Still weakened from a stomach bug it was tempting to linger and gain strength in Sens. Sens is a fascinating town; the mooring spot is pleasant. There were all the reasons in the world to stay, but we couldn’t. The following day the next lock on our way to Auxerre, Ecluse St. Bond, would close. If we didn’t make it through St. Bond we’d have to wait for months for the lock and weir repairs to be completed. We had no choice. We had to move upstream.
In Sens the town quay is on the outside of a gentle bend of the River Yonne. The current pushes everything floating, the boats and debris, to the bank. With the gentle force of the water pushing against us Wanderlust would have more work than normal to make it to the navigable arch of the bridge well to starboard just upstream. It didn’t help that two large boats had recently arrived from upstream and tied side-by-side immediately at our stern.
Moving Wanderlust laterally is usually straightforward. Using the combination of the bow thruster and the rudder, she can move nearly sideways. A bow thruster, a propeller in the center the transverse tube installed below the waterline at the bow, makes such maneuvers much easier. Activating the thruster pulls water through the tube and ejects it out the opposite side. The force of the water pushes the nose of the boat left or right as needed. But there is a liability. The location of the thruster’s propeller leaves it vulnerable to damage by submerged partially floating objects. And lying as we were on the bend of the river, the risk of damage was higher than normal; the debris brought down the river by the recent rains had collected at Wanderlust’s bow. If we activated the thruster we risked sucking chunks of junk into the plastic prop in the center of the tube. It seemed to be best to try to get away from the bank in Sens without using bow thruster.
In theory we could do this without much of a problem. We’d use a forward rope attached to one of the shore bollards and use the engine and propeller to drive against a spring to angle Wanderlust’s stern away from the bank. Once we were at an angle we could pull the rope and back out into the center of the river. In still water this would have been an easy maneuver. But the water was not still and as soon as Wanderlust was angled from the bank the Yonne’s current forced her back to the shore and into the barges moored behind. We needed another approach.
There were two options, neither attractive and both with risk. Besides using the bow thruster, we could use a rope spring anchored to the stern of the barge to pivot the bow away from the bank. Rotating the bow out would bring the stern and the propeller and rudder close to potential underwater hazards near the shore. Both of our departure maneuver options came with the risk of damaging all-important bits of the boat.
Using the bow thruster now seemed the lesser of the two evils as the initial maneuvers had cleared most of the debris at the bow. Besides, the debris had been collecting at the bow was at Wanderlust’s port side, the exit side of the thruster tube. Junk, if any still remained unseen below the surface at the bow, would be at the wrong side of the tube to be pulled through. At least that was what I thought.
Once again we were set to leave the quay. We loosened the ropes and I pushed the joystick controller to activate the bow thruster.
“Did you hear that?” said Becky over the radio.
Of course I had heard it. I’m pretty sure everyone within a block of the dock could here it.
“Did you hear that?” said the Dutch gentleman who was helping us off from the shore.
Apparently audiences accompany the agony of defeat.
I tried the thruster again. Now there was only the fast whir of the electric motor no longer linked to a propeller. Having lost the thruster previously due to a manufacturing fault, I knew the sound too well: We damaged our bow thruster.
The thruster would need to be repaired. This would not be an easy process. Wanderlust would have to be lifted by a crane to get access under the waterline. The nearest crane was in Migennes, a considerable cruise up the Yonne.
Before we could even consider the thruster repair we needed to get away from the bank. The St. Bond lock was still ahead of us. It we didn’t get past it soon, it would be a long, long time before we reached Migennes.
There was now no choice. We would have to pivot the stern to the bank maneuver using a rear mounted rope spring. It would be seriously awkward if we damaged the rudder and propeller but what else could we do?
Fortunately the water at the bank turned out to be deep and clear obstructions. Wanderlust moved freely away from the shore with a just a little scrapping at the stern. We were now angled out onto the river and the current was ferrying us to the main channel. Getting through the bridge just ahead was no great challenge. For a moment I thought we wouldn’t miss the bow thruster after all.
