Tuesday 20 October 2009

Ostend to Dunkirk Sept 13-22 2009

FOR PHOTOS OF THIS TRIP PLEASE CLICK HERE Note there over 500 of them       

This holiday was organised by Kingdom Tours as a Waterways World readers cruise. If you click here you will find a map of our route with our overnight moorings.
Our holiday was to start on Sunday morning at Dover where we left our car at Relyon Car Parking and met the coach, this was the last time we saw our cases until we arrived in our cabin on the MPS Princess. The coach whipped us off to the ferry terminal where we waited less than 5 minutes for the second coach before heading off in convoy to customs, needless to say they waved our coach in and let the other coach straight through. In the customs shed the customs officer requested the first 6 rows leave the coach with hand baggage for further inspection. Once they were checked and back onboard we were on our way to check in and then to the holding area to await loading. Both coaches parked beside each other on the P&O ferry and we made our way up to the top deck prior to sailing. By now the day was quite murky with drizzle but the sea was calm, as you can see from this photo of the 113 year  old sailing ship  Belem she has her own web site here.  It wasn't long before we were running into Calais and mooring up. Back onto the coaches and straight off the ferry, no formalities with customs this time, we were on our way to Ostend Docks. Once there it was onboard and down to our cabins to freshen up before dinner. Later that evening 4 of us went for a short walk round the moorings and around the lock which is crossed by a road bridge at each end, both bridges have tram lines but only the westerly one still has the overhead cables.  We saw a few people moving around in the shadows watching the lorries queuing to board the ferries, we assumed that they were trying to make their way to the UK.

The Boat

PHOTOS 209-214

MPS Princess is 80 mtrs long making her one of the largest boats to sail these waters. On the lower deck there are 42 bedrooms on both side of the corridor and on the top deck between reception and the dining room another 7. We were in cabin 33 which was about a third from the stern on the starboard side, here we found the generator quite noisy at night. As we were on a route that is not normally taken by hotel boats there were no "shore Supply" electrics at any of our moorings so we had to be self sufficient. Likewise there were no water bunkering points and part way through the holiday we had to have the local Fire Brigade out to fill us up from a fire hydrant. The bridge of the boat is slightly unusual in that its normal cruising position is sitting on the top deck towards the bow of the boat. When it is necessary to lower the bridge to pass under obstructions, it moves forward on rails to sit on top of a hydraulic platform mounted in front of the top deck accommodation. From here it can be lowered to sit on the main deck in front of the lounge so the top of the bridge is at the same level as the top deck. It was necessary to carry out this operation on several occasions and at one bridge we only had inches to spare with everything removed from the top deck and all the handrails laid flat.

PHOTOS 2-110
Monday morning we were away at 7 am as we had a number of bridges to pass through on the Gent - Ostend Kanaal and these had to be cleared before the rush hour road traffic started. The bridge keeper travelled down the canal by van, getting each bridge ready for us. At the last bridge he positioned himself on the end of the bridge with his net ready for payment, this caused bit of a stir as there were no crew members about on deck and when they did appear they didn't know how much he wanted and couldn't understand him. The captain had to leave the wheelhouse to sort things out.  Our destination for today was Bruges and we arrived at our mooring by the boat club, on the junction just before lunch time and had a quick walk locally around a disused arm that now has fountains to aerate the water but is still displaying the old "No Mooring" signs.
Once lunch was taken care of it was a short walk into the old town, we thought a good way to see things would be by one of the small boats that do sight seeing tours on the small canals that bisect the town. The first one we came to was booked for private excursions until 3 pm but at the next lading stage one was getting ready to leave just as we bought our tickets and they gave discounts to us oldies. This gave a good view of the town and  a good English commentary. We followed this by a walk around the town coming across this busker before having a conducted tour to the towns only brewery, De Halve Maan (Straffe Hendrik) Brewery. This tour took us to the top of the cooling tower where we were able to look out over the roof tops of the town. From here it was a brisk walk back down to where Princess was moored to get ready for dinner and the welcome cocktail party, i.e. One free drink and introductions to all the crew.
From tonight the boat management decided that the best way to manage the meals for so many customers was to stagger the start times by 10 minutes, the idea of this was to reduce the time we spent queuing to get our food from the buffet. We were divided into groups by the number of the coach we arrived on at Ostend, we were on coach number 1 and tonight we were on sitting two. It worked quite well and only being 10 minutes apart we all still ended up sitting down together to eat. There were no fixed seating arrangements and we tried to sit with different people every day.

