This story, written by Captain David himself, was first published by our friends at Destination Insights . On this day we had our worst Holland Bridge Encounter but Captain David omitted it in the story in order not to upset any readers. I will insert it where it belongs below.
The geese and nearby morning rush-hour traffic startled me awake from my cozy bunk aboard the Hilversum, a 15-meter-long barge tied up in a small Dutch town that could have modeled for a Rembrandt masterpiece.
“Let’s go for a quick walk before we shove off,” one of my shipmates called out over a cup of strong Dutch coffee and cheese toast—Gouda, of course.
This might sound idyllic; waking up on your own privately-piloted canal barge and lazily deciding to stretch your legs in the old-world village of Woerden. It is ideal—until you lose your way and turn a short 20-minute walk into a dehydrating 3-hour marathon.
Back on the boat, finally, it becomes clear we’ll have to make up the time lost by cutting a few corners; plot a course underway, eat at the helm, clean last night’s dishes later.
Had I had time to look at the seasonal addendum in the welcome-aboard packet, I would have noticed that Woerden’s city and canal workers used this time of year, autumn, to dredge parts of the canal so boats like mine wouldn’t get stuck in the mud. Thankfully, my boat didn’t get stuck as I scooted off effortlessly and made the first bridge opening right on time. Then, my cell phone rang.
The third boat in our travelling armada did get stuck. It was piloted by my parents, aunt, uncle and assorted other companions, who called us frantically for help. Being about three kilometers away already, I tied our boat to shore and ran back to save them.
I climbed onboard the beached vessel. According to my mother, who had suddenly become a master diesel mechanic, “the shaft is not turning and the gears are not engaged.” This seemed plausible to me, although I’d never been stranded in a Dutch canal before.
The Locaboat Company that rents the boats has a mechanic on call for just such emergencies. Christophe answered my call. “Ah, David. It is you again.”
“Christophe! Screw won’t turn. Can’t move boat. Whadda I do?”
“Okay. There is a cover over the shaft in the engine compartment. Take the cover off and put your arm in there and feel around for a tree branch or something. The screw is probably stuck,” he says in a French accent reminiscent of Corporal LaBeau on Hogan’s Heroes.
Minutes later I relay that there is nothing impeding the shaft or screw. “Then you’re probably stuck in the mud. Oh, and make sure you have the engine off before you stick your arm in there.”
So I gun the engine, drop her in to gear and we dredge ourselves out of there. There is an hour-long wait for the first lift bridge. I’ve already maneuvered this bridge once this morning and feel a little cheated having to do it again.
I’m transferred back to my own barge and we continue through picturesque scenery until the next crisis forces me to call Christophe again.
“Ah, David. It is you again,” he mocks me.
“Christophe, my engine is overheating and steam is coming up through the floor boards. Not looking good. Whadda I do?”
“Stop the boat immediately! Tie up and call me back. I am eating my afternoon meal.”
Christophe explains—after lunch, of course—that there is a bicycle repair kit onboard and that I should locate the small wrench inside. “Lift the engine cover off again. Strainer might be clogged.”
Just as he predicted, the sea strainer was clogged with duckweed, impeding the flow of water to the engine which cools it. An hour later, we were off again. Of course, I just missed the next lift bridge opening and was forced to circle for 30 minutes, thus delaying our day even more.
Note inserted: as we circled we witnessed a big dog maul a little dog and his owner we circled in the canal waiting for the bridge to open. It was upsetting for all of us as we were unable to help dog or owner.
A note about the long languid relaxing world of barging on Europe’s arterial canal system; it is supposed to be slow going and all about the journey and not the destination. A typical day travelling 2-3 knots should land you in the scenic part of Gouda, Edam or wherever you decide to spend the night. However, if you time the lift bridges or locks wrong, get stuck behind a commercial barge, have engine trouble or experience any other misstep not outlined in the program, you’re destined to wind up driving in the dark searching for a place to tie up in some industrial urban area not designed for canal-weary tourists … as you will see below.
Final note– after spending the night in a rusty harbor at the edge of Gouda drowning our sorrows in spaghetti and red wine, we left Gouda and our headless goat mascot behind (it no longer seemed appropriate) and cruised towards Utrecht.