The first lock ahead, not far above Sens, is the Ecluse St. Bond. The French navigation authorities were rejuvenating St. Bond and the lock was scheduled to close the following day.
As we approached St. Bond we made our standard radio call. The call went something like this:
“Bonjour St. Bond. C’est Wanderlust, péniche de plaisance, vingt mètres, montant, une kilomètre.”
We believe this means something like: “Hello St. Bond. It’s Wanderlust, pleasure craft, twenty meters long, heading upstream, one kilometer out.”
We’ve made this call numerous times to locks. Usually we get no response. Other times we hear a stream of French back from which the only part we catch is the “Bonjour” at the beginning. Either way, the locking process works as it should and the lock lights tell us when we are allowed the chamber.
This time was different. Though it wasn’t a surprise that we didn’t receive a response back on the radio, it was a surprise that after the commercial barge exited the lock and the gates closed behind it immediately. The traffic light did not turn green and we could not enter the lock. This is very unusual. Locks always alternate upstream and downstream boats. It is more efficient this way. Why didn’t the keeper let us in? Even if he didn’t hear our radio call, he could easily see us.
We called again on the radio. Again we received no response. There was no choice but to hang out in the stream fighting the current and waiting for something good to happen. After about thirty minutes a second commercial barge exited the lock at a crawl. This too was unusual. Time is money and commercial barges are fast in and out of the locks. But this time the 80-meter barge exited as slow as physically possible.
Finally after ten minutes the commercial finally cleared the lock and the light turned green. We were now free to enter. Curiously, the lockkeeper walked out to watch us go into the lock. It should have been a warning.
When the lock is near a weir there’s often an eddy to navigate on the upstream approach. Normally navigating these eddies is not a big deal. But this was not a normal eddy. From the distance we could see that could see that St. Bond had a very strong eddy. Indeed, pretty much all of the flow of the river was coming over the segment of the weir adjacent to the lock. Best to get through this eddy with speed, I thought, so I approached the lock with a bigger head of steam than normal.
The extra speed didn’t help. Once caught in the eddy, all forty tonnes of Wanderlust was spun instantly to starboard. Without a bow thruster the only option was a full panic stop. Over the radio I warned Becky to brace against the collision with the outer sidewall of the lock. Full power slowed but Wanderlust still stopped with a thud as we nosed into the wall.
With all chances of a graceful entry gone, we backed off the sidewall of the lock approach. Once again the eddy caught us. This time spun Wanderlust flush hard up against the wall to the starboard side. We tried to slither off of the right hand wall but the eddy once caught us again. This time Wanderlust’s stern was pushed hard to starboard and we spun counterclockwise hard into the left hand wall of the lock’s approach. Another full power stop to minimized the force of the nose in impact.
It was seriously ugly now. No dignity remained to be salvaged. But at least our last maneuvers had moved us forward a few feet. We could now scrap our way into the calm waters of the lock’s chamber. At the end of the season we were already planning on touching up of the hull paint. Now it seemed we’d have to buy more paint.
Embarrassed, I had been avoiding eye contact with the lockkeeper. Eventually I looked up and the lockkeeper who had been watching the whole time finally spoke to us in English.
“The next one will be easier.”
We weren’t sure what aspect of the “next one” would be easier. But beggars can’t be choosers and we really we needed any help we could get. At this point it was shaping up to be a very trying trip to Migennes.
The keeper had not lied; the next lock was easy. In fact all of the remaining locks on the way to Migennes were easy. And in the end, the mechanical mishap didn’t interfere with enjoyment of a particularly pleasant stretch of the Yonne. Losing the bow thruster was just one last adventure on our journey across France.
Villeneuve-sur-Yonne is 16 km with 4 locks from Sens, roughly half the way to Migennes. We spent the night at the village’s attractive public quay. Villeneuve-sur-Yonne translates as “new village on the Yonne” even though it was founded in 1163 by Louis VII of France to protect the kingdom of France at the boundary of the Champagne. It is another interesting town in a series of historical communes on the Yonne.
From Villeneuve it is 28 km with 5 locks to Migennes. We stayed two nights and had our thruster repaired at Simon Evan’s yard in Migennes.