Strike the Flag

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There is a long tradition in the navy’s of the world that when a flag officer leaves a ship the pennant signifying their presence is lowered.   Today we struck the flag of our amazing dog Nikki.   Admiral Nikki had been a part of our lives for over 15 years and a crew member on Vivante from the beginning.  I cannot yet think about how much we will miss her.

Carol and I thought that it would be appropriate to share with you the most popular episode of this blog we have ever had. It was written, of course, by Admiral Nikki.


Shush, Don’t tell them!

It has come to my attention that some of you have asked how I am doing.  My people mentioned it earlier in the week and made a halfhearted attempt to fill some of you in.  So, it is time for me to put paw to keyboard and give everyone the straight skinny.

I must admit the flight over was not something that any dog should have to endure.  Even though they tried their best to make it the shortest flight with no layovers, it was a real drag.  I was trapped in the hold with two other yapping dogs that would just not shut up.

However, once established on the big black thing, I immediately began to retrain my people to accommodate my every wish.  While I could easily negotiate the 6 feet of steep stairs to the wheelhouse, I feigned a bit of limp and once took a little tumble in front of Mom so from then on, I am whisked up and down whenever I wish.

At around 5:15, I make my first spin through their nest to let Dad know that I am up and about.   I gave up on Mom as she appears to be in a deep coma each morning and does not respond to my best whimpers and grunts.  Dad, however, is much more attentive and, at least by 6:30, I have been walked and fed and am back on the couch for my morning nap.

On those days that the big black thing moves, my signal to arise is the whirr, whirr,  thump, thump noise from behind the stairs.  Up to the lookout point I go and am strapped in and assume my navigator’s position keeping a sharp eye out for baddies and other threats during our journey.

2013 07 05 (16L) Givet to Chateau Thierry

We usually go up and down in big elevators of some sort, much bigger than those in the condo.  These are better because when I am riding them, sometimes I get to get off the big black thing and go potty while we wait to start down.

Usually, the whirr, whirr, thump, thump stops just after my healthy snack (table droppings) from Dad.  Once the giant leashes are tied on the shore to keep the big black thing from moving any more, it is off to explore.

2013 07 04 (08L) Givet to Chateau Thierry

Sometimes we go to a place where Mom and Dad get some glasses of red stuff and I get some water in a big bowl.  We have had some pretty wild times and once I went a little too far and conked out while Mom and Dad kept getting more glasses of red stuff.

2013 06 03 (013C) Toul to Givet Nikki relaxing

All in all, this is not too bad.  Much more attention from my people and lots of little people who don’t seem to know my name.  They all think my name is Chien.   And sometimes I do something that I never get to do in the tall house, I get to RUN!

2013 07 01 (64C) Givet to Chateau Thierry

And after another exhausting day of sleeping, eating, pooping, sniffing, napping, eating, more napping, it is time for bed.

2013 07 04 (13L) Givet to Chateau Thierry

Maybe this big black thing is not so bad.


Thank you Nikki, your complete love and affection have affected our lives in ways we will never understand.   Goodbye old girl.

Mom and Dad


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85 degrees of Storage

As we approach our departure, two niggling issues lightly tap us on the back of our heads every so often just to remind us that we do not have as much control of things as we would like to believe.

As our departure this year is a bit later than is usual we are nervously watching the temperatures in the afternoons.   One of the lesser known realms of the “Friendly Skies” involves getting our beloved dog Nikki on the aircraft.

After a rash of animals meeting their demise while waiting in a hot hangar or baggage area to be loaded in the cargo bay of their flight a few years ago, the airlines set 85 degrees as the maximum temperature forecast anywhere along the route for flying an animal.  Over that, no-go and you are simply out of luck.

Our flight departs Miami at 7:30 in the evening and after studying the historical weather data for the airport there, we are right on the cusp of getting out of town.  After some spirited discussion,  our plan, if we lose the weather lottery, is for me to jet away with the majority of the baggage while Carol and Nikki cool their heels in Miami waiting for the weather to improve.   I am sure the Red roof Inn at the airport will be ecstatic to welcome them back for another night.   I, on the other hand, will have to hire some Tibetan Sherpas to assist in moving me through the Paris Airport to the TGV terminal.

We are not thinking about the added cost of such an eventuality but at least we kind of understand the strategy.

