Opperdan and Us

by Martin and Marcia Reff

Copyright © 1989 - 2007 by Martin and Marcia Reff

Our boat Opperdan moored in Paris

Our boat Opperdan when it was moored at Port de Pleasance in Paris
near Place de la Bastille

For living aboard and cruising it is difficult to imagine a more exciting place than the canals of Europe. We envisioned it and then lived it for four and half years as an ongoing adventure - the sights and sounds of the inland waterways, the nitty-gritty of boating, seamanship, and of course, living in foreign countries. Perhaps after reading our story, you might want to try it yourself.

Our adventure began in 1988, but it had its roots in l950-52 when Martin lived in France for a year and a half. While there he read a small volume by Robert Louis Stevenson called An Inland Voyage. Much later, when he read the late Bill Bradley's account of a canal vacation in Motorboat and Sailing, Martin's dream of lazily piloting a comfortable boat on a sunny French canal bordered by cows and small villages came into being. Marcia had never been to Europe but she loved cruising on the Chesapeake Bay and she began to share his dream.

In the fall of l987 we sold our business (yacht brokerage), our automobile (Camry), our house (in Baltimore) and practically everything else we owned. We leased a garage type storage locker that contained what remained of our cherished belongings.

In December we left for Paris to go to the boat show where we hoped to locate some brokers and, through them, used boats but we found neither. Only one referral to a boat in an abandoned iron foundry in Normandy! The boat was a bit too small but at least we had one "on the fire." We then went to Liège, Belgium, in response to an ad and a telephone call, but soon discovered that all roads led to the Netherlands. We arrived there on New Year's Day, l988.

We had very few language problems. In the Netherlands almost everyone speaks English and in Belgium and France, Martin's very limited knowledge of French sufficed. We are both still studying. In Paris now, when you're in the midst of struggling with the language, many Frenchmen will break in with English (but only after you've struggled with the French language).

In the Netherlands brokers, friends, and acquaintances helped and by January 20th,1988, when we returned to the States for a short respite, we owned our dream boat, or at least, Martin's dream boat. It was a long, narrow canal boat that had been converted for pleasure. The boat smelled, was dirty and mildewed, but it had the lines of the boat in his mind's eye. Marcia almost cried but she was assured that once we cleaned it up and began to live on it all would change. At the boatyard, even before the bottom was painted, "Opperdan" was relieved of six mattresses, bedding, sleeping bags, curtains, and rugs. Later we would discard the linoleum floor of the wheelhouse and all the wood in the forward and aft bunks.

The name of the boat, "Opperdan," seemed appropriate. It means 'break of day' or 'start of a voyage'. Length l8,36 meters (about 60 feet), breadth 3,ll m. ( l0 1/2 feet), draft l,3 m. (4 feet) with a clearance above the water of 3 m. (l0 feet). The hull was steel like most canal boats in Europe.

On March 20th we returned to the Netherlands, specifically to Enkhuizen where the boat was moored. The town is a very picturesque fishing and cruising center on the Ijsselmeer, a large man-made inland sea. We rented an apartment ($243 per month in l988) while our boat was being worked on (new galley and bunks). The work took an inordinate amount of time but it all came together on May l2th when we moved aboard. Seventeen cartons (700 lbs.) of belongings had been shipped in one large crate directly to our door in Enkhuizen from Baltimore (Cost: $825 including insurance).

Opperdan became comfortable right away. We spent most of our indoor time in the wheelhouse where there's a dinette that seats four plus space for two deck chairs. Doors with windows on either side and large windows forward and aft give us a 360 degree panorama.

Below, forward, is our saloon, desk area, galley with a refrigerator, stainless steel sink and drain board, a four burner stove with an oven. A sliding door separates the galley from the head, with its marine toilet, sink, and tub-shower with instant hot water. (Boat sewage empties into the rivers and canals, which are naturally flushed regularly although there is a movement on toward holding tanks.) Forward of the head, with access from the deck, is a large deep locker.

Aft, and under the dinette, via stairs from the wheelhouse, is our sleeping cabin with its large bed and ample space for chair and table. Aft of our cabin, with access from the deck, is the engine room and rudder compartment. Above, on deck is a porch or poop deck area with a benches on either side and a table in the middle which serves as an enclosure for two propane tanks.

We have a powerful six cylinder 96 h.p. Volvo Penta diesel with keel cooling. It's been reliable and economical, 48 cents per mile for 638 miles traveling at about 6 mph. Our alternator charges our l2 volt service and engine batteries. While moored the former lasts about a week before recharging. In Paris a 220 volt dockside connection feeds electric heaters, lights, and our refrigerator.

