Articles by John Liley
Unlike the average hire-boat on the French canals our barge Luciole does not reach the bank too easily. We run aground before that happens, requiring heavy-duty leaps from those with uncalcified knees. Alternatively, we use the boom.
The boom is a device many freight barges have, a long metal spar that pivots outward, with a member of the crew clinging on, to deposit him or her on the bank. Then, mission accomplished, it can bring them back again. I have never seen one in Britain, though they could be handy on, say, the Aire & Calder, from a freight barge out in the middle.
Braced by a wire, which may be moved to and fro along the boom to make higher or lower, the device is particularly useful on the Yonne Navigation, between Montereau and Auxerre. There the locks, in the interest of strength, were built with sloping sides; or many of them were. Massive things, they present a range of hazards beyond any syllabus for barge handling we have ever heard of, and are frightening even to those who are used to them.
The size of these locks is a challenge in itself, for, once within, it is astonishing how easily a vessel drifts about. There are whirling eddies if you are entering at the downstream end and a tendency for the keepers to be, shall we say, unattuned. A common problem is finding someone to take your mooring lines: the keeper may be on the wrong side, or off to answer the telephone, or trying to get his car to start. Answer? The boom! Swing someone ashore, then ropes can be thrown, etc. In practice, like many things in boating, experience counts a lot. Our passengers, witnessing the operation in quieter, less frenetic circumstances up the Nivernais, want, sometimes, to try the boom themselves. This can be dodgy. In the course of twenty-odd years with these things, we have witnessed the following:
Boom too high:
person on bank, failing to leap on properly, dangles like laundry on a line, to drop off on the way over. The correct position is with boom beneath the midriff. This may not be achievable if it is level with your nose when you set off.
Boom too low:
person coming aboard, arriving at high velocity, collides with knees against the hull side.
Boomer not going fast enough:
grinding to a halt part way. It is essential, always, to have someone else around, standing by the pivot to control it.
Boomer landing in nettles:
or meeting fisherman’s doggie.
Also on the list, not directly experienced by ourselves (at least, not yet):
Boom not secured:
to move outwards of its own accord. This happened, years ago, on the barge Janine, while squeezing past a freighter travelling the other way. With both craft partially aground, and tipping towards one another, the boom, on swinging out, penetrated a wheelhouse window, narrowly missing the oncoming Captain’s wife.
Boom released too early:
As on the Escargot, while entering a Yonne lock at the speed sometimes necessary if the currents are not going to get you. Thankfully the crew member who was using it managed to let go before the boom, like a lance during jousting, penetrated the switchgear, newly installed to mechanise the gates. Result: a flash and a bang, much acrimony, weeks more winding for the keeper – and a very large bill.
A view of booming done properly is provided in the movie L’Atalante, made in France in 1934. Though revered in the world of filmmaking, however, and set upon a barge, this is not primarily a tale of inland waterways. If it turns up on TV, though, it is well worth a look. We use our own boom more often to swim from, usually when we moor in the river, at spots such as Maillyla - Ville. It is then, possibly, we might let our passengers have a try – with lots of people around, the boat herself stationary, and no great harm when the boomer lets go. Could they ever be useful in Britain? On balance I would counsel against it, certainly on narrow-beam craft, which would tip. But maybe on the Thames? Or the Trent?
If so, beware!