My other mental gymnastic effort involves the storage of our personal belongings.   The “cone of uncertainty” has come down significantly as we finalized the renters for our place.  Initially I was covering everything from totally unfurnished to what we ended up with; fully furnished with a lot of the day to day household stuff remaining in place.   So seemingly there should be no problem.

However, looking to save cost where ever possible, I have been executing 3 dimensional jujitsu to try to predict the final mix of boxes, bins, bikes and other odds and ends that must be crammed into a varying array of storage options.  The ever patient staff at the Lock Up has shown me just about every size storage locker in existence as I mull over the best options.

The other day, as I stood ruminating in front of the 5 x 8 unit for about 10 minutes as the manager stood tapping her toe in expectation of some sort of decision, my mind drifted away into the the recollection of George Carlin’s famous riff on “Stuff”

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Off Soundings

For those of us who aspire to the mantle of “sailor”, the arcane term that stands as the title of this post  literally means crossing the invisible  boundary  in the ocean where the depth of the water exceeds your capability to measure it.  For modern sailors who seek a true blue water experience it is a milestone and a right of passage.

In olden days, as explorers moved away from familiar shores this was a literal step into the unknown where past experience provided little guidance as to the way forward.   In modern times, we suffer under the allusion that our understanding of the physical world makes that condition rare.

However, considered within a more metaphysical framework, being “off soundings” has never been more relevant.  Today, it is our internal reference points  and psychic landmarks that are shifting, the ability to navigate through our own existence more uncertain.  It is from this strange position that Carol and I prepare to embark on our 2017 cruise.

As we enter our 6th season on Vivante a little idea that had inhabited the shadowy nether regions of our minds since we began this adventure is finally to be realized.    We will not be returning to our home base in Florida this fall but will remain off soundings, spending the winter in Europe before once again becoming Vivante travelers in the spring of 2018.

During our extended sojourn we will move into terres inconnues both physically and emotionally.    Carol has the unique ability to tease extraordinary experiences from places and people that elude many who plot the same course.   While they may see the same vistas and villages, their frames of reference  remain unaffected by the journey.

It seems certain that when we return to what is our home here in the fall of next year, things will be different both in the world and within ourselves.   It is simply unclear, at this point at  least, what those differences will be.   That  for us, is the joy of travel.

See you out there.


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Relativity and Resilience (Part 2)


To say that our summer plans shifted a bit could be added to the pantheon of understatements beside “Other than that, how was the play, Ms. Lincoln?”   and the Bridge officer on the Titanic commenting: “Seems to be a bit of ice ahead”

As we settled on the scope of work to be completed on Vivante, the realization that a substantial part of our cruising plans would have to be scrapped sank in.   So, there began a long series of discussions and “negotiations” as to how we deal with a massively different situation.

First and foremost was the arrival of guests in a few weeks.   Our original plans involved a bit of a cruise from Dijon up the Burgundy canal returning them to Dijon.   As we sat in the dry dock with no idea of when the work would begin on Vivante, the nightmare scenario of welcoming our guests to the scream of an angle grinder and the dust of a sandblasting machine loomed.

Fortunately, the yard was so far behind schedule, they decided to boot us out of the dry dock for a couple of weeks while they sorted their immediate scheduling issues allowing us to get to Dijon in advance of our guests and giving them a nice visit with the added experience of re-entering the cale seche with us as we returned to Saint Jean to begin the work.

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After their departure, alone again, we began the long journey through a summer at the shipyard.  The trials and tribulations experienced as we moved through the steps of the process;  sandblasting, grinding, cutting off plating with a torch, hammering, welding and painting whilst living on board are too numerous to discuss in detail.   However, here are a few from the highlight reel.

Sandblasting is perhaps the dirtiest, noisiest and frustrating part of the process.  We wisely left town during Vivante’s week long blasting adventure to hike the Alps at Annecy.

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Upon our return the amount of grit and grime that had been deposited in every nook and cranny of the barge was simply amazing.  I am still finding granules of the media around the deck.   It was like having everything you owned covered in sand paper.   The effect on my beautiful paint job on the top deck was pretty nasty.

