The continuing adventures of Calliope, with observations from the wheelhouse in italics.
28th June – 6th July 2020
It is interesting how new cruising seasons begin. There is always a certain amount of apprehension, re-learning the maritime tricks that were so familiar 6 months ago (or in this case over 9 months ago because of the coronavirus lock down). The Captain had serviced the engine with good friend Ian Williams back in February, so it should be all systems go.
Reversing out of the river arm onto the main river with its huge commercial barges, in a strong wind, under a bridge only just high enough has its own excitement. Halfway into the manoeuvre realising that the bow thruster batteries had died during the winter added an extra piquancy!
Nonetheless super Captain Stu navigated its gently out onto the main river Leie, turned us to face North East, and we were off past the war memorial on our port side, stark against the blue sky.
Our days cruise plan was just 20kms, 2 locks and one lift bridge to Deinze; an ‘ease-yourself-in’ sort of a day. Actually it took 5 hours! We were surprised at the amount of commercial traffic out on a Sunday and it did not take long to accompany big barge Doris into the Harebeke lock.
We both had a long wait at Waregem. My efforts at learning Dutch all winter are useless, but luckily we understood enough of the lock keepers’s French to understand that we were in the second lock with Doris!
Initially we had to wait mid stream for about half an hour, until another 150m commercial ahead of Doris entered the lock. Then at least we could moor up to wait, and enjoy a quick sandwich.
Eventually it was our turn and we moved gently downwards with Doris. As we left the lock, or sluis as I should say here in Vlaanderen, we found a bit of a queue waiting to come up as well! There is a huge amount of work going on at Waregem, building a new much longer lock to take today’s commercial traffic.
After another hour or passing even more of the ‘big boys’ we turned away from the commercial route and onto the old Leie river into Deinze, coming under the lift bridge and onto a mooring on the almost empty town quay.
And here at Deinze the Captain raised my colourful WOB (Women on Barges) flag to stream out in the high wind.
Next day the captain turned mechanic/electrician and began to problem solve the bow thruster issue. It turned out to be the batteries. After five and a half years of driving an electric motor they were on their last legs.
Luckily Stewart found a battery shop only a few hundred yards away. Unluckily we had left our sack truck in the UK, and batteries being the weight that they are (44Kg each in this case) we needed a sack truck to shift them – and the sack truck shop was almost 2 kms away. Good – I can get some of my 10,000 steps in for the day.
Sack truck under arm we went to the battery shop, which were all for cars and unsuitable. But we were directed on to a big chandlery; they tried their best but could not get the AGM styler that we prefer so it was back to Calliope and onto the internet, looking for batteries. It was not as easy as we had hoped.
We were rewarded for our efforts that evening by lovely skies over the church at sundown – note the still empty mooring…..
But next day it was wet and misty. We holed up aboard most of the time continuing on the battery mission. To cut a medium length story short, we eventually managed to order the ones we wanted, to be delivered from Antwerp direct to the boat by the end of the week. So we settled into a few Deinze days.
I ventured out in the wet for a walk downstream, enjoying the fresh air and greenery
Later Stewart and I took a walk around the lovely De Brielmeersen park. The best thing we saw was a stork, really close, but I couldn’t take a photo as we were using the phone to talk to granddaughter at the time. So you get the fountain, Stewart and a nice blue flower.
Wednesday dawned even wetter; in fact it had cured with rain all night. This is more the Belgium weather that I expect! I discovered that the Deinze market is on a Wednesday and persuaded Stewart that this would be a good place to look for provisions – lovely …..
Belgium is still taking the coronavirus seriously, which is a good thing. Although this is an outdoor market we were stopped at the entrance, given a mask to wear and our hands were sanitised. What a suspicious looking pair!
We bought from several stalls, including a new table cover for the wheelhouse to smarten us up. My favourite stalls are the vishandels (fish mongers) and slajeris (butcher/delis).
Back to Calliope with our small haul, and for lunch.
That afternoon the weather began to cheer up. While the Captain took his customary siesta I had an extra excursion, walking up the Markt, or main street, then going down a wide side alley to discover a secret little garden, perhaps attached to a big house once upon a time, but overlooked by industrial units now.
I continued on my unknown way, emerging near the museum which has its own flock of hens and cockerels, all very showy. Here are my favourites.
I returned to the boat to find Stu ready to do a quick Carrefour shop to get the things the market could not supply, and as we returned to the boat we saw the lift bridge swing into action (that’s not right!) to allow a convoy of four more Piper barges through to moor behind us!
