Former leading music industry photographer and video director Steve Payne regales us with an engaging and entertaining tale of plying the French canal system aboard his Birchwood motor yacht on a mission to reach the alluring waters of the Mediterranean.

I was thinking to myself just recently: ‘Ya know, Paynie, you could’ve just flown to Malta.’ And I was correct: I could’ve flown from London to Malta for about £40, but I didn’t. Instead, I bought a boat and went from London to Paris and then on to the Mediterranean, all the way to Malta. Perhaps I need my head examined – it’s not as if this has been a lifelong ambition, because it absolutely has not. I knew where Malta was on the map before buying my boat, but I’d never thought of taking a boat all the way there. Maybe I could blame Google because I’m sure at some point I typed in ‘France, Malta, boating’, and lo and behold, I found that you could get all the way to the Mediterranean without actually crossing the Bay of Biscay, then going around Spain and Portugal. The French waterways seemed absolutely delightful, and after all, what’s 216 locks between friends?

Red Sands Forts

Red Sands Forts

10 Important Items

  • A second, hand-held radio, because you aren’t always near the main boat radio. It floats, so if you drop it in the water, it’s not a big deal. It also works as a handy ship-to-shore communications device.
  • A super-strong backpack/rucksack thing – useful for short shopping trips, among other things.
  • A newish GoPro camera, because it’s a lot easier to poke a GoPro under the boat to check things than it is to dive into cold water.
  • Extra fenders and lines, because you are going to use them.
  • A few basic French words, and don’t be scared to use them.
  • Plenty of fire alarms and extinguishers. You can’t really have enough of these things. And a CO alarm or two.
  • A small generator, because one day you are going to need it, I promise.
  • A way of making ice, because cool cocktails are better than warm ones.
  • A French SIM card from Free Mobile – €26/month for unlimited data.
  • A towel!

Time for change

But how did I find myself living on a boat just west of London in a small town called Bray? Two years before, I was living in a big loft in sunny downtown Los Angeles, where I spent 27 years working as a photographer/camera op, having transplanted myself from the UK. I got into photography 10 years before leaving London and ended up working for the Evening Standard newspaper and various other magazines, PR organisations and record companies. I also managed to direct about 30 live concerts that went straight to video, and I’ve always felt that directing live concerts is as much fun as you can possibly have while keeping your clothes on. But then my mother got sick and I moved back to the UK to help care for her. After she had floated off, I had a decision to make, as I could have put down a small deposit on a tiny flat somewhere in the UK, but that seemed about as appealing as a Makita drill to an eyeball.

Afloat in the calm waters of the Thames Estuary.

Afloat in the calm waters of the Thames Estuary.

So, at the end of 2019, I started poking around the Interweb, looking at boats. There were several that appealed to me, and I started cruising around southern England kicking tyres, but after looking at maybe 20 suitable vessels, a nice salesperson named Darren at Penton Hook suggested that I was looking for the wrong type of boat. I was looking at Dutch steel cruisers, most of which had one motor of about 180hp, but thankfully it was pointed out to me that that was not the sort of boat I should be taking all the way through France to the Mediterranean. No, what I really wanted was something with two motors that would make the vessel a bit more powerful. I got pointed in the direction of a 1987 Birchwood TS 37, moored at Bray Marina, and went directly there that day. After having a good look round, followed by a quick trip up the river, I arranged for a survey to be done and bought the damn thing! It was advertised at £49,950, but being a big fan of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I offered £42,000, to which the sales chap raised a disbelieving eyebrow, followed by a response in the negative. Being a stubborn soul, I suggested raising the offer to £42,500, which to my amazement was accepted, and the boat was mine. Thus began my life on the water.

Afloat at last

I bought the boat on 7th January 2020 and took it for a couple of cruises up and down the River Thames. Then a little thing called COVID-19 happened to the world, and my boat and I were going nowhere fast. Once the lockdown had been lifted, I began taking the boat 30 kilometres up and down the river, teaching myself how to manoeuvre my majestic beast and learning more and more every day about its operating procedures. It didn’t really have an instruction manual, so I was learning as I went, and yes, I did make mistakes, but somehow the water stayed on the outside and the bruises faded. I ventured all the way through London with a little help from my friend Ben and based myself at Chatham Marina. And then another lockdown happened – fun times! The slightly confused marina manager dropped off some letters to people who were stuck on their boats suggesting we move because living aboard was not allowed at Chatham Marina, but after a short discussion with the management and no little persuasion, we were allowed to stay longer. A few weeks later I moved to Swale Marina, which is a mud/tidal marina that is only accessible for about three hours at high tide, but I liked it there and started preparing my mind and my boat for the next leg.