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Once the re-plating began, it was actually, for me, a fascinating process.   The way the crew took 6mm steel plate and molded it like rubber around the complex curves of our hull was pretty amazing.  Using hydraulic jacks and some rather large hammers, they made it look easy.   Day by day they slowly transformed the 105 year old bottom of Vivante into a completely new hull.

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One of the unavoidable side effects of this work is the risk of fire.   Welding and cutting metal involves temperatures over 2000 degrees F.   On Vivante, our construction minimized the problem when the workers were welding and other than a little smoke and scorched paint on the interior we were good to go.   Cutting off old plating with a torch was another matter however.

As the torch melts the old welds around the plating, occasionally  flames break through the plating and create a jet of flames that erupt into the interior of the barge.  As a result, someone (that would be me) must be on watch to extinguish any lingering flames.


Goggles, respirator, gloves, full jump suit and a garden sprayer were my standard kit when the cutting torch was deployed.   Hanging upside down through the access hatches in the floor, watching the cherry red blob of molten metal move across the hull I patiently am waiting for the plume of flames to appear.

Spraying the hot spots with water made quick work of most of the eruptions.  Only once or twice did a full-on fire hose need to be engaged.   Luckily, we had an industrial blower deployed that would suck out the inevitable smoke so it was simply just another part of the adventure.

There are likely some of you who have the impression that the French are wonderful people who really don’t work very hard.   Based on my experience, I would like to offer you another perspective.

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Gilles, the foreman for Vivante was one of the yards most senior employees.  In his mid 60’s with the build of a bulldog, there was not much Gilles had not seen before.  At 6:30 he was already at the yard setting up for the day’s work.   By 7:00, Gilles and his apprentice Damelle were underway for the day.  They worked steadily until 12:00 when the traditional one and a half hour French lunch began.  At 1:30 work re-commenced and did not let up until 5:30 or 6:00.   Some days we had only two men working, some days as many as 8.  Gilles and Damelle normally  also worked a half day on Saturday. This was not namby-pamby stuff either.  Cutting, placing and welding 6mm steel plates is not for the faint of heart.   I got tired just watching them work.

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I will say however, that the work processes they used were  not what I would consider the most efficient.  Despite several attempts to propose what I considered to be logical improvements (I used to get paid to do such work) using excel charts and a lot of hand waving, I did not make a dent in the “French way”.  C’est la vie!

As the work progressed, we fell into a rhythm of sorts.   Carol and I had our work list that we pursued, trying not to get in the way of the plating team.   In the mornings, we would deliver espresso to Giles and Damelle and whoever else turned up for the early start time.   On Wednesdays, a large plate of croissants appeared on the break room table.  As work wound down in the late afternoon, particularly on the hot days,  cold Kronenbourg beers would magically appear for each of the remaining crew.  While we were not sure how much this helped our cause, it certainly did not hurt getting a pretty long list of work done “off the books” by Gilles.


As the work effort approached completion, both on our side and the yard’s, scrambling for work position and ladders became a daily dance.  Welders were added to support the last nasty bits of curved plates and final welding under the hull.   We worked above the welding crews on ladders adding additional coats of primer and paint above the waterline.  Hoping not to spatter said welders with too much paint.

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Only once did a major a incident occur.  Fortunately, the only injuries were to Damelle’s ego and Gilles stomach muscles from laughing too much.   Vivante is equipped with a sump pump for our aft shower.   This allows water to drain into a holding tank and when full, the pump automatically comes on to empty the tank.   This is what is called “grey water”,  soapy but far from noxious.

We were very careful not to shower or use the sink when workers were around.   They live in constant fear getting doused whilst they are working below.  So we really tried not to cause them any grief.   However one of the idiosyncrasies of this system is that as the day warms up, the air in the tank expands and will occasionally cause the pump to cycle at odd times.

Unfortunately, Damelle was welding under the shower sump drain when said pump decided to start up one warm afternoon.   I was below working when a loud yelp sounded, followed  by a boatload of salty French language  and howling laughter in that order.  As I reached the deck and peered below fearing the worst, there stood Damelle fairly well drenched with soapy water and Gilles doubled over in laughter.

After much apologizing and a beer or two, all was well.   However, I was very happy  that it was not Gilles that got the dousing as he may not have seen the humor quite as quickly and we may yet still be in the yard waiting for work to be finished.

