: The canal that links the Marne and the Rhine rivers was built between 1838 and 1853. It used to take six to nine days to run a commercial barge from Vitry-le-Francois to Strasburg. There were 178 locks, most of them bringing cargo down off a mountainside to the valley below, 17 of those concentrated into one whole day of travel.

And so was born the inclined plane that can lower or raise three or four small barges, or one of the full-sized commercial barges, in about four minutes.

I wish I could explain it more clearly. It’s oversimplification to describe it in words, but I’ll explain as clearly as I can.

The river or canal flows into a 335-foot long container which maintains adequate depth for navigating. The “door” in front is dropped into place, sealed by a rubber gasket. Boats waiting in the pool above begin “locking through,” easing into the container, correctly termed a caisson. The “back” gate closes when water and boats have filled it, again very much like an ordinary lock.

The rest of the process is beyond me, but essentially, the caisson with its load of ships and water slides smoothly down the rails at an angle of 22 degrees and a 41 percent slope, counterbalanced by two weights, each weighing 450 metric tons. At the bottom, the water is allowed to escape until it is equal to that in the huge bath tub, when the front gate is opened and the boats glide out into the canal.

For boats traveling upstream, the reverse is carried out, with boats entering the caisson at the base of the plane and being lifted to the upper part of the river.

This Shiplift (properly called the Saint-Louis-Arzviller plan incliné) was completed in 1969. Over time, these locks and canals changed hands, so to speak. In 1966, 5,788 merchant barges passed through the inclined plane, but that number gradually decreased until in 2004 there were only 284. Meanwhile, the number of pleasure boats increased from 145 in 1975 to 6,624 in 2004.

Until fairly recently, 39 barges a day traversed this part of the canal, each in four minutes plus a loading and unloading time of about half an hour. Another positive factor: It took more than 10,000 cubic meters of water to send the big cargo barges down the original 17 locks. To traverse the same vertical descent by way of the inclined plane: 40 cubic meters.

Our plan, since evening was approaching when we brought our little barge – did I tell you her name was Chagall? – into the waiting pool, to tie off and spend the night so as not to be rushed. We cleated well upstream of the shiplift, and stepped off onto the canal wall to watch a few transits before doing our own in the morning.

As we walked toward the engineering marvel, a woman we hadn’t noticed before was running toward us, waving her arms and shouting no language we’d ever heard. It became clear that we were to get back in our boat and get out of there.

Why? We were well clear of the operation, it was still light, what were we supposed to do? Was it money? Nothing we proposed was acceptable. Finally our little scene caught the attention of the lockmaster who descended from his observation tower and joined our multilingual discussion.

To this day, we don’t know what the matter was. We kept asking questions in the best French or German we could muster, when suddenly the lockmaster found one he liked. “Can we just go ahead and go down right now?” we begged.

“Oh, certainement, monsieur,” the lockmaster effused, pleasantly enough but looking as though he meant, “Why didn’t you say that before?”

We got back to our boat about the time he got back to his tower, and were cordially waved into the watery box. Three more boats came in behind us, and in no time at all, we were sliding down the rails, waving to the tourists that had collected. At the bottom the forward gate was opened again and we were on our way.

Day was ending. All traffic, commercial or pleasure, must pull over to the bank or a seawall and tie off for the night. We were in a very rural, forested region of Alsace-Lorraine, and at twilight Dave drew close to the bank and jumped off to secure the boat while I put together something to eat. The clang-clang-clang of the sledge hammer rang through the woods.

I sat out on the rear deck for a few minutes after dinner, and I must say, I have never seen such utter darkness nor heard such silence. It was as though the rest of the world did not exist.

Very early next morning, at first light, a large barge went by faster than they usually travel. There was something suspicious about the rocking we sustained. Throwing on clothes, Dave called urgently: “We’re adrift!”

It was obvious what happened: A large vessel had passed and rocked the narrow channel hard enough to pull our stakes right out of the ground. Chagall’s motion was enough to pull them into the water. Before the boat could move farther from the bank, Dave jumped. One leg made it to the bank. The other went into the muck of the canal bed.

Still, he climbed the bank and salvaged only a mooring line and the sledge hammer, but you can’t tie off to a bank without two stakes. For the rest of the trip, we had to find a cleat or a low-hanging branch to tie on.

Chagall’s revenge? We’ll never know.SAAa

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