Our stove/oven, instant hot water heater, and refrigerator run on propane which is cheap, readily available, and clean. One tank ($7.50) lasts about l5 days. During the winter when our refrigerator is powered by 220 volts, the propane lasts forty days. We also have a fine diesel heater which warms the saloon and wheelhouse.

Our water is in a 400 gallon tank which lasts l5 days. We've had no problem finding water with our 550 feet of hoses and a variety of connections. All the comforts of home plus a great Heart Interface converter, VHF radio etc.

To see Interior Photos of Opperdan

We began our voyage on June 21, l988 and traveled north on the Ijsselmeer for two hours to reach Medemblik, a lovely little harbor town about to host the world championship "Flying Dutchman" sailboat races. Also, while we were there, the Dutch soccer team beat the Russians for the World Soccer Championship. The town went wild. In between excitements we walked and then biked on every road for miles around. No charge for mooring, by the way, right in the middle of town.

After a week we started inland on our canal journey and approached the first of more than l00 drawbridges (we stopped counting in France). We were but two canal greenhorns! The bridge light was both green and red and we could see a sailboat approaching from the other side, so we waited - too long. The bridge opened, the sailboat went under but before we could move, the bridge closed again. We blew our horn. Nothing. We moved forward, then back. Martin struggled to keep the boat in mid-channel, away from the bridge and the quays. Eventually the bridge tender returned and opened the bridge. Two young tourists who had been watching our struggles ran down the bank and took a picture of our triumphant passage. We wish we had that photo.

A few blocks further brought us to our first lock, the first of well over l00 we were to navigate. The gates were closed so we waited. When they opened, about a half dozen large rowing prams (the Dutch workboat) packed with young people on a day's outing, slowly emerged, and then we entered. Luckily the water level change in this lock was very small, only six centimeters. We were able to get in and out without difficulty.

The next lock, a few blocks further, was different. It was a railroad bridge and lock combination and had huge sides towering above the water. There was a grab line along the side but one just can't hold a line with a 38 ton 60 foot boat bucking around in the incoming swirl of water. Besides, the grab line would be under water in minutes. There were also indentations in the side with bars under which you could thread a line. Marcia knew that you couldn't secure a line because you'd never be able to get the line off as we moved up. When Martin eventually got the massive hull to stop, Marcia threaded the line but didn't secure it. After another vessel entered, the gates closed and the water rushed in. The boat bucked fore and aft. We began to rise and then the lockkeeper appeared on top and reached down with a large boat hook. It took us a few moments to realize that he wanted our lines which already were slipping through the bars as the water rose. Changing lines in mid-lock was what we did and the keeper with little fuss and less bother secured them to bollards on top. We kept shortening the lines as the boat continued to rise about 4 meters (l3 feet).

We did not travel far that first day but we managed 3 locks and 3 drawbridges. Later this would be nothing to us, but for the first day it was quite enough. Lots of drawbridges in The Netherlands but almost none in France. We reached a small village and tied up on a town bulkhead.

Overnight costs were minimum:

Paris, where we later wintered, was the most expensive: October to March $11.10/night and for April-May $18.40/night. In the first year we paid by the month but after that we paid annually a fee of about $4,000-$5,000. (The fee in mid 2004 was about 7,599 euros or about $9,000. for a boat our size.) Water was free and available everywhere; electricity, was available only in Paris, is 90 centimes/kw hour, or about $l00/month. (in 1989) These fees now are considerably higher.

After that first night (we actually spent two days,) we moved on toward Alkmaar. Just north of the town we found a lovely grass covered bank. Other boats were moored there so we decided to join them. No charge. We spent over a week mainly because of the weather.

The Netherlands is a great country, very beautiful but very wet, windy, and chilly, We had had a nice spring in Enkhuizen and expected summer to follow. In Holland it doesn't. Wet cold spring follows spring. Our trip, therefore, consisted of long pauses, waiting for a break in the weather, but the pauses were seldom boring. We filled them with bike rides, walks, and much more. We became quite Dutch putting on our foul weather gear and riding off in all kinds of weather.

Day after day of rain, however, made the earth very soft. One time we were moored to the bank using three metal stakes, two metal poles, and a small anchor. Plus, we had placed our enormous ship's anchor on the ground. In between storms one day we were about to set off on our bikes when a huge freight barge went by followed by a large power boat. The double wakes were large and we watched in horror as our boat surged against the canal bank. The large anchor just lifted off and tumbled into the water where it just dangled and the stakes and little anchor were yanked out of the soft earth. Our boat, unfettered, began to take off. We dropped the bikes and ran for the lines. People from other boats helped and we all held on. Afterwards, everyone helped reset our stakes and retie our lines. One man had a gigantic sledgehammer and with it drove our big anchor well into the ground. Later, during the trip, we had heavy duty stakes custom made and purchased one of those large sledge hammers.

