Exploring Europe by Barge
Since we (David and Penny) retired we have enjoyed several sailing trips to destinations such as the Solomon Islands, the Louisiade Archipelago of Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. There have also been coastal trips north to Queensland and south to Tasmania, and also to Lord Howe Island. Then Europe beckoned, and it seemed natural to plan a boating trip. This would take care of transport, and accommodation and would offer the chance to experience the local food and wine by shopping in villages and towns along the way- just as we had enjoyed during our sailing trips. The pace would be slow enough to allow us to experience Europe rather than just visit it. Since the waterways of Europe were so important to its development, the canals and rivers give access to many of the major towns and villages.
After reading some interesting yarns by others who had taken this option, the details of the plan started to emerge. It was a variation of the old camper- van holiday from our youth, where Aussies would go to Europe, buy a camper van to travel around in, then sell it before coming home. We would buy a barge, aim to spend several months a year on it, then sell it when the time seems ripe.
The first step to this dream was taken in 2008 when a couple from Guernsey offered us the use of their barge on the Brittany Canal system. We spent a week thoroughly enjoying our first barging experience. From then on, the planning started in earnest. We made good use of the internet to find out as much as we could about buying and using a barge in Europe. We joined the Dutch Barge Association which brings together many English speaking barge users, opened a bank account in France and then booked our tickets to go to Europe in April 2010. Once that was done we started to look in earnest to find out where we might be able to make a suitable purchase.
Starting the Hunt
We arrived in France in the middle of April 2010 and after a most enjoyable week in Paris and a stay with our daughters in Guernsey, we were ready to take the plunge. We flew from Guernsey to Geneva where we hired a car. First stop the biggest boat brokerage in the area, H2O in St Jean de Losne, Burgundy. Many of the barges which had sparked our interest were on display there and we spent several hours inspecting those on our list and a couple of others that had recently arrived or come down in price. Two stood out, one a traditional Dutch boltjalk called Anja, the other a modern fibreglass boat, Rouge Bonnet.
After this heartening experience, we moved on that afternoon to the home of friends at La Bussiere Sur Ouche, a small village in Burgundy some miles from St Jean de Losne. Burgundy is a huge region so we were indeed fortunate to have such beautiful and comfortable accommodation not too far from the places which we needed to visit.
Having settled in to La Buss, we re- examined our list of barges and found that we had already seen most that attracted us. A few phone calls established that there was really nothing else still available anywhere nearby which interested us more than those boats we had seen. So the next day it was back to H2O to check again. The more we looked the more we were drawn towards Anja but even though it had recently been reduced in price, it was still too expensive for us. We met the owners and found out more- and liked it even more. Back at Johnson's we counted our pennies and came up with an offer, which we rang through to the brokers. Very soon we had a phone call- the owners accepted our offer! Great excitement!
The process of purchase was quite straightforward, made much easier by the fact that the broker spoke excellent English and the sellers were themselves English (though the husband was originally from the Netherlands). The sellers were very helpful with information and contacts to ease the process of insurance and registration, which could have become thorny issues. In fact we were able to transfer the already exisiting insurance, and also the Duch registration, particularly desirable as Anja had always been on the Dutch register. The out- of- water survey was positive and before we knew it we were the proud owners of a 107 year old Dutch vessel.
There was a delay returning the boat to the water. We stayed for a week in a delightful bed and breakfast near Genlis and used the time to buy the items we needed for our new boat. The previous owners had removed everything from it except furniture, so we had to completely re- equip it, from safety equipment to kitchenware and bedding to tools and bikes. We were very grateful for the advice of our hosts at Genlis in where to shop and for the French dictionaries installed on our phones while we navigated aisles to find the huge number of items on our list. As I (Penny) hate shopping this was not the most enjoyable week of our stay but we persisted and finally everything was bought and transported to the boatyard where Anja was still high and dry. Everything had to be hoisted up on ropes, a nerve- wracking process.
Our new boathome is a great deal bigger than our yacht Pastime. Anja is officially 15 or 16metres long (depending on how you measure) and 4.2 metres beam. There is a generous wheellhouse, which also houses the galley, an equally generous saloon, two sleeping cabins (one rather small), a shower and bath with separate toilet and joy of joys a washing machine, making for very comfortable living quarters. She needs a firm hand to control her. It is very easy to move around the outside of the boat to secure her on locks and moorings, a feature which we had not fully appreciated until we started our trip. There is even a gangplank to allow access to banks which are far away, but we have had to use that only once. Usually we can get close to the bank and step on and off with ease.
You can read more information in our barging blog by clicking here.
The next few months
We were rather nervous completing our first lock after leaving the boatyard, and then tieing up on the town steps at St John de Losne, but once we had that behind us we settled down to the regular pattern of barging for the next two months. We successfully negotiated the Burgundy Canal (including the tunnel at Pouilly, which in theory should have stopped us), up the Yonne River as far as Sens then up part of the Nivernais Canal. We returned to Auxerre before we handed the boat to friends to use for the next few months before her winter sojourn in Migennes.
The trip so far has been an amazing experience. The photos in our gallery give some idea of what we have seen and done. So far, this dream has lived up to expectations and we can't wait to come back.
We return in April 2011 to continue our exploration of Europe, planning to spend about six months there for each of the next few years as long as our health and fitness and our family circumstances allow it. This year we will explore further to the south and east within France, then in future years expect to extend to Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.