Cruising through France at 3 knots

March 2012 News Tom McMillen - For the Coloradoan

Our friend Jan Gulley came up with the idea of cruising through the canals in the countryside of France on a houseboat. Sounds like fun, we all said, so the research started.

The funny thing about research is it doesn't matter how much you do; some things are just meant to be figured out when you do it. And we had some great laughs doing just that.

We were told we would get some training on navigating and operating the locks before we took out the boat. I think something got lost in the translation of the word "training." To me it sounded like, "there is your boat, see you in a week." OK, it was a little more than that, but we reasoned, how hard could this really be? We just had to keep it between the ditches - literally.

Within an hour after we had arrived to pick up the boat, we were cruising down the canal toward our first lock at a blistering speed of 3 knots. For those of you without nautical experience, that translates to 3.445 mph. That, by the way, is top speed for this beast. The boat was about the size of a 12-foot-by-60-foot trailer. The locks are a generous 14-feet wide. After a quick math lesson, it became apparent that getting this boat through the locks was going to prove interesting, to say the least.

Upon approaching a lock, it was important to slow down your speed so you could maneuver into the lock. Additionally, there was usually a boat in front of you going through the lock or sometimes two or three waiting in line in front of you to go first. We often had to wait our turn, allowing us ample time to build our anxiety as we watched others go through with seeming grace and ease.

Now let me explain something - when you slow down the boat, your steering ability is greatly reduced, and it felt like half the time we tried to enter the lock sideways, which explained why the front and both sides of the boat were decorated with big blue bumpers. And those bumpers are bouncy. We looked very much like a pinball every time we went into a lock. To add to our joy, most locks are a gathering place, so we never lacked for an audience. My French is bad, but "Crazy Yank" is easy to translate.

We left most of the lock entry duties to my buddy, Jim Gulley, for two reasons. One, I didn't want to do it. Two, I didn't want to do it. I used the excuse that I needed to man the ropes.

Most of the locks are manned, but as you get further into the countryside the locks are unmanned and you need to operate the lock yourself. This job fell to Sandy and Jan. About halfway through the fifth day of our seven-day journey, we were actually starting to feel somewhat competent with this process.

It's hard to imagine how a typical lock entry went. In the morning after a great breakfast, Sandy and Jan would take the bikes from the roof of the boat and ride along a beautiful trail beside the canal and headed to the next lock. With the fresh breeze blowing their hair, the sun shining, beautiful flowers creating a heavenly scent in the air and occasionally stopping to snack on fresh wild raspberries, they would peddle along gaily, having great conversation and discussing their wonderful husbands. Their goal was to arrive at the next lock ahead of us and begin the process of opening it for "the beast."


Jim and I were on the boat deck zipping along at 3 knots, the steady hum of our diesel engine creating a constant background noise, "Burrrrrrrrrrrrrr."

Since Jim was driving the boat, I would serve as his gofer. "Jim you want something to drink?" Burrrrrrrrrrr. "Sure." Burrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. "Here you go." Burrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. "Thanks." Burrrrrrrrrrrrr.

The sun is beating down on us, so I put up our little beach umbrella and we sit side by side to share the shade. Burrrrrrrrrrr. Good thing we are in France. Burrrrrrrrrrrr.

"There's the lock," I said. Burrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Jim slows the boat down. Burrrrrrrrrrrr. The noise gets louder as the engine throttles back. We start to drift sideways. Burrrrrrrrrr. The engine revs as Jim puts it in reverse. Burrrrrrrrr. We drift the opposite direction. Burrrrrrrrrr. We don't see the low-hanging branch on the tree at the edge of the canal.

Snap, there goes our beach umbrella, caught on the branch and dragged across the deck and into the water. Burrrrrrrrrr. Jim's moving forward as I'm trying to fish the umbrella out of the water with a mop handle. Burrrrrrrrrrr. The motor groans as we start our pinball entry into the lock. Burrrrrrrrr. I nearly go overboard rescuing the umbrella. Burrrrrrrrr.


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