So there we were – tied up alongside a huge working barge, which was itself tethered to an absolutely monstrous working barge, which was waiting beneath the loading gantry of a gravel depot for several million tons of the stuff to come aboard in the morning.
It was the first working day after the Summer holidays the next day and all the working barges would be back ploughing through the waters of the Seine, bearing remorselessly down on the smaller, helplessly drifting craft as they floated powerlessly towards the thundering weir…….. and so on……
There is no AA for barges as far as we knew. And we could not turn the engine on to try and get somewhere for fear of seizing it up completely and did not know where we would take her in any case. I think I can safely say that Jill was fretting a bit at this point. My nerves were shredded. Neil seemed to think it would all be OK in the end. What to do? No easy solutions seemed to present themselves as we considered various sources of information and help. Eventually Neil remembered the card that John and Rosemary, the other tjalk owners, had given Jill a couple of nights ago in case we needed help. How prescient of them! Jill rang. John was solicitude itself and said he would ring a man he knew in Paris who may be able to help.
And that is how we came to be rescued by George. Known as Saint George to all who know him, and especially me. He lived on his boat in Arsenal, the canal basin marina in the middle of Paris, just by the Place de la Bastille, where we had hoped to moor. He offered to take the train to where we were and bring the necessary tools with him to replace the fan belt and check things over as far as he could. Simon Evans had, fortunately, brought two fan belts when he came out to replace it last time, so we had a spare. We had some tools with us but none of the size and weight needed to work on that type of engine.
We were told that the mega barges would not be loaded and ready to go until about 11.00 on Monday so we could have a leisurely night and wait for George to find us. At 08.00 however the bargee hailed us and said he was about to leave to take the children to school. His whole family lived on board it seemed. With casual speed he tried to pass our lines up to the other mega barge but it towered so high above us that we had to dig out more lines and tie them together to reach reach the bollards on its deck. (I used a reef knot in case you are interested and finally realised that learning knots at Brownies many decades ago was actually a useful life skill.)
We waited. The bargee returned and parked his barge as if it were a mini a bit further up the mega barge. We dug out ladders so that when George arrived he would be able to clamber down to us. Jill chatted to the owners of both the barges, who turned out to be brothers who had one inherited barge and one they had bought to expand the family business. Sums of millions of euros were involved. They lived aboard and one of the familys’ mothers looked after the children during term time as their wives also worked on the barges.
To cut a long story a bit shorter. George arrived – a nicer, more reassuring man you could not meet. He was retired and, very sadly, had lost his wife a year ago so now lived alone in the community of boat-dwellers in Paris. He regularly went out of his way to help sailors in distress and it transpired he already knew Friso. Domestic chaos ensued again while he replaced the shredded fan belt.
He thought there was some misalignment amongst the cogs and wheels that was causing the problem. This was not something he could fix there and then and I was not happy about proceeding all the way to Paris in its current state – not to mention the need for fuel and a fuel filter. There was a marina up ahead where Friso could possibly safely stay, but doing that would make the whole exercise more difficult for Jill – who had to get back to work and still sort the boat out. I voiced my very real fears to Jill while George was still there – I’m not sure if he was planning on sailing back with us but he said he would. I felt guilty at applying the emotional pressure:-( George did want to check the fuel and filter situation before heading into Paris though. His presence restored my nerve enough to not abandon ship!
We sailed away. I was freed of all rope and lock duties by George who stayed at the back with Jill and offered her much very useful instruction on things related to barge handling. Jill now brought Friso to a complete standstill in the locks before ropes were deployed. George chatted knowledgeably to the remote lock keepers on the VHF radio.
Life became relaxed.
A quick stop at the nearby marina and Neil and George figured out how the fuel gauge worked (it’s a manometer if you are interested in that kind of thing and a button needed pressing and holding), that we actually had plenty of fuel, and that the fuel filter was, in fact, as clean as a whistle.
So – next stop Paris Arsenal. George had phoned ahead to arrange for us to use a temporarily vacant berth – the Arsenal marina is always full to bursting and short stays need careful advance planning. Thanks again George! It was a restful trip down the river – I made tea and chatted to George mostly. The huge barges wove between the other craft and water skiers, swerving away at the last minute – they seemed to be surprisingly manoeuverable as they sped along!
There were signs of last year’s flood damage along the banks of the Seine. And some familiar buildings.It’s not a great picture of the Bibliotheque:-(
Manoeuvering Friso into the very narrow and deep lock entrance cut into in the embankment of the Seine was a challenge for Jill as it meant cutting at right angles across the full force of the river. With George’s advice she edged us in perfectly.
The marina is located where a tributary joins the Seine so it was upstream to to us and we came in three metres below the bank – the water came in with some force! Fortunately the lock had rising bollards so you only had to hook around one on the level and it rose with you – no need to climb any slimy lockside ladders!
Once inside Jill had a crash course in precision manoeuvering in a very tight space in the crowded basin, handled admirably, and we nosed between two regular Arsenal dwellers without so much as a neighbourly bump.
If you were walking through La Place de la Bastille in Paris you would probably not realise that there was a whole neighbourhood of boats twenty feet below, gently nudging the pontoons of the narrow canal basin.
There are families who live there year round. There are winter people who stay through the winter then sail elsewhere for the summer months and let their berths lucratively to summer visitors. Then there are those who are passing through – like us. Climb the stairs and there you are – right in the heart of the city. Magic!
Going out for dinner was the only payment George would countenance and Jill was very happy to treat us all. He took us to his favourite local Vietnamese restaurant where three of us had a Bo Bun Nem – probably the most delicious combination of foods I have ever eaten.
The next morning we climbed the stairs again and went for coffee and croissant in a nearby pavement café. Feel so privileged to be able to do such typical Parisian things.
Jill had to leave in two days and Neil and I could have stayed on since Friso would be there anyway. We needed to get back to Portia in her campsite though – although it was secure, leaving her unattended is always slightly worrying. With just our elegant supermarket bags-for-life as luggage we headed for the fast train back to Migennes, missed it and caught the slow one. Three hours later we were back in the van and then straight into the lifesaving campsite pool – it was still very hot.
It was certainly an adventure. And, in retrospect, very enjoyable!
As a follow-up: a plan had been hatched for Friso’s onward journey. The berth at Arsenal was only available for a few days but George and his friend Bruno could move her around as other boats came and went. This would give them a chance to carry out some necessary fixes and they would then take her down to Rouen – a journey of one or two nights I think. Jill would visit her there and make plans for her to be taken overland to Ireland. This did actually happen over the next couple of months and Jill has said she will write the story of the final, difficult, leg of the journey. Bon courage Jill and go Friso!