St Mihiel to Verdun – What a Day!

This day was no ordinary lazy, river cruise down the Meuse.  During our trip from St Mihiel to Verdun, we traversed 26 miles and were lowered down nine locks; with a few bursts of excitement along the way!

The day’s first lock beyond St Mihiel, Ecluse #11, was the first of several manual locks along this stretch of the Canal de la Meuse.  During the off-season, pleasure boaters must inform a lock-keeper of their agenda; the keeper then travels along with the boat (via the roadways) to tend each lock.  During the high-season, as is now during July, each lock has a lock-keeper.  Most of the keepers are youngsters, this being their summer employment, and several are year-round employees of the Voies Navigables de France (VNF).  As boats approach, the lock-keeper manually prepares the lock. Then, as the boat is lifted or lowered, the keeper calls ahead to the next lock to inform of the traveling boat and so the next lock is prepared as well.  As it turns out this manual system is incredibly efficient!  Since the keepers are aware of the travel patterns during the day, they may also hold boats to await locking through with boats trailing in order to reduce the amount of water being used. IMG_1763Each gate, right and left side, is opened separately, manually by turning a crank.  Brian assisted with this numerous times.  Then, gates closed, the water moving through the lock is managed by manually adjusting the barriers which are built into the gates.  The process is rather smooth and boaters are able to converse with the lock-keepers in the meanwhile.  Through our first four locks, we were joined by a German gentleman in a canoe.  He was canoeing one section of the Meuse from Commercy to Charleville.  He shared with us that he explores a different canal via canoe each summer, camping along the way.  After these four locks, he had to stop to clean the carburetor on his outboard and so we did not see him for the remainder of the day.  It had certainly been a sight to see this man trailing along behind us!  IMG_1764IMG_1766The navigable channel down the center of the Canal de la Meuse was becoming narrower and narrower as we traversed this section.  The sides of the canal were terribly overgrown with weeds.  As we had previously learned, the weeds can clog our rudders and prop in a hurry altering both our steering and propulsion.  Soon, the channel was overrun with weeds and they were unavoidable.  Without any adjustments to the throttle, Detour‘s speed would slow.  This meant often dropping back to neutral, then throwing a hard reverse so the weeds would clear from the prop.  The weeds didn’t always clear from the rudders with this method, so in addition, huge piles had to be cleared by pushing them down the sides of the rudders with the boat hook.  There were also several instances when we raised and lowered the centerboard, assuming that yet another huge pile of weeds trapped there added to our drag.  And of course our bow would plow weeds, which would stack in another pile, which also needed to be pushed away with the boat hook.  Management of weeds kept us busy!IMG_1774Just when we’d thought it was all clear, of weeds at least, steaming straight at us was a commercial vessel!  Yikes!  We’d last seen a commercial vessel along a short section of the Vosges Canal; it was shuttling gravel between two loading docks.  Now, this vessel coming towards us seemed to fill the entire canal!  There was not space enough to pass, so we moved aside to the shoreline and held fast to a tree branch.  “Don’t lose that branch,” Brian instructed, “when he passes that boat will suck us right towards it.”  The bow thruster was down, ready to keep our bow in place if need be, and the centerboard was up to enable us as close to the bushes as possible.  The commercial vessel practically crawled down the channel.  Sure enough, Detour was pulled towards it by the displacement of the water in such a narrow space.  We held our position as the commercial vessel passed.  Then, as we tried to move away from the bank anticipating the following wake, STUCK!  Our starboard rudder was stuck in the mud, no doubt the wake now sinking it further.  “You’ve got shorts on,” I proposed, “want your Keens and you can hop out and push!”  Fortunately for Brian, pushing a bit with the boat hook was enough to get us floating again.  As if the surprise attack of one commercial vessel wasn’t exciting enough,  just around the bend came the second one!  We were forced ashore yet again, with a friendly wave from the captain!  IMG_1768  Typically we are lounging in the cockpit and every once in a while peering to port or starboard to ensure were are steering mid-channel.  Not today!  Our guard was up; keeping alert for oncoming vessels between clearing weeds every 10-mins or so as our speed dropped from 4knts, to 3.5knts, to 2knts…oy!  Approaching Ecluse #15, we observed two boats in the lock.  On the shore, a man caught our attention with a wave and, “The lock is broken!” he shouted.  Ok, not great news.  Having no idea of the severity of this broken lock, we staked to the shoreline to wait.  A most helpful, youngster lock-keeper, met us and held our lines until the boat was close enough that I could jump ashore.  He informed us that his boss was on the way from Verdun, bringing a tool to fix the lock.  “Well, this is an exciting day!” I exclaimed to the teen.  “Not for me,” he replied.IMG_1769The stalled boats got together for an impromptu, afternoon chat.  The Swedish sailboat informed us that a chunk of rock had fallen off the lock wall, they’d observed this after having entered the lock.  The Swedes believed that the rock was lodged beneath the lock gate, preventing it from closing.  We got acquainted with the two, visiting sons of the Swedish couple; they were about our age and we swapped travel stories while awaiting the lock-keeper’s boss.

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VNF to the rescue!  The lock-keeper’s boss arrived from Verdun with a specialized tool; a wide based rake with a very loooonnnng handle.  Lock-keeper proceeded to adjust the gate and boss scraped the bottom of the lock to dislodge the chunk of rock.  Success!  The cruising audience cheered!  We said our goodbyes and headed back to our boats to continue the day’s travel.

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Through the lock with ease, but not out of the weeds yet!

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One of our favorite two-year-olds, Bella Rae, would be happy to know this lock seems to have been made for her!  Maybe she’ll be moving to France one day…

IMG_1783The final triumph of a long day on the water.  Manual locks do not have traffic lights, so we had to look through this short tunnel at Verdun to see if we could proceed.  There was a passenger vessel on its way up inside the lock, so we tied off alongside a wooden railing, resembling a guard rail along a road’s shoulder.  It seemed the lock and tunnel were part of the entertainment for the passengers who enjoyed a late afternoon cruise on the Meuse.  The passenger vessel had just enough space to squeeze past us as it exited.IMG_1786Welcome to Verdun, the docks and quay are all full, good luck!  We moored alongside the very end of the quay, with the stern beneath a bridge.  A concerned neighbor suggested we move, “…crying youth at night will not be so nice,” the Dutch man explained while he walked me toward another mooring place.  The other mooring place was a bit of a stretch for our docklines, a higher wall with bollards set far back.  Across the river was a familiar boat, M/Y Zanderzorg; a converted, restored Dutch sailing barge captained by a Canadian whom we had met on the Petite Saone.  If rafting was the best choice here, it seemed a good bet to raft to Zanderzorg.  So we crossed the river and settled with our new neighbor for the night.IMG_1789