What a difference a day makes

Tom Fenton and Faith Ressmeyer
Mon 29 Sep 2014 17:27
46 19.503N 4 50.816E
Macon. Yes, right in the winemaking area, I'd like to say between Beaujolais and Burgundy, but my viniferous geography is appalling.

There are certain jobs on the boat I really hate. One is changing the engine oil. The engine compartment is too small and there is hardly even room to get at the dipstick. You take an oily hand pump which you have kept in a polythene bag in the hope of keeping the oil drips off other things, it being impossible to clean the wretched thing. It immediately coats your hands with oil and you get drips on your last pair of barely presentable jeans. You inset its tube into the dipstick hole, clutch an old oil can between your thighs, make sure the outlet nozzle of the pump is in the top of the old oil can, bend forward and start pumping. You hope that anyone who can see this action from afar knows about engines. Otherwise there is a serious risk of arrest. If you are lucky you complete the old oil extraction without spilling more old, black oil on your jeans or the cabin floor (which we call the sole, I have no idea why).

You remove the old oil filter. This is full of old oil. It is fixed to a vertical side of the engine , with no access below for a container to catch oil, so that as you unscrew it all the contents of the filter pour over the engine, the alternator belt, and the engine compartment sole (please excuse the jargon). You wipe up the spill, using half a roll of kitchen paper, and admire the clean sole. You fit a new oil filter.

Then you return the filthy pump to its filthy bag, and stuff it in a corner of the port cockpit locker with other unnameable gubbins, and pour a measured amount of new oil into the engine oil filler hole. This is placed carefully so that no jug on earth can complete a pouring action without its lip coming away from the hole and oil dripping all over the engine, and your clean, well relatively clean, engine compartment sole. You use more kitchen roll. Test the dipstick. Put everything away. Then remember that the new oil filter will take up some oil. You run the engine, test dipstick again, dig out the oil can and top up.

I hope you can see why I hate this job. But it is not the worst. Changing the gear box oil beats it. I have to take up the cockpit floor (also called the sole), but that only gives indirect access to the gear box. The drain plug is unreachable, so you use the pump again. This time the pumping action is much more public. The whole process is distressingly public. And the worst bit us, you do it so infrequently you forget that the enormous oil filler hole is filled with some gross piece of machinery so that you cannot just pour in the new oil, you have to trickle it. You pour, and half your jug-full overflows. That's the end of the kitchen roll. And your jeans.

Usually I only have to do this once a season. Twice for the engine. Each time when we are laying up before leaving the boat to return to the civilised comforts of home, or the USA, or India. But now that we are motoring and only motoring everyday, these will be my routines every ten to twelve days.

Today was the day. Only terror motivates me to undertake these jobs - terror of being without an engine. One of the best pieces of advice I learned when sailing years ago was, always have an alternative. If one thing fails have another ready to do the same job. I have followed this advice with passion for years. Once I motored my first pocket sailing cruiser down the Thames. The river flows fast through London, and you have to go with the tide, unless you have a motor powerful enough to fight it. As you career towards bridges, if you get a plastic bag (of which the Thames has many) round your propeller, you lose propulsion and any ability to steer, and there is a serious risk of crashing into the pier of a bridge with almost certainly fatal consequences. My boat was powered by an outboard motor. Following the "have an alternative" principle, I had a second outboard mounted on the back on a sprung mounting that could be pushed down and activated in seconds. I rehearsed the routine endlessly in the days before that cruise.

I am telling you all this to give you some idea of the stress that this adventure here in the French inland waterways involves. If our engine failed in the Rhone our only option would have been to anchor. If it should fail when I am racing down the Seine through Paris, I don't think there will be time to anchor before the next bridge looms. In short, the thought of my engine failing fills me with terror, and I am doing everything I can to make sure it doesn't happen.

We rose at seven this morning and got under way as the sun was rising. What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, Sunday, the river and its banks were packed with people enjoying themselves. Today, not a soul, other than the ghostly anglers, camouflaged and discreet, with their tents, rod supports, folding chairs, camp kitchen equipment, keep nets, wives or best friends. Today however, even the anglers were generally solitary, in rowing boats, or half hidden on the banks.

We saw a small amount of commercial activity, mostly gravel barges taking sand and gravel from one side of the river to the other. That looked like a twenty first century version of an Aesop's fable. At lunch time Serenity passed us, and shortly afterwards we saw her dock in the centre of Macon. We, however, came on to this Marina, run by the town authorities. I was disappointed as we motored through what looks an interesting town, but I was glad once we got here. This is an exceptionally well made Marina, with the best pontoons I have ever seen, completely self fendering, great facilities, and loads of room in a well sheltered basin with complete security.

Yesterday we saw our second Buzzard. Today Faith saw a Jay, and later we saw a Kestrel, and when we arrived here we saw a family of Black Redstarts. We are moving north. Some of the trees along the river today had lost half their leaves. We have sailed into Autumn.