After 2 1/2 months of these fun and games the last bit of paint was applied and the last anode welded on, the water finally began to rise around us in the cale seche for the last time.


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As we began the two week journey back home on the Centre canal, all of those days of grinding and fire fighting began to slip into the back of our memories replaced by the pleasures experienced on the canal reminding us why we do this and how much we were looking forward to next year’s cruise.

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Thanks for your patience.   We are heading to Paris in 2017 so keep your eyes open for our opening post of the new year!


Tom and Carol

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Relativity and Resilience [Part 1]

September, 2016

Hello to you few remaining readers of this blog.   No, we have not dropped off the face of the earth, although at some points this summer, it did appear that we had reached the center of the earth based on the heat, flames and other devilish incarnations we experienced.

The text below was begun in the middle of June as a delayed update on the progress of our summer so far.  Little did we know that the somewhat foreboding tone was only the beginning of what was to be a very testing few months.

I write this from the comfort of our home port in Roanne on a rainy afternoon.   So, no suspense as to whether we  survived the travails detailed below.   Therefore, with no further adieu,  I will once again take up the tale of the summer of 2016 on Vivante.


June, 2016

It has been a bit of a different summer so far.   Our plans for a low-key lazy cruise around the Burgundy region have so far not exactly worked out as expected.

Until recently, the weather has not been our friend.  The rain that began in December did not subside until last week.   The entire country has been underwater at one time or another this spring with anyplace along a river really having a bad time.  You know, places like a little town you may have heard of; Paris.

Our initial journey to St. Jean de Losne for a planned survey and week or so of work on Vivante became a game of cat and mouse with the Saone and its tributaries.   As the rain continued to tumble down from the heavens, our daily routine began, after of course tending to Nikki’s morning walk and feeding, with a quick trip to the Weatherunderground site to assure ourselves that the  forecasters in France are just as bad as the ones in the states.

This was immediately followed by a check of the Vigicrues website which monitors and reports river levels and flows.  It was like watching a slow motion roller coaster rising and falling, lagging the rain volume by about a week.

Almost like clockwork when this daily ritual was completed, the deluge began.   I am not talking about tinky winky  summertime showers.  I am talking about a no-kidding big-boy low-pressure system that seemed to have set up permanent residence over western Europe.  Massive swatches of rain pelting down on the watershed of the Saone/Rhone rivers, and us.

Luckily, the canals are generally not affected by rains due to their design.  Unless of course the saturated banks collapse, or the locks are damaged by debris, which happened in other areas disrupting pretty much everyone’s plans across France.

As Vivante trundled down the Canal de Centre towards Chalon sur Saone and the 62km trip upstream on the river to St Jean, this nasty weather was for us simply an annoyance.  [When I say us, by the way, I am speaking about me who as you know is positioned in the nice dry wheelhouse during our moving days.   For Carol, stationed at the bows of the barge, heaving wet lines in a driving rain for 8 hours a day would likely not be classified as an annoyance.]

But, as we approached our last stop on the canal before joining the river, the rains became a real headache.   That stop is Fragne, a tiny village with the best Port Capitaine in France.  Celine is simply amazing and always takes very good care of us.  During my working days, I was always plotting how to stuff her in my luggage and get her into my company.  As usual, were not disappointed as we pulled into the harbor and spied the police tape with our name on it marking our parking spot.

Our idea was to stay for two days then jump onto the river and up to St. Jean.   That plan quickly submerged along with most of the banks on the river which was quickly rising as the last wave of rain had completely saturated the landscape, which you hydrology buffs will know means that every drop that comes down simply runs off into the streams and into  mother Saone.

After a quick bike ride to a nearby town on the river to find a solitary yacht floating perilously above the submerged quai tied on quivering floating dock, pelted by massive tree trunks and the very nervous owner trapped on board, I realized we were not going anywhere.

Our two day stay morphed into a week of waiting and watching.   All was not lost however, as we celebrated our 39th anniversary at wonderful dinner at the port restaurant.The river began to recede and we made our break for it.   Finally, we arrived in St. Jean with three days to spare before our scheduled dry docking.

The next morning I walked over to the shipyard to discuss the details of the process only to find out that the yard was way behind schedule and would not be able to get us in the dry dock on time.  I was stunned, stunned I say.

