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Belgian canals, summer 2001

moored waiting for the tide
Moored waiting for the tide

A P-shaped 1-week cruise, from the Connoisseur Cruisers base at Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast, via the Kanaal Plassendale-Nieuwpoort and the Kanaal Gent-Oostende to Brugge (Bruges), then back and via the Kanaal Nieuwpoort-Duinkerke to Verne, via the LoKanaal, the river Ijzer and the Ieper canal to Ieper (Ypres), and completing the loop via Diksmuide back to Nieuwpoort. Total 175km, 11 locks and 42 opening bridges.

This was our first attempt at a canal trip in a country where we spoke not one word of the language (Flemish). It was also the trip which required the greatest amount of communication. Fortunately the canal staff were prepared to put up with English; certainly this was better than French in this supposedly bilingual country. We had excellent food, though possibly not the cheapest, and of course a good deal of unusual and strong beer. Navigation was interesting, and it was often necessary or more convenient to moor at yacht clubs for a fee. The towns are beautiful.

Although these canals are turning more to pleasure cruising, there is still a fair amount of commercial traffic, huge barges to be dodged, especially on the river.

Belgium is fairly flat, so there are not many locks, but there are scores of low bridges. None of these can be operated by the boater, and none has a permanent keeper. Around Brugge, the bridges are operated remotely from a control centre, and elsewhere one keeper operates a whole group of bridges, running back and forth in a car, or on a motorbike, or for the locks on the Ieper canal a pushbike. Also, especially in Brugge, some of the roads that cross the bridges are very busy, and the bridges will not be opened in the morning and evening peak times. All this means that boats tend to accumulate into convoys to minimise the amount of work. You don't quite have to file a flight plan with the operators, but it comes quite close, they have to know which way you're going and where you intend to stop. Every lock and bridge has a phone number displayed; a mobile phone is almost essential.

A further complication occurs at Nieuwpoort, where it's necessary to cross the back of the harbour. It's only a couple of hundred metres out of one lock and into another, but the harbour is at sea level and the crossing is possible only for a few hours around high tide. So the boat carries a tide table, and you have to work out a suitable time when the tide's up and it's within the lock's opening hours. On the way back there is a cut-off from the river to the canal through a huge guillotine lock, so at least this time constraint occurs only once.

Most of the locks are mechanised, but the two on the sleepy dead-end Ieper canal are manual and have a decent rise; it's possible to help work these.

All-in-all, this is the most navigationally challenging trip we've been on with just the two of us. It was worth it though.

Diary extracts...

