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The leaky iron boat : nursing an old barge…
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The leaky iron boat : nursing an old barge through Holland, Belgium, and… (1997)

by Hart Massey

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A question often asked of me, "Where do you find some of those weird books that you read?" A valid interrogatory. In the case of this marvelous little gem, I was reading reviews of books that have been reissued. As my father had spent several delightful days on a small barge traveling the canals of England, I was naturally attracted to the title. The barge in this case, the Lionel — the model train connection further predisposed me to pick the book — was quite a bit bigger, about sixty feet long, but nevertheless small enough to navigate some of the smaller canals in these countries. (Europe is filled with waterways that are little used today for commercial traffic.)

This charming little book describes the Masseys journey from Holland through Belgium — not much of interest there — and France, where the system is often astounding. The Canal Marne au Rhin, for example, runs roughly east to west and serves as an important link between the Rhine at Strasbourg to the English Channel via the Marne and the Seine. It is about 180 miles long and contains 152 locks with four tunnels, the longest being about three miles. Many of the locks are automatic. They open either by radar detecting an oncoming vessel, or by two-foot-long arms that are pushed aside by the large commercial barges as they enter or leave, thus activating the gates on the next lock if the locks are close together. It means the idle traveler cannot stop to dawdle for lunch or the system goes out of whack, but the most astonishing feature is the inclined plane. It has a vertical lift of over 223 feet in a slope over a mile long. Two huge water-filled tanks that roll on 236 steel wheels are laid on a double set of tracks that carry barges up to 1,350 tons floating in the tank. The trip takes about 30 minutes, and the view as the boats rise becomes quite spectacular, assuming one does not become too concerned about the remaining strength of the thin cables pulling the tank. The contraption was built in the 1950s and replaced several locks, so travel time was cut considerably. Naturally, the parts I found the most interesting were those dedicated to the mechanics of operating a small barge. Many of the canals have only the requisite 1.8 meters of depth, and when a large barge comes barreling up the channel, the Lionel could be in for some difficulty. As the larger barge passed, often quite insouciantly, the Lionel would be lowered by several feet. If the canal was short of water or the bottom especially rocky, this could mean a nasty gash in the hull that would require a trip to the nearest dry-dock for repair — but that's why bilge pumps were invented.

European law requires that all barges be dry-docked every five years for a thorough — supposed to be thorough anyway — inspection and repair. The newer barges are marvels of modern technology with depth sounders and bow thrusters. The wheel has been replaced by levers, and the wheelhouse bears more resemblance to the cockpit of an airplane than to a traditional ship's wheelhouse. Families live on board and travel with the cargo. For many families, it has become a generational thing, spending their entire lives on board and raising their children as they travel. The book has a nostalgic quality for me; as I remember as a child in Heidelberg watching the large barges pass by on the Neckar (a tributary of the Rhine), laundry hanging on the lines on deck, children running back and forth, wondering where they might be off to.

I have GOT to rent one of these little barges and meander around the French countryside. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
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for Melodie, Joss and Polly, my companians on the voyage
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