After a few days luxuriating on the quai at St. Jean, our Expert from the Netherlands turned up to do our TRIWV certification renewal and insurance survey.   All was going smoothly until we got a call from the shipyard that we must get to the dry dock immediately to be moved in and get work underway.  So, with our surveyor still on board we pulled away from the quai, through the lock, only to find that they were not ready for us quite yet.

By the afternoon, our bottom (Vivante’s bottom, that is) had been pressure washed, removing 5 years of growth and a fair crop of mussels that had taken up residence there.  At this point, the fabric of our summer plans really began to unravel as the management of the shipyard informed us of the true extent of their scheduling challenges and I determined the scope of work that I wanted completed on Vivante.


But that is another story altogether………..







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Nature Morte Vivante


Carol and I are very lucky to make our winter home in St. Petersburg FL, home to the Salvador Dali Museum.   The building is a work of art itself and houses the 2nd largest collection of Dali art in the world.   One of those, and my personal favorite,  is this amazing image.

There are various translations for the title of this work.  The one above is of course French and literally translates as “Living Still life”.  A bit of poetic justice having our barge name in the title, don’t you think?  In English it is popularly called “Still Life – Fast Moving”.  Which brings me back to the subject of this musing on the barging existence.

As I sit here on a chilly and rainy Sunday afternoon, we have begun our journey,  heading to St. Jean de Losne for our time in the shipyard and the summer cruise beyond.  As usual, it has been a hectic week of tasks necessary to tend  to Vivante’s needs intermingled with the whirlwind of reunions and catch-up with our community of friends here in the port.

Once away from the port, time for us decelerates  entering the slow and rhythmic cadence of moving Vivante along the canals.   The days comfortably unfolding before us as we saunter along at a laconic pace, eyes wide open to whatever unexpected opportunities  present themselves.  This compression and stretching of time forms the crux of this musing.

Earlier this year as we were finishing a visit to the Dali museum viewing the latest special exhibit,  I wandered over to the main exhibition hall and once again found myself standing mesmerized in front of the “Nature Mort Vivante” painting awed by its detail and insight.

During this period of Dali’s life he became fascinated with the emerging field of quantum physics.   One of its key theories is that an object can be both standing still and in motion at the exact same time.  That was a pretty mind-bending  concept back in the 50’s (and still is today, in my book).   In this painting Dali captured that idea by showing  the subjects twice; once stationary and again rapidly moving in the same space and time.

Barging is, in a twisted way, a lot like this idea.  When it is described to someone not in the barging community, it appears to be  painfully slow, almost frozen in time with little action or excitement. This should not be unexpected as our non-barging friends perceive time from the viewpoint of their “normal” life, filled with activities and nowadays lasting over 80 years.  For those of us who do inhabit this strange existence, time has an entirely different frame of reference.

The average barging lifespan is between 8 and 12 years, so everything we see and do and all of the people we meet pass through our lives within that accelerated  time line.  To us time moves at breakneck speed.  While there may be short periods of stability, inevitably many of  the close friendships formed in the beginning of our barging experience will end as those people move back into the main stream of their lives from the odd counter-current that is barging .  Some connections remain, but many do not.

We too are beginning to see this happen around us and it is very disorienting.  Connecting with people from all over the world who have strong common interests and attitudes create tight bonds that are painful to break.   One might reasonably ask if it is worth it to invest in such relationships  knowing that they are destined to end?   Absolutely!   Great friendships are perhaps the most precious and challenging gift we have in our life, each a treasure worthy of our “best self” to protect and grow.


Netherlands, U.S., South Africa





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Blue Rondo/Take Five

For those of you who are jazz fans the title of our first installment of the 2016 cruising year should ring a bell.   Dave Brubeck’s groundbreaking album Time Out including the tracks “Blue Rondo a la Turk” and “Take Five”.  Both are standards of the genre and certainly worthy of a listen if you are not yet a fan.

I have taken the liberty of hijacking the titles of arguably  the most famous  tracks from Mr. Brubeck’s masterpiece  because they seem to resonate with this year for Vivante on several levels.

This is our fifth summer in France,  and as we will delve into on subsequent  posts, marks a milestone of sorts in the barging community.   It also captures the flavor of our agenda for the season.

