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Misadventures of French Barging

A letter from one of the Secrets of Paris readers about her summer job working on a French barge and a Sardinian sailing yacht. Names have been changed to protect the not so innocent!

After a couple of months scraping by in Paris I was looking for a change when I stumbled across an ad for a hostess on a canal barge in the north of France. I spoke to them on the Thursday and was on a train to Dijon Saturday morning with the first week of guests due to arrive Saturday afternoon. The first week flew by, the crew were good fun, the guests surprisingly down to the earth and the barge seemed manageable.

As time went on however a few things became apparent… the canals in France are filthy- they often haven’t been dredged since the second world war, all of the sewerage from the barges goes straight into them, as does a lot of the rubbish and leftover food, and they’re only a couple of feet deep. The barges themselves range from the high-end luxury barges, to old coal carrying barges that have been converted to carrying guests. Fortunately ours was custom built as a hotel barge, unfortunately it wasn’t built well….

For some god unknown reason, when they built it they decided to make the hull out of 33mm thick steel, presumably because they often bump up against the narrow locks and they wanted to make sure it wouldn’t break. While a bit excessive this wouldn’t have been a huge problem except that whoever designed the boat clearly didn’t think things through too carefully and when they launched it it sank straight to the bottom! Fortunately the canals are only about 1.6m deep so it didn’t go too far, but in order to fix it they had to add floats along the bottom of the hull which were only 5mm thick and tear easily, which kind of defeated the purpose of building a 33mm thick hull in the first place!

On top of that the bottom of the barge was flat so whenever we were on a lean (pretty well always) water would wash back up from the drains into the shower- often straight from the toilet and bringing all sorts of nastiness with it- always fun to try to explain to the guests(!). The a/c units leaked straight down the walls and onto the desks, if they worked at all, and there was mould growing everywhere (at the start of the season mushrooms were actually growing out of the carpet and walls!). The generators worked sporadically, often the organization was so bad that we would turn up somewhere at night and there would be no electricity or water and so on and so forth.

Our crew consisted of:

– a french captain who hated everyone and everything- think Eeyore, with a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth, a french accent and the habit of wandering around the deck infront of the guests with no shirt on, spitting over the side of the barge and muttering the words “F***ing canal” and you’d have a fairly accurate picture

– a sociopathic french chef who examined every plate brought back from the guests and took it as a personal insult if they hadn’t finished absolutely everything, on more than one occasion told all of the guests that because they didn’t like his food he was going to give them all Macdonalds for dinner as it was more suited to American tastes, and once famously took after a former deckhand with a knife, a very sweet, but very stressed French girl who took to wandering around saying she was so stressed she wanted to cry

– and an electrician who was called in from time to time and paid a lot of money to sit around smoking, drink all the alcohol on board and then tell us that none of the problems on the boat were either a. problems, or b. fixable! It was a laugh a minute!

The last two weeks we were on the boat started badly. The manager had come back from a week off, took one look at the boat and decided that she’d had enough, packed her bags and left, about 14 hours before the guests were due to arrive. Jack (the deckhand from New Zealand) and I spend the night on the phone to the owner in America who agreed to allow us to run it for a week to sort things out (the back-up managers were hated by the crew and the chef had threatened to walk out if they were employed) and sent us an email to distribute to the crew to that effect.

In the morning the local management contact (a useless, but very charming, think snake-oil salesman, french man called Pascal) turned up with a new manager called Amélie – the very one that the chef had warned him not to employ. This caused a bit of confusion and drama but in the end it was agreed that I would manage the barge and Amélie would be there in a consultancy role. This caused a lot of friction and stress but we were basically managing it for the first week.

The second week however was a different story. We had a group of prestigeous English college alumni on board (including a certain Sir who was an ex deputy head of MI6 and current member of the JIC and his wife Lady, and another gentleman who apparently once held the same chair as Isaac Newton had in the Royal Society of Mathematicians). A very prestigious group…. who were expecting a luxury barge holiday….