Sat 2001-09-01
To Nieuwpoort, Belgium, via tunnel. Food shopping on the way at Cite Europe, then arr at canal base about 15h15. Sunshine all the way. Boatyard is a fairly small affair with the office in a container module and the stores in another. Husband and wife team, Andries and Heidi, with about 12 boats. Crews going out are USA, German and Swiss, plus us. Ours, number 213, is the smallest boat, single steering position inside at front, sliding top makes the front cabin open. 9m long by 3.4m wide and 2.25m high and 0.9m draught. Handover is extended, lots of detail on lock times, bridge times, bridge closures, mooring and so on plus the usual boat introduction. One bicycle taken on. Have to pay on arrival for bike, fuel deposit and insurance or deposit (we chose insurance). Pottered along just 2km today, as getting late by the time we started, and bridge keeper going home. Eat on boat, then walk along to the bridge (Rattevallebrug), a drawbridge, for a Duvel each, then a strong Kasteel beer and a Verboden Vrucht. Five Connoisseur boats moored before the bridge tonight, one crewed by Americans, one by Germans, and the others undetermined. Boat has 12V cig adap and 220V inverter (shaving adapter) for cellphone - they took our phone number. Mobile is almost essential, need to be able to phone lock and bridge keepers as they cover several places. Engine is a BMC, transverse in the back, with hydraulic drive.
Sun 2001-09-02
Dull and some rain. Moving all day. Progess is dominated by the lock and bridge keepers. Nominally we start at 10h on Sunday, but it was 10h45 before the first bridge was opened for us. One keeper covers several bridges and uses a car between them. The German crew in front had phoned him at 10h. Travelled in convoy, losing one or two later on choice of mooring. After Oudenburg we go from the Kanaal Plassendale-Nieuwpoort onto the Kanaal Gent-Oostende, which is wider and we can go flat out (1600 rev/min, about 10km/h). Towards Bruges the bridges are controlled from a central office with cameras. We go through these in convoy, but have to wait for every one, five or six boats trying to hold station on engine and rudder, which is easier in a short plastic boat. We tried for mooring in a little arm, but it was closed for repair - got separated from the convoy and phoned for bridges; these were done quickly. Moored 16h45 in the yacht club, 375BEF for one night, including water and toilets plus 20BEF for a shower. Here we moored next to another Connoisseur boat, with Americans on board. Eve to walk around the old part of Bruges, very pretty, very touristy, lots of languages, horse-drawn tours. The horses have leather pouches attached to their backsides to collect the shit so that the roads don't get messed. Later eat at a restaurant right in the middle of this, an enormous pile of mussels.
Mon 2001-09-03
Rain started at 04h and continued to lunchtime, then intermittently sunny. Decided not to explore Bruges further in the rain, so topped up water and away again at 09h15. Phoned the control centre and all was well through the first few bridges, but nothing happened at the lock. Tried phoning several times, not realising at first that the lock had its own phone number as well as being in touch with control. About 30 min wait here, during which time two other boats caught up. Out of Bruges easily then, with bridges ready as we approached, and onto open water with just one bridge in the way. Through the junction lock (open both ways) by ourselves, then moor at Oudenburg on a pontoon. Discovered that the smell of diesel was due to a weeping union on the fuel feed from the tank. Tightened it a bit; for now it seems to be dry. Stayed here ~12h30..15h for lunch. Cycled back to the Plassendale lock and took photos. Walked into Oudenburg for more supplies and beer. Then on a bit to moor for Leffinge just after the drawbridge at ~16h20. The bridge keeper this time was a woman, following us in a car and we say we stop here and move again about 10h tomorrow. Passed a couple of boats today, which is busy by comparison with the way down. Nothing has passed us 2 hours after mooring. Bike into Leffinge to have a look around. Eve eat at the Gasthaus by the bridge, excellent steaks, but we were the only customers there, they put the lights on just for us. We seem to be finding the expensive places to eat, tonight 1895BEF, about 32L.
Tue 2001-09-04
Rain and thunder overnight, rain and wind in the morning, wind and some sunshine aft. Start at 09h50, having agreed 10h with the bridge keeper yesterday, and the first bridges into Nieuwpoort opened just right for us. Passed the boatyard and moored up by the tidal lock 11h..12h30, waiting for suitable tide (3h before high tide to 3h after, tide today is at ~14h58). Locks are part manual (paddles) and part auto (gates); gates both ways at both ends. Here six waterways come together and join the end of the harbour, though it looks as if only two of these are used for navigation and several of them have fixed sluices instead of locks. Lock is worked by a man and a woman. Down from the Plassendale canal into the harbour and down again the other side into the Veurne canal. Route over the basin is clear and the lock on the far side is ready for us. Lots of photos of this feature and the Albert memorial during the wait. Then on, moored for lunch at Wulpen on a small fixed mooring. Stay here 13h40..14h40. Then on again to Veurne, arr 15h30. Came in on the 24h jetty but the lock keeper suggested we go through the lock which was open and moor in the harbour, to a short projecting pontoon, so difficult to get the stern rope tight against the very strong wind. Short walk into town, busy, with a very pretty market square. Three big cruisers came into the harbour briefly, mooring against the walls, before heading off again towards France. All 3 crews appeared to be English, or English-speaking. The canals here have only recently lost their commercial traffic and they are making serious efforts to replace this with pleasure uses, improving ports, improving cycle paths and walking trails, and opening locks and bridges (to pleasure craft only) on Sundays and holidays. The downside at the moment is having to almost file a flight plan with the lock and bridge keepers, so you feel you can't just stop when you want to.
Wed 2001-09-05