The first month will be a blur of movement and noise a la “Blue Rondo” as we hustle Vivante toward St. Jean de Losne and a date with the Atelier Fluvial shipyard for a haul out, survey and maintenance work.  Does the phrase root canal bring anything to mind?   That is about what our week or so in the yard is likely to feel like.

However, once that adventure is complete we shift gears completely and the melody of “Take Five” comes to the fore.

Last year:

Our son, Brad, and his lovely bride, Andrea, were married on Vivante in Dijon.  Unforgettable!   Once the nuptials wrapped up, we embarked on the iconic Bourgogne/Nivernais loop.  Not to be missed but a lot of work.

This year:

No grand plan.  Only familiar canals and  favorite villages.

Eyes-wide-open bike rides with no destination in mind.

Old friends to enjoy a glass with in those wonderful Burgundy evenings.

Revel in the special sense of place that this part of France has for us now.

So join us as we “Take Five” this summer.  Should be a lot of fun!

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Size Matters, Part II: 2 cm

I have finally been guilted into wrapping up our 2015 cruising blog by you, the readers, and the fact that I must get the first post for our 2016 cruise done before we leave St. Pete.  So here we go.

In our last episode, Vivante had traversed up the Bourgogne canal to Migennes squeezing through the Pouilly tunnel and dredging our way through some of the skinny spots brought about by lack of rain.  We luckily finished the Bourgogne just before it shut down for the season, catching  a bunch of folks out and seriously changing their cruising plans for the summer.

The next challenge for us was the southerly cruise down the Nivernais, arguably the prettiest canal in all of France.   For Vivante this was a really tough bit due to the plethora of very low, arched stone bridges that were scattered along the entire route.  Based on preliminary calculations, in normal trim our wheelhouse was not going to make it under any of the lowest trio.

My ruminations over the winter had not really been about the 3 well-known low bridges but the other hundred or so that were not specifically called out in either the cruising guides or the electronic navigation system.   If worse came to worst, we could dismantle the wheelhouse to  make it under the really bad actors, but what if there were 30 more unknown problem areas?   The 3 hour up and down process on the wheelhouse is ok a couple of times, not so much 30.

Arriving in France, I measured and re-measured the air draft with full water tanks and empty tanks, full fuel, light fuel, to see if they might be  viable alternatives to lower the wheelhouse a bit.   It helped but not enough.   What to do?   Well, using a bit of physics and engineering I came up with a plan.

The French love to play with their kids during the summer break and one of the favored activities seemed to be letting the little ones splash about in “kiddy” pools.   These small inflatable swimming pools were everywhere as we traveled along the canals and as we passed them, I began to noodle over the amount and weight of the water they held.

After bit of pencil whipping and a quick trip to the supermarche I triumphantly returned with “Whalen” the whale pool.

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This baby held about a ton and a half of water, and placed on the stern, dropped Vivante’s air draft by over 8 cm.   Wooo Whooo!  That might just do the trick. Armed with our secret weapon, off we went down the Nivernais.

As we sauntered along, we did get a number of double takes and the odd question or two as to what were were up to.   Most folks thought we simply had our own onboard swimming hole.   After a bit of hand waving and discussions in French about pivot points, most people got the drift of the method to our madness.

However, in the spirit of good fun, I did take a dip in our little bit of heaven on a rather cold and dreary day.  A really happy camper from the look of it.

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As we moved further south the frequency of the canals old stone bridges increased.  We wondered why this particular canal seemed soy unusual in that the bridge clearances were consistently lower than any other in France and the locks were smaller than we were accustomed to.  When we reached beautiful little town of Clamecy, our questions were answered.

The Nivernais canal was constructed to enhance an industry that had existed for over 400 hundred years in this region.   As the city of Paris grew in population and importance, it’s appetite for firewood increased exponentially.  The great Morvan forest dominated the landscape around Clamecy at that time.   The vast majority of the inhabitants of this part of France were engaged in the harvest, transport and marketing of vast amounts of firewood, all of which was moved to Paris by forming great rafts of logs using the natural streams and rivers.   In the day, this industry, called Flottage, was both sophisticated and extremely dangerous.  Millions and millions of logs were lashed together, each marked with the owner’s name and moved through Clamecy and eventually on to the stoves of  Paris.   The use of the natural waterways for this endeavor was fraught with risks both to the consistent supply of wood for the Paris market as well as the workers who navigated the huge log pontoons down the rivers.

