Dunkirk, or the red button on the yellow banana

Tom Fenton and Faith Ressmeyer
Fri 31 Oct 2014 19:58
50 02.606N 2 22.398E
Dunkirk, and the sea, at last. The day started well. The sky was clear at first light, no mist, no dew. The sun rose over a lovely landscape of low watery land with hundreds of little side canals, some no more than ditches, glimpsed through bridges. This is eel country. 

I know I go on about planted avenues of trees, but I consider this majestic. (If you notice a certain tilt in the trees, you are right. The prevailing westerly winds clearly bend the trees. I have noticed this for some miles now.)

That's my last tree avenue photo, I promise.

As I write this the boat is rocking in sea swell for the first time in two months. What a great feeling.

In the second to last lock I had two new experiences. While I was waiting for the lock to open I saw a barge appear from behind me. It was still some way off before the gates opened, so I called the lock keeper and asked him whether I would get in with him. Oh yes, of course, he said. Who goes first? I asked. You do. So I did and was followed in by this enormous brute. 

The guy on the bow has VHF radio contact with his skipper at the helm, so I knew it would be okay. Then the lock keeper appeared at a trot, saying there was a problem. My permit had expired. As he was approaching I had got my papers ready (we had prepared for such a moment weeks ago, and at last it had come) and as he arrived at my side I handed him my current permit and my ships licence. Took the wind right out of his sails, and after he had taken his notes, meticulously, I made him shake my hand and we parted the best of friends.

I want to say, these locks and waterways may be hell on earth at times, but the investment of the French people in them is amazing and it has been a privilege to experience it. Despite the crisis. (I mean, it is amazing they feel they can afford it, and I wonder how much longer they will. When I let this very barge pass me later, it said on its side, "This barge saves you 78 lorries on the road". In French of course. Bravo. But who, I wonder, is listening?)

Then things all went wrong. I made it to the end of the Grand Gabarit, and a lock called Mardyk. When I called them up. They said, sorry, no pleasure boats through here. I had emailed the yard holding our mast and asked them the way. A day later I phoned them. I got your email, he said. Well which way, I asked. I described what Fluviacarte recommended as the quickest. Is that okay? Yes, he said. (Not, I don't understand, or I don't know, but Yes.) well he was wrong. I tried to use VHF to contact Dunkirk VTS. But not having a mast, my tiny VHF aerial would neither transmit nor pick up signal. I walked up to the lock, having tethered the boat, and read a sign that gave a phone number for the port authority. Walked back to Beowulf, remembered the number (mirabile dictu), and spoke to a helpful and willing person without much English, who explained the problem. I had to retrace my steps, and come into Dunkirk by another route which would bring me to the East Harbour. Then I would make my way through the last of the Canal locks, enter a short canal, go straight ahead and come to a lock which would bring me into Darsene 1. 

