Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Germans or... Between a Lock and a Hard Place

Late morning of day 2 on our trip we moor in Buzet. Here we learn that the river locks have just been reopened. The weather forecast is good. This means that Nerac is a go. But (there is often a "but", it seems) the woman at the "Captainerie" tells us in no uncertain terms that Nerac is too far for us to reach today. The constraint for us is that wherever we end up at the end of the day today marks the point from which we begin our return the next morning. How long does it take, we ask her. Five hours, she says. By now we've learned to accept such pronouncements gracefully, to exit, and then to keep our own counsel. As Beth and I walk back to the boat we agree...Nerac or bust.

After a quick walk into town for supplies and ice cream we enter the river Baise. I've been advised to stick to the middle of the channel in order to avoid such things as submerged tree stumps, also mooring opportunities will be more limited along the overgrown and untended river banks. With all the locks in it the Baise is a quiet, serpentine thing. It's only real hazard aside from submerged stumps are the spillways next to the locks. Going downstream especially one has to avoid them on the approach to the locks.

I push the throttle forward. We seem to be the only boat out here. The motor winds up, Beth and Tim look back at me and smile approvingly. The breeze generated by our forward motion feels good on the skin.

The speedometer has three brightly colored markers that correspond to speed limits on the different navigable waterways this boat normally travels. Orange is 8 km/hr, Red is 12 and Green is 20. During my twenty minute training, Oliver told me where and when to observe each limit but all I can remember right at the moment is that the canals were Red. I do remember one other thing, the river limit is different from the canal's speed limit, oh...and one more thing, apparently there is a river police.
Anyway, it seems my choices are orange or green, 8 km/hr vs 20 km/hr (roughly 5 mph vs 12 mph). My mind rationalizes thusly: we are on a river not a canal, rivers are wild, canals are tame, we are alone, plus I am Irish-american. There is really only one logical choice therefore. Green light.
We reach the first lock, skirt the spillway and, since we're headed upstream we enter a deep and nearly empty chamber with tall metal gates on either end.

The crew (that's a term of endearment for Tim and Beth) scramble up and secure the boat.

The water rushes in and the boat quickly rises. We're on our way in short order. A quick glance at the map reveals that at this pace we'll make Nerac easily before dinner.
A couple of locks later we come upon a boat like ours only larger moored at the entrance to the lock. We slow down and pull alongside. There are two retired couples aboard. They inform us that the lock is broken and that someone is trying to fix it.
The couples are German and they speak English. They are very friendly, one woman named Marita chats amiably with Tess for awhile.

Whenever I meet a German I usually mention that I was born in Germany. They always ask where and when I tell them Baumholder, they look at me puzzled. Where is that, they always ask me. I try it again with these folks and sure enough my streak remains intact.
Since we're in for a wait I have to maneuver the boat back behind the Germans' boat in order to to find something to tie off to. The Germans however offer to let us tie on to their boat. We do and so we sit there side by side waiting.
Another boat approaches, it is also like ours but also bigger. The boat comes to a stop about thiry meters back. A young blonde woman in khaki shorts climbs out to the bow and takes up the rope. I go to the back of our boat to try to let her know what's going on here. I holler over to her in French, she seems to hear me and understand. I shout an explanation about the locks and she nods. I add a question, "Vous parlez francais, anglais?"
"They're German."
I look round. Marita is standing on her boat next to me looking at the other boat. She says nothing more and then a moment later she turns away. I look back at the new arrival. It's mysterious how Germans seem to recognize one another, I think to myself.
The broken lock is potentially a big problem for us. All the locks close at 7:00 pm sharp. They reopen at 9:00 am, more or less. Judging by the what the lock personnel are focusing on it appears to be either an electrical or computer kind of problem. Fortunately they succeed in getting it working after about an hour. The French lock worker who has his own little outboard rig already in the lock tells me that they will take two boats at a time- he makes a point of stressing that the first boat to arrive should be the first to enter the lock. Perhaps he thinks I am going to jump the queue. I try not to take the suggestion personally and nod.
We untie our boats, and I back up a bit awkwardly, there's little or no steering when in reverse. The Germans ease into the locks and we then wait our turn with the other Germans, another half hour.
When it's our turn we squeeze both boats in the lock. The Germans on this boat are young, late twenties early thirties. They smile at us as they scramble about with mops and boat hooks pushing off the walls to keep the boat oriented properly.
As we exit, I once again accelerate to the green line. Behind us the Germans are keeping pace. On one level I find that comforting. On another level it's the first time on our trip that we've shared the water with another boat and I had grown accustomed to the privacy we'd been enjoying. Since their boat is bigger I wonder if I'm holding them back. I could pull over but the channel doesn't seem all that wide to me here. Finally I decide just to keep going.

