1st April — Starting the month with a Cunning Plan – Off cruising once more we left Amsterdam on 1st April with Dutch chums Niek & Petra on board as our first guests of the season, as luck would have it the cruise came to a halt about ten minutes and about 300 metres after we passed through the first lifting bridge to exit the Westerdok when the next lifting bridge wouldn’t lift. Two hours later we ‘re off and running again up the River Ij and through the main port of Amsterdam running the traffic gauntlet towards the first lock dodging numerous ferries, passenger boats, yachts and huge commercial tanker barges, one comes up fast astern and a radio call asks us to move over as he’s making a wide turn into the Amsterdam – Rijn Canal, I don’t need asking twice as the giant craft races by at twice our speed. Once clear of the main traffic it’s out and across the bottom of the Markermeer then into the Vecht River at Muiden cruising up to a wee place called Weesp (pronounced VAYSP) where we stop for the night.
The heating and hot water problem’s still not resolved so it’s time for a cunning plan. Having watched the service engineer a few days testing the boiler, he’d put as small amount of diesel into a container and then placed the fuel intake lines into it providing a source of fuel which worked perfectly. Plan B saw us wander over to the nearest garage a few hundred metres away to fill a 20 litre jerry can with fuel, then the boiler’s fuel lines into the jerry can and hey presto we’re back in business with hot showers all round, maybe not enough for the heating but sometimes you just take what you can get. Our trip to the garage lugging the 20kgs of diesel back is rewarded with a spectacular sunset, still in need of further rewards we head off to load up on the excellent pizza at ‘La Base’ along with an extensive Italian red wine tasting frenzy before flopping into bed.
It’s still chilly in the mornings but we do get a glorious sunny day all the way to Breukelen, a small but very smart and wealthy town about 40 kms away from Amsterdam, New York’s Brooklyn bridge is named after the town. It’s a pretty cruise past lots of smart villages with expensive properties down to the river’s edge. Arriving in Breukelen the quayside’s empty so no problem shoe horning L’Escapade in, it’s still very early in the cruising season up here and too early it seems for the Havenmeester (Harbour master) to come out and collect the towns dues for our mooring so we get a free berth and free electric power for the best part of a week, while we wait for our tame engineer to come and diagnose our fuel tank problems. Sadly it’s here we say goodbye to Niek and Petra, who return to Amsterdam and a working week.
One of the upsides being in Breukelen is the really excellent and authentic Thai restaurant “Same Same” that’s a mere 50 metres from the mooring, needless to say we re-acquaint ourselves with the menu. After a few days we get a surprise visit from Aussie friends Geri & Peter Radzim, coming in from Germany en route back to Monaco staying overnight on board and ensuring we get another crack at the tasty Thai tucker across the road.
The trip planning spreadsheet – More calculations than a NASA space launch – This masterpiece is an all singing, all dancing snapshot of our trip plan and the motherlode of trip planning tools, so much for the oft claimed casual ‘no plan, plan’, my wife is the Excel spreadsheet queen who incorporates all manner of calculating formulae faster than a grooms undressing on his wedding night. It adds in locking times, journey times for canals and rivers with different assumed speeds, departure and arrival times, destinations and yes it is way over the top for this kind of cheese changing lifestyle but I hate to crush her creative spirit. Truth is it’s really only a fancy guide and we rarely stick to it as plans change day by day but we do get lots of visitors so the need to know where we might be and how long it will take to get there is kind of handy…..but I appreciate it does look rather scary and totally anal!
The Boiler Chronicles Sequel & Another Lesson Learned – I know readers with enquiring minds are just wetting themselves to learn how this saga ends. We’ve been without heating for eight days now and using a jerry can as a fuel tank for about five which is getting just a tad tedious not to mention slightly concerning at the prospect of what repairs might entail.
The appointed day arrives and so does Christian our super punctual engineer, so punctual in fact I’m still in PJs and dressing gown, but we get started anyway and it’s not long before all is revealed… Removing the inspection cover to the tank in the galley the first discovery is the fuel gauge all gummed up and stuck but the real surprise is the tank itself …….it was almost completely empty with barely 25 litres of fuel left from a 2,500 litre tank, and, being a long flattish tank meant the fuel lines weren’t getting any fuel. The gauge has always been very dodgy but we’ve never used that much fuel over a winter before and we were away for six weeks. It was suggested by a couple of people that maybe someone syphoned fuel out of our tanks while we were away but there was no evidence of this and it’s hard to imagine such a thing would have happened, I doubt it strongly. After emptying the remaining fuel and a bit of a tank clean we transferred some diesel from our engine fuel tank and the problem was fixed. A couple of days later we pulled into a bunker station and loaded up a thousand litres, we’ll fill it up fully when we get to Belgium in early May and can get a red diesel supply which is substantially cheaper.
