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You don’t need a licence to barge through Holland

Mid-morning and the narrow canal through Utrecht is busy, dark but dappled by the sun through trees and roofs. The canalside wharves are used for cafés, restaurants and galleries, many connecting below street level to the buildings above in a unique ‘split-level’ vertical form designed to avoid flood risk from the canalised river running through the city. Our boat feels huge, inching along the narrow urban street of water. Utrecht is very special, and it is a very special experience to go through it on a boat.

Book coverAlas, Navigation Incident No 8 looms. The crew is enjoying the view from the foredeck. I am steering, keeping a close eye on the chart for bridges and turnings. The bridges seem fine, we can just get under with care. But on the chart I notice a very sharp turn to port ahead, followed by a narrow tunnel to starboard. An arm of the canal seems to be heading off to starboard, while a number of big working boats are also manoeuvering on the bend. There is not a lot of room in the channel, and we need to warn the boats ahead of our presence. It is time for a hoot on the horn – two hoots in fact, for going to port.

I blast away.

It was only later that I realised that my ‘crew’, enjoying the view of downtown Utrecht on the foredeck, were sitting right underneath the horn. Two startled heads whipped round and shouted: ‘Why are you beeping?’

It was a question that I thought said more about the crew’s lack of awareness than my unreasonable behaviour, but perhaps I should have warned them.

‘Why do you think?’ Expletives deleted.

We eased round the bend. Gradually we headed out through the suburbs and industrial estates of Utrecht and on to the canal running southwards to the big rivers of the Lek and Rhine. Commercial traffic was gradually increasing and at one bridge we were held up by engineering works, along with another mini-fleet of pleasure cruisers. Pete rustled up an excellent salad. We got our knees well under the table, and I was happy to relax, for approximately two minutes. The light went green and we had to move into the lock. I never did finish that excellent lunch.

Utrecht canalLater the mini-fleet branched south-westwards into a lock and canal heading off to Gouda. We continued southwards to the Lek, and the Neder Rijn, which eventually form the great Rhine navigation through Europe. More bridges followed, and then a huge oval-shaped lock at the end of the canal, prior to entering the Lek.

‘Couldn’t we moor up here?’ Pete asks, as we tie up in the lock. I am beginning to think that the concept and purpose of a lock has somehow escaped the cognisance of my fellow navigators.

‘Er, no I don’t think so,’ I mutter. ‘This is a lock.’

‘Really? It doesn’t look like one.’

‘Well it bloody well is,’ I mutter a little more loudly, without any helpful explanation. The lock’s curved shape and high stoneclad banks were indeed deceptive. Funny how boating can turn you into a grumpy old git, if only (hopefully) temporarily.

But now came the moment when the lock disgorged us into the grand river, the Lek. The gates opened onto a wide expanse of water, with big barges surging to left and right. We were now out of the minor canals and into one of the main commercial arteries of Europe, heading eastwards along one of the arms of the Rhine itself.


I always find it exhilarating to be on a big wide waterway, moving up to top cruising speed and enjoying the views down and across river. You still need to keep a close eye on the barges of course, especially if they are taking a ‘blue board’ course – taking the ‘wrong’ side of the river to get the deeper water and showing a blue board on the side on which they want you to pass them; and you need to watch out for the many ferries crossing the river to link towns and villages. The channel is generally well marked by beacons, many of them indicating the regular groins created to reduce erosion of the banks, and after a while it becomes more a matter of keeping fully alert – rather like motorway driving in fact. So Navigation Incident No 9 was perhaps predictable. I had handed over to Pete and was relaxing in one of the deck wicker chairs after a long spell at the wheel, cruising merrily along, enjoying the wide valley scene.

‘Christ!’ I yell, ‘Where the hell did he come from?’

A great black barge has appeared beside us, overtaking us on our starboard side. There is no signalling from the crew, but I can imagine what they are thinking about us. To be fair, the overtaking boat has a duty of care and should have warned us.
They probably couldn’t be bothered, or maybe found it more amusing to surprise us. And as the overtaken boat we also have a duty of care and should be aware of what is happening behind. I can only wave apologetically. It does not create an immediate problem, but there might have been one if a couple of barges had been steaming up the other way.

Holland, lock on canalAnd then of course there are the locks, or sluises. These are massive, and present two particular problems: firstly, giving a wide berth to the big barge traffic; secondly, understanding exactly what is happening at the lock, both with the traffic lights but more especially with the loudspeaker instructions – in Dutch of course! We were not officially registered VHF operators, so had to rely on mobile phones – but in some cases the lock operators could or would not speak in English. This resulted in the scariest Navigation Incident of the lot (No 10).

The first lock on the Lek appears after about an hour, at Hagestein. The great weir towers come into view first, displaying red lights. Gradually the lock ‘cut’ emerges to port, revealing two modest barges waiting on the bollards. We come in behind them. As we are about to rope up to the bollards, the lights go green and red, and the barges prepare to enter. I follow suit, and start to move towards the lock, comfortable with the idea of going in behind them. Just as I am about to enter the lock I check behind me.

‘Oh my God!’

Book coverA massive ship-sized barge is steaming up to the lock. At the same time the loudspeaker by the lock gate barks out some instructions in Dutch. The lights are green.

‘Lets go in,’ says Pete.

‘I don’t think so,’ I hiss.

After some frantic ‘shall we, shan’t we’ interchanges, I decide to wait for the big ship to go in. As might be expected, our new companion takes up a great deal of the lock. Does the lock-keeper want us to stay out? The light is green, so I nudge forward, waiting for more orders from the loudspeaker. None come, so we ease into the lock, roping up as far away from Big Brother as possible. To our relief, the lock fills up smoothly, the big barges behave themselves, and when the gates open we all move out in an orderly fashion. Panic over.

Extracted from Slow Boats to Europe by Trevo Cherrett. Order your copy here.

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