PHOTOS 111-208
we started a bit later with a short cruise to Ghent, this time we were moored a bit further from the town centre so a free bus was laid on to ferry us to the town. The first bus took all those booked on the conducted walk of the town with the rest of us on the second bus, likewise we would be on the second bus returning to the boat to arrive just in time for dinner.
Again our first stop was the tourist boat for a trip round the town, this time we had a lady skipper who gave a good commentary but was in a bit of a hurry to get from one point of interest to the next and speeded up by the "No Wash" signs. We then went for a walk round the town trying to get a decent photograph of the church and belfry past all the ground work that is going on.
We went into the belfry where on the second floor there was a video showing how bells were made and tuned and also how they are played with what only can be described as a keyboard that in turn causes the bells to be struck. There is a lift that takes you from the second floor to the top of the belfry where the views are again quite spectacular. After this we headed back to the coach pickup point to return to the the boat. Our mooring was some way out of town just prior to the junction with Ringvaart and the site of the new Evergem lock. This is the largest inland lock in Belgium and was only opened on the 3 June this year. After diner some of us braved the very busy main road to walk down to look at the lock, by the time we arrived it was getting dark so the photos I took there are not of the highest quality. Before turning in for the night I went ashore again and took a photo of the boat as well as one looking down the canal.


PHOTOS 215 - 259
A 6 am start for a long day first cruising along the Ringvaart Kanaal and then onto the River Schelde heading upstream through the locks. At one point on this pretty river we passed a rather disgusting outfall with a very dark coloured liquid being discharged into the river, mind you our boat was emptying its toilet holding tank straight into the river as we sailed along. One of the interesting points about the locks on this stretch of river is that they still retain the pulley wheel that were used to pull the boats out of the locks. The first lock on this river section had a digital display to indicate the depth of water over the cill of the lock. We met the one and only other hotel boat we saw all holiday today, it was the Victor Hugo, but they didn't appear to have many guests onboard.  Boating along here was reminiscent of summer boating in the UK, we were in a queue at every lock, but unlike the UK you don't join the end of the queue but you  go into the space vacated by the last boat to enter the lock, no one shuffles up and the lock keeper ensures that the boats enter the lock in the same order as they arrive, similar to the Watford flight !If you don't check in with the keeper, you're not in the queue
We didn't reach our destination for the day, Tournai until 7 pm by which time we were eating dinner. The section of river through the town is very narrow and boats have to pass through obeying traffic light to ensure they don't meet a boat coming the other way. We were moored just before a very narrow bridge just at the beginning of the single flow section. After dinner we had a brief walk along river and through part of the town before turning in for the night.

PHOTOS 260-275 in town  276-323 cruising 
Thursday This morning was free time in Tournai, not sailing until mid day. We wandered into town in bright sunshine, in the centre of town we came into the main square, like lots of towns over here it has  display fountains set into the ground which these bikers took great delight in riding through. Like Ghent we climbed the belfry,timing to be up there when it struck the quarter hour. (This is reputed to be the oldest belfry in Belgium)  The views of the town were great. We also visited the Cathedral that is undergoing major restoration trying to stabilise the entire structure. Inside they have excavated around lots of the foundations and there is a large amount of scaffolding supporting walls and roof. The town has several bridges crossing the river, again some of them are vertical lift bridges, but the most spectacular is the 13 century arched one, the Pont des Trous. We were moored directly above this and just passed the traffic lights, so when we set sail at lunch time the captain had to back up to see the light before progressing through the bridge, you can see how close a fit we were by Mike touching the inside of the arch as we sailed through. As we cruised along we left Belgium and entered France at Mortagne-du-Nord  where we joined the canal de l'Escaut. This area was much more commercialised with steel works and power stations. The facilities at the locks were much better and at Fresnes lock, the first one in France the boat was able to dispose of all its waste. We moored on the outskirts of Valenciennes by the old river. It was only a short walk into town that is now served by a very modern tram service. After dinner several of us went for a walk into town, one of the most striking features was the tram lanes, these don't run along the road but have their own very neatly mown grass lanes.

PHOTOS 324-338 in town 339-389
We only had until 11 o'clock to look round the town before we sailed. The main features of the town was the Town Hall with its old façade and modern building behind it. Also on the site of the old belfry that was demolished in 1843 there is now a 45 Mt high pin like monument by Jean-Bernard Métais. By the river there are some ruined structures that look as if they were locks and sluices and possibly at one time fortifications. One of the lesser known reasons for Valenciennes fame is that is where Isabelle Dinoire came from who had the first partial face transplant. We set sail at 11 am heading for Douai not arriving until early evening. Today we sailed along the summit level of this waterway and the last three locks of the day were downhill. We moored a short way before the lock, where the mooring rings had been painted with bright orange spray paint, was this done just for us, I don't see many other boats wanting to moor here. After dinner we walked down to the lock just in time to see the last boat of the day passing through before the locks closed for the night. As we walked back to the boat a large ship about 2500 tons came to a stop about 20 foot from the bank, slowly the stern came in to the bank. The skipper left the wheel house and walked round the stern of the boat, dropped the eye of his stern rope over the bollard and made fast to the bight beside the wheel house, casually walked all the way back round the stern and in to the wheel house, very gently sprung the bows in and repeated his walk, this time al the way to the bows and moored that end. It all looked so elegant, no pulling on a centre line like I do to moor up. A true professional.