Tying up with stakes along the side of a canal is one way we moor for the night. On a lake, mooring on land is not possible because we draw too much water to get close to shore so that we tie off vertically; just the bow is moored to the shore and two lines are brought forward from either side of our stern at about 30-40 degrees and then secured on shore (if we had a dingy we could drop an anchor off our stern).

We also tied along bulkheads (loading walls that are built for boats), river walls in cities, or on the sides of canals. Bollards or rings make these places quite safe. (By the way, there is no traffic on the canals at night.) Getting into a marina was difficult because of our length. Almost all of the marinas are designed for smaller, standard pleasure boats up to 40 or 50 feet. Our 60 feet of boat is not easy to manage in the confines of a marina, although we did tie up at marinas twice.

We anchored one night out in the middle of small lake because there were no other alternatives (It was too shallow near shore and there were no marinas.). It worked out very well and our experience reminded us of our Chesapeake Bay days. Practically no one anchors out in the Netherlands at least in the canal system. Finally, one can raft on to another boat. This is common, particularly in France on the rivers. All boats, for example, always carried many large, visible fenders. We had eight (five tires and three fenders).

Eventually the sun did shine again and we continued south toward Haarlem. Everything was going along quite well when we saw a small barge crossing the canal carrying passengers and autos. A yellow light was flashing but the ferry would be on the other side by the time we reached it so we didn't reduce our speed, which was only about 6 mph anyway. Suddenly we realized that the boat was a cable ferry and the cable stretched right across the canal about a foot or two above the water. Martin slowed, put us into reverse and tried to stop. Fortunately, before we reached the cable, the ferry reached the shore and the cable sank of its weight. We encountered many ferries after that but we knew what to expect.

Dutch charts are good but were not printed in English so we had to develop a glossary. The French charts, equally informative, were printed in English, French, and German. In addition to providing navigational information, all charts offered historical data and indicated fuel, water, and repair stops and places where you could moor overnight. The mooring information was not always accurate and even when it was there may not be any space, so that when you start off in the morning, you really never know exactly where you'll end up and what new experience you'll have during the day. That's why it was an adventure!

On the way to Haarlem, for example, Martin badly damaged his thumb and we had to stop at a little town called Krommene for eight days. Later, after a marvelous time in Haarlem (one week), we reached Gouda, one of our favorite towns. Our mooring was right in the middle of the city, yet beautiful and very peaceful. (The canals go right through the cities.) We stayed a week or so, making new friends and entertaining others who visited us.

Maintaining yourself in terms of every day tasks takes more time traveling through a foreign country than it would at home. Ordinary grocery shopping, for example, was complicated by the array of unfamiliar products described in languages that you don't understand. (Once, we disrupted an entire supermarket in our innocent search for soy sauce!) And when you discover a product you like, there is no guarantee it will be available at the next stop. It usually takes a while to find a hardware store, a laundromat (if there is one) or a store that sells bottled gas. Asking questions helps but many natives sometimes don't know where specialized stores are.

In the Netherlands official hours are posted at each store so at least you know what to expect, but often the hours from store to store vary considerably at lunch time (when everyone is closed). The matter is complicated still further by Sundays when everything is closed and market days when an entire square is changed into a market. In France shops open at nine in the morning, except on Monday when almost all small shops are closed, and stay open until about l2:30 or l PM; they close then until about 3:30 or 4:30 in the afternoon and stay open until 7 or 8 pm. Restaurants that serve lunch might not serve dinner and when they do, the dinner hour begins at 7 pm but in Paris, for example, no one shows up until about 8 or 8:30.

The fluctuation of the dollar on the international market directly affected our lives. When we first arrived in the Netherlands the rate was about l.85 guilders to the dollar and when we left it was about 2.l0.(Then there were no euros.) The difference on $l,500 was about 375 guilders, almost four days of our budget. In France prices didn't vary much and, excluding Christmas gifts which we sent in cash and boat insurance (about $600 a year), we lived quite comfortably on $l,500 a month. It would be higher now but the relation of the euro to the dollar determines the real cost of everything in dollars. A cheap dollar means it's more expensive in Europe.

