Proceeding inland from Douai, we turned off the busy commercial Grand Gabarit, and on to the empty river l’Escaut. Our goal for the day was Cambrai. Cambrai is formally the start of the Canal de St.-Quentin.
Near Bassin Rond, at the intersection with the Grand Gabarit, the l’Escaut seems a forgotten, narrow, and overgrown waterway. This stretch of water is shallow. We watched our depth gauge closely moved upstream. Had we made a wrong turn onto a non-navigable backwater? I looked over at PC Navigo, our navigation GPS. The GPS was matching every bend of the river; it was happy with our route. However unlikely, we must be going the right way. Ultimately, after one last turn of the river we reached the first lock.
We knew in advance that we would pick up a remote control unit at Ecluse Iwuy, the first lock we would reach on the Escaut. As we neared the lock a sign visible from the water confirmed that a remote control was available. Once in hand, a “telecommande” would allow us to activate the locks from on board as we headed along the canal. Using this automated system allows boats to proceed in self-serviced fashion without the intervention of the canal’s managers.
From the water it was apparent that the Iwuy lock was unmanned. Nonetheless, as Wanderlust crept slowly towards the lock the gates, they opened. Perhaps an unseen camera was monitoring us or maybe there was a proximity detector. We never figured it out. But by whatever method, some unseen hand caused the gates to open. And once they opened we moved Wanderlust in.
In the chamber we looped our ropes over the bollards and waited patiently for something to happen, for something to move. But nothing happened and nothing moved. We waited for minutes in the silence. Eventually we maneuvered Wanderlust over to the lock ladder on the opposite side and climbed up to the top to look around.
Ecluse Iwuy’s buildings and grounds look left and abandoned. The lock is a forgotten place stuck in the throes of post-industrial decay. It looked as if no one had been through this lock for years.
On the lock’s control building we saw a sign written in three languages telling us to take our remote control. Exploring further we saw a metal hatch with a flap. Through a gap at the bottom we could reach in and just touch the remotes held inside. Certainly this was the place to pick up a remote yet a catch on the flap prevented us from taking one. There must be a release somewhere but we couldn’t find it.
Finally, in desperation, we pushed the red button to talk to the Voies navigables de France, the canal authorities. A stream of rapid French issued forth from the speaker box. From the first paragraph all we understood was the “Bonjour” at the beginning. Eventually the guy on the other end of the wire kept saying something that sounded to us like “pue le blu baar.” It sounded a lot like “pull the blue bar” to us in English but we had no idea of what “pue le blu baar” meant in French. Besides, around the kiosk we didn’t see anything blue. Does the VNF guy on the other side of the call box somehow the mean the metal hatch? What else could he possibly mean? What could we do?
We renewed our search and again rechecked everything around the kiosk. After 15 minutes of futility we expanded our hunt to the lock, the only place we had not yet looked.
Locks are simple and there was only one thing inside the lock that had any possibility. Two metal rods extend from the water to a box with a sign above. This was the old system to activate the locks. Pulling on one rod activates the locking cycle; pulling on the other causes the lock cycle to stop in case of an emergency. Since the locks were now activated by a remote control, we had assumed that only the emergency stop functioned. At least that is usually the way remote controlled locks function. Looking more closely, we saw that the emergency shaft was painted in faded red paint. The other rod, the activation shaft, was weathered blue; it looked suspiciously like a blue bar….
Now “pue le blu baar” seemed like it might well be “pull the blue bar” after all. We gave the blue bar a tug. Instantly the down water gate started to close and then the lock started to fill. For a moment we basked in our lock operation success but then realized that we had left Wanderlust floating by herself in the lock. We quickly scrambled back on board to manage the ropes against the flood of water that comes into a filling lock. After a few minutes the lock chamber had filled and the upper gate opened on to the still waters of the next pound.
Unless we had a remote, this next pound would be as far as we would go. Stepping off of the deck, we rechecked the metal box on the control building. By magic, the latch on flap to the metal box had been released. We could now reach in and pull out the heretofore-mythical remote commander.
In truth, it shouldn’t have been that hard. We were so fixated on picking up the remote control before we arrived at the lock that we had skipped the obvious step of activating the lock. Once the magic remote was in hand, it was easy cruising the rest of the way to Cambrai.
Cambrai was slightly familiar ground for us. We had stayed there for a few days in 2013 are as we completed a barge-handling course with Tam and Di. This time through we’d stop and catch our breath for three nights at the port de plaisance.
This leg of our journey covered 43 km with 8 locks. Three of the locks were on the dérivation de la Scarpe autour de Douai, canal de la Sensée, and l’Escaut portions of the much easier to remember Grand Gabarit. The last five were on the canalized l’Escaut, a petit gabarit or “small gauge” Freycinet canal. At the very end of the day we reached the canal de Saint Quentin.
We moored at the last available spot in the port de plaisance for three nights. Water and low amp electrical service is available. The mooring cost us 17 €/ night. This mooring is convenient to the town. Cambrai is an interesting place to explore.