From Friesland To France

Exploring Europe’s waterways with Virunga

September 2019 Feature Austa Cook


“It's truly wonderful to moor out amongst the frozen reed-beds in the wide open spaces of Friesland; a log burning stove, as well as full central heating, makes sure that we stay nice and cozy,” Keith Wren emails to me.

I debate over what I could say back that would sound remotely as poetic. My space heater is keeping me pretty toasty at work. And it sure is nice to be greeted by the frozen whiteness outside my window. Oh, wait, that’s pigeon poop…

Needless to say, being privy to the excitement that Keith and his wife, Ann, are accustomed to as I corresponded with them over their story regularly had me turning green with envy.

For the Wrens, life is not the usual since facing the prospect of retirement led to a big decision in 1999: they decided to buckle down and commit to what they had always been talking about—going abroad to explore mainland Europe by houseboat.

Wandering the continent had long fascinated the Wrens—the hundreds of miles of interconnected waterways that spiral out from Germany and Holland in the north down through Belgium and France to the Mediterranean coast in the south and the Black Sea in the east offer ample opportunity. They always had the vision, they now had the time—the only thing they were missing was the right houseboat.

Two more years of looking all over Europe, the advice of “Watersteps Through France” authors Bill and Laurel Cooper, and the aid of a former commercial barge skipper went into finally finding their future houseboat: a lovely classic barge of 93 feet by 16 feet, christened Virunga.

This barge was unusual for many reasons, including having been shortened by about 32 feet and being relatively young for her riveted construction barge type—she was only built in 1960 as opposed to the early 1900’s. The hull had also been re-built for a stiffer under-water section; instead of the minimum required steel plate-thickness of .28 inches, it measured a whopping .47 inches with .63 inches on the chines. Virunga had also been fully certified for use on the mighty River Rhine, meaning she met the highest of European safety standards for inland waterways.

“We have maintained that certification; very few private barges have that standard,” Keith explains.

Rebuilding Begins

The Wrens took their new barge to Friesland in northern Holland to strip her down to an empty shell, re-paint the inside, and convert her into an elegant and well-equipped cruising houseboat—including enabling her to carry 3,400 gallons of water in the under-floor tanks. (This translates to mooring in the open countryside for considerable time between marina visits, and the luxury of several showers a day during particularly hot summers).

The renovation work took a big hit when the majority of the Dutch shipyard where the houseboat was being re-fitted was razed by fire. By a stroke of luck, Virunga had been temporarily taken out of the water for grit blasting and spray-painting in another shipyard.

“Equally fortunately, we had been upgrading her insurance premium when individual project tasks were completed—and we had only just done that three days before the fire!” Keith says. Unfortunately, the new mahogany wheelhouse, hatches, skylights, and other features were lost with the shipwrights’ shop where they had been stored before the fire broke out.

Launch Time

Despite the setbacks, the work was finally complete and Virunga was ready to launch. Hot water and central heating were now provided by an “on demand” diesel combi-boiler, and the houseboat was all electric; a high capacity semi-traction battery-bank plus power inverter provides Virunga’s primary power-circuit of 230 volts—which means the Wrens could carry a full fit-out of fridges and freezer to tumble-drier and dishwasher.

“Laundry can be done whenever it's convenient regardless of the weather or where the boat is moored,” Keith says. “Consequently, there's no searching (often in vain) for a convenient launderette, no humping bags of clothes across town and then spending half the afternoon keeping machines company.”

Name Game

As far as re-christening goes, the Wrens decided against changing the name.

“Her name is original and, because we liked it, we just kept it,” Keith explains. “Virunga is the mountainous national park area in central Africa made famous by that brave American anthropologist, Dian Fossey.”

Open Water

After a run of acceptance and shake-down trials followed by cruising much of Friesland, the Wrens finally set sail with an elderly mother-in-law in May of 2009.

“At long last, we were heading south to the sun,” Keith grins.

Because there are now no border controls of any sort in continental Europe thanks to the “open-borders” treaty, the Wrens found European inland cruising to be exceptionally easy.

