Updated: Mar 19
Minutes and hours creep by, and days drag along, making weeks feel like months. Even our weekends go on and on and on. The pages of our calendar have stopped turning. Time has slipped into slow gear.
We have entered the time warp that happens when there is no water under your boat.
We are in the Meuse & Sambre boatyard in Andenne, Belgium, where the workers refer to us as "le petit" because we are the only pleasure boat. Our neighbors are 38 or 100 meter long commercial barges.
We came here because it was time to have a hull survey for our insurance company, and while no one ever looks forward to being out of the water, we have been eager to make some improvements that we can only do in a boatyard.
Plan A was to spend about ten days to have the survey and complete our list of work. We didn't expect that our surveyor would tell us that we needed double plating in a few places on the hull. Oops! Scratch plan A, go to plan B!
Since making one improvement in a barge can lead to the need to make another, we have moved right along through plan C to plan D. Each adjustment to our original plan adds to our time out of the water.
Time might be moving slowly for us, but the workers are moving in real-time. Every morning at 7 am when the work whistle blows; we see men with tools marching toward us. They attack from all sides. While they work, we scurry around inside our crawl space, making sure that the welding heat doesn't set our home on fire. When we are not fire-watching, we are searching our brains for the right words to explain how we want a specific job done or deciding how many anodes and how much new anchor cable to order.
We watch as the welders put a fin on our rudder. The yard foreman comes over, and we all decide to make the fin longer. Our fin goes back to the shop. We move over to the propeller. Marc, the foreman, draws chalk pictures on the hull to discuss how they will build the tunnel over our propeller. Less than two hours later, we watch them weld on our new, longer fin. These men work fast.
Workers run back and forth through our house as they fit a new through-hole pipe in the bow bathroom. Do we want it to go this way? Wouldn't it work better like this? Other workers are in the engine room replacing our old exhaust system and muffler. An electrician is installing new Mastervolt products for our electrical system. Speaking French with the electrician is a massive challenge because we can't even speak "electrician" in English.
We love the sound of the lunch whistle, but no sooner does it blow to announce lunch than it blows again to say that lunch is over. We've been in France since the turn of the century. We've learned to think of lunch as a leisurely event. Here in this Belgian boatyard, the workers get a half-hour lunch break. That's not enough time for us to eat, let alone recover from a smoky morning in the bilges on fire watch. As we grab the last bite, we see the workers coming at us again, and we brace ourselves for the afternoon attack of pounding, grinding, and welding. We watch the workers with a combination of admiration and fear. They are a hard-working, experienced group of men who come at our boat with hammers and fire.
Mid-afternoon, we start listening for our favorite whistle, the one that signals the end of the workday. We love the sound of this whistle, and we have come to enjoy the sight of our workers' backs as they head toward the showers. Our stress level decreases with every step they take away from our barge.
Left alone with our boat for the rest of the day, we do the jobs we can't do while the workers are here. The yard will spray paint our hull to the waterline, so it is up to us to paint the rest. We roll the tar on the hull with a roller on a long pole, and we slowly move a ladder around the boat to paint the yellow trim above the rubbing strip. It is a big job, but we can't complain because the owners of the 38-meter barges are out painting too, and their giant hulls make our job look easy.
From our perch overlooking the river, we watch commercial barges chugging by from dawn to dusk. Their wake hits the shore like ocean waves, and the sound brings back memories of lounging around on beach chairs on our last Hawaiian vacation. How come time never passes this slowly during a vacation?
We cast an envious eye at the pleasure boats that pass, heading for new adventures upstream or down. We long for the freedom to cruise again.
We are stuck up on blocks, and although we know that we will be back in the water "soon," "soon" is taking its own sweet time to arrive. Our consolation is that the workers here are very kind to us and are working hard to complete our jobs. Also, the location of the yard is excellent. Not only do we have a scenic view of the river, but it is only a 3km bike ride upstream along the Meuse to go into Andenne to shop. The train station is less than 2km away, and we found a B&B with a great restaurant, Le Champerdrix, just 3km downstream.
Part of plan A had been to go to the DBA, Barge Association Rally in Namur after we left the boatyard. Since plan A didn't work, we had to scratch that idea, but we took the train to attend their Champagne reception. We had fun meeting other barge owners, drinking Champagne and just taking a break from boat work. The evening passed too quickly, of course, because time always flies outside of the boatyard.
With our bathrooms on the boat out of commission, we shower in the workers' locker room after they leave for the day. While their shower room is clean, it lacks amenities like a soap dish or towel rack, and the path between our boat and the locker room is dusty.
One weekend we rode our bikes about 20 minutes downstream along the Meuse to stay in the B&B. When we arrived, we noticed that there wasn't a bit of dust or dirt for miles around. We checked into a tidy room and took long showers in the comfort of a large bathroom that was just steps from our bed. That evening, sparkling clean from long showers and very relaxed from the peaceful surroundings, we enjoyed a delicious meal in their restaurant's elegant atmosphere. It was a lovely little vacation, but time was back in its fast mode, and our get-away didn't last long enough. Before we knew it, we were back on our boat with non-functioning bathrooms and construction zone decor.
As the work is winding down, we are beginning to think about the day that we will slip gently back into the water and out of this time warp. That night, after we have cruised to Namur and moored just below the citadel, we plan to sit on our back deck, with the chair cushions and table cloth back in place and not a tool in sight. We will open a bottle of Champagne and toast the water under our barge and the passage of time.
Pleasant moments before time stood still.
We left Roanne at the end of April, and after a couple of sunny, week-long stops in Paray-le-Monial and Saint-Jean-de-Losne, the weather reverted to winter. There didn't seem to be any point in stopping at some of the small village ports in the cold and the rain, so we put in long days just moving the boat. Somewhere around Epinal, we were shocked to run into an icy wind that a lock keeper told us was the Northwind. As the locals call it, La bise blew us around for a few days while we cruised, and we turn on the heat to try to keep warm. It wasn't until Verdun that we found blue skies again.
As we came around the bend to moor, we saw a friend's barge, and with his help, we squeezed our 22-meter home into a 23-meter mooring.
With warm weather for the first time in almost a month, we put up our yellow sunscreen to keep the wheelhouse cool and stayed for a few days to enjoy a lovely mooring in the middle of the city.
Our neighbor had his car with him, and together we toured the WWI battlefields. As told by the museums, Verdun's history, followed by a visit to the burial monuments, leaves a lasting impression.
We found the north branch of the canal de l'Est to be very beautiful and peaceful.
A donkey showed up at our door at a lock along the way, looking for something to eat. The lock keeper told us to be careful because his donkey eats geraniums, so we gave him some dog biscuits to keep him away from our flowers.
Near Toul, we ran into this interesting group of navigation warnings. It is the most we have ever seen in one place. The signs note a narrow space with a low bridge above and not too much water below.
On the Meuse river near the Belgium border, we enjoyed the mooring provided by the village of Laifour, took a photo of a house in town, and gave our Bateau Eclaircie pencils to a group of kids that we collected at the picnic table next to our boat. They liked the pencils, but they were fascinated with our battery-operated pencil sharpener. By the time they left, they had sharpened most of their pencils down to the eraser. The little boy in the red jacket has his pencil in his pocket. He was busy making noises with the modern-day version of a whoopee cushion, proving that little boys are the same the world over.
April and May might have been frigid this year, but it was still springtime, and we met many swan families as we cruised along the Meuse heading for Belgium.