Sunday, March 6, 2011

France, To Paris


October 5 I set sail for Boulogne, France, 25 miles across the Channel.   A fine breeze increased until the boat was heeled about 30 degrees and the gunwales ("gunnels", the deck edges) were awash with foaming white water and sail reefing seemed soon to be necessary.   The high speed brought me swiftly ever nearer the apparent harbor entrance.   Views from such a low elevation can be very deceiving.   As the illusion of a port disappeared into the cliffs ahead, and cresting waves indicated shallow water, and rocks protruded above the sea surface ahead, and the first fighter jet I had ever seen circled low around my apparently disastrous course, I reversed direction and headed for deeper water, which brought me to Boulogne before dark.   The fishing fleet had arrived earlier to avoid the growing storm.   No restoration seemed to have been made in the 12 years since the harbor facilities were devastated in the War.

The entry into France was a series of non-hazardous frustrations.   I went where I was directed to anchor and was soon aground on a falling 29 foot tide.   I put out a special brace I had had made in Holland, so the Swalker just managed to avoid tipping over onto the mud, which event might have been followed by the hull filling and remaining on the bottom of the harbor.   Later I found a suitable mooring, and motored around the harbor asking where I could buy diesel fuel.   All replies were a cryptic "Oui, oui", until the crew of a British freighter gave me 25 gallons of the 100 I needed, free.   I found that the filter for diesel cooling water had completely rusted out, so improvised a new one.

When a ship first enters a country it must display 3 flags in prescribed locations: that of the country being visited, the flag of the vessel (e.g., USA), and the yellow quarantine flag.   All aboard must remain aboard until authorities arrive, inspect, and give permission to motor inland or to the next port of the country.   That's usually prompt.  However, I roamed Boulogne on foot for 4 days until I found the pertinent local officials, and got from them permission to do what I had been doing for four days.

Early on October 9 I headed for Le Havre, on a straight course mostly out of sight of the indented coast.   The next morning I spied through the mist the cliffs near the entrance to the port.   I had taken another Benzedrine to stay awake on that long passage, so was filled with euphoria and poor judgement.   After I spent 2 hours unnecessarily restoring the boat to pristine condition, the coast was no longer visible.   I motored toward it on calm waters for 3 hours, and still could see only a hazy sea.   I hailed a fishing boat, whose crew told me I was on the right course, but the outflow of the mighty River Seine had displaced me then slowed my return.   About 6 PM I tied to a docked fishing boat in Le Havre harbor (that's redundant, like Mount Katahdin), to avoid coping with the 30 foot tide.   With waning adrenalin I winched the mast down to lie on the deck for the inland waterways ahead, and went to sleep.

The next day I investigated a nearby beautiful white steamship with a Soviet flag.   It carried tourists from the Ukraine, and bales of licorice which were being transferred to a French liner for shipment to the USA.   I was told there were many such transfers, "because the Americans don't like to deal with the Russians". Perhaps.

I spent 3 days in port, and with difficulty obtained the permits required to use the waterways, very detailed strip maps of the hazardous rivers Seine, Saone, and Rhone; and a sparsely detailed guidebook for the canals connecting them, but no diesel fuel.   All the written advice I saw and spoken advice I heard said that it takes at least 2 people to manage a boat going through a canal lock.  Indeed it seemed at times I was like a one-armed paper hanger, but I managed, and at some small rural locks was even able to help an aging lock tender close and open the lock gates, which required turning a crank many revolutions.

On October 12 I headed inland on the Tancarville Canal, bypassing the shoals and turbulence near the mouth of the Seine.   Several big bridges unnecessarily opened for my little boat, and I scooted under others.   I parked by the entrance to the lock which would take me back to the river, and waited until 4 PM the next day until it was my turn to enter.   Apprehensively, because they could crush my boat, I shared the packed confines of the huge lock with ocean freighters bound, like me, for Rouen, 90 miles upstream, or Paris, 240 beyond that.   Some 179 locks remained before the Mediterranean, and winter was coming.


