With stops near rural Masnieres and Macquincourt, it took three days to move Wanderlust the 52 km from Cambrai to St. Quentin on the Canal de St. Quentin. Fifty-two kilometers doesn’t seem like much but there are 22 locks and two tunnels in between. The going is slow.
At first glance tunneling a canal through a hill may seem like an odd concept. But in reality a tunnel for a canal makes perfect sense. It solves a major problem: How do you get the water needed to flood a canal to the top of a hill? Crossing a water divide has always been the major challenge for the civil engineers who layout canals. Often a tunnel is chosen as the best solution as it keeps the canal surface well below the level of the water sources.
On our journey inland from Calais, the first tunnel we reached is a long one. The Riqueval Tunnel is three and a half miles long. Unusually, no exhaust ventilation has been installed; barges are not allowed to use their combustion engines to move through the tunnel. Instead they must be towed through Riqueval Tunnel by an electrically powered toueur.
The Toueur is a tug that pulls its way through the tunnel on a fixed chain that rests on the bottom of the channel. The first barge is attached to the tug by rope. Subsequent barges, there can be up to 30 in total, tie to each other bow to stern with long ropes. In theory this could lead to a towed convoy over a mile long. But in practice there are few barges that pass through the Riqueval Tunnel these days. Indeed, when we went through the Riqueval Tunnel there were just two boats, Wanderlust and a “trente huit” commercial. Nowadays most of the traffic heads down the nearby Canal du Nord. The Riqueval tunnel once was very busy. Before the parallel wide gauge Canal du Nord opened in 1964, Canal de St. Quentin carried more freight than any other man-made waterway in France.
The VNF’s schedule allows barges to be towed through Souterrain de Riqueval twice a day in each direction. In the “southerly” direction, taking the morning tow practically means arriving the evening before. Thus, after an overnight stop in Masnières on the way from Cambrai to Riqueval, we reached the tunnel entrance near Macquincourt at the end of the day and moored night. The gorge near the entrance to the tunnel is isolated and quiet. It is not close to any towns or houses. Our pooch Gigi enjoyed the opportunity to run free off the boat.
Before the VNF tug arrived in the morning, we combined four of our ropes to make two towing lines over the required 30 meters in length. After the toueur appeared, we attached Wanderlust’s bow to the stern of the 38-meter commercial barge in front using crossed lines. Minutes later, the toueur started to slowly pull its way through the tunnel by lifting the chain from the bottom of the canal and drawing it through its electrically powered machinery. As the chain clanked through the tug, the commercial’s ropes tightened. Our lines followed and Wanderlust was underway. Soon we were inside the narrow 6.6-meter wide, gently bending tunnel traveling around 2 mph.
Though it seemed like being pulled through slowly would be an easy mellow experience, we quickly discovered that being towed through this poorly lit tunnel with the engine off is stressful. On our port side was the raised towpath. Though it was unattractive to do so, we could scrub our fenders against the rail to port without much worry other than the possibility for few scuffs on the rubbing strake. To starboard was the threatening arch of the tunnel’s sidewall. Our fenders would not help us much here. Wanderlust’s rear deck cover would rub on the over arching wall before the hull or the fenders would touch. The cover would surely be damaged if we got too close.
For control we had the rudder and the bow thrusters. Unfortunately a rudder at low speed without the prop forcing water over it does not provide much steering. The bow thruster was effective at low speed but it is battery powered and we were unsure whether the batteries would last for the two hours it would take us to get through the tunnel. With minimal control it was a challenge to keep Wanderlust off the arched wall and tracking in the narrow main channel. No matter what we did, Wanderlust lived up to her name; she wandered. It was difficult to stay on line and required constant course corrections to keep off of the walls.
After two tense hours underground we exited the tunnel. In the end, we made it through mostly unscathed with just a scuff on the starboard side of the rear deck cover. The new scuff matched our cover’s war wound on the port side that we had picked up going under the Henley Bridge on River Thames. At least were symmetrical now.
At the exit of the Souterrain de Riqueval we emerged into a deep, lushly vegetated gorge. The gorge hasn’t always looked like this. This place and much of the canal itself were part of the Hindenburg line during World War I. In fact the Germans used the Riqueval Tunnel for cover moving their armaments in and out as needed. It took a major effort, the Battle of the St. Quentin Canal, to overcome the German fortifications in the area. The battle was a turning point of World War I and a month after the fight here ended the war was over.
As we passed under the Riqueval Bridge, I recalled seeing an old picture taken at this spot during WWI. The picture showed the area devegetated and devastated. It is remarkable how much nature has recuperated in the intervening 96 years.
Ahead of us on the canal was a second tunnel, Souterrain de Tronquoy. “Only” 1.1 km long, we could go through Tronquoy under our own steam, at least if could get the tunnel traffic light to turn green. When we arrived commercial barge that was ahead of us in the Riqueval Tunnel had disappeared. We assume it went through the tunnel with a green light. But when reached at the tunnel, the traffic light was red. In the gorge our VHF calls and phone calls went unanswered.
With no other options we decided we would do the French thing and break for lunch. Afterwards we would try something else to get the light to change, whatever that might be. Just as we finished eating, before we settled on a “Plan B”, the light turned green. We could continue on. The experience reinforced what we’ve learned about traveling in France: When in doubt, eat lunch. There’s not much that can go wrong with that approach.
Tronquoy tunnel, under our own power, was less stressful than Riqueval. Still, narrow tunnels require concentration to get through unscathed. Tunnels, though interesting from a civil engineering perspective, are not particularly fun to navigate.
On exiting the Tronquoy tunnel our destination of Saint Quentin was 9 km and 5 locks away. Before long we reached the town and found a mooring on the bank. Saint Quentin has more than enough to keep us interested for a few days.
We spent the first night just past the layby tied to the bollards above the Masnières ecluse. The village was in sight but we never managed to get over to see it.
The second night was spent at the approach to le Souterrain de Riqueval. There’s a very long stretch of bollards here mostly spaced for commercials.
In Saint-Quentin we considered the port but it looked like the larger serviced moorings were taken already. Instead we moored on the town side of the bridge in front of the apartment buildings just after where the canal front road turns off. It turned out to be a good, reasonably quiet spot with a grassy bank. The interesting old section of Saint-Quentin is a good distance up the hill. It was very useful to have bikes and a bike trailer here.
The Riqueval Tunnel:
Passing through Souterrain de Riqueval comes with a toll: The VNF bills the address listed on the vignette. For Wanderlust, under twenty meters, it cost less than 30 euros. For us the process was a bit complicated as we received the bill in the States at an address that required forwarding. We then had to pay the VNF in euros, a tad complicated from the States as we couldn’t just send over a check or pay by credit card. Fortunately the VNF accepts wire transfers.