The owners of the logging businesses eventually proposed that a canal be constructed to resolve these issues. Well, mainly to address  supply variability  and not so much to keep the boatsmen in one piece.  Immediately, an argument ensued between these Flottage advocates and barge commerce proponents.   The specifications for a barge transport canal were very different and more expensive than those required simply to float logs.   In the end, the Nivernais has a bit of both approaches.  There are a number of locks on the canal to support barges but many of the locks are non-standard size and almost all of the original bridges were well below the normal height.

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The irony in all of this is that by the time the canal was completed, Paris was converting to coal as its major source of power and the railroads were beginning to supplant the smaller canal barges for bulk cargo transport.   Commerically, the Nivernais was an abject failure, falling into disuse for many years, and nearly lost until a group of British recreational boaters lobbied to restore and preserve this amazing waterway.

Now that we know the back story, we can proceed.

Over the course of the next week or so, Vivante crept along slowly, sniffing her way under the many bridges along the way.   As an early warning system, we had installed flexible wands on the forward part of the barge aligned with the highest edge of the wheelhouse and set to be 10 cm higher than that highest edge.   Slowing to a crawl as the bow slid under the bridge, watching for the wands to scrape the stone arch, ready to throw the transmission into reverse before the big crunch, we moved nervously south.

All went swimmingly (sorry) well and we passed smoothly under all of the “infamous” low bridges marked on the charts.  However, one evening after a few glasses of wine a fellow bargee casually mentioned the Anizy bridge.   Never heard of it, I  said confidently.  He just smiled,  wandering back to his barge. and returned with a detailed diagram of the aforementioned bridge.  As I quietly digested the information on the sheet, a bit of a cold sweat appeared on my forehead.  This bad boy was definitely lower than any of the other bridges on the canal.  So low that my friend had spent the better part of a day carefully measuring the key dimensions and scribing them down on paper.

The numbers were agonizingly close to the very best I had conjured up on Vivante with all of my bag of tricks, the pool,  forward water tanks emptied, full fuel tanks and solar panels removed from roof.   The Anizy was almost literally the last bridge on the canal and I was loath to take down the house at this point in the journey.

With a good deal of apprehension, we continued on toward our date with the Anizy.  It was late afternoon as the bridge slowly revealed itself as we rounded a tree shrouded corner.  From a distance, it appeared that we would not even get the bow under the imposing stone arch, much less the wheelhouse.  I brought the barge to a dead stop 100m from the bridge.  We could see the lock beyond the bridge and the eclusier who lived in the house next to the canal.   Through the binoculars, it seemed that he was quite interested in our approach.  That did not help my state of mind one bit.   Carol and I conferred and we decided to edge forward to get the bow under the bridge, stop the barge, and basically walk her under pushing us through on the underside of the bridge.

As the bow entered the Anizy’s shadow our early warning system was triggered.  Both wands solidly hit the bridge, bent back toward me and scraped along on the very rough stone surface.  Knowing I had a wee bit of wiggle room we continued. The bow cleared the arch and at that point Carol’s work was done. For a fleeting moment I glanced up and saw her cringing from the bow.  As the front of house ever so slowly entered the shadows, my heart  stopped as the seemingly inevitable sound of splintering wood became palpable.

Vivante weighs in at around 65 tons and generates a huge amount of force underway.   At that point, even at a snail’s pace she was impossible to stop.  My only option was to try to get her centered in the middle of the opening in hope of minimizing the carnage on the wooden roof.  I made a final slight nudge to starboard  and as the aft end of the barge ghosted under the span,  I casually stepped out on the side deck to watch the show……..  A few seconds later,as the stern broke out into that amazing gauzy light of the beautiful French evening, I smiled thinly, glanced up at Carol and held up my thumb and forefinger about 2 cm apart.  (See title).

2015 08 23 (261L) Nivernais.JPG








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Size Matters; Part 1

One of the hottest topics in the world of the bargee is the matter of size…… of our boats that is.   Every few months  the DBA (Dutch Barge Association) website erupts in a fire storm of blog postings touting the merits of large barges immediately countered with equally  strident support for small barges.  After a week or so of spirited back and forth the combatants disengage until the next skirmish begins.