There was just room for the five of us, plus the other craft already moored up, and after some rope throwing and tightening everyone was secure. It was good to meet up with 8 other Piper people, and a very pleasant evening was spent together on a widening of the pontoon by Otium drinking beer and wine, exchanging yarns – and all pretty much socially distanced as required!
Next morning the row of boats looked even more splendid in the morning sun when it peeped between the clouds. And the day began with the ‘Arrival of the Batteries’ – hooray. Stewart and I moved them to their new home under our bed and I left him to install them while I started saying goodbye to everyone.
We left Deinze min-morning with super powered bow-thrusters, and continued down the Leie, passing through the old lock and under the manually lifted bridge at Astene.
There is a row of rather lovely old boats moored up below the lock – always worth a photo of at least one. Beauty.
We ate lunch on the go, in the rain, winding our way around the curves, bends and hairpins of the river, enjoying the wildlife. This included, surprisingly, two terrapins basking in the sun on a log!
We noticed last time we came along this part of the Leie all the big posh houses, old and new, with their robot lawn mowers and some interesting sculptures. I hope the owners of the one on the left like geese!
At Sint-Martens-Laten we were lucky enough to find the 24 hour mooring empty and although we are a bit long for the official space we decided to stop and hope we were not in anyone’s way. It is a lovely, usually peaceful, place to stop for a night (think Bray-sur-Leie).
Quite quickly we discovered that we were moored next to the location for a live Belgian TV programme to be filmed that evening! Two Dutch singers, André Hazes Jun and Günther Neefs, were to be interviewed by Belgian journalist Karl Vannieuwkerke, and we were asked if they could light up Calliope in the background – our barge a TV star now!
While we awaited the excitement to come we went for a walk round the village. It has been an ordinary rural village with a windmill to grind corn. Then a group of artists moved in at the end of the C19, augmented after WW2. It became a home for Expressionists, known later as the Latem School.
It is still a very artistic place, with at least three good modern galleries, and sculptures placed all round the village. I felt uncomfortable taking photos in the galleries, but here is the garden of one of them.
There was an especially noisy young coot chick at the mooring, harassing its exhausted parent for food non-stop! But cute, in an ugly sort of a way, all the same.
After an exciting evening of being a backdrop we woke up to find the TV crew had gone and we were back to the peace and green of the village, with three quiet attentive ‘fishermen’ nearby.
I did my usual sprint-walk to the nearest bakery to ensure we had fresh bread for lunch, and this time I allowed myself to take a few art and sculpture photos.
And then it was time to go – to continue our meander down the next bends of the Leie towards and into Ghent. There is always something to look at along here – boats, pieces of art, the houses, the gardens. An entire blog could easily be filled with photos along this stretch of the river.
The river would continue to change shape, create new bends, shallows and currents if not for the number of riverside residents encouraging boaters not to leave a damaging wash behind them. We are certainly try to leave a very light ‘wake-print’ behind us.
Eventually the river leads through the pretty village of Sint-Denijs-Westrem and to the diversion of the Leie across the Ring Vaart (a watery M25) and on into Ghent.
We were lucky, arriving at the super waterway around Ghent when no huge commercial barges were coming in either direction – indeed no small barges were around either – only a few canoes making a mad dash across from one side to the other.
About half a mile inside the Ring as we went under a bridge we met our first traffic coming the other way – a cruiser, sensibly on her own side of the river.
We came on into Gent (now spelt the Belgian way), starting to recognise various features from last year. As we came into the centre, past the entrance to Coupure canal, we saw our friend the Capitain of the port watching out for us.
We knew that this time there was no space for us at the main Lindenlei mooring where we had been the previous year. We were to turn to starboard and enter Ketelvest. He was ready to jump into his little red dinghy and lead us to our new mooring.
Soon we were tied up and comfortable between two bridges, with skies filling in from grey to black.
Undeterred we soon set off for one of several walks around Gent. I took so many photos here last year that I have tried to restrict myself this time. Here is a small gallery, definitely not showing all the main tourist attractions.
Remember, this is the year of Covoid-19 and all of its restrictions. Although Belgium is ahead of the UK in the unlocking of social distancing, there are still many reminders of the virus – streets that are one way for pedestrians, many people in masks, hand sanitiser at the entrance to everything.
Nonetheless we had arranged to stay three nights in Gent, with the second night being a bit of a celebration. We had ‘celebrated’ both our birthdays and our wedding anniversary locked-down at home, so now with the bars and restaurants open in Gent we were set to celebrate 32 years of living together with a tasty meal. And we did.