The wind kept up through most of the night, though getting weaker, and this morning it's quiet, with a partly clear sky. We left a little earlier than expected, as the lock keeper had another boat coming from the Lo Kanaal and didn't want to work the swingbridge twice, so away ~09h10, water in the lock 10 min, then onto the Lo. The lock needs to be worked this time, as the level in the Lo and Nieuwpoort pound has been lowered to assist the works at the tidal lock today. Lock keeper comes out on his motorbike to work the next 2 bridges, then one more bridge, then there's a clear run of 6.5km. Lo is narrow, rural with overgrown banks; apart from the height of the banks it could be in England. The banks prevent views from most of the canals. The boat we passed at the first bridge was a German crew. The lock at Fintele was ready, 0.7m rise to the river Ijzer. Sloping-sided lock with wooden jetty to moor against. Helped work the lock gates here, a big capstan at the bottom and the more usual around here geared crank on a pedestal replacing the capstan at the top. Like France, no balance beams, just a rack from the gate driven by a pinion on a vertical shaft. Onto the river for a short way before turning onto the Ieper canal. This is wide, espescially near Ieper, but it has a very shallow bit marked by buoys near the first bridge. Two locks, the only ones with a decent change of level so far, about 6.7m between them, worked by one keeper, who cycles between them (about 2km). Helped work these two, and gave the lock keeper some English beer. Arr at Ieper (Ypres) to moor at the yacht club moorings at 15h30. No-one to take any money yet. Walk into Ypres, which was destroyed in WW1 and re-built to look the same, and to the WW1 "In Flanders fields" museum. And for a beer. Warm day, shorts and T-shirt; boat's canopy back for a while. Here we are 32km in a straight line from the boatyard, with two easy days to go.
Thu 2001-09-06
Rain overnight, and the rear window leaked onto the foot of the bed. Dull grey morning. Dispose of rubbish in an ordinary litter bin; have so far seen no sign of big bins for boat refuse, even when signposted. The German crew are here with us. The Connoisseur boats seem to be the majority of moving boats on this little ring. Start 09h45, running behind the German boat, through the 2 locks together, different lock keeper today and I worked only 3 gates. Together still through the last drawbridge at the river junction and on to moor at Diksmuide at 13h45. There are public moorings here, but they're full, so we're on a pay mooring. Lots of boats here, more than we've seen all week. Warm sunshine with showers most of the day. Walk into Diksmuide for supplies from Lidl and to look at the town, which is pretty, but nothing compared to Ieper or Veurne. Now just a short run along the river and the big guillotine lock to go. Eventually the man came for his 350BEF, even though the facilites such as showers, advertised as included, were not available "ferme, Septembre". Eve to an excellent Chinese, with lobster soup; frog's legs; prawns, sweet-and-sour chicken, spicy pork and rice; tea.
Fri 2001-09-07
A quiet, dry night for a change, but a dull, grey morning. Walk into town and take some pix of the rather hideous war memorial tower. Dump rubbish, as our only benefit from the mooring fee. Get off 11h with another same-size Connoisseur boat with two Swiss, plus the German boat. For some reason we lost the Germans straight away, but the Swiss followed us. River gets bigger and bendier, until it opens out into a huge, wide area, with windsurfing and sailing boats. We go round this following the line of buoys, but they still shoot in front of us and then fall off. At the end of the wide bit we turn across following the line of wooden markers into the guillotine lock. The river goes on to the tidal basin where we were on Tuesday, but this is not navigable now, even though there is a lock. The guillotine lock cuts across into the Nieuwpoort-Plassendale Kanaal, back to base, and up less than a metre. The woman on the Swiss boat fell in while trying to get a line on in the lock and was got out using ropes and the lock ladder by her husband and the two lock keepers. Much more activity on lower part of the river, dredging was in progress, and we passed several large spoil barges with push tugs and a big trip boat. Most boats back to the base, but we moored roughly where we moored on Sat eve, at 14h. Cycled into Nieuwpoort for more photos of the locks. Spoke to a British crew in the Gravensluis, who'd been to Poland and were on their way home to Dover after 4 months out. The sea was too rough for them to cross from Zeebrugge, and still so from here, so they're going further south on the canals before trying again. Clean up boat. Moor boat again after a sodding great barge went past and washed out our front spike and nearly the back one as well. A little rain eve and a bit breezy, but weather-wise a good day to finish. Eve to the Rattevallebrug restaurant, which was crowded and excellent, with the waiter working continuously and people waiting for tables. Steak, huge, thick, rare, superb, with salad, and an excellent cream, sorbet and fruit sweet, with good beers.
Sat 2001-09-08
A windy night again, lots of bits of leaf and twig on the boat. Turn and head back to the boatyard 08h..08h20. Used 55l of diesel which cost us 1925BEF (31 l/100km or 9.0 mi/UKgall). 1 BEF = 0.0248 euro.
        Day    Date    hh:mm    km      Locks  SB       Water
        Sat    010901   0:30     1.8     -      -            
        Sun    010902   6:00    37.8     1     17       -
        Mon    010903   4:35    31.8     1     15       Brugge
        Tue    010904   2:40    22.5     2      4       -
        Wed    010905   6:15    38.4     4      5       Veurne
        Thu    010906   4:00    22.2     2      1       -
        Fri    010907   3:00    18.6     1      -       -
        Sat    010908   0:20     1.8     -      -          
        Totals         27:20   174.9    11     42  

        Day     Lunch                           Evening
        Sat     -                               Rattevallebrug, cafe      
        Sun     moving                          Brugge, restaurant         
        Mon     Oundenburg, on boat             Leffinge, restaurant           
        Tue     Wulpen, on boat                 Veurne, on boat
        Wed     moving                          Ieper, on boat
        Thu     moving                          Diksmuide, Chinese
        Fri     Rattevallebrug, on boat		Rattevallebrug, restaurant
        Sat     -

	Ave speed 6.4km/h (including waiting time when not moored)

©nib 2003-02-03..2003-03-02

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