06 August, 2011

Champagne Canal and Balesmes Tunnel

The canal was conceived in 1845 and opened as the “Canal de la Haute Marne”.  It starts, in our case, on the Saone near Pontailler sur Saone and rises up through 43 locks to the summit with the long tunnel Balesmes, then falls from Langres via 71 locks to Vitry le Francois which is only a stones throw from Paris.
Some say it is boring because of the many straight sections while others enjoy the rural life surrounding the canal.  For us on Malua the depth was always a problem.  The official chart and recent advice advises that the depth is 2.2 meters however some guide books take the standard depth of 1.8.  Being a glass half full type of person I thought I could even squeeze another few centimetres from the glass. Not so!
Four large reservoirs near Langres summit, la Liez, la Mouche, Charmes and la Vingeanne ensure an excellent supply of water into the system however this year a Dutch barge got stuck in lock 21 of the Vosges canal and put that out of action for more than a month.  The impact of this is that the many Dutch vessels using that canal to get home have been diverted into our canal Champagne.  Now that normally doesn’t matter that much but the extra traffic through the locks means extra water flows down the canal and the authorities have to add water at the top of the system.  Our problem was we were right in the middle of the Dutch pack and the water had not been adequately adjusted.  It would rise and fall 200mm within an hour, so our 100mm under the keel became minus 100.  Ok if it is mud but not good if you hit a sandbank.
The operation of the locks is all mechanised and generally automatically controlled by control unit you receive at lock 43, the start northwards at Maxilly.  A clever device which you press as you approach the lock either “Avalant” or “Montant” – down or up stream.  There is an additional button “bassinne”  you press when you are secure within the lock to close the gates and adjust the water level.  Some locks are controlled by a radar unit set about 100m back from the lock.  As you pass the unit the indicator board next to the lock gate switches on the green light next to the red.  The lock then adjusts the height of the water to let you enter.  When the water level is right the gates swing open and the red light goes out.  The remaining green indicates that you are permitted to enter.  You do this with some care for in our case the lock may be long but it is not wide, only 600mm on either side of Malua.  The water level is almost at the top of the lock wall so your fenders tend to ride up over the wall.  After a while one gets very good at taking the centre line and stopping the boat next to a bollard, always on the side of the activation rod.  These blue and red rods control the water level.  One lifts the blue, never the red which shuts down the system, and the water level either flows in or out.  The former can be quite sudden but nothing like the Rhone river locks while the outflow is more sedate.  In the end we did not tie up on the way down as the boat did not move at all.  One can also use the handheld control unit to start the process.
We only had one lock which did not work but I feel that the boat in front of us pushed the wrong button so after a while I started to push all the buttons and the system reset itself and we entered without human intervention.  We did have a bit of a scare when a German fellow in a canoe joined us in the lock.  As the gates opened he paddled out first and the gates started to close on our bow.  A quick shift to astern and a press on the button saw the gates reopen and we exited vowing to run that silly red piece of plastic down.  Unfortunately he followed us for three days on and off.
Towards the summit the locks come thick and fast 8 in four kilometres and they have a high rise of more than 5.2 meters each.  This means that you have to secure to a bollard set in the wall then as you rise up the side resecure your lines to the bollard above.  Some locks have three sets while most have just two.
Generally the locks have a rise of 3.5 meters and no bollards in the wall so when you enter you have to either climb up the ladder set in the wall to loop your lines round the bollard or use a long boat hook to get a line around a bollard set back from the wall.  Our guests were a great help to loop the lines and became quite proficient at the task. Ten out of ten score on most locks!  Line with a twist minus 2 points.

Meeting traffic coming the opposite way can, if it occurs on a bend, be a very scary event.  On one occasion we came round a bend to be confronted by a large heavily laden peniche/barge with the skipper with his back to us talking on his mobile phone.  On hearing my scream he turned and ran back to the wheel house snatching the wheel from his wife who had lost control.  I turned Malua into the bank, ran aground and just waited for the crunch.  Fortunately the bow wave pushed the stern around, I gunned the engine and we slid past the 30 meters of steel to pop out behind the vessel without a scratch.  The skipper then bust from the wheel house screaming in French as I waved him goodbye.  That was an exception because most skippers slow almost to a stop when they see another seriously wide vessel and you both pull over to starboard as you gently move past with a wave and a Bonjour.

The Balesmes Tunnel is an experience to take a yacht through.  It is five kilometres long, 8 meters wide with a vertical wall on one side and a 1.8 meter wide tow path along the other wall.  It is 3.2 deep and almost 6 meters from water to roof.  The speed limit is 4 km/h and I must say with Malua being 4 meters wide it only leaves 1 meter on either side.  Not a lot if you loose concentration.  As you enter you can see the line of lights along the port wall and far in the distance a small speck of sunlight – the end of the tunnel.  Being skipper you concentrate on the speck and judge the distance on either side out of the corner of your eye.  A torch on the wall does help.  If you do hit I suspect you would bounce off the walls until you got control back, loosing your stanchions on the one side and your topsides on the other.  After more than an hour I was relieved to see the sunlight directly overhead.  We were then out into the tree lines canal and the agricultural farm lands of rural France.  All in all the canal is a great experience in canal travel, however the small towns along the route don’t offer much.  In most cases not even a bread shop so you don’t do much shopping.  The rural life is what it is good for and we enjoyed the scenery as the farmers went about their daily life.  A word of advice don’t take a yacht with 2.0 meters of draft into that canal even if the water is overflowing the banks unless you have nerves of steel.

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