As we were about to enter the tunnel we discovered that - contrary to the French guide book - the height was NOT 5.7 metres but only 3.5 metres. We discovered this as we were about to enter the tunnel. My husband switched gears and headed backwards fast so we could drop our awnings while our boat drifted in the water. Once we got that sorted, we made a second attempt to enter the tunnel. I had the torch shining forward. Inside the tunnel we saw they had installed huge big fans overhead. The trip through the tunnel takes just over an hour. Our boat had a metre clearance on either side. The guide book mentions there is debris, logs and litter floating in the water. This we could see. After 20 minutes the torch light started fading and we now faced doing this transit in complete and utter darkness except for the glow of our navigation lights which was by no means sufficient. Have I mentioned I am claustophobic? I was terrified.
At first we were bumping the sides of the tunnel so went very, very slowly. It could also have been logs floating in the water bumping into us. After a while our eyes became accustomed to the darkness. My husband figured out that if he lined up the hand-rails of our boat with the middle rung of the towpath in his line of vision as he was driving, he would be more or less in the centre of the tunnel. My job was to try and see if we veered too close to either side and fend with my hands if need be. I tried to take some photos. The flash popped up scaring the living daylights out of my other half. It was too dark to get a decent pic. We knew there was another boat ahead of us and we thought we were catching up on them as we saw a light getting bigger and bigger up ahead. We went slower fearing we might bash into them. In such darkness any light is bright. You can't make out what it is. Turned out it was actually the light at the end of the tunnel and not another boat. We were glad when that was over.
Light at the end of the tunnel
We stopped at Piépape that evening and went for a walk. It's a teeny, weeny little town with a handful of houses. Some run down. All beautiful. Centuries have passed but not much has changed in Piépape which only adds to it's charm. The sign next to our mooring and the French guide indicated there was a supermarket nearby but it had closed some time back. I love the French word for a picnic spot - Halte Pique-Nique. There was an apple tree laden with fruit so we stopped and filled my bag with a good few wild apples. We slept in total darkness that night. No street lights, no nothing. So peaceful.
Each day we set out hoping to have a problem free day. We could ill afford delays. It had been arranged the previous day that we would kick off at Lock 12. By 09.05am we phoned to find out when the lock would open. At 09.30am a lock-keeper arrived and got things going. Things were looking good. Then a large barge came out a lock and never saw us. We hooted but it was too late. He pushed us aground. We struggled to get going again. There were three more barges passing at the next three locks so we had to wait for them. We weren't willing to risk getting stuck again. And there isn't much space to pass comfortably on the canals. These barges are huge and have to drive extra slow as they are scraping the bottom of the canal. You can see mud swirling behind them as they pass. How do they fit in the tunnels?
The other difficulty we encountered was low bridges as you exit the locks. The guide book has one height, the warning sign for low bridges has another height and the actual height we found is something else. We had a system where I would stand on the fore-deck and hold my hand up. If it touched the bridge we knew we were in trouble. We decided to take everything down and rather keep our precious boat safe.
The rest of the day our remote control operated at whim. We could never figure out why sometimes it worked and other times not. Was it wind, rain, the distance or direction we pointed that affected it? We stopped being shy and kept pushing the button until we got our "Get Ready" lights. These locks leaked so badly that as fast as they emptied they started filling again. That caused the lock gates to refuse to open. We hoped to keep going until closing time which is 18.00pm - one last lock - before we tied up. We got there 17.30pm and the lights were off. Had it been switched off or was it broken? It would have been nice to get that last lock under our belts but we were dog tired. We tied up outside the lock. There was nothing for miles and we knew it was going to be a quiet night. We love those. There is something particularly special about being in the middle of nowhere, in nature, in total darkness, the only sounds that of trees or birds.
Wild stop with not a soul around
The following day we decided to phone VNF early to make sure we could get through the lock by 09.00am. They assured us a lockie would be there by 09.00am. Five minutes past nine, a lady lock-keeper arrived and we got going. One thing that did concern us was graffiti scrawled in black marker pen on the sides of the locks saying "H2O = Voleurs" (H2O are thieves) We had pre-booked our boat to be wintered there. Hopefully it wasn't true. At the very last lock on the Canal Entre Champagne and Bourgogne we got stuck in the lock. Again. This was probably our fault. A person is supposed to drop the remote control in a box, pull the gadget, jump back on the boat and it should all work perfectly. We were too scared to part with the remote control and were pushing the button furiously.
Finally a woman spoke from the call box which scared the life out of my husband as he hadn't called the Help Centre. She could see him via surveillance camera which scared him even more. She asked him to please put the remote in the box. Which he did. They activated the lock and let us go. Phew!