Leaving Gouda we stopped next in Oudewater, a very popular village for cruising canal boats and tourists. As we traveled south we began to reach larger locks. The smallest lock had been in 20 feet wide by 83 feet long. After Gouda we began to move into locks 40 by 400 feet. Later some locks were very large. One was 53 feet by 468 feet (a football field and a half). The canals are still heavily used for freight transports. On the large rivers and canals the barges can be 300-335 feet in length. During the summer months these monsters have to share the locks with pleasure boats, many of which are rented by inexperienced pilots at the helm. At times the confusion at the locks was unbelievable, especially when 30 to 40 boats might be using one lock together. In France there were fewer boats and no confusion.

The scenery along most of the canals was bucolic: lots of sheep, cows, and pasture land. The Dutch don't need fences. Each field was surrounded by drainage ditches, most of the land having been reclaimed from the sea. The northern farm houses were beautiful and enormous; the house and barn were in one unit so that a farmer did not have to go out in the winter to care for the animals, and both animals and humans could share the warmth of the same fires. Roofs were tiled in black or orange. Windmills dotted the countryside although the traditional mill is now mostly ornamental. The pumping function has been replaced by modern structures (bare poles with propellers). The Dutch still have to pump water off their land constantly.

Dutch towns and villages are spotless. Cleanliness is Godliness. Wooden shoes are still worn by farmers and others who work outdoors. Pairs of wooden shoes were arrayed outside the cabin door of one boat we visited.

We have a combination AM/FM short and long wave radio that brought us VOA (Voice of America) and BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) as well as Radio Moscow, Canada, Holland, West Germany, Israel, the Vatican and most of the other states of the world. While cruising we received our mail via General Delivery in various cities. Using an old manual typewriter Marcia sent out one long letter a month with 8 carbons to our primary family members and then occasionally another shorter version to our friends. We sometimes read the International Herald Tribune but in Paris we bought a French newspaper daily and had a permanent address.

Because we sold our house and because we plan eventually to live in Florida, we established an official domicile at Marcia's mother's address in that state. (We also secured a driving license from Florida.) All our mail however, goes to our daughter in New York; she also handles whatever other business comes up.

Our next main stop in the Netherlands was Heusden on the river Maas. (The river is called the Meuse in French.) The river was fantastic - a never ending scene of beauty and interest. Winding across southern Netherlands, through Belgium and into France, the Meuse becomes the Canal de l'Est and makes the towns and cities on its banks the most beautiful in the world. We stayed on this river for almost two months!

We stayed at Heusden for about a week. It was a delight. The entire town was re-constructed after World War II to look like it did in the 16th century. We moored at a marina, our first, and finally we enjoyed summer weather.

In the Netherlands there were a number of lakes created off the river and these have been developed into water sport, recreation, and resort areas. They're vast, containing camping grounds, beaches, water-skiing zones, fishing spots, etc. We stopped in four such areas - all free, by the way. Our daughter joined us along the way and stayed with us until we reached Liège, Belgium. The last city in the Netherlands before we crossed the border was Maastricht. That was some city!

Maastricht provides a free secure mooring place right in the middle of the river. A huge wall runs between two bridges and divides the river into two areas, one for pleasure boats, tour boats, and small craft, and the other for the large river traffic. In addition to the free safe mooring the city offers charming cafes, a lively student population, fascinating outdoor sculptures, and loads more.

World War II was still very much a living memory for the Dutch and French. In every place where people lived in the Netherlands - every single village, town or city - one or more monuments had been erected to commemorate those who perished -- the civilians, the deported, the military men who defended, and the liberators. These monuments are all different and some are very personal.

We visited a large American military cemetery outside Maastricht where we found Dutch families and young people visiting daily. Later, while we were moored in Paris, we took a motor trip and visited the beaches at Normandy and another American cemetery. While we were visiting with a French family, sitting around the dinner table, we heard a loud siren sound five prolonged blasts. Our host said there had been a mishap at sea. Later that day we learned that a fisherman was killed when his net snagged an old mine. The explosion killed him instantly.

From Maastricht we crossed the border to Liège in Belgium, where we stayed two weeks. Then we continued our trip south and stopped at visited Huy, Namur, and Dinant - all towns located below old forts. This is the French speaking area of Belgium, the Walloon area, and in September the towns were having Walloon Festivals. We enjoyed each of the cities.

In general our financial planning was sound. We bought our boat at a price within the budgeted $15-25,000 range. Refurbishing added another $8,000, about 50% more than we had anticipated. On the other hand, the estimated cost of living, an important item, has been near perfect. We estimated $1,500 a month for food, fuel, clothing, mooring, entertainment, transportation (land), telephone, mail, household equipment, boat goods - actually all expenses except the following: boat insurance ($200/yr.) and medical and dental expenses not covered by Blue Cross/Shield. For our 70 days in the Netherlands, we spent $3,833 which averaged to $55 per day instead the $50 estimated. Not bad, though, when you consider that what we spent included two items for which we expect some reimbursement i.e. $300 for a physician and an optometrist, and $500 for some capital non-recurring expenses like extra line, an antenna, etc. Later, for the next four years, we would live very comfortably on about $25,000 a year.