Drone shot of Chatham.

Drone shot of Chatham.

After reading a few books and watching numerous YouTube videos, as well as taking my boat out notably to the Red Sands Forts, I was ready for the next leg, moving the boat around the North Kent coast to Ramsgate. With the assistance of the nice people at Dover Sea School, I got my paperwork in order and my qualifications officially stamped, as to take a boat through the French canal waterways system you need an ICC with CEVNI, as well as a radio licence and slightly additional insurance, all of which were relatively easy to obtain.

This also gave me time to get to know how my boat handled at sea, as I had never taken a boat out to sea before buying this one. Come to think of it, I’d never taken a boat anywhere before, and my knowledge of boating could be written on the back of a small postcard. But you’ve got to begin somewhere, so buying this boat was my starting point in entering the world of maritime adventuring.

Following Red Mist

Following Red Mist

My Birchwood has two 225hp diesel MerCruiser motors – I don’t know how much fuel they consume, but if I knew the exact figure, I would probably regret calculating it. It has a nice saloon surrounded by windows, and it also benefits from a small kitchen and a little dinette thing that tends to be used to store stuff. There are two beds in the front cabin and a slightly oval-shaped but very comfortable bed in the back one; it also boasts two heads/toilets. Its top speed is around 20 knots, but I tend to cruise at around 8, and if the water is particularly calm I will often turn off one motor, taking me down to 6 knots, but using half the fuel. When going through the French canals, I would keep both motors running but one idling in neutral, because you never quite knew when the next lock was around the corner, and I always wanted to have both motors running when going through the locks.

Locking in

I’d done maybe 10 locks in total before entering the French waterways, and there are 216 to be passed through before the water starts getting salty again. I did have a couple of friends join me for part of the journey, but most of it was done solo. I’m not going to say it’s easy going through all the locks completely by yourself, but it is possible, and once you’ve done a few of them not as scary.

Typical Lock

As you enter the French waterways, you have to purchase a vignette for about €130 per month, which pays for the VNF (Voies Navigables de France) staff and the maintenance of all canals, swing bridges and locks you’ll be using on the way. All the people from the VNF I met were amazingly helpful, friendly and welcoming. The nice people of France have many free moorings in the towns, and you are allowed to use them for up to three days without any charge, with electricity and water usually being provided as well. There are also multiple marinas as you travel south.

Navigating one of many hundred locks I passed through.

Navigating one of many hundred locks I passed through.

The one big hold-up I had was at the attractive town of Montargis, where a bridge was being repaired and not passable for about two months. But Montargis was a lovely little town and a kind person from the VNF came by and said we could stay for free until the bridge was repaired. I think it was where I discovered the baguette.

I didn’t have any problems with any of the locks apart from one, and that hadn’t been used for many weeks, so someone from the VNF had to come out and give it a gentle kick to get it working again. The hospitality of all the French people I interacted with was flawless – they really could not have been friendlier or more helpful. One thing I learned is that you can’t walk past a French person in the morning without greeting them with a friendly bonjour.

Central France

Jumping ship

My bicycle suffered a flat tyre in the small French town of Saint-Omer. I was sat at the side of the road trying to fix it, but unfortunately I had the wrong pump. Four teenagers passed me in a car and the girl who was driving called from her window, asking if I needed any assistance, whereupon I explained that I thought I had things under control, but they pulled over anyway to help. One of them pointed out that my air pump would not work and that he had one at home that would, so he jogged off and returned five minutes later with the correct pump. Again, the French … very friendly and very helpful.

Diving in the clear waters near Cannes.

Diving in the clear waters near Cannes.

Being mostly by myself, I have to admit that I did not venture out to eat at the numerous restaurants I passed as much as I should have. But I will say that the supermarkets are a step up from the local Spar in Ramsgate. The frustrating thing is that they aren’t all laid out the same. Just as you get to know where the ice cream is in your local supermarket, you have to learn it all over again at the next one; however, once you do find the ice cream, it’s exceptionally nice – as was all the other food I found, not least the oodles of fresh produce at hand.

Two simple recommendations I must make are Free Mobile and the Revolut banking app. For €26 a month, you can get unlimited data if you use a phone as a hotspot, and I recommend Revolut because it’s easy to transfer funds between pounds, dollars and euros. The EU is fast moving to a cashless economy, and honestly, being able to pay for things with my iPhone made everything very simple, and of course, I also had an immediate record of my spending.

