Living Large on a Living Barge – 4

Cruising Europe by Barge


By Tom Miller

Tom and family are touring Europe by barge. This is the fourth in his series of reports on what is to be six months per year of cruising the waterways there. 

We were safely tied to the quay. Just a few miles ahead was another lock, the reason why there was so much ice on the river. The locks have what the French call barrages next to them. A barrage is nothing more than an adjustable dam that is used to maintain the river level. Unfortunately it also blocks the ice flowing down the river.

P1030851The following morning we were surprised to see a 100-meter (328 feet) barge heading down stream. We knew the locks were closed which meant the river was closed. Those big barges have so much power they can push through almost any amount of ice. If we could just get to the clear water the barge left behind we might make it all the way to the next lock even though it was supposedly closed. Wilco grabbed the wood boat pole with a sharp steel tip and started breaking the ice around Rabelo. Scott untied us while I started the engine. While Wilco broke the ice along our side, I used the propeller to break the ice behind us. After four hours of backbreaking work we were less than twenty yards from the path of clear water left by the barge that had passed by that morning. All of a sudden we heard a loud rumbling sound. We looked up. There was another barge half a mile up stream heading in our direction (photo: left). The sound came from the barge breaking the ice loose. In a few minutes the path we had spent four hours making would be closed. The clear water we had been trying to get to was rapidly disappearing. I didn’t have a choice. I put Rabelo’s diesel into forward and ran back to the quay. I couldn’t take the chance of getting caught out in the middle of the river.

The next day Scott and I walked to the closest town,. It was just past the lock we were trying to reach. It started to rain, but that was a good thing. The rain would help melt the ice. The town was only three and a half miles away or seven miles round trip. As we were walking I commented to Scott how strange it was that everything around us was either black or white. The trees had dropped their leaves long ago, and the rain had turned their trunks black while everything else was covered in white snow or ice.

We found a busy little boulangerie where we could sit. I had this incredible fruit pastry and hot chocolate. I’m talking Belgian hot chocolate. I don’t remember what Scott had, but who cares? I just wanted more hot chocolate.

P1030844The next day it rained fairly hard. We didn’t try to extricate ourselves from the river’s icy grip. We figured that so long as the rain kept coming, the following day we might be able to break free. Scott and I headed back to the town for more pastries and hot chocolate. It continued to rain all night, and when we woke up much of the ice had turned to slush, but certainly not all of it. The most encouraging sign was that there was plenty of traffic on the river. They must have opened the locks. All we had to do was get to clear water. Wilco began to break the ice with the boat pole while I maneuvered Rabelo back and forth crushing the ice behind us. A 100-meter barge, named Erone went by, and that’s all it took. I put Rabelo in forward and followed the barge as close as I could all the way to the lock. We had to wait our turn to go into the lock, so we tied up alongside Erone to wait. When it was our turn to enter, the ice was so thick we couldn’t move. We stayed tied to the side of the giant barge and let her tow us into the lock. Wilco, being the friendly sort of guy that he is, started talking to Erone’s crew. He found out that the captain was also Rabelo’s former owners’ cousin. Apparently she came from a long line of captains. That’s right, a woman was captain. It’s actually fairly common to see a woman driving those mammoth barges.

It looked like our luck had finally changed. Once we were in the lock everything worked perfectly. We were lowered another twenty feet. The doors to the lock opened and that was the last ice we saw on our voyage, but that didn’t mean the excitement was over.




P1030856Above: Here we are leaving the lock.  We’re free.  Did I mention we carry a car on deck?


THEWAVE_sigTom Miller is an adventure writer from Thousand Oaks. His novel The Wave, about a tsunami destroying Honolulu was published in 2010. Tom has a degree in geology, has been a contractor and developer, prolific diver, pilot, sailor, and barge captain. When he’s not chasing adrenalin overseas, he hikes with the local “Heartbreak Hiking Fools.” LIVING BARGE is his memory of his recent six month journey through the canals of Europe with his wife Lisa.

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Stefan Djordjevic

Enjoyed this one a lot. How about the towns you stopped in and the people?