It’s been an interesting exercise and learning experience, firstly to see that for all the years we’ve had the boiler serviced in France no-one ever checked the filter which was seriously dirty and should have been changed long ago. We’ll get a small cap cut into the inspection cover at some point so we can drop a dip stick in and physically check the fuel levels going forward so we can a) Not have to rely on the dodgy gauge and b) not end up looking like a pair of dip sticks ourselves again as this is something we could have and should have been able to check ourselves!! Gotta love barging, another lesson learned.
Shades of Grey to Shades of Green – Pootling on up to Utrecht with near full fuel tanks it’s a pity we don’t have a camera lens good enough to pick up the many subtle colour changes that emerge constantly around us as we cruise slowly up river, greys and soft new browns and a myriad shades of green makes you realise that spring time in Europe is really quite special and nothing quite like it, the changes come on so slowly then before you know it the barren branches of the late developers are in full bright green leaf as the buds burst, blossoms are everywhere and flowers come into bloom. Taking life slowly along the rivers and canals you get time to watch all this unfold little by little, day by day. Sorry no pictures to illustrate all this but it’s only when you see it for real that you capture the sheer joy of it all.
One lock at the entrance to the town port and we’re all sorted for the weekend, a nice spot looking back towards the town with power and water thrown in with the harbour dues and the promise of a warm days on Sunday and the chance to have lunch on deck.
Sunday 9th April Turn Up The Heat – The outskirts of Utrecht like so many cities is a bit on the scruffy and unkempt side…hmm, is that a tautology I wonder, no matter, it’s often the same when arriving by train, you see the underbelly of these cities making you wonder if you really made the right decision coming here, but fortunately it doesn’t last long and the delights of the city soon reveal themselves to you, and so it is with Utrecht, The Netherlands fourth largest city and a university town. There’s plenty to do here but we find by far the most pleasant aspect is a stroll around the canals and historic areas, the city has plenty of both and often lined with cafes’, bars and restaurants. For history buffs a visit to the city’s symbol – The Dom or Cathedral tower is a must. The tallest church tower in the Netherlands standing at 112.5 metres it sits on the site where Utrecht was founded almost 2,000 years ago. One of the more unexpected attractions in town is the aboriginal art museum…….and for the life of me I have no idea how are why it’s located here.
Summer makes a brief but glorious appearance on Sunday, bags of sunshine and the thermometer cranking up to 23 C , it only lasts a day but it’s enough to get all the students out on the port pontoons to soak it up along with mandatory beverages. We even managed our first lunch on deck with a nice bottle of Chilean Sav Blanc …….something I hope is the harbinger of similar days ahead!
Flower Power at Maarssan – A pretty mooring a few kilometres back along the Vecht River and we’re in Maarssan another quaint town with pretty houses along the river bank. Once again it’s too early for the fee collectors to bother coming out so we’re left alone with free power once again. Evelyn’s sleuthing revealed a plant nursery a few kms away and had been scheming for some time about how and when she’d get the barge decked with her annual flower display. Potting mix had been sourced and pots filled weeks earlier but the northern spring is slower and so too the supply of summer plants, however Maarssan held some promise, so, with crates strapped to our bikes we made several trips to load up and get her blooming deck garden blooming.
The Best Laid Plans & A Dash for Dinner – It’s Wednesday 13th April, but might as well be Friday the 13th with our rotten luck. We’re due to have dinner in Amsterdam tonight with barge buddies Nick & Marise who are about to head off to Berlin so we won’t see them for a couple of years, we’d planned to stop for the night about 20 kms away back in Weesp and get the train in but it seems not to be. Leaving last night’s mooring in Breukelen we’ve travelled barely 6 kms to the pretty village of Loenen only to find out the bridge is broken and boats are piled up waiting for it to be fixed, some had been stuck here for over 24 hrs, so our 5 hr delay seemed somewhat minor. We’re told they will try and open the bridge by hand at 13.00 but that time comes and goes, with no sign of an opening, then it’s another two to three hrs before they can try so it looks too late to make our dinner date and too late to turn around and try another route, disappointing but things could be worse, Loenen is a pretty village with several good restaurants, two of them with Michelin stars so starving won’t be a problem. Then, a glimmer of hope emerges as we’re told they’re going to try to open the bridge by hand and it’s 3.00 pm leaving us with barely 90 minutes to make the trip before all the lifting bridges close for the day at 4.30 pm and end our progress. Setting off at a cracking pace we sped off ahead of a large flotilla of other craft eager to put the dodgy bridge behind them, we found an entrance from the Vecht River onto the huge Amsterdam-Rijn Canal which we figured would save us all the twists and turns of the rive as well as most of the time consuming lifting bridges. As it turned out we got to the last bridge at the entrance to Weesp harbour right on 4.30 pm, they kindly let us through then closed the bridge for the day, phewwwwww, that was some speedy trip but we’ d made it and left enough time for a well- earned bloody mary before catching the train into Amsterdam and an excellent dinner on the edge of the Joordan district at Bistro Neuf with fab food and some great wines.