At the next lock, I holler back to let them know they can pass us if they want but they smile and wave us on.
At the next lock the doors are closed. It seems to be full of water. I try to hold my position but I've gotten too close to the doors and all the draining water is pushing us around. Pretty soon we're completely sideways. The lock doors open and I'm pretty well stuck in a very tight space. It's time to execute the pivot turn that Oliver showed me. It's roughly a fifteen point turn but eventually I get us turned in the right direction and we bumble our way into the lock. As the Germans slide in behind us I can see that they are still smiling...I'm entertaining them I guess. We also notice one other thing, they are very busy pushing the boat all the time.
My crew and I experience something of an epiphany at this lock. Steering can sometimes be a collective effort. In fact, there is a real limit to what the helmsman can accomplish alone. Beth and Tim resolve to imitate the Germans at our next opportunity.
Almost five hours after we departed Buzet we enter the lock at Nerac. It is a picturesque entry to say the least. We moor just on the other side of the bridge across from waterfront cafes and restaurants and a beautiful river promenade. There are only two other boats here, one of them belongs to the older Germans.

We secure the Berry and are just stretching on the quaie when the two young German men come bearing cold beer. They are grinning broadly. We all sit in the grass and toast our travels and have a good laugh about our boating skills.
"Your English is very good." I tell them. "When I called to your wife, I didn't know you were German."
"She told us you were French."
I laugh at this...only from a distance of 30 meters and at a full shout could someone really mistake me for being French, and not even then. They are being nice.
"How did the people next to us know you were German?" I ask.
"Ahh...we have met earlier." More laughs. "They don't like us. They think we are rude."
"Yes, this morning we are behind them and another boat and we passed one. We thought it was waiting for us. But the other boat, I think they believe we are going too fast."
"Actually, I was worried about going too slow for you."
They laugh some more and wave away the concern. "No, no! You're boat is more powerful than ours. We go as fast as we can to keep up, we cannot go was good!"
One of them points towards the other German boat. "We saw them leave at the dock before you and we said how German it was for them to insist on going first even though your boat was untied first."
"It was no problem, really." I'm not sure exactly how hard to try to correct the historical record here. "The French lock worker told me to let them go first."
Our two friends ignore this proposition and take another drink. They are in good spirits. We talk about our trips, about other travels. While we are talking, one of the other German women, not Marita, walks past on her way back to her boat. She smiles politely at us and nods stiffly and goes by without a word. Everyone allows her to get some distance.
"So, what exactly is the speed limit here?" I ask.
"Eight kilometers per hour."
Orange, I think to myself. I look at Beth and can see her thinking the same color.
I shrug. "At least we made good time." We all laugh. A conspiracy of river runners in the making.
"If you want to know the speed limit just follow their boat. They are proper Germans."
It's a little wierd how vibes get started between people. We'll never see any of these people ever again but at this particular place and time we find ourselves strangely situated in a kind of social Bermuda Triangle with two German boats at odds and the Americans in between.
The beer is exhausted. We take our leave, charmed by the gesture and their easy laughter. Beth and I mull over the previous few minutes and the human puzzle it represents.
"I was speeding," I say.
"Yeah, you were."
"I hope there's no fucking radar."
"Don't worry."
"You know, there's something that doesn't quite add up they way these guys characterized the other Germans."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, they only got a half hour head start on us. If they're such sticklers for the speed limit it seems like we would have overtaken them by the time we reached Nerac. I was going over twice the speed limit."
"You think they were speeding too?"
"Can you say autobahn?"
We have a laugh over this and then we fall silent for a bit. It's a beautiful evening.
Beth says, "We're in Nerac. They said we couldn't do it. We did it."
"What do they know, anyway?"


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