With gritted teeth, furious at the misinformation I had been given which had wasted an hour and a half, I motored back down the canal, turned into the Canal de Bourbourg, went through the last lock, up to the point where you should enter the lock for Darsene 1. It was the smallest lock I had ever seen. And it was clearly intended for barges. By now the Canal guides had lost interest, and so I dug out the old copy of Reed's Almanac, which thank goodness we hadn't thrown away two years ago, and it said,to call up for a lock in the harbour give two long blasts on your horn. I gave two long blasts. And again. I tried calling on the VHF, but when you have a tiny aerial and you are low down with high concrete walls all around you, you can neither hear nor be heard. At the entrance to the lock there was a red light which I dared not disobey. And a sign giving a number to call in an emergency. I called the number. (That my phone has any charge though it has not seen electricity since I last left England is one small triumph I want to celebrate here.) A recorded message said call later.  I motored back out from under the concrete entrance way and phoned the yard. They put me on hold. I rang off and called the port authority (VTS). They answered and said call Channel 18. I tried. No response. I tried again. Eventually I thought I would have to retrace my steps. And then I heard something on the VHF and the light at the lock entrance turned green. I motored in and called back on Channel 18 "Je suis prêt." Nothing happened. There was no way my tiny aerial in that deep concrete tomb would be heard by anyone. There was nothing to tie up to except a rusty hook half way up the wall. I left Beowulf attached to that and tied loosely to a ladder and climbed out with the handheld VHF. Eventually a man responded on the VTS channel 73. He asked me for my destination, and explained that it was an automated lock. What do I have to do to activate it? I asked. I promise I am not making this up. He said, press the red button on the yellow banana. I thanked him, crossed the bridge to the other side of the lock, found a piece of apparatus which had been yellow before being peeled by many generations of bargees, and pressed the red button. Nothing happened. Aware that I had left Beowulf tethered to the ladder, and remembering how I had lost a rope already that way, and not wanting to lose a boat the same way, I pressed the red button again, and started back. Nothing happened. Then a voice over a tannoy said something in French about a yellow banana. I looked carefully, and saw a black button. I tried it. No, said the Voice, the button rouge. I tried again. Then I realised this was like the poles hanging over the canals further south. You had to turn them a quarter turn to the right. I tried pressing and turning the red button. Nothing happened. Again. Same. Then I did not press, but just turned. At last. Voilà, said the Voice.

Coming out of that lock, and into a huge commercial sea port, was such a change, but I had no time to savour it.  Using Reed's and the Chart a plotter I found the way out of Darsene 1, and into the main sea port, the very commercial port that I was not supposed to enter at écluse Mardyk.
I was told to wait 45 minutes.  Then they called up and said the lock was open for me. This is what waited. This is the largest lock ever. And because it is not what they usually use for pleasure boats, there was nothing to tie up to.  I assume that the normal arrangements as described in the Almanac were suspended because it is out of season .
How silly is this? I asked what they recommended I should tie up to, but they did not reply. Didn't really matter. I could have sailed races round buoys in this lock. All I had to do was keep away from the sides. Then to let me out they raised the bridge. I kid you not, this is what had to happen before I was given the green light. And it only went down about two meters instead of the five they had told me.
Only it had to be completely vertical before I could go.

As a result I was an hour later than I planned at the yard which had my mast. They were extremely hard to find, and extremely uncommunicative about how to  find them. In the end I took a mooring at the Yacht Club de la Mer du Nord, and walked to them. It was now 4.30 and I was dog tired. Although it means we have to wait until Monday, I am too tired to care.
It will be a chance to change the oil again (if the gods are punishing me, why shouldn't I punish myself?) and the fuel filters, and give the boat a  good clean. 

Beowulf is an Albin Vega 27. They are famously difficult to manoeuvre in tight places, because of the long keel and having the propeller behind the rudder. And I have always found her  unpredictable. Well, let me tell you, now, after these weeks on the canals, I can make her dance on the head of a pin. Stand on her bow and pirouette, leap into the air and turn through 180 degrees sliding back gracefully into the exact spot she left. I can lasso a bollard and wrestle it to the ground, while my stern is quite out of control. In short, if you wanted to create an Albin Vega Circus, I would be your main man. Which, those who know me well will have  spotted is a sign I have had as much of this bottle of wine as is good for me tonight.

So this blog is about to end. And so is my solo episode. A friend from Wivenhoe is coming out to complete the crossing with me, and I am extremely grateful. It means we can do it in an uninterrupted passage, which will be quicker. And it is great to have someone else to share your passage plan with. Another thing I miss Faith for. She always listens intelligently to the plan and her  questions always find the  flaw I would have missed.

I want to say thank you to all of you who have read it and followed us. A big thank you to those who have emailed us en route. Especially to those who supported me while I was on my own. And especially to Klaus who has emailed me I think on every day I have been on my own. Every sailor lies somewhere on a continuum between Robin Knox Johnston and Donald Crowhurst.  I am closer to Dewhurst I think.  So thanks for keeping me going. And of course to Faith, without whom there is nothing.