Amsterdam re-Visited & The Witches Coven – Dinner digested it was back on the train to Weesp, or so we thought, maybe it was that last glass of wine that did the trick but whatever it was that caused the cock up we ended up on the wrong train at near midnight headed for god only knows where. It took us a while to figure it out but thanks to the excellent Dutch public transport system we were able to get another train back to Weesp before breakfast! Next morning a leisurely cruise back into Amsterdam via the scenic route along the Amstel River after which Amsterdam takes its name, and through part of the network of canals that criss cross the city dodging the tour boats until we arrived back in Westerdok for the weekend.
The main reason for our return to the city was to pick up Evelyn’s two sisters flying in from the USA for a visit. Did I say a visit? Hmm, well I meant a two week visit and, as every host knows, both fish and visitors go off after three days!! Anyway, cheap jokes aside, the three sisters henceforth known as ‘The Coven’ i.e. being a gathering of several witches was in full session. Now the casual reader might think this collective noun for my wife and sisters in law a trifle harsh but I suggest you spend two weeks with them before crying foul, besides the description is based if somewhat loosely on fact since on a visit to the US family farm some years ago I was studying a wall picture depicting the family tree on my wife’s mother’s side which clearly showed that at least two earlier relatives were in fact burnt as convicted witches……I rest my case!
The following days saw tour guide Evey herding the rest of the coven around Amsterdam’s monuments, streetscapes and museums while I sought solace through the medium of alcohol and menial boat tasks while giving my ears a rest.
Hooking up with fellow bargees Roger and Laura on the splendid barge L’auwrence against whom we were rafted up during the Amsterdam magic spell conference, we took the scenic route to historic Haarlem via the Zaan River and windmill infested museum village of Zanse Schans.
Haarlem was as charming in the spring as it was in the previous autumn when we visited and as it turned out just as chilly. The havenmeester (harbour master) generously gave us a discount for our visit charging only two nights fees for a three night visit which we though very generous. It’s a handy place to be based while visiting other regional attractions like the nearby and fascinating Cruquius Steam Pump Museum, The Hague and nearby tulip fields at Keukenhof with Evey again playing tour guide.
Keukenhof, – It’s All About the Tulips – OK other stuff too but this is the show to end all shows on tulips and a stunning day out among the flowers!
The whole region around this floral showcase is the heart of the Dutch bulb growing and exporting industry. Taking a bike from Keukenhof you’re very quickly riding out through the bulb fields with hectare after hectare of fields in bloom and colours of every shade imaginable. The season’s in full swing as we watch the growers lopping the heads off these beautiful flowers with specially designed machines as it’s all about bulb cultivation sales and export not cut flowers, that happens someplace else.
Meanwhile back at the Keukenhof gardens there are more than 7 million bulbs in bloom this spring, with a total of 800 varieties of tulips alone as well as countless varieties of daffodils and hyacinths. A unique and unforgettable experience, it’s a sensory overload as you’re assaulted by the intoxicating perfume of the hyacinths and your eyes struck by the riot of colour and sheer scale and variety of the flowers before you at every turn. Taking it all in is almost as hard as it is taking pictures without people in the frame such is the popularity of this annual event that lasts for a mere 8 weeks during which time somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people a day visit the gardens. It has to be one of the most impressive gardens in the world not to mention a serious money making monopoly that’s still largely privately owned showcasing the best of the best of the local growers who generously supply the plants at heavily discounted prices to have their product on display.
Besides the vast 32 hectares of flower beds you can enjoy the spectacular flower shows, inspirational gardens, unique artwork and wonderful events. It really is hard to find words remotely adequate to describe the beauty of it all , I guess you just have to see it for yourself.
Kings Day in Delft – Our Haarlem visit at an end we packed our visitors off on the train to do further sightseeing in Amsterdam while moving the barge down to Leiden for the weekend and then on to Delft where we’d stay for about five days until the Kings Day celebrations. Konings Dag (King’s Day) is a uniquely Dutch celebration on the Kings birthday. Pretty well every town and village celebrates and pretty well everyone wears something orange, the national colour to mark the occasion, some smart and subtle most less so but everyone’s out and about and there are what the English would call car boot sales or the French a ‘vide greniers’ all over the place where you can buy someone else’s cast off junk, keep it for a year then try and flog it the following year! Streets are filled with open air bars, live bands everywhere and restaurants and cafes doing a roaring trade. In Amsterdam the place is totally nuts and anything that floats and can hold a person and a beverage is on the canals, so crammed in you can walk from boat to boat from one side to the other without getting your feet wet. Needless to say our lot got into the spirit of things and found a range of hideous orange accessories for the day and night festivities and, no matter how bad you think you might look, the truth is you’ll fit in a treat. It’s a great fun day and everyone seems to have a great time.