Diving in the clear waters near Cannes.

The French handled COVID-19 quite well, and I was easily able to install their useful app on my phone. When I was in Montargis over Christmas, it pinged, informing me that I was eligible for a booster shot, which I was able to get at the local COVID clinic in what was an easy, and indeed free, process. I got another ping when I was in Marseille, and even though I had forgotten my passport, they processed me very quickly and wished me well.

Pretty medieval town is located near Lyon city along Saone River - iStock/Gregory Dubos

Pretty medieval town is located near Lyon city along Saone River – iStock/Gregory Dubos

Life aboard

The two questions I was asked most often were: ‘Isn’t it cold on the boat?’ and ‘Where do you go to the toilet?’ Well, the boat came with a small diesel heater, but it started making a funny noise as I was going through London, so I replaced it with a cheap Chinese knock-off and it has worked exceptionally well ever since. Even at the lowest setting it heats the whole boat up in five minutes, and it even has a remote control, so I can turn it on in the morning from the comfort of my bed. People dream of such luxury, but I purchased it for just £90, including the remote. I’m not sure how much diesel it uses, but it’s so little that even though it only draws from my port diesel tank, both tanks seem to remain at the same level. Both diesel tanks and engines are completely separate, which seemed a bit silly at first, but it makes perfect sense for safety reasons on reflection.

Pont Saint Benezet bridge and the Rhone river in southern France - © Shutterstock

Pont Saint Benezet bridge and the Rhone river in southern France – © Shutterstock

My route took me from Calais to Paris, then south through Fontainebleau, Briare, Nevers, Decize, Chalon-sur-Saône and Lyon, to Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône. Without any doubt, the most useful website I came across was canalplan.org.uk, which enables you to plan your daily route, showing you where the obstacles, locks, bridges and mooring sites are.

I was talking to one of the receptionists at Chalon-sur-Saône and she asked if I knew that the world’s first photographs were taken in that town. I didn’t, but there’s an amazing little museum a short walk from the marina that tells the story, and if you ever go through that town, I highly recommend it.

Running repairs.

Running repairs.

The push south continued until I got to Lyon, where I decided to rest for a week and visit some of the local museums and galleries. I had no idea Lyon was so beautiful, and it’s very easy to remain on the boat because it just is so delightful, although if you do, you’ll miss out on some pretty good stuff all around you. The marina in Lyon is right next to a large shopping centre, but it’s not too noisy and it’s very inexpensive.

Nice - My voyage through the Med will have to be Part Two!

Nice – My voyage through the Med will have to be Part Two!

When I am at a marina or small French dock with 240V power, I can plug in, but if there is no power around, I have a small generator that I bought for €100 and it’s worked flawlessly for the past two years. However, I would actually recommend getting a small Honda generator if you can afford it. When I get the chance, I’m going to install a proper propane-fuelled generator in the engine room, but for now, my little two-stroke will have to suffice, although I avoid running it when I’m anywhere near another boat, or even a house at the side of the canal.

Nice

It took me a while to figure out Internet connectivity. Before Brexit, my O2 phone had unlimited data in France, but now not so much – so I needed to get a French SIM card, which proved problematic until I found Free Mobile and got 200+ gigabytes for €20. Before getting my Free Mobile SIM card, I nerded out and got a Starlink dish; in all honesty, it was fun, but a little more expensive than the SIM card. If you’re moving around on a boat, Starlink is amazing. Technology really is mind-blowing.

The highs and lows

I had intended on staying in Paris for only one week, at the marina, but the live-aboard folk there were so nice I ended up staying six. I also took myself out to numerous art events and museums. If you go anywhere near Paris and you do not go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, I reckon you are making a big mistake, as it’s the most spectacular structure I have ever known. I think it cost €18 to get to the top, but it’s absolutely staggeringly beautiful and I cannot recommend it strongly enough. There are also plenty of smaller adventures to be found on Airbnb Experiences, where I recommend the ‘Unusual bars tours’. The Parisians were remarkably welcoming and friendly – not something you hear often, but I stand by my words, as in my experience everyone was wonderful. At one point, I mistakenly left my bicycle unlocked for 48 hours in a bike rack near the marina, and it was still there 48 hours later.

