Taking on the French canals in a trawler yacht: Part one

In our latest series Howard Walker sets off from the Netherlands, heading to the Mediterranean via the French canals, but first he has a London stop-off in mind

Falling in love with Holland

After moving aboard in the spring of 2013, we spent our first summer getting to know the boat and meandering along the inland waterways of Holland.

I know it’s been said many times, especially in the pages of MBY, but this is one of the best cruising areas on the planet.

We loved the entrenched boating culture, the mix of deep-water canals and wide rivers, a huge inland sea – the Ijsselmeer – and easy access to the North Sea, the Baltic, Scandinavia and beyond.

And being Holland, everything works. There are pontoon moorings for tying-up at night literally everywhere you turn – even in the middle of Amsterdam – with water and electric hook-up for less than the equivalent of £15 a night. And liftbridges that magically levitate after a quick request on the radio.

Nomad in WillemstadtIt was a year in which we covered the length and breadth of the Netherlands, ate way too much cheese, gazed at hundreds of windmills and failed miserably to string together even a few words of Dutch.

“Het wiel is gedaald van mijn fiets.” That means, “The wheel has fallen off my bicycle.” Which I did actually say, courtesy of Google Translate, in a Rotterdam bike repair store.

Fast forward to April. Over the winter we’d formulated Le Grand Plan for heading to the Med. But with a milestone Big 6-0 birthday on the horizon, and brimming with newfound confidence, we decided that London and St. Katherine Docks would be an awesome place for a party. And a great starting point for the whole adventure.

So we leave our winter base in Enkhuizen on the IJsselmeer, take the huge Amsterdam-Rhine Canal south, cross the glorious inland tidal waters of Zeeland, exit Holland at Vlissingen and nose our pointy end into the big, bad North Sea.

Rotterdam Erasmusbrug bridgeOur first day on salt water was a welcome anticlimax. Vlissingen to Dunkirk. Glassy seas. Light wind. Easy tides. Little commercial traffic on what is one of the world’s busiest stretches of water.

Then it was ‘the crossing’. Dunkirk to Ramsgate, just over 40 miles. At our tug-boat-like 7 knots, we reckoned on five and a bit hours. Just in time for tea at the Royal Temple Yacht Club. No problem. But did I mention the eel?

Like all responsible captains, I do a series of engineroom checks before we cast off. Dip the stick on each Perkins. Check the transmission fluid. Turn the grease caps on the shafts. And check the water inlet filters for greenery.

Only this time, as I unscrew the starboard engine filter cap, out slithers a slimy half-metre-long tail. Of course, being a Floridian my instant reaction is that this is some deadly water moccasin that had got sucked into the system and is all set to plunge its fangs into me.

Realising that it is probably an eel – a salty delicacy here in France – doesn’t ease the shock. I have a real phobia of all things that slither.

My concern is that the instant I ease the pressure on the filter cap, the mighty serpent will flop out, descend into the bilges and never be seen again – until it starts to stink.

Nothing for it but to grab it by the tail and the two of us wriggle out of the engineroom. It feels like a scene out of the late, great Steve Irwin’s The Crocodile Hunter with me shouting to anyone who might hear, “Crikey, this thing has teeth”. But we make it out and Monsieur Le Eel is returned to the briny deep.

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