Things didn’t go as smoothly as we would have liked. Once again the week started badly as the first guests arrived 4 hours earlier than expected, half the crew were not yet onboard, Jack and I were downstairs cleaning rooms in our pyjamas and Cedrik (our useless electrician) had passed out in a guest room fully dressed (thank God!) and nobody could wake him! Things quickly went from bad to worse.

The tour leader was an ex-French professor who insisted on correcting my accent loudly to his entire table and was an expert on French wine and would give an hour long lecture each night after dinner detailing how rubbish all of the wine we served was!

On the second night our chef made his wonderful goats cheese salad, which involves taking a piece of goats cheese, adding some things on top and wrapping it all in filo pastry. Because we had special guests on board he was given an extra budget and had bought some wonderful decorative containers to put the goats cheese in. I saw him doing this and asked “Oh are those edible?” and was told that no, they were made out of bamboo. I figured he must be doing something different to normal and thought nothing more of it, and as it was my night off went out for a run. When I came back everyone was in a bit of a state- apparently he had then wrapped the goats cheese (and bamboo) in the filo pastry in such a way that you couldn’t see the bamboo at all and the guests had tried to eat it….!

He and Amélie then proceeded to fight in the kitchen, which could no doubt be heard by the guests in the dining room. The next day he was still very upset and made his famous mustard soup, which is normally very good. Strangely though nobody was eating it, and when we tried it we discovered he had forgotten to put any of the flavouring in it and it tasted like boiled milk! He and Amélie fought again, he made her cry, she was too terrified to go back into the kitchen for the rest of the week and he resigned (and it took a full day to convince him to stay- unfortunately chefs are difficult to replace).

The same day as the soup disaster we had been happily plodding along the canal when we came up to an automatic lock. Now some of these locks can be a bit forceful and we had had one situation previously where water had come in through the windows downstairs but when we spoke to the lock authority about it they told us that it was a fault with the lock system and wouldn’t happen again. Stupidly we believed them. I was standing upstais and could see Jack battling with ropes at the front of the boat as the lock water rushed in over the front soaking him and the front deck when suddenly it occurred to me that I should check downstairs where all the guest rooms were…..

I glanced down the stairwell and could see that all of the windows were open and that the water was about 30cm above the top of the windows…. water was gushing in by the gallon- the hallway was a good 20cm deep in water and it was coming towards the stairs in waves! I went running down the stairs with Amélie and started closing all the windows. Water was gushing in over the top of my head and by the time I had them all closed I was soaked to the skin. I walked, as calmly as I could, up to Jack on the deck, which is where all of the guests were sitting, and said to him “We might have a bit of a situation downstairs”- he looked at me blankly until I got close enough that he could see the water running off me and gathering in a puddle around my feet. His eyes widened a bit and he promised to come down as soon as we were through the lock.

This is when we discovered that the pump onboard didn’t work. And that all of the water had short circuited the power to the boat. After Jack had electrocuted himself 3 times (his hand didn’t stop shaking until the next day!) he decided that he’d also had enough and it was time to leave the boat. Now all of this was about 30 mins before lunch was due to be served, and our chef also got very upset if people weren’t ready for lunch, so we were trying to deal with upstairs and downstairs at the same time and it was all a bit confusing, which is one of the reasons we didn’t notice we had lost 9 (out of 21) guests until 10 mins before lunch. It’s normal for guests to get off the boat and go for a wander along the side of the canal and then meet up with us at a lock along the way and hop back on.

Unfortunately this group had the type of academics that don’t operate well in reality. They would wander into walls, fall over fences, ride down embankments and fall off bicycles, and it turns out, wander off to the wrong lock. Fortunately we did manage to find them eventually but they were an hour late for lunch and the tour was late as a result and everybody was very upset. It was a nightmare!