Montargis

Montargis

One of my screw-ups was getting one of my lines tangled on my starboard prop. I’m not sure quite how it got there, but get there it did. I considered my options, but after a few minutes contemplating the problem, I realised that there was only one solution. I don’t know quite how cold that murky canal was, but let’s just say the warm shower after my dive to untangle the mess felt great! The other big mess-up was leaving for Viviers a little hastily, not seeing the large red and green things and bumping into an underwater wall. Of course, there are no tides on a river, but the hydroelectric power station opens and closes its sluices depending on the demand for power. I had to wait six rather embarrassing hours, tilted at a 20° angle, until the water level rose up and refloated me.

My berth at Andance.

My berth at Andance.

Made it!

Then there were only four days left until the Mediterranean. I arrived in Port-Saint-Louis just before my birthday (which is 6th July if any of you want to send expensive gifts!), and having made this somewhat interesting journey in one piece, I took a few days to relax. I went out and moored in the bay nearby a few times, but then it was time to move from the safety of the canals and rivers to the wide-open sea. If you’re anywhere near the Mediterranean on a boat, check the weather often – you really need to be checking it every three hours, even if you’re just out at anchor. If you’re moored somewhere and there are lots of boats around, and then those boats all start to move away, move away first, then check the weather. Sometimes the hive mind works best.

Metal footbridge, built according to the Gustave Eiffel process, above the Briare canal, in Montargis © iStock-Marie Dofra.

Metal footbridge, built according to the Gustave Eiffel process, above the Briare canal, in Montargis © iStock-Marie Dofra.

My problems were slight, all things considered – the tangled line on my prop, a small twig caught in my cooling water intake causing my starboard engine to overheat, a clip coming off one of my coolant hoses, running my boat into an underwater wall … I did say I was still learning, didn’t I?

Decisions, decisions

Top three best decisions made:

  1. Buying a boat
  2. Leaving the UK
  3. Heading to the Mediterranean!

Top three worst decisions made:

  1. Leaving in a hurry and not checking my checklist thoroughly enough
  2. Eating some ‘old’ salmon
  3. Not selling my Tesla stock when Elon bought Twitter

Best of the best

Best meal eaten and where? – Any breakfast involving a  freshly baked baguette!

Most outstanding sight? – Hands down, the Eiffel Tower. The most beautiful structure I have ever seen and ventured to the top of.

Refuelling advice

My top tips on refuelling the boat include: never accidentally or otherwise pour diesel into your water supply! It’s a long story and I’m too embarrassed to relate it here …

Waterways

  • Canal de Calais
  • Liaison Dunkerque-Escaut
  • Canal du Nord
  • Canal Latéral à l’Oise
  • L’ Oise
  • River Seine
  • Canal du Loing
  • Canal de Briare
  • Canal du Loing
  • Canal Latéral à la Loire
  • Canal du Centre
  • River Saône
  • River Rhône

Absolute Payne

Stephen Payne

Stephen began his ‘visual arts’ career at Sounds, shooting bands like Gang of Four, New Model Army and The Cure. He then moved to the Evening Standard features department, but slid back into music, directing live concerts – Salif Keita, Stiff Little Fingers and Sepultura, to name just three. In 1991, he moved to Los Angeles to continue his career. Twenty-seven years later he came back to the UK, felt frustrated with the current political situation and decided to buy a boat and head towards the Mediterranean. But still needing to have an outlet for his creative juices, he started filming his exploits and posting them on YouTube. He currently resides on his boat (Jaywalking the World) in Malta.

Customs advice

Essential paperwork: I recommend having just one folder with all your docs contained within. Make it as simple as possible for the officials to review your documentation. Any contact I had with any officials was   easy, polite and efficient.

Timeline

7 Jan 2020: Bought boat – Bray 

15 Nov 2020: Teddington Lock 

4 Dec 2020: Chatham Marina

1 May 2021: Swale Marina

9 June 2021: Ramsgate Marina 

26 June 2021: Calais 

2 July 2021: Saint-Omer 

19 Aug 2021: Paris

20 Sept 2021: Chartrettes

14 Nov 2021: Montargis 

6 March 2022: Briare 

15 March 2022: Nevers

6 May 2022: Chalon-sur-Saône 

12 May 2022: Lyon 

27 May 2022: Viviers 

4  July 2022: Port-Saint-Louis

Useful websites

www.windy.com
www.noforeignland.com
www.noforeignland.comboat/4962328166531072
www.navily.com
canalplan.org.uk
earth.google.com
paynie.net
www.friendlyflag.net
youtu.be/1ATCNZBL4-o

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