The Tancarville Canal, connecting Le Havre (meaning The Port) with the river Seine, 
upstream from its shallower water and  extreme ocean tides.  The mast has been 
disconnected from its attachment to the deck, so it could be moved forward to 
decrease its aft overhang.   The mast is about 35' long, and the boat only 30' long.   
So the top of the mast at sea was 39' above the water.  Note how awkward it was 
to move around the deck, all the way from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. 
A big Tancarville lock with control tower.  American flag is on Swalker,
 feeling like Bambi squashed between elephants.
Subsequent locks on the Seine were not as large, so were even more crowded.   I had to wait until the big commercial vessels were in the lock, then move very fast to enter, tie up before the lock gates closed, adjust the ropes as the water rose, then untie and motor onward when the upstream lock doors opened.

Through my mind still runs the magnificent panorama of the storied Seine, and the imagined operatic music that accompanied it.   Colored autumn leaves slowly falling, to be whisked away by the swift waters.   Cliffs, made of the same chalk that makes white the cliffs of Dover, and continues under La Manche (the English Channel).   Castles in various states of disrepair on the low hills beyond. 
About 200 barges per day passed me in either direction, some motorless in strings
 of 5 behind a tug, exercising the same right of way etiquette as a Ten Ton Gorilla.









On the river I fell in with Max and Mauricette Delafond on their smaller boat.   We all accepted a tow offered by the generous crew of a barge laboring against the considerable contrary current.   This lasted until the rope broke.

In Rouen I was able to buy precious diesel fuel.   Since the minimum purchase was 200 liters, I stored the excess in a barrel on deck.     The Swalker no longer was a greyhound of the sea, but resembled the scruffy African Queen.   I made friends with an English family on their adjacent megayacht, until their daughter appeared too friendly and they left prematurely for the Mediterranean.

To be young, solvent, and have one's yacht in the center of Paris, between the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, would seem a consummation devoutly to be wished.   The impressionists and Hemingway had gone, but still there were Edith Piaf and Degaulle and the timeless ambiance of the City of Light.   There to enjoy the company of an attractive young actress, the cousin of friends, would seem to be icing on the gateaux.   However, "piece de resistance" is ambiguous, and she not I was the predator, my sole function being to install shelves and make other improvements in her new apartment.

I returned to my equally recalcitrant motor.   The manufacturer in London had written me that their only authorized experts in France were in Paris.   Those two mechanics spent an afternoon on my engine and pronounced it error free, except that it wouldn't start.   I had no propulsion, nor electricity to charge the batteries for lighting.   The experts damaged 5 gaskets and broke a water line, so I installed new gaskets and repaired the line.   After another day on the engine they had found nothing wrong, but showed me the spectacular method I would use from then on to start it.   The routine was to light a diesel soaked rag attached to a metal rod, hold it over the engine air intake while depressing the compression release button and cranking the engine vigorously (by pushing a button, or if the batteries were flat, by hand as with a Model T Ford), then release the button or crank and let the black smoke dissipate while the engine quietly idled.   I knew as much about engines as I had first known about sailing, but later realized the problem source was worn piston rings, which prevented the high compression necessary to heat the incoming air, which henceforth had to be preheated to start the engine.   My boat got a lot of attention while just resting, but the starting routine usually riveted passers by.

At the postoffice I picked up a check from the sale of my Chevrolet Belair in Maine, but after sending $500 to my ex-wife and $200 to my Mexican lawyer (a different sort of long story), paying miscellaneous expenses, and having $170 stolen by clever Arab money changers, I was left with about $50 for the pilot I would need to descend the notorious Rhone, a dollar a day for food until the next money drop near the Riviera, and a small reserve.   For the next 3 weeks I would not be a Rich American.

More sobering news arrived.   It would be impossible to cope with the locks ahead alone, a drought had made the Rhone too shallow for the Swalker to descend, the canals would soon freeze, and the escalating conflict over that other canal, the Suez, might result in World War III.... It has been suggested that, "When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout".   However, there was nothing I could do about these  problems, so after 12 days in Paris Swalker and I left for the Riviera, continuing upstream on the Seine.

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