The scenery from Maastricht on was spectacular. We left behind the low lying farm lands of Holland and were ascending into the mountains. At times rocky cliffs towered above us with their old castles and forts; at times woods covered small mountains. Quarries lined the river and barges picked up loads of sand and gravel. The captain and his family lived aboard. Since more of the space on the 128 foot boats is devoted to cargo, living quarters were somewhat cramped but on the 230-300 foot boats they looked palatial. We saw many barges with enormous 'gorilla cages' on the stern that contained swing sets and toys and provided a safe play area for children. When the barge was transporting sand, the captain's children had giant sized sand boxes. The Captain and his mate (almost always his wife who by the way wears a dress) kept the boat immaculate. They were forever washing down the boat and each boat's coat of paint glowed.

We crossed the border into France at the town of Givet, stopped in a number of lovely places and traveled through beautiful woods and forests. Finally, around the beginning of October we left the Meuse and entered the Canal des Ardennes. La Chesne, a small hamlet in the Ardennes, was our highest elevation. We had risen from below sea level at Medemblik on the Ijsselmeer to Maastricht at about 150 feet in 21 locks and then from Maastricht to Le Chesne another 383 feet in 42 locks for a total of 533 feet. Now, we got on the down elevator. In one day, we went through 28 automated locks and two regular ones traveled a grand total of about 10 miles but descended 267 feet.

When you entered these automatic locks you had to let your boat hit and push back a pole that extended part way in your path at water level. You then stopped your boat in the locks and threw lines around the bollards. Then you got off the boat and lifted a pole to activate the lock. The gates closed behind you, the water level dropped while you kept loosening your lines (verrrry important) - and then the forward gates opened. You freed your lines and left, again deflecting an exit pole which causes the gates to close behind for the next visitor and prepares the lock ahead for you. You traveled between 25 and 100 feet and then entered the next lock. We were all alone at each lock so it really wasn't difficult, plus going down is easier than going up because the bollards for your lines are within easy reach. It took us seven hours, however, to navigate the 28 locks.

Not all has been rosy. We've had some harrowing experiences. Other than Martin's injured thumb we've had no accidents, but there were many times when it was worrisome. Waiting in narrow canals for bridges or locks to open was an ever present concern. And entering deep well-like locks with gigantic barges was awesome. However, the intimidation of the large canals and rivers and the football field long freighters sweeping passed. We and the boat can handle ourselves even though Martin on occasion still becomes too excited as we enter a lock. Marcia has been patient though and always confident in his ability. Throughout it all we both get a strong satisfying sense of accomplishment at the end of a cruising day and that was particularly true when we completed our long trip through the Netherlands. We knew from our reading and from other boaters that we were doing something that very few Europeans and fewer Americans have done. That pleased us and still does.

We picked up Marcia's sister and friend at the town of Rethel. They were with us for a week of glorious, crisp, fall weather. We stopped at a number of small towns - nothing spectacular - but charming and typically and wonderfully French. Our guests ended their stay at Soisson. From there we went to Compiegne and entered the river Oise which we followed to the Seine and then to Paris. When we arrived it was October 22 - four months to the day since we left Enkhuizen in the Netherlands.

With the exception of a few summer trips, we lived at the Port de Plaisance, in the heart of one of the most beautiful and fascinating cities in the world. See for yourself.

In the spring of 1992 we sold Opperdan. We've enjoyed it so that instead of immediately continuing our trip on the canals now in May of 1989, we will remain here another year. Living aboard there was quite an experience but that's another story which in part is told in "Day to Day" Section and the Letters Home section. See also the full length book, Ninety Days in Paris, about our return to Paris in 2001.

Martin and Marcia Reff
Paris, France
1 May 1989, with updates written in Naples, Florida


We sold Opperdan to a cinematographer in June of 1992. He painted the hull white and it remained at the marina in Paris for some time. It was sold again, to an American, once more before it was last sold to a Frenchman who not only bought Opperdan for his daughter but another canal boat, Malibu, for himself. Opperdan was moored on Canal de Midi in Southern France. We we in touch with the owner and met the father in 2004 during our most recent trip. In 2006 he wrote us that it was for sale again.

For the nuts and bolts, click If You Go

For an account of living aboard in Paris, click Day to Day Living in Paris

To return to The Wheelhouse

This page was originally erected on November 29, 1997 and last updated on June 3, 2004.