Delft to Rotterdam & Dordrecht – With Kings day behind us and Evey’s sister Martha on the train back to Amsterdam and home that left Cindy with us for her last day as we set a course for Rotterdam, Dordrecht and shortly thereafter our departure from the Netherlands and into Belgium.
The canal down to Rotterdam was pretty ordinary, commercial and uneventful though the coming onto the Maas river at Rotterdam is always exciting. It’s a very big river and a highway for big commercial barges and sea going ships too. We ‘re going to be on some larger more open waterways for a couple of days so have been keeping an eye on the weather especially the winds but it looks fine for trip south. The one thing we didn’t check was the direction of the current on the tidal Maas River which was running at around 4 – 5 kph and slowed us to around 6 kph on the trip down to Dordrecht.
Moored in Nieuwe Haven marina Dordrecht was a tight fit with little room for bigger barges like L’Escapade but fortunately we’d booked ahead and they’d reserved space for us. Cindy left next morning and we set off on our last full day in the Netherlands bound for the picturesque village at Willemstad our last port of call before heading into Belgium.
Nieuwe Haven – Dordrecht
Lifting bridge leaving Dordrecht
Willemstad and that “How Dumb can We be Moment”? We all have them from time to time, you know, those moments when the memory kicks in and you think……..rude things, and why didn’t I fix that earlier!! For us it all began a few days ago when we still had Evey’s sisters on board. They had they aft cabin and bathroom whose sink and shower drained into a separate sump tank from ours up forward before being pumped over the side. Having been in Delft for a few days and not underway every day we hadn’t checked the engine room for a few days and when we did shortly before departing we’d noticed there was water under the engine in the bilge so started to think about where it might have come from. In any event it wasn’t serious and so we figured we’d check it all out properly when we got to Willemstad and clean it out there.
Arriving in Willemstad it was a pleasant day but instead of sight- seeing we got down to the task of getting the water out of the bilge and locating it’s source. Turns out there was rather a lot more water than we had at first thought but we got it all out and determined that the culprit was the aft sump and a sticky float switch that had failed and so the shower water with no-where else to go over flowed into the engine room bilge. Not a huge disaster and after some cleaning and fiddling about we got it all working again. But in the process of emptying the bilge water we’d closed the main fuel valve which was in the way at the time.
Things You Don’t Expect to See – Our chores all done, we did manage a little tour of the town and the pretty marina at the end of the day and now filled with some seriously big motor yachts as well as a more unexpected sight as a huge former British RNLI lifeboat came into port, now fully restored as a private pleasure vessel after many years in service in Scotland where she’d been on many ‘shouts’ and saved over 50 lives. It was a fabulous sight and sound as the powerful Gardener diesel engines manoeuvred her against the quayside.
Didn’t expect to see this restored former UK lifeboat in Willemstad!
Next morning we were up early for an 08.00 departure with the current in our favour for the eight hour plus run down to Antwerp in Belgium and the wind was already blowing quite hard but the day started with far too much drama as not long after setting off from Willemstad as we heading for a set of locks the engine began to lose power, the throttle revving and falling back constantly and you could tell it was about to conk out completely, leaving us in serious danger of being blown onto a very rocky dyke wall far too close by……needless to say panic all round as we tried to think what the problem was …..maybe the throttle cable or more likely something wrong with the fuel lines – a blockage there or in a filter …..FUEL, FUEL, CHRIST, and as we said the magic word Evey remembered that the day before when we’d been cleaning the water from the engine room bilge we’d lifted some floor plates to get better access and turned the fuel tank valve off to get it out of the way………..in our keenness to get that job done we’d forgotten to turn it back on again !!!! A completely basic numbnuts moment!! Racing back into the engine room she got the valve open and fuel flowing before the engine sucked a load of air in and then we’d have been in real bother…as it was the engine picked up immediately and off we went again…funny how well these diesel engines work when you don’t starve them of fuel!!
No further mishaps and after a long day we arrived in Europe’s second largest port, Antwerp. The arrival into our berth in Willemdok took us through large industrial landscapes and past some of the largest oil refineries and storage facilities we’d ever seen as well as mile after mile of wharves, dock facilities and quaysides, it seemed to go on forever.