Locking in the Rain – Splashing, bashing, and sipping our way along France’s Nivernais Canal

November 16th, 2010  |  Published in Hot off the press

(First appeared in Westworld Alberta, spring 2009.)

This is no place to suffer from caffeine overdose. This wheel’s sensitive and there can’t be more than 2 inches between our spiffy 36’ cruiser and the concrete sides of the lock. We’re entering the Sardy staircase, a series of 16 locks within a tumble of each other. Things will now start to go downhill, literally. Since we set out from the LeBoat base at Decize four days ago, we’ve been ‘climbing’ to the summit at Baye, so already have 31 locks under our keel. They say Baye is beautiful, but in the soggy fog the lake just looks like a smudge on charcoal. We’re trying to stay warm with pots of hot coffee.

Avancez calls the éclusier, the lockeeper. Lentement. C’est facile. Easy, my stern!

We ricochet in. The éclusier beams. I bet he loves to watch sodden cool-captain wannabes make fools of themselves. No coffee for him. I’ve been demoted to captain because we’ve discovered I can’t throw a rope worth merde. Cherie Anne’s at the bow. Rope coiled, she turfs the bundle perfectly to the éclusier’s outstretched arm. At the stern, Kevin is even hotter. He manages to lasso the bollard. We whoop our approval. Now the engine is turned off, David emerges with coffee, and Cherie Anne steams toward the lockkeeper’s house turned giftshop; thinks we don’t know what she’s up to.

We holler and wave her toward the lock gates. No stopping for shopping. We all have our job to do and hers is to assist the éclusier closing and opening sluices and gates.

Like an intestine, the skinny little Nivernais loops and twists as it passes through the wooded Morvan region, linking the Loire and Seine Valleys. We loved the idea of locking through the backcountry in the off season, in a canal noted for its scenic beauty, castles, wine, and gardens. We also liked the fact that it was closed to commercial traffic. Started in 1784, it took 55 years to complete, but with its limited draft and small gauge locks, it was abandoned by commercial barges in the 70s. So far the only traffic we’ve passed was a swan, and even that was a squeeze.

We aren’t so keen on the rain, though. April in Paris may be romantic, but April on the Nivernais is bringing monsoons to mind. We never questioned those substantial April discounts on the LeBoat website. (www.leboat.com)

We’re allowing two weeks to bump from Decize to Tannay, and back. It’s only 149 kilometres one-way, but here you measure by locks, and there’s 144 of them, return.

At the next one, Cherie Anne tries again and Kevin abandons his post to head her off. Many of the cottages have been transformed into vivid artsy little shops; it’s too much for her. If they don’t both get back here soon, we’ll have to pick them up from the tow path, as our Clipper is sinking fast with the emptying of the water. David and I slowly release the lines. It wouldn’t do to be left high and dry. But they’re back, and we bounce out and on to the next adventure.

It’s a day that has had us drenched, dripping and dazed. In addition to descending this staircase and bashing in and out of locks, we’ve raised and lowered five swing bridges, and squeezed through three one-way tunnels. Located at the summit level pound between the staircase and Baye, they had us scrambling for flashlights and training our boat’s spotlight on the walls. Narrow and claustrophic, they’re the marine equilivant of an MRI machine. As we slithered out of the first one, the longest at 758-metres, we cheered the current captain. Under David’s helm, the Clipper hadn’t even nudged the sides once. He had drunk less coffee.

We emerged into a sylvan landscape painted by the Romantics: an ancient viaduct arched over the canal, ivy festooned the banks, cascading streams somersaulted beside us. Constable would have loved it.

Back on the staircase, we see a welcome sight: a sliver of blue overhead and an éclusier at the next lock who actually fends me off as I bounce into the gate, enquiring whether we’d like to buy some of delicious regional wine, cheap. Mais qui!

Let Cherie Anne loose! I holler to Kevin. Tell her to get one.

He does, and she’s off, while we listen to the familiar sounds of ravaging waters, and everything disappears from sight as we slither deeply down the lock’s side. It’s a great idea  to stock up on local wine here. We won’t need to track down elusive shops that usually are closed anyway, or worry about hauling it back the boat.

We tie up on the bank to wait, in the meanwhile changing into dry clothes. We hear Cherie Anne splashing by the boat.

I’ll help. Don’t try hoisting it on the boat yourself, David calls and starts to head out. But she climbs aboard anyway.

Where is it? We ask.

Confused, she holds up a single bottle of Pouilly Fumé.

That’s all you bought?

You said one.

We meant one case!

Don’t let that éclusier get away!

We race out, but he’s gone – driving ferociously back down the towpath towards lunch. And there probably won’t be another boat through here all day. Sacrebleu!

Later today we’ll be snuggly tethered at Sardy-lès-Épiry with the heater drying our clothes and hair, the white asparagus steaming, the early strawberries resting in their juice and the beef bourguignon simmering. We’ll have made our routine foray to bag our baguette and chocolate croissants, and will have settled into an evening of debriefing, photographing, and planning the next day’s adventures, before tumbling into our separate staterooms.

The Pouilly Fumé, unfortunately, will turn out to be incredible. And it had only cost 7 euros. In the next ten, mostly soggy days, we will never again encounter a wine selling éclusier. Maybe next time.

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