After all of the dramas of the last week Jack and I decided that we’d had enough and handed in our resignation. We spoke about it and decided that would be sensible to work up until the 4 week break in August and then leave. We had been looking at jobs online and found one on a luxury sailing yacht in the med- on Wednesday of the following week they rang us and offered us both a job if we could get to Sardinia by Sunday morning, and, after a bit of discussion we decided it was too good an opportunity to miss so we resigned, packed up and headed to Sardinia, which is where we are now.

Getting here was a bit of an adventure as well. The cheapest way to get from the south of France to Sardinia was to fly via Bristol (crazy huh?!?) so we set off from Toulouse, where there was a bomb scare at the airport and security blew up somebody’s bag, then a guy on our flight was told he wasn’t allowed to fly because he had a broken arm and no medical certificate saying he could fly, so he was escorted off the plane and all his bags were located and removed as well. Which meant we were almost an hour late getting into Bristol, but we made it to Sardinia in time, if a little tired and stressed.

That said we were told that we needed to get to the yacht club in this small town and that there was only one and we couldn’t miss it. Strangely though we managed to find two, which we thought was a bit odd and there was no beach (which we were told there should be). Just to double check we rang the owner of the yacht and said “We’re at the sailing club, opposite an enormous concrete building and behind a massive yacht – are we in the right place?” We were told that yes, we were definitely in the right place and so settled in to wait for them to arrive. When they couldn’t find us at the yacht club they rang again- at which point we were told that no, we needed to be at a different port another 30 minutes away by car! So off we went again! Very frustrating!

We turned up at the yacht on the Saturday night. Within 10 minutes of arrival Jack was promoted to Captain, which was a bit of a surprise, and we were starting to discover that all was not as we were expecting….

Long story short, we had managed to find the yachting equivalent of the barge!

They had no insurance, no fire certificate, no radio certificate, no compass certificate, all the charts, books and navigation equipment was out of date by 3-12 years, no fire extinguishers, no fire detection system, the life raft was out of date by 4 years, no gas alarm and no gas safety certificate, only about ¼ of the electronic navigation worked, no offshore radio and only 1 VHF radio, the flares were out of date, only one generator out of two was working, only one engine out of two was working and was only producing ⅓ of its horsepower which meant it wouldn’t produce enough speed to drive the boat into any sort of wind, no spare anchor, the domestic battery bank had only 2/12 batteries working, the tender’s outboard motor was almost knackered and although they were ordered we only had 1 sail out of 4 and the sacrificial zinc anodes hadn’t been checked since the boat was launched, and the engines leaked so much oil that the previous captain had to set his alarm to empty the bilges at 1am because of the amount of oil that was pumped out, and all of the ropes and rigging needed to be replaced.

We won’t even touch on what was wrong with it cosmetically! Oh and the yacht club caught fire the first day we were on the yacht and burnt almost to the ground! We watched it burn from the deck of the boat as we were anchored opposite it!

When Jack told the owner (who closed resembled a James Bond villain) all of the problems, he said that it wasn’t necessary to fix most of it and that he could just peel the sticker off the life raft and nobody would know it was out of date! Need I say we are no longer on the boat and are now having a wonderful holiday (albeit with no money) in Sardinia! We figure though that he covered the cost of us getting here and it has been a bit of a laugh so we’re looking at it as a nice holiday for a few days. I’m beginning to feel we’re a bit jinxed! What a month!

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  • Very funny. I’m thinking maybe you should stick to land next time. Don’t believe that the captain of the barge could have been that grumpy, are you sure he was French?!

  • hi jen,very funny and unfortunate story.as I’ve been working on barge and boats in general for few years, I also had few bad experience, but if so much shit would happen to me in such a short time, I’dd start to wander if bad luck wasn’t sticking to my ass. hope it isn’t the case.I wish you a great holiday, keep writing and good luck for your next job.

  • lol very funnyone question – is jack the new zealand deckhand her bf? did i miss that? am i being too nosy?

  • Wowza, I get the catalogs from a certain American company that runs canal barges as floating hotels, I’ve always wanted to go on one, the pictures are so pretty, now I know the dark side… I don’t think I’ll be trying one.