Our final day required some tasks too be achieved. Firstly we needed to top up our water tank; easy peasy, normally. However this time it ended up requiring two visits to the Brico for a connector (We left ours in a tap in Kortrijk) (Doh!), two visits from the Capitaine of the port (the euro payment mechanism in there water bourne had jammed) and three lengths of hose. (Don’t ask!).
While Calliope was being watered she was ‘assaulted’ by masses of crazy canoeists, many of them out of control of their craft! It was all good fun and part of a birthday celebration. The people of Gent like to use their waterways to celebrate everything, in a very happy, sometimes boisterous, way!
Other tasks, like taking on of provisions, cooking, cleaning etc were achieved more easily! The day was exceptionally windy, and initially grey, grey, grey.
But it ended almost entirely blue, clouds all blown away, and flags horizontal from the mast.
On Monday morning we were due to set off into waters new. This would involve the Boven-ZeeSchelde – a mix of rivers leading towards Antwerp. We had been warned that it might be difficult, that the tides needed to be right (it’s tidal from Antwerp right up to near Gent) and that there could be a lot of commercial barges around coming out of lockdown.
So how did we do? Well we set off in the sunshine, a new way out of Gent for us, past interesting buildings and boats.
After about half an hour we joined the main Schelde river and continued on down to the Marina where we were due to join the Ring Vaart – main waterway circling most of Ghent.
We had aimed to time this right for the tides. Going out through the narrow entrance of the previous lock (or barrage) would take us into Marelebeke double lock waiting area, and the top of the tidal river Schelde.
We arrived as the last of the downstream barges was in the locks and we only had 15 minutes to wait before our turn to follow.
If you ever need to do this, aim to be at Marelbeke about 4 hours after high tide at Antwerp. High tide at Melle and Marelbeke is 3.5 hours later than Antwerp, and as the tide turns any commercial barges going to Antwerp will set off. We wanted to be just behind them; somehow it worked!
All alone in a great big lock we descended gently, about 1m, to join the high water of the Boven-Zee-Schelde. It was all remarkably straight forward. The lock ‘guillotine’ door rose, and off we went, riding the tide. (But as always we were careful not to get smug.)
Stu decided to work out what speed we were travelling. Our RPMs were kept to just over our usual cruising of 1100, and then timed how long it took us to go 6kms. It took just half an hour, so a speed of about 12kph – over 50% faster than normal due to the fast flowing tide.
Notes from the dashboard: Top line – VHF is on at channel 10 as always on busy commercial waterways. Second line – we’re in 15.1 feet of water, it’s 10.20 local time and we’re heading due south – you don’t need a compass when the sun is shining …..
The Boven-Zee-Schelde is not a wide river, mostly through countryside, with the occasional small town. The skies were threatening, but so far, so far, no rain.
For a long time we saw no other craft, but eventually we went through a town with some river action – a barge that was collecting up the masses of floating debris in the river – mainly reeds – plus a ferry and a small working boat.
Other things along the way, a flotilla of geese across the bow ….
…. a very low ‘flying’ aeroplane ….
… and shallow sandy shores on some of the curves as the tide retreated.
Didn’t she do ‘Puppet on a String’?
As it got close to lunch time I had some time at the helm so that Captain could eat. Even I was safe in such wide, empty waters. It began to rain, quite hard, but I know where the switch for the wipers is!
We came a long way down the gently bending river, almost to our turn-off, with no traffic around. Then, just as we approached the turn onto the Dender on a shape double bend, our first commercial barge of the day appeared, pushing hard against the flow. Luckily Stu was alert and smartly side-stepped to starboard! Smiles and waves from the commercials skipper.
Then it was our turn into the Dender and the Dendermonde lock. I had radioed ahead and the lock-keeper had prepared the lock for us; the gates were opening as we turned upstream.
It was a lock with high sides, but with bollards set into the walls so that we could put ropes round low down and move them up as we rose a couple of meters. Once more guillotine gates opened, and we were onto the scenic Dender river.
The first thing we saw was a commercial barge being unloaded of huge coils of metal – maybe not as scenic as we thought …
We had read of a mooring 2km up river and thought that would be good for us – but would it be empty? As we approached we could see a cabin cruiser moored there, but as it is a 30m pontoon still probably room for us?
As we got closer, the cruiser left! How lucky are we? And the sole occupant was a fisherman. We gently moved alongside, tied up, and counted ourselves lucky.
We had arrived at Dendermonde! And on a lovely peaceful mooring we enjoyed a wonderful evening sky.