Practically speaking the answer is, “it depends”.   We have met couples who trundle about in full size peniches 39m long all by themselves having a grand old time.  In equal measure are families of 8 cruising in a 10m houseboat for months on end living large and enjoying themselves to the max.

2015 05 27 (092L)roanne-digon.JPG

2015 08 09 (49L)Nivernais.JPG

So, from an enjoyment perspective, size does not matter a hoot.  However, there are some harsh realities of larger barges that cannot be ignored.   This cruising season was Vivante and her humble driver/engineer’s year to deal with such things and an interesting season it was.

In our last posting, we discussed the route for the summer.  The initial phase on the Centre and Saone was well known to Vivante and pretty easy-shmeezy for the crew.  Once we turned onto the Bourgogne and onward to the Nivernais however, things changed a bit.

First, a brief review of Vivantes vital statistics:

Length: 22.96m; beam:  4.1m; draft: 1.1m, airdraft: 3.19m.  Every one of these came into play at some point during the summer.

Both canals had their own unique challenges for Vivante.  The major issues on the Bourgogne were the infamous Pouilly tunnel and a lack of water.  The Nivernais was a bit more nerve racking as it is smaller dimensionally in many spots and has a seemingly endless supply of arched stone bridges with low clearances.

Tackling the Bourgogne first; At 3.3 km in length and a 3.2 meter critical ceiling height the Pouilly tunnel gave me several sleepless nights pondering how to get Vivantes 3.19m high wheelhouse through safely.   Like almost all tunnels in the world, Pouilly was built with an arched shape to maximize strength.  At the time they were built these tunnels were engineering marvels and their survival through the years is a testament to their design and construction.

2015 07 02 (87S)Pouilly tunnel.JPG

Although the Roman arch has been listed as one of the most important technological developments in human history, it does create a bit of a “rub” for larger barges like Vivante.  At the center of the arch the height is over 4 meters, plenty of room for our wheelhouse.  However, as you can see as you move left or right of the center-line, the height of the ceiling decreases precipitously.  At the point that Vivantes hull side would hit the wall of the tunnel, the top edges of the wheelhouse would be laying in the water behind the boat…. CRUNCH!

What to do?  We are blessed with a wheelhouse that can, in theory, be disassembled thus lowering the total air draft to 2.6m.  this is well below the minimum Pouilly height.   However, the time and brain damage to execute such a tear down is tallied in hours and the reassembly process  is even longer.

So, after much research and questioning of others who have transited this route, a strategy emerged.   We would remove the aft roof panel that had the greatest chance to interact with the stone walls of the tunnel and fit wooden “logs” to the side of Vivante to keep her centered in the tunnel within the area of safety for the remaining roof sections.

2015 06 28 (58S)Bourgogne.JPG   2015 06 28 (56S)Bourgogne.JPG

With the countermeasures in place we launched slowly into the tunnel, and I do mean slowly.   Creeping along at 3km per hour we sweated and cursed our way through the darkness with many close calls but no damage other than one of our wooden logs snapped in half like a twig.

2015 07 01 (115L)Pouilly tunnel setup.JPG   2015 07 01 (113L)Pouilly tunnel.JPG

An hour and 15 minutes after we entered, Vivante exited the nether regions of middle earth into the sun with the crew smiling broadly.

Oh, did I mention that the tunnel was haunted?

By this time, like most bargees we have been through many tunnels but none more challenging or interesting than the Pouilly.  Carol found a bit of history on the construction of the tunnel that is worth sharing.  The construction of the Bourgogne canal began in 1775.  Worked slowed a bit as the French conducted a little revolution that reshaped the country to this day. Once work resumed there was no giant tunnel boring machine to cut through the rock; it was all pick and shovel work.  The tunnel itself was not completed until 1832 joining the two halves of the canal.

Legend has it that English soldiers captured during one of the many Napoleonic wars were put to work on the tunnel,  imprisoned in the tunnel itself and promised freedom when the work was done.   According to the stories, many died along the way and were buried behind the stone walls of the tunnel itself.   I am pretty sure I was hearing voices by the time I guided Vivante into the daylight,  not sure if they had English accents or not.

2015 07 01 (111L)Pouilly Brit POW construction.JPG

More to come but Carol and I would like to wish all of you a Merry Christmas.



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