PHOTOS  Douai 389-404 Cruising 405-460 Marquette and L'Union 461-499
Saturday morning and we wandered into town, there was lots to see and not much time to do it all. The old river Scarpe runs right through the middle of the town and is no longer fully navigatable. There are small boats with large electric outboard engines that take visitors along this now closed waterway but they stop running at the end of August if we translated the notices correctly. The town hall complex also houses the belfry, this time it was a conducted tour with the aid of English commentary on electronic audio players.  At the top of the belfry in the Carillon the guide gave a short demonstration on playing the bells. This is done on a keyboard called a "baton" and played with the fists. The Carillon was quite interesting as some of the bells have two hammers, an electromagnetic one that chimes the half, quarter and hours, automatically, whilst on the other side is a hammer operated by a pull cable connected to the keyboard.
By lunchtime we were on our way to Marquette and moored right by the entrance to the Canal Roubaix, after dinner we were off in two coaches to the opening ceremony of the Roubaix Canal at L'Union. By the time we arrived it had started to  get dark as you will see from the photographs. As we arrived Diana said "There's a Narrowboat over there" It was a Davis boat from Saul on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal called Sika and owned by Michael Clarke who now lives in Belgium. Once off the coach we gave him a knock on the side of the cabin and were invited in by Michael to help finish a bottle of rose wine. This was not the only boat from the UK, we also had a chat with the owner of a Wilderness trail boat who keeps his boat over there for most of the year and Colin Stone on his barge "Kei". Also the DBA had a stand there, so overall the UK was very well represented. As darkness fell we made our way to the field behind the canal where we enjoyed the most spectacular water, light and sound display before heading back to our boat by coach. When we arrived at the boat we found that the local Fire brigade had just finished filling Princesses water tanks, the first water we had been able to take on all week.

PHOTOS  Morning visit to the canal 500-543  Cruising from Marquette to Fontinettes 545-548
morning and it was back on the coach to meet up with Michael Clarke and visit the restored locks and bridges on the waterway. This was followed by a visit to Pont du Grimonpont where the local sewage work has been modernised and now feeds its outlet into a reedbed filters before discharging into the Roubaix Canal  as clean water. We then walked about 2 Km to Leers where a "Bluedays" weekend event was being held, which involved more beer drinking before rejoining the coach to head back to the boat in time for lunch.
When we arrived on the boat we found she had already been a bit further down stream and "winded", the British Canal term for turn round so that we could retrace our steps back to the Dunkirk-Scheldel Escaut Waterway to continue on our circular cruise towards Dunkirk. We moored for the night at Mont Bernauchon. This is a very small village that has spent thousands of euros in a landing stage that is electrically operated to different levels to match the boats, unfortunately no one knew who had the key to operate it, so we used our gangplank to bridge the gap. We didn't go ashore because it was the night of our Gala Dinner followed by an evening of entertainment provided by the crew, an I must say it was very good with some very humorous sketches.The plan was to go on to Arques just below Fontinettes Lock and moor by the boat lift, but due to some lock closures we were unable to make it in time.

PHOTOS  Morning Boat Lift 549-617 Afternoon Audomarois marshes 618 -645
we departed at 6 am. and sailed to Arques to arrive at 10 am. We moored by the Fontinettes Boat lift after dropping down the Fontinettes lock which replaces the boat lift which in turn replaced 5 conventional locks so it has quite a drop, once clear of the loch we passed under what is probably the lowest bridge on this waterway, made worse by ongoing shot blasting and painting work needing it all to be scaffolded out. They did keep the air draft as high as possible on one half but it still made navigation difficult. From here we visited the lift, this is very similar to the Anderton Boat Lift but in nowhere such good condition and is now only preserved and will not be restored. After a conducted tour and video at the lift we wandered up to the river above the lift to look at what use to be the holding basin for boats waiting to use the lift, this basin was protected by a pair of stop gates that were only opened to allow boats to enter or leave the basin. From here it was only a short walk to the new lock that replaces the lift where we were able to watch two boats lock down to the lower level.
After lunch we boarded our coaches that had now joined us from the UK for a short drive to Audomarois marshes This area is very similar to the Norfolk Broads in that it was formed by Peat digging, where it differs is that all the drainage dykes are navigable and connected to the main navigation so they can be used as a transport system. There is a visitor centre that hires out small power boats and canoes as well as having trip boats that can carry about 50 people at a time with a captain and guide, we had two of these and spent a pleasant couple of hours cruising round in the sun shine before returning to the boat for the last time. Once back onboard we set sail for Dunkirk not expecting to reach there until 9 30 pm. It was actually later than this when we arrived. We picked a guide up as we entered the port who then gave a commentary all the way to our mooring. It was quite dark as we passed the different areas of this gigantic complex with chemical and petrochemical works. This was our last night aboard the MPS Princess.

Tuesday the morning the crew loaded our cases onto our waiting coaches and we headed off to Calais for our ferry crossing home. Here we all had to get off the coaches and pass through immigration to have our passports checked and the coach checked for illegal stowaways. Once on the coach again it was off through the ferry checkin and to be told that we could load onto the earlier ferry that would be leaving shortly. As soon as we were away it was possible to see the white cliffs of Dover and it wasn't long before we were back in the UK. HMRC were not interested in us this time and we were soon out of the port and back to the car storage park to pick up our car. The end of a great holiday.