“Moving around from country to country, with neither suitcases to pack nor airport queues to test our patience, is bliss,” Keith smiles.

“We picked up visitors from the USA at Chateau Thierry,” Keith says. “My friend Arthur and myself then made a ‘duty trip’ to the WWI American military cemetery at Belleau Wood on the hills above the Marne; we walked the Belleau Wood battlefield, which is unusual in that not only are several of the original trenches still visible but also rusting artillery pieces can still be seen in the undergrowth—a very poignant visit which left us both deep in thought.”

They explored Champagne-producing areas, delved into the Brie cheese country-side, and stopped in the town of Meaux where all their guests touched down on land again to catch the Eurostar train, which runs through the tunnel under the English Channel to London. The Wrens continued their cruise to the River Seine and Paris. After touring many cities, they met the first leaves of fall just as they entered the Burgundy wine-producing area at Santanay.  

“It was here that we got out our wicker baskets and wandered the bank-side collecting supplies of wild walnuts ready for Christmas,” Keith remembers. “Onwards onto the River Saone at Chalon-sur-Saone to take on fuel—and scare the hell out of the motor-cruiser fraternity in that little marina.”

They had to enter backwards so the fuel hose could reach Virunga’s filling point on the after-deck, and as many houseboaters know, most large power-vessels tend to be willful when driving astern.

“Little did those motor-boaters realize, when they saw the stern of Virunga thrashing backwards towards them, that she is so maneuverable!” Keith laughs. “With a single propeller lying between two semi-balanced rudders capable of turning almost 90 degrees to each side, supplemented by a powerful, engine-driven, hydraulic bow-thruster, she is incredibly easy to maneuver, even in strong winds. We knew that—and they didn’t, and the sight of alarmed heads popping out of hatches as we rumbled close past them meant that we had to work hard not to burst out laughing.”

Place To Meet

They then continued upstream on the River Saone to St. Jean de Losne, the crossroads of the central rivers and canal system. Near here, six routes converge and in the summertime it becomes the meeting ground for many barges like Virunga for Americans, English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Australians, French, Belgian, New Zealanders and Canadians alike.

“It is said that whenever two barges meet it’s an excuse for a party—and it is here that friendships are renewed, tales are told and plans are made,” Keith says.

The Wrens then wound past the city of Dijon to arrive in their over-wintering port of Pont d’Ouch in the heart of the Burgundy vineyards.

“Once we were ensconced we just changed mode from cruiser to houseboat and settled down for a snowy but comfortable winter,” Keith says. Thanks to the nine radiators, a superb solid fuel stove in the after-saloon, and double-glazing in the skylights and windows, a wonderfully cozy winter it was.

Lost In Translation

After celebrating the New Year, the Wrens began exploring River Saone, where they had a hilarious experience due to language barriers.

“Despite the fact that I’d spent some time learning the principles of the French language, there were many of the nuances that I still had to master,” Keith explains. “This was brought home to us when a conversation with the driver of the little local bus which took us into town went a little askew.”

A pleasant man, the driver was interested in Virunga and often asked the Wrens questions as he drove them to the local market. Keith decided to invite him onboard for a look around.

“It’s just as well that it was a warm spring day that he came, because all of the regular passengers on that bus also turned up!” Keith laughs. “Fortunately, they all also brought food and drink gifts, so after a quick scramble to rig tables on the bank-side (complete with the crisp white tablecloths that the French always use) we were soon ‘rigged for party’—a party that became full of noise and laughter and went on well into the evening.”

Looking back over the happy scene, Keith contentedly says, “Such is this wonderful houseboating lifestyle.”

This exact sentiment is something that resonates with all houseboaters. But if you want to see for yourself how things are done on the uncrowded waterways, take a look at the Wren’s collection of pictures on their flickr page. I’ll race you to it. After all, coming in from the cold outside and sitting down to an email like, “We’re now back onboard after visiting England for a few days,” my hands just naturally reach over to pull out my desk calendar and start planning my own retirement